The Houses of Parilament

The coming of democracy

Last updated: 23 September 2008

Limited but steady change to the voting rules in the 19th century brought Wales to the brink of a democratic breakthrough.

The Act of Union granted Wales twenty-seven members of parliament, a number that lasted until the Reform Act of 1832. The MPs constituted some 7% of the membership of the House of Commons, a percentage roughly similar to Wales' proportion of the UK's population.

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 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 still 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.

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 with 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 this movement, 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 ensures 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.

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