The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common, 1848.

There Is No Stopping Progress

In 1836, a cabinet maker named William Lovett formed the London Working Men’s Association to campaign for the working people of the UK. The Association was formed as a response to the Great Reform Act of 1832.

The act had granted seats to cities which had sprung up as a result of the Industrial Revolution and increased the electorate from about 400,000 to 650,000.

While more people received the right to vote, there was still a large portion of the population that were unable to have their say. Many working class families were still unable to vote despite the reform.

An amendment to the Poor Law in 1834 exacerbated the feeling of betrayal in the working class. The amendment deprived working people of payments, known as outdoor relief, which drove the poor into workhouses, where conditions were horrendous. Many families were separated as a result of these changes.

It was against this backdrop that the association was formed with the intention of furthering the rights of working people to be able to participate in politics.

In 1838, Lovett set out his aims in a document called the People’s Charter. They listed six aims which they hoped would give working men a say in the running of the country:

  • A vote for every man over 21 years of age.
  • Secret ballot (instead of the system for voting in public).
  • MPs do not have to own property.
  • MPs will be paid.
  • Equal voting constituencies.
  • An election every year for Parliament.

If you look at this list and look at how parliament and elections operate in the UK today, you will notice a lot of similarities. Out of the six aims, only one, annual elections, has not been implemented. The other five were passed into law.

Lovett’s charter was not immediately successful, the adaptation of the points in the charter would take longer than he had hoped. However, the movement was largely successful in the long run.

Anything that is worth doing takes time, whether it is improving the lot of people, or starting your own business, success or change does not come straight away. It is a gradual process, with many bumps in the road, but if you stay the course, you may just reap the rewards.

Everything Takes Time

Looked at in the short-term, Chartism was not successful. Three petitions were presented to Members of Parliament, in 1839, 1842 and 1848.

The first petition in 1839 garnered over 1.25 million signatures. Despite the number of signatures, Parliament refused to receive the charter and its aims were not debated.

The second petition in 1842 had even more signatures, with 3.3 million people signing the document. However, Parliament still refused to debate the issue and the petition was turned away.

A final petition returned to Parliament in 1848, this time with 6 million signatures. Considering that the UK had a population of roughly 25 million at the time, nearly a quarter of the population signed the document!

This time the Charter was debated, but Parliament remained firm in its rejection of reform. There were a number of false signatures on the document, which were used to discredit it. Parliament was also wary of accepting a document, which would weaken the power of politicians.

If manhood suffrage was granted, the power of the ruling elites was threatened. Not only would all adult men be able to vote, but they would also be able to stand as an MP.

This would mean the traditional ruling classes were unlikely to remain in Parliament.

Three attempts at enacting further reform to electoral procedure had failed despite the backing of a large portion of the British population. While in the immediate aftermath of events it would appear the movement failed, if you look further down the line, the movement was successful.

The rejection of the Charter showed the willingness of Parliament to reject the views of a significant number of the population. This was against the basic premise that Parliament was there to represent the people. Was it really governing in the interests of the people if it rejected the wishes of a quarter of the population?

This would inspire reflection on the practices of Parliament and whether further reform was necessary.

Chartism also encouraged poorer people to become more active in politics, mobilised the working class and would inspire others to challenge the ruling classes. The movement showed it was possible for the masses to rise up against the ruling changes and demand change.

It could also be argued that Chartism was used as inspiration by the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the early 20th century. The subsequent success of the aims of Chartism would have been inspiring to the Suffragettes as they challenged the status quo and demanded the right to vote.

Look Ahead For Progress

It was not until 1858 that one of the aims of the Charter was first implemented, when the requirement for MPs to own a property was rescinded.

Further reform came with the Reform Act of 1867, which gave urban working men the right to vote. It would not be until 1918 that manhood suffrage was introduced and it was not until 1928 that all women over the age of 21 were granted the same voting rights as men.

The Secret Ballot was introduced in 1872, constituencies of equal size were introduced in 1885, and the payment of MPs was enacted in 1911.

Within 70 years of the presentation of the final petition to Parliament, five of the six aims of the People’s Charter had become law. This shows the success of the movement, even if it did not occur immediately.

This is a lesson we can all heed in our day-to-day lives.

It’s all too easy to become disheartened when we don’t see ourselves making the progress we desire. This is why many people quit, because they don’t see signs of improvement at the beginning.

Improvement takes time. Overnight success is rare, it takes many hours of practice and discipline to become accomplished at something. Even then, it requires more practice and focus to make more progress.

Malcolm Gladwell states in his book Outliers, that the common theme between successful people is that they put in 10,000 hours of practice to get to where they are today.

That is a lot of time, but it’s time you need if you want to master any skill. You may not want to master a skill, merely improve, but you will still need to put the work in.

You can’t expect results straight away, they will come further down the line. Follow the principle of 1% improvement each day and when you look back a year later, you will be astounded by the progress you will have made!

Lovett would die in 1877, impoverished after opening a bookshop and writing his autobiography. He lived long enough to see two of the Chartist aims enacted into law.

He may not have thought this would be the case when the Chartist movement disintegrated after 1848, he must have been despondent and resigned the failure of the movement he helped to found.

However, there is no stopping progress.

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