A century of progress?

It has now been a century since David Lloyd George guided the Parliament Act through the Commons. The Act fundamentally altered the way British politics functioned and should have represented a final and fatal blow to the political power of the old landed aristocracy. A hundred years later how much has the British political landscape changed? Are we still being ruled by a bunch of rich guys from the country?

Many of you will no doubt at some point in your education have had a lesson or two on British political reform and because it’s highly likely that you slept through them it will probably be worth while taking a minute to explain just what happened.

It all began in 1909 when Lloyd George passed his ‘People’s Budget’ through the Commons, which sought to introduce higher income tax and direct taxation on luxury goods. However, the budget was rejected by the House of Lords, which was controlled by a Tory majority of hereditary peers. Rather than going back to the drawing board Lloyd George resolved to see his budget through and in 1911 the Parliament Act was passed. The consequence for the Lords was that they lost their power of veto over legislation and could now only delay it from becoming law.

The aristocracy lost its political safeguard but this was far from game over. The Conservatives, traditionally the party of land and wealth, have still dominated the last hundred years of British politics.

The Lords were mainly representatives of the old landed elite and had sought to defend their interests. Without the ability to stop legislation in its tracks there would have to be some kind of compromise between the needs of the poor and those of the rich. This hypothesis is also supported by the fact that throughout the nineteenth century and again after the First World War the vote was extend to encompass all adults.  Considering the majority of people were not landowners, you would have thought they would not support the Tories, but they did.

This begs the question of what did this major constitutional change achieve? Did it really kick the wealthy out of politics? The Tories have been a dominant feature of British leadership so it’s going to be necessary to delve a little more into their record over the last century.

The question to ask is whether the conservatives are still a party dominated by wealth; the answer is yes. The party still holds on to many safe seats in the countryside and is backed financially by private donors. Sure these people may not have grown up on daddy’s estate and didn’t all go to public school, but they may as well have done since they simply represent the next generation of wealthy elite. Even by 1911 the wealth was shifting from the land to bankers, merchants and businessmen. So there’s still wealth albeit a new kind – meaning there’s both change and continuity.

It’s a good time to draw the line here and bring the rant to an end, because at the end of the day the Conservative Party is not meant to be progressive. That said the Conservatives have come a long way since 1911.

When starting to write this article the intention was to suggest that Tory dominance since 1911 suggests stagnation in British politics but you can’t exactly overlook the fact that they have changed! They elected a woman as their party leader, something that no other party has done. They are committed to protecting the NHS (Really?-ED.), even if they want to cut other parts of public services. This fundamental shift, the development of a progressive side, is a direct result of needing to accept radical development in social policy, a consequence of greater representation of working class needs.

Looking beyond the Tories, who some would still suggest have not moved forward, progress can easily be found elsewhere. When the Parliament Act was passed the Labour Party was barely potty-trained. The Liberals and Labour had been united in an anti-Tory alliance for some years and it was not until after the war that Labour were able to move into opposition as the Liberals split during the war.

Since then, Labour have moved from being a marginal party to enjoying landslide victories like the one of 1997. Labour has been essential to bringing the NHS into existence, not to mention a whole series of reforms, including eradicating hereditary peers. These developments would not have happened had the Lords had a say. Labour had a somewhat inconsistent record before the rise of Tony Blair, but it certainly did not stop them making an impact.

Over the last hundred years the Tories have progressed, Labour became serious and the Liberals, after Lloyd George, have had a rotten time despite getting the vote for women and getting national insurance through parliament. It really has been a completely different story to the nineteenth century.

The title of this article is whether this was a century of progress and the answer, if you look at it by itself, is yes, but when you consider the political progress made in the 1800s it’s not quite the case.  Between 1811 and 1911 politics changed even more, we got two new parties, three extensions to the franchise, catholic emancipation and the secret ballot. Either way progress has certainly been made.

It’s time now to look to the next century and the current signs are not quite as exciting as one might hope. It seems that in the last few years the rhetoric of the parties has dulled down a great deal. It seems all they do these days is squabble over what to spend money on. The liberals do of course have the AV vote to champion, but let us be straight here: it’s not going to pass. The rather inevitable failure of the AV vote pretty much sums up the political environment of the last decade. Politics has stagnated and people just do not care.

At the last election 65% of those entitled to vote did so. That may seem like a good turnout but that leaves 35% of people who did not vote and many people who did go out and vote probably knew in the back of their minds that what they were doing was fruitless because they live in a safe constituency for a party they did not support. Good on them for voting anyway. There are now two significant underlying problems. The way we vote and the way that over the last few decades parties have become so centralist and cautious mean that radical change has now become impossible.

There are of course groups out there who promote further political reconstruction either in voting system or economic theory. But groups like the Socialist Workers Party are on the absolute fringes of the political sphere. They can rock up and try to hijack protests, but at the end of they day they make both the authorities and protesters hate them by causing very small-scale anarchy. They’ve been doing it for years, it has got them nowhere and it never will.
The political system seems to have become closed to further evolution partly because the parties still give the image of being opposites but more importantly because further changes in terms of voting systems, constitutional powers and new parties may not be necessary.

Politics of the century after 2011 will no doubt be different to that after 1911, but what we’re going to see is progress outside constitutional reform and institutions like parliament, the treasury and even the NHS. Politics will change but what we’ll see is the politics of personalities coming to the fore and the inevitable need for what can only be described as e-politics.