Power to the People?


At this time of year some people take the white sack we get from the Council for recycling paper and put it underneath the letter box. With parliamentary and local elections this year they are certain to fill it.

Perhaps we should try to be a little less cynical about democracy once described, by Sir Winston Churchill I think, as “The worst system of government ever tried except for all the others.” It comes from the Greek “Demos” meaning people and “Kratos” meaning power – literally power to the people. The concept of voting by casting black or white stones originated in the city states of Ancient Greece in the 5th century BC and later adopted by the Romans although the franchise was limited to citizens, excluding foreigners, women and slaves.

Celtic Britain was not a democracy, power being exercised by chieftains and druids whilst in Anglo-Saxon England there were meetings of wise men, the Witanagemot, to advise the kings. These operated from about 600AD when one is recorded as serving Aethelberht of Kent until the Norman Conquest in 1066. Whilst women like Boadicea had been druids and Abbesses had served on the Witans it was to be another 800 years before they would again enjoy even a limited franchise when some gained the vote in council elections from the Municipal Corporations Act of 1869 and could be elected to County Councils in 1881.

Probably the oldest democratic assembly in existence is the Manx Tynwald which is said to date from 979AD but in England the absolute power of the Normans was finally limited when King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. In 1265 representatives of the Commons, (from Mediaeval French “commune” meaning community), were summoned by Simon de Montfort. These were the knights of the shires and burghers representing towns and cities. Finally in 1341 Lords and Commons separated into the twin chambers we know today.

In 1430 the “40 Shilling Franchise” was introduced meaning that only those with land worth that or more could vote for Members of the Commons. Four centuries, a civil war and many technological advances later and the franchise was still limited to about 3% of the adult population although even that imperfect system could still bring about a peaceful change of government.

Rotten Boroughs were swept away by the Reform Act 1832, the vote was given to all men in the 1860s and finally to women in 1918. So when we reflect how far we have come we might treat elections as more than an opportunity to increase recycling rates.

First published by the Barnsley Chronicle - Penistone Living April 2015