Reformers with feet of clay
A history of reform movements might reveal not how reformers brought radical change, but how, once having achieved their object, they became uninterested in further reform.
The electoral reform of 1884 created virtual universal suffrage for men, yet the attainment of the right to vote did not prompt the newly enfranchised to support other aspects of reform. In 1886, men given the vote two years previously voted in huge numbers to eject the government of Gladstone who was proposing Home Rule for Ireland. Being allowed the right to vote did not elicit sympathy for those who sought the right of self-determination.
Ireland itself became a place where reformers became vehement opponents of reform. The Irish revolution was described as the most conservative in history; the government of the newly-formed Irish Free State embarked upon reversing socially-progressive legislation, cutting old age pensions, abolishing divorce, establishing clerical rule, and reducing the rights of women.
Women themselves had struggled hard for the right to vote, yet the franchise meant a majority of them voted for the very Tory Party from which had come the loudest voices opposed to women’s suffrage.
The habit of those who benefited from reforms becoming conservative continued through the Twentieth Century. The introduction of sexual equality legislation by the Labour government in 1975, introducing a major raft of rights for women, did not inhibit the majority of women from voting for the party of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, a party among whose ranks there had been the opponents of equality.
Similarly, racial equality measures contributed to the marginalisation of racist voices and allowed the rise of members of the black and minority ethic communities in every sphere of the economy and in every sector of society. It is a rise that led to a conservative shift by those who benefited from the reforms. The present right-wing ministry of Boris Johnson has politicians from Asian communities occupying two of the four great offices of state.
So it is with Brexit that those who gained their goal have shed aspirations towards further reforms. Johnson has already declared that there will be no alignment with European Union standards, that environmental and health provisions may be disregarded, that workers’ rights will not be protected.
Anyone who might now feel surprised that a radical reform is immediately followed by a disregard for the disadvantaged has failed to understand a century and a half of history. Like everyone else, reformers are people with feet of clay.
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