Hello and welcome to the Shed, and a new mini series of shedcasts, Parliament, Politics and Party. I had a couple of problems I should share with you about arriving at a title for the series. The first came from my typing skills or lack of them – when I looked at my title, it turned out I had written Parliaments politics and Pasties, which in reflection sounds as though it might be more fun. But more importantly, I needed a title that didn’t commit me to covering the entirety of 800 years of English and British politics in one mini series – after all that’s what the History of England is for, and I can’t eat my own creation!
So I ended where I ended, but I had better explain the scope. The midwife of this mini series was none other than Roifield Brown, with whom I set up a series some of you might know called the Things that Made England, and were joined then by Luke and then Fiona. So Roifield says to me one day he says ‘dave’, he says, why don’t we do a series about Party politics in the UK? Alright I said, let’s do it Roif, and so a series on party politics was born, as a series of conversations, which you can hear absolutely for free.
So that is at the heart of what follows. But I decided to take this into my own shedcast because I suspect there are but a few of you who listen to TTME, and it seems unfair on you to miss out what is a very fun topic. An act of public mercy, if you like. Secondly, there are pros and cons to doing a podcast with another person. The big pro is that Roifield is there, with a different voice and perspective, and also he knows politics after 1914 and frankly, I don’t, nor do I care. To be interesting to me, frankly, you have to have been dead at least 100 years – preferably longer. So the Roifield partnership is good for that. But I have cons too. My problem with collaborations is panic – it’s a conversation, so I panic, add in inanities, talk tripe, miss things that are crucial about and talk like an idiot, which frankly, gives me the podcasting equivalent of hangxiety, which is a neat a word to which my daughter recently introduced me on the morning after a boozy night out. It’s the worry you have the following day as scraps of memory of your possibly drunken behaviour the night before start turning up. Hangxiety.
Finally, though, I realise that some of you will have heard that series; so I have decided to add in a bit more broaden it out a bit. So this is not just about the development of party politics, though it is about that; it is also about the development of parliament, the practice of elections and electioneering, and of participatory politics. So if you have heard TTME, hopefully you won’t think this is a swiz, and you’ll get extra out of it.
Right have I justified myself adequately? Then I shall begin. So to start with a bit of context. Political parties in the UK, and indeed everywhere, seem like a natural and indeed almost inevitable thing in the modern political idiom; but in the organised way we think of them, they are categorically not of long standing, and really are a response to nascent arrival of democracy. I was going to quote you the OED definition of democracy, but it goes on for ages, verbal diarrhoea, so let me lift a bit –
a system of government in which all the people of a state or polity…are involved in making decisions about its affairs
So party organisation really comes with democracy, which you might argue is as late as 1930 in the UK, after all Women get the vote, though for the purposes of this, I’d say full blooded party politics really gets into its stride from the 1868 Reform Act.
However, that then gets us into the nature of a polity where, and I requote ‘all the people…are involved in making decisions about it’s affairs’. I mean we aren’t involved now directly in a way, we have someone who speaks for us; so what I mean in this context is really mass voting. As far as being involved in political decision making; well a Medieval MP might make an argument that the whole community has been involved in decision making since the 13th century. While I admit that I am stretching a point, and indeed stretching a point so tight it’s as thin as butter scraped over cold toast, it’s a critical point; that our ancestors thought very differently about representation.
This gives me an opportunity to remind you of the genesis of England’s Parliament which might be said to begin in Anglo Saxon times – I mean really it doesn’t, the Witan was a meeting of the great men of the realm without a representative function really, but don’t say that to Edward Coke or John Lilburne during the English revolution – you’d get a right earful. They abso-jolly-lutely believed it was a core part of the AS state, which was alive and well until the Norman yoke descended onto our shoulders and crushed it; and that belief in fake history has been a powerful force for constitutional change, so don’t knock it. A dodgy grasp of history is essential to the health of any nation. Discuss. Although fake history is also responsible for a lot of evils too, it must be said.
Then there’s an argument to say that parliament was born in Magna Carta just before lunchtime at 12:15; which it really isn’t, but, spookily, a clerk described it as the ‘parlement of Runnymede’ which is prophetic. But the date I’d pick is 1254; the Scots claim 1235 for their first parliament by the way.
Anyway 1254 is the start of the principle of representation In England since knights were summoned from the Shires to represent their community; in 1265, Simon de Montfort added the burgesses of the towns, and representation is a go – because the knights of the shire and the burgesses of the towns are there to give the agreement of the places they represent, to agree that their communities will be taxed, and while they are there, to represent the concerns of their community by presenting petitions to the king. Petitioning is thus every bit as old a component in politics as representation. Let’s not turn this into another British Constitutional history shedcast, but the point is that the lack of a vote for every person does not necessarily mean either that people do not have a voice nor that they do not participate.
In 1340 there was a document called Modus Tendendi Parliamentum, how to hold a parliament, which to be frank was probably highly idealised and the reality was no doubt more chaotic, but its principles were central. And in it appears the statement
‘…it is to be understood that the two knights who come to parliament for the shire carry more weight…than the greatest earl of England’
They carry that weight not because of the pasties, but because they represent many families, not just one. In there then is the principle of representation – and we’ll really get going on that when we get in a moment to the English Revolution and of course the warblers of the 18th century. But hold on to the fact that right from the start, at its heart, parliament is not about power, wealth status – it’s about community and representation. It’s easy to be cynical about this – because it’s of course the powerful who will people parliament right up to the later 19th century; but despite any levels of contempt for the idea of us ordinary folks having the intelligence and breeding to make proper decisions, nonetheless that principle of acting on behalf of their community is central to belief of every Englishman and woman, certainly from the 15th century. MPs often wrote back to their constituents telling them what was going on, particularly in the 17th century and onward as literacy grew; during the English revolution there is a lot of concerns from MPs as negotiations proceeded with Charles, that whatever happened they must be able to square any agreement with their constituents. By the time of the English Revolution in the 17th century, parliament and law are held in as much reverence as the King.
Representative government of course takes over the world. There is quite a lot of fuss about the idea of direct democracy at the moment because I suppose in theory technology enables the idea of vast numbers of people taking part in a debate and then voting. It sounds like utter chaos to me and an excuse to short termism and awful decisions like B…somethings which cannot be named. I think the only country that gets close is Switzerland apparently. Don’t know if that’s true but I read it, and certainly when I last went for any extended period – 40 some years ago – they were all having a vote about bins so could be, and the Swiss seem pretty well set up by all accounts. The people I stayed with were very, very, very pleased about being Swiss. Did I put in enough ‘verys’?
But I suspect there are a few reasons for people liking the idea; maybe a distrust of politicians is one – I am in a minority of one here of thinking we judge politicians way too harshly, but over here it’s true we have recently had some spectacularly bad experiences. And there’s a feeling that’s there’s a lot of chummying going on, corruption, politicians making decisions on a personal basis – give power back to the people and it’ll be all right none of the people would ever be guilty of such things! But also I’m not sure people here anyway actually understand what the principle of representative government is. Let me share with you a poll which asked if an MP should do exactly what the people who elected them tells them – delegates of a faction effectively – or if they should make the best decisions for all their constituents on the basis of their best judgement. You are clever people know the right answer, but 83% of people in the UK did not.
I feel I am lecturing a bit here with my views on direct democracy, sorry, but the trouble with direct democracy is that you are asking people to make a decision when it’s not really their full time job or their profession, they will likely have limited facts and time for discussion; and will never be held permanently to account for their decision. And so the danger is short termism. This is not a new thought; David Hume has already thought of it. And actually David Hume was good at thinking of things, to be fair. He worried of the danger of that:
‘Incurable narrowness of soul that prefers the immediate to the remote’
Now around that time, late 18th century, there was a lot of thinking going on, and warbling I suppose, so there are a couple more folk who had opinions on the role of the representative. The Irishman Edmund Burke wrote that
‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’
And Thomas Madison also weighed in on the topic with a slightly broader perspective of what that meant in terms of the strength of a representative democracy
“The effect is to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the nation…”
Now going back to 1340, I suspect the greatest earl of England would laugh until he stopped at the idea that mere knights were his equal, and then give a knight of a shire a kick up the backside to make the point, but in terms of their role at parliament, there it is.
Let us talk then, in this next section, about parliament generally to the 19th century, and holding elections. So, that representative role, and its early identification led to a curious, and unusual development in the English parliament, which is very important. Parliaments are not unusual in medieval Europe in fact they are two a penny; it’s not until the 17th century when Absolutism on the continent starts closing them down, to the admiration and envy of Charles I, and his despairing cries of ‘my turn, my turn!’. By the 14th century, the English parliament is bicameral – the lords temporal and spiritual sit together in the White Chamber, and the king invites them individually by name, and the peers at least are invited on their own account; not as a representative. They represent no one, except maybe their Mum. The MPs from Shires and towns, and indeed universities, sit separately in the church of St Stephen. In pretty much every other place there are three estates – not two – peers, clergy and towns; and they sit in the same place. This is so important. In the unicameral Scottish parliament, voting was done in order of precedence – so the magnates went up first. Their lairds – noble in their own right but all clients of the Magnates – were under enormous pressure to follow their regional magnate’s lead. He king also might well be watching them, and taking notes. In the House of Commons clientship that was still there and super important also, don’t get me wrong – but at one step removed.
Now the House of Lords dominated parliament throughout the middle ages and Tudor days; but by the 14th century, the role of the House of Commons is well established; crucially, public taxation cannot be levied without their consent, delivered through the representatives of the communities.
The basic structures of a whole load of things about the way parliament operates are set by the 15th century, and maybe 16th; and the nature of medieval society it. Now when I were a lad at school when we weren’t dealing with emotions connected with hormones or biology and found a moment to concentrate on the history, and we did the 1832 reform act, we found the nature of the English parliament just – incomprehensible. But consider. Medieval society is very hierarchical – so of course it’s the gents that vote and go to parliament as MPs. Also throughout society, innovation is a four letter word – everything is about custom, what we’ve always done; it’s not about liberty in a general hand waving sense, it’s about liberties – some right or concession or way of working you have in your area. So there are enormous variations; and representation might be for corporate bodies and organisations as much as for people or territories. So just for instance – the two universities Oxford and Cambridge, sent MPs, and didn’t lose that right til 1868 I think.
By the way, do you know of the convention, which survives to this day of calling the House of Commons, ‘the other place’? The name, the ‘House of Lords’ starts to be used from the 16th century, and when a member sits down they talk about this place, and the Commons as the other place. No one knows why. But apparently, the same happens between Oxford and Cambridge. Though I don’t know, maybe that’s dead and gone now.
So, everything’s based on custom and practice. The most obvious expression of that is in the franchises for the vote in the boroughs, the definition of who gets a vote; they are as many and varied as the shells on the beach. But to try and make it simple, there are three main types. There are corporation boroughs; Here, to vote you actually have to be a member of the corporation, and that is a very small bunch of oligarchs. A bit more open are those boroughs with a property qualification. There’s no set universal qualification – Heavens forbid how dull that would be – but you need a household and income from it. I have kept the third, and the best, to last which are residential boroughs, you had to live there to vote. There are delightful variations. So there’s a Scot and lot franchise – both of these are taxes paid to the borough in proportion to your wealth. If you pay a certain level you get to vote. And then there’s a Potwalloper – this is rather later 18th century thing, but this seems the place to mention it. So potwallopers got the vote by having a separate fireplace on which food was cooked for themselves and the family. Potwalloper.
There are loads of other weird franchises; none based on pastis sadly, but the Cinque Ports got MPs, the Universities, the Duchy of Cornwall had its own rules, the Duchy of Lancaster. I mean – I know. It’s all remarkably daft and random. And I am sure it’s all much better now that everything is streamlined and standardised. But – less fun don’t you think? I’d love to be a potwalloper.
The Franchise for Counties is indeed much more standardised; it’s income from property of 40s a year, or two quid. That is set in 1430, and I don’t think changes until the 18th century. It’s got a bizarre anti Whiggishness about it; you kind of assume that things will gradually get more democratic. But it’s not true; from the 15th century to the 18th century the percentage of the population voting goes up and up because there’s inflation so by 1660 people will be saying ‘ooh 40s can’t buy you what it used to’ and about 30% of blokes get to vote. Then in the 18th century population grows like topsy, so the percentage voting actually falls. But there’s no changing that 40s figure, oh dearie me no – that’s the way it’s always been, that.
A few things about the way parliament operates. You might note that one of the most important officers of the house, the Speaker, first appears as Peter de la Mare in the Good Parliament of 1376. Now there’s a firm tradition that Speaker is the faithful hound of the House; after all everyone surely knows William Lenthall’s line during the English Revolution. Picture the scene; parliament is sitting, stormy times; a plot by the king has been discovered to raise the army against parliament, all the reforms so far achieved are in danger. Suddenly there is a ruckus, ladies and gentlemen, there is no other suitable word – a ruckus most grave. And into St Stephens, where the parliament sat, burst 400 royalist soldiers! And then – the king himself walked into to the outraged and terrified house, looking remarkably like Alec Guiness. The king had come to visit – but not in a good way. The King had come to nip this revolution in the proverbials by arresting the incendaries. But to his horror, the 5 MPs, the ringleaders, John Pym and his chumps – they had fled. Charles looked at Lenthal and demanded to know whither the birds had flown, and Lenthal replied
I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me”
Well, brave and noble stuff. Actually the most surprising thing about this story is how on earth Lenthall – who’s from my current neck of the woods in Henley incidentally – found the balls to say such a thing. Rather short on balls normally, and a notable suck up. But it made him immortal. And that’s the image of the Speaker – servant and organiser of the house, impartial voice between the parties, and currently elected by vote of the whole house. And the first Speaker Peter de la Mare is a fine example of that tradition – taking on the might of the Lords and king in 1376, in the Good Parliament. But between Peter de la Mare and the mid 19th century, the Speaker of the Commons was really an agent of the Crown, and in the 18th century, of the Government. The King and or Government discuss what had gone on in parliament, and with the Speaker decided on the agenda and how to manage it effectively. In fact the development of the general parliamentary Grand committees of the House was in part to have discussions away from the beady eyes of the Speaker. It’s a shame. I know they say the truth is stranger than fiction – but it really if often isn’t, is it?
It might be a nice idea to talk about parties at this point, because after all, that is what you’ve all come for. And although it might seem a daft question, I’m going to ask what a political party is. Feelings generally are not always positive about political parties, and before the end of the 17th century, and for much of the 18th century, people weren’t used to them; that wasn’t what happened. Oh there’d often been factions and allegiances – but when managerial politics appeared it was viewed with great distaste. Jonathan Swift was furious and complained about the ‘Damned business of party’ when the Whigs and Tories came to prominence. And if you think about what had happened before you can sort of understand why. Factions were often grouped around great men; or coalesced around particular issues – to then split up again until the next issue came up. The things they thought about might be driven by the needs of their constituents and that was right and proper; but the objective was consensus – the idea of any responsibility to oppose as we have now, was utterly alien to MPs in the 17th century.
In fact as a little digression I think it is interesting the way votes were taken in parliament and how that changes. Up until 1532, votes were taken simply by general acclamation and an announcement as to the larger noise; I am maybe being fanciful, but maybe this speaks to a search for consensus which makes a vote, by the time you get there, usually uncontentious – it’s just rubber stamping. In 1523, though, under Henry VIII this was changed – at a crucial money bill the MPs were asked to physically separate; and Henry VIII used the technique again in the Reformation parliament, and it became embedded, a vote became a division – there were no division lobbies, the noes went outside, the yeah’s stayed inside I think. Now there was a nefarious reason why Henry VIII did this; he wanted to see who opposed him so he could nobble them. But you have to think it’s a more solid way of doing it rather than who can shout loudest, which doesn’t really feel very professional. But am I being fanciful in thinking that it also speaks to the growth of adversarial politics, in a small way? During the civil wars, votes would be often very adversarial and very close, and tellers appear – people to count people in. And also report back on who was in and who out to their colleagues – being a teller in a debate usually suggested being intimately interested in that issue, and closely connected with it.
Anyway, maybe – maybe not. Who can say. At the heart of the fury about emerging parties though I suppose is the idea there’s another contender for loyalty here, in addition to truth or the right thing – surely if everyone address each issue with an open mind, no one would shout in debates, they’d all come to an understanding in a mature fashion, and select the best solution. Then bunnies would hop around green fields again with white cottony tails, and at the end of every session MPs would come together to hug and kiss before going home to their families. Instead, there’s this party thing – people being forced to vote in a particular way otherwise the party managers would withdraw some bit of patronage or whatever. The party is the thing not the issue. And so we get to Mark Twain’s dictum on political parties that
men think they think upon great political questions and they do; but they think with their party, not independently…where the party leads they will follow, whether for right and honour, or through blood and dirt and a mush of mutilated morals.
That negativity feeds through to how some have defined parties. The historian Anson Morse defined them as
a durable organization united by common principles which has for its immediate end the advancement of the interests and the realization of the ideals… of the particular group or groups which it represents
That’s fair enough; but doesn’t sound very noble. Advancing a faction. Another definition is even dicier I think, adding the very equivocal line that
It is common for the members of a party to hold similar ideas about politics, and parties may promote specific ideological or policy goals
That made me laugh actually – OK, so it’s only sometimes that people in a party hold similar views then? The question of why else are they there then is the one that makes us nervous – power, wealth, an expense account, add to list as required!
The Constitutional historian A V Dicey is the most damning, calling them
Conspiracies which sacrifice the public interests to sectional interests.
Ouch. I’m going to go for Edmund Burke again though, he seems like a nice lad
“a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed”.
I think that sounds more reputable, more the sort of thing you’d put on a statue in Trafalgar Square. We’ll go for that, or I will anyway.
Before the Stuart age, then, parties didn’t really exist. Well political ones anyway. You can discern maybe the beginnings of them; Court and Country maybe a shadowy shared view of MPs who distrusted the religion and politics of the court and centre, against those royalists and royal placemen & office holders. Maybe during 1645-7 period, the Presbyterians and Independents, that’s a bit more solid. But before the later Stuarts, this is the way it worked, and it legislated against organised parties, they were not long lived coalitions.
The very structure of power operated against powerful parties. Power resided with the monarch. Ministers, the government essentially, were appointed by the crown they worked for the crown they were its creatures; and indeed not all ministers on the Privy Council had to sit in parliament, either Lords or Commons. The Crown & Court sets policy not parliament. Parliament’s role is to provide taxes, and bring grievances from the constituencies. Maybe consultation, but James and Charles neither of them really agreed with the idea of parliament getting involved with what they called the arcane mysteries of strategy, for which consideration only the king’s brain was sufficiently large. Parliament is an occasional institution called by the monarch, not a permanent part of the constitution.
Parties will begin to emerge as a number of these factors change. As the Power of the monarch is slowly reduced in favour of parliament – a process called ‘storming the closet’. This is a phrase with unfortunate connotations to the more childish like me, but we are all adults here and there’s no water involved – what it means is that Commoners metaphorically break into the King’s private chamber where decisions are made by him and his great men – and take that power back to parliament. As parliament’s power grows, so does the scope of its role of course – and the house acquires the critical new role of holding government to account. Even more important, is the arrival of democracy – the growth of a public sphere, with a wider political nation, whether voting or not, which cannot be ignored, and which is politically well informed. And the arrival of mass politics, and the demands of communication that imposes takes us yet further down the line.
Now I am not used to doing such long podcasts, and I feel you need a break from the politics, so let’s have 30 seconds of Music from Wayne Hill and Vision On
I hope you enjoyed that – I know I feel calmer, and I hope you have had some great and important thoughts.
Let me talk to you about the impact of the English Revolution some more and how it changes politics in a few specific ways. There is a view; I think Blair Wordern in his lovely, and surprisingly short, book on the British Civil Wars – I don’t think he’d be dead calling it the English Revolution, could be wrong – that really the English Revolution achieves pretty much nowt, all is flushed away in the greattoilet that in the Restoration. Although I am without doubt not worthy so much as to pick up the crumbs from under Blair Wordern’s table, I beg to differ, although he’s largely right constitutionally; though there are so many ideas released from the bottle, the Levellers, full adult male vote, and in a speech in 1649 by Henry Marten the expression and definition of parliamentary sovereignty. And in terms of participatory politics I do beg to disagree, a genie is indeed released from the bottle.
The big one I think is in terms of a public sphere. I always think the importance of us ordinary folks to the nobility in English politics is a little understated; I think of the great Earl of Warwick in the Wars of the Roses and the acclamation of London; and then there’s the strenuous efforts of James I to explain himself to his subjects in his spats with parliament. But either way, there are many things in the Revolutionary period that transform the way politics works. Under Charles after 1641 censorship collapses and there is a riot of print, an explosion, a veritable tropical storm that has words dripping down the window panes of society and flooding through the minds of the literate, and indeed the illiterate they have these works recited to them; there are ballads and newsbooks and pamphlets and libels and broadsheets. At the same time, the middling sort is growing in strength, wealth and number, and they are literate anyway. In the maelstrom of choosing sides, gentry appeal to the people in a variety of ways; one example is petitioning, and petitions pour in from towns and country – one comes in December 1641 from Somerset, just for instance, with 14,000 signatures. In 1641 people all over the country line up to swear to the Protestation Oath an expression of the full comunity.
As far as parliament was concerned, transparency was considered a right; the halls of Westminster Palace were full of noise and confusion, shops and two drinking houses, one called Heaven and the other Hell. People were rarely thrown out of the precincts; there is an exception in 1652 when a young man was ejected after asking for the Attorney General and MP, Edmund Prideaux. He wasn’t removed because this was illegal or unusual – it’s just that he’d entered Westminster Hall on horse back, wearing full armour and carrying an arrow. Try doing that now, I daresya’. Even debates were the doors were shut, were hardly private; because you could stand outside in the lobby and hear what was said; and reporting of what went on in parliament – the factions, the people, the debates – was greater than ever before. It was considered important to be open; so in 1646 there was a debate about whether a ballot box should be used, to replace public divisions with private voting for MPs. It was rejected because
Truth needs no corners nor to use any such privacy
The result of all this is a highly politicised nation. And one which the gentry felt honour bound to represent – the historian David Underdown for example concludes that
‘the gentry articulated the grievances of a wide spectrum of county opinion. They articulated those grievances, they did not create them.
Simmonds D’Ewes was a parliamentarian in the Civil wars, but he was no leveller, and staunchly conservative; and yet his diary contains a sentence you might expect to come from Colonel Harrison or John Lilburne’s lips. In D’Ewes lips, it speaks not of Democracy, but of representation again:
That the poorest man ought to have a voice, that was the birthright of the subjects of England
One more quote for you, which is about the explosion of print and ideas in the Revolution. Samuel Hartlib was born in Royal Prussia, and came to England in 1630; he was an intellectual, dedicated to the growth of knowledge, and a key intellectual figure of the Commonwealth. While many were a bit horrified by all this print and weird and wonderful ideas flooding England’s politics, raising up the ordinary people to have ideas above their station, Samuel was a big fan, almost presciently so
The art of printing will so spread knowledge that the common people, knowing their own rights and liberties, will not be governed by way of oppression.
Let’s hear it for a free press.
Now, for the rest of the episode, I think we ought to have some fun. Some history nerd type fun rather than real fun it must be said – no one is going to be swinging on the chandeliers. But since we are going to be talking a lot about parliaments and so on, and in the 19th century there’s going to be a lot of parliamentary and electoral reform, I think we ought to have a bit of a history of elections and something of the flavour of what going to the polls was like for people. I think we need to have some sort of model to work off, an image of the thing that will slowly be changed.
Two things to start with; you needed a bob or two to be an MP. From two angles; there was a formal qualification level in 1711 which said you needed to have income of £600 a year. That my friend, was a lot of money and meant you were gentry. And secondly – no one was going to pay you a salary, though I think at one point they did get expenses – 6d levied on every freeholder of the shire in the middle ages to pay for them – and then it fell into abeyance, anyway, you needed time on your hands and money in pocket. A family that worked night and day to keep their heads above water would grace no parliament before the 20th century. Also of course, you had to be a bloke. But you expected that I guess. We’ve been over the franchise – shire elections and borough, the latter it its infinite variety. By now there are things called rotten boroughs, of which the most famous is Old Sarum – where nobody lives any more, and yet still an MP is sent to parliament representing nothing but the landowner.
Next fab fact; for most of the parliaments before about 1886, the majority of seats were uncontested. This came as something of a revelation to me. In many places it was essentially a stich up – the electorate would be presented with as many candidates as there were seats, and so voting was something of a formality. In 1722 for example there were 150 contested elections and that was the highest for ages to come, out of about 500 seats at the time; in the 1640s we are talking in the twenties of contested elections. That does not mean elections were insignificant – there could be massive swings, so between the 1715 and 1722 elections the number of Whigs and Tories almost exactly reverse, because of course the views of the people pulling the strings might change according to the political temperature. But it would take until the 1880s for the number of uncontested seats to become insignificant.
Another fab fact. We are used to the idea of First past the Post in the UK, that’s how our general elections work; there’s a constituency, it has one seat attached to it and a number of candidates, one vote for each member of the electorate, wham bang thank you Sam. Well that wasn’t the only model until later in the 19th century again. Every shire election for starters returned two MPs , and so every voter had at least two votes; they might split their vote – go for one Whig and one Tory for example, or they might place both on Whigs. Also, in contested elections there might be say 8 candidates. Again we are used to that – there’ll be the Monster Raving Loony party for example or the Peckham Residents for the preservation of Native Frogs, that sort of thing. No mind – we still have 1 vote each these days. Well, not back in the day. If there were 8 candidates – you had eight votes; or you might have one fewer than the number of candidates. I don’t know what that is in PR terms – an Alternative Vote system? It meant you could put 7 votes on one candidate, or spread them around – or whatever. Just remember that First past the post and one person one vote is a serious case of weird new fangling, not necessarily the norm. This has been a party political broadcast on behalf of the Make Votes Matter campaign for electoral reform.
Elections in the Shire generally took place at the County court, and until the 16th century election was by acclamation. It was up to the sheriff to know who could vote and who could not. As you can imagine if there was a contest, it was highly possible for the local strong man to influence the voters. All you had to do was employ a lot of big blokes with bulgy arms, poor shaves and a vague smell of ale, and you had you man. However, lots of people turned up for these events often, this was a public event, although again usually mainly blokes, so there was a real scrum, and given all the noise and hubbub acclamation was clearly not good enough. And so there develops the use of Poll Books, lists of the freeholders eligible to vote maintained by the Sheriff, who fulfilled the position of returning officer. It was handy to have the sheriff as your friend; who knows if the name of the odd unfriendly elector might not get lost from the poll books.
We still get our election results from returning officers; these day its normally an honorific, with someone standing on the stage with their gold mayoral chain. But it’s a local council official who’s actually done the hard graft. Poll books are made an official requirement in the Regulation of Elections Act 1696; the act also specifies that infants are not allowed to vote, or to be elected. A wag might say that if you listen to PMQs on the telly these days, clearly that rule has gone by the board, but it’s as well to specify these things, no matter how silly. After all I seem to remember that when I was at university, the University of Edinburgh university had the normal election of their Rector, the representative of the student voice on the university council, and showed the strength of their political engagement and activism by electing a cactus. Now a cactus is a fine plant, beautifully adapted for desert conditions, but not a great representative of the people I would have said.
I think it might be as well to take you to a county election, to the hustings, to see the polling take place. But oh no gentle listener, you don’t get away with it that easily; the traditional process starts way earlier than that. When there was a general election in the offing there would usually be a premeeting, in the counties at least, and competitive boroughs. The principle you need to understand is that while we might think elections and campaigns are the lifeblood of politics and democracy, your average gent in the 18th & early 19th century just didn’t agree. They were demeaning – gosh, imagine standing up in front of the great unwashed and trying to sell yourself. Humiliating. Also they were expensive, and I shall explain why later, and furthermore it got the ordinary people all razed up. Even Pitt the Younger said so:
‘Frequent elections debauch the lives and corrupt the morals of the people; habituate the lower sort to idleness; ruin their families; and are very prejudicial to the business and trade and the nation’.
So, the gentry would get together and try to stitch it up – select two candidates for a shire so that the electorate was taken out of the equation; or they might come to an equitable arrangement where lot chose the MP time, next time it would be t’other lot. Very civilised. Not very democratic. That is one of the impacts of growing party allegiances actually – Whig and Tory relly get at each others’ throats, and so these gentlemanly accommodations become harder to arrive at. It also led sometimes to a social split – the local nobility would ordinarily be Whig, and the local gentry Tory, oddly enough. There are though serious limitations; while the greater nobility hoped to control their patches and received enormous social deference – they could not always turn that into political power by any means. One year the son of the earl of Derby, of the ancient Stanley family as in Battle of Bosworth and all, expected to be selected of course he would; but reportedly ‘his haughty treatment of all the gentlemen’ caused the Gentry to select two other candidates to contest the election. It would never do for a family as august as a Stanley to get into tawdry competition – and so Stanley withdrew, like Achilles, to his tent. Or actually to his vast country house and dead pheasants.
Despite this, elections, contested or not, were public events. Where there are contests, there has long been a debate about whether a ‘deferential’ model should be assumed – where the voter slavishly follows the wishes of his landowner – or Participatory, where electors valued and exercised their independence. Generally the latter actually wins out – often borne out by the lengths candidates had to go to secure their vote.
So you are going to stand in a election – what happens next? Well you announce your candidature by letter to all the officials and print your declaration – in suitably self deprecatory terms of course, tis is after all England. One wrote that
‘to appear at this time’, was ‘against my own judgment and inclination
You might be forgiven for asking why did you do it then. You then spoke about personal characteristics and offered to serve – this was not an occasion for policies, good lord no, although you might talk of generalities like standing by the Church sort of thing. But generally, the maintenance of local consensus was valued so you might stand, as one did,
for ancient hospitality, friendship, and good neighbourhood
Cute. Gets my vote. The Returning officer was then supposed to announce the date of the election – which could be a problem if the sheriff was in your opponents’ pocket. Might just not get round to telling his less favoured party until very late. I do love all this; it’s a bit like cricket. I mean I know we have rules and all now, but it’s still the practice for the Groundsman to prepare a pitch that favours the style of his local bowlers. How delightful. In no other sport.
Anyway, then you’d get canvassing and a deal of organisation to achieve it, persuading people to go along and vote and all that, and distributing printed leaflets. When things got out of hand there might be a bit of a ding dong, with claim and counter claim about each candidate. Some of this printed material might be organised centrally in London – so there’s some sign of party organisation.
Which is where we get to Pitt’s quote against elections again – because electors did like to be well treated in return for their vote, and that cost – it might be a few presents here and there, or parties, or treating, the most common occurrence – a pint of port for everyone, and invitation round to the grand house. Here’s one gent complaining about the money his son blew on an election when he
Sent a man cook sometime before, coach and six in liveries, open house for three or four months and put me to about £500 charge
That puts me in mind of an anecdote I have to tell you about a current MP, the toweringly absurd and outrageously posh Jacob Rees Mogg, the sort of bloke who should at best, be found in the bar at Hunt balls. Not being elected to parliament, and not would you believe, having been albeit briefly made a cabinet minister. Where his main contribution was to complain about the use of the Oxford comma. There’s a man who knows how to focus on what’s really important. Anyway as a young man setting out on the career that is of course the absolute right of his class, he went canvassing in the street. And of course as you do, he was accompanied by his nanny. I mean – I know, we’ve all done it, but unaccountably this caused great mockery on the campaign trail. The young Jacob was most offended, and more than could see no reason for it – and decided that it was simple sexism against the Nanny. It’s so silly, he said. It’s just plain sexism. Afterall no one would have a word to say if I went out canvassing with my personal manservant’. Words fail me. The anecdote appeared on the programme QI if you have any doubts to its validity.
Treating was a powerful tool and costly; at one election in Bedfordshire the Russells spent over £100 delivering cases of tobacco and hogsheads of ale to freeholders in various hundreds for example. Even the Tatler complained in 1709 writing that
An evil and pernicious Custom has of late…prevailed at the Election of Aldermen, by treating at Taverns and Alehouses, thereby engaging many unwarily to give their Votes.
Did you know, by the way that treating just ordinary treating in the pub – you know offering to buy everyone a round, not electioneering – was banned during the First World War? Extraordinary. Never found out why. Anyway, on the day of the election itself at the allotted place there might be only say 3,000 voters, but you could expect a lot more people to be there; in Northamptonshire for example a crowd of 10,000 gathered. This was not seen as an inconvenience, or at least it might be, but it was also seen as part of the legitimising process – a wide community was involved to see that justice was done and the right processes followed, and hear the new member’s speech. It could be an absolute carnival; As a candidate, it was very important to bring as large a number of your own supporters as possible; and if you could get your party t dress up in the same decorative headgear, or wear the same badge or token all well and good. At one election a candidate reported that his supporters all had put
oaken boughs in their hats, and these jokes in their mouth against their adversaries, that their wits were gone a wool-gathering, and that they looked very sheepish’
A victorious candidate Thomas Hanmer reported home that
I had the mob on my side and my appearance was greater’
Tactics were important, and agents discussed what opponents might be doing with their candidates and what sort of treating might be going on; one Buckinghamshire candidate’s agent reported that
the enemy is very quiet and have made no vigorous sallies. I fancy that in this campaign they’ll act only defensively’
A couple of wheezes you could spring were firstly the clandestine candidate – someone who put their name forward on the day and brought a whole load of followers, for that element of surprise; or the holding back of votes to the last moment. Voting took several days so if you kept your voters back the opposition might get over confident. And since polling took place over days, sometimes London newspapers would comment on the score so far in individual constituencies. So at the last minute then you cart in all your supporters and overwhelm them. Neat.
So on the day the candidates and officials were on the Hustings – a raised platform of course. Actually the word has an Old Norse origin, and referred to a meeting with councillors, that is a small select body; but it came to mean the platform they met on.
The Returning officer would kick things off, and announce the candidates one by one; this was where there was nervous looking around to see if a last minute, ‘clandestine’ candidate would appear. They’d start with a vote by acclamation, or ‘cry’; and if it was absolutely one sided then that was that. But usually you’d proceed to the polls.
A number of tables were therefore set up with clerks to take votes; getting all these clerks was tricky so rather delightfully the Returning Officer often asked the candidates if they could provide some. The candidates went for that idea like a rat up a drain; having a friendly clerk was invaluable; a source of information, or oops a few ineligible candidates or so sorry a vote here and there mislaid. To stop this the other candidates took to employing inspectors who stood over the shoulder of the clerks taking notes and checking voters and so on. In Norfolk the Whigs complained they’d lost due to poor clerk management since they’d let through too many ‘plumpers’. A plumper was not an expert in pillow management, rather a voter with multiple votes but who cast only one; the clerk could of course have prompted him.
You can see it’s quite a scene. Thousands of onlookers having a fun day out; electors milling about, candidates and agents urgently discussing how it’s going, Officers on the Hustings in all their pomp, shifty clerks, competing inspectors jostling behind to see what’s going on. Candidates might also have a lawyer on hand, in case the eligibility of one of their voters was challenged. Up then came a voter to the table. He had first to swear to his eligibility, take the oath of supremacy and allegiance, and the vote or votes would be taken and recorded. All very much in the open, so everyone could see. If you were a tenant voting against your landowner’s son, you needed some courage; a Tory candidate in a Whig county spoke admiringly of ‘the brave stand, and inflexible courage’ of his few voters.
When the counting was done, then as now you might ask for a scrutiny or recount; when all was done, the Returning Officer would announce the results, taking names not in order of number of votes, but in order of social precedence and woe betide him if he got that wrong. The winner could then make a speech, and rather intriguingly the constituents could too – to tell their representative what was expected of him. We should bring that one back. Then finally there’d be the obligatory celebration.
Well what fun. Elections took time in each place, and could take weeks over the whole country – plenty of time to enjoy and indeed to amplify the fun. It’s not surprising that electioneering was an expensive business – another reason for well off candidates – there was no party machine to pay for any of this.
One final word on this; as you might guess, this was all a very male preserve. Women did get involved in political protest though; there was a famous peace parade by women in London in 1641 for example, and another in 1643; At the massacre of Peterloo, there were a large contingent of women wearing white protesting at St Peter’s Field. Every so often you come across women talking active part at elections; such as ‘Captain Kate’ at Coventry who addressed the assembled multitude and urged the Tory candidates on with the cry ‘now, boys, or never, for the Church’; At Southwark a candidate indulged in galloping misogyny when he said ‘he had rather see a sow and pigs, than a woman and her children’. So the women of the borough all got together, appeared en masse at the election, and shouted continually ‘no sow and pigs’.
But most influence was probably exercised by women behind the scenes; in Wigan it became known that one Lysistrata, threatened to deny her husband his conjugal pleasures if he should cast his vote against her wishes. Candidates were usually careful to treat not only voters, but also their wives. Many upper class women became intimately involved politically, entertaining, spreading the word, taking part in debate; most notably of course Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, involved in politics at the highest level. But still to her dismay held back by her sex, so that in frustration she declared
I am confident I should have been the greatest hero that ever was known in the Parliament-House, if I had been so happy as to have been a man’
Well, that all but finishes our very first episode of the Party, Parliament, and Politics series – one down, 5 to go. But before I go it is only meet and right that I give a shout out to Roifield, who produces a few excellent podcasts you should check out. There’s Dum Tee Dum – which is for all you Archers fans out there; he has a series called 10 American presidents, no explanation required; his most current one is Mid Atlantic, Roifield and guests discusses current events, and probably the one closest to his heart – How Jamaica Conquered the World, which is about music. He also has a fan podcast also with Claire Astbury – called Map Corner, because they are both fans of maps. So, so check them out.
Finally if you would like to see where I found all this stuff, there is a bibliography to the History of England .co.uk, https://thehistoryofengland.co.uk/podcasts/shedcasts/party-and-politics, in the podcast page for this Shedcast series, and also a schedule, so you can see what will be published and when. How frighteningly organised is that?