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Who Could Vote in Downton Abbey?

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DOWNTON ABBEY SEASON 3
PBS

It should come as no surprise that Barack and Michele Obama are Downton Abbey fans -- so much so that they requested DVDs of the show's third season in advance of its premiere. Downton is nothing if not entertaining. But it is also intensely political, raising questions that would surely interest the Obamas, given their recent history. Among them: Who at Downton was allowed to vote?

The answer, at the start of season one, was no one. Not a single resident of Downton Abbey was allowed to vote for the local member of Parliament.

At the time, Downton was home to eight Crawleys (including the new arrivals Matthew and Isobel) and ten servants, headed by the majestic Mr. Carson and the level-headed Mrs. Hughes. Of those 18, not one had the franchise in 1912. Despite extensive 19th century reforms, only Brits with property interests, broadly defined, were trusted to cast ballots. Live-in servants -- along with women, children, and other household dependents -- would be represented by their master.

Except that, at Downton, their master was also a Lord. And as a member of the House of Lords -- at the time an exclusively hereditary privilege -- he wasn't allowed to cast a vote at Downton.

Not that Lord Grantham lacked political power. Until 1911, the 200 or so members of the House of Lords could veto legislation emanating from the House of Commons; after 1911, they could still delay or modify it. Given that the population of Great Britain at the time was about 45,000,000, Lord Grantham's one vote at Westminster could offset the political desires of roughly 2,000,000 of his fellow Britons!

And yet he couldn't vote for an M.P.

But couldn't Matthew Crawley, a lawyer, vote at Downton? No, because he had yet to meet the one-year residency requirement that helped tie votes to property. (Most likely, though, he could have voted at his previous address.) More surprisingly, he could have cast a second vote as a University graduate (helping to choose an MP to represent his alma mater). The idea of one man, one vote was not a British concept. Some men had no vote; others, oddly, had two or more.

Like Matthew Crawley, Carson, the butler, may have owned property outside of Downton, as a retirement hedge. If so, he would have been able to vote for the member of Parliament representing that location.

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, would have also been allowed to cast a ballot, and not simply because Maggie Smith's character always gets her way. In the wake of an 1870 reform, she could elect school board members (since the care of children was considered an appropriately female concern) and poor law guardians, who distributed public funds to another dependent class, the poor. But she could not vote for members of parliament. That after all, would have given her power over men.

Only as a widow, with no husband to represent her property rights, was Violet allowed to vote at all. Married women (like Cora) were represented by their husbands. And unmarried women (like Ladies Mary, Sybil and Edith) by their father. Had Lord Grantham been allowed to vote at Downton, he would have been doing so on behalf of a gaggle of family members and retainers.

What a difference four years makes, and not just on TV! The Great War of 1914 to 1918 wrought changes far from the battlefields of Europe. As footmen, Thomas and William hadn't been allowed to vote. But now they had traded their liveries for military uniforms.

During the war, the call to allow servicemen to vote grew too loud for Parliament to ignore. But why only men? If Thomas and William could no longer be denied the vote, after fighting alongside their social betters, what about Sybil in her nurse's whites? Once "universal" suffrage was extended to men, women's suffrage took on a new urgency. If sacrifice for the nation was the rationale for the expansion of the electorate, then why should women nurses, ambulance drivers and munitions workers be excluded?

That argument carried the day, with the Representation of the People Act of 1918, passed by a huge majority in the House of Commons. But some women were still thought to be too unstable; no woman under 30 could cast a ballot, and a few of the property restrictions were retained -- for women only. (Tellingly, if women had received the franchise on equal terms with men, female voters would have been in the majority, given how many men had perished in the war.) Also, in a kind of continuation of the disenfranchisement of the less-than-manly, conscientious objectors were not allowed to vote in the immediate post-war elections. Ineligibility to vote, once the province of women, was now bestowed on men who had refused to fight.

If at the start of season one not a single member of the household could vote for a Yorkshire MP, by the end of season two (1920) the great majority of the characters could do so. The exceptions included Bates (a convicted felon) and Daisy, who was not yet 30. (Women would win the right to vote on equal terms with men in 1928.)

Nationally, the size of the electorate increased threefold as a result of the 1918 reforms -- far more than at any time in England's history. And of course the newly enfranchised will make demands on government. A redistribution of social and economic power will occur in Britain in the 1920s, with patterns of taxation adjusted to fit the new electorate. The enfranchisement of everyone, upstairs and downstairs, will have repercussions, which Julian Fellowes will no doubt incorporate into his scripts. The Obamas will be watching.

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