Policy Papers

Democratisation: historical lessons from the British case

John Garrard |

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Executive Summary

  • Democratisation has been successful in Britain, producing both a liberal democracy and political stability. But this has been due to highly benign historical circumstances.
  • The process was evolutionary and occurred in gradual stages, so each new group could be included before the next came on stream.
  • The process was presided over by a traditional, mainly landed elite, which considerably enhanced its legitimacy and stability.
  • The process coincided with the emergence of a widespread and increasingly vibrant network of civil association amongst those being included.
  • The process was accompanied by substantial economic growth in a capitalist market economy, which was already in place before democratisation began.
  • Liberal democracy does provide highly effective ways of resolving the conflicts that arise from the social complexity produced by capitalisation, industrialisation and urbanisation.
  • But the historical lessons from the British case are that achieving and maintaining liberal democracy are much harder than many of today's politicians and policy-makers seem to realise.


Observers of democratisation talk about the process as running in phases. Internationally speaking, there have been several. Britain is one of a number of political systems that can be located in the first and most extended phase, beginning in the nineteenth century and 'completing' in the twentieth. It shared essentially evolutionary experiences, presided over by pre-existing elites, with countries in north-west Europe, north America, Australia and, less securely, parts of southern Europe. Thus far, these have been followed by four equally distinctive and far more rapid phases. The first was a largely uncontrolled phase in the inter-war years, particularly amongst autocracies defeated in the First World War and the Versailles Settlement successor-states. The second occurred immediately after 1945, and comprised right-wing and substantially totalitarian dictatorships defeated in the Second World War, particularly Italy, Germany, Austria and Japan, whose transition was closely supervised by the liberal-democratic victors. In the 1970s, there was a third phase in Spain and Portugal, again succeeding right-wing dictatorships of a more traditional kind. Fourth, and most recently, democratisation has emerged in a largely uncontrolled form amongst states emerging from Communist collapse in Russia and east-central Europe after 1989. Outside Europe, there have also been at least two bouts of democratisation in Africa (following the withdrawal of colonial masters, and following the overthrow of military dictatorships or erosion of one-party states), one in the Indian sub-continent, and several in Latin America. Most recently, a major experiment in attempted democratisation is underway in Iraq - one perhaps most akin (though with less control) to the democratisations-under-tutelage in post-1945 German, Japan and Italy, and possibly presaging a more general middle-eastern process.

This paper will concentrate on Britain's democratisation, particularly upon why it was successful - in the sense of producing a liberal democracy while remaining politically stable. It will also set Britain's experience against that of other more difficult democratisations elsewhere - both the experience of other political systems embarking upon and sometimes completing the process in the same period, and the far more consciously-directed attempts occurring since 1918. Unsurprisingly, Britain, like most liberal democracies successfully created in the first phase, emerges as a political system democratising in highly benign circumstances compared to those experienced by participants in the later phases

Although those political systems that emerged in the first phase of democratisation were not uniform they did share certain highly-important and closely-interconnected characteristics which set them apart from countries in the far more difficult subsequent phases of democratisation. First, once started, the movement was evolutionary and occurred in stages. Though only somewhat intentional, this had the highly functional effect that each group could be included and at least partly incorporated before the next came on stream. Second, although sometimes kick-started by revolution, it was presided over by traditional and mainly landed political elites, thereby greatly enhancing its chances of legitimacy and stability, even if also tending to reduce the depth of democratisation that took place. Third, it benignly coincided with the emergence of an increasingly vibrant and widely spread network of civil association amongst those being included. Fourth, it was accompanied by substantial economic growth. In other words, most of the variables normally seen as favourable to the emergence of stable liberal democracy were substantially in place.

Elites and civil society

In the literature about democratisation there has been much argument about the relative importance of political elites and civil society in successfully producing liberal democracy. Elites are often seen as crucial in managing the process. Their skill or otherwise determines how the difficult transition from the previous regime to democracy is negotiated, how forces with interests in the dying system are neutralised, new ones introduced and absorbed, and crucial transitions to market-economics overseen. Some have even implied that, given skilful elites, the absence of other prerequisites supposedly essential for successful democratisation can be circumvented. Against this, political elites have been seen as essentially prisoners of circumstances created by other more important contextual factors. At best, politicians take advantage of opportunities presented by the decline or collapse of old regimes, the fortunate alignment of new circumstances, or, more fundamentally still, by the dynamics of vibrant civil societies.

This last notion most commonly implies two interconnected characteristics considered essential to successful democratisation. First, it implies civility, civilised and mutually forbearing ways of conducting social, political and economic relations. Second, it refers to how the space between the state and the family is filled with other organisations. A healthy and widely spread network of voluntary associations - social, political and economic - supposedly has several highly functional effects for emergent liberal democracies, servicing both their liberal and democratic characteristics. Polities are rendered more securely liberal by myriad associations, independent of the state and capable of protecting individuals against its incursions - by collective action and by providing them with alternative identities and interests. Voluntary organisations also encourage self-help and independence, and discourage over-reliance on state-provision. Political organisations provide alternative venues for generating ideas and prescriptions. The overall liberal (and democratic) effect is to enhance individual autonomy. Polities are rendered more securely democratic because civil associations are voluntary and thus self-governing. To ensure accountability, they must formulate elaborate rules about elections, annual general meetings and annual reportage. This reinforces democratic values and expectations in the wider polity, rendering them normative. Moreover, it trains participants in using democratic procedures, and equips them with skills and self-confidence in getting things done. Thus voluntary associations can also train political leaders suitable for more general elective office. Finally, political organisations in particular provide channels for defining, defending and advancing individual and group-interests.

Elites and civil society are generally posed as alternative variables, crucial to democratic success or failure. In Britain and other first-phase polities in Europe it seems far better to see them as essential companions to each other. This was the point in time and geographical location where elites were most likely to exert greatest influence. They were after all traditional elites and, though mass politicisation in many countries was acceleratingly underway, they long pre-dated it and possessed the power of legislative and governmental initiative in responding to it. Apart from France after the Revolution, European political leaders were predominantly drawn from aristocratic or gentlemanly hereditary landowners. They dominated governments and civil services, held exclusive sway in most upper legislative houses, and heavily influenced personnel even in lower ones. At the start, they and the classes from which they were drawn were socially, culturally, economically and politically dominant. They long continued to exert great influence even in countries like Britain undergoing the most rapid socio-economic change. Their continuing role in all these areas of life meant traditional rulers had considerable control not just over the timing, terms and extent of political inclusion, but also over how the consequences were handled and how the subsequent political agenda was shaped. Furthermore they had their local counterparts, with lesser branches of landed elites in charge of rural local governance, whilst business elites adopted the mantles of urban squires in the rapidly expanding industrial towns and cities.

All traditional European elites, of course, were initially hostile to any notion even close to democracy. None of those who began opening polities to emerging groups thought they were introducing democracy until the process was well underway. All of those which consented to a degree of formal inclusion conducted matters in ways most calculated to maximise the chances of influential and privileged survival, both for themselves and the class from which they were primarily drawn. Indeed, some of them remained hostile to liberal democracy until 1914, and beyond - even though consenting to significant formal inclusion. It is a mark of the importance of elites as a variable in the process that these were the countries where liberal democratic politics either did not emerge at all (as in Russia) or faced fatal problems when introduced after 1918 (as in Germany).

Elites in Britain

In Britain, like other countries in north-west-Europe, the response from traditional elites was altogether more flexible, even if still partly impelled by thoughts of preserving influence and privilege. In the not implausible belief that they were including groups as and when they became 'politically fit' (in the sense of possessing some rationality, and more importantly appropriate socio-economic values and a 'stake' in the system), British elite politicians conducted the process in stages. They greatly increased urban middle-class male inclusion in 1832, inducted large cohorts of working-class males into the system in 1867, 1884 and 1918, and included women in 1869 (municipally), 1918 and 1928. Several decades after the radical movement had effectively disappeared, they consented to the further Chartist demands for the secret ballot in 1872, and the principle if not entirely the practice of equal electoral districts in 1885. Once satisfied of the 'safety' of the key working-class organisations, and far more readily than other European political elites, British aristocratic politicians not merely legalised but actually legally facilitated friendly societies, co-operatives and trade unions. They thereby aided not just inclusion but also political incorporation. Partly in successful pursuit of the same goal, and in company with local urban elites, they significantly democratised royal and civic rituals. The common people were permitted to file past recently-dead monarchs; and friendly societies, co-operatives and trade unions were accorded very visible places in civic ritual of all kinds - opportunities which they embraced in vast numbers. While doing all this, these traditional elites began either politically fading away or merging with the elites of the class immediately below. They were not forcibly removed; there was therefore no former regime to negotiate with, no disgruntled ruling class waiting in the wings for a chance to undermine the new democratic order.

One consequence of political inclusion, temporarily around 1832 and more permanently around and after 1867, was a dramatic revival of party competition within national and local urban elites. Party-political considerations influenced not just the emergence and design of franchise reform but also other legislation, designed to appeal to those included. This might have posed severe digestive problems for an emergent liberal-democratic system but for the significant control that elites, as much by accident as design, exerted over the popular political agenda. Perhaps far more than anywhere else in Europe, the various groups being politically included possessed remarkably low expectations of the state in terms of social provision. This was partly because they quite rationally came to feel that there were aspects of the laissez-faire state from which they could benefit (its non-interference in labour relations and collective bargaining, particularly after the mid-1870s, for example). It was also because friendly societies in particular grew into the welfare-providing gap, doing so in ways that respectable manual workers could closely control. However, low expectations were also products of a state that had deliberately been rendered baleful to those seeking its aid via the New Poor Law which imposed immensely visible shame upon those who successfully requested support. Furthermore, the energetic revival of the New Poor Law's central principles for twenty years after 1871 (just four years after the first bout of working-class inclusion in 1867) almost certainly had significant agenda-controlling intentions as well as effects.

Civil society in Britain

The New Poor Law was also perceived as a means of promoting the development of working-class self-help. This perception was probably accurate since both its introduction and its revivification coincided with substantial accelerations of already-rising friendly society membership. In this and other more positive ways already explored, the activities of political elites were intertwined with the other major variable that scholars have identified with successful democratisation: civil society. Starting earlier, and more rapidly and widely even than other north-European polities destined for successful democratisation, Britain developed a vibrant network of civil association. This occurred at all except the very lowest and most desperate levels of the population. Many middle-class males saw public activity - social and political as well as economic - as central to their identity, and were active in local church, chapel, charitable, pressure-group, party-political and often municipal life. Working-class males, particularly skilled and respectable ones, were linked, often very actively, to friendly-society lodges, and only somewhat less so to co-operatives and trade unions. Although the working class as a whole were less religiously observant than their middle-class counterparts, the majority of church-attenders in all denominations were working class, and respectable workingmen were active participants in chapel life as well as the myriad of ancillary organisations attached to the churches of all Christian religious faiths. Women, particularly working-class women, were necessarily less attached to civil association because of the constraint placed upon them by confinement to the private domestic sphere of home and family and, for manual workers, by the constraints of their 'double-shifts'. Nevertheless, middle- and many working-class women became increasingly active and indeed crucial to church and charitable activity; to political cause groups of the moral sort, such as anti-slavery, temperance, social purity, and anti-Contagious Diseases legislation - organisations where their 'natural' maternal roles could justify incursions into the public sphere. From the later-nineteenth century, middle-class women increasingly embraced feminist causes, whilst their working-class counterparts began finding their way into trade unions. Overall, widespread membership of all these civil organisations substantially predated political inclusion for the groups concerned, was rising rapidly at the time of inclusion, and continued doing so for many years thereafter.

Meanwhile, the political system's relative and increasing liberality, its unambitious central state, and the often limited effectiveness of its suppressive forces even in the early-nineteenth century, meant that civil society could not merely develop, but also follow what is probably the natural inclination of voluntary societies if left to themselves. As already noted, given their need to ensure accountability, they tend to operate in internally representative, liberal and (at least so far as their own members are concerned) relatively democratic ways. Authoritarian systems (such as that in Russia) tend to produce similar civil structures below them particularly at the highly sensitive political and political-economic levels, which most worry authoritarian rulers and which are therefore most liable to surveillance and persecution. Voluntary associations then tend to become authoritarian in self-defence, partly because democratic associations find it hard to react rapidly to crisis and safeguard themselves against spies, and partly because authoritarian models are the only ones available.

With the single notable example of the Suffragettes, all Britain's civil organisations possessed democratic mechanisms of internal governance. Middle-class ones, particularly charities, tended to degenerate into oligarchic modes of self-administration where the same socially-elevated persons held office for decades, reinforced by annual general meetings which few attended. However, working-class ones tended to be far more vibrant: because their functions, particularly the distribution of sickness and other benefits, were so intimate to their members' lives, and because they were convivial and bibulous in a harsh and otherwise colourless world, lodges were well-attended and regularly rotated office. Co-operatives and the more-skilled trade unions were similarly democratic; the latter remaining passionately attached to direct democracy, long after sympathetic observers like the Webbs thought such modes of decision-making had outlived their usefulness in a world where negotiation with employers and others required more autonomy for their leaderships.

Furthermore political organisations of all kinds vastly proliferated during the nineteenth century, articulating interest and opinion, and, as government became more receptive and active, pressing and negotiating with policy-makers. Both these and non-political organisations became training-grounds for people who later chose to enter parliamentary and municipal life.

That civil organisation emerged earlier and more vibrantly than elsewhere in Europe was partly due to the relatively benign environment increasingly permitted and created by Britain's elites. It was also due to Britain's much earlier industrialisation, urbanisation and associated communication revolution. The first two forces necessarily breed social heterogeneity, generate interests in every sense, facilitate the exchange the exchange of experience, and thus the recognition and mobilisation of interest and opinion. So too much more widely do networks of communication: in the nineteenth century particularly newspapers which acted as extended platforms for speakers at meetings of all kinds - both for those present who could not hear and those absent but interested. Industrialisation and urbanisation point to another benign and connected factor. Britain was fortunate in having a capitalist market economy in place before democratisation began. Continued commercial expansion during democratisation generated sufficiently benign economic cycles while democratisation was underway to ensure it was never associated with economic failure. This also ensured rising real incomes for the relatively poor during the crucial periods of mass enfranchisement - from 1867 and in the interwar years. Again the early timing of both capitalist development and democratisation in Britain was fortunate, at least from its elites' viewpoints: there were few rival economies to raise mass expectations far beyond what the economy was then capable of generating: Where people noticed something apparently better, for example, in North America, many of the most discontented simply emigrated there - eagerly assisted by grateful elites, and willingly received by the desired and still relatively-empty hosts.

Overall, capitalism may be seen as benign for liberal democracy in the long term because of its capacity to generate wealth, variety and choices. This of course can be highly problematic if the timing is wrong in relation to democratisation. The contrasts with East-Central European and particularly former-Soviet states since 1989, which have had to democratise whilst simultaneously coping with the social and economic strains of putting a market-economy in place, are obvious. For them, the situation has been more difficult because democratisation has given all those strains instant and legitimised political expression. In Britain, even economic recession was democratically benign: the agricultural depressions after 1873 and 1918, helped produce substantial falls in essential food prices. Each coincided with the aftermath of major political inclusions - that of respectable working men after 1867, and large numbers of women after 1918, the latter being persons, in their capacity as 'housewives', best equipped to notice and politically react to food prices.


Clearly there are problems in trying to create liberal democracy alongside capitalist take-off in situations where other economies have long since undergone this process and are present to set often-impossible standards of expectation. Equally there are problems in simultaneously trying to create vibrant civil society in contexts where hitherto it has been discouraged or effectively prohibited. And here there is an important further issue about starting-points. As the Weimar regime in interwar Germany and its counterparts in east-Central Europe discovered after 1918, it was hard enough democratising societies hitherto used to simple authoritarian governmental systems. Here, pre-existing elites had sought to control only outward behaviour, and even that with decreasing success. They might have viewed civil society with dark suspicion, but were willing or compelled to tolerate quite substantial amounts of it, due to the limits of police surveillance and those set by their own ambitions. This seems quite a hopeful starting-point when set beside totalitarian regimes where the ambition has been to control hearts and minds as well as actions, and where there have been sufficient resources with which to achieve this ambitious aim.

One final question remains. Why, with all these variables in place, is Britain not more democratic than it is, and why does there now seem to be a democratic deficit? Here perhaps we come up against the inverse side of the main factors reviewed thus far. If capitalist development can breed variety, it can also produce democratic and civil passivity: through economic satisfaction and absence of discontent, through capitalist media convinced profit can be maximised only via entertainment and sensation rather than serious news, and connectedly through distraction by now massive leisure industries. In Britain today a lot of the civil society that formerly fuelled democratic vibrancy appears to be dying. Moreover, the fact that elites were so important in democratisation and the new groups were willingly incorporated has reacted back upon the voluntary associations which originally underpinned democratising success, causing many to duplicate the representative models produced by the broader polity. Meanwhile, the government's expanded welfare role has also undermined several of the most vibrant elements of nineteenth-century civil society - mortally for friendly societies, and damagingly for trade unions - while expanded capitalism has seriously undermined the third, co-operation.

Liberal democracy is not the natural endpoint of an inevitable evolutionary process - though it is certainly one lively option. This is because it provides highly effective ways of resolving the conflicts that arise from the acute social complexity that capitalisation, industrialisation and urbanisation tend to produce. However, the historical lessons from the British case are that both achieving it and maintaining it are much harder than many of today's politicians and policy makers seem to realise.

Further Reading

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1833 , London 1994, Ed J.P. Mayer).

On democratisation, democratic politics and democratic underpinnings in Britain:

Logie Barrow and Ian Bullock, Democratic Ideas and the British Labour Movement 1880-1914 (Cambridge 1996)

Eugenio Biagini, Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform: Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone (Cambridge 1992)

John Garrard, Democratisation in Britain: Elites, Civil Society and Reform since 1800 (Palgrave, London, 2002)

P.H.J.H. Gosden, The Friendly Societies of England 1815-1875 (Manchester 1961)

On democratisation and democratic underpinnings elsewhere:

John Garrard, Vera Tolz and Ralph White (eds), European Democratisation since 1800 (Basingstoke 2000)

Samuel Huntington, The Third Way: Democratisation in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman, Oklahoma, 1991)

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