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#1
Old 08-23-2012, 07:23 PM
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When did Britain become a de facto democracy?

Nominally, the UK is a constitutional monarchy. My question is not about what the UK is nominally but what it is de facto. If you wish to engage in axe grinding concerning the Queen or the insufficiency of representative democracy, please take it to another thread.


I realize that it may be difficult to put one particular date on Britain becoming a de facto democracy because of the incremental nature of change in just about anything British. The monarch's power was limited as far back as 1215 and over the centuries Parliament got progressively more powerful.

The Cromwell kerfuffle put quite a dent into the English monarch's power (and neck). When William III of Orange took the throne at the behest of Parliament in 1688, Parliament became more powerful than it had in the past. The Bill of Rights cemented the new balance of power.

The last time a monarch actually used it veto was in 1707.


Could Britain be said to be a de facto democracy in 1707? What powers/discrtionary spending did the monarch actually use from 1707 onward?

What steps did the enlargement of the political franchise take?

Last edited by MichaelEmouse; 08-23-2012 at 07:24 PM.
#2
Old 08-23-2012, 08:17 PM
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I don't have the answer, but I've thought about how interesting the British system is from my US perspective. In the UK as well as many or all of the other countries that Elizabeth is queen of, the people who actually have de jure power (the Monarch herself, the Governor-General of Canada, etc.) don't ever make decisions by their own independent judgment, and the ones who are legally merely advisers (e.g. Members of Parliament) make all the decisions and are de facto in charge.
#3
Old 08-23-2012, 08:17 PM
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Well I guess technically it isn't even a democracy now, but a republic or representative democracy, just like the U.S. and many other countries. Since it's a representative democracy, it then depends not only on the crown's power, but on who is allowed to vote. Women were not allowed to vote for MP's until 1918 when they had to be 30. That was also the first year they could be elected to Parliament. It wasn't until 1928 until they got the right to vote on the same terms as men.

Though, I suspect this was not at all the main thrust of your question.
#4
Old 08-23-2012, 08:30 PM
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I would date it to William IV's dismissal of Earl Grey as Prime Minister, which happened in the mid-1830's. William then called on the Duke of Wellington to form a government. Wellington was unable to do so, even though he had substantial support in the House of Lords, because he was not able to put together majority support in the House of Commons. He advised William to call on Earl Grey again, because only Grey had the confidence of the elected House. There were a lot more developments over the next eighty years before there was universal franchise and the Lords gave up their veto, but I would say that episode establishes that the government drew it's support from the people. No other monarch has since tried to overrule the Commons' choice of government.
#5
Old 08-23-2012, 08:35 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by OldGuy View Post
Well I guess technically it isn't even a democracy now, but a republic or representative democracy, just like the U.S. and many other countries. Since it's a representative democracy, it then depends not only on the crown's power, but on who is allowed to vote. Women were not allowed to vote for MP's until 1918 when they had to be 30. That was also the first year they could be elected to Parliament. It wasn't until 1928 until they got the right to vote on the same terms as men.

Though, I suspect this was not at all the main thrust of your question.
The last part was since it related to the enlargement of the franchise. As for the term "democracy", we need not restrict it to direct democracy.

If someone reading this wants to harp on the "we're not a democracy, we're a republic" thing, kindly fuck off to the GD section where you can grind that axe.

ETA: OldGuy, that last part was not hostile to you. I just want to avoid a particular kind of threadshitter.



Quote:
Originally Posted by robert_columbia View Post
I don't have the answer, but I've thought about how interesting the British system is from my US perspective. In the UK as well as many or all of the other countries that Elizabeth is queen of, the people who actually have de jure power (the Monarch herself, the Governor-General of Canada, etc.) don't ever make decisions by their own independent judgment, and the ones who are legally merely advisers (e.g. Members of Parliament) make all the decisions and are de facto in charge.

It seems to often happen. The shogun was supposed to be the enforcer of the emperor yet was the de facto ruler for much of Japan's history.

In the Ottoman empire, the grand viziers were also in large part in charge rather than the sultan.

I believe that at first, the german chancellors were secretaries/doormen/personal assistants of the monarch.

Given this record, I can see why Chinese emperors insisted on having eunuchs who had no hope of establishing their own dynasty when it came to choosing key helpers.

Last edited by MichaelEmouse; 08-23-2012 at 08:37 PM.
#6
Old 08-23-2012, 08:46 PM
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Northern Piper makes a good point, but I would look even earlier than that, when Lord North felt compelled to resign after Lord Cornwallis's surrender to Washington at Yorktown in late 1781. George III was extremely reluctant to let North go, and then had little choice but to appoint the Marquess of Rockingham, who had strongly opposed the King's and North's war policy, as Prime Minister in early 1782. Rockingham immediately took steps to recognize American independence, a policy which the King (who even drafted a letter of abdication) loathed: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Rockingham_Ministry

Later, the Reform Act 1867 was another giant step towards democracy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reform_Act_1867
#7
Old 08-23-2012, 08:51 PM
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I'd go with 1688. That was when it was established that Parliament held power over the King (in a factual sense if not a symbolic sense) and not the reverse. That's the central principle of democracy - an elected body runs the country. The changes and precedents since then are essentially details.
#8
Old 08-23-2012, 10:02 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Little Nemo View Post
I'd go with 1688. That was when it was established that Parliament held power over the King (in a factual sense if not a symbolic sense) and not the reverse. That's the central principle of democracy - an elected body runs the country. The changes and precedents since then are essentially details.
Or even earlier... Montfort's Parliament in 1265 or more likely the "Model" Parliament of 1295 could both be considered clear points of the beginning of democracy. The concept that, "what touches all, should be approved of all, and it is also clear that common dangers should be met by measures agreed upon in common," is fundamentally a democratic ideal. Likewise the fact that both Parliaments clearly established that they were, at least in some points, superior to the King, were clearly democratic. Finally both included elected represented from all boroughs and chartered cities. Thus the "common" man had a say in rule.

After 1295 England had a regularly meeting body of elected officials that had (some) power over the king. Everything else is just movement along the continuum. Over time democracy became more universal. And the power of the democratic elements became more powerful. So just pick your point. What is the key moment where switched from authoritarian with democratic elements to democratic with authoritarian elements? Take your pick.
#9
Old 08-23-2012, 10:38 PM
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Originally Posted by Little Nemo View Post
I'd go with 1688. That was when it was established that Parliament held power over the King (in a factual sense if not a symbolic sense) and not the reverse. That's the central principle of democracy - an elected body runs the country. The changes and precedents since then are essentially details.
Except for the rest of the 17th century and well into the 18th century, the King chose the Prime Minister, and many members of the Commons, particularly the country members, thought it their patriotic duty to support the King's choice. This power of the King continued into the 19th century, up to the episode with Grey and William IV.

I take Elendil's Heir's point about Lord North, but there are a few points about it that I think indicate it was a straw in the wind, but not sufficient for the OP's inquiry. First, North had lost support from both Houses by the end of the war, with the views of the aristocratic Lords still being an important factor. As well, in future cases, King George III and his son, the Prince Regent, exercised considerable power in the choice of Prime Minister and the composition of the ministry. The fall of the North ministry certainly weakened the Crown's political authority, and thenceforth the King had to pay more attention to the electoral politics of the Commons, but it was the Grey episode which clearly showed that it was the Commons which chose the government, not the Crown.

Last edited by Northern Piper; 08-23-2012 at 10:39 PM.
#10
Old 08-23-2012, 10:43 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bartman View Post
Or even earlier... Montfort's Parliament in 1265 or more likely the "Model" Parliament of 1295 could both be considered clear points of the beginning of democracy. The concept that, "what touches all, should be approved of all, and it is also clear that common dangers should be met by measures agreed upon in common," is fundamentally a democratic ideal. Likewise the fact that both Parliaments clearly established that they were, at least in some points, superior to the King, were clearly democratic. Finally both included elected represented from all boroughs and chartered cities. Thus the "common" man had a say in rule.

After 1295 England had a regularly meeting body of elected officials that had (some) power over the king. Everything else is just movement along the continuum. Over time democracy became more universal. And the power of the democratic elements became more powerful. So just pick your point. What is the key moment where switched from authoritarian with democratic elements to democratic with authoritarian elements? Take your pick.
I agree that there were democratic institutions in England before 1688. But I feel that's the point when those institutions gained primacy over the monarchy and England became a democracy. That was when Parliament essentially dismissed one king and told another king he had to accept their terms for the throne.

Granted, Cromwell had made the same point in a much more emphatic way four decades earlier. But Cromwell's regime had been overthrown and it's possible the Restoration could have led to an absolute monarchy. Cromwell's example could have been a historical dead end. But the precedents of the Glorious Revolution took root and are still in effect today.
#11
Old 08-23-2012, 10:48 PM
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Originally Posted by Northern Piper View Post
Except for the rest of the 17th century and well into the 18th century, the King chose the Prime Minister, and many members of the Commons, particularly the country members, thought it their patriotic duty to support the King's choice. This power of the King continued into the 19th century, up to the episode with Grey and William IV.
True, Parliament and the Monarch worked together and in many cases, Parliament accepted the direction of the Monarch. But 1688 was the point when it was decided that if the two institutions couldn't agree and one of them had to go, Parliament would stay and the Monarch would go.
#12
Old 08-23-2012, 10:56 PM
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Yes, but Parliament in 1688 included the House of Lords as a significant component, with major political powers. Saying that Parliament was supreme over the King is not necessarily creating a democracy, when one of the major components of Parliament was an hereditary peerage.
#13
Old 08-23-2012, 11:22 PM
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The accession of George I and the resultant creation of the office of PM. When the Monarch began to stop being the actual head of government.
#14
Old 08-24-2012, 12:38 AM
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FWIW, from what I remember in middle school here in America we were taught about the Magna Carta, which somehow led directly to George Washington; in my smoke-addled high-school history course the House of Orange was also discussed.
#15
Old 08-24-2012, 01:03 AM
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I think 17th century, with the Cromwell and Glorious Revolutions, is pretty clearly the answer, though I would give more importance to Cromwell than to Glorious.

When I was a child, American secondary schools emphasized the Magna Carta of 1215, but that now strikes me as very mistaken. It was some of the Monarchs after 1215 who wielded the greatest of absolute power in Britain's history.
#16
Old 08-24-2012, 02:20 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Northern Piper View Post
Yes, but Parliament in 1688 included the House of Lords as a significant component, with major political powers. Saying that Parliament was supreme over the King is not necessarily creating a democracy, when one of the major components of Parliament was an hereditary peerage.
I'm not even sure the House of Commons at the time would have really been a democratic institution by any even remotely modern definition. Even apart from the suffrage issues, a lot of the seats weren't even elected at all, and the seats were proportioned along the lines of land and property instead of population. It wasn't even like an Athenian-style democracy where hardly anyone got a vote, but those who did only got one-- it was basically just a mechanism for translating financial power into political power.

In my opinion, what happened in the 17th century was a transition from monarchy to a sort of institutionalized oligarchy that persisted throughout the 18th. Things didn't actually begin to become recognizably democratic until the early 19th century. The Reform Act of 1832 fixed most of the proportioning problems and would be my choice for the point in which Britain became recognizably a democracy, if only in the Athenian sense. From there, it was just a matter of incremental changes as suffrage slowly expanded and the power of the House of Lords contracted over the next century and a half.
#17
Old 08-24-2012, 03:59 AM
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I agree with GreasyJack. There was scant democracy to be found before the Reform Act; 1832 was the most important flex point.

Last edited by Johanna; 08-24-2012 at 04:00 AM. Reason: Forgettest thou not to bold yon Doper his name
#18
Old 08-24-2012, 04:18 AM
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Does the House of Lords still have de facto legislative power? In Canada, the Senate (which is the upper house) has very rarely blocked a bill and is mainly there to study bills and make recommendations which are de facto non-binding.

If the House of Lords doesn't have de facto legislative power, when did/how it lose it?


The House of Lords' judicial power ended in 2009. Was that just a nominal end to its power which has ended sooner or did the House of Lords have de facto judicial power all the way to 2009?
#19
Old 08-24-2012, 04:30 AM
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Before the reform act the UK was some sort of oligarchy which would not fit our current concept of a democracy, but personally I would go for 1911 (?) when George V emasculated the House of Lords - which was a very interesting action and made 'The Backwoodsmen' into a revision and delay House rather than a source of adminstrative power.

Of course this is rather like asking which of 50 shades of grey turns a tediously press-hyped book, into a really boring degradation of the term novel.
#20
Old 08-24-2012, 04:51 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by FRDE View Post
Before the reform act the UK was some sort of oligarchy which would not fit our current concept of a democracy, but personally I would go for 1911 (?) when George V emasculated the House of Lords - which was a very interesting action and made 'The Backwoodsmen' into a revision and delay House rather than a source of adminstrative power.

Of course this is rather like asking which of 50 shades of grey turns a tediously press-hyped book, into a really boring degradation of the term novel.
This incremental nature is one of the things I find fascinating about the British political system. With so many powers existent yet not officially acknowledged and so many powers officially on the books yet never to be used, it must have been very confusing to know who could do what when the system was in the process of shifting from a monarchy to a democracy.
#21
Old 08-24-2012, 05:48 AM
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As the OP rightly points out, it's impossible to pinpoint the exact moment at which Britain became a democracy outright. However I'd wager the 1867 Reform Act, which eliminated most property requirements for people to vote, indicated the point at which Britain became more democratic than undemocratic, for me.

Otherwise I'd also go for 1911, when the House of Lords lost its ability to block the will of the Commons, as the moment it became a full representative democracy.
#22
Old 08-24-2012, 10:18 AM
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Originally Posted by Northern Piper View Post
He advised William to call on Earl Grey again....
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Originally Posted by Leo Bloom View Post
...in my smoke-addled high-school history course the House of Orange was also discussed.
Earl Grey came around the corner and accidentally barreled into William of Orange; that's how the eponymous tea first got its flavor.
#23
Old 08-24-2012, 06:53 PM
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I too would go for the 1911 Act.

This was the moment, following an election where this was the only issue at question, where the Liberals were re-elected and this pretty much forced the hand of the monarch to threaten to create enough liberal peers to change the balance of power in the Lords Chamber in such a way that the reform bill would go through.

Don't forget that there were fears of civil unrest, there had fairly recently been Fenian riots in parts of England, and it was not long after that the Russian revolution took place.

Prior to this, any law could be vetoed no matter what the elected chamber proposed and no matter how great their majority..

This is really when the monarchy recognised fully the primacy of the House of Commons - being elected - over the House of Lords.

Interestingly, the Liberals still see the existence of any unelected chamber as unfinished business and became part of a coalition where one of their main issues for doing this was to pretty much get rid of the unelected part of the House of Lords. This is still a hot topic. It may indeed become a backdrop to the next general election.

The transition from absolute monarchy through to democracy will not be complete until the unelected part of the House of Lords is reformed in favour of a second elected chamber. It makes me smile to see the arguments trotted out in favour of keeping the Lords as they are, as if it presents intractable problems that cannot be resolved - seems to me that other nations have found ways of coping - its just the Lordish types do not think we can be grown up about it and still need their patronising bollocks in our lives.
#24
Old 08-24-2012, 08:58 PM
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Arguably, Britain will not completely be a democracy until the monarch's reserve powers - to declare war, to name a Prime Minister, and to dissolve Parliament - are clearly abolished.

Recent thread about reform of the House of Lords: http://boards.academicpursuits.us/sdmb/...d.php?t=656607
#25
Old 08-24-2012, 11:04 PM
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From what i know of British history I would tend to agree that the electoral reforms between 1832 and 1872 instituted processes that could be fairly called democratic by the standards of the time, and in 1911 finally with the preeminence of the elected power it becomes a real representative government.



There is no absolute need to create an elective upper house if it's going to have little or no real functions -- a number of parliamentary states work without one at all, including some Commonwealth Realms and many provinces/states within others. The one main reason would be to still provide some balance to the near-absolute capacity of Parliament to rule. In any case the Crown and a stripped-down Lords could be retained as ceremonial entities with purely innocuous functions for the sake of the tourist attraction.

Last edited by JRDelirious; 08-24-2012 at 11:05 PM.
#26
Old 08-25-2012, 04:52 AM
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Originally Posted by casdave View Post
The transition from absolute monarchy through to democracy will not be complete until the unelected part of the House of Lords is reformed in favour of a second elected chamber. It makes me smile to see the arguments trotted out in favour of keeping the Lords as they are, as if it presents intractable problems that cannot be resolved - seems to me that other nations have found ways of coping - its just the Lordish types do not think we can be grown up about it and still need their patronising bollocks in our lives.
What countries are you referring to? Are you not aware that election is by no means the most common system of composing upper houses worldwide?

The pattern is in fact that parliamentary unitary systems (like Britain) must avoid two elected chambers.
#27
Old 08-25-2012, 04:54 AM
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Originally Posted by Elendil's Heir View Post
Arguably, Britain will not completely be a democracy until the monarch's reserve powers - to declare war, to name a Prime Minister, and to dissolve Parliament - are clearly abolished.[/url]
I can't agree. The powers may nominally be in the hands of the Queen, but formally they are with the PM, who is accountable to the House of Commons. And no Government would dare do something with these powers against the wishes of the Commons.

In reality, this powers are removed from the monarch. Ergo, Britain is a democracy.

In fact, last year the power to dissolve Parliament was largely removed (or at least heavily regulated) in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.
#28
Old 08-25-2012, 05:19 AM
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Originally Posted by Tom Tildrum View Post
Earl Grey came around the corner and accidentally barreled into William of Orange; that's how the eponymous tea first got its flavor.
Orange pekoe?
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Originally Posted by JRDelirious View Post
There is no absolute need to create an elective upper house if it's going to have little or no real functions -- a number of parliamentary states work without one at all, including some Commonwealth Realms and many provinces/states within others.
There are two ways of not having an elective upper house:
(1) Not have an upper house at all, i.e., have a unicameral legislature, e.g., Queensland.
(2) Have an upper house which is not elective, like the House of Lords or the Canadian Senate. In both those cases, the role of the upper house is very limited, so that the lower house (the House of Commons in both countries) can act almost as if it were in a unicameral parliament.
#29
Old 08-25-2012, 12:17 PM
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Originally Posted by Malden Capell View Post
I can't agree. The powers may nominally be in the hands of the Queen, but formally they are with the PM, who is accountable to the House of Commons....
It is widely agreed that the Queen could decline to call new elections repeatedly in a short timespan even if the PM so advised her. The declaration of war power is still technically the Queen's, and the Queen could refuse to exert it if the PM went bonkers (see Peter Hennessy, The Secret State). And obviously the PM can't name his own successor. If there were a truly hung Parliament and no one could form a government, the Queen would have to name the new PM, based upon her best judgment at the time.

Granted, these are all extreme cases, but that's why you have a monarch with reserve powers, for when the ordinary processes of government have failed.
#30
Old 08-25-2012, 12:59 PM
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Originally Posted by Elendil's Heir View Post
It is widely agreed that the Queen could decline to call new elections repeatedly in a short timespan even if the PM so advised her.
Well, now she has an actual law to back her up - the PM can't dissolve Parliament at a whim any more.

Before then, the situation was the Queen had a duty to prevent the PM's discretion at calling an election for his personal benefit; for example, heading off a leadership challenge against him. The Queen's decision would be significant and would have to be only in exceptional circumstances.

It's extremely unlikely she'd ever have used it for personal gain; such gain would only be temporary, as we'd have a republic in days.

Quote:
The declaration of war power is still technically the Queen's, and the Queen could refuse to exert it if the PM went bonkers (see Peter Hennessy, The Secret State).
And if the Queen declined a DoW if the PM went nuts, how is that a bad thing? Wouldn't she be preserving the democratic will, by insisting that the Commons declare its confidence in the PM before undertaking such a decision?

Quote:
And obviously the PM can't name his own successor. If there were a truly hung Parliament and no one could form a government, the Queen would have to name the new PM, based upon her best judgment at the time.
Depends what you mean by best judgement - it's widely accepted that this 'judgement' is restricted to any PM who is capable of leading a government from the Commons. In reality this would require consultation with the parties in Parliament until they came to agree - the monarch's purpose is to be an impartial 'chair' of such talks.

It's a similar basis in the monarchies of the Low Countries and Scandinavia.

Heck, I imagine that such a matter would follow the pattern of the 2010 hung Parliament, where the Queen kept well away!

Quote:
Granted, these are all extreme cases, but that's why you have a monarch with reserve powers, for when the ordinary processes of government have failed.
Well, yes; but none of what you have said means we're not fully democratic. We have a monarch to crank a few handles when the people's will is unclear. Her power extends only as far as ensuring that the elected Commons is not outmaneouvred by a Government.
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