Charting a Future Democracy: The Chartists' Campaign for Political Inclusion and Social Justice Ended in Failure. but, David Nash Argues, Their Ideas Still Have Much to Offer Britain's Discredited Parliamentary System

Article excerpt


Many contemporary commentators are pessimistic about the nature of British Parliamentary democracy and despair of its future. The voting turnout in local, national and European elections has been in steady decline for decades. Engaged interest in politics has entered the doldrums, evidenced by dwindling levels of both party membership and active involvement in the political system. Most damaging of all is the catastrophic collapse of confidence in the operation and conduct of Parliament itself. The controversial and divisive issue of expenses for Members of Parliament has seen trust in the motivation and morals of those who govern plummet. The insistent revelations about how MPs have systematically dodged and circumnavigated a number of rules and precedents conjures up an image of individuals out of tune with the electorate and, perhaps more importantly, inattentive to their duties. The democratic and electoral system seems lethargic, encourages morally dubious practices and is unfit for purpose.

The Chartist movement of the late 1830s and 1840s believed that people had no one else but themselves to blame for the actions of their politicians. It would argue today that the electorate has allowed Parliamentary democracy to evolve in the way it has. The Chartists' approach to the nature of democracy was informed by the desire for Parliament to display a willingness and an ability to affect the lives of ordinary people. The 1830s had seen Parliament take an increasingly active role in the governance of the country and the development Of domestic policy. This whole period was characterised by the willingness of politicians to consider policies that were deemed by those in government to be of benefit to society. This began with the work of the so-called enlightened Tories, whose philosophy and policy measures, such as Robert Peel's streamlining of the justice system, had moved away from a concentration upon cheap and undemanding government in favour of forms of intervention.

Yet from the perspective of the mid-1830s this looked like a kind of tyranny wielded by vested interests against the working classes, who were totally devoid of power and representation within Parliament. Hopes for wide and sweeping Parliamentary reform, which eventually took place in 1832, had led to disappointment as the Reform Act's widening of the franchise was limited to the middle classes. From a working-class viewpoint this was scarcely a progressive move. Many working class men, engaged in trades valuable to the local economy and who had gained the so-called 'Freeman Vote' under unreformed local corporations (such as Norwich), saw this removed by the reforming imperative of the 1832 Act. As a result the working class had felt excluded by this measure and abused by the middle-class leaders who had harnessed their numbers as a means of threatening the government. Within two years of the Reform Act this same Whig government under Lord Charles Grey had moved dramatically against trade union organisations when it passed legislation making them illegal. Six agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle in Dorset, who were found to be in breach of these anti-union laws, were swiftly arrested, convicted and transported to Australia, having sworn an oath of loyalty to their organisation. In the same year the government also acted upon its inquiry into England's system of poor relief and concluded that it needed something of a radical overhaul. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 strove to remove the rights of the unemployed to outdoor relief payments. While the implementation of the new supposedly national system was patchy, the philosophy and the implications of driving down welfare costs were not lost on the radicals of the mid-1830s. Opposition was expressed in the pages of the 'unstamped press', such as Henry Hetherington's the Poor Man's Guardian. 'Unstamped' and therefore illegal, several hawkers, printers and publishers fell foul of the law and suffered prison sentences for their efforts. …


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