Regardless of their political persuasion most people would agree that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn was highly successful in the recent election at getting many more young people to cast their vote. We take it for granted that any UK citizen over the age of 18 (with the exception of those serving a prison sentence) is entitled to vote in local and general elections, but until relatively recent times this was not the case.
The Great Charter, or Magna Carta*, of 1215 is acknowledged to be the first attempt to formalise the relationship between the monarch and his subjects, and to protect rights of the individual against the power of the state. This vastly over-states the effect that Magna Carta had on the great majority of the population, as in reality in it was only the rights of the barons and wealthy landowners which were to be protected.
This situation, where a person had to be some form of landowner in order to qualify to vote, persisted for many centuries until suggestions at reforming the system of government began to gather momentum. The English Civil War and restoration of Charles 11 as King in 1660 had already weakened the hold of the monarch, but it was the creation of the Bill of Rights as presented to the newly appointed King, William of Orange, in 1689 which effectively left Parliament as the true seat of power in the country. Subsequent changes in the social make-up of the nation, industrialisation and mass migration to the cities brought additional pressures for change.
The 1832 Reform Act* increased the number of voters to over a million, but it was still only males who owned land or a freehold property who were eligible to vote. The assumption was that these people had a vested interest in ensuring the smooth running of the country and so only they could be trusted to vote wisely. Campaigns for women`s suffrage (or the right to vote) had begun a hundred years before the Suffragette Movement took hold in the early years of the 20th century, culminating in Emily Davison throwing herself under King George V`s horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby*.
However, it was the urgent need for women workers in World War 1 and the huge number of returning soldiers who had fought for their country yet had no say in how it was run which was the real catalyst for change. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 removed all property restrictions for male voters, gave the vote to all men over 21 and allowed women to vote for the first time, although only those over the age of 30. A new Act ten years later gave women the same voting rights as men.
It was not until 1969 that the UK government lowered the voting age to 18. Will the next step be to reduce this further to 16 years of age.
*Did you know that one of the 4 original copies of Magna Carta (out of 13) can be viewed for free in the Treasures Gallery of the British Library, situated between St Pancras and Euston stations?
*Did you know that because it is proven to last for a very long time UK laws are still written on vellum, made from goat or calf skin? This includes the copy of Magna Carta above.
*Did you know that the 104th anniversary of Emily Davison`s death occurred on June 8th, the date of the last General Election?
*Did you know that an administrative error due to the electoral register being based on ration card lists meant that the outgoing Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was not allowed to vote in the 1945 General Election?
*Did you know that the Whig politician Charles James Fox was installed as an MP aged just 19 by his father Baron Holland, even though he was not himself eligible to vote for another 2 years?
*Did you know that due to delays caused by poor transport and communication links it was not until 1918 that elections were held nationally on the same day?