Homage to the Chartists

It will be interesting to see how much progress will be made in this Parliamentary session on the Coalition Government’s ambitious programme of constitutional reform.  This will be the crunch year for a breakthrough on House of Lords reform.  I suspect regulation of lobbyists will hit the statute book but a deal on party funding will founder on the rocks of self interest.

This weekend I thought about the reforms demanded by the Chartists in the mid 19th century.  I’d finally got round to visiting the grave of one of the Chartists’ leaders, John Frost.  He’s buried in the graveyard of Horfield Parish Church, about a mile from my home in Bristol.  I’ve known since my O’ Level history days about Frost and his role in leading the 1839 Newport Rising. But it wasn’t until a recent visit to the superb displays on Chartism at Newport Museum that I discovered that Frost had ended his days in Bristol.

Chartists from the Monmouthshire mining valleys had marched on Newport on 4th November 1839.  There was a violent fracas with the Mayor and the militia holed up in the Westgate Hotel, with 22 people being killed.  Frost and his co-leaders William Jones and Zephania Williams were arrested and charged with high treason.  They were the last people to be sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering.  The Home Secretary commuted the sentence to transportation to the Australian penal colonies.

This was meant to be banishment for life.  But Frost was able to return in 1856, sailing to Bristol (it seems not on the SS Great Britain) where he stayed until his death aged 93 in 1877.  He was politically active into his old age and lived to see partial progress on two of the aims for which he had sacrificed so much.

So how much has now been achieved?  The Chartists weren’t concerned with House of Lords reform, such was the rotten state of the House of Commons at the time.  But they were very much interested in the amounts spent on elections and how to influence MPs.

Here’s the six point Charter, issued in 1839:

1)     “A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.” – not achieved for men until 1918 and fully for women in 1928 at Parliamentary elections. You can read elsewhere on this blog about my views on prisoner voting.

2)     “The secret ballot – to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.”  –  the public hustings and declaring of votes was ended by the Ballot Act in 1872.

3)      “No property qualification for members of Parliament – thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.” – the only people now prevented from standing are bankrupts, Church of England vicars (again read elsewhere for my views on disestablishment), members of the House of Lords and the Royal family.  A £500 deposit is needed for elections to the Commons but there are no residence or property qualifications.

4)     “Payment of MPs – thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the Country.” – a salary for all MPs (of £400) was introduced in 1911.

5)     “Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.” – this won’t actually be achieved until the next general election in 2015, when finally all constituencies will have approximately 76,000 electors, rather than the huge anomalies that currently exist.

6)     “Annual Parliaments – thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve-month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.” – unlikely  that we will ever get a general election every year, in fact we will now have 5 year fixed term Parliaments.  The expenditure on campaigns by parties still needs reform…though bribery of voters was outlawed in 1883.  The accountability of MPs is still a hot topic!

When Frost died he may have been satisfied that some of the aims of the Chartists had been realised.  But I’m sure he would have been astonished to be told that by 2012 so much more still needed to be done to reform politics in Britain.

NOTE – if you are in Bristol and want to see John Frost’s grave it can be found at Horfield Parish Church.  From the Wellington Hill gate it is on the left against the wall of Manor Farm Boys Club Hall.  Appropriately it’s made of Welsh slate.  It has the rather pleasing epitaph, “The outward mark of respect paid to men merely because they are rich & powerful hath no communication with the heart.”