Over the past couple of weeks I’ve covered issues of democracy and political participation with the new, first year A-level Politics class. This involved the understanding of the growth of British democracy – the very slow growth that it was – which includes a whistle-stop tour through key events. These include the 1832 Great Reform Act, the suffragette movement, and the big Representation of the People Acts of the 20th century which widened the franchise to everyone (well, virtually everyone if you are 18+, as of 1969, but not if you are criminal).
The content for this A-level specification – like all A-level subjects – is incredibly large and daunting, but certain events and acts were missed out from this grand narrative (including the 1948 Representation of the People Act, which can be read about here). So, let’s spend a little moment celebrating the great achievement that was the simple Ballot Act of 1872.
Prior to this act, voting in Britain was held in public, rather than voters being permitted privacy in casting their vote. This system of public, open voting was – of course – open to wide-spread abuse. Noteable landowners, who dominated local politics, nominated their own candidates and would have unleashed their wrath if one of their tenants or employees voted against them. As well as intimidation, bribery was rife.
Arguments had been put forward previously, particularly by the Chartists in the 1840s, and this debate had become backed by more in the establishment after the passing of the Second Reform Act of 1867. However, many points were put forward to prevent change, including the notion that voting in secret was cowardly, unmanly, and un-British!
The Liberal Party under Gladstone – in power since 1868 – passed the act, thereby making it another step in the evolution and modernisation of politics. In 1875 the Parliamentary Elections Act further helped to establish a fairer electoral process which eventually became the rigorous and trusted system used today.
With hindsight, this act was a simple change, but it did have a big impact on British politics. In terms of the established domination of the two-party system of the Conservatives and the Liberals, this duopoly would continue winning elections into the 20th century. In 1868 the Liberals won a landslide election, whereas in 1874 the Conservatives won the election, with two alternating election after election. However, the act did have a huge impact on voting behaviour in Ireland, which had massive consequences for British politics.
Ireland had been part of the British union since the start of the 19th century, having been colonised and controlled for centuries prior to that. Politics in Ireland had been dominated by landlords, and so the 1872 act enabled tenants to go against their desires and dictates. All of this led to the formation of a new nationalist party – the Home Rule League – which obtained 60 seats in the first election in 1874 utilising the new rules.
The campaign for home rule was a major feature in British politics in subsequent decades: it split the Liberals in the 1880s, baffled the attempts of Gladstone, and ultimately led to rebellion and disunion in the 20th century. All of this demonstrates the great importance in this simple act: it provided a strong voice for voters and enabled a fairer system.