What Political Groups Had the Most Power in Britain in the 1800s?
The 19th century was a time of sweeping political and social transformation in Britain. These changes came about in response to the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, as well as from anti-government sentiment. During the 18th and 19th centuries, British monarchs such as King George III and King George IV, as well as members of Parliament, were not widely popular. Outside the parliamentary system, a number of political groups emerged to fight for reforms and battle against political repression.
In 1800 few Britons could vote. Political power was restricted to the wealthy. Those who challenged this injustice were called radicals. Thomas Paine, an influential radical thinker, wrote a book called "The Rights of Man," which advocated that everyone should have a say in government. Inspired by Paine's ideas and those of the French Revolution, British radicals formed political groups. Fearing that they would start their own revolution, British authorities began arresting them for treason and outlawing radical organizations. In 1819 violence erupted when 60,000 people were brutally dispersed from a peaceful meeting in St. Peter's Fields, Manchester. After a stampede by the British cavalry, 500 people were injured and 11 killed. Dubbed the Peterloo Massacre (after Waterloo), the incident underscored the perceived tyranny of the British government.
The Peterloo Massacre intensified public support for electoral reform. In 1832 Parliament passed the Reform Act, which marginally increased the number of eligible voters. The lower classes, however, remained voiceless in government. Soon after Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, a group of working-class activists launched a campaign to achieve electoral and parliamentary change in Britain. Called the Chartists, they took their name from the People’s Charter, a proposal drafted by the radical William Lovett. Among the Chartists' demands were universal male suffrage, voting by secret ballot and the abolition of property requirements for parliamentary membership. Over two decades, Chartism grew to a mass movement. While the Chartists were not immediately successful, many of their ideas were implemented in the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884. In due course, almost all the Chartist demands became law in Britain.
Throughout the 1800s, British women could not vote. Although the British parliament passed three major reform acts expanding voting rights, no legislation had granted suffrage to women. Queen Victoria did nothing to address this inequality and actually supported the status quo. In 1867 two members of Parliament, John Stuart Mill and Henry Fawcett, introduced a women's suffrage bill, which failed to pass. Suffragists remained resolute, well-organized and dedicated to the cause. They made little progress until the end of the century, when Millicent Fawcett, Henry's wife, formed the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, an influential coalition of suffragist groups. The women's suffrage battle was finally won in the early 20th century, when Parliament granted voting rights to women with laws enacted in 1918 and 1928.
The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the 18th century, transforming the nation's economy. Social issues such as child labor and appalling working conditions grew in public awareness. These issues, along with support for the French Revolution, gave rise to socialism in Britain. Robert Owen, a cotton mill owner in Scotland, is regarded as the father of British socialism. After improving conditions at his mill, he crusaded against child labor before attempting to create a utopian socialist community in the 1820s. Twenty years later, Karl Marx published "The Communist Manifesto," and socialism gained traction throughout Europe. A socialist organization called the First International held its initial meeting in London in 1864. In 1881 a socialist political party emerged in Britain called the Social Democratic Federation. Socialists and workers' unions later joined forces to establish the Labour Party, which is now one of Britain's largest political parties.
- 1 BBC: History: A British Revolution in the 19th Century?
- 2 The National Archives: Chartism
- 3 UK Parliament: The Reform Act 1832
- 4 British Library: The Campaign for Women's Suffrage
- 5 University of Nevada Las Vegas: Socialism: Collectivist Solutions
- 6 The History of the Social-Democratic Federation; Martin Crick