British Democracy Began in 1884

Britain and Global Democracy

by Gwydion M. Williams

The interventionism of New Labour is based on a belief that Britain has something unique to offer. This is a consistent British belief: what’s less consistent is this unique ‘something’. At various times it has been Protestantism, Commerce, ‘Good Government’ over incompetent non-white natives or the Mixed Economy that in the 1950s and 1960s was cited as a successful blend of capitalism and socialism. From the 1980s it has been Democracy and Free Markets that we were uniquely capable of giving to others.

The story also is that we set a unique example of tolerance and democracy. That is not the true story.

English tolerance was and is based on a firm belief in England’s safety and security. Often a false confidence that assumed that familiar forms were ‘natural’ and did not need to be vigorously defended. During times of confidence, Britain could be a nice place if you were a refugee from somewhere that hated you, or just from somewhere poorer. Even this could vary: wartime refugees who were anti-Nazi and mostly Jewish got rounded up in the early years of World War Two. There’s a 1980 book called Collar the Lot that gives details, but most people don’t seem to know about it.[A] It has never been reprinted: one of many indicators that should tell you the respective power of Jewish influence and mainstream Anglo influence, when the two are not in harmony.

But at least the English respects the Rule of Law? At least in peace-time? Moot. Law is kept under control – independent of the government but very much a branch of the state. Those who say ‘let justice be done, though the heavens fall’ will always include the unvoiced qualifications ‘let the heavens fall – but not in my backyard!’ Actual judgements made by senior judges show an awareness of consequences. One notorious aspect is a habit of bending the law in favour of the prosecution whenever it is a ‘security issue’. But that’s just the most obvious example of a general pattern. Nor is Britain’s democratic record as solid as people think it is:

  1. The first British election that might be called democratic happened as late as 1885. [D, E]
  2. Before that, the Secret Ballot Act of 1872 showed that there had been widespread intimidation during elections. Once it was safe to vote against the local squire’s wishes, the Irish Home Rule League came from nowhere to win nearly 60 seats in the election of 1874. [E]

The USA is no better. They looked to Ancient Rome – but the much-admired Roman Republic had been bitterly opposed to democracy. Their Republican principles of the Ancient Romans assumed an oligarchic conservatism centred on the Senate, which was a major factor in the Republic’s fall. Note also:

  1. The USA was founded by an oligarchy, many of them slave-owners, most of them people who viewed democracy with great suspicion.
  2. The USA would probably not have brought all thirteen states with it if each had been given a separate referendum on its future. The 1787 constitution was widely unpopular and might well have failed if each state had had a popular vote rather than a vote by members of the legislature
  3. The USA’s civil war was actually a war of two racisms, with most states in the North denying the vote to negroes.[B][C] Not letting them take part in the war with the South until they ran out of young white men for their war of attrition.
  4. Almost all of the seceding Southern states made this decision at Constitutional Conventions where a majority of the delegates had been elected on the understanding they would oppose secession

The USA worked as well as it did, because it was built around English settlements where popular elections were part of the assumed norm.

The British state received its final form in 1688 – it was the last time that politics in Britain was successfully changed by armed force or by the threat of it. What was then established was an oligarchy, tightly controlled and with the aristocrats and monarch at the top of it. It was nearly 200 years before it became anything like what we’d now call a democracy. So don’t be surprised that multi-party elections are not an instant fix in societies with no tradition of them.

Before World War One, society was much less equal and democratic expectations much weaker. Woodrow Wilson, who as President brought the USA into World War One, was happy to make this clear in his History of the American People. Discussing the replacement of the original loose union by the famous Constitution that they still live by, he said:

“There was but one way by which the Articles of Confederation, the existing federal law for which this was to be a substitute, could legally be amended: by the unanimous assent of the States. The convention proposed, nevertheless, that the new constitution should go into effect if adopted by nine out of the thirteen; and the Congress, seeing change probably impossible otherwise, sanctioned the proposal.

“Fortunately, there was nothing novel in the details of the government proposed. Every practical provision in it, almost without exception, had been borrowed from the experience of the colonies themselves, or from English experience equally familiar:- the single governor, the two legislative houses, the supreme court, the partial equality of the States, the representation of the people, popular elections, brief terms of office, definite, chartered powers.” [F]

Note that he says ‘popular elections’ rather than democratic elections. It was not a democracy when George Washington was elected in 1788. Democracy in the 1780s might have led to the decay of the new USA under the inadequate rules of the ‘Articles of Confederation’. The various states could easily have gone to war over contradictory claims to the lands to the west. Yet it was the politically active class that pushed it through, not the people as a whole:

“No doubt, could there have been a counting of heads the country through, the majority would have been found opposed to the constitution; but the men who were its active and efficient advocates lived at the centres of population, had the best concert of action, filled the mails and the public prints with their writings, were very formidable in debate and fill of tactical resources in the conventions, could win waverers and prevailed.”[F]

Almost Leninist. The new system got going under the Federalists, and with a chain of Vice-Presidents succeeding as President and limiting themselves to two terms, as Washington had done. They could hand over power safely because they all wanted much the same thing – much as leadership has been working in China since Deng Xiaoping. In the USA, the government was democratised only after the state and the new society was solid and secure:

“There were probably not more than one hundred and twenty thousand men who had the right to vote out of all the four million inhabitants enumerated in the first census (1790)… There were also in almost every state property qualifications for membership of the lower House of the State legislature; and ownership of a very considerable amount” [F]

Democratisation happened in two waves. First Thomas Jefferson in 1801 on behalf of the people. Then Andrew Jackson in 1829 as one of the people. The first major consequence was a Civil War in the 1860s, when ‘the people’ decided they might not be one people after all.

The US South had set a hideous example by insisting on expanding slavery into new territories – I don’t think that was happening anywhere else in the 19th century. An elite might have been more cautious, but an all-white electorate listened to politicians who told them that negro slavery was a fine thing. Most notably John C. Calhoun, Jackson’s vice-president and a pioneer of the notion that slavery was a ‘positive good’. Calhoun was dead before the Confederate secession got started, but he was a major inspiration in the first modern war between believers in democracy and republican principles.

Another thing we get told is that democracies don’t go to war with each. Though there was an element of oligarchy in the US South, there was clear mass support for secessionism and for maintaining slavery for ever. It was Lincoln who had to bend the rules of democracy to win the war. He was also quite willing in the war’s early stages to end it with slavery intact. His rejected scheme for abolishing slavery in the non-seceding slave states would have allowed slavery to continue to 1900. Had the South not chosen to fight to the bitter end, slavery might have survived well into the 20th century.

Britain did at least abolish slavery in the 1830s. But even as Britain extended the vote at home, it denied it to almost all of the non-white subjects of the Empire. The British Raj in the 19th century tightened up racial separation and denied Hindus any share in deciding their own future. Princely states were kept in being when this was convenient, but the notion of giving Muslims and Hindus the same rights as white men was resisted until it was much too late to save them Empire.



[A] Gillman, Peter and Gillman, Leni. Collar the Lot: How Britain Interned and Expelled Its Wartime Refugees. Quartet Books 1981.

[B] A useful and accessible source is a site called Slavery in the North []. I’m not just relying on this site, of course. I’ve read a great deal about the Confederate War of Secession, as it should properly be called. That particular war is part of the necessary background for understanding modern politics.

[C] I am aware that US usage shifted from saying ‘negro’ to saying ‘black’ and now Afro-American. I am also aware that the entire US anti-racist movement has screwed up and failed to prevent the creation of an informally segregated nation in which Afro-American attitudes are a large part of the problem. ‘Negro’ is a useful term for a particular ethnic group and I will continue to use it.

[D] [] This was still only 60% of the adult males, with no women and no form of electoral representation for the non-white colonies.

[E] [] (60 Home Rulers) and [] (59 candidates elected.)

[F] A History of the American People, University Press of the Pacific edition of 2002, a reprint of the 1902 edition. The quotes are from Volume Three, pages 76, 82 and 120-1


First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, 2008

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