Voting in parliamentary elections in Georgian England was neither democratic nor free from undue influence. By modern standards, the whole system could be labelled as corrupt and biased. The presence of so-called ‘Rotten Boroughs’ — elections decided by a handful of voters, often instructed which way to vote by some local bigwig — prevented almost any election from being truly representative of the views of the people as a whole.
The number of those who were entitled to cast a vote was tiny by modern standards. Inclusion in the franchise varied according to local custom and history, but it was always restricted to adult men, and generally those who were far wealthier than the vast majority at the time. Norwich was known to have a particularly wide franchise, consisting of some 3000 voters. However, since the population of the city was around 40,000, even this group was hardly very representative, amounting to only 7.5% of the population.
Even so, politicians in the eighteenth century were more alert to public opinion than we might believe. At the most basic level, riots could break out whenever some cause stirred up the common people sufficiently. The “Wilkes and Liberty” riots of the 1760s and the “Gordon Riots” of the 1780s are examples. Those who held power were also expected to take a paternal interest in the welfare of the nation as a whole. It was no true substitute for democracy, but it was better than nothing.
Setting aside ‘structural’ sources of bias and corruption in elections of the time, what other factors might effect the result? I can think of three: bribery (in one form or another), electioneering and publicity, and patronage. ‘Managing’ elections, using combinations of these factors, is as common now as it was then — but usually less blatant.
Electioneering & Bribery
The first duty of those involved in managing the election hopes of any candidate is ‘getting the vote out’. It was especially important in a ‘freeman’ borough and county like Norwich. Around 3000 men might have been eligible to cast their votes, but what mattered was how many did so. Several factors complicated this. Counties returned two MPs, elected at the same time, so each voter had two votes ‘Straights’, ‘Splitters’ and ‘Plumpers’ | Pen and Pension, which could be shared between election interests or both given to one side. It was also possible to utilise one vote and discard the other. Although all voting had to be done in person and in Norwich itself, there was no requirement for voters to be resident in the city. Norwich had a significant number of ‘out-voters’ — enough to swing the election at times. In the 1796 election, the Quaker Bartlett Gurney won a clear majority of votes from local residents and William Windham only managed to win by ensuring a large number of out-voters arrived to support his cause.
The popular myth is that elections at this time were heavily influenced by bribery. This does not seem to be true, especially in Norwich. Windham refused to countenance the practice and there is no evidence anyone else offered cash inducements either. Indeed, in the few reported cases of potential bribery, the voters themselves indignantly refused what was offered.
On the other hand, non-monetary inducements were fairly commonplace. Out-voters expected to have their expenses paid for travelling to Norwich and often their subsistence costs as well. A good deal of wining-and-dining took place to win over undecided voters. Even the awarding of orders for printing election pamphlets, buying ribbons for supporters to wear, and the provision of the many other services deemed necessary to support a campaign could be viewed as an indirect form of influence in a city where the ‘masters’ in the various trades were also the voters.
Contested elections at the time were extremely expensive affairs. In quiet times, it was not unusual for pro-and anti-government interests to agree to put up only a single candidate each for of the seats. In that way, the balance of power in parliament was maintained, since each interest gained a single seat and no voting was required.
When an election was contested, the amount required to run a campaign could be considerable. In Norwich, the 1786 election cost around £8000 (a modern equivalent would be some £1.5 to £1.8 million). In 1802, the pro-government ‘slate’ of Windham and Frere spent that much on their own. Much of this expenditure was born by the supporters of each side. Candidates were also expected to spend heavily from their own resources. Windham’s diaries show he spent between £1,500 and £2,500 (£250,000 to £400,000) each time he faced a contested election, much of it on paying for out-voters to attend, since his local popularity with voters slumped towards the end of the century, due to his strident support of war with France.
In times of instability, or when by-elections became more frequent, the trouble and expense of fighting frequent elections could drive people out of politics altogether. Windham finally lost his Norwich seat in 1802 and had to accept a seat from a ‘Rotten Borough’ to stay in parliament and the government. When the so-called ‘Ministry of All the Talents’ fell in 1806, he had had enough and retired altogether.
Were eighteenth-century English elections fair? In modern terms, the answer has to be an emphatic “no”. The electorate was tiny and totally unrepresentative. Too many seats were in the gift of aristocratic landowners or municipal corporations. On the other hand, England was seen as a beacon of democracy in a Europe dominated by hereditary monarchies and dictators like Napoleon. It’s also true that party interests had far less influence on voting in the House of Commons than they do today. Georgian-period MPs could, and did, frequently act independently of any influences save their own views and consciences. No government of the time could rely on its supporters to vote consistently along party lines. It’s a shame today’s MPs don’t follow their example.