The Blog

21 March 1776: A Forgotten Anniversary?

Historians like anniversaries. Every morning on Twitter I enjoy reading 'this day in history' tweets. Key anniversaries can also focus the mind: the current centenary of the First World War has prompted a burst of activity and public interest, and the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo last summer kept me very busy.

On Monday 21 March 2016, however, there is a key anniversary that nobody seems to be talking about. 240 years ago, the radical MP John Wilkes stood up in the House of Commons and made the first motion to reform the British electoral system.

In the eighteenth century, only a fraction of the population could vote. Women were excluded, as were the vast majority of men. Voting qualifications were very haphazard, in a system that was patently out of date and did not reflect where people actually lived. Tiny constituencies, where the population had dwindled almost to nothing, were easily controlled by the wealthy, whereas populous industrial towns like Manchester had no direct representation. Parliament was remote, unaccountable and easily corrupted, and many people believed that it was not governing for the general good.

Wilkes had already challenged this. In the 1760s he had openly criticised the government and was persecuted for it. In 1768 he was elected for Middlesex on a popular platform, and when the government ejected him the county repeatedly re-elected him until the government gave in, conceding the principle that it is the electors should choose their MPs. He also stood up for printers who were illegally printing the proceedings of parliament, and thereafter what was said in the House was available for public scrutiny.

On 21 March 1776, however, he went a step further. Wilkes was inspired by the American rebels and - like many radicals in Britain - perceived that they had a common cause against an oppressive government that refused to give its subjects representation. (Indeed, the 250th anniversary of Wilkes's motion will doubtless get lost in the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, another good reason to celebrate it now.) Wilkes argued that, 'the present war is carried on contrary to the sense of the nation, by a ministerial junto, and an arbitrary faction, equally hostile to the rights of Englishmen, and the claims of Americans'. A parliament that reflected the will of the people would not be treating their brethren like this.

Wilkes's proposal was sweeping. He proposed giving the vote to 'every man', since even 'meanest mechanic, the poorest peasant and day-labourer' have rights and possessions that need protecting. He did not suggest giving the vote to women - it would be nearly a century before this issue was regularly debated in parliament - but this was a time when voting was seen as a male domain. His proposal was well ahead of the Victorian Reform Acts: men would not enjoy such an inclusive franchise until 1918.

In conclusion, Wilkes argued: 'We ought always to remember this important truth, acknowledged by every free state, that all government is instituted for the good of the people to be governed; that they are the original fountain of power, and even of revenue, and in all events the last resource.' His peers were not convinced, and the motion was rejected without a vote. But the campaign for parliamentary reform had begun in earnest.

Wilkes is hardly a forgotten figure. The late Labour MP Tony Banks tabled a motion every 17 October, Wilkes's birthday, calling on the House of Commons to echo the cry 'Wilkes and Liberty'. He recalled that it 'was always well supported'. But 21 March also deserves our attention. At a time when the present government's electoral reforms have been widely criticised for excluding people rather than including them, it is timely to remember Wilkes's reform motion. Eighteenth-century radicals believed that the vote and the electoral system really mattered, and so should we.