3 Political Movements from British History and What They Achieved

Britain isn’t often thought of as a country of impassioned political movements. The dramatic political events that are a vital feature of the history and present of many other countries – mass protests, strikes, revolutions – are much less essential to the relatively stable political history of the UK. But just because British history books are more likely to feature career politicians than revolutionaries doesn’t mean that political movements, even of the grassroots kind, haven’t played their role in making modern Britain. Here are some of the most important, notable and just plain interesting political movements from that long history.

1. The campaign for the right to vote: the Reform League, suffragettes and suffragists

A poster arguing for women's suffrage.
Cartoons were a popular way to point out the absurdities of women being denied the vote.

The journey to universal suffrage in the UK was a long and arduous one. While voting rights in the UK were never restricted on grounds of race, unlike the USA, they were restricted in a myriad other ways. The UK has never had a codified constitution, and power shifted gradually from the monarch to the elected parliament over the centuries, spurred on by events like the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. By the late 18th century, the monarch’s role was primarily symbolic and most power rested with Parliament – but there were strict limits on who could elect that Parliament.
In 1780, just 2% of the British population had the right to vote. Only men over the age of 21 were allowed to vote, and only if they owned property over a certain value – while the precise value varied from place to place, and some boroughs had further restrictions, the end result was that wealthy men controlled the composition of Parliament, and denied a say to anyone else. There was also a huge discrepancy based on location. The parliamentary borough of Dunwich had 32 voters and elected two MPs, while in 1801, Manchester had a population of 70,000 and did not have a single MP.
The unfairness was obvious, and not only to the disenfranchised – even those with the right to vote objected to how their rivals could buy up property in rotten boroughs like Dunwich to ensure political success. In 1867, 200,000 people marched through London to demand reform. The desires of moderate reformers were met by a series of Acts that extended the franchise to an increasing number of men, encompassing the growing middle classes, and correcting the imbalance in the number of people represented by a single MP. By 1884, thanks to campaigns including the Reform League, 60% of men over 21 had the right to vote in the UK. But 40% of men and all women were still disenfranchised.

Despite the seriousness of their cause, suffragettes were treated as figures of fun.

Until the 1832 Reform Act, women hadn’t been specifically barred from voting, though it was extremely rare for them to meet the property qualifications. At this time support for women’s suffrage was rare, and even those who did support it typically focused on other reforms that they felt could be more easily achieved. But from the 1860s, campaigns for women’s suffrage began to appear, and in 1869, wealthy single women were given the right to vote in local elections (the assumption being that married women would be represented by their husbands). At the same time, the campaign for women’s rights in other areas – such as the right to own property, not be subject to domestic violence and to access education – was being fought fiercely; it was often not the case that women weren’t interested in the vote, but early feminist campaigners had more urgent priorities.
By the turn of the century, many of those issues had at least partly been addressed, and the campaign for women’s suffrage had formed into two key groups. On one side were the suffragists – a primarily middle-class movement advocating peaceful protest to change the law. On the other side were the suffragettes, who were more likely to be working-class and who felt that violence such as arson was justified to further their cause. Huge protests were held, including the ‘Women’s Sunday’ march in 1908, attended by up to half a million people, the largest demonstration ever to have been held at that time in the UK.
The campaign was interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1914; both suffragists and suffragettes agreed to focus on the war effort instead. With men who had no right to vote dying in battle, and women going out to work to keep the country going, the unfairness of denying women and poorer men suffrage was increasingly evident. In 1918, all men over the age of 21 and about half of women over 30 (subject to restrictions based on marital status, property and education) were given the right to vote. After ten years of women voting, it became clear that the predictions of disaster by anti-suffrage campaigners were mistaken, and women were finally given the right to vote on an equal basis with men.

2. The campaign against nuclear weapons: CND and the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp

Image shows a mushroom cloud.
Britain was the third country in the world to develop nuclear weapons.

The UK joined the USA and the Soviet Union as the world’s third nuclear power in 1952, and throughout the 1950s, invested heavily to developing increasingly powerful nuclear devices. In 1957, Britain tested its first hydrogen bomb; though the test was a failure, it was widely hailed as a success. In an increasingly febrile global political atmosphere, popular opposition to nuclear weapons was growing, but it faced a barrier: it was associated with pacifism, and pacifism in turn was associated with support for Communism, with the Soviet Union encouraging the spread of anti-western pacifism.
In 1957, the writer J. B. Priestley – a noted patriot whose propaganda worked helped keep up morale during the Battle of Britain – wrote a piece for the New Statesman arguing, “now that Britain has told the world she has the H-bomb she should announce as early as possible that she has done with it, that she proposes to reject, in all circumstances, nuclear warfare.” He gave several reasons: that “three glasses to many of vodka or bourbon-on-the-rocks, and the wrong button may be pushed”, that attempting to take part in the global arms race was unaffordable, and that Britain’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was causing it to lose, not gain, prestige at the international level.
The article acted as a rallying call, and Priestley was soon joined by a host of notable public intellectuals who felt the same way. They established the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, or CND, its official launch attended by 5,000 people. CND was free of the anti-western associations of previous disarmament movements, and that enabled its rapid growth. In 1958, the campaign gained a logo, which has become universally recognisable as the peace symbol since. Support for CND reached an early high in 1960, with mass marches and its success in getting the Labour Party to commit to a policy of disarmament. But support faded again with the Test Ban Treaty in 1963 – which many CND supporters saw as an achievement that made the campaign redundant – and the anti-war movement overall found other causes, such as opposition to the Vietnam War.

Women blocking the entrance to Greenham Common in 1982.

But in the 1980s, CND underwent a resurgence as tensions increased in the Cold War, and it was joined by another famous campaign: the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. In 1981, a women’s group came to RAF Greenham Common to protest that nuclear missiles were being stored there. The protest began with just 36 women chaining themselves to the base fence in protest, but it grew – in December 1982, 30,000 women joined hands to encircle the base, and in April 1983, 70,000 protesters formed a human chain that stretched 14 miles. During the continuing protest, hundreds of women were arrested; many lived at the camp for months or even years on end. Though the missiles were finally removed in 1991, the camp continued until 2000; a memorial stands there today.
The impact of these campaigns was mixed. It was and remains the case that a majority of the British population opposes unilateral nuclear disarmament, and these issues feel less urgent today than they did at the height of the Cold War. Nonetheless, the use and testing of nuclear weapons has steadily been restricted, and these attention-grabbing mass movements undoubtedly played their role. Perhaps as importantly, they acted as an incubator for a whole generation of political activists, many of whom are still acting on what they learned at Greenham Common or from CND protests today.

3. The campaign for animal welfare: the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Vegetarian Society and the National Anti-Vivisection Society

Bull-baiting was still a popular sport in the UK in Victorian times.

For over 200 years, Britain has been at the forefront of the world in terms of animal welfare. From the late 18th century onwards, popular opinion began to turn against blood sports like bear-baiting and dog-fighting, as well as the mistreatment of farm animals. It’s hard to say why Britain was so unusually sympathetic to the welfare of animals at this time, but perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Britain was also unusually industrialised – creating both worse conditions for animals and a lack of connection between farmers and city dwellers earlier than in most countries.
MP Richard Martin was a key figure in supporting animal rights legislation, and in 1822 he saw “Martin’s Act”, the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Bill, signed into law. This act imposed a fine for anyone who “shall wantonly and cruelly beat, abuse, or ill-treat any horse, mare, gelding, mule, ass, ox, cow, heifer, steer, sheep, or other cattle”. To understand how significant this was, it’s worth remembering that men could legally beat their wives in the UK until 1891. Two years later, Martin became one of the founders of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which brought 63 offenders before the courts in its first year of operation. Their lobbying was so effective that further legislation followed in 1835 with the Cruelty to Animals Act, which expanded Martin’s Act. In 1840 Queen Victoria granted the society royal status, giving it the name by which it’s still known today: the RSPCA. Unusually for political activities at the time, the RSPCA actively encouraged the participation of women.
For some people, the RSPCA’s work didn’t go far enough. The RSPCA’s focus was animal welfare, not animal rights (as indeed it remains today). Many of its members were enthusiastic about sports like fox hunting and grouse shooting, and saw no contradiction between this and their support for animal welfare. Nor did they object to farming animals for meat. Their concern was simply that unnecessary suffering should be avoided wherever possible. More radical groups therefore appeared, such as the Animals’ Friend Society which opposed all use of animals for human benefit.

Mass demonstrations were organised by animal welfare campaigners.

At the same time, another trend was emerging: vegetarianism, which led to the founding of the Vegetarian Society in 1847. In its early years, vegetarianism was rarely concerned with animal rights, but instead connected to religion and particularly the temperance movement, which opposed the consumption of alcohol. Eating meat was thought by the founding members of the Vegetarian Society to be unhealthy, and particularly to make people more violent.
Animal experiments were another area of concern for social reformers. In 1875,the National Anti-Vivisection Society was founded by Frances Power Cobbe (later an influential suffragist). Around 300 animal experiments were taking place each year at the time, with few regulations to prevent animal suffering, particularly the species that weren’t addressed by previous welfare legislation. NAVS lobbying led to the introduction of the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act, the first piece of legislation in the world to regulate vivisection.
All three societies are still active today, and Britain still has some of the strongest and most vigorously enforced animal welfare standards in the world, as well as the toughest regulations on animal experiments. And animal welfare remains a priority for British voters, too; it’s thought that Conservatives decision to drop a planned ban on sales of elephant ivory had a material impact on their failure to get a majority in the 2017 general election. Politicians have learned the lesson since; ivory sales have been banned, and no one will forget the extent to which Britain remains a nation of animal lovers.

Image credits: suffragette meeting; poster; cartoon; mushroom cloud; Greenham Common; bull-baiting; demonstration.