On the 2nd of July ninety years ago, after sixty years of campaigning in Parliament, the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, became law, finally granting women the same voting rights as men.
At the point the law was enacted, 12,250,000 men had the vote. The act enfranchised 5,000,000 women for the first time, bringing the total number of woman voters to 14,500,000.
To me, this means that Britain has only been a full democracy for three generations: long enough for the concept to have taken root but not long enough for us to assume that it is too deeply embedded in our society never to be removed.
There are many noble families in Britain whose grasp on power and money goes back a lot further than three generations. Their views of how the world should be a much more deeply and permanently rooted in our society than democracy is.
One example of multi-generational power is The “Daily Mail”, one of the highest circulation newspapers in the UK. It is owned by Jonathan Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere, the great-great-grandson of the man who founded the paper 150 years ago.
This is a paper that has been successfully sued for libel seven times since 2001. It is famous for it’s “Hurrah For The Blackshirts” support of Fascism in England in the 1930s. Its publication of the fake-news The-Labour-Party-Works-For- Russia “Zinoviev letter” four days before the 1924 General Election, led to Labour’s defeat.
In 1927, this pillar of the British Establishment campaigned to get the Conservative Cabinet to break its pledges of giving votes to all women, labelling giving the vote to “girls of 21” as “Votes for Flappers“. They argued that letting young, free-thinking, sexually active women have the votes would as the Spectator paraphrased at the time ” shatter the British Constitution and destroy the Empire”.
While wealth, power and media dominance remains in the hands of people like this, we cannot take for granted that the rights so relatively recently won will not be taken away.
To keep what we have we need to look to advice from those who campaigned to win those rights in the first place.
Millicent Fawcett was one of those campaigners. This year, she became the first woman to have her statue placed in Parliament Square.
Millicent Fawcett campaigned for democracy for decades. It seems to me that she was driven by a deep belief that people – everyone in a society, no matter how marginalised they are, should have the power to govern themselves rather than being governed by those who want to tell them what they should want and how they should behave.
She believed in women having the vote because:
“However benevolent men may be in their intentions, they cannot know what women want and what suits the necessities of women’s lives as well as women know these things themselves.”
As I watch the BBC assemble panels of men to discuss whether women in Northern Ireland should have the same access to abortion as the rest of the UK, it seems to me that this is a principle that merits constant repetition.
Millicent Fawcett described her political beliefs as liberal and defended them by saying:
“I am a liberal because liberalism seems to mean faith in the people, confidence that they will manage their own affairs far better than those affairs are likely to be managed by others.”
This is the core belief that identifies a supporter of democracy to me. Those who hold in contempt the ability of people to self-govern are those who believe the world would be better if only they had the power to make the rest of us follow their rules.
Millicent Fawcett’s view of democracy was based not on division or sectarianism or sexism but on the fundamental belief that it is human nature for us to come together and help each other. She said.
“What draws men and women together is stronger than the brutality and tyranny which drive them apart.”
Millicent Fawcett spent nearly sixty years campaigning for women’s suffrage. She understood that democracy is won through courage and that it triumphs when other people recognise and respond to that courage. She said:
“Courage calls to courage everywhere”
We still need courage. The courage to confront the behaviours and attitudes that diminish sections of our society because of gender or race or age or ability. The courage to confront a government that concentrates power, uses it to cut funding to the most vulnerable members of our society and then tries to ignore or silence opposition. We need the courage to confront those who have been wealthy and powerful for so many generations that they feel entitled to tell us what to do.
Without this courage, democracy withers and tyranny and brutality become accepted as normal and inevitable.
Millicent Fawcett’s work is carried on today by the Fawcett Society. Take a look at what they do. If you think it needs doing, join in.