So we in the UK are going to the polls again in June to elect a new government and the media are already discussing this ad infinitum! But what were elections like in Georgian times? There were some similarities – in place of television debates a multitude of pamphlets, broadsides and squibs were produced either backing the Whigs ( the Liberal party) or the Tories ( the King and Church party) and newspapers were just as political in the 18th C as today. Again once the election had taken place the results were analysed and mused over by much of the population.
However there were considerable differences. The most important one was that only the propertied class, roughly twenty percent of the population, were allowed to vote (and this did not include females). This did not stop others from getting involved from canvassing (as famously by the Duchess of Devonshire) to heckling and worse at the Hustings. Bribery and corruption were widespread with offers to the electorate of ale, meals, transport (to the vote) and even cash (which seems terrible but might be favourably compared to the empty promises offered by politicians today!) Candidates therefore had to have considerable means or a rich sponsor.
The hustings were a world in itself – candidates addressed the crowds of potential voters (and the mob) and were expected to give as good as they got. John Wilkes a Liberal candidate is purported to have answered a heckler who cried out that Wilkes would get the pox or hang by shouting ‘it depends whether I embrace your mistress or your principles’! The election usually went on for several days as voters were ‘bussed in’ from the countryside and usually riots, drunkenness and civil disorder reigned during this time. And the voting was far from being secret – any body could examine the written records.
Once elections across the country had finished the results were eagerly awaited although they took several days or even longer to be transmitted to Westminster. Some of the more wealthy classes even employed ‘pollsters’ to give predictions of the likely makeup of the new Parliament.
Hogarth’s illustration of the victorious candidate being ‘chaired’ around the town whilst fighting took place between the various factions of the mob is a telling if exaggerated representation of the reality of Georgian politics. Are things any better today? Certainly we do not have such violence and corruption but untruths, negative campaigning, ‘spinning’ and generally adversarial politics have not helped to produce open and honest debates about the main issues. Finally I would beg the various media especially the BBC to recognise that there are other issues that occupy the UK (and the world) today and 24/7 politics is more likely to confuse and to put people off voting than help them with the various issues ( I know this is my personal gripe!!)