“The biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832, when the Great Reform Act redrew the boundaries of British democracy, for the first time extending the franchise beyond the landed classes.”
Nick Clegg MP, deputy prime minister, speech on constitutional reform, 19 May 2010
Cathy Newman checks it out
Hold onto your hats: the deputy PM is promising a democratic big bang – the biggest changes to our political system for nearly 200 years. That’s some ambition.
But does getting rid of identity cards and introducing fixed-term parliaments really stand comparison with 19th-century reforms which extended the vote beyond the landed gentry and abolished the rotten boroughs?
Over to the team for the analysis
The Great Reform Act of 1832 abolished the old pockets where just a handful of voters could send MPs to parliament – and extended the vote to “new” towns such as Manchester. It let men owning property worth more than £10 go to the polls – so still excluding much of the working class, and women.
It was the start of significant empowerment of voters – although a subsequent reform act in 1867 did more to increase the number of people who could actually vote.
Today the deputy PM promised a smorgasbord of parliamentary changes, including giving voters the right to sack their MP, an elected House of Lords, fixed-term parliaments, a referendum on moving to the alternative vote system for general elections, and tightening up the rules on lobbying and party funding.
As part of the political “big bang”, Clegg also set out civil liberties measures such as giving people the right to choose which laws to repeal, getting rid of the ContactPoint children’s database, and scrapping ID cards, and promised more power to the people and less centralised bureaucracy.
So does this add up to the biggest shake-up in nearly 200 years?
Clegg’s claim is more hyperbole than fact, says Professor Justin Fisher, director of the Magna Carta Institute at Brunel University.
“He’s not going to just say, ‘this is quite interesting’ – any new reform is going to want to seem like the best thing since sliced bread,” Professor Fisher said. “But Clegg’s ignoring a number of reforms in the 19th century. You could point to lots of shake-ups which were at least as significant as this today.”
To name a few, the introduction of secret ballots in 1872, or the 1883 outlawing of bribery in elections, meaning aspiring politicians were no longer allowed to ply voters with booze and food.
In 1918, the vote was extended to all men – and there’s the small matter of allowing women to vote, too.
The last government might well be able to make a similar shake-up claim, said Fisher, about the almost complete abolition of hereditary peers overnight in 1998, or the establishment of the Scottish parliament for the first time since the early 1700s – plus the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies.
You could also argue that some of Clegg’s promises are building on Labour’s foundations, rather than a genuine revolution. Labour promised to bring in a completely elected House of Lords in its 2005 manifesto, for example, and MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of elected peers in 2007.
And although something like scrapping ID cards curbs the powers of the state, it’s a policy rollback rather than a radical change to a long-standing constitutional principle in the way that, say, giving women the vote was.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said that although there had been significant political reforms in the past, the deputy PM had today outlined a comprehensive package with many different reform elements.
Cathy Newman’s verdict
Nick Clegg might not want to extol the virtues of the political partner he jilted at the altar. But by airbrushing Labour’s democratic reforms out of the history books, the new deputy PM is sounding a bit as though power’s gone to his head.
The aim to transform politics is laudable. But unless he’s got something up his sleeve, giving women the same voting rights as men in 1928 and even Labour’s devolution of power to Scotland and Wales in 1998 were more transformational than anything set out today.