In Britain, the aftermath of the Revolutionary Wars
saw a period of political agitation for parliamentary reform that was met by government repression. However, there was a gradual reform of the clearly corrupt and archaic voting system in the 19th century, with Reform Acts
in 1832, 1867, and 1884. The Industrial Revolution
empowered the middle classes, who demanded and received a say in government, and by the end of the 19th century the franchise had been extended to male agricultural labourers (full male franchise came in 1918). The women's movement
won its battle for the full right to vote in 1928 (women were granted limited franchise in 1918).
Rebellion and repression
Britain was hit by a period of economic repression following the Napoleonic Wars, that gave rise to a number of demonstrations, plots, and failed rebellions the Spa Fields riots (1816), the Pentrich Rising (1817), the blanketeers (1817), and the Cato Street Conspiracy (1820). The government's response was repression, in the forms of the Combination Acts
(1799), and the Peterloo massacre
and the Six Acts of 1819.
Electoral system before 1832
The electoral system before 1832 was clearly corrupt. A borough member of Parliament (MP) had to own land worth £300 a year; a county MP £600. In the counties the voters had to possess land worth £2 a year; in the boroughs the right to vote varied, from all the freemen to burgage holders (people who paid rent to the lord of the manor), or scot-and-lot voters (who paid certain taxes). Bribery of voters was common, particularly in the rotten (or pocket) boroughs (constituencies which returned members to Parliament despite having small numbers of electors), where one man could have the patronage of two MPs. Other elections were marred by violence and intimidation; voting was open at the hustings, so voters could be held to account after the election. Most of all, the system was out of date desolate boroughs like Old Sarum returned two MPs, whereas Birmingham, Leeds, and Manchester did not have the right to elect MPs to Parliament. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, the middle class were growing in power, and demanding political representation.
Reform after 1832
In 1832 the First Reform Act
disenfranchised 56 rotten boroughs, and gave 42 towns the right to elect MPs. There was a limited extension of the franchise. The working classes did not get the vote, which gave rise to Chartism
, a radical democratic movement of 183848.
As the 19th century progressed there were further Reform Acts in 1867 and 1884. In 1872 the Ballot Act made voting secret and put an end to bribery. The franchise was further extended in the 20th century. Suffragists
fought for the vote for women, and in 1918 the Representation of the People Acts
gave the vote in the UK to men over 21 years and to women over 30. In 1928 a further act gave women the vote from the age of 21. In 1971 the voting age for men and women was lowered to the age of 18.
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