How democratic a country was Britain as of 1914? During the late 19th and early 20th Century, several acts were passed by Parliament in an effort to make Britain more democratic. However, whether Britain was completely democratic by 1914 is an issue for debate. In order to decide how democratic Britain was, we must first establish what democracy is. The nine major factors which make a system democratic involve providing a secret ballot to ensure privacy, holding regular elections to make sure it is the government wanted by the people who are in power. A democratic system has universal suffrage and similarly, anyone can stand for election, making sure everyone has their say in who represents them. Persons in charge should be elected representatives of the people and the government should be by majority. Everyone should have freedom of speech and protection in law as basic human rights. These are the factors that constitute a democracy, but how many of these were fulfilled in 1!
In 1884 the Franchise Act was passed. This meant the voting population was up to six million. It does not bring universal suffrage but two-thirds of all males in Britain were now eligible to vote. This was a vast improvement from the early 19th Century when only one in ten men had the vote. This statistic was improved to one in five after the 1832 Great Reform Act. The 1884 Act was, therefore, a major step towards democracy as it provided suffrage to many more people than in previous years. Prior to the 1872 Secret Ballot Act landlords and employers had a major influence over many people. In some cases, if you voted against them (i.e. not for their favored party) you might lose your home or job. This pressure forced many people into voting differently than they would have done without this pressure. The 1870 Government Committee of Enquiry found that bribery and ‘treating’ were common and so the Secret Ballot Act was meant to resolve this problem as well. Everyone now, in theory, had the freedom to vote for whomever they wished to represent them, one of the features of democracy had been fulfilled.
The Corrupt and Illegal Practice Act 1883 came about to further reduce corrupt practices by prospective MPs. Violence had decreased since the Secret Ballot Act but politicians could still buy votes. Along with this dishonesty, there were concerns over the accuracy of election counts and so the Corrupt and Illegal practices Act was brought into action in 1883. As a result, campaign expenditure fell by seventy five percent, although violence was not banned in the Act, there was a drop after the introduction of this Act in 1883. This meant that the public was less likely to be pressurized into voting one way, thus improving freedom of speech rights.
A further step towards democracy was taken in 1911 with the 1911 reforms. These Reforms brought in payment of MPs. Previously only the well-off who had private funds could afford to work for no wage as an MP. Now more people were given the opportunity to stand for election. They would be paid a wage if they were elected to make politics a viable career for the first time for many and widening freedom of speech. The 1911 Reforms also brought in another major step to democracy; the power to block legislation was taken from the House of Lords. This was a great improvement as it was previously undemocratic because the unelected House of Lords were able to block the work of the elected House Commons. However, there were still many undemocratic features of the British Parliament. In 1914 no women had the vote; it was not until 1918 that the first women received the vote. In addition one-third of males still did not have the vote as the right to vote was still based on property. The men had to either own a house or be paying £10 rent a month and they also had to go through a complex process of registration in order to vote. Many did not meet the requirements and so one third of the male population were excluded from voting. As I mentioned earlier for a country to be classified democratic it must have universal suffrage. When well over half of the population is ineligible to vote a country can certainly not be classified democratic.
Despite constituency boundaries being reformed in the Second Reform Act and the Third Reform Act, there were still problems over where some people could vote. In 1914, seven percent of voters were eligible to vote in more than one constituency, and many were unable to prove that they were eligible to vote anywhere. In the 1884-5 Third Reform Act, the Conservatives under Lord Salisbury redistributed the seats in an effort to gain safe votes at the next election, these practices were highly undemocratic and were not completely resolved by 1914.
The Reform acts and laws passed between 1832 and 1914 did significantly improve the British political system in terms of being a democracy. However as the Franchise was still incomplete, the constituencies were unequal and the right to vote was still based on property it cannot be said that by 1914 Britain was completely democratic. Although many of the steps to turn Britain into a democracy had been taken the process was in no way completed in 1914.