This week I am giving a paper, titled ‘The British Parliament and the representation of public opinion before democracy, c. 1800-1914’, at a conference organised by the European Information and Research Network on Parliamentary History (EUPARL). The conference is being held at the Centre d’histoire de Sciences Po, Paris, 8-9 Nov. 2012, and the theme is ‘The Europe of Parliaments – Current research in the field of Parliamentary History’. For more information about EUPARL click here.
The long nineteenth century was a crucial moment for the development of the modern British political system. The electorate increased hugely and modern political parties developed. This paper considers how public opinion was represented by Parliament in an era when many did not have the right to vote, even after the extensions of the franchise in 1832, 1867 and 1885.
For much of this period, the House of Commons was not democratically elected and many legislators were aristocrats or landowners. Yet British politicians regularly contended that Britain had a constitution that was the envy of the civilised world. Political power, they argued, was carefully balanced between the monarchy, House of Lords and House of Commons. The political system, many MPs and commentators thought, was strong but flexible enough to allow important reforms to be passed. In their view, this had allowed Britain to avoid revolution and reaction as in other countries. This paper explores the reality behind the rhetoric.
Although such views contained a good deal of chauvinism, Britain’s political system did contain popular elements. After the Great Reform Act of 1832, parliamentarians viewed themselves as independent representatives who were loosely tied to parliamentary parties. They had a duty to represent all their constituents, not just those with the right to vote. Politicians increasingly claimed to represent a broader public opinion than just the electorate.
Petitioning Parliament was one of the most important ways of making popular demands known to politicians. From the early nineteenth century thousands of petitions with millions of signatures were sent to the House of Commons. Even mass working-class movements like Chartism, which were very critical of Parliament, used petitioning to campaign for democratic reforms in the 1830s and 1840s. MPs presented petitions in Parliament even when they disagreed with their demands.
Parliamentarians also sought to engage with public opinion through the press. The newspaper press expanded rapidly during this period. The press was thought to spread knowledge, reflect public opinion and be a force for liberalism and reform. Newspapers frequently contained lengthy reports of parliamentary speeches. MPs increasingly used their parliamentary rhetoric to appeal to a newspaper-reading public rather than fellow legislators.
Finally, elections were lively, public events, often with a high degree of participation from those without the vote. Politicians were held accountable at rowdy public meetings and forced to justify their record in Parliament. This was a period in which, in a variety of ways, politicians increasingly had to pay careful attention to the force of public opinion.