Monday, 11 June 2018

Suffering Voters

At the end of World War One my grandfather was serving with the 3rd Infantry Division and was as glad as anyone when the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918. On 25 November, the Prime Minister of the Coalition Government, Lloyd George, called an election to ensure that the government of the peace was elected to carry out the negotiations.

The General Election was held on December 14th. According to the terms of the Parliament Act of 1911 there were to be five year Parliaments as opposed to seven. This meant an election was due in 1916, but the war had meant an extension of the Coalition. During this period the Representation of the People Act of February 1918 meant that almost all men over 21 could vote and women over 30 as well as key changes to elections.

Whether my grandfather, before not eligible, did get to vote along with his comrades, I do not know. He was stuck in the Hunsruck in the Rhineland as a member of the occupying army until 1919. When he arrived back it was to a much changed Britain. But for the franchise who was crucially responsible for the reforms?

Obviously, Lloyd George and senior men in the Cabinet from his Liberal Party but also Bonar Law, leader of the Conservatives as well as Arthur Balfour, previous Leader and former Prime Minister. All of these were anxious to distance themselves from the Suffragette movement led by the Pankhurst's.

But from a lot of the coverage of 1918, especially the BBC, we are left with the impression it was all down to them and the whole movement for women's votes was about them, their followers and their socialist vision of the future. This is simply not true nor anywhere near it.

It does not take much time or trouble to come up with Millicent  Garrett Fawcett who began her work for that cause thirty years before the Pankhurst's set up shop. She has a statue in Parliament Square, a library at the LSE and a large body of literature  and archives to her credit.

Along with her is Lady Frances Campbell Balfour, cousin to Arthur Balfour although not as close politically. In her time a major figure and of crucial importance to the Suffragists as her societies were called. These did not employ the tactics and illegal schemes of the Pankhurst suffragettes. This was the respectable and responsible part of the movement, the one that appealed to most women and more to the point could persuade the men at Westminster to listen.

It was the women's role in the war and work that meant that Lloyd George and his cabinet could finally make the breakthrough in Parliament and the influence etc. of Fawcett and Balfour that led the way. But why did it not happen before?

One reason was the House of Lords, which by the end of the 19th Century and into the 20th was becoming difficult because of the rate of reform from both Liberal and Conservative Parties. Also, after Lord Salisbury retired, there was a period when the House of Commons had minority governments.

But it was the 1909 People's Budget that upset the apple cart when the Lords refused to pass it and plunged Britain into a constitutional crises until 1911. This was at a time when Britain was dealing with major problems in relation to both the Empire and Europe. There were a good many things that did not get done and sadly this included extending the franchise to lower class working men and to women.

Another reason for that was the fear that by doing so would not just enhance the Labour Party but bring in elements representing the violent elements of the Marxists, Anarchists etc. in a period when London had become notorious for the numbers of extremists of one sort or another. The Pankhurst's, avowed socialists and law breakers, were seen by many to be part of that network of violence in that period.

So why is it now that the BBC and others tell us they are the ones to thank and none of the many others in all ranks of society are mentioned, let alone given credit for their decades of work as opposed to years?


  1. Interesting. I suppose the BBC is inevitably attracted to the drama and the popular perception rather than a more nuanced and accurate picture.

  2. and the whole movement for women's votes was about them, their followers and their socialist vision of the future

    In one.