Growth of political literacy

For the electorate to make informed political choices, they must be able to obtain information about political parties and individual candidates.

It is important that voters can understand political theory and the issues that parties stand for - they should be able to receive political information as well as understand it.

During the 1800s, a number of societal changes helped to raise understanding of politics in Britain:

  • improvements in transport
  • growth of libraries
  • improvements in education

Improved transport

 George Stephenson’s Rocket, one of the first railway engines
George Stephenson’s Rocket, one of the first railway engines

In the early 1800s, lack of effective transport meant that many areas of Britain were cut off in terms of receiving up to date information. Voters rarely met those who they voted for and often never heard them speak. The establishment of a railway network in Britain helped to change this:

  • an increase in railways meant that information travelled faster
  • distribution of newspapers became more widespread - publishers could now reach more isolated geographical areas
  • many newspapers had previously been weekly or monthly publications - improved speed of distribution brought an increase in daily newspapers
  • politicians like William Gladstone began to use new methods of transport to reach previously isolated members of the public
  • it became more practical for politicians to ‘tour’ the country and spread their political ideas and party manifestos

All these factors resulted in an improved understanding and awareness of current affairs throughout the country.

Spread of knowledge

Libraries also provided newspaper and discussion rooms where the public could meet to spread political ideas.

Between 1870 and 1872, Education Acts were passed in England and Scotland respectively, to introduce compulsory education for all from 5-12 years. This helped to increase levels of literacy amongst the populace.