Political Change in Britain (1832-1900)
Through much of the nineteenth century, Great Britain avoided the kind of social upheaval that intermittently plagued the Continent between 1815 and 1870. Supporters of Britain claimed that this success derived from a tradition of vibrant parliamentary democracy. While this claim holds some truth, the Great Reform Bill of 1832, the landmark legislation that began extending the franchise to more Englishmen, still left the vote to only twenty percent of the male population. A second reform bill passed in 1867 vertically expanded voting rights, but power remained in the hands of a minority--property-owning elites with a common background, a common education, and an essentially common outlook on domestic and foreign policy. The pace of reform in England outdistanced that of the rest of Europe, but for all that remained slow. Though the Liberals and Conservatives did advance different philosophy on the economy and government in its most basic sense, the common brotherhood on all representatives in parliament assured a relatively stable policy-making history.
In the 1880s, problems of unemployment, urban housing, public health, wages, working conditions, and healthcare upset this traditional balance and led the way for the advent of a new and powerful political movement in Great Britain: the Labour Party. By 1900, wages were stagnating while prices continued to rise throughout the country. The urban centers of London and Manchester faced crumbling housing and tenements arose throughout every major industrial center. Workers responded to their problems by putting their faith not in the Liberal Party, the group that traditionally received the worker vote since industrialization, but in the oft-militant trade unions, organizations that advanced worker demands in Parliament, cared for disabled workers, and assisted in pension, retirement, and contract matters.
In 1892 James Kier Hardie, an independent workingman from Scotland, became the first such man to sit in the House of Commons. He represented the Labour Party and built upon trade union support to craft a workers' party dedicated to advancing the cause of working Englishmen. For the first time in its history, the British Parliament began to represent class distinctions in English society. By 1906, twenty-nine seats in Parliament went to Labour.
Pressured by the new Labour movement, Liberals and Conservatives were forced to act for fear of losing any substantial labor vote. The so-called New Liberals, led by Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, supported legislation to strengthen the right of unions to picket peacefully. The Liberal government passed the National Insurance Act of 1911, providing payments to workers for sickness and introducing unemployment benefits. In addition, heeding Labour's call for a more democratic House, Lloyd George pushed the Parliament Bill of 1911 that reduced the House of Lords (the upper house of Parliament that had always been dominated by conservatives averse to worker legislation) to a position lower than the House of Commons. Since the Parliament Bill, the Commons could raise taxes without the Lords approval and pay for any needed worker legislation. Finally, in 1913, the powerful Labour movement, about to eclipse the Liberals as the Conservative's opposition, pushed through the Trade Unions Act. This law granted unions legal rights to settle their grievances with management directly, without the interference of a generally conservative Parliament.
The extension of the voting franchise that began in England in 1832 with the Great Reform Bill initiated, albeit slowly, a process of liberalization unseen in the history of the British Parliament. Previously, power rested in the hands of the few aristocrats with enough property and wealth to pass a relatively high property requirement for voting and holding office. Yet while the lowering of the wealth prerequisite provided an easy target for modern liberals when arguing for the democratization of Parliament, this democratization at first did not extend to the working class. Most representatives in the Commons came through Eton to either Cambridge or Oxford where, under the tutelage of the same professors, these future leaders developed a similar outlook on the world: the superiority of the British system, the rightness of imperialism, the power of industry, the benefits of trade, and the value of general isolation from the Continent. These views, though subject to some slight degree differences between Liberals and Conservatives, remained common through most of the House. Such views did not square with the new concerns of the workers who had neither received an elite education, nor, in some cases, an education at all.
However, though it took more than half a century, the British system did gradually change to meet the problems associated with the industrial age. Also important to notice is that it did not require a Labour majority in Parliament--something that would not come until the interwar years--to initiate changes. The political system was malleable enough that pressure from a small minority party in Parliament pushed the traditionally uninterested Liberal and Conservative majority to seriously modify their political goals and actions. Politicians in England were farsighted, keen on capturing the awesome potential power of the worker movement before it got out of hand--namely, before it ignited a powerful party of its own.