UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


House of Commons - Rotten Boroughs

The representative system had never aimed at theoretical perfection; but its general design was to assemble representatives from the places best able to contrive aids and subsidies for the service of the Crown. This design would naturally have allotted members to counties, cities, and boroughs, in proportion to their population, wealth, and prosperity; and though rudely carried into effect, it formed the basis of representation, in early times. It is very probable that the citizens and burgesses, who must have been poor tradesmen, would not in general be ambitious of claiming their legal and constitutional right to sit in the same assembly with the haughty barons. They considered their attendance in parliament rather a burden to be avoided than an honor to be solicited.

Some oppressed burgesses — so far from pressing their fair claims to representation, — were reluctant to augment their burdens, by returning members to Parliament. Places were capriciously selected for that honor by the Crown, — and sometimes even by the sheriff — and were, from time to time, omitted from the writs. Some small towns failed to keep pace with the growing prosperity of the country, and some fell into decay; and in the mean time, unrepresented villages grew into places of importance. Hence inequalities in the representation were continually increasing.

For a long time a large proportion of the borough members were the nominees of peers and great landowners; or were mainly returned through the political interest of those magnates. Many were the nominees of the Crown; or owed their seats to government influence. Such adventurers,-having purchased their seats of the proprietors, or acquired them by bribery, supported the ministry of the day, for the sake of honours, patronage, or court favor. The county members were generally identified with the territorial aristocracy. The adherence of a further class was secured by places and pensions: by shares in loans, lotteries, and contracts ; and even by pecuniary bribes.

The period during which the throne of England was occupied by the house of Tudor was one of transition both in politics and religion. The strongest proof which could be afforded of the growing power of the house of commons was the anxiety of the court to procure influence in it. This was effected either by creating new boroughs, or by restoring the right of election to such old boroughs as, on account of the expense of paying their representatives, had neglected its use. Care, of course, was always taken to select those places in which the crown or its supporters had influence; and in this manner numbers of the servants of the court obtained seats in the house of commons. In the reign of Edward, 22 boroughs were thus created or restored; Mary added fourteen more, and Elizabeth continued the practice. Time was not the only agent in the production of rotten boroughs.

When parliaments at this time were at leisure from their usual occupation of raising up or deposing sovereigns, they applied themselves very diligently to regulate commerce. It is hard to say whether the regulations which they proposed more betray their strong sense of the rising importance of trade, or their gross ignorance of its true nature, and of the only effectual means of promoting it The importation of foreign corn was prohibited, because it ruined the people by making their food cheap; and foreign manufactures were forbidden whenever the like articles could be produced at home; a similar disregard being shown in both cases to the interest of the body of the people who consumed food, and who wore clothes.

From the reign of Charles II the growing inequalities in the representation were left wholly without correction. An electoral system had become established, wholly inconsistent with any rational theory of representation. Its defects, originally great, and aggravated by time and change, had attained monstrous proportions in the middle of the 18th century. The first and most flagrant anomaly was that of nomination boroughs. Some of these boroughs had been, from their first creation, too inconsiderable to aspire to independence ; and being without any importance of their own, looked up for patronage and protection to the Crown, and to their territorial neighbors.

Roughly speaking, there were four classes of boroughs: nomination boroughs, rotten boroughs, boroughs where the franchise was considerable but not excessive, and boroughs where the franchise was, comparatively speaking, democratic. Nomination boroughs were those in which the patron had an absolute right to choose his own candidate. One such constituency was an uninhabited green mound, another a ruined wall, a third was submarine. Having purchased the freehold of the constituency, the patron could still return his candidate, even if his constituency had ceased to be inhabited, or as in the last case had actually disappeared from the earth. It is sometimes difficult to draw an absolute line between rotten and nomination boroughs.

As the system of parliamentary government developed itself, such interest became more and more important to the nobles and great landowners, who accordingly spared no pains to extend it; and the insignificance of many of the boroughs, and a limited and capricious franchise, gave them too easy a conquest. Places like Old Sarum, with fewer inhabitants than an ordinary hamlet, avowedly returned the nominees of their proprietors. In other boroughs of more pretensions in respect of population and property, the number of inhabitants enjoying the franchise was so limited, as to bring the representation under the patronage of one or more persons of local or municipal influence.

To the landed gentry they had long since been obnoxious. A country squire, whatever his local influence, was overborne by the profusion of wealthy strangers. Even a powerful noble was no match for men who brought to the contest the "wealth of the Indies." Nor were they regarded with much favor by the leaders of parties; for men who had bought their seats, and paid dearly for them, owed no allegiance to political patrons. Free from party connexions, they sought admission into Parliament, not so much with a view to a political career, as to serve mere personal ends, to forward commercial speculations, to extend their connexions, and to gratify their social aspirations.

But their independence and ambition well fitted them for the service of the court. The king was struggling to disengage himself from the domination of party leaders ; and here were the very men he needed, without party ties or political prepossessions, daily increasing in numbers and influence, - and easily attracted to his interests by the hope of those rewards which are most coveted by the wealthy.

A common defence for nomination boroughs was that poor but talented men were introduced into Parliament without the expense or tedium of election, and thus enabled to devote their undivided energies to the national service. It was argued that the system of purchasing seats in the House of Commons, however indefensible in principle, was at least preferable to the general corruption of electors, and in some respects, to the more prevalent practice of nomination. To buy a seat in Parliament was often the only means, by which an independent member could gain admission to the House of Commons. If he accepted a seat from a patron, his independence was compromised ; but if he acquired a seat by purchase, he was free to vote according to his own opinions and conscience. So long as any boroughs remained which could be bought and sold, the market was well supplied both with buyers and sellers.

The election in 1761 was signalised by unusual excesses. Never perhaps had bribery been resorted to with so much profusion. One class of candidates, now rapidly increasing, consisted men who had amassed fortunes in the East and West Indies, and were commonly distinguished as "Nabobs." Their ambition led them to aspire to a place in the legislature ; their great wealth gave them the means of bribery; and the scenes in which they had studied politics, made them unscrupulous in corruption. A seat in Parliament was for sale, like an estate; and they bought it, without hesitation or misgiving. Speaking of this class, Lord Chatham said : "Without connexions, without any natural interest in the soil, the importers of foreign gold have forced their way into Parliament, by such a torrent of corruption as no private hereditary fortune could resist."

In 1793, the Society of the friends of the people were prepared to prove that in England and Wales seventy members were returned by thirty-five places, in which there were scarcely any electors at all; that ninety members were returned by forty-six places with less than fifty electors ; and thirty-seven members by nineteen places, having not more than one hundred electors. Such places were returning members, while Leeds, Birmingham, and Manchester were unrepresented ; and the members whom they sent to Parliament, were the nominees of peers and other wealthy patrons. No abuse was more flagrant than the direct control of peers, over the constitution of the Lower House. The Duke of Norfolk was represented by eleven members; Lord Lonsdale by nine; Lord Darlington by seven ; the Duke of Rutland, the Marquess of Buckingham, and Lord Carrington, each by six. Seats were held, in both Houses alike, by hereditary right.

The attitude of the Tory party towards the great question of Parliamentary Reform was the same during the Radical agitation of 1817-21, as in the years 1821-32 which marked the gradual acceptance of Reform by the Whig party. The essence of true liberty was that it should be limited, balanced, and graduated. Thus the rights of minorities, of corporations, and of vested interests should be respected, as they were extremely useful in securing liberty. Only one security still existed — the system of parliamentary representation. The peculiar diversity of the franchise in different constituencies guarded the State from the excesses of a blind or headstrong majority. Liberty would only be endangered when uniformity of rights and privileges (that is a democratic or universal suffrage), prevailed. Thus the rotten boroughs, with their limited and restricted numbers of voters, were actually the safeguards of order. To yield to Reform was to destroy the last bulwark, to remove the last plank between the Constitution and the boundless flood of democracy.

The greatest movement of this period in British history, the movement towards Parliamentary Reform, was vitally and profoundly affected by the parallel movements of political thought. The greatest, or at any rate the most celebrated, of contemporary political thinkers was undoubtedly Jeremy Bentham. When every deduction is made, there is still room for astonishment at the extent and variety of his achievements. He was driven to the hypothesis that the governors sought, not the good of the governed, but their own advantage. The King was Corruptor-General; the aristocracy and members of Parliament sought the profits of their own positions from exclusive motives of selfinterest. Any extension of the British territory, empire, or government, naturally increased such opportunities. Bentham declared the end of all government to be utility, or the good of the governed. The wild demands for annual Parliaments and universal suffrage were strengthened and rationalised by the arguments of Bentham.

The system was illustrated at its worst in 1829. On the defeat of his nominee for Newark, the Duke of Newcastle ascertained the names of all the hostile voters who held land or property from him, and promptly expelled every one of them from his tenancy. When remonstrance was made at this political persecution, the Duke replied, "Have I not the right to do what I like with my own?" The Duke, who had forced his previous nominee to resign for a difference of opinion, now thought it right to punish the electors for differing from him as to the choice of their representative. This case may have been extreme and unusual, but it proves how little check there was on the powers exercised by individuals in such boroughs over voters and representatives alike.

By the 1830s most of the boroughs and towns represented were not the later growths of modern industry and trade, but the decayed country market-places and hamlets of a long-past age. Fifty-six of these, with less than 2,000 of total population, were electing 111 of the 658 members of the House of Commons, and 30 others, having less, altogether, than 4,000 of population, were electing 60 more.

But that was not the worst of the facts. Most of these "rotten boroughs," as they were styled, were enveloped in the estates of the great land-owning lords; the voters were their tenants, and a free election in them was never known. Such cities of modern origin and great importance as Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds, had no representation, and that of London itself was small. What bore the name of the House of Commons had its representative commission, we can see, from a small fraction of even the well-to-do middle class, and not at all from the toilers of the commonalty

The great assault on rotten boroughs was delivered by Macaulay in that journal during the years 1829-30. His articles undoubtedly exposed the inadequacy of their principles. He demonstrated, with characteristic vigour of style and wealth of illustration, that the principle of self-interest did not govern all human affairs. He proved also, at least to his own satisfaction, that Mill's political views were historically false and would be practically dangerous.

After this destructive criticism Macaulay advanced the definite and positive view, that universal suffrage would be a revolution hazardous for England, but that an extension of political power to the middle classes would be a reform alike safe, moderate, and final. It is not easy to exaggerate the importance of this conclusion, which indeed was one speedily to be forced both on the Whigs and on the nation. Pushed to its logical outcome, it meant a complete change in the balance of political and social forces and implied nothing less than a revolution. But it was a view admirably suited to the new forces and conditions of the time, to the decaying power of land and rank, and to the increasing influence of wealth and commerce.

The Tory Prime Minister in 1830, Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington, was resolutely opposed to parliamentary reform. However, there was growing support for limited change within his party, primarily because partially extending the franchise would allow the wealth and influence of Britain's growing middle class to be exploited.

When the Tory government was ousted later in 1830, Earl Grey, a Whig, became Prime Minister and pledged to carry out parliamentary reform. The Whig Party was pro-reform and though two reform bills failed to be carried in Parliament, the third was successful and received Royal Assent in 1832. The Bill was passed due to Lord Grey's plan to persuade King William IV to consider using his constitutional powers to create additional Whig peers in the House of Lords to guarantee the Bill's passage. On hearing of this plan, Tory peers abstained from voting, thus allowing the Bill to be passed but avoiding the creation of more Whig peers.

By the Reform Acts of 1832 the representation of the United Kingdom was reconstructed. In England, fifty-six nomination boroughs returning one hundred and eleven members were disfranchised; thirty boroughs were each deprived of one member, and Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, which had returned four members, were now reduced to two. Means were thus found for the enfranchisement of populous places.

The franchises were extended in 1850, when an £8 household suffrage was given to the boroughs, and additions were made to the county franchises. The hundred members assigned to that country at the union were increased to one hundred and five. Notwithstanding these various changes, however, the total number of the House of Commons was still maintained at six hundred and fifty-eight.

As of 1867 the composition of the House of Commons was

    Total of the United Kingdom, 658
  • 162 knights of shires.
  • 338 citizens and burgesses, and barons of the cinque ports, including the 40 members for the universities.
    SCOTLAND Total 53
  • 30 knights of shires,
  • 23 citizens and burgesses.
    IRELAND Total 105
  • 64 knights of shires
  • 41 citizens and burgesses, including the members for Trinity College, Dublin.

But, signal as was the regeneration of parliament, several electoral evils still needed correction. Strenuous efforts were made, with indifferent success, to overcome bribery and corruption, and proposals were often ineffectually made to restrain the undue influence of landlords and employers of labor by the ballot; improvements were made in the registration and polling of electors, and the property qualification of members was abolished. Complaints were also urged that the middle classes had been admitted to power, while the working classes were excluded from the late scheme of enfranchisement. It was not till 1867 however that any substantial advance was made.

The call for universal manhood suffrage or 'one man, one vote' was still resisted by Parliament and the second Reform Act, passed in 1867, was still based around property qualifications. There was no question of campaigning for the right to vote for women too. They were still excluded. The 1867 Reform Act granted the vote to all householders in the boroughs as well as lodgers who paid rent of £10 a year or more, and reduced the property threshold in the counties and gave the vote to agricultural landowners and tenants with very small amounts of land. Men in urban areas who met the property qualification were enfranchised and the Act roughly doubled the electorate in England and Wales from one to two million men.

Parliament’s resistance to ‘one man, one vote’ was partly overturned in 1884 with the third Reform Act which established a uniform franchise throughout the country, and brought the franchise in the counties into line with the 1867 householder and lodger franchise for boroughs. The following year, the Redistribution of Seats Act redrew boundaries to make electoral districts equal. As a result of this Act, most areas returned only one Member to Parliament, although 23 seats, including the City of London and Bath, continued to return two Members until 1910.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 26-02-2016 19:15:29 ZULU