Monday, September 02, 2002

Votes for Sale

William Cobbett stood for Parliament in Honiton in 1806 - his autobiography gives an explicit description of the corruption in parliamentary elections in the early 1800s:

Now, as to the state of this borough, who shall describe it?
Who shall describe the gulph wherein have been swallowed the fortunes
of so many ancient and respectable families? There was, the electors
would tell you, no bribery. They took a certain sum of money each,
according to their consequence; 'but this', they said, 'came in the
shape of a reward after the election and, therefore, the oath might be
safely taken'. Considered as a question of morality, how contemptible
this subterfuge was need hardly be noticed; but, to say the truth, they
did not deceive themselves, and I must do them the justice to say, that
they were not very anxious to deceive anybody else. They told you,
flatly and plainly, that the money which they obtained for their votes,
was absolutely necessary to enable them to live; that, without it, they
could not pay their rents; and that, from election to election, poor
men ran up scores at the shops, and were trusted by the shopkeepers,
expressly upon the credit of the ensuing election; and that, thus, the
whole of the inhabitants of the borough, the whole of the persons who
returned two of the members to every parliament, were bound together in
an indissoluble chain of venality.
The poorest of the people made a sort of pun upon my name as
descriptive of my non-bribing principles, and moulded their sentiments
into a cry of: 'Bread and Cheese, and no empty Cupboard'; and some of
them in a very serious and mild manner, remonstrated with me upon my
endeavour to deprive them of the profits of their vote, or, in their
own phrase, ' to take the bread out of poor people's mouths'.

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