Parliament or Democracy?

A Suitable Solution

From the 1850s onwards, against a background of great new wealth in society and a working class that was more independent and resourceful, the 'problem of democracy' became urgent. In general, wealth was rising throughout society, but so was the greed of those who owned the new factories, mines and plantations. The key question was: what was to be done about the general demand for democracy, and about the incessant clamour for political rights which, during the revolutions of 1848, had almost got completely out of hand?

This matter weighed heavily on the minds of the 'rich and privileged' during this era. Two main positions emerged. On the one hand, there were people such as Thomas Babington Macaulay who believed that 'the higher and middling orders are the natural representatives of the human race'.16 He was concerned about the issue of enfranchising the poor and property-less. This issue had already come to the fore in Britain with the rise of the Chartist movement in the 1830s. One of the leading Chartists, Cobett, had made the important point that the people wanted the vote 'that it might do some good, that it might better our situation... and not for the gratification of any abstract ... whim'.17 Macaulay attacked the idea of universal suffrage in this context. He argued it would lead 'to the rich being 'pillaged' ... which in turn would lead to the destruction of civilisation and a reversion to barbarism.'18

Others were not so obtuse. J.S. Mill, the well known 19th century liberal philosopher, was among these. He was well aware that times had changed. He noted that the age had passed 'when the uninstructed have faith in the instructed'19 with the result that 'the multitude are without a guide and society is exposed to all the errors and dangers'. 20 One of these dangers was social revolution. Mill was well aware that something had to be done, but also that the clock could not go backwards.

Not that he was under any illusions: 'We dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass.'21 The lower orders were, in his eyes, 'the mass of brutish ignorance', 'the common herd' or 'the uncultivated herd'.22 In contrast, he saw himself and his ilk as 'an endowed class, for the cultivation of learning, and for diffusing its results among the community'.23 The role of such a class was clear, he said: 'No government by a democracy ... could rise above a mediocrity except ... by the council and influence of a more highly instructed one or few.'24 The alternative, a meaningful say for the 'common herd', was inconceivable: 'It is not useful, but hurtful, that the constitution of the country should declare ignorance to be entitled to as much political power as knowledge.'25 A suitable solution then, in Mill's view, was this: 'the intellectual classes [should] lead the government, and the government should lead the stupid classes.'26

What would, in time, become the modus operandi of parliamentary democracy everywhere was not in the 1850s immediately practicable. The natural disadvantage suffered by the 'middling and higher orders' alongside the 'brutish multitude' when it came to the numbers game ('the rich are few and the poor are many') was only part of the problem. More pressing was the different expectations that both sides, rich and poor, brought to the particular subject of suffrage and its extension.

Mill, once again, was clear in this regard. Democracy was 'not that the people govern themselves, but that they have the security for good government'. Such 'good government' already existed in his eyes: this was parliament. Hobsbawm notes the state of play in Europe in the middle of the 19th century: The 'parliamentary tradition had been established in virtually all European countries, with the exception of Russia. In most cases, however, the power of the traditional elite remained secure if not unchallenged, for parliaments had only nominal power against the executive, and hence were at best weak influences on state policy.' 27

These bald facts about parliament and its irrelevance were widely known at the time. Those who attended the various parliaments of Europe were, for the most part, the appointees of the ruling elites throughout Europe - the various sons of the landed classes and of businessmen, lawyers and the other professions. This was hardly the democracy that the 'stupid classes' had in mind. On the contrary, the perception was widespread that 'rule by the people' must mean just that - hence the dangerous connotations that the word democracy had throughout this period of history.

Mill and others were very much aware of this difference of 'understanding' between the rich and the poor. It was a major problem. There was not, in a sense, a 'tradition of governance' or, as it was also put, 'common ground between the rulers and the ruled' in which both sides knew their place and lot. Naturally, until such traditions were established, the vote would have to be withheld or manipulated into ineffectiveness.

The 'qualified vote' was the means by which this was done. Though not before another idea - the 'weighted vote' - had been toyed with. This idea, also developed by Mill, was nothing if not novel:

'If every ordinary unskilled labourer had one vote, a skilled labourer ought to have two. A foreman... whose occupation requires something more of general culture, and some moral as well as intellectual qualities should perhaps have three. A farmer, manufacturer, or trader... should have three or four. A member of any profession, requiring... systematic mental culture... ought to have five or six. A graduate of any university at least as many.' 28

In this way the numerical disadvantage of the rich could be mitigated until such time as the poor had accepted their lot.

But, it was not to be. The qualified vote was far more practical. Using any arbitrary difference - educational level, possession of property, religion, race, skin colour, sex, age - access to the vote was curtailed. Until such time as people showed appropriate 'maturity'. Gladstone, the British Prime-minister, spelled out what 'maturity' entailed during a debate in 1864 on whether the franchise should be extended (from 4% to 8% of the population!) The voter, Gladstone said, should be a person with 'self-command, self control, respect for order, patience under suffering, confidence in the law and regard for superiors.' 29

Britain: ' Granting the Vote'

Percentage of the population with the vote, 1832 to 1950

Between 1850 and 1950 then, a period of one hundred years, the main modern parliamentary democracies emerged in western Europe, north America, Australia and New Zealand. The situation in these countries changed from one in which Parliament (or the Legislature as it was also know) was elected by only 1-5% of the adult population to one in which almost 100% were involved. This slow pace reflected the overall problems associated with the building of 'traditions of governance' between the rulers (the 'rich and privileged') and the ruled (the labouring classes), given both the social problems of the era and the continuing massive inequality. It was however, though slow, a broadly successful process relying on two important developments apart from the usual method - repression - for success. These were:

1. The emergence of a compliant parliamentary socialist movement.

2. The growth and influence of the mass media which from early days was attendant to the interests and agenda of the 'rich and privileged'.

On to

Chapter 3. The Role of the State

From the pamphlet Parliament or Democracy?

Parliament or Democracy

Print out a PDF file of Parliament or democracy