I have spent the last week in the delightful company of two wonderful historians of modern politics, power and representation (if you haven’t come across Birte Förster’s and Hedwig Richter’s work yet, I can only urge you to check it out forthwith. You can start with their books on 1919 and electoral history, for example). Somewhere between thinking through the importance of the Weimar Republic, considering the absence of women’s experiences in historiographies of revolution, and discovering the many sunny terraces of Helsinki, we have also come to some insights about the nature of the practice of writing histories of democracy. And we’ve decided that it is a historiography that could to with a bit more inclusivity and democratization. (Shocking, I know).
As it happens, Birte and Hedwig have already been democratizing a more inclusive history of democracy: earlier this year, they built a twitter-thread of biographies of the first female representatives in the Weimar National Assembly. An edited version, by Mareike König, is now available here – showing not only that relevant and important histories are to be written about these largely forgotten figures, but also that bringing such stories to a public platform is a welcome innovation to the ‘craft’ of the historian, as it allows and indeed encourages a large number of people to interact with the authors and the content they’ve produced.
Writing inclusion into the history of democracy, however, is not the only way to make its historiography more inclusive. Whilst heroic newcomers, such as these early female representatives, deserve to be remembered, studied and perhaps even celebrated, they represent only a small part of the process of ‘democratization’ – and can even obscure the circuitous path such ‘progress’ often takes. What is often missing from narratives of the progressive inclusivity of democracy, are the many failed projects, hopelessly counterproductive measures, anxious returns to tradition, and reactionary counter-revolutions that also play a role in the process of democratization.
My own research tends to stumble across such ambiguity and counter-movements with alarming regularity, and that has everything to do with the deeply meaningful (symbolic) role voices and speech play in the imagination of democracy and its inclusivity. The central role of voices and votes in democracy carry a promise of near-universality: anyone can participate, it seems, as long as they can speak. The dictum of ‘one man, one vote’ – seemingly implying that every ‘voice’ can be heard – conveniently obscures the fact that ‘the ability to speak’ is, firstly, not distributed evenly in cultures that value speech as a political act and, secondly, that speaking and being heard may be very different things indeed.
In fact, the very idea that the ability to speak would become the (only) qualification necessary for political and economic inclusion in the modern world, led to exactly the kind of reactionary response that is so often invisible in histories of the development of representative democracy. In 1880, a contributor to the Cambridge Review wrote, with barely concealed horror, that
“There can be no doubt whatever that with the continued expansion of our political system, and with the gradual opening to the many of professions which have hitherto been confined to the few, the value of trained skill in speech as an instrument for success must immeasurably increase”
His fear was not unfounded: research (such as that of Madeleine Hurd) has shown that for example the working class men who would increasingly gain access to this ‘expanded’ political system were very aware of the value of trained skill in speech, and went to significant lengths to acquire it. The same was true for ‘colonial’ subjects, as I am finding out in my research now. The reaction of those who, until then, had had privileged access to the political system (or at least the large proportion of them who were educated at Oxbridge) was a practical and effective one: debate, oratory and ‘impromptu speaking’ would increasingly become part of the University’s social fabric as well as its curriculum. A change in system that was designed to democratize (one man, one vote, one voice – encouraging equal access to representation for all adult men) effectively encouraged leisurely and educational practices that would ensure the (perceived) superiority of the existing elites. The ‘ability to speak’ was equated with the ability to produce a type or genre of speech that was typical of the debating clubs of Oxbridge, and thus exclusive to its members.
This increasingly dominant genre of speech was not necessarily seen as the most elegant or well-constructed (both Indian and French speakers were commonly thought to be naturally more gifted at oratory, for example). In fact, numerous commentators seem to have prided themselves on the fact that the English national character was ‘not loquacious’ and that
“every one has pitied the forlorn position of an ordinary Englishman addressing his fellow-creatures”.
The real Englishman – or, in fitting Victorian style, the real imperial ruler – therefore distinguished himself not by polished oratory, but by suggesting that he was the kind of man who, deep down and hidden rather than demonstrated by his speech, had some secret knowledge. The best speeches, apparently, suggested intelligence by carefully cloaking it in nonsense and ‘wit’. And so representation and political speech would be a matter of somehow managing to claim audibility and attention by seemingly helplessly bumbling about.
In a political system that rested on debate, on having a voice and being heard; clarity and good oratory could be learned in all kinds of working men’s clubs, societies, classrooms, or even from a book – thus contributing to what seemed like a linear process of democratization and increased inclusivity. However, the skill to produce the particular genre of bamboozling speech that expressed imperial ‘Englishness’ and, indeed, political power, was so confusing and obscure, it could only be acquired at Oxbridge.