Home / Industrial Revolution and Nationalism 1702 - 1906 / Democracy in Great Britain 1789-1884

Democracy in Great Britain 1789-1884

BY 1789, the first year of the French Revolution, England had traveled further along the road that would one day lead to democracy than had any other country in Europe.

She had a law-making body called the Parliament which was more powerful than the king. She had a two-party system which gave the voters a choice of ideas as well as a choice of candidates. Members of the conservative party, who were called Tories, were chiefly nobles, wealthy landowners and people who strongly supported the Church of England. The Whigs, as members of the liberal party were called, consisted mainly of middle-class business and professional men and the Dissenters, religious groups which had sharp differences with the Church of England. The king’s cabinet of ministers were chosen from the party with the most votes in Parliament. The cabinet was responsible to the people’s elected representatives in Parliament and therefore indirectly responsible to the voters themselves. The chief member of the cabinet was called the prime minister; he and other members of the cabinet actually took care of most government business in the name of the ruling king or queen. The English monarch had become a ruler with very limited powers.

In addition, the people of England were protected by a Bill of Rights. The king could not change or suspend laws passed by Parliament. Elections were to be held frequently and the king was not to interfere with these elections in any way. Any person charged with a crime had a right to a speedy trial before a fair-minded jury. Cruel and unusual punishments were forbidden, as were extremely high Fines.

Yet, England still did not have true democracy, for the right to vote was granted only to those who owned a large amount of land. Since most of the wealthy landowners of England were nobles, the middle class and the working class had almost no voice in the government. Roughly nine out of every ten Englishmen were unable to vote.

The Parliament consisted of two branches, both of which had to pass a bill before it became law. One branch, the House of Commons, was made up of elected representatives, but the other branch, the House of Lords, was made up of nobles who were not elected. Often the House of Lords would not approve a bill that had already passed in the House of Commons. Furthermore, no one could hold public office unless he was a landowner and belonged to the Church of England.

To make things even worse, there had been no change in the election districts or boroughs since the Revolution of 1688. Most of the population was then concentrated in southern England and that region was given most of the election districts. The Industrial Revolution had brought about a great shift in population to the north and west. New factory towns that had become important centres of population went unrepresented in Parliament and some of the old election districts had very few people living in them. In these districts, wealthy landowners often controlled the elections.

Curiously, the French Revolution slowed the progress of democracy in England. The conservatives pointed to the terror and bloodshed in France and warned that the same thing could happen in England if the radicals stirred up the people with demands for change. Then, after the fall of Napoleon in 1815, a number of young Tories in Parliament took the lead in doing away with some of the worst of the ancient laws. Capital punishment was abolished for almost a hundred different crimes. Import taxes were reduced. The old Navigation Acts that had caused so much ill will in America were changed so that British colonies could trade with countries other than England. The young Tories made it possible for skilled workmen to leave England and live in other countries and for factory machinery to be exported to other countries. In this way they encouraged free trade among nations. They also changed the laws to allow greater freedom of religion. One of the things they were not able to accomplish was to change the election districts for the House of Commons so that Englishmen in new factory towns could be fairly represented.


Most of the people of England felt the old voting laws were unfair and no longer made any sense. Middle-class businessmen, bankers and factory owners had become wealthy as a result of the Industrial Revolution; they paid large sums in taxes and felt they should have the right to vote. The small farmers, miners, factory workers and others who worked for wages felt that they, too, should have the right to vote, because they made up by far the largest class in the country. Women, too, were beginning to demand the right to vote.

The battle for voting rights went on for many years. In 1830, the Whigs tried to change the voting laws. They failed, but the next time they tried, the bill passed the House of Commons. The House of Lords then voted against the bill. A wave of anger swept the country and there were riots in a number of towns.

The authorities now realized that the people had almost reached the point of rebellion. Nothing had ever been done for the factory workers and no one could be certain how much longer they would put up with long hours, low pay and miserable working and living conditions. On top of this, the factory owners and bankers were more determined than ever to have a voice in the government. The Whigs pointed out these facts to King William IV. They told him that unless the House of Lords voted for the bill changing the election laws, there would almost certainly be a revolution. Convinced, the King warned the House of Lords that they would have to pass the election law bill. If they refused once more, he would appoint enough new liberal lords to get the bill passed. The nobles did not want the king to create new nobles and thus cheapen their titles; they reluctantly passed the bill, which became known as the Reform Bill of 1832.

Under the new law, whether or not a person qualified as a voter was determined largely by the rent he paid or received. The reason for this was that in England most of the land was owned by the old landowning class and many well-to-do people living in towns and cities owned no land at all. A man in a town could vote if he lived in a place for which he had to pay a yearly rental of at least ten pounds. Landowners could vote if they were paid at least two pounds rent per year for their property. The Reform Bill also changed the election districts so that the population in the new factory towns could be represented in Parliament.

The most important result of the Reform Bill was that it shifted control of the House of Commons from land-owning nobles to people of the upper middle class. This group joined with most of the Whigs and a few of the most liberal Tories to form a new party, the Liberal party. Most of the Tories, on the other hand, joined with some of the old Whigs to form the Conservative party. So, the Reform Bill gave rise to two new political parties which tried to win the support of the voters.


Over the years, Britain continued her advance toward democracy. Slavery was abolished in the colonies in 1833. The Liberal party brought about improvements in the Church of England and in local governments, both of which had been closely connected with the wealthy lords of the Conservative party. The Conservatives‚ fighting for the support of the people, introduced bills to improve the lot of the factory workers. They led the fight for child labour laws, passing the Ten Hours Act in 1847. This established a ten-hour day for women and children working in factories. It also cut down the working day for men, because the work of the men was directly connected with the work of the women and children and had to be done at the same time.

Still the city wage earners and factory workers were not happy. They had been keenly disappointed by the Reform Bill, for it failed to give them the right to vote. In 1838 they had organized a working-class movement called the Chartists, demanding that every man be given the right to vote. They demanded that men should no longer be required to own property in order to qualify as members of Parliament and that all members of Parliament be paid salaries so that poor men as well as rich could afford to serve their country in Parliament.

Although the Chartists were active until the 1840’s, not until 1867 did a new Reform Bill give workers in the cities the right to vote. Finally, the Reform Bill of 1884 gave all adult males the right to vote.

Thus, slowly, the British moved toward greater democracy without revolution, mass violence, or bloodshed.

Check Also


Europe Annexes the African Continent

In 1871 there occurred one of the strangest meetings in history. The place was Ujiji …

Translate »