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Editorial: 1918 The Vindication of Chartism?

 

2018 is the centenary of the triumph of Chartism and the City of Newport has imaginatively chosen to make the 3rd- 4th November, the ‘Rising weekend’, its Festival of Democracy.

 

The Chartist Rising of 1839 was fermenting for at least a week before the marchers arrived on the 4th, so too the action this year kicks off on Saturday 27th October when the 12th Annual Chartist Convention meets at John Frost School.

 

All are welcome. This is the second time that the school named after Newport’s Chartist leader has opened its doors to Newport’s Chartist Convention. As part of the programme, the pupils will once again be making their own presentation about the Chartists.

 

This year’s Convention marks the centenary of the year 1918, when the ‘Great War’ ended and the primary aim of the Chartists was achieved. Surprisingly prior to 1918, the male franchise was not available to all men over 21. Nearly 40% of the male population were ineligible to vote as the franchise was held by male householders. Any male relatives living in the household, including sons and brothers, as well as lodgers, were not eligible.

 

The Representation of the People Act 1918 granted the vote to all adult men and for the first time, women over the age of 30 were eligible to vote. We look forward to hearing our three expert speakers share their researches of the long campaign for the popular vote and the even longer, still continuing, struggle for women’s rights and equality.

 

Votes for Women were never included amongst the official demands of the Chartists, but many Chartist leaders, such as William Lovett and Henry Vincent, vocally supported the cause. John Stuart Mill was the first MP to propose female franchise during the passage of the 1867 Reform Act. Until all men achieved the vote, there was never any likelihood that a Parliament of men, empowered by patriarchal authority, would contemplate votes for women. Progress had to be sought in other fields. By the end of the nineteenth century, using their householder status, women were able to exercise a vote in local government elections and for School Boards and the Boards of Poor Law Guardians. Some even succeeded in getting elected to these bodies.

 

The 1918 Act was a great disappointment for Suffragists and Suffragettes alike. Emily Pankhurst’s much vaunted cessation of militant Suffragette action to win the war in 1914, did not win the vote for most women in 1918. Very few of the 3 million ‘munitionettes’, who had kept the nation’s war machine in production, were old enough to benefit. Restricting the female franchise to women aged 30 and subjecting them to householder qualification, either in their own right or through marriage, barred nearly 70% of all adult women. Such exclusion was blatant class discrimination.

 

Importantly in 1918, the male franchise was no longer defined by property. Men were deemed politically equal. Their right to vote was now seen as a matter of ‘birth right’ and citizenship, precisely as demanded in the People’s Charter (1838) and expressed by the Levellers in the Putney debates (1647). As Rainsborough, probably the most radical officer in the victorious seventeenth century New Model Army, said at that time:

 

“the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly. Sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under”

 

War between 1914 -1918, just as in the 1640s, stirred demand for radical reforms. How could men, bearing arms for their country, be denied the vote? Uniquely in the December 1918 election that immediately followed the Armistice, Parliament allowed all fighting soldiers, the vote, even if under 21, provided they had turned 19 during service in connection with the War.

 

The position of women became glaringly a matter of discrimination. Although no call came from the Suffragette leadership for a resumption of any kind of militancy, the struggle was continued during the 1920s by Sylvia Pankhurst and her supporters in the Labour movement. In Liberal quarters, suffragette Margaret Thomas (Lady Rhondda) of Llanwern House campaigned in the Chartist tradition, promoting the ‘Six Point Group’ with its six point Charter for women’s rights.

 

Crucially once all adult men had the vote, undefined by property entitlement, no intellectual obstacles remained to block the way for women and within a decade, the female franchise was determined on equal terms with men. In 1928, Parliament caved in to the zeitgeist – the march of the ‘common people’. During war years 1914-18, membership of trade unions grew fourfold. For four years, Government needed to keep soldiers and workers ‘on side’ – wages surged.

 

From its foundation in 1893, the Independent Labour Party along with other socialist groups of the period advocated equal rights for men and women. Socialist politicians, like Keir Hardie, who was elected MP for Merthyr 1900 until his death in 1915, saw themselves as the political heirs of the Chartists. In Newport, where an ILP branch was established, there was a renewed interest in John Frost in the years before the First World War. Notably, Newport Museum commissioned the bronze bust of Frost (1914, Edward Hornsby, teacher of modelling, Newport School of Art). The new curator, W.A. Gunn, appointed in 1910, was keen to expand the collection of "Chartist Relics" and in 1915 took ownership of the ‘long lost’ chest of Chartist documents found during an office clearance in the offices of T.G. Cartwright, Pillgwenlly. The South Wales Argus reporter covering the story, alluded to the soldiers fighting to defend liberties fought for by the Chartists.

 

During 1917-18, the elites of Europe were shaken to the core by the collapse of Tsarist Russia, the grip of the Bolshevists on Petrograd (St. Petersburg) and Moscow and the growing popular demand for ‘worker controlled states’, notably in Hungary and Germany. In Britain between 1919 and 1926, the Government faced the challenge of Sinn Fein and the IRA in Ireland, the growing union power of the ‘triple alliance’ of miners, railwaymen and dockers and the success of the Labour Party. Labour became the main opposition party, achieved a brief minority Labour Government 1923-24 and the Liberal Party collapsed. The shrewd amongst the powerful recognised that as well as facing down the TUC in the 1926 General Strike and introducing anti-union legislation, it was necessary to incorporate the working classes fully in to the political system. Conservative MPs voted for the equal franchise Act of 1928 in the belief that woman voters would save the country from ‘Bolshevism’.