AV Referendum: Tories Abuse History. Will History Abuse the Tories?
Britain has not always had a first-past-the-post system, and voters usually had multiple votes. Any claims that AV runs against the history of Parliament or British voting is as misleading and inaccurate as, well, most noise made by committed partisan campaigns. The open letter published by various historians which claimed AV would destroy a ‘cherished’ one-man-one-vote culture ignores how recent that system is, relative to the actual length of British representative democracy. This, and the Tories’ invoking their faded totem of Winston Churchill—surely grasping at a most un-strawlike straw—is an attempt to throw the word ‘history’ at the Left, as if history were an unmoving, unshakable, unified, coherent story which conveniently endorses the current status quo. From the other side, critics point out that AV is hardly the most comprehensive change: as one friend put it to me, a side-step instead of a step forward. However, the history of electoral and franchise reform in the nineteenth century suggested change begot more change: moderation spawned radicalism.
The great litany of Reform is 1832,1867,1872,1883-5,1918, and 1928. The first Reform Act redistributed seats and binned the most corrupt and vestigial constituencies and the Second massively expanded the vote by lowering the property requirements. 1872 saw the introduction of the secret ballot. The raft of legislation in the 1880s ended the legalised bribery that often had ruled elections and created rationally-sized constituencies, with individual members, 1918 rewarded the survivors of the trenches and some women with the vote. 1928 gave the vote all women, thus achieving universal adult suffrage. Okay, technically there were more events, such as a uniquely Irish Act in 1850, but, well, for the purposes of this blog I think we can move on.
Until 1885 there were two kinds of constituencies: counties and boroughs. Both sent two members to Parliament, although a few of the big cities got three in special cases. You had as many votes as candidates: so at least two, sometimes three. Parties usually stood two people for each seat, so you could split your votes between the two chummy hacks of the same party, divide your two votes between two warring hacks of different blocs, or give both to one candidate—a practice known as ‘plumping’ (shades of Churchill again?). In other words, for much of British democracy’s existence, voters could express preferences in different ways. There was not a formalised system of one-man-one-vote.
But things got a bit more complicated. The Universities also had members, elected by the graduates who could be bothered to rumble back into Oxford or Cambridge for the vote (until a postal vote came into being later on). So there’s another vote. Furthermore, the essence of most of the system was that property, not people, voted. The vote was not an individual moral right, but a social responsibility, a decision taken by those with education and property on behalf of those considered unable to understand the issues. Before 1872, people’s votes were published in a ‘poll-book’, along with their addresses, so that the un-enfranchised could discus the votes with the voter, in a presumably calm manner which never, never involved elaborate analysis of the voter’s parentage, finances, or romantic predilections towards animals. People had votes in a constituency where they owned property. If somebody owned enough property in thirty constituencies, they had votes in thirty constituencies. General Elections were held over several weeks, so if somebody had no regard for bad roads and plenty of time, they could try and dash around voting in numerous contests. Of course, in many places the landlords virtually owned a constituency. There, the magnate would gather all the tenants who could vote into a big field, crack open some beer, ‘suggest’ they elect some younger son of his, and remind them of his potential leniency for collecting rents. Because of the degree of proprietarial influence, huge numbers of constituencies were uncontested. Scotland was even more tightly-controlled than England, so that once not a single constituency was contested, and thus for that General Election not a single vote was cast in the whole of Scotland.
Clearly, I’m not saying that this was a system I’d like to see replicated and revived. But nineteenth-century politics had tremendous change and variety. Somebody born at the start of the century, and who lived through to near the end, would have seen numerous different kinds of votes, vastly different political cultures. At the height of prosperity and the Empire, in a period of rapid and indeed bewildering technological and economic change, the Victorians reformed their Parliament at a rate of about once a generation. The idea was not to produce as radical system: the idea was, all along, to perfect their current system, to obviate dissent and make Parliament more manageable. The relatively moderate First Reform Act only passed because Lord John Russell, later Prime Minister, claimed it would end the question for all time, earning himself the nickname ‘Finality Jack’. Clearly, he was wrong, as the principle returned again and again, each time politicians trying to produce a ‘safe’ reform that eventually culminated in universal adult suffrage.
This sweep certainly undermines the idea that history validates the status quo, or that the current mechanics are sacrosanct, guaranteed by a Stonehenge-like antiquity and solidity. Parliament’s unique culture, and the technical details of the Royal Prerogative and the structural workings of the Constitution may be as mysterious to most as Stonehenge itself. It seems history can never answer the question of who built that monument. But history can, perhaps, undermine the abuse of history by those opposing AV, and thus save Parliament from being another ruinous, faded, mysterious monument to a long-dead civilisation: both the establishment politicians who refused to respond to outside agitation, or the progressive agitators who never accepted the occasional tactical need to work pragmatically within the established system.
James Golden is completing a doctorate in Modern History at Hertford College, Oxford.
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