At the moment everyone speaks of May 7th 2015 as an important day in British Politics, but what about January 20th 1265? A little bit lesser known but vastly more important. More important than the signing of the Magna Carta and the end of the English Civil War but not quite as important as the day Domino’s gives free pizza on Oxford Road. January 20th 1265 was the day that the most extraordinary parliament opened in Westminster.
The January Parliament was the very first time that representatives from every county and major town in England were invited to attend parliament. Prior to this it had purely been an elite affair with the King and his advisers but democracy was in action and created the constituencies which survived from then right through to the 20th century. Summoned to the parliament were two knights from each county and two citizens from each town to represent the whole of England.
The man behind it all was Simon de Montfort, de facto leader of England and leader of a rebel political faction who wanted major change in the country. Sound familiar? He overthrew the King in 1264 at the Battle of Lewes (despite being married to his sister, Eleanor), took him prisoner and ruled the country in the name of King Henry III. All sounds so simple doesn’t it? However, it all ended in tears for de Montfort as many of the powerful barons and allies defected back to the King and his heirs. Simon’s forces were rapidly depleted and he died at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265.
A lot has changed since the January Parliament of 1265, but even then those travelling to the parliament had their costs paid: A13th Century MP’s expenses, although I’m sure there weren’t any duck houses. It remains a small and relatively unknown piece of history but Simon de Montfort and his parliament were the beginning of representative government and Britain edging closer to true democracy.
The course did not quite run smooth for the force of democracy in Britain. The English Civil War pitted the Parliamentarians against the Royalist; King against Country. The war killed a higher proportion of the British population than any other war. Between 1642 and 1649, 1 in 10 of the adult male population died; more than three times the proportion that died in the First World War and five times the proportion in the Second World War. If that’s not a struggle for democracy then I don’t know what is.
Now, think back to 1708, just after the Act of Union forming the United Kingdom as we know it today and the first General Election. The politicians then would have been horrified with the 7 party debate a few weeks ago and even more horrified by de Montfort’s overthrow of the King. It was a two horse race between the Whig Party and the Tory Party from then onwards until the late 19th century and the early 20th century with the introduction of the Labour Party and the Liberals.
At the time of the 1708 General Election, Britain was considered the front runner of democracy, a country to be aspired to in terms of government. Only men who owned land could vote, representatives were put forward in each area with no formal election; they were ‘invited’ to parliament and had no significant say over decisions. In this instance, history shows just how radically different our definition of democracy is now.
Representative government has evolved since its origins in the 13th century but a large portion of those reforms happened in the 20th Century. The Representation of the People Act in 1918 enlarged the number of people who could vote to all men over 21 and women over 30 who filled specific criteria such as property owners and those married to Local Government officials. Doesn’t sound much like universal suffrage to me. It wasn’t until 1970 that the voting age in the United Kingdom was lowered to 18, meaning that before that the majority of students wouldn’t have been eligible to vote in the General Election.
Democracy is something Britain takes for granted today, but the struggle for it dates back to 1265, through the union of the UK, through the struggle for universal suffrage and through world wars. So, when you cast your vote on May 7th, think of de Montfort and the first representatives from your constituency in that first January parliament and how much British politics has changed in the last 750 years.