Political Agitation and Violence

The recent film, “Suffragette”, much praised by the critics deals with a period in our history when suffrage was by no means universal. There had been a social revolution over the centuries, but before the First World War the right to vote was still limited to those men who were landowners.  The landowners amounted to only 60% of the male population. The reasoning for this can be seen in a letter written much earlier – in fact in 1864 - by Palmerston (then the Liberal prime minister) to Gladstone (also a Liberal). He said “... You lay down broadly the doctrine of universal suffrage which I can never accept. I deny that every sane and not disqualified man has a moral right to vote. What every man and woman too have a right to, is to be well governed and under just laws...”.   A paternalistic view typical of the ruling class of the 19th century. In contrast, in 1915, our Parliament approved a law which meant in effect that every man between the age of 18 and 41 was automatically conscripted, including obviously the 40% who were not landowners.

But this paternalistic attitude did not survive the end of the Great War. In 1910, 7.7 million men were registered to vote in that year's election. After the passing of the Representation of the People Act in June 1918 (i.e. before the end of the war and the election later in the year) there were 13 million – an increase of 5 million male voters notwithstanding the loss of over 600,000 men in the conflict.

Introducing the Bill, the Home Secretary, George Cave, said: “War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion, for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise.” The Bill was passed in the House of Commons by 385 votes to 55 in an all male chamber. In voting for the Bill they also voted 7-1 in favour of votes for some women although restricted to those aged 30 or more and being property owners or married to a land owner. In 1928 the franchise was extended to women on equal terms with men.

The explanation for the extension of the right to all men is easily explained in view of the number of men killed in the war and the fact that all of the classes were represented on the battlefield. But women? Before the war there had been a lot of political agitation for the recognition of women as equal to men. Mrs Pankhurst was the best known of the suffragettes and was the leader of a group who in 1903 decided to break away from “The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies”, founded in 1897. The Union continued its pressure using peaceful means, but Mrs Pankhurst and her sisters decided that violence, albeit violence of a fairly minor kind, was necessary in order to attain their objective. There was an increase in the violence of the violence, however, in 1912 when the Prime Minister, Asquith, decided not to pursue a Bill having an effect similar to the one finally passed in 1918. He feared that the women so enfranchised would gang up and vote him out of office at the next election.

But the violence of the suffragettes came to an end at the outbreak of war when the women took over the roles of the men in the factories and offices which were becoming vacant because the men were joining the army. During the next 4 difficult years the women demonstrated their capacity to be not only housewives and therefore 'inferior' to men, but as members of society in the fullest sense. If it had been almost defeated in 1912, at the end of the war the argument against the rights of women had simply collapsed. It is impossible to maintain therefore that the violence prior to the war was necessary or even significant in progressing the cause of women's equality. In the end it was social progress based on the evidence that the prevailing attitude towards women had been demonstrated to be without foundation.

But the question of civil disobedience continues to be important.
The film encourages its audience in thinking that it is justified because it produces a just end. Obviously, now, the vast majority of people accept that women are as intelligent and as capable of making rational decisions as men (which doesn't say much!). Giving them the right to vote, therefore, is seen as a fair and just outcome. But in the past? Before the changes in the 20th century, the vast majority (including most women) would have thought otherwise.   Why? Because it was received wisdom. It was only in the light of the obvious evidence of their true abilities that 'received wisdom' was brought into question.  And so finally there was a general acceptance that the wisdom of centuries made no sense.   But it had been a realisation that came in parallel with the realisation that the right to vote should not be limited just to land-owners either.   Therefore there was a general evolution in the thinking of that era. 

Now it seems to me that for somebody of a contrary opinion, violence is not a convincing argument.  In fact, in my experience it generally produces a hardening of attitudes.  But having seen violence as accompanying this particular movement for change, a change which we now see as just and right, automatically we equate the two, instead of looking beneath the surface in order to find the real reasons for such a change of opinion. It seems that for some reason we have to keep re-learning that correlation is not the same thing as causation.

But obviously the idea that violence and civil disobedience can be justified continues to be accepted by those who, normally, demand that we live in a democratic society. A curious concept. Clearly for those with a religious conviction it may be that the rules of society are in conflict with the rules laid down by their god.  For example the anti-abortionists in America who use violence (murder included) in order to 'safeguard' the supposed rights of embryos – usually expressed as “the rights of the unborn child”, an expression which of course in no way prejudges the issue!   That is another subject, but to justify the use of violence as a means to promote a political idea in an increasingly secular democratic society seems to me to be bizarre.  

There is the endlessly repeated excuse that it is necessary because “the Government is not listening to us”.  But this is just a short-hand way of saying that their opinion is not shared by more than a tiny minority.  And let us remind ourselves that we do live in a democracy envied for its freedom around the world.   But then I imagine that it must be difficult to be part of a small group.  It must be frustrating.  Which is probably why they resort to violence – to be noticed, to leave an imprint on the world.  After all, we remember Mrs Pankhurst, but the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, which had such a major influence on the outcome of the struggle, is long since forgotten.  And of course talking reasonably doesn't make for good box-office!

Paul Buckingham

November 2015

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