Rival systems

How many people hold power in a society, and how they exercise it, are eternal themes of political debate.

At one extreme a single person rules. Such a system is usually called a monarchy (Greek for 'rule by one') when the position can be inherited within a family. It is likely to be given such names as Tyranny (from examples in Greek history) or Dictatorship (from Rome) when power is seized by or granted to an individual member of society.

The other extreme is democracy (Greek for 'power of the people'), in which theoretically every adult can influence group decisions. Such an egalitarian approach is familiar to anthropologists, studying the customs of small tribal groups, but it has been a rarity in more developed societies.

Between the two extremes is oligarchy (Greek for 'rule by a few'). In a sense all early clashes between oligarchy and democracy are an argument over how many to include in the few, with democrats pressing for a higher figure than oligarchs can accept. Even in Athens, where sophisticated democracy begins, only a small proportion of the community can vote.

Athenian democracy: 5th century BC

In the 5th century BC Athens pioneers an experiment in direct democracy, as opposed to the representative democracy of modern societies. It is copied by her Greek allies and colonies at the time, but it has rarely been attempted anywhere else since (Switzerland in the 13th century is one example).

Democracy of this kind has two preconditions. The community must be small enough for citizens to be capable of attending debates and voting on issues. And its economy must give these citizens enough leisure to engage in politics; in the ancient world this means that there must be Slaves to do most of the work. Both circumstances prevail in Athens.

The citizen democrats of Athens are those males, over the age of eighteen, who are sons of an Athenian father (after 451 BC the mother must be Athenian as well). They number no more than 50,000 in the whole of Attica. In addition to these citizens the population includes about 25,000 metics (metoikoi, or foreigners trading in Athens, for this is a major commercial centre), together with free women and children and perhaps 100,000 Slaves. This gives a total of about 300,000 people. So the voting citizens form at most 20% of the population.

Democracy is achieved in several stages, through reforms linked with Solon in 594, with the ten tribes of Cleisthenes in 508, and with Pericles in 462.

The people's army: 6th - 5th century BC

The move towards democracy reflects other changes in society. In the prehistoric period, throughout Greece, aristocratic families have provided the main fighting force, as cavalry.

In the 7th century the Greek city-states develop the new military concept of the heavily armed infantryman, the hoplite. A remorseless phalanx of Hoplites becomes as effective on the battlefield as the tank in modern times. These soldiers provide their own weapons and armour, but this is expensive. Several of the Greek oligarchies, including that of Athens in the 6th century, reflect the power of this middle class of citizens.

The poorer citizens of a Greek state, unable to afford armour, can only play their part in the army as light infantry - useful in a skirmish, but relatively unimportant on the battlefields of the day.

A strategic change of direction by Athens, early in the 5th century, gives these poorer citizens a new power. The military effort is diverted into building up an Athenian navy. Triremes, the fast warships of the time, need men to row them. Suddenly every citizen has a part to play, and the crews of a fleet of warships have a self-evident political strength. A more radical democracy, introduced by Pericles in 462, is almost an inevitable result.

The mechanics of Athenian democracy: 5th century BC

The system which emerges in the mid-5th century involves citizens in government in a variety of ways.

Each has a voice in the highest forum of the nation, the ecclesia or assembly, which meets four times a month on the Pnyx, a flat-topped hill in Athens. On major occasions, with important issues to be decided, as many as 5000 citizens attend. It is not always easy to assemble a large crowd. Scythian slaves (serving as state police) are much in evidence at the start of each meeting, tightening a long red-dyed rope to net any nearby loiterers. In about 400 BC pay is introduced for attendance, to compensate for loss of working time.

Any citizen may answer the herald's question 'Who wishes to speak?', but addressing such a large crowd in the open air is difficult. Most of the debate is carried on by regular speakers - in effect the leading politicians, who are known as rhetores (orators).

The business of the day is fixed by another body of 500 members, called the boule or council. Here the principle of amateurism is more firmly established, for the members are chosen by drawing lots. Fifty are selected at village level by each of the ten tribes which make up Athenian society (the reforms of Cleisthenes, in 508, have imposed these arbitrary tribal divisions in order to share out democratic power).

The principle of selection by lot is carried even further in the council of 500. Each member serves for a month as one of the 50 prutaneis, or presidents, who run the everyday administration of the city (there are ten months in the Athenian year, so every councillor has one monthly term of office). Furthermore the chairman of the boule changes every day, again selected by lot from the 50 prutaneis. So almost every councillor is effectively head of state for one day of the year.

Non-specialization can hardly be carried further. But the Athenians do have the common sense to use election, without any time limit, for the most important posts.

Generals and treasurers

The effective leaders of Athens, because of their responsibility for war (an almost constant state of affairs), are the ten strategoi or generals. There is one from each of the ten tribes, elected each year by the ecclesia in which every citizen has a vote (see the Ten tribes of Cleisthenes). The dominant position of Pericles in mid-5th century Athens is reflected in his election, year after year, as the leading strategos.

The only other officials to be elected rather than chosen by lot are the treasurers, with responsibility for the state's accounts - evidence again that the Athenian citizens recognize the areas where expertise rather than common sense is essential.

The Athenian administration

The functions associated with a modern civil service are carried out in Athens by citizens chosen randomly by lot. Such tasks range from supervising the markets and checking weights and measures to keeping the minutes of the council or travelling abroad on diplomatic business. All such offices are held for a year.

Even in law, an important area of each citizen's responsibility, there are no experts. Jurors are selected by lot and a second lottery assigns each man to a particular case. Pericles introduces payment for jury service so that no citizen is excluded by poverty. Without professional judges or lawyers, and with huge juries, an Athenian court of law is rough and ready justice.


The most dramatic example of direct democracy in 5th-century Athens is the system of ostracism, used from about 487 to 417. Anyone ostracized must go into exile for ten years but no harm is done to his family, his property or his own subsequent rights. Intended as a way of ridding the city of a powerful but unpopular figure, it can all too easily be used for political vendetta. There is no charge to answer, and no redress.

At a mass meeting, summoned specifically to decide on ostracism, each citizen writes one name on a broken shard of pottery (an ostrakon). Anyone featuring on more than a given number of shards (variously interpreted as 6000 or a majority from 6000 voters) is removed from public life.

The end of the experiment: 322 BC

Democracy survives the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, in 404 BC, only to come to an abrupt end a century later. After the death of Alexander the Great, the Athenians join other Greek states in an unsuccessful revolt against Macedonian rule. The Macedonians retaliate in 322 by placing a garrison in Attica. An oligarchy is imposed, with the franchise restricted to the rich.

Among modern countries where democracy is the favoured system, the Athenian experiment eventually acquires a hallowed status. But more than 2000 years will pass, after the heyday of Athens, before anyone again regards with approval the dangerous idea of giving real power to the people.

Medieval democracy

Elements of democracy: from the 3rd century BC

In various societies, during the long gap between Athenian and modern democracy, the people acquire some elements of democratic power without achieving the ultimate control implicit in the ballot box.

The Roman republic is a good example. Early in the 5th century the citizens of Rome, by a programme of passive disobedience, win the right to elect their own officials - the Tribunes. Two centuries later, in 287 BC, the decisions of the people's assembly are technically given the status of law. But in this oligarchic society, the votes of the people are mainly important as an expression of the power of their elected Tribunes - who themselves become key figures within the oligarchy.

The votes of the Roman people, or plebs, are registered not individually but as the decision of a tribe. Every Roman citizen is a member of a tribe (he is allotted to one, if not a citizen by birth). By the 3rd century BC the number of tribes grows to thirty-five, as more are added to enrol an urban population of new citizens.

When an assembly is called, any citizen may attend. The area of the assembly is divided by ropes into a section for each tribe, and a walkway leads from each section to the presiding magistrate's platform. The tribes have their own officials to count the votes.

Until 139 BC citizens vote orally, giving their answer to a teller. Thereafter they mark a tablet and place it in an urn, constituting a secret ballot. When each tribe's returns have been counted, the result is taken to the magistrate as a single vote.

It is the beginning of the kind of voting system needed in any democracy larger than an ancient Greek city (similar methods are now used for elections in many representative democracies). But the change from republic to empire, in the 1st century BC, brings a temporary end to such developments. Roman citizens are subsequently appeased with Bread and circuses rather than votes.

The Scandinavian thing: from the 8th century AD

The Christian empire, from the 4th century AD, is no more interested than the Roman empire in the opinions of the people. And when the Germanic tribes from the north usurp the western empire, their warrior traditions throw the emphasis more on the hero than the common man.

But in the extreme north, in Scandinavia, there is an interesting example of a kind of a democracy more common among very small and primitive communities. It takes place in a thing.

A thing is a meeting of all the free men of a community (several communities coming together for a joint meeting on larger issues constitute an all-thing). The function of these democratic gatherings is limited, for they are legislative rather than political. The free men gather either to affirm or to amend the existing state of the tribal law, which is expounded to them by experts in the matter.

In a pre-literate society this is in a sense a communal aide-mémoire, but it also enables the group to assess its own response to any new situation. The ancient tradition of the thing is echoed today in the names of the parliaments of Iceland (Althing), Norway (Storting) and Denmark (Folketing).

Communes in Italy: 11th - 13th century AD

The period from the 11th to the 13th century sees a steady rise in prosperity in the cities of Europe. One of the first regions to prosper is northern Italy - on the trade route between the eastern Mediterranean and northern Europe, with goods landing at Venice for the journey through the passes of the Alps, north to Austria and Germany or west through Milan to France.

Yet northern Italy is politically insecure, crushed between the rival claims of imperial Germany to the north and the Papal states to the south. Prosperous but threatened, the cities seek greater control of their own destiny. The result is the form of government known to historians as the medieval commune.

Between about 1080 and 1140 many of the towns of northern Italy (among them Pisa, Siena, Florence, Bologna, Milan and Genoa) acquire municipal councils in which the elected councillors call themselves consuls - in a deliberate echo of Italy's republican past.

As these republican communes grow in wealth, and assert control over large tracts of the surrounding countryside, they become in effect independent. Technically they acknowledge either pope or emperor as feudal overlord. Unable to restrain these fledgling city states, popes and emperors often authorize their new form of government and thus give it legitimacy.

In the early years of these Italian communes every male citizen can participate in an assembly known as the arengo. But this glimmer of democracy is soon extinguished in favour of Oligarchy. Considerations of efficiency coincide with the interests of the nobility and the rich merchants of the city. Electoral power in the communes becomes increasingly restricted to members of a few families.

This process in its turn leads towards authority in each city being placed in the hands of one man. The noble families constantly feud within the communes, just as the communes regularly go to war against each other. The practical solution is a powerful chief executive.

During the last three decades of the 12th century nearly all the north Italian communes appoint a mayor or podestà (someone with potestà, 'power') to run the city's affairs. The podestà is usually a nobleman from another district, who arrives with his own household and administrative staff. His appointment is for a fixed term, rarely more than a year.

But once the machinery of individual rule is in place, a more permanent and even perhaps hereditary ruler becomes a likely option. During the second half of the 13th century the podestá gives way to the signore.

In commune after commune, from the late 13th century, the local oligarchs accept a powerful leader as their signore and subsequently allow the post to remain with a family. The Visconti of Milan are an early example. Matteo Visconti is signore from 1287 to 1322 and the post is declared hereditary in 1349. Florence remains technically a republican commune for very much longer; the Medici only become hereditary dukes in 1532.

In this way the near-democracy of the early Italian communes reverts gradually to princely rule. The one exception is the earliest commune of them all. The self-perpetuating Oligarchy of Venice is a refined system which preserves power in the hands of the local grandees until the 18th century.

Communes elsewhere: 12th - 13th century AD

In many parts of Europe the Italian example of urban communes is followed, though about a century later. There are a variety of reasons why these communes come into being.

One is the need for medieval rulers to counterbalance the growing power of their own barons. The developing towns are often at odds with their Feudal overlords. In that sense they and the ruler have a common cause. If a town can be relied on to supply funds or fighting men in return for a royal charter, guaranteeing a measure of self-government, the king or duke is likely to consider the bargain a good one.

A second reason for the development of communes is colonization. Newly founded towns in frontier regions sometimes begin life with charters and privileges already granted them by a ruler. This is particularly true on the eastern frontiers of Germany, where settlers are needed to hold territory won from the Slavs, and in Spain where there is a similar requirement in previously Muslim areas.

But the impulse behind the most powerful communes comes from the prosperity of the merchants and the guilds. Such communes, like those of northern Italy, are often at the hubs of Europe's trading network. Prime examples are Barcelona, Lübeck and the cities of Flanders.

The emergence of communes in the rich Flemish towns - such as Ghent, Bruges, Arras or Ypres - is gradual. Since the time of the Frankish empire these towns have had their own magistrates or échevins (usually twelve or thirteen in a numerical tradition deriving from Missionaries in this region). With growing prosperity the magistrates acquire a certain independence.

The first important step is the right to be appointed by the burghers of the town rather than by the Feudal overlord, the count of Flanders. A subsequent development is for the role of magistrate to be reduced from a life appointment to an annual period of office.

This important change, creating a municipal council, is achieved by the major Flemish towns between about 1190 and 1240. As in the Italian communes, the system of government is Oligarchic rather than democratic; power tends to be in the hands of relatively few families.

But the Flemish communes remain municipal, concerned with regulating a shared commercial venture rather than establishing rule over a wider rural territory. As a result, during the 14th century, the craftsmen in many places acquire a measure of power. In Ghent, after 1369, three separate groups elect the thirteen magistrates. The merchants choose three; the weavers and fullers choose five; the smaller crafts choose five.

Landsgemeinde in Schwyz: AD 1294

The forest districts of Switzerland, smaller than other political units in the Middle Ages, adopt a form of government in the Athenian tradition of direct democracy.

These districts are like Athens, in that the community is small enough for every adult male to be able to walk to an assembly and cast a vote. In Switzerland such a meeting is called a Landsgemeinde (district community); the earliest record of one is in Schwyz in 1294. Held in the open air, assemblies of this kind become the highest legislative authority in the rural cantons of the Swiss federation - Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug, Glarus and Appenzell.

Even today a Landsgemeinde is still held every year, on the last Sunday of April, in the tiny canton of Appenzell. Issues of local relevance are voted on, and passed into law, in the traditional method.

At the earliest known Landsgemeinde, in Schwyz in 1294, the issues are of grave concern, with weighty implications for the future of the region. The meeting takes place just three years after the formation of the Everlasting League.

Parliament: 12th - 14th century AD

The idea of parliament, a place for speaking (from the French parler) begins to evolve from the 12th century in the monarchies of western Europe. It develops from the curia regis, or 'council of the king', the feudal court in which the monarch makes legal judgements and discusses important issues of state with the most powerful bishops and nobles of his kingdom.

A parliament is summoned whenever the king requires it. At a period when a monarch is almost permanently on the move to maintain his authority, a parliament will be held wherever the royal court may happen to be.

Parliaments are called in England in the mid-13th century largely because of the king's weakness in relation to his barons. There is some evidence that as early as about 1238 the barons begin to demand that officials elected by them, and removable only by them, shall be charged with safeguarding the liberties guaranteed in Magna carta.

In a series of parliaments from 1246 Henry negotiates with the barons from a position of increasing weakness. He desperately needs their help to balance his finances. It is finally promised in return for a programme of reform accepted by Henry at a parliament in Oxford in 1258.

The crucial step in the evolution of the curia regis into parliament is the inclusion of citizens representing the wealthy towns of the period. They are the Third estate, added to the two already familiar in royal councils - the nobles and the bishops.

The burghers of the towns become involved because rulers increasingly need their support (almost invariably of a financial kind). Spain provides one of the earliest examples of representatives of the towns being summoned to a king's council. They take part in a parliament in Léon in 1188.

England is often referred to as the 'mother of parliaments' (a phrase coined by John Bright in 1865). It is a valid claim in some senses, such as the length of the unbroken parliamentary tradition in England. And Westminster is the first parliament to assert its independence of the monarch, in the person of Charles i. But the British cannot claim any priority in historical precedence.

Parliaments are held fairly frequently in England from 1246. By that time the Spanish Cortes ('courts') are well established as parliaments in Léon, Castile and Catalonia. In Portugal a Cortes is summoned in 1211, and commoners are included as the Third estate from 1254.

France is the first kingdom to establish parliament on a permanent basis. In the mid-13th century Third estate grants the parlement a chamber in his palace on the Ile de la Cité in Paris, where the councillors gather for sessions four times a year.

But the name of the room, the chambre aux plaids ('pleading chamber'), reflects the fact that this French parliament is restricted to the legal work of the broader curia regis. All the councillors are jurists, trained in law. The Palais de Justice stands today on the same site.

The French parlement acquires an element of political power in the early 14th century, when it is given the task of registering the king's edicts. The ability to withhold or delay registration eventually brings the parlement into direct opposition with Estates general in the 17th century.

In England Louis xiv develops into a vehicle for the political expression of the community's views. In France this function is fulfilled by a different form of occasional assembly - that of the Louis ix.

Two famous English parliaments: AD 1265-1295

When Simon de montfort summons his parliament in Westminster Hall in 1265, he knows that he has relatively little support among the nobility (in the event only five earls and eighteen barons attend). Hoping to involve other sections of the community in his cause, he invites to Westminster two knights from each county, two citizens from each city and two burgesses from each borough.

This is not a representative assembly, since any known opponents of Montfort are excluded. But something closer to representation evolves in some of the many parliaments summoned between 1275 and 1307 by Edward I.

Edward summons parliaments when he feels he needs them, and for whatever reasons the particular moment demands. To some of these assemblies (approximately one in seven, and usually when he has pressing needs for funds) he invites people of lesser rank than the magnates of nobility and church. Knights are summoned from the shires and citizens from the towns.

These men are genuinely representatives of their community. The king insists that they come with full delegated authority so that any agreement made in Parliament (in particular a commitment to provide money) will be honoured by their county or borough. They are the origin of the Commons (or commoners) who eventually become the more powerful of the two houses of Parliament.

The Parliament summoned by Edward in 1295 later comes to seem the most significant of his reign, because it prefigures a future pattern - as its subsequent name, the Model Parliament, implies.

This assembly in Westminster Hall represents the nation in a very real sense. The magnates are present in force (the two archbishops, all the bishops, 67 abbots, 8 earls, 41 barons) but they sit with elected representatives of the parish clergy (2 from each diocese) and of each shire (2 knights), city (2 citizens) and borough (2 burgesses). The underlying purpose is to raise money for the king, but that will be true of many subsequent parliaments. Meanwhile a valid pattern of representation has almost accidentally fallen into place.

Estates general in France: 14th - 15th century AD

In the strict hierarchy of medieval society three groups of people stand out as exercising special power. They are the clergy, the nobility and the rich burgesses or burghers (in French bourgeois) of the rapidly developing boroughs, towns and cities. These groups are together known as the three estates.

Delegates in any medieval assembly are seen as representing one of the estates. This is as true of parliament in England as of other such gatherings which use the term 'estates' in their title, as in France.

The estates general are first summoned by the French king Philip IV in 1302. They meet in Notre Dame in Paris to discuss the king's relationship with the pope, Boniface viii. The estates support Philip wholeheartedly - contributing no doubt to his bold decision in the following year to send a French agent to arrest the pontiff.

Estates general continue to be summoned frequently in France during the 14th century, often taking an independent course unpopular with the monarch. Thereafter their influence gradually declines, until the Absolutism of French monarchy in the 17th century makes the institution defunct. It is briefly revived in the early stages of the French revolution.

Estates general elsewhere in Europe: 14th - 15th c. AD

Meanwhile other regions develop their own versions of the estates general. During the 14th and 15th century rulers in most parts of Europe use assemblies of the estates as a method of acquiring assent to their policies or to proposed taxes.

Among the most influential are the estates of the Netherlands. In Flanders there is a record of an assembly as early as 1279, and by the 14th century the estates are regularly gathered and consulted at a local level. The great assembly brought together at Bruges in 1463-4 is generally regarded as the first full gathering of the Netherlands States General - an institution which later plays such an important part in Dutch history.

The royal dynasty of Aragon makes effective use of the three estates when it transfers this form of assembly from Aragon itself (where it has developed during the 13th century) to Sicily.

The three estates or bracci of Sicily do their Aragonese king a favour in 1314 when they repudiate a treaty agreed by him in 1302. By its terms he holds the Sicilian throne only for his lifetime, after which it reverts to the Angevins of France. This suits neither him nor his Sicilian subjects. Their resolution of 1314 is an early example of a ruler and a representative assembly working together in a common political cause.

In Bohemia, during the 15th century, assemblies of three estates play a regular part in public affairs, insisting in particular on their right to elect the king.

In this century of Religious turmoil in Bohemia, the clergy are usually omitted from the deliberations of the Czech estates. At a national assembly in Prague in 1446, bringing together representatives from Moravia and Silesia as well as Bohemia, the three estates involved are the nobles, the knights and the burghers of the royal boroughs.

Such a small part of the community is represented in these assemblies, at any rate in their early versions, that they may be more justly considered aspects of Oligarchy rather than of democracy.

An interesting exception, at least in principle, is Sweden. Popular opposition to royal pretensions in the mid-15th century leads to a unique form of parliament, the riksdag, which has representatives from four estates. The fourth estate, after the clergy, nobles and burghers, are the peasants - reflecting the part played by the common people in recent upheavals.

The Polish sejm: AD 1493-1505

A European parliament which exercises unusual power from the early 16th century is the sejm ('assembly') of Poland.

Its origin lies in the gatherings (or sejmiki) of local gentry and burghers, organized from the late 14th century onwards to defend their interests. In less than a decade, from the end of the 15th century, an assembly of this kind becomes established as a national institution of considerable importance.

The first recorded Parliament or Sejm representing the whole of Poland is called by the king (John I Albert) in 1493. The royal purpose, as with parliaments elsewhere, is to raise funds.

The power of the new national assembly is vividly emphasized in 1505 when the crown accepts the principle of Nihil novi (Latin for 'nothing new'). The principle states that no new law may be introduced without the authority of the Sejm.

Modern democracy

A democratic Constitution: AD 1788

The Constitution of the United States of America, adopted in 1788, provides the world's first formal blueprint for a modern democracy. In the first flush of the new nation's enthusiasm, the compromises inherent in normal democracy are not required. George Washington is elected unopposed as president in 1789, and again for a second term in 1792.

But by 1796 political parties are in the field. The result of that year's election is a Federalist president (John Adams) and a Democratic-Republican vice-president (Thomas Jefferson). In 1800 Jefferson and Federalist candidate Aaron Burr tie in the presidential election. Congress declares Jefferson to be the winner, begnning a long spell of Democratic-Republican rule.

The easy transfer of presidential power between the political parties on Jefferson's election proves conclusively that the American republic has pioneered a successful working democracy, very different from the violent upheavals of French politics or the corruption of the Unreformed british model.

This democracy is still based on a restricted franchise, and the leading politicians are all from a small leisured and landed class (the most distinguished among them, Washington and Jefferson, being southern slave owners). But more than anywhere else in the world at this time, the new American system points the way towards a fully democratic future.

The Reform Bill: AD 1831-1832

There has been no such prolonged period of intense political excitement in Britain as the fifteen months, from March 1831 to June 1832, during which repeated attempts are made to achieve a measure of parliamentary reform.

The need for reform, widely agreed around the country, is evident both in the laughable nature of much of tbe system inherited from the past, and in the inadequacy of the existing arrangements to cope with the present.

The anomalies from the past are famously evident in the so-called pocket and rotten boroughs. Pocket boroughs (or those where the nomination of the candidate is in the pocket of a single individual) have no electors at all; the owner's nominee automatically becomes a member of parliament, and ownership of the borough can even be put up for auction. By 1831 one such borough is entirely notional. Coastal erosion means that it has vanished under the sea, but it still returns a member to Westminster.

Rotten boroughs are those with very few electors. Old Sarum becomes the most notorious. Its seven voters have the right to elect two members, though in 1831 the constituency's rolling fields contain not a single habitable building.

These relics of the past give maximum opportunity for corruption in a system where there is not yet a Secret ballot. Votes are bought for openly stated prices and the election campaigns become gross orgies of competitive hospitality. Even worse, landowners sometimes victimize tenants who fail to vote for their nominees.

If these traces of the past are a bad joke, the failure to address present realities is even more serious. The rapidly growing new Industrial cities are for the most part unrepresented in parliament. A significant step in the crescendo of demand for reform comes in 1830 when the Tory majority in the house of commons rejects a bill to extend the franchise to Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester.

By the end of 1830 Wellington's Tory government has fallen. A new Whig ministry, headed by Earl Grey, is committed to parliamentary reform. By March 1831 a bill is ready.

Presented to the house of commons by Lord John Russell, the bill causes astonished delight in the country, and outrage on the Tory benches, by the bold sweep of its proposals. Most of the pocket and rotten boroughs are abolished, with their seats in the house transferred to the Industrial cities; the property qualification for electors, previously different all over the country, is rationalized. Debate rages for seven nights, and when the time comes for a vote the result could hardly be more dramatic. The bill passes by a majority of one.

Grey and his cabinet persuade the king (by now William IV) to dissolve parliament for an election to be held, effectively on this one issue. During the campaign there are passionate meetings and rallies around the country - mainly attended by people unable to vote, since the election is still on unreformed lines.

The Whigs sweep in with a majority of more than 100, and immediately carry in the house of commons a second Reform Bill. It is rejected in the lords in October 1831 by a majority of forty-one. A third and modified bill is carried in the commons in March 1832, and then in the lords by a small majority of nine. But crisis strikes when this bill too is rejected by the peers at the committee stage in May.

The Whig cabinet resigns and Wellington attempts to form a government committed to more moderate reform. In the mood of the country few members of parliament will support him, and within a few days he recommends that the king recall Grey. The Whigs return, with the king's reluctant agreement to create sufficient new peers to carry the bill if necessary. But Wellington now exerts himself to ensure acceptance by the lords.

On 7 June 1832 the bill receives the royal assent and becomes the Reform Act.

Representation of the people: AD 1833-1918

In the election for the first reformed parliament, which assembles in January 1833, the Tories do predictably badly - winning only 172 seats compared to 486 for the Whigs. Yet the new members are less different in kind than those fearing reform had predicted (though the duke of Wellington claims to be unimpressed by the standard of dress, commenting sourly that he has never seen 'so many shocking bad hats').

The reason is that the property qualification to become an elector is still high. Even under the new system only 813,000 people qualify to register as voters in 1832. But this is now a middle-classs electorate, in place of one representing mainly the landed gentry.

The immediate change may not be great, but the shift in direction is immense. As yet only a few radicals are arguing that everyone should have a vote (and even these few have in mind only an electorate including all adult males). To everyone else it seems obvious that those with a material stake in the economy should be the only people with power to influence political decisions.

Once it is accepted that the level of this stake can be changed, anything becomes possible. The reform of 1832 in Britain, together with similar movements in other countries, makes possible the progression towards the universal suffrage now taken for granted in 20th-century democracies.

In Britain the successive stages are four measures, each known as a Representation of the People Act. That of 1867 reduces the property qualification to the point where the urban working class wins the vote. The act of 1885 effectively does the same for workers in the countryside. (Between these two the Ballot Act of 1872 introduces the secret ballot, a measure which provokes a great deal of parliamentary opposition.)

The act of 1885 still contains a financial threshold, albeit a low one. This is done away with in the act of 1918 which makes proof of residence the only qualification. This act also finally achieves universal suffrage in Britain, since it introduces Votes for women.

Votes for women: AD 1848-1928

Until the mid-19th-century the idea that women might vote in elections had occurred to very few men and probably not many more women. But from that period the campaign for female suffrage becomes an increasingly passionate one, particularly in the United States and Britain.

In the United States many women are actively involved in the campaign to end slavery in America, and the notion of women's rights first creeps on to the agenda in tandem with the rights of African-American slaves. The issue surfaces first in one of the more unusual revolutionary gatherings of 1848, the great year of revolutions.

In July 1848 two anti-slavery campaigners, Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott, invite colleagues to a two-day convention on women's rights in Mrs Stanton's home in New York state (at Seneca Falls). It is the first of many such gatherings which lead, in 1869, to the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association.

This same year sees the movement's first triumph. The newly established territory of Wyoming, in its first charter, gives women in 1869 the right to vote in all elections. But the good citizens of Wyoming are ahead of their time.

In the next year, 1870, normality is restored with a decisive thump. In the aftermath of the Civil war and the emancipation of the southern slaves, the 16th amendment to the Constitution glaringly omits any mention of women. It states that the right of citizens to vote shall not be denied 'on account of race, colour or previous condition of servitude'.

Over the following decades steady progress is made in persuading individual states to give women equal franchise with men, but it is not until the levelling experience of World War I that the aim is achieved at a federal level. The 19th amendment, in 1920, finally states that the right to vote shall not be denied 'on account of sex'.

The campaign in Britain is slightly shorter and much more violent. The first women's suffrage committee is formed in Manchester in 1865, soon to be followed by many others around the country. Manchester is also the origin of a much more militant group founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 as the Women's Social and Political Union.

Under Mrs Pankhurst's leadership the campaign escalates in its level of confrontation, particularly after her daughter Christabel is violently ejected from a Liberal meeting in Manchester in 1905 for asking a question about votes for women - after which she is arrested and imprisoned for assaulting the police.

After this event the tactics of the suffragettes become increasingly provocative - chaining themselves to railings, smashing windows, and in the case of Emily Davison even throwing herself in front of the horses in the 1913 Derby and losing her life. The government's reaction is correspondingly repressive. When the suffragettes in prison use the tactic of the hunger strike, the home secretary responds with the 1913 measure known popularly as the Cat and Mouse Act - letting the women out of prison just long enough for their health to recover, and then recalling them.

As in the USA, it is World War I which defuses the issue.

Women who have served at the front as nurses, or in factories making munitions, can hardly be denied the vote. The Representation of the People Act (passed nine months before the end of the war, in February 1918) gives the vote to women over the age of thirty. An act of 1928 finally gives complete parity with men.

The dramatic stories of women's suffrage in the USA and Britain always win most of the attention. But, almost unnoticed, women elsewhere have achieved their aim earlier. The Tynwald, the legislative body of the Isle of Man, is the first parliament to give women the vote, in 1881. New Zealand heads the list of independent modern states which have taken the step, in 1893, followed by Australia (1902), Finland (1906) and Norway (1913).

This History is as yet incomplete.
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