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Almost Sorta Kinda Democracy Day

February 6, 2014


“Almost Democracy Day” or “Not “Quite Democracy Day” needs to be better highlighted in the calendar.  Because of the peculiar quality of bathos associated with some nations’ half-hearted and club-footed meandering towards a version of democratic rule, those nations don’t really get any kind of day of national liberation

“Britain”, for example, never experienced a single decisive tipping point of democratic reform. The measure of democracy that Britain currently “enjoys” is the result of a series of franchise extensions and re-organisations from 1832 onwards. A mixture of parliamentary negotiations and extra-parliamentary agitation led to the gradual and staggered transformation of “Britain” into something like a representative democracy.  People from outside the Palace of Westminster shouted and scribbled and people inside it tried to figure out how many of those shouters and scribblers would vote for their party if they were allowed to.

If Britain is ever to celebrate anything a little less tedious and de-motivational than tedious markers of dynastic chair-moistening, and instead chooses one day celebrate significant and transformative moments in history, however, then it is well worth noting that on February 6th, 1918, the House of Commons passed the “Representation of the People Act”. Although this fell short of “universal suffrage”, it enfranchised nearly all males over the age of 21, and most women. (Women between the ages of 21 and 30 had to wait a few more years before getting the vote.)

This is a typical feature of British political culture – the tendency to stop half-way through a reform for no good reason.  “Shall we give women the vote?  Let’s give most of them the vote and then pause for a bit.  We know we’ll have to give the rest the vote in a bit but please let’s compromise on some fundamental principle, even if it makes no sense.”  The decriminalisation of expressions of gay affection was a similarly staggered piecemeal process.  There is of course, something deeply insulting about “half freeing” people.  Nobody goes away permanently satisfied and trouble is stoked in the pressure cooker of expectation.

Some people may find the slow, halting, illogical nature of Britain’s democratic evolution somewhat frustrating to contemplate.  Yet within the clumsy chaos of this two steps forwards and one step back process there is the inspirational value of knowing that it’s an incomplete polity, a polity that has started things that really ought to be finished.  Hereditary power and privilege (pretty much by definition) know how to play a very long game, but the fact that Britain’s “democracy” is founded on a sequence of rather unimpressive looking scraps of parliamentary legislation has the capacity to make Britain’s revolution the most exciting kind of revolution of all – an unfinished one.


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