Long road to democracy

Most political systems in real life can’t be fitted neatly into one category. We’ve seen that perfect democracy is an ideal we have to keep striving towards; absolute tyranny such as we read about in Orwell’s “1984” is just as difficult to achieve.

Different forces operate in any system. For example, the writer and historian Hilaire Belloc summed up the last thousand years of English history as a struggle between the king and the people on one side and the “ruling class” who stood between them.

William of Normandy made himself king of England in 1066 but he couldn’t conquer without an army and couldn’t rule without administrators. He controlled his military leaders when he had become king by making them local lords and barons who had power over their own area, but under him. His power was limited because they could resist him.

In 1215 they did gang up on King John and forced him to sign Magna Carta, which guaranteed rights of the barons such as the right not to be arrested without charge and to be tried by a jury of their equals. If we old-timers were taught that was the beginning of English people’s rights and democracy, we should remember that although the barons benefited by this limitation of royal absolutism, that Charter did not protect the peasants from the barons.

What this meant was seen in the 1380s when Wat Tyler led a peasants revolt. King Richard II, accompanied by the Lord Mayor of London and a number of barons, met them; the king agreed to the peasants’ demands and the Lord Mayor stabbed Tyler to death on the spot. A win for the barons, a loss for the king and the peasants.

Those barons got more powerful but nearly wiped themselves out in the 15th century Wars of the Roses. Henry VII became king and built up his own absolute power, but his son, Henry VIII squandered all the money his father had accumulated from taxes. Looking for more money, he closed the monasteries and took all their land. But he needed help to do this. He paid the helpers with a share of this land. That made them a new class of lords who ran parliament and kept the king in his place.

Charles I was slow to learn the limits of his power, so parliament deposed and beheaded him in 1649. James II converted to the Catholic church. Parliament didn’t like that. They deposed him and called a Dutch prince to become King William III in 1688. From then on, kings and queens knew their place.

Things changed a little as agitation grew with industrialisation in the 18th century; first the new employers and then their oppressed workers began to demand a vote and power in parliament. The number of voters was increased in stages, to include adult men with a certain amount of property in 1832, expanding in stages to include all men over 21 and also women over 30 with some property in 1918.

Britain only got one person, one vote in 1948 when those who had more than one vote were deprived of their extra votes and every adult was allowed to vote in local elections (but Northern Ireland only caught up in 1968). In the 1960s anyone over 18 was considered an adult and allowed to vote.

These changes did produce changes in people’s welfare, especially after the Labour Party grew out of the trade unions. Free universal schooling, free health care and retirement pensions for all came under the 1945-51 Labour government. Margaret Thatcher began to cut back on some of these rights. Tony Blair cut Labour off from its roots and the people are left suspecting parliament has once again become a bosses club. Belloc would not be surprised – but aluta continua.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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