Tuesday, December 6, 2011

India under a Father and his Daughter: Impact of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi on India’s Development

India is the world’s largest democracy, and has been so throughout its independent existence, except for the period of emergency in 1970s. The Nehru-Gandhi family or as some may call dynasty, has been an integral part of India’s politics. The history of India’s government has more or less been the history of the ‘dynasty’, except for certain intervals.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister ruled the country for nearly 17 years, from 1947 until his death in 1964. The 15 year duration of his daughter Indira Gandhi’s time at the Prime Minister’s office was to be interrupted for 3 years by the Janatha Party regime. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, the father-daughter duo had ruled India for 32 out of 37 of its existence as an independent state.

Both the father and the daughter had their own independent ideas. They both had their share of successes and failures. It is interesting to investigate as to who made the more lasting impact on India’s quest for modernization and development.

Cultivating the Indian Identity

Nehru inherited a country of 389 million people with a rising population of around half a dozen million per year. Poverty was widespread and so were social inequalities. Nehru faced the challenge of converting a colonial society into a modern society while preserving the unity of the country after the partition and immediate war over Kashmir.
India, as Ramanujan wrote, is both singular at the top but plural at the bottom, similar to an Irishman’s description of trousers (Khilnani, 1997, p. 6). In 1947, Indian people had a sense of identity, mainly due to the long struggle for independence. However, the Indian society has many ethnic, religious and other social divisions. Caste and class divisions were major issues in the still backward society. All these could have polarized the Indian society to such an extent that the Union could have disintegrated.

However, Nehru’s long reign was instrumental in holding the Union together. Despite all the differences, during his time, secessionist movements did not rise to dangerous levels. At times, Nehru was late in recognizing the linguistic demands of different people. Perhaps it was because he feared that the linguistically based states would increase secessionism. However, when he was certain that not granting them will lead to secession nevertheless, he created various such states, starting from Andhra. The holding together of the new nation and giving it the political stability which is vital for its development was a major contribution of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Democracy, Secularism and Development

Nehru had every reason to disregard democracy. His country was poor, the people were largely illiterate and the society was extremely backward. Despite the partition, India still had a Muslim population bigger than either side of Pakistan. The ‘Untouchables’ were another large and largely marginalized community.

Unlike many other leaders of post colonial countries, Nehru attempted to solve these problems and transform the Indian society through a democratic path. It does not mean that he was always mild on every issue. He made the discrimination of ‘untouchables’ a criminal act and changed the status of the women in India by legislation passed in mid-1950s. But he did so only after ascertaining his power within the Congress Party. There was a time, when Patel was alive, that Nehru was shackled by the conservative majority of his own party. Although the Congress Party dominated India and Nehru was the leader of the nation, there was a brief period of history when Nehru did not control the majority in his own party. However, he understood the importance of holding the Congress together to hold India together. During Nehru’s era, except for a few parties in the left, all secular forces were under the Congress banner. Therefore, religious extremism was largely curbed. Nehru remained open to forces of both left and right while following a safe path until the time was ripe for the implementation of his ideals.

The preservation of democracy let the people have the power of the vote. Therefore, the marginalized populace had a mean to express their views at least during elections. The ‘untouchables’ have come a long way from the years of discrimination. They are now playing an important role in Indian politics.

However, as Ambedkar was to point out, the vote was not enough if people have no proper source of livelihood (Khilnani, 1997, p. 15). Nehru understood this well. He implemented three five year plans. While he wanted to industrialize the country, his first aim was to develop agriculture and irrigation. New dams were built for the dual purposes of irrigation and power generation, the latter being a prerequisite for industrialization. For Nehru, these dams were the temples, mosques and gurudwaras of secular and developing India (Khilnani, p. 61).

Another important feature of Nehru’s leadership was the promotion of science and technology. He formed the IITs and other scientific institutions to propagate scientific knowhow. These institutes are one of his main long lasting legacies for India.

Shortcomings of Nehru’s Premiership

Unlike many leaders of the developing nations of contemporary world, Nehru abhorred the notion of a personality cult. However, in practice, Nehru was involved in too much of state duties. He was almost omnipresent in domestic affairs and was the sole director of the foreign relations. This meant he had to be on the alert of ‘anything and everything’, deliver numerous speeches and carry a heavy workload. Despite being in very good health until the last few years, this was never an easy task.

Nehru’s domestic policies did not achieve the goals he outlined. His five year plans did not achieve all their goals, despite a number of successes. Illiteracy remained high despite all the institutions he formed, and the gap between the rich and the poor increased. The Companies Act, introduced to curb monopolies helped them on the contrary. It gave rise to corruption-although not as high as his daughter’s reign-and the ‘License Raj’.

There was no real effort to curb the population growth which undermined the efforts of Nehru. The so called ‘Hindu rate of economic development’ and the increase in agricultural production was no match for the increasing mouths to feed. India was not destined to achieve self-sufficiency in food under Nehru.

Given the popularity he enjoyed, Nehru may have done better in changing the Indian society with measures such as family planning established firmly. However, there is another side of the story. Nehru, the arch-democrat of his time, enjoyed that much popularity because he did not try to force radical measures on the backward society. He understood that the transformation of such a society by democratic means is a slow process.

But, in the long run, his policy of consensus building and gradual democratic change can be steadier. They can be justified by observing the resurgence of fundamentalism in former Soviet Central Asia and Afghanistan where at a certain time atheism was forced upon the populace.

Despite everything, Nehru himself may have felt that his mission was incomplete. After he died in May 1964, a piece of paper was found among his papers, with a stanza of a Robert Frost poem scribbled on it:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep

Indira Gandhi: Different from her Father

Indira Gandhi became India’s third Prime Minister in 1966 after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri. She was elevated to that position by Congress Party leaders known as “the syndicate”, who hoped to control her. However, she was to display her mettle and become the sole leader of the nation.

Mrs. Gandhi was much more authoritarian than her father. While her father was able to preserve the unity of the left, right and center groups within the Congress Party, the divisions were to break the party asunder under Indira’s leadership. The challenge for her leadership came from the conservative faction of the party, which led her to adopt more socialist type policies than even her father.

More a Politician than an Economist

She nationalized many privately owned banks and some heavy industries. This bolstered the public sector but on the other hand, encouraged corruption at various levels. This was a growing problem in “Indira Raj” as she had to increasingly rely on civil servants to carry out her policies.

Indira Gandhi continued some earlier projects and initiated some new ones. Her land reforms were criticized by opposition members and chief ministers of some states. Her move to abolish privileges of the Maha Rajas also attracted much criticism. These were proposed when India’s rich and poor gap was increasing and economic situation was deteriorating.

The subsequent elections, where Indira rallied her faction of the Congress Party on the slogan “Garibi Hatao” (remove poverty) while the opposition wanted to “Indira Hatao”, was a huge success for Indira. It was a public endorsement of her policies. However, many of her policies were directed by political and not economic needs.

There were some success stories of great importance. They were the two revolutions, the Green Revolution and the White Revolution, officially known as “Operation Flood”. The former was started during Shastri’s era in 1965, but Indira continued it and reaped its results. India, for the first time in her modern history, could achieve self-sufficiency in food.

The White Revolution, aimed at increasing the milk production in India, was a success story of Indira Gandhi. It can be seen as an instance of utilizing the untapped resources in the country skillfully for the improvement of the people’s livelihoods by a grass-root movement.

However, Indira’s economic policies had a strong political backing and not a strong management. The Prime Minister herself was not entirely conversant with economic issues. While politically driven movements suited her, hard-core economic issues remained unattained. Corruption was growing. So were inflation, unemployment and mal-distribution of wealth.

She was also being accused, quite fairly, of nepotism. Her backing of Sanjay, her son, was seen by some as grooming a successor. His own economic aptitude was in question. Appointed as the top manager of India’s new automobile industry, he took a rather long period of five years to produce the first car (Wolpert, p. 384).

Emergency and Beyond

The emergency was the first and only time when India’s democratic tradition was neglected by the central government. Brought about by a political crisis, this gave Indira the opportunity to run the country as she wished. Within two weeks of the emergency, she published a 20 point program of economic reform, a radical document. The main benefactors were to be the rural poor. Indira’s measures were once more successful to a greater extent. Inflation dropped, tax evaders were frightened, government offices worked punctually and suddenly, and surprisingly, “trains were running on time” (Wolpert, 1993, p.399).

However, the political opposition was towards denial of democracy was very strong. Ultimately, Mrs. Gandhi had to relent, but given her achievements, she was quite certain of victory in the 1977 election. But, the Indian people rejected her and the ‘dynasty’ outright, by defeating both Indira and Sanjay, a reminder of what could have happened to Nehru if he had forced his ideas on the Indians.

Indira’s second term in office was once more totally engulfed in politics. She cultivated dangerous people for her requirements, such as the Punjabis like Bhindranwale and Tamil militants of Sri Lanka. Ultimately, two Sikhs killed her and later, Tamil militants were to claim her son Rajiv’s life.

Nehru and Indira in Retrospect

Nehru’s challenges were immense as the Indians were so backward in 1947. His progress was slow, but steady. Despite achieving only a “Hindu rate of growth”, the educational, scientific and technological knowhow gained by the Indians in that period is hard to evaluate.

Indira Gandhi, mainly focused on populism and ‘people power’ making things happen, except for the emergency years. While, some things were done, it did not help India in many matters. Her consensus building ability was much less than that of father and in the long run it undermined her efforts.

In retrospect, it can be said that Nehru laid the foundation for an exciting future for India and his daughter developed some aspects of it. But, observing India in 1964 and 1984, one may say that both of them could have done more.


1. Khilnani S., The Idea of India (Penguin, 1997).
2. Wolpert S., A New History of India.(Oxford and New York: 1993)
3. Gopal S., Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography: Volume Three (1956-1964). Oxford (1975).
4. Crocker, W., Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate London (1966).
5. Moraes F., Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography 2nd impression, Mumbai (2008).
6. Gupte P., Mother India: A Political Biography of Indira Gandhi, New Delhi (2009)
7. Tammita-Delgoda S., A Traveller’s History of India (Windrush Press, 2006)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A History of French Constitutions

France has been a key player in European politics for well over a thousand years. It was one of the first nation states to emerge out of the chaos of the middle ages. Perhaps this is the reason for the markedly nationalist tradition of the French. However, although the French unite in the love for their country, it seems to be the only fact which unites them in the long run.

France has been a nation of contradictions. Divisions such as the nobles against the peasants, urban against rural, Parisian against provincial and Catholic against anti-clerical have been prominent at certain times and sometimes continue to be even now (Hoggart & Johnson, p. 47). Recent divisions include the French speaking native people against the immigrants who are mainly from North Africa. The struggle for power and prominence between such interests has dictated the course of French history especially from 1789. At times, these differences have led to violent upheavals and at other instances have led to political maneuverings and bargaining among different interests groups. These developments have affected the French constitutions, numbering more than a dozen beginning from the first constitution of note which was passed in 1791.

Another important factor is the representative and plebiscitarian traditions of the constitutions (Ehrmann, p. 7). The latter was an important tool for rulers to assert far reaching personal power, especially after a prolonged crisis. Napoleon I and Napoleon III directly appealed to the electorate when they established the empires and so did De Gaulle when the Fifth Republic was formed. It could be said that, especially in De Gaulle’s case, the electorate appealed to a dominating personality to intervene and check the increasing level of anarchy due to the prevailing political system of the time.

Revolution of 1789

The French revolution of 1789 was the first violent conflict in the struggle between the different social groups in the country. In simple terms, it was a struggle between the first two Estates-the clerics and the nobles-who enjoyed wide privileges and the Third Estate-the peasant and the bourgeoisie. However, the contradictory French society was such that it could not be stated as simply as that. The first two Estates were divided against themselves and so was the Third Estate up to a certain level. There was a clear antagonism between the Greater Nobles and the Lesser Nobles and also the higher clerics-bishops, archbishops- and the parish priests. Some of the nobles had particular hatred for the king’s officials who had total authority in the provinces.

The divisions between the Third Estate did not manifest itself in the early years of the revolution. In 1789, it was a nationwide upheaval which led to the downfall of the despotic rule of the ‘ancien regime’. If the uprising was limited to Paris, the French would most probably not have been celebrating ‘Bastille Day’, because the attack on the Bastille either would not have happened or even if it happened its implications would have been much lesser. A clear indication of what might have happened in 1789 had the provinces not supported the revolution was seen almost a century later in 1871. The Paris Commune would not have died in two months had the provinces supported it.

The uprising in the provinces was mainly a food riot in response to the high price of bread due to the extremely bad harvests in 1788 (Peacock, p. 25). There was still a considerable section of royalists in the provinces. Also, the anti-clerical stand of the revolutionaries also alienated some rural populations and those who had supported the revolution initially turned against it later. Even in the National Assembly in Paris, the republicans-the Jacobins-were a minority who sat on the left side, thus becoming the first ‘leftists’ of political science history. Therefore the French constitution of 1791 was not a republican one. The king still had nominal power and could veto any legislation up to six years (Peacock, p. 33). This was a strange outcome for a revolution. It was as if the revolution had not yet begun.

The flight of the king from Paris and the wars started in 1792 played in to the hands of the Republicans and the violent phase of the Revolution began. A new Republican constitution was passed in 1793. The same year, both king and the queen, and many enemies of the Jacobins were guillotined. Much more executions followed in the next year. However, to many, this was too much to tolerate. When Robspierre fell, the violent phase ended abruptly. The hard line republicans were discredited. The new constitution of 1795 was much more moderate, in some ways returning to 1791 except for the fact that there was to be no monarchy. The days of the monarchs seemed to be at the end.

However, it was not to the case, as shown later in the history of France. Unlike the U.S. Constitution which in some ways gave rise to the French Revolution, the latter never answered the question of authority. Six years after 1789, the aristocracy and the church still had a somewhat significant role in France, which would increase gradually to be culminated during the reign of Charles X. The contradictions between social forces were not reconciled by the revolution. There was too much blood in the hands of everyone for them to arrive at a common loyalty. In some aspects, the revolution had returned ‘back to square one’.

The First Empire

The history of France in the decade starting from 1797 is the history of the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. He faced strong opposition from the republican elements in his drive to attain total power. Then he appealed to the people who granted him everything he wanted. Napoleon used the promise of past glories, egalitarianism and allegiance to the revolutionary principles to woo different sections of the populace. His appeal was irresistible to the nationalistic French. Except for the extreme republicans and clericals, he was supported by the people in general.

The first constitutional step of his ascendancy was the constitution of 1799, which established the Consulate and effectively granted Bonaparte wide powers as the first Consul. A tri-cameral legislature was formed to accommodate all sections of the society, including the conservatives. This Constitution was amended first in 1802 and then in 1804 when he became Emperor. Napoleon rose due to the political anarchy prevailing at the time, just as De Gaulle in 1958. Napoleon’s plebiscites were justified on the ground that the people were being given the opportunity to elect or perpetuate the powers of their ruler. Meanwhile, the threat of social chaos and anarchy at the removal of the great leader was also emphasized.

This threat of returning chaos was not totally based on Bonapartist fantasies. There was the requirement for a uniting figure above the populace to unite different factions to a common nation. The implications of this fact became evident after Napoleon fell in 1814 and enabled his dramatic, but short lived, return in 1815.

Bourbons and Orleans

The reign of Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI, saw the French lawmakers trying to balance different interests in a common ground on one hand and appeasing the victorious European powers on the other. A bicameral legislator was established as a way to give the aristocracy the national representation (de Dijn, 2005), which was also intended to be a controlling mechanism of extreme republican forces. However, this Upper House was unwilling to check the power of the extremists of the other end, the ultra-royalists. The king understood the dangers of the rise of them but could not stop it. It was the king’s brother who led these forces and his succession of the throne in 1824 as Charles X was the culmination of the rise of the Ultras.

It was no wonder that the Upper House was abolished after the overthrow of Charles X and the investiture of Louis Philippe. His reign was important in two aspects. The ‘doing nothing’ approach of the king and Guizot, his Prime Minister for the last eight years, caused the rise of Bonapartism. Meanwhile the industrialization gave rise to a new class of industrial labour. This was the ground up on which socialism grew rapidly.

Second Republic and Second Empire

The brief life time of the Second Republic was characterized by the competition between Socialism, Republicanism and Bonapartism. In March 1848, when Paris rose up and like in 1789, was supported by the provinces. But in June, when there was fresh unrest, the socialists received no outside support (Peacock, p. 116). Thus, the middle class Republicans prevailed. However, in no time, the new president of the republic robbed its gains. The approval given by the electorate showed that despite everything, the French population was still largely suspicious of republics. It is no wonder that the aristocracy withstood all upheavals from 1789.

The Second Empire and its constitution were based on the plebiscitarian approach. Napoleon III strived to justify his actions through popular approval just like his more illustrious uncle. Knowing the importance of the different sections of the populations, he tried to gain support of all groups but in the end managed to alienate all. His involvement in the Italian struggle and the Mexican adventure alienated practically everyone, albeit for different reasons. Military victories should have bolstered the national pride, the most potent weapon of a French political leader. However, the aimless vacillations between different ends achieved the exact opposite. When the Empire fell, no one tried to prevent it.

Paris Commune and Third Republic

For two months in 1871, Paris was under the control of the anarchists and Marxists. The working class, which had been suppressed in the Second Empire, now ruled the city. New political groups such as the feminists also found a favorable environment in the Commune. However, it did not receive enough support from outside and was brutally crushed.

At this time, the monarchist forces were still very active in the country. Only a dispute over which flag to adopt and the powers of the king prevented a constitutional monarchy from being created. This is also an indication of the suspicion the French people had for republics.

In such a backdrop, it is a miracle that the Third Republic, established by the Constitutional Laws of 1875, survived for 65 years. The extreme right and extreme left were permanent enemies of the Republic. Once more, a bicameral legislature was adopted as a means of checking the extreme republican influence. The executive was also not very powerful and therefore led to many problems when there were no strong governments.

The Fourth Republic

The dramatic collapse of the Third Republic in 1940 was a shock for the nationalistic French people. However, after the initial collapse, they found their resolve again to resist the invader. After liberation, the Fourth Republic was established which could be described as a rebirth of the Third Republic. Therefore, it had the same fault of the executive being weak. Like in the Third Republic, it was the parliamentary traditions which were upheld. However, its birth was inauspicious. While 9 million voted for the constitution in the referendum, 8 million voted against and more than that number abstained.

During the Fourth Republic, the differences between social groups were even more acute. The working class was organized under the Communists, who received 20-30% of the vote throughout the elections during the Fourth Republic, often becoming the single largest party. That an essentially a foreign doctrine found so much support in the nationalist French public is a puzzle in itself. However, the result of this was obvious. No government could find a strong majority. During times of reconstruction and decolonization, weak governments increased the woes of the French.

There was one man who could have united the French. He was the hero of World War II, De Gaulle.

The Fifth Republic

For nearly a decade from 1954, French politics was about Algeria. It was a military uprising in that country which brought De Gaulle to power. Therefore, some argue that it was a coup. Whatever it was, he received wide popular support. Knowing that he was popular than anyone in the country, De Gaulle started, just like the Napoleons, to follow the plebiscitarian tradition.

The constitution of the Fifth Republic answered the basic defect prevalent in the preceding two Republics and established a strong executive. The electorate overwhelmingly approved the constitution but it was an approval for De Gaulle rather than the constitution (Friedrich CJ 1959). He further increased the power of the presidency by appealing to the people to endorse a Constitutional amendment to enable the popular election of the president. Although the legislature disapproved this, the people gave their support. Therefore, De Gaulle brought the plebiscitarian tradition to a level never seen for a Century in France.

Since the approval of the Constitution was mainly an approval for De Gaulle, there were some doubts over the success of the Fifth Republic once he left the stage. However, the French politics found it not very difficult to adapt to the changes of times and even went through several periods of cohabitation when the President and the Prime Minister were from different parties.


De Dijn A (2005) Balancing the Constitution: Bicameralism in Post-revolutionary France, 1814-1831 European Review of History vol. 12 no. 2 pp. 249-268 24 January 2011

Ehrmann HW (1968) Politics in France Little Brown, Boston

Friedrich CJ (1959) The New French Constitution in Political and Historical Perspective Harvard Law Review vol.72 no. 5 pp. 801-837 24 January 2011

Hanson SE (2010) The Founding of the French Third Republic Comparative Political Studies vol. 43 issue 8/9 pp. 1023-1058 24 January 2011

Hoggart R, Johnson D (1987) An Idea of Europe Chatto and Windus, London

Peacock HL (1982) A History of Modern Europe 1789-1981 7th edn. Heinemann Educational

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Democracy in the UK. Through Revolution or Evolution?

The United Kingdom is a unique country. The English Channel served as a barrier between the British Isles and the Continental Europe. There has been no successful military invasion of the islands by a Continental power after the Norman Conquest in 1066, except for the ‘invasion’ of William of Orange in 1688, although numerous attempts were made by Phillip II of Spain, Napoleon and Hitler among others over the Centuries. This relative isolation catalyzed the formation of a unique system of government which in turn became a role model for many other States and people. Few years before the outbreak of World War I, an American scholar, Lowell, described the British system with these words, which were quoted by Beer (1982, p.1):

“Measured by the Standard of duration, absence of violent commotions, maintenance of law and order, general prosperity and contentment of the people, and by the extent of its influence on the institutions and political thought of other lands, the English Government has been one of the most remarkable in the world”

Democracy in the United Kingdom

It is hard to find a precise definition for democracy. The origin of the word was from Athens, where the city-state was ruled by participatory democracy. This model is seldom seen today, with the possible exception of Switzerland. It is expected that democracy would safeguard the basic human rights such as freedom of thought, speech and expression. Also it is expected that the government should represent the people of the State.

Against this backdrop, it can be said that democracy has been established in the United Kingdom. Its constitution, albeit unwritten, is largely based on customs and safeguards the basic rights. The people elect the legislature and it has the power to pass laws. The rule of law is an important aspect of British society. However, it is interesting to investigate whether these changes were the result of the revolutions in the 17th Century or a result of gradual evolution.

A Historical Note: Before the Revolutions

Strictly speaking, the United Kingdom did not come into being until 1707 when England and Scotland were united by Acts of Union passed in both parliaments. In 1800, Ireland joined when the Irish parliament passed its own death warrant, the Act of Union, 1800. Although the kingdoms had separate legislatures before the said dates, they had the same monarch from 1603 and were involved in the English Civil War, also referred to as the Puritan Revolution. However, England has been the leader of the three in political development. It was the English, backed by their large population, who had the reins of power in the United Kingdom.

The Magna Carta, first agreed upon in 1215, was the first tangible turn towards democracy in post 1066 English history. It recognized that no freeman could be punished without following the law of the land, everyone had the right to justice and the king’s will was not arbitrary. (May 2009)

This fact did not ensure either a serious limitation of the monarch’s prerogatives or the protection of liberty and freedom. In England, after the establishment of the Church of England, religious freedom was practically non-existent. During 1577 and 1603 alone, 123 Catholics were executed solely because of their religion. (Hughes 1974). The parliament did not have a prominent role in the government. It was subject to dissolution by the monarch, who was still supreme. The only way the parliament could seriously hinder the monarch was by cutting off finances. However, the monarch employed alternative measures to raise funds. Naturally, religion and taxation were important causes of the English Civil War.


A revolution, in its political meaning, is a fundamental change-such as the overthrow of a government-usually in a short period of time. The war between the Royalists led by Charles I and the Parliamentarians led by the Puritans is sometimes termed as the Puritan Revolution. The personal rule of Charles I without convening the parliament and religious prosecution led by Archbishop Laud gave rise to widespread discontent. (Underdown 1984). Events led to the execution of the king and the abolition of the monarch. The interregnum lasted for eleven years and was followed by the ‘restoration’ of the monarchy in 1660.

Despite the name ‘revolution’, the events of 1640-1660 did not result in lasting steps towards the establishment of democracy, or anything else. The contemporary utopian writer Winstanley claimed in his The Law of the Freedom published in 1652 that even though the monarchy was gone, little had changed. (Bowmen 2005) Even at the zenith of the ‘revolution’, it was a limited one, never undertaking extensive reform. (Underdown 1984) The principle reason for this was that many of the parliamentarians themselves were quite conservative. They united to remove repressive Charles I, but had no precise concept as to what would be a good alternative. Abolishing the monarchy weakened them as whatever evil there was the majority of Englishmen were reluctant to completely remove the monarchy as an institute. A reformed monarch may have had a more lasting effect than the Commonwealth, as events of 1688-89 would show.

The English Revolution of 1688-89, also known as the Glorious Revolution, was brought about by the unpopularity of James II. There may have not been another monarch who managed to alienate almost all his subjects within such a short period of time as James II did. His actions convinced both Whigs and Tories that the king was trying to Catholicize England and limit the power of the parliament. Meanwhile, William of Orange, whose wife was the heiress to the English throne, was using various forms of propaganda to further their cause. (Schwoerer 1977) The birth of a son to James prompted his opponents into action. William landed at Torbay in November and after James II had fled, he ascended the throne with his wife as a joint ruler.

The Bill of Rights of 1689 clipped many prerogatives of the monarchy and handed over many powers to the parliament both legislative and financial. (Hennessy, p. 39) The parliament could decide on who would become the monarch while recognizing that the monarchy would have to remain in one family. (Stewart 1938, p. 27) By the Act of Settlement in 1701, it was the parliament which decided the heir of William III.

However, the real power flows were not yet defined. Institutions such as the Cabinet were yet to be formed. The English government was still a fragile system just after the revolution. Hennessy, p. 40)

In the democratization of England, and later the United Kingdom, the Glorious Revolution had some impact. But it was not revolutionary. Even a Century after the events of 1689, about 95 per cent of men and all women in the United Kingdom were without the vote whereas is certain ‘rotten boroughs’ a handful of voters sent a representative to the House of Commons. Meanwhile, religious freedom was still not established. However, in some aspects, it was well advanced compared to contemporary standards. For instance, half the population was literate. They were aware that, whatever the shortcomings may be, they lived under the rule of the law. (Good 2007)

Development of the British Democracy

The Roman Catholics of the United Kingdom were no longer persecuted like the Elizabethan era. They had the right to worship, but the right to vote and hold public offices were not granted. Things started to change with the gradual softening of the prejudice against the Catholics by late eighteenth century. For instance, in 1793, they won the right to vote. (Blakeley & Collins, p. 100) Advocators of Catholic emancipation mainly focused on the English Catholics during this time. (Sommers 2008) However, O’Connell and his Catholic Association managed to divert the attention towards the Irish cause. In 1828, he ran for a by-election although he could not hold public office, and won. Fearing the worst case scenario of many Catholics following his example, the Tories were forced to pass the Roman Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829. (Blakeley & Collins, p. 100) This gave the Catholics the right to hold public office, albeit subjected to a separate oath. Soon afterwards, the Irish electorate was reduced by the raising of property qualifications for the voters in Ireland. However, the Catholic Emancipation Act was the first of many reforms to come throughout the nineteenth century.

Irish question was a thorn in the side of British governments and her democracy. A Home Rule Bill was proposed by Gladstone in 1886, only to be defeated when a section of his own party deserted him. Another bill was defeated by the Lords in 1893. A third bill, proposed in 1912 after the Act of Parliament had clipped the wings of the Lords was passed through, but sadly the World War intervened. (Blakeley & Collins, p. 175) Ireland, and later Northern Ireland, reduced the credibility of democracy in the United Kingdom.

Soon after the Catholic emancipation, the enfranchisement of the British people began. The Great Reform Bill of 1832 removed the ‘rotten boroughs’, referred to as the ‘the rotten part of the constitution’ by William Pitt the elder some decades back. (Blakeley & Collins, p. 103) The number of eligible voters was doubled to about a million out of sixteen million people. However, the Bill was not delivered on a platter. When the first Bill proposed by Lord Russell was not accepted, Lord Grey asked for dissolution of parliament and was granted. The Whig campaign for “the bill, the whole bill and nothing but the bill” won them the election. (Blakeley & Collins, p. 103) But their second bill was defeated by the Lords. A third bill was accepted when William IV agreed to create peers in order to vote for it at the Lords, thus negating the influence of the Upper Chamber.

This ‘swamping’ was threatened only once more in the history of the United Kingdom. (Stewart, p. 38) It was before the Act of Parliament, 1911, by which the House of Lords was reduced to a ceremonial position. No swamping will be required any more.

Enfranchisement of the people was continued through several more reform bills in 1867, 1884, 1918 and 1928. It is noteworthy that the whole process took a century to be complete whereas in a normal revolution it would have been carried out even within a matter of hours.

As noted earlier, the politics of the United Kingdom was in the hands of the English largely due to their overwhelming population. Only in recent years have the British granted parliaments to Scotland and Wales. However, they have been granted considerable powers over their activities.

Recent Issues

After 9/11 and 7/7, the case of immigrants has arisen more than ever in the United Kingdom. International terrorism, Islamophobia and the rise of the Nationalists are challenges faced by the Western Europeans in general. The former barrier which separated the British Isles from the Continent-the English Channel-is immaterial in today’s context. The Muslims in Britain are apprehensive since the anti-discriminatory laws are based on race and not religion. (Allen 2005) With some European States taking undemocratic actions targeted towards the Muslims, the challenge for the British government would be to democratically accommodate all interest groups and contain the anti-democratic forces on the rise.


In the 1930s, Laski (1938, 13) noted that “….. [after the civil war] for two hundred and fifty years, all its[English government’s] fundamental changes have since been affected by peaceful compromise”. Former Prime Minister Asquith declared in early 1900s, that there would be an overnight revolution if decimal currency was introduced in Britain. But six decades later, it was carried out ‘without any commotion.’ Such is the nature of democracy of the United Kingdom. The modern challenges may not allow for leisurely evolution. All eyes will be on the ‘role model of governments’ to see how it will face these challenges.


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