The rise of democracy in Wales


The Act of Union granted Wales 27 Members of Parliament, a number that remained unchanged until the Reform Act of 1832. The MPs constituted some 7% of the membership of the House of Commons, a percentage which in 1536 was roughly similar to the proportion of the population of England and Wales.

Image: The Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, 1969 (BBC)

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In the county constituencies, the vote was vested in freeholders owning land worth £2 a year; in the boroughs it was the burgesses who were generally the voters. Both the county and borough systems were open to manipulation by landed families.

There were few genuine freeholders and most county voters were enfranchised through leases granted to them by their landlords. Almost all boroughs were controlled by estate owners and it is they who decided who became burgesses.

The system in Wales was less corrupt than it was in much of England. There were no completely rotten boroughs, fewer towns with no representation at all, and the inequality between the counties was not as blatant.

Nevertheless, with voting a public act, less than 5% of adult males enfranchised, bribery rampant and estate owners virtually the only moneyed class, landlord dominance of the electoral process was inevitable.

By the late 18th century, a tight group of some 20 families controlled the parliamentary representation of Wales. It was generally decided not by the casting of votes, but by private arrangements which ensured the emergence of a single unopposed candidate. In the general election of 1830, for example, not one of the Welsh constituencies was contested.

The beginnings of political radicalism

Mid 18th century Wales provided ample evidence of robust popular interest in political factions but little concern for political principles.

There were some stirrings during the American War of Independence, and more as a result of the French Revolution. In the 1790s radical doctrines were embraced by a tiny minority, most of whom were drawn from the libertarian wing of Nonconformity.

Government repression, allied with religious fatalism, undermined the efforts of the radicals, but the need for reform resurfaced through newspapers such as the Swansea Cambrian (founded in 1804) and some Welsh-language periodicals, publications which began to strike roots in the 1820s.

The rights of Nonconformists loomed large in such publications, an issue which necessarily challenged current political dispensations. At the same time, the industrialists, aware of their contribution to the economy, were increasingly prepared to attack the power of the landowners.

After much contention, the Reform Act of 1832 was secured. It was a very modest measure which increased the proportion of the adult male population having the right to vote from about 5% to 8%.

Its significance lay in the fact that it displayed the willingness of the British ruling class to reform itself, a step which ensured a non-revolutionary if lengthy and troubled path to democracy. The act gave Wales five additional MPs. It also rationalised the borough franchise and gave the vote to male county dwellers paying at least £50 a year in rent.

Further reform measures

In 1867 the Conservatives under Disraeli secured a second reform act which gave the vote to all male ratepayers in borough constituencies. In 1871 the secret ballot was introduced, partly because of the persecution suffered by Liberal-voting Welsh tenants at the hands of their Conservative landowners. In 1884 the Liberals secured a third reform act which gave county voters the rights already possessed by borough dwellers.

In the following year, the Redistribution Act increased the number of urban and industrial seats at the expense of rural counties and small market towns. As a result Wales had 34 MPs: 12 for the north, 14 for Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, and eight for the rest of south Wales.

In 1918 all men over 21, with the exception of conscientious objectors, were granted the vote, a right also extended to women over 30. In 1928 women obtained the franchise on the same terms as men. In 1948 the right to have more than one vote - through owning business property or through having a university degree - was abolished.

The general election of 1950 was, therefore, the first truly democratic election in British history. Democracy also came to local government, in particular through the County Councils Act of 1888 and the establishment of elected district and parish councils in 1894.

Change in the nature of parliamentary representation

In the 1850s virtually all Welsh MPs were drawn from the landlord class; by 1906 hardly a single landlord MP was elected. In this change, the key elections were those of 1868 and 1885.

The election of 1868 saw the dramatic victory of Henry Richard at Merthyr Tydfil and the defeat of members of landlord families such as the Douglas-Pennants of Penrhyn Castle. That of 1885 saw the rejection of the owner of Wynnstay and the heir of Golden Grove, the largest and the second largest of the landed estates of Wales.

Although some Welsh landed families supported the Whig Party, the majority were Tories, thus ensuring that up to the 1860s the parliamentary representation of Wales was predominantly of a right-wing character. In 1880, however, Wales returned only four Conservative MPs, a number which fell to nil in 1906.

The Liberal hegemony

The main beneficiary of reform was the Liberal Party which dominated Welsh politics from the 1860s until 1922. The party succeeded in attracting the support of a wide range of the classes and groupings in Wales.

Industrialists approved of its policy of free trade; the growing professional class endorsed its emphasis on self help, as did the industrial working class initially; tenant farmers warmed to its support for land reform; Nonconformists saw it as the best hope for the disestablishment of the church.

The Liberal political culture of late 19th century Wales provided the background for the astonishing career of David Lloyd George, first elected to Parliament in 1890 as member for Caernarfon Boroughs.

By the early 20th century, Liberal traditions of the free market and of limited government seemed at odds with the demand for social reform. Lloyd George, by securing old age pensions, a national insurance scheme and the restricting of the powers of the House of Lords, succeeded in imbuing the party with new radical ideals. The prospects of Liberalism however, were fatally damaged by the blood bath of World War One.

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