Why you should care
Because “You can’t always get what you want” hasn’t always applied.
After making his fortune in India, Sir William Paxton set his sights on a House of Commons seat in the early 1800s. Seemed simple enough to the Scottish-born businessman: He just had to get elected, which he figured would be a whole lot easier if he got the voters blind drunk.
Britain headed to the polls just last week, resulting in a second term for Prime Minister David Cameron. Parliamentary candidates pounded the pavement in predictable fashion beforehand in a bid to preserve — or launch — their political careers. Modern-day expectations meant those candidates were required to present their credentials, defend their records and offer detailed visions for a better future. But rewind 300 years, and these requirements would have been considered laughable.
Elections were opportunities for resourceful rogues to get ahead using financial muscle, loose morals and blatant corruption.
Political accountability wasn’t much of a priority in 18th- and 19th-century English parliamentarian races. Instead, they were opportunities for resourceful rogues to get ahead using financial muscle, loose morals and blatant corruption. Back then, thanks to seats with small constituencies, “it was easy to influence people by bribery and intimidation,” explains Neil Hamilton, a former Conservative MP whose parliamentary career ended in 1997 after he was accused of accepting payments to ask questions in the Commons. “Landowners would buy a seat, buying land with the voters attached,” he adds.
What’s more, politicians back then didn’t even try to be discreet about their bribes. Determined to win over the 2,500 voters in Carmarthen in 1802, Sir William Paxton went to extensive lengths. Over a two-week period, records show, he bought 11,070 breakfasts, 36,091 dinners, 25,275 gallons of ale and 11,068 bottles of spirits. Despite indulging themselves at Sir William’s expense, the electorate still rejected him: Paxton lost by 46 votes. He would have to wait another year before winning a neighboring seat, unopposed.
Discretion did not seem to be a burden for John Mytton, popularly known as “Mad Jack Mytton,” circa 1850: “I wonder whether he is a good timber jumper!” exclaimed Mytton as he attempted to jump a turnpike in a gig. On deciding to seek election as MP for Shrewsbury, he resorted to shamelessly riding around town wearing a coat with 10-pound notes attached to his buttons for lucky voters to snatch. Determined not to be outdone, his opponent, Panton Corbett, walked the streets with his pockets stuffed with gold, making it abundantly clear that a vote for him would not go unrewarded. Alas, his reward was a resounding defeat when he lost to Mytton, 384 to 287.
A longtime scourge of present-day parliamentarians, Channel 4 News political correspondent Michael Crick offers this assessment of dishonorable deeds through the ages: “There are always characters in this world who are grubby chancers,” he tells OZY. Such egotists think they’ll make great leaders, he adds, and “don’t think normal rules apply to them.”
And while the politicians who snagged the most votes last week will, on the whole, endeavor to keep the public on their side — particularly if they need their backing again in five years’ time — such concerns didn’t preoccupy many past MPs. An extreme example would be Anthony Henley, who represented Southampton between 1727 and 1734. After a constituent requested that he vote against a proposed tax reform, Henley responded in a letter: “I am surprised at your insolence in writing to me at all.” Pointing out that he had “bought this constituency” and was “now determined to sell it,” he concluded, “May God’s curse light upon you.” Showing deference to the voter, in other words, “wasn’t the order of the day,” Hamilton points out.
The 1832 Reform Act, supported by Prime Minister Charles Grey, helped transform British politics, making elected representatives more accountable to voters. While it abolished 56 constituencies of the so-called rotten boroughs — the tiny electorates that were easy to influence or buy — 67 new constituencies were created to reflect the growth of cities during the Industrial Revolution. It also gave voting rights to the nation’s growing middle class — more than 300,000 men at the time. A significant step, to be sure, but one that now seems a modest start, as it applied only to property owners earning more than 10 pounds a year — just 20 percent of the adult male population.
And British women would have to wait another 86 years before 8.5 million of them were finally granted the vote. While initially restricted to those older than 30, the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 ensured this was extended to women older than 21 — raising the figure to 15 million.
The reforms didn’t mean that old-fashioned corruption would disappear overnight, but they did make buying off voters far more problematic — or, at the very least, cost prohibitive. “When the rotten boroughs were abolished, the number of voters started to become too big to bribe,” Hamilton says. This left the rogues gallery with more of their riches but with less control over their political destiny.