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THE FRANCHISE QUESTION.
MEMORANDUM BY THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER.
1. Some say that every time more people have been given the vote, the Conservative Party have benefited. It is true that the last election which had the highest ever voter turnout, led to the largest Conservative majority. However there is a danger that this is a simplistic conclusion. The increase in voter numbers has been accompanied by increasing wealth and the interest of new classes in conservative values, like the maintenance of the British Empire. The consequences of the large extension of voters in 1918 have not highlighted two important facts; the withdrawal of 80 Irish votes, and the split of non-conservative votes between the Liberal and Labour parties.
5. I do not think there is a popular movement in favour of giving more women the vote. Giving 5 or 6 million women the vote in 1918 is surely one of the greatest events in our history but I have never heard it discussed seriously. It was in no sense an issue at the last election and I do not believe it counted in the decision which men and women all over the country then took. When I fought the General Election in the spring of 1924, I declared against any further extension of the right to vote for at least ten years without being aware of any loss of support. In the General Election so little was the matter in the public mind that when I answered questions to the effect that “while the principle of an equal franchise for both sexes was indisputable it was too soon to make a new large expansion of the electorate”, no one seemed the least upset by this.
THE FRANCHISE QUESTION.
MEMORANDUM BY THE CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUER.
1. IT has been said that every extension of the franchise has benefited the Conservative Party, and it is certainly true that the latest election on the widest franchise has produced the largest homogeneous Conservative majority. There is, however, a danger, that such generalisations do not take sufficient account of times and circumstances. The gradual extension of the franchise over a century has been steadily accompanied by a general improvement in prosperity and by the rallying of new classes to Constitutional government, to the defence of property and to the maintenance of the Empire. The consequences of the gigantic extension of the franchise in 1918 have been masked by two very important facts; first of all the withdrawal of 80 adverse Irish votes, and secondly, the splitting for the time being into two unequal but substantial parts of the pre-war anti-Conservative British vote. But for these two facts, i.e., if parties had continued on pre-war lines, Conservatism would probably be still in a minority.
5. I cannot feel that there is any deep or forceful popular movement in favour of a further immediate extension of the franchise. Nearly a quarter of the present electorate do not even trouble to use their votes. The decision to enfranchise 5 or 6 million additional electors, and finally to transfer the control of our affairs to a majority of women, is surely one of the greatest events in our history. I have never heard it discussed except casually in any council of which I have been a member. The House of Commons has only chattered about it in the irresponsible atmosphere of a private Member’s Friday. It was in no sense an issue at the last election. I do not believe it counted in the slightest degree in the decision which men and women all over the country then took. When I fought the Westminster election in the spring of 1924, I declared flatly against any further extension for at least ten years without being conscious of any appreciable loss of support. In the General Election so little was the matter in the public mind that I do not remember having referred to the declaration of the Leader of the Conservative Party and I certainly continued to answer the routine questions of the women’s societies by general statements to the effect that “while the principle of an equal franchise for both sexes was indisputable it was too soon to make a new large expansion of the electorate.” No one seemed the least upset at this.
A secret memorandum, entitled the Franchise Question, from Winston Churchill to the other members of the Cabinet in 1927. Churchill was the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time.
The Conservative Party was concerned about the result of the next election because of the changing political context in the UK. One problem they had was the disastrous decision in 1925 to return to the Gold Standard, which limited the British economy to a fixed amount of gold. This caused economic turmoil in Britain and when Churchill later reflected on the role he (as Chancellor of the Exchequer) had played in the decision he described it as a huge mistake. Furthermore when a General Strike had been called in 1926, involving over 1.5 million people, Churchill took an aggressive stance and had been prepared to send the army to stop the workers on strike. Churchill was unpopular and the Conservative Party was fearful of a rise in votes for the Labour Party.
The political situation had also changed because of Irish Independence in 1922. In 1918, Ireland had been part of the United Kingdom, with around 1/7 of the seats in Parliament. In the 1918 election, 73 seats had been won by the Sinn Féin Party in Ireland, who refused to accept the British Parliament as having legitimate authority in Ireland so, even though they were officially Members of Parliament, they never went to London and never voted in Parliament. This meant that the Conservative Party, who had the most seats overall, did not have to worry about them voting against them in Parliament. When the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 agreed the new borders of Northern Ireland and the independence of the Republic of Ireland, there was a different dynamic to the electorate.
The campaign for women’s enfranchisement was increasingly an issue due to the continued work of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC). During the 1920s, several laws had been passed supporting their cause, and the increasing popularity of the Labour Party, who had close ties to NUSEC meant pressure was being put on the government to pass a new law giving all women the vote.
Remember we are hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating whether the attitudes towards women changed after they secured the vote in 1918. Sources usually help historians in two ways:
Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?
|On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference?||Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?|
|Churchill was dismissive of a ‘majority of women’ taking control of ‘our affairs’.|
|Churchill was open to the possibility of women getting equal voting rights in 1924, when he returned to the Conservative Party.|
|Churchill was aware of the campaigning of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship.|
|The source shows attitudes to women changed after they secured the vote in 1918.|
This source raises some interesting questions for historians, one being how well informed was Churchill in making these claims? We need to ask, how far was Churchill in touch with the desires of younger women and supporters of the Labour Party? His argument is largely based on his experience of campaigning at the previous elections, three years before, which begs the question: who was attending Churchill’s campaign talks? In fact, might it be true that people who supported women’s enfranchisement were campaigning elsewhere, and that they simply did not make themselves known to Churchill or were not inside Churchill’s circle of companions?
One of the striking things about this source is that Churchill is clearly concerned about the reality of a wider franchise, but he also says he has not heard it mentioned seriously in Parliament. This suggests that the NUSEC were proving unsuccessful in their campaigning, and the Labour Party politicians were not fulfilling their claims to support women.