The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, London in 1848. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Democratic rights don’t fall from the sky, they are fought for and won, insists Alex Snowdon

Struggles over democracy are back on the front pages, prompted by Boris Johnson’s efforts to shut down parliamentary debate and scrutiny as he tries to drive through a hard-right version of Brexit. Thousands of people are rallying to fight for democracy on the streets. We recently commemorated 200 years since Peterloo, but the latest upheavals indicate that mobilising for democracy is not a merely historical matter.

A great deal can be learnt from examining the history of democracy. There are two closely linked ideas that establishment politicians, commentators and historians are keen to push. One is the notion that democratic gains, especially the expansion of the right to vote, had little to do with popular movements. The other is that democracy and parliament are synonymous, with our ‘mother of parliaments’ treated as a noble institution and the sum total of what we mean by democracy. What links these twin ideas is neglect of the role of millions of ordinary people: we had little to do with winning the vote, and we now have no role to play besides using that vote.

History tells us a different story. In the English Revolution of the 1640s, democratic ideas began to circulate. The authority of the king was being challenged by parliament. But organisations and networks like the Levellers wanted to go beyond merely promoting the power of a profoundly undemocratic parliament, consisting of the wealthier elements of society and reflecting their interests. They championed the idea of popular suffrage: those who make political decisions should be elected to do so, and wide layers of the people should have a vote.

These ideas emerged again in the aftermath of the French Revolution a century and a half later. The reform movement that peaked in the great demonstration at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, in August 1819 was inspired by two revolutions. The French Revolution was one. The industrial revolution was the other.

As growing numbers of people were pushed into the new factories, mills and workshops – and as industrial cities like Manchester grew – there was terrible hardship. But the poverty, overcrowding and awful working conditions prompted a yearning for something better. This was the motor force behind collective organisation to win social reforms for the many, not the few.

This merging of political reform and the economic and social aspirations of those who are exploited and poor recurred in Chartism, the great working class movement that emerged from 1837 onwards. The Chartists did not see the vote, or its other democratic demands, as an end in itself, but as means to a fairer and more egalitarian society, without the acute poverty and exploitation that stunted the lives and potential of many. The Great Reform Act of 1832 had been not-so-great, leaving the vast majority of men (never mind all women) disenfranchised. Chartism asserted that working class people should have the vote and, though greater democratic rights, redress the terrible injustices in society.

The extension of the right to vote was piecemeal and extremely grudging from the powers-that-be. The ruling class, reeking of privilege and arrogance, was genuinely terrified that expanding suffrage would threaten its wealth and property.  They understood what the Chartist leader, Joseph Rayner, meant when he said:

“This question of Universal Suffrage is a knife-and-fork question. It is a bread-and-cheese question.”

For successive waves of protesters for the vote, right through to the more radical and working class elements among the suffragettes of the early twentieth century, the vote was bound up with people’s economic conditions. The vote could be a weapon of class struggle.

The treatment of suffragettes – the police brutality, imprisonment and media hysteria – was a familiar tale in the history of ruling class responses to popular movements for democracy. But such repression and demonisation was, and still is, accompanied by attempts to neuter the popular and democratic potential of parliament. As the vote was increasingly conceded, attention turned to defanging parliament.

Socialists today ought to be the most implacable defenders of parliament – however weak and distorted a reflection of the popular will it might be – against authoritarianism. But that doesn’t mean glorifying it. There are many mechanisms in our deeply conservative and hidebound British state for making parliament safe and tame for the rich and powerful. We must fight for a broader vision of democracy and remember the lesson, wrought from centuries of popular struggles, that democratic rights have to be the means to a better world for the great majority. 

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.‚Äč He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).