Were the South Wales Chartists, who campaigned for the vote and ultimately marched on Newport in 4th November 1839, concerned about human rights? On the face of it, the six point charter that they wanted to see introduced was about very specific changes to the political system rather than fighting for basic rights, but the historical context suggests their battle was about much more than just the vote.
Chartism was a movement that captured the imagination of middle and working class people in the 1830s, most of whom did not have the right to vote. Members of Parliament at the time were required to be independently wealthy as MPs weren’t paid. They were also required to own property. Those who could vote could not do so in secret and constituencies often didn’t reflect the explosion in population that had come about as a result of the industrial revolution. Many people felt that parliament was not representing the views of most people in Britain.
In addition, Wales had a strong tradition of cyfiawnder or justice, partly based on relatively egalitarian Welsh medieval laws. All of this led many people in Wales to support the Chartist cause passionately. Support didn’t die with the conviction of the ringleaders for high treason. Across Britain, people continued to campaign for the charter to become law and slowly, the political system in the United Kingdom began to change. Since 1918, all men aged over 21 have been eligible to vote and in 1928 that was extended to include women over 21 too. Human rights, as well as civil rights are also better protected now than they were when the Chartists stood trial.
The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) was signed on 4th November 1950, exactly 111 years after the Chartists marched on Newport. It paved the way for other legislation, including Britain’s Human Rights Act, which came into force in October 2000 and which incorporates the ECHR into UK Law. The Human Rights Act includes the right to Free Elections and enshrines in law one of the points of the People’s Charter – the right to secret ballot:
“The Human Rights Act requires the government to support your right to free expression by holding free elections at reasonable intervals.
The elections must enable you to vote in secret.
The right to free elections only applies to those who are eligible to vote under UK law.
What the law says
Protocol 1, Article 3: Right to free elections
The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”
The European Convention of Human Rights is clearly relevant to the early battles of the Chartists, but what would they make of the current Government’s proposed changes? According to the Conservative party’s pre-election manifesto it plans to:
“Scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights, so that foreign criminals can be more easily deported from Britain.”
and replace it with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities which will:
- Make Britain the ultimate arbiter of human rights in this country – ensuring our Supreme Court is supreme
- Balance rights with responsibilities”
The Chartists, had a keen sense of what these rights should be. Their legacy lives on in our legislation and in our political system today. 22 of the Gwent Chartists died fighting for the political rights we now enjoy. The Chartists would have strived to keep our politicians accountable, whatever their political persuasion, to ensure that the rights that they fought for remain enshrined in law, and in today’s context they would certainly have looked very closely at what was being won and lost in changes to the Human Rights Act, and how people’s lives would be impacted.