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To what extent was the 1867 Reform Act a turning point in parliamentary democracy in Britain?

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Introduction

To what extent was the 1867 Reform Act a turning point in parliamentary democracy in Britain? Democracy by etymology, requires that the people exercise power. The term is derived from the ancient Greek model of democracy, where Athenians met regularly to decide upon the issues of the day collectively. It is often cited as the definitive definition of a democracy, or at least the beginnings of a democratic structure, although there were clear shortcomings to this model. Plato criticised the system for its qualifications; women and slaves could not vote, nor could children vote. Clearly a functioning democracy has to have some sort of qualifications if it is to function effectively in expressing the wishes of the people at large. Yet from our vantage point of our current times, we would no doubt find the exclusions to women indefensible, (we no longer have slaves, and we believe that children lack the capacity to make reasoned judgements about government). However, we would not question that ancient Athens did possess the attributes at least, of the early stages in the evolution of what we call democracy. By this measure, we can therefore see the second Reform Act of 1867 as one step in the direction towards democracy. ...read more.

Middle

At local level the Birmingham Liberal Association, a highly democratic organisation, was to bring members such as Joseph Chamberlain, the future radical MP (that was to split both main parties) to national prominence. Anybody could join and there was an effective 2-way dialogue in place between the 'grassroots' of the party and those at the top. The Birmingham Liberal Association was to provide a model that was to be emulated throughout the country in similar associations. Its success was clear; in 1868 and 1874, the Liberals had won all three of the seats in the Birmingham constituencies. The Conservatives were quicker to respond on a national level than the Liberals, establishing a National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations (NUCCA, or more commonly referred to as the CNU) in 1867 and a Central Office (CCO) in Parliament Street in 1870. Disraeli appointed Sir John Gorst as Party Agent, and in 1871 he became Secretary of the CNU. The historian Paul Adelman describes the CNU as the 'propaganda arm of the CCO', which clearly describes the Conservatives intentions at the time of the act to move in a 'populist' direction under the changing electoral climate. The CNU would rise in prominence and decline, notably after Disraelis death in 1881 when the traditional aristocratic 'authoritarianists' sidelined the CNU, although it would rise and fall as and when it was needed by those who wanted it to. ...read more.

Conclusion

The people were not directly represented, but the interests of the country were, and to eighteenth century eyes this was enough, if not the best possible state of affairs. By global standards, our democracy evolved more slowly than some other countries, such as the USA, but this should not lead us to think that enfranchising the masses of the working class was inevitable. Reform was met with powerful opposition and it could easily have been deferred even further. Blood was spilled in the name of reform and at times it would seem that efforts to pursue the cause would remain futile. In 1847, Chartists with the backing of 6 million signatures calling for reform on Kennington Common, were threatened with armed forces deployed by the government, an instance illustrating clearly the obstinacy and firm resolution to oppose a measure by those whose interests were best served by the status quo. After the Second Reform Act people now had a voice in how their country was to be run, and they could hold their government to account. In theory, an electorate can remove its government if it so wishes to do so. Prior to 1867 this would not have been possible, and by this measure, parliamentary democracy was fundamentally altered forever. James G. Campbell ...read more.

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