I’m writing this on election day. By the time you read it, we’ll probably know who’s going to be running the country for the next five years – or not, if there’s horse-trading to be done – but at the time of writing, I’ve recently got back from having voted.
It’s sometimes tempting not to bother – whoever we vote for, we always end up with the government – but knowing a bit about history underlines just how important and precious this right to vote is.
Early parliaments were nothing more than groups of advisors appointed by the king. The idea of electing members was proposed during Simon de Montfort’s rebellion (1264-65) and was adopted in 1295 by Edward I. Initially, the franchise (literally the rights of a free man) was restricted to free householders (by definition male, at that time) who owned a freehold property worth at least £2.
Even at the value of money then, this wasn’t a huge sum, but it put the vote out of range of labourers or poorer artisans. And, of course, the majority of the population were serfs who, though not actually slaves, didn’t count as free.
This state of affairs remained virtually unchanged till 1832, but it was challenged. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 – a far more organised attempt at revolution than it’s often given credit for – included among its many aims the abolition of serfdom as a legal state. This would have had economic implications, allowing the serfs to take advantage of a favourable labour market, but it would have also given a vast number of people the right to try and meet the franchise qualifications. The revolt was bloodily put down, though, and it was a while longer before serfdom died a natural death.
The Civil War period was a time of considerable innovation, and one of the most influential groups for a while was the Levellers. Particularly strong among the ranks of the parliamentarian army, they were republicans who argued, among other things, for universal male suffrage. There was also a faction among them, though a minority, who wanted women included. At first, Cromwell took their demands seriously, while disagreeing with them, but after failed negotiations the Levellers were suppressed in 1649.
Widespread unrest in the early 19th century eventually led to the Great Reform Act of 1832. As well as reorganising the entire parliamentary system and abolishing “rotten boroughs” (several contained no-one qualified to vote, and at least one was entirely underwater), the Act lowered the qualification and allowed shorthold tenants as well as freeholders to meet it.
Another attempt was made to obtain universal male suffrage by the Chartist movement, from 1838 to 1848, but Parliament consistently rejected their demands, in spite of one petition having gathered three million signatures. Chartist resistance was eventually broken by the threat of military action.
Nevertheless, further acts in 1867 and 1884 granted voting rights to all householders, regardless of the value of their property or the conditions under which they held it, though this didn’t include the entire male population. And, of course, it didn’t include women, who’d began to take up the fight seriously by around 1903. The trials and persistence of the suffragettes are well known, and in 1918 the vote was given to all men over 21 and all women over 30, equalised at 21 for everyone in 1928.
The struggle for women’s suffrage is more recent and better known, but men also owe their voting rights to people through our history who’ve fought, suffered and died for it.
Your vote is precious. Whoever you choose to cast it for at the next election, it should never be wasted.