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.


Allen C (2005) From Race to Religion: The New Face of Discrimination in T. Abbas (ed.) Muslim Britain Zed Books, London, pp. 49-66.

Beer SH (1982) Britain Against Itself: The Political Contradictions of Collectivism, Faber and Faber, London

Blakeley BL, Collins J (1993) Documents in British History vol II: 1688 to Present. 2nd edn. McGraw Hill, Boston USA

Bowmen, Glen (2005) Justice in a World Upside Down: Utopian Visions in the English Civil War and Revolution, Contemporary Justice Review vol 8, no 4. 27 November 2010.

Good, K (2007) The Drive for Participatory Democracy in Nineteenth Century Britain, Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, vol 47, number 3 27 November 2010

Hennessy P (2001) The Prime Minister: The Office and its Holders Since 1945, Penguin, London.

Hughes P (1974) Royal Authority and the Suppression of Life and Religious Liberty in RL Greaves (ed.) Elizabeth I, Queen of England. D.C. Heath and Company USA, pp. 149-56

Laski HJ (1938), Parliamentary Government in England: A Commentary, John Allen and Unwin, London.

May, L, (2009) Magna Carta, the Interstices of Procedure, and Guantanamo, Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law vol 42. issue 91. 27 November 2010

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Schwoerer LG (1977) Propaganda in the Revolution of 1688-89 American Historical Review, Vol. 82 Issue 4 27 November 2010

Sommers SM, (2008) Sir John Coxe Hippisley: That ‘Busy Man’ in the Cause of Catholic Emancipation, Parliamentary History, Vol. 27 Issue 1 27 November 2010

Stewart, Michael. (1938) The British Approach to Politics, John Allen and Unwin, London.

Underdown D (1984) What was the English Revolution. History Today, vol 34 issue 3. 27 November 2010

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