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Electoral Morality in the Reformed Era

Taken from N. Gash, The Age of Peel (Edward Arnold, London, 1968), pp. 44-5, with the kind permission of Professor Gash. Copyright of this document, of course, remains with him.

Bribery, corruption, intimidation and various forms of illegitimate influence continued after 1832 and a number of parliamentary committees were set up in an attempt to remedy a situation for which responsibility was shared by both candidates and electors. But the ultimate decision in disputed election cases lay with House of Commons committees who tended to vote on party lines and there was often a vested interest in concealing facts from an enquiry. As a result the sporadic legislation passed between the first and second reform acts to purify elections had little effect. Joseph Parkes, some of whose evidence before a committee of 1835 is given below, was one of the most experienced election agents of the day. A Birmingham solicitor by training and a radical liberal in opinion, he had played an important part as intermediary between the government and the Political Unions in 1832 and late became the most trusted electoral expert of the Liberal party.

Parliamentary Papers 1835 viii (Report on Bribery at Elections), Evidence 1597-1739

I consider that almost every place has a system of corruption peculiar to itself, where the same end is obtained, and the same system of corrupt practices prevail, but in different modes; I have seen many gentlemen openly pay down agreed sums, and before the poll, and I have been privy, that is I have had a personal knowledge: generally speaking, the bribery is contracted to be done after the expiration of the period for petitioning; I am now confining my observations to direct money bribery, but which of course I do not consider to be the only species of bribery; money' s worth is equally bribery.… I mentioned to the Committee, that peculiar customs prevail in particular towns; some towns are particularly free from certain practices of corruption, and other towns from other practices. I never heard in my life of a bribed voter at Warwick, till the election of 1831, though a native of Warwick, and present at many elections, and the demoralising effect of it was most lamentable when once commenced. I heard it insinuated to have taken place in 1831, I am not sure that it was practised then, but in 1832 it was most openly practised.…

Have you observed a perceptible difference in the morality of the town since that practice commenced?

– Very great indeed, from bribery and other corrupt expenditure of money, and also in the state of society.…

I should say that all parties in Warwick, before the contest under the Reform Bill, lived on very amicable terms, both the higher and the lower classes in the town. It is scarcely credible what has subsequently been the effect of party spirit among all classes of society, even between gentlemen and the lower classes, and the consequences have also been most injurious to shopkeepers. The customers extensively transferred their custom, and the tradesmen complain that the wealthy landed proprietors and gentry in the neighbourhood have left them and gone to others; to a certain extent I should think both parties have practically resorted to very exclusive dealing, and all parties, more or less, suffered in their custom. Indeed I know that no prominent member of either party, generally speaking, would have now any dealings with men of opposite party principles; I know that intimate personal friends, and men who used to meet at the same table, are now on hostile terms, and that they speak one of another in language exceedingly disgraceful and very lamentable.…

Do you conceive it to be consequent on the introduction of direct bribery?

– Not consequent on the introduction of bribery alone, but resulting from the whole system of treating, and the election petition presented to expose the corruption, and the legal proceedings afterwards instituted....

With regard to the question of threats and intimidation, and corrupt influence of that species, will you describe that which has come under your observation?

– That class of influence is most extensive, and in many instances, of most pernicious operation, equally in counties as towns; I believe that it occasions a most fraudulent exercise of the franchise, and to a very great extent.

Take counties in the first instance, describe the class of persons on whom it operates?

– In counties the smaller freeholders are naturally very much under the influence of those on whom they are dependent for their subsistence, and of course the tenants are extremely dependent.

The master over the labourer?

– Yes; and the clergymen I know to have most extensive influence in many places.

A minister over a congregation, whether dissenting or otherwise?

– Unquestionably; of course I am not now confining myself to any party allusion.

The creditor over the debtor?

– It applies so much to the tenantry that the poll book is almost a topography of the estates, and it is irrational to suppose, whatever the reasonable or the proper influence of the landlord over the tenantry, that their political opinions are so extremely similar, as in the case of 30 tenants that the whole shall go with the landlord.

Have you known a case in which, from the change of politics on the part of the landlord, the tenantry have voted differently on one election from what they did on the election immediately previous?

– I have known the most remarkable instances; I have known a landlord correspond with a candidate on the subject of the corn laws, and I have known him send a list of the whole of his tenants, and that he should come with them and vote one way or the other, according to the explanation he received from the candidate.…

Is it a common thing for a candidate to ask permission of a landlord to canvass his tenants?

– It is, ordinarily. I do not consider it always an act of propriety to canvass amongst the tenants of a landlord on either side, and particularly my own side, without having the landowner's leave, and it is a common practice for us to write to request leave to canvass them.…

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