Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Representation of the People

Future first-time voters (some of them, anyway)
Part of E Company 1/1st Herts Regiment, 1914/15

There's been a lot of attention paid recently, and especially today, to the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, which extended the UK franchise to (some) women. Which is great: it's a highly historically-significant moment, obviously. But is it churlish to point out that the very same act gave the vote to an awful lot more men for the first time, too? Working class men? Who? Oh, them...

Yes, women had to fight for the vote, and some suffered and even died along the way, and it would still be another decade before they truly got it. But the 1918 act was even more a recognition of the way thousands upon thousands of "ordinary" men had literally fought and died for ... Well, for what?

As the then Conservative Home Secretary, George Cave, put it:
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.
Amazingly, the 1918 reforms meant that the electorate went from 7.7 million to 21.4 million. Ironically, one reason the vote was restricted to women of property over 30 is said to have been because so many men had died in WW1 that to include all women over 21 would have resulted in a female majority electorate. I'm not sure why, other than simple prejudice, this was thought to be a problem – too much, too soon? – but it clearly was.

One little electoral wrinkle that wasn't ironed out until as late as 1948 was that those with a university education had two votes, as they were entitled to vote in their "university constituencies" as well. Hmm, I'm not so sure that was really such a bad idea; I think I'd have four votes... Maybe we should bring it back. Or, let's go the other way, and make the vote dependent on passing GCSE Maths and English? One literate / numerate person, one vote! I wonder how that might have affected, oh, let's say, the Brexit referendum?

But: in the celebration of the 1918 Act, it's easy to overlook the fact that, when it gained Royal Assent on 6th February, the First World War was still being fought, and had nine whole months of slaughter left to run. Now, I hadn't looked closely at my scan of that quite small, dark photograph above before, but I'm pretty sure that, next to my grandfather Douglas on the left, the other sergeant is Frank Young, one of his pre-war pals. The Herts 1/1st were a territorial regiment, so the men in this photograph are volunteer "weekend" soldiers from the Hitchin / Letchworth / Baldock area. I imagine that, before 1914, it had seemed like a fun, outdoorsy thing to do, a continuation of, say, scouting. Certainly, before moving to Letchworth to work at the Temple Press, Douglas Chisholm had been in one of the very earliest scout troops in Elephant & Castle, London. His mate Frank Young was an army brat, born in India: his father was the RSM of the regular Herts Regiment.

The Hertfordshires were sent to France in 1914 as part of the original British Expeditionary Force, otherwise mainly professional soldiers, and earned themselves the nickname "The Herts Guards" at Mons and elsewhere. By 1918, both sergeants had become "temporary gentlemen", and been promoted to 2nd Lieutenant.  Luckily for me, Douglas didn't get sent back to France after his officer training. Frank did, and died in furious hand-to-hand combat at Havrincourt, in September 1918. In the process he earned the regiment's second Victoria Cross, which, however you look at it, is no substitute for having earned the right to vote, had it for seven months, but never getting to exercise it in the General Election on December 14th that same year.

They don't make ears like that any more...


Zouk Delors said...

Were there any suffragettes demanding equality in the duty to answer a call to arms, something young men were subject to until, what, 1958 or so?

Mike C. said...


I suspect not, though it I believe it was never that popular a privilege, inexplicably, even among those entitled to exercise it...