The Many and the Few

The path to democracy is a long one. It should not be taken for granted.

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the passing of the Second Reform Act, enabled by that most beguiling of political chancers, Benjamin Disraeli. It granted the vote to all householders in boroughs, as well as lodgers who paid at least £10 per annum, and extended the franchise to even modest agricultural landowners and tenants.

Though it fell far short of modern concepts of democracy – it offered neither universal manhood suffrage, nor votes for women – it conceded more than the Conservative government of Lord Derby intended, more even than was sought by most of the Liberal opposition.

The journey to the 1867 Reform Act took place, as Paul Adelman pointed out on its centenary in History Today, against a backdrop of growing international crisis. The process of Italian unification was underway, Poland was in revolt against Russia and the United States became embroiled in a destructive, industrialised civil war.

The victory of the North under President Lincoln split opinion in Britain. While it inspired working-class activists and those middle-class radicals who gathered around the figure of John Bright, others feared the new democratic future. The United States, wrote Blackwood’s Magazine, was now ‘what our own might be if the most dangerous elements of our Constitution should become dominant … a policy which received its impulses always from below’.

Predictably, such views were endorsed by the Victorian defender of the ‘Great Man’, Thomas Carlyle, but they were also echoed in more enlightened circles, such as the Economist of Walter Bagehot:

What influence can capital have under such a system of voting against the overwhelming power of labour, or mind which is rare against stupidity which is common, or culture which belongs to the few against ignorance which is and long must be, the attribute of the many.

Such de haut en bas sentiments seem to belong to another age, but ask yourself: how much do they persist?

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