Unlike some of its neighbors in Europe, Britain generally achieved change through reform rather than revolution.
In 1815, Britain was a constitutional monarchy with a parliament and two political parties. Still, it was far from democratic. Parliament was made up of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The House of Lords were hereditary nobles and high-ranking clergy in the Church of England. They had the right to veto any bill passed by the House of Commons.
Members of the Commons were elected, but less than five percent of the people could vote. Wealthy country squires, or landowners, along with nobles, dominated politics and heavily influenced voters. In addition, old laws banned Catholics and non-Anglican Protestants from voting or serving in Parliament. In the 1820s, after fierce debates, Parliament finally ended these religious restrictions.
An even greater battle soon erupted over making Parliament more representative. During the Industrial Revolution, centers of population shifted. Some rural towns lost so many people that they had few or no voters. Yet local landowners in these rotten boroughs still sent members to Parliament.
During the early 1800s, the British Parliament was not very democratic. The House of Lords, shown here around 1830, could veto any bill passed by the House of Commons.
At the same time, populous new industrial cities like Manchester and Birmingham had no seats in Parliament because they had not existed as population centers in earlier times.
In the 1830s, as revolts flared in France and elsewhere, Whigs and Tories were battling over a bill to reform Parliament.
The Whig Party largely represented middle-class and business interests. The Tory Party spoke for nobles, landowners, and others whose interests and income were rooted in agriculture. In the streets, supporters of reform chanted, “The Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill!” Their shouts seemed to echo the cries of revolutionaries on the continent.
Parliament finally passed the Great Reform Act in 1832. It redistributed seats in the House of Commons, giving representation to large towns and cities and eliminating rotten boroughs. It also enlarged the electorate, the body of people allowed to vote, by granting suffrage to more men. The act did, however, keep a property requirement for voting.
The Reform Act of 1832 did not bring full democracy, but it did give a greater political voice to middle-class men. Land-owning nobles, however, remained a powerful force in the government and in the economy.
The reform bill did not satisfy the demands of more radical reformers like the Chartists, who stood for working class interests. In the 1830s, they drew up the People's Charter, a petition setting out their goals. They demanded universal male suffrage, annual parliamentary elections, and salaries for members of Parliament. Another key demand was for a secret ballot, which would allow people to cast their votes without announcing them publicly.
Twice the Chartists presented petitions with over a million signatures to Parliament. Both petitions were ignored. In 1848, as revolutions swept Europe, the Chartists prepared a third petition and organized a march on Parliament. Fearing violence, the government banned the march.
Soon after, the unsuccessful Chartist movement declined. In time, however, Parliament would pass most of the major reforms proposed by the Chartists.
How did reformers' efforts make the British parliament more democratic?