Sunday, June 6, 2010

These latest volumes of The History of Parliament are the fullest file on Old Corruption ever likely to be compiled, and they finally make it possible to decide how guilty the sweating night-toilers of St Stephen’s really were. They recapitulate everything we already knew and add a lot more besides about the anatomy of power and the mechanism of politics in that bizarre universe of rotten boroughs, pocket boroughs, hustings, open polls, potwallopers, burgages, scot and lot, split votes, straight votes and plumpers. Biographies of the 1367 MPs who sat in the Commons in these years, and histories of the country’s 383 constituencies, fathom the reality behind the polemics of Cobbett and the satire of Dickens and Thomas Love Peacock. These six volumes are crammed with comédie humaine and the parliamentary puppetry that seems, as Blake said, something other than human life. There’s also a masterly volume of summary and analysis by the editor, David Fisher, who dislikes paragraphs and believes in calling a bastard a bastard.


There were no convictions for bribery in this period, but ‘treating’ was pushed to and beyond legal limits. The word ‘tipping’ is reckoned to derive from Tipping Street in Stafford, one of the most venal (and violent) constituencies in the kingdom. ‘Having voted,’ the unsuccessful candidate in the 1826 general election claimed, ‘the voter had a card, which he carried to an adjoining public house, and which instantly produced him eight guineas.’ Rewards of between two and ten guineas were common; in some places a vote was worth 40 or even 60 guineas. The cost of all this could be astronomical, especially in the counties, where electorates were large. In 1826, two contests in Northumberland cost Lord Grey’s son £40,000 (£4 million in today’s money), and his father had to sell an estate to raise the cash. A by-election in Dorset in 1831 is reputed to have cost £80,000: the Whig spent £30,000 and still lost.
John Pemble at the LRB on Georgian Westminster

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