An actor portraying a young man at the beginning of the 20th century

The rise of democracy (part 2)

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.

Further reform measures

The general election of 1950 was, therefore, the first truly democratic election in British history.

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.


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