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Who Rules?


Before ordinary people could obtain political rights, thinking about government had to change. If authority came from God, it rested on a monarch to whom everyone else was subject. If it came from tradition, ordinary people traditionally had been of no account. Tradition gave rights to property holders.

The change in thinking began just after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. John Locke published Two Treatises on Government, in which he argued that government was a contract between ruler and people. Contract was not a new idea, but the people making the contract were new. They were not people of a certain status living in a particular place; they were simply human beings possessing rights and living ‘in a state of nature’ before there was government. Locke did not actually know how people had lived in a state of nature: he imagined this situation to get at the heart of the relationship between rulers and ruled. He thought the people must have agreed to form a government to protect their rights to life, liberty and property. If these were not protected by the government, the contract was at an end. So the people had a right to reform or remove the government; they had a right to rebel. That idea was certainly a rarity in theories of government. This was the first statement of liberal political thought.
John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government

Though Locke’s book was published after the revolution, it may have been circulating beforehand and encouraged the parliament in its stand against James II. It definitely gave the American colonists the intellectual ammunition for their revolt against the British in 1776.

John Locke’s ideas were taken up with great enthusiasm by French progressive thinkers in the eighteenth century. What a contrast his theory was to the reality they faced: an absolute monarch ruling by divine right. These thinkers were reshaping ideas on all subjects by appealing to reason and nature, not to God, or the church or established authority. This intellectual movement is known as the ‘Enlightenment’ because it aimed to free humankind from ignorance and superstition and lead it to a better future.
The Enlightenment

Like Locke, the French thinkers worked with the concept of man and what man naturally was. Rousseau’s book The Social Contract begins ‘Man is born free and is everywhere in chains’. However, while these thinkers talked of man and his natural rights, when some of them thought of applying their theories, ‘man’ was not all men and certainly not women. But if rights came from being human, how could they be denied to anyone? This quickly became very clear in the French Revolution.

When King Louis XVI summoned the Estates General, it met in the traditional way: there were three houses, one for the nobility, one for the clergy and one for the third estate, the commoners. The middle-class leaders of the third estate, representing over 90 per cent of the people, refused to accept that the other two houses could veto their plans for reform. The third estate declared themselves a national assembly and invited the clergy and nobility to join them. The King was contemplating closing down the Assembly, when the people of Paris seized arms and captured the great royal fortress, the Bastille. The revolutionaries now had an army of their own and the King was forced to accept the Assembly’s existence.
The French Revolution

The Assembly drew up the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen which is based on Enlightenment thought about rights and government, not rights merely for French citizens, but for people everywhere. The revolutionaries wanted their revolution to spread and the words of their declaration were a rallying call to humankind. ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights’, said article 1. ‘All citizens are to be equal before the law and all are to participate directly or through representatives in the making of law’, said article 6. Here you might think is a democratic charter. It certainly became and remained that, but when the Assembly which drew it up planned a constitution, it divided citizens into ‘active’ and ‘passive’ and gave votes only to the active, who were to be property holders.

These restrictions could not stand. The common people of Paris who had saved the revolution would not accept them. They took the declaration at its word – they were full citizens. They met regularly all over Paris to discuss public affairs and when the representatives of the people were not acting as they thought right they invaded the Assembly to tell them so. The constitution which had excluded them had retained the King, but after the King had made abundantly clear that he wanted to overturn the revolution, the people of Paris deposed him by an armed assault on his palace.

The people of Paris included women. They took part in the demonstrations and protests and were allowed to join the revolutionary clubs. If rights came from being human, why shouldn’t women have rights? Olympe de Gouges, an actress, published in 1791 The Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizenesses. This was not a message the male revolutionaries wanted to hear. Soon they were putting pressure on the women to return to their traditional roles. However, women now had an argument for rights which in the long term could not be denied.
Women’s rights

The next constitution in 1791 gave the vote to all adult men. The greatest state in Europe, the home of royal absolutism, was in the hands of the people. The people’s representatives resolved to execute the king. They then had to conduct a war against the enemies of the revolution at home and abroad (for the revolutionaries had courted a war with all of Europe). They created a government which ruled by terror; it ignored the Declaration of the Rights of Man and processed anti-revolutionary suspects through kangaroo courts to the guillotine. The common people of Paris out on the streets acted as the government’s vigilantes.

All the fears of democracy as mob rule and tyranny had been realised. In England the revolution had at first been welcomed for it seemed that its aim was to produce a constitutional monarchy like its own. With the execution of the King and the terror, the governing classes of England became fierce opponents of the revolution. They were afraid that their people would catch the contagion from France. And not without reason, for thousands were reading The Rights of Man, a book by Tom Paine, an Englishman who had been at the centre of the revolutions in America and France. The book was banned and any moves for popular organisation for democratic rights stamped out. In Edinburgh five men were transported to Australia for attending a convention of the Friends of the People.
The English fear ‘mob rule’

As the revolution unfolded, it confirmed in the English their opposition to theories about rights and governing from first principles. Their ancient constitution of King, Lords and Commons preserved more liberty than French paper constitutions which had led to mob rule. This attitude was also shared by nearly all those who wanted reform in England because they could not be blind to the fact that the revolution in France had failed at terrible cost. The reformers wanted to adjust and improve the British constitution, not ditch it. They, like everyone else in England, already had some rights and when the panic over the revolution passed, were free within strict limits to organise to achieve more.

The virtues of the British constitution were usually explained by its being a mixture of the sort Aristotle recommended. King, Lords and Commons were his monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, balancing each other. It was more true to say that England enjoyed stable government because the landed class was in control of both houses of parliament and the king had to follow their policy. It was certainly odd to call the House of Commons the democratic element in the constitution. Its members were elected, but by property holders. Most of the people did not own property.
Property holders control English parliament/td>

The Commons was becoming less credible even as a representative of property. The system of electorates had grown up in an ad hoc way and had never been reviewed. Towns which had disappeared completely still elected members. The man who owned the land where a town had stood was the sole elector. This piece of land was bought and sold at a high price because you were buying a seat in parliament. If the town had a few inhabitants left, their landlord or the person who provided them with the most beer controlled the election. New towns had no representatives at all; towns which had grown rapidly had fewer members than stagnant or non-existent towns.

The distribution of population and wealth in England was changing rapidly because of the Industrial Revolution. Towns were booming because they were home to the new steam-powered cotton factories and the growing number of iron works and metal shops. Britain was becoming a society never seen before where trade and industry were more important than agriculture and most of the people lived in towns.
Industrial Revolution

This economic transformation greatly increased the number of middle-class people. It created a working class because now working people were massed together in the towns, sharing common experiences and beginning to organise to improve their lot. Their living and working conditions were often appalling. There was no control over safety and health in factories or of hours worked. They lived crammed into old housing or in jerry-built new houses. An economic slump threw thousands out of work and brought them close to starvation.

This society was still run by the landowners. In the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s their control was challenged by middle-class and working-class people, sometimes acting together, sometimes apart. The size and reach of their great organisations was an entirely new element in politics.

The middle class gained entrance to the political world in 1832 when parliament for the first time reviewed and reformed the whole system of representation. This was the great Reform Act. It took seats away from non-existent and tiny towns and gave them to the new and growing towns. It did not, however, operate on the principle that electorates had to be equal in population. The plan was still to represent interests – the landed interest, the manufacturing interest and so on. The Act set for the first time a uniform rule on the qualification for the vote in the towns. The amount of property to be owned or rent to be paid included the middle class but excluded the working class.
The Reform Act of 1832

This Act had only been passed after a tremendous mobilisation of the people for there was great opposition to it within the parliament. The numbers and muscle in the great meetings and processions were provided by the working class. But then they were betrayed. They were not given the vote by the Reform Act. They then formed their own organisation to make Britain a true democracy. Their demands were set out in a People’s Charter in imitation of Magna Carta, which was the treasured symbol of English liberty. They took the name Chartists.
The Chartists

Henry Parkes celebrating his first election victory in Sydney
A Chartist in England who became premier of New South Wales: Henry Parkes celebrating his first election victory in Sydney, 1854.

Illustrated Sydney News 6/5/1854

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria

The charter had six points:
1. a vote for all men;
2. voting to be secret so that workers would not be afraid of offending their landlord or boss by the way they voted;
3. any man could stand for parliament (which meant the abolition of the existing property qualification);
4. members of parliament to be paid (necessary if workers were to get into parliament);
5. electorates to have the same number of voters;
6. parliament to be elected every year.

Their strategy was to make their charter into a petition to parliament and collect so many signatures on it that parliament would have to take notice. Their first petition was signed by over a million people and was 5 kilometres long. When it arrived in the House of Commons the members refused even to discuss its demands. The same thing happened with their second petition and their third. By then the Chartist organisation was fading away.

What else could they have done? They discussed going on strike until their demands were met, causing a run on the banks, spending their money only at shops which supported them – and armed rebellion. Some Chartist leaders were convinced that only force would work and others threatened it in their speeches. They ended up in gaol. There were a couple of botched attempts at armed uprisings. At Newport in south Wales 3,000 miners marched on the town and were met by a small group of soldiers who had no trouble in dealing with them. Twenty-four miners were shot. The leaders were transported to Australia.

Most Chartists were opposed to violence. Even if more had supported it they had no chance of success because the landowners and the middle class and the government were all determined to resist. Some middle-class people wanted further reform (like the secret ballot) but they did not want the working class to take over the parliament, which is what they feared the charter would lead to. Popular risings usually only succeed when the governing classes are disunited and a government is weak or indecisive.

The Chartists’ was a radical program, but they were also remarkably restrained. These were terrible times and yet men close to starvation accepted that protest had to be peaceful. The Chartists ferociously attacked the aristocracy, but their plan did not include abolishing the House of Lords. They made no attack on the young Queen Victoria. They were respectful of English tradition. They didn’t appeal to French theory to support their claims, but to a supposed golden age in England’s past when the people did govern. When they were accused of being rebels, they pointed to the rebel lords and gentlemen who had got rid of James II.

After the failure of their third petition in 1848, the Chartists moved into other activities like trade unions and worker education. They had to live a long time to see their charter implemented. Most workers in the towns got the vote in 1867, in the country in 1884; but it was not until 1918 that all men were allowed to vote. Payment of members was not introduced until 1911 when the length of parliaments was reduced from seven years to five.

In Australia most of the charter was adopted much more rapidly. The period of the great movements for reform in Britain coincided with the first migration of free people to Australia. The migrants had an education in democracy before they set sail. Even if they were not activists and even if they were not democrats, they had been witnesses to something entirely new: a sustained agitation by working people requesting to be treated as full citizens.

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