Front Page Titles (by Subject) 276.: BRIBERY AND INTIMIDATION AT ELECTIONS GLOBE AND TRAVELLER, 12 FEB., 1835, P. 2 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III
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276.: BRIBERY AND INTIMIDATION AT ELECTIONS GLOBE AND TRAVELLER, 12 FEB., 1835, P. 2 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIV - Newspaper Writings January 1835 - June 1847 Part III, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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BRIBERY AND INTIMIDATION AT ELECTIONS
This unheaded leader is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A leading article in the Globe of 12th February 1835 on the bribery and intimidation at elections”
(MacMinn, p. 43).
the bribery and intimidation which have been practised during the late elections,1 to an extent almost exceeding former example, must engage the attention of parliament immediately after its meeting. The members may be assured that upon the spirit in which this subject shall be taken in hand by them not a little of the future history of their country, and very much of their own prospects as public men, will depend.
The ways of an unreformed parliament ought not to be those of a reformed one. Before the Reform Bill there never was any serious purpose of checking bribery or intimidation: they were the two props on which the system rested, and no one wished to see them weakened. Whether a member had been elected by honest or by wicked means was a question between him and his competitor, not between the culprit and the State. If the rival candidate, after having thought it worth while to spend some thousand pounds for a first chance of getting into parliament, thought it worth while, on the failure of that, to spend as much more for the second, he petitioned. If he did not, no one else did, nor could. If some perverse person, unwilling to lose the excitement of a contest, or to confess himself beaten, by dint of expense and trouble accomplished what none but an eccentric man would attempt, and none but a very fortunate man could succeed in—namely, actual proof of illicit practices, before a Committee of the House of Commons, ministers and public men in general made an edifying display of virtuous indignation against the one case which was proved, and decently ignored the six hundred and fifty-seven which were not proved. All this was in the spirit of the former system—was all right enough, if the end was to uphold that system, by whatever means: it was among what Burke called “the shameful parts of the constitution,”2 part of the filth out of which grew, and on which was fed the stately umbrageous tree to which British society has often been admiringly compared. But the fruit of that tree smacked of the place it drew its nourishment from, and we are minded at present not to cultivate any tree but one which will grow in clean ground.
It is so obvious as to be hardly worth stating, that the reform is no reform if the majority of the members are to be nominated, as they were before, by a small number of powerful families. It is equally evident that the majority will be so nominated if bribery can purchase or intimidation command the votes, and neither be detected and punished. The far greater part of the house are returned by bodies of electors the great majority of whom are not beyond the influence either of corruption or of coercion. Two hundred members at least are elected by constituencies varying from two to four hundred persons—the very number which, under the old system, produced Penryn, East Retford, and all the most rotten of the rotten boroughs. In the counties the influence of the squirearchy cannot be permanently resisted. Already we see the strides which have been made towards recovering the ground which the oligarchy had lost by the Reform Bill. Nothing but intense political excitement can inspire the poorer electors with courage to resist the temptations of sums of money invaluable in their circumstances, or to offend landlords or customers who can cut off at a stroke half their income. Shall there, then, be no other check to bribery and intimidation under the new system than there was under the old? If so, as soon as the remaining enthusiasm (in its very nature temporary) produced by the existing events of the last four years shall have subsided, we shall be landed exactly where we were before, except that political demoralization will have spread farther, will have reached a much larger and hitherto purer class than the wretched freemen and burgage tenants of the old “glorious constitution.”
But this will not, must not be. Let any member of the new parliament, who fears the reproach of innovation, ask himself the simple question whether those who really wish to prevent a great evil will probably be directed to the best mode of setting about it, by the precedents of those who wished that the evil should not be prevented? And when he has answered this question, let him ask himself another, viz., in what manner a person, who really wished that the election of members of the House of Commons should be free and pure, would attempt to secure that object? What means would such a person adopt? Would he throw all kinds of impediments in the way of proving illicit practices? or give it all kinds of facilities? Would he leave it wholly to a particular individual to bring the question to trial, according as he feels personally interested in it or not, and is willing to spend an intolerable sum of money upon it or not? Would he confide the functions of a court of justice to a committee appointed for the nonce—a committee chosen by lot, and the brains knocked out of it (actually the phrase in common use!) by the power which the two parties have of striking off, without any reason assigned, a proportion of the number? a committee deliberating in secret, and whose decisions are notoriously governed in almost all instances not by justice, but wholly by political considerations?
That the members of the house should be duly elected is the concern of the house itself and of the nation; not of any individual, in the house or out of it. There should be a special tribunal for deciding such cases, and special officers for investigating them. All disputed elections should be referred to one committee, selected at the commencement of the session, composed of but few members, chosen for their unquestionable fitness, and paid. There should be no fees to officers of the house, no expenses but those which are absolutely unavoidable, and even these should be repaid by the public to the successful party. The investigations should be public, open to all the world, and one proved instance of bribery by authorised agents should vitiate the election.
At the opening of the last parliament, Mr. Charles Buller placed on the order-book of the House of Commons a series of propositions which, if adopted by the house, would have effected a salutary change in the forms of proceeding in cases of disputed returns. The motion was never discussed; we know not if it was even nominally brought on and entered on the Journals.3 The first session of the reformed parliament was the most suitable time for breaking through the mischievous rules and practices of the unreformed house. But, unhappily, “no innovation,” or as little of it as possible, was at that time the order of the day. The Whigs made the mistake (which by this time they have had ample reason to correct) of imagining that the danger to be apprehended was from the friends of too rapid movement, not from the enemies of all movement whatever. That opportunity, therefore, was lost; but it is never too late to retrieve the error. We trust that Mr. Charles Buller, or some other Reformer, will bring this subject to the serious consideration of the house immediately after its meeting.
[1 ]For comments on corruption during the elections (which were held during January), see The Times, 13 Jan., p. 6, 19 Jan., p. 4, 21 Jan., p. 2, 23 Jan., p. 2, and 28 Jan., p. 4.
[2 ]Burke, “Speech on American Taxation” (19 Apr., 1774), Works, Vol. I, p. 575.
[3 ]Buller’s propositions are not in PD, but are in Journals of the House of Commons, LXXXIX (1834), 10 (5 Feb., 1834).