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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.


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.


The power and willingness of Parliament to shape the lives of the working class for the worse became a subject for a wide range of political commentators and journalists, including lames Bronterre O'Brien, William Lovett and James Watson, all of whom became prime movers in the Chartist movement. The plight of working people explains an important aspect of the timing of Chartism's demand for the vote, since it did more than just reflect grievances that had been aired intermittently since the American Revolution. It was also a clear reaction to the power of government and legislation which seemed to create the absolute imperative for a working-class presence in decisions and legislation. The fact that so many felt threatened by the government is perhaps demonstrated through the Chartist attitude to weapons. While the movement occasionally flirted with the idea of armed conflict, many individual Chartists decided to arm themselves for their own defence in response to the dangers to their homes and liberties that government and its array of force seemed to constitute.

Some historians have focused upon Chartism precisely as this form of protest against hunger and what seemed like a war waged against the working class by the middle classes. However it is important to understand how the movement went beyond protest to produce a visionary approach to the ideal of government and the precise role of democracy. And in order to do so one must look at the essence of the Chartist programme--the People's Charter--and at the precise language used to describe its intentions and ideals.

This petition was presented to Parliament on three occasions (1836, 1842 and 1848) and met with the disdain of the House of Commons largely because it was seen as a naked assault upon property. The Peoples' Charter contained six points. The first of these was the predictable request for suffrage '... for every man twenty one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime'. This highlights the historical context: the age of majority was then commonly held to be 21, as was the subordinate role of women within the political process; women were meant to defer to fathers, husbands and brothers. Nonetheless, the debate on representation was opened up by this demand, with many arguing for the emancipation of women within it. Male Chartists were clear, for example, that men had a duty to think through the implications of their voting choices on the women of their community, clearly indicating the connection between the vote, power and responsibility.

The second demand was for 'the ballot--to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote'. This was a clear assault upon the traditional manner of elections held in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which involved public displays of voting during which individual candidates massed support behind themselves. Landowners and employers would frequently bring pressure to bear on their tenants and employees to vote in specific ways. Under this system, who you voted for depended upon where you lived and who had power over you. Voting policed in such a way was scarcely a display of democratic will. The system had been largely untouched by the Great Reform Act of 1832, which merely redrew the political map of the 18th century to reflect the growth and maturity of new interest groups such as owners of small-scale property and economically important constituencies: moribund ports and villages were replaced by towns like Birmingham and Manchester, which were of growing economic significance.

The system defended itself by arguing that it was a means of amassing interests behind candidates through an organic process, which assured that the local community would benefit the most from national elections. The Chartist challenge to this, through its proposed introduction of the secret ballot, was designed to remove local vested interests and replace them with the idea of governing the nation. Moreover, the introduction of the secret ballot promised to remove the overbearing class influence of landowners and employers from the political culture of their tenants and employees, allowing the political system to evolve away from what the Chartists saw as pernicious influence.

However, this freedom to express opinions was merely the first step, since the Chartists also argued that the political system needed the urgent stimulation of mass participation. The result would be an increase in political education, ideological discussion and informed involvement in the political process. This would spread upwards through the system forcing those in government to respond accordingly. Simultaneously, the working class would be empowered and shaken out of its passivity. It was no coincidence that one branch of Chartism, popular in the early 1840s, styled itself 'Knowledge Chartism.' It suggested that the vote would be of little use to the working class unless combined with a political education that enabled it to use its participation wisely.


The third point of the 'Peoples Charter' argued that the property qualification for MPs should be abolished to enable, in the Chartists' words, 'the constituencies to return the man of their choice be he rich or poor'. Thus, the political system should not be the preserve and plaything of the privileged few. The Chartists aimed to shatter the dominance of what, for the early 19th century, constituted an entrenched political class increasingly remote from the needs and concerns of the country at large. Radicals still smarted from the fact that their campaigning in the early 1830s had only succeeded in promoting the interests and enfranchisement of the middle class and more modest property owners--the real winners in the changes wrought by the Great Reform Act. This demand sought to extend the logic and scope of political participation for the working class and the disenfranchised. It was summed up by a contemporary radical pamphlet, which had the plain-speaking title of Numbers not Property--The True Basis of Representation.

In their fourth point, the Chartists demanded that MPs be paid for their work. This would enable, again in the words of the Charter, an 'honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend the interests of the country'. It was intended to undermine the practice of sitting in Parliament as an aristocratic pastime indulged by gentlemen who relied upon incomes from their country estates or from business and trading connections within the City of London. It sought the right of working-class men to sit in Parliament and to be reasonably paid for doing so. A dose of seriousness would be injected into politics by removing the pursuit of income, an unwanted distraction for MPs who should be expected to devote their talents and energies to the business of government--another sentiment that has echoes in the opinions offered by contemporary political commentators around the issue of expenses.


The fifth point of the petition sought to redraw the political map by seeking to undermine the Great Reform Act's obsession with representing interests and interest groups in its geographical distribution of Parliamentary seats. For example, east coast constituencies lost representation in favour of west coast constituencies whose trade with America had opened up. Arguing that all voters were equal and deserved to exercise the same levels of power, the fifth point demanded equal electoral constituencies 'securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones'. This sought to equalise the number of voters in each constituency, severing the connection with local interests and anomalously small constituencies, again echoing the pleas for 'Numbers not Property'. This argued in the strongest possible terms for a full democratisation of power in which each vote carried an equal weight within the electoral process.

These five points of the People's Charter constituted a manifesto for getting working people into Parliament and to support and sustain them within it by political, material and moral means. The Chartists promised to alter the landscape of British politics forever with a new professionalism. It is tempting to see them as being ahead of their time, promoting a programme for which the political system simply wasn't ready. Such an argument suggests that perhaps this would only come with a growing conviction that the working class could in fact be trusted with the vote and that its access to the legislature would not simply result in a wholesale despoliation of property on a grand scale. This view is reinforced when we consider that each of these five points of the Charter was eventually granted during the following 70 years, culminating in the full realisation of universal suffrage after the First World War.

Yet the prominence of such views has served to marginalise the sixth point of the People's Charter--the desire for Annual Parliaments. In periods during which the Parliamentary system commanded respect it was thought that this demand was a naive and ill considered irrelevance, which was unworkable and would bring the idea of Parliamentary democracy to a grinding halt. However, if we remember the historical context in which power was wielded corruptly, this demand of the Chartists becomes more intelligible, especially in a period such as now where the reputation of Parliament and its role in the democratic process is in question.


The Chartists believed the Parliamentary democracy of their own times urgently required checks upon its practices. The quest for annual Parliaments would, under the provisions of the sixth point of the Charter, ensure 'no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve-month'. This would, at a stroke, end the corrupt practice and virtual 'ownership' of some Parliamentary constituencies. It would also discourage the gradual and creeping corruption of communities at large who under the older pernicious system were encouraged to extract promises, favours and donations in kind from prospective candidates. Preventing corruption seems laudable enough but the desire for annual parliaments seems like an example of farcical wishful thinking. The idea of annual elections looks from the outside to be unworkable folly which would destroy the power and efficiency of Parliamentary government.

However, the Chartists argued that this was vital to their vision of a democratic future since it meant that individuals were not sent away from their constituency to Westminster. Therefore, they would not be sucked into the political elite and become part of the Parliamentary machine. In having to seek election much more regularly, they were thus much more accountable and 'when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now'. Members would be locked much more closely into their constituencies and be forced to adhere to the wishes of their constituents--an imperative under this system that would arguably override any other consideration. The closer we look at it, the more radical and important for the whole Chartist agenda this sixth point actually appears to be.

The Chartist desire to see Members of Parliament elected every year would have turned them from representatives into delegates. If they were able to see modern Britain's political system Chartists would point to the fact that Members of Parliament need only seek a mandate from their constituents every four or five years. This, so they would berate us, has led to the collapse of interest in Parliamentary politics. Annual elections would encourage and, arguably, force individuals to participate in the political process. The Members of Parliament would be obliged to remain in close and beneficial contact with their electorate, ensuring a healthy level of empathy and understanding. Chartists further argued that annual parliaments would allow the electorate to vote out unpopular or unsatisfactory candidates. The drastic action of individuals, such as the crusading journalist Martin Bell who stood for Parliament in 1997 against the incumbent Conservative MP Neil Hamilton (who had been tarnished by allegations of sleaze), would be unnecessary since such action could be taken by the electorate itself. Members of Parliament would thereafter be almost exclusively beholden to the wishes of their constituents and would be faced with a compelling need to reflect the agendas of those who elected them. If this measure had come to pass we can easily speculate that the political history of 19th-century England and Britain would have been profoundly different. The growth and development of modern political parties would arguably have been retarded or completely prevented by an agenda which made Members of Parliament constantly look over their shoulders towards their constituencies rather than forge alliances and working relationships at Westminster. The office of prime minister and its relationship with the monarchy would similarly have been profoundly different, as would some of the decisions about the Empire and other aspects of foreign policy. The framing of legislation and its acceptance by the will of the people would have been unrecognisable and would probably have fulfilled the wishes of the Chartists in their quest to combat the 'politics of the excluded'.

This delegate principle was also practised by the Chartists themselves within their own organisations and meetings. At most of these the chairing of meetings was rotated amongst the membership as a basic principle. This also, however, promoted their ideal of participation, giving all who attended the chance to exercise power and know what it felt like. This was training of the highest kind, fitting for all who engaged in politics. However, it was also aimed at removing the dangers of sloth and passivity from the electorate, compelling active involvement and engagement. If Chartists were to bring their scrutiny further upon our modern system they would also feel compelled to criticise how our MPs have ended up as representatives rather than as the delegates they sought to institute. They would criticise the presumption of MPs to think, speak and vote 'on behalf' of the electorate as a species of arrogance, with the result that 21st-century Britain has succumbed to the rule of a professional governing class. From this, the Chartists would argue, stem many contemporary ills. The scandal over MPs expenses is a clear consequence of a failure to pay members properly, but more importantly a token of the surrender of the principles of accountability and the regular renewal of Parliament's covenant with those it was established to serve. These two factors, so Chartists would argue, encourage and actively promote cynicism towards Parliament and politicians, resulting in an electorate increasingly estranged from the political process. In such an unhealthy political climate, interest and participation becomes the grudgingly unusual exception rather than the virtuous norm.


While the Chartist movement and the petition it presented to Parliament for the last time in 1848 succumbed to disarray, those involved would have chided Britons of the 21st century for the considerable mess they have made of the Parliamentary system. Britons may have the vote, but Chartists would argue that their power is diminished and that the country's experience of its own politics is damaged as a result.


A Labour of Love

The story of the Chartist movement is just one of many struggles to expand the rights of working people in Britain that is celebrated at the People's History Museum (PHM) in Manchester (where the originals of several of the illustrations on these pages can be seen). Following a 12.5 million [pounds sterling] redevelopment project, the museum has undergone a major expansion, reopening recently in spacious new premises adjoining the late 19th-century hydraulic pumping station that was its former home.

Since its original incarnation in 1990 as the National Museum of Labour History, the PHM has changed its name and adjusted its remit to chart the broader history of the struggle for democracy from the early 18th century to the present. This is a story it has been well placed to tell from the start: through an affiliation with Manchester University and latterly the University of Central Lancashire, the museum has been linked with the Labour History Archive and Study Centre, home to the Labour Party archive, the most complete political party archive in the world. The Labour Party acquired and preserved material from across the political spectrum including Conservative and Liberal posters and leaflets, some of which were not even retained by the parties themselves. It also holds the Communist Party of Great Britain archive from 1920-91, including the papers of eminent Communists such as Palme Dutt, Willie Gallacher and Harry Pollitt.


Among other archive treasures are the papers of leading Labour figures, including Arthur Henderson, Michael Foot and Judith Hart, and those of cultural organisations like the Socialist Sunday School movement and the Unity Theatre. There are also newspapers printed during the General Strike of 1926 and collections relating to the 1984-85 Miners' Strike. The centre has long been an invaluable resource to historians and its new premises beneath the museum open up the possibilities for increased public access.

From John Lilburne's Leveller pamphlet of 1649 to the first elegantly penned minutes of the Parliamentary Labour Party of February 1906 (in Ramsay MacDonald's hand), the museum's collection is necessarily based on quantities of written material, the contextualisation of which presents a challenge. Yet what is effective about the new displays is the balance and range of exhibits supporting the documents and their imaginative showcasing: from tiny badges to the immense banners of which the museum owns around 440 (one, carried by the Tinplate workers, dates from 1821 and is the earliest surviving trade union banner).

The trick has been to reflect the passion of participation without veering either into sentimentality or worthiness. Here the input of individuals, many of whom were not working class, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Oswald Mosley, Beatrice Webb to Clement Attlee, sits alongside the stories of grass roots protest and collective action. The result is intense and demanding but hugely rewarding.

Charlotte Crow

Further reading Malcolm Chase, Chartism: A New History (Manchester University Press, 2007); Asa Briggs (ed), Chartist Studies (Macmillan, 1959); Dorothy Thompson, The Chartists (Temple Smith, 1984); D.J.V. Jones, The Last Rising: The Newport Insurrection of 1839 (Oxford University Press, 1985); James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson (eds), The Chartist Experience (Macmillan, 1982).

For further articles on this subject, visit:

David Nash is Professor of History at Oxford Brookes University.
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Title Annotation:The Chartists
Author:Nash, David
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2010
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