This is a typical question for second year A-Level coursework.
The key words in this question are 'violence' and 'democratic change'. The dates are important as they provide limits for the scope in your answer. However, this is still a tough question because it spans over a century, and the aim is the capture the quintessetial 'change over time' concept which A-Level exam boards so love.
In your answer, make sure to very precisely define what you mean by 'violence' (physical? verbal? political? Open or off the records? Violence from the government or the lower classes?) and 'democratic change' (how profound was the change? Was it gradual or immediate? Does it deserve the term 'democratic' at all?). You want to put across how flexible perpective can be, but at the same time you have to make it clear which stance you occupy.
Make sure to include lots of primary and secondary sources. One or two won't do the trick: you are making statements about the past, and without evidence and backing to support your claims, your answer will be invalid - particularly if you are drawing on a thesis that was not thought up by you yourself (because, let's face it, historians shape the way we form our opinions - they've thought of it all before). I.e.: it is vital that you not only use sources, but also cite them (or you are plagiarising).
Here's a possible plan:
By 1815, governmental fear of the 1789 French Revolution’s influence had not waned, and the Industrial Revolution had started to change Britain for good. The local unemployment and the dismal urban conditions it brought caused much discontent among the working class, leading to widespread sporadic protest and increasing governmental fear of revolution. Yet, by 1928 universal suffrage had been achieved. The nineteenth century was an age of rioting, reform, and imperialist values, when ‘democracy’ was still considered a dirty word. But the role violence played in the process of achieving universal suffrage, better working conditions and social reform is highly debatable. The middle-class used petitions, while some Radicals, middle-class led, went to dangerous extremes such as in the Cato Street Conspiracy (1820). The working class had so few rights they had little choice but to take to the streets and vocally, often violently, protest. The Government was convinced as early as 1815 that there was a widespread conspiracy to bring about Revolution. In fact, Clive Behagg claims “there was never a real threat of revolution”, but there is no doubt that violence played a part at least in changing the tendencies of government and teaching the people to learn from experience and start organizing militant groups instead of simply "riding the tiger" (Paul Adelman). However the extent of violence’s role is questionable, since violence, in essence, only ever directly ensued further violent reactions, repressive governmental measures, great controversy and generally anti-democratic changes that only time, reflection and relative peace managed to unwind.
Violence’s significance in gaining the vote is highly questionable.
Throughout the nineteenth century, when reforms were passed to extend the franchise the country was in a state of turmoil, the violence of which convinced the government (especially for the first three Reform Acts, 1832, 1867, 1884) that reform could not wait. It would be wrong to suggest, however, that violence was the cause of these democratic changes. Indeed, violence was often triggered by national events, and in turn led to reactions that led to change in legislation, suggesting therefore that violence was the context of democratic change rather than its trigger.
For instance, while the Reform Act of 1832 was passed largely, as Graham Goodlad claims, because “the government faced a situation of widespread discontent”, the Act has been argued to have been due more to the Government’s genuine understanding that reform simply could not wait. It was a matter of inevitable change rather than caused by violent activity. In this sense perhaps violence acted as a catalyst. But the period leading to the 1832 Reform Act (especially the Days of May and the summer of 1831) has been described as “the closest to revolutionary Britain had seen”, and must have played a significant part in at least in making the balking Conservatives waver.
Likewise, the Reform Act of 1867 is said by Norman Lowe to have been due more to the surge in population (it increased by over a fifth between 1831-1861) which left a very large majority of the population vote-less. Violence appeared to have little to do with it. It is true that the rare violent act (such as smashed railings in July 1865) only convinced the Conservatives that reform could not wait, but because of its sporadic occurrences could not be considered highly significant in pressuring for enfranchisement reform.
The Reform Act of 1884 caused the British electorate to number over 5,500,000, but still women had been disregarded. The significance of the militant suffragettes in gaining the vote has long been a matter of controversy, but in terms of democratic change their actions in many ways did more harm than good: their self-called ‘terrorism’ is claimed to have “actually alienated some of the support for the cause” (Martin Pugh), and their attacks on property, MPs and government meetings caused politicians to distance themselves from the matter, thereby delaying reform and losing any momentum gained at the start of their violent tactics. However, even still in 1914 the actions of the suffragettes attracted huge media attention, which reflected on to the peaceful, respectable suffragists who were quietly and diplomatically campaigning on their own side, drawing a stark contrast between the two. Arguably, without suffragette militancy, the NUWSS may not have enjoyed such publicity nor fame. Although, by 1918, the suffragettes had stopped all aggression, but Millicent Fawcett’s NUWSS had not: she is credited by many to have put sufficient, long-standing pressure on government to achieve female suffrage.
By the time enfranchisement was actually achieved, the Pankhursts had abandoned their militant campaign and exerted little influence “except, perhaps, as a memory” (Martin Pugh). It is highly revealing how the goal pursued by thousands of women from 1903-1909, when finally achieved, was only once their violence had ceased and Britain had suffered the greatest and most crippling war it had known. Perhaps the huge amount of violence revealed in the international First World War put national suffrage matters in high contrast. But once again, violence as such did not cause the 1918 representation of the People Act, it simply put matters into perspective.
Violence was significant in causing a change in governmental reactions, which led to democratic change:
There is a stark contrast between the yeomanry’s treatment of the crowd at Peterloo and the reluctance of the government to imprison women during the years of female suffrage militancy (1903-1914), especially since a dozen people were killed during the 1819 Massacre. The Government’s reluctance to use violence as a means of quashing it was a significant change, even in democratic terms: it suggests that the self-proclaimed Government of a modern nation was obliged to recognize the rights of the people to gather and discuss political issues. Assuming that this could be considered a gradual but sure change in nineteenth century Britain’s concept of democracy however, it is clear that violence in itself did not suddenly prompt the Government to stop using it, nor did they become pacifists. E.P. Thompson explains for instance that "the Government wanted blood - not a holocaust, but enough to make an example” when the Swing riots erupted in the South of England (1830).
The reaction to the Peterloo massacre, it is argued by several historians, led to the creation of the police, in 1829. While in effect it was another way to control crowds and lower levels of mass-violence, the police could be considered a democratic change in itself. After all, the people could go to them for safety, and their job was to enforce peace - a democratic change even an essentially imperialist Victorian government approved of. However, the police was created not as a result of governmental shame at the violence used in St Peter’s Field, but as a means of ensuring disasters such as Peterloo were not repeated. However, for a long time the police was very unpopular, and suffered many violent acts, including garrotting, maiming, and even murder. Some violent acts were retaliated, in an odd way it seemed that the police actually increased urban violence on a personal level, defeating the purpose of the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act.
In events such as Bloody Sunday (1887) the government used force because protocol dictated it, and while judged violent by the press (William Morris published a song pamphlet to protest), the protestors themselves were also dubbed violent. The effect on democratic change was mixed: on the one hand, government felt obliged to use force, and so probably refrained further from allowing reform. But on the other hand, the protesters felt insulted by The Times declaring their motivations as “simple love of disorder” and only increased discontent, which put more pressure on government for reform.
Black Friday (1910) saw the police using “the first documented use of police force against suffragettes” (Rachel Conner) and unwarranted violent and sexual manhandling on women who protested at the dropping of the Conciliation Bill during its reading. Such violence from government had not occurred for decades, and the tide turned in favour of the suffragettes, portrayed as martyrs (two of the women died as a result of their treatment). It is interesting to observe that violence in this instance (caused by the Government) backfired and encouraged support, or at least sympathy, for the suffragettes in their struggle to achieve democratic change. And also, despite governmental reluctance to arrest militant women during the suffragette era, the violence used against them was undeniable and traumatic for some: force-feeding often resulted in internal damage and arrests became more violent as the suffragettes pushed limits ever further. Therefore, while violent circumstances had gradually changed government’s attitude to violence, the slightest regression seemed to boost support for democratic reform.
Nevertheless, the relative peace that was maintained in the country until Black Friday suggested that the government’s more moderate approach to reacting to protest helped to sufficiently appease the people, and gradually open the political mind once more to the possibility of reform.
Despite little direct impact in terms of democratic change, the people learned from their experience and started organizing violence:
In terms of immediate, effective change, violence is hardly ever significant in causing it. However, over time, the accumulation of violence tends to change government’s attitudes and position. Luddism, the first vaguely-organized movement with any political potential, is claimed by E.P Thompson to have been an important step forward in the political consciousness of the working class. In fact Luddism had no positive impact in terms of democratic change, causing the Government to pass the 1812 Frame Breaking Act, further limiting the people’s means of protest and thus democratic rights.
But Luddism, and later Chartism, were the result of the people’s realization that random violent acts would not get them the rights they demanded. The influence of Chartism was limited, but it gave the people the opportunity to show they could be organized, sensible, and most importantly, respectable. Many in Victorian government thought democracy a system that was only viable if managed by people who had proved to be ‘respectable'. There were Chartists who believed in ‘physical force’, and after the Kennington Common disaster in 1848 were portrayed as revolutionary and dangerous, but Chartism was simply not a violent organization, and it showed in their motto: “Peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must”. The momentum of Chartism eventually waned, but their very existence had left their cause alive and thriving, subdued only by the mid-Victorian surge in trade and prosperity, which created a lull in violent protest. However, while arguably the failure of pure violence in causing democratic change led to the forming of Chartism, which used much violent language if not deeds, and the latter failed as well, clearly any kind of deliberate, planned violence left the Government unfazed. Indeed, the second and third Reform Acts (1867; 1884) and the Ballot Act (1872) were passed in times of relative peace, with only impulsive, small-scale riots prior to their passage, suggesting that violent acts in any political context only cooled any support for a cause. This was something of a trend throughout the whole of the Victorian era and early twentieth century.
Similarly, when the Suffragettes took up militancy several decades later, they achieved very little in spite of the huge amount of attention they received. But the tactics of the suffragettes were very clever, and they started a trend that directed violence mostly towards property instead of people. They physically attacked MPs as well, but as Mrs Pankhurst said, “Men care about property more than they care for human life”. If anything, they got their message clearly across. Although it is very debatable whether militancy did more for their cause than the peaceful, diplomatic NUWSS. Many at the time called the Pankhursts hypocritical, since Emmeline Pankhurst directed the WSPU in an almost authoritarian manner in their efforts to achieve full democracy (Paula Bartley).
Nevertheless, while the few militant organizations the people formed to try and force change achieved very little, clearly the use of violence at least led to greater political consciousness among the working-class, better co-operation, effective leadership, strong organization and improved communication skills, all of which were very effective in peaceful but similarly-orientated organizations such as the Reform League (1865-1867) and the NUWSS.
Violence was almost insignificant in changing the conditions of the workplace and the home:
It is interesting, and somewhat ironic, to observe how afraid government was of a bloody revolution throughout most of the nineteenth century, when so much violence existed in the city-slums, homes and workplaces. Violence was so much part of the Victorian context it is hard to imagine how an increase of it could have persuaded the government to introduce democratic change, even in a more social context, which all of society would have benefited from in the long term. It is also interesting to note how little violence there was to demand domestic change compared to violent demand for political change. For instance, only in 1857 could women divorce cruel husbands, and from 1891 they could live separately from them if they wished. However, it is much more likely, considering the lack of attention NUWSS members got, that these social but also democratic reforms were due more to pressure from the increasingly moral Liberals; even PM Gladstone reported he “could not understand why we chose to introduce...gross inequality against women”.
Illegal and heavily prosecuted until 1824, trade unions since the late eighteenth century struggled to pressurize government to pass social reform that would affect the workplace, working-conditions, and workers. Some turned to violence, as in the Sheffield Outrages (1860s), but had very little success in demanding change. Although arguably, the trade unions’ legalisation in 1871 was a democratic change in itself, and since it had already taken several decades for unionists to achieve that much, it could be taken as a significant step forward. But the trade unions were not violent organizations: they realized only parliamentary activity had any chance of gaining them their aims. Even had little effect but to dub New Unionism militant and increase employers’ reluctance to consider union representatives as equals. So in this sense, violence only served to delay change, because until 1871 frustrated workers sometimes resorted to violence to try and force their way to reform, but the effect was only an increased fear and suspicion of the unions, causing politicians to balk in when asked to recognize the unions.
Strikes were also a dangerous card to play, for both workers and employers. One the one hand, they expressed mass discontent and made government nervous (such as in the 1926 general strike), but on the other, strike are by nature very volatile: they often harmed the strikers more than the employers. A different kind of strike, seen with the suffragettes, was also largely ineffective. The incarcerated women refused to eat, and by doing so ‘forced’ the Government to force-feed them, creating a new type of violence. These actions severely violated all recent, Victorian beliefs of ‘separate spheres’, which the women were disregarding in the utmost, no doubt contributing to growing governmental hostility and exasperation towards the cause for female suffrage.
Over time, fear of revolution waned, and violence became increasingly seen as uncivilized. Women were given better (but far from equal) social rights, and 1889-1891 saw an “explosion” of trade unionism, which led to the creation of many different branches of unionism that took various approaches to industrial relations, paving the way for the success of the Labour party in 1924, and 1929-31. Unlike most working-class formed organizations, trade unions were relatively bloodless, and were verbally quite mild compared to the Chartists. However slowly, and sometimes seemingly insignificantly, there is no doubt trade unions helped to bring about democratic change: the strikes sponsored by New Unions such as the London matchgirl strike and the London Dock strike were both successful, and the popular Trade Disputes Act was passed in 1906. But under no account can violence be credited for bringing about these changes, whether social or political.
Violence was not very significant in achieving democratic change
At best, it served as a catalyst, playing on its fear factor to make the Government realize it could not ignore the expectations of the people any longer
Violence, whether by militant activists or government, upon human life or property, planned or impulsive, was, as from 1819 at Peterloo, only used as a last resort. Arthur Thistlewood reportedly planned to assassinate the entire Tory cabinet because he felt it was the only way to eliminate obstacles to democratic change, and over eighty year later the WSPU resorted to militancy because many women felt it was only thus that they would be heeded. No doubt critics would argue that many exceptions exist to annul this rule, but it must be stressed that Britain in the nineteenth century was first and foremost imperialistic; and that meant a national belief in chivalry, protection of the motherland, and as ‘civilized’ an approach to matters as possible. There are many examples of some who tried to achieve their goals through peaceful, constitutional means, the most famous being the NUWSS before the suffragettes stole the spotlight, and the entire Liberal Government who time and time again tried to delay, minimize and only gradually allow democratic change. It is easy to dismiss peaceful tactics as inefficient, and yet violence as futile in terms of forcing change, but the fact remains that in a century, Britain went from an oligarchic-style parliament to a fully democratic nation. There is much debate as to the precise workings of ‘how?’: Violence and democratic change, simple as it is to say that the former leads to the latter, are more part of a cycle than individual categories in a timeline. In the same way that the egg cannot be claimed to be the sole cause for the existence of the chicken, so is it impossible to consider violence the cause for democratic change. But there is no doubt that without one, the other would almost certainly not have taken place.
And a bibliography that goes with it could be:
Adelman, P. Victorian Radicalism, The middle class experience 1830-1914, Longman, 1996
Bartley, P. Emmeline Pankhurst - the role of the suffragette leader, History Review, 2003
Behagg, Clive. Labour and Reform, Working Class Movements 1815-1914, Hodder and Stroughton, 1992
Butler, L. Britain in the twentieth century: A documentary reader, Volume 1, Heinemann, 1995
Carlyle, T. Chartism, London J. Fraser, 1840
Chase, M. Chartism: a New History, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2007
Godfrey, E. Jujitsu Suffragettes, BBC History Magazine, 2012
Hamburger, J. James Mill and the Art of Revolution, Yale University Press, 1963
Hernon, I. Riot!: Civil Insurrection from Peterloo to the Present Day, Pluto Press, 2006
Howarth, Janet. Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Oxford University Press.
Lang, S. Chartism and Violence, Modern History Review, 2011
Midwinter, E.C., Victorian Social Reform, Longman, 1988
Pugh, M. Votes for Women, Perspectives, 1990
Royle, E. Chartism, Longman Seminar Studies in History, 1999
Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin History, 1963.
Walton, J.K. What did the Chartists achieve? Modern History Review, 2011
Windscheffel, Dr. A. What is Democracy? November 2014