chapter  19
28 Pages

Participation beyond elections

The Swiss-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) once jeered that the English people are only ‘free’ during elections. He meant that these were the only occasions when members of the public could behave like true citizens, and take a meaningful part in shaping the laws by which they were governed. Even at election time, during the eighteenth century this citizenship was a privilege enjoyed by a few rather than a right extended to all British adults. Women were not allowed to vote, and most men were excluded from the franchise by a haphazard range of qualifications applied in different constituencies. In a typical constituency, only wealthy property owners could vote. If the average Briton really was ‘free’, in Rousseau’s sense, it was because they could (and often did) make their feelings felt by cheering or jeering rival candidates.