HL Deb 07 October 1841 vol 59 cc1151-4
Lord Brougham

presented a petition to which he begged to call the particular attention of their Lordships, from a respectable member of the Society of Friends, Edwin Swan Rickman, complaining of the dreadful excitement, intimidation, and corruption which he had witnessed at the late election for the place of his residence, and states, that in many of the places in the three kingdoms, where he had since been, the same scenes were said, by all he saw, to have been exhibited; and praying for the prevention of canvassing. Whatever he might think of the remedy, he (Lord Brougham) thought the subject of the petition deserv- ing of the most attentive consideration. He now called their Lordships' attention to it, with the view of inducing them, during the recess, to apply their minds to the question, and in the hope that they might be led to support a proposition which would be made to them either by him, if he were spared, or by some one else, to enter into an inquiry on the subject. He wished the feeling were strong and universal of the moral guilt involved in bribery. He wished it was everywhere felt that a man taking a bribe was morally guilty of perjury, as completely as a man having planned and resolved to commit a murder, morally incurred the guilt of blood, though by accident blood might not be shed. A man taking a bribe was morally guilty of perjury, because he was ready to take the bribery oath. He held candidates and their friends to be persons chiefly guilty. When a man was about to contest a place, his first question—at least, the first after asking whether he were likely to succeed—was "How much will it cost?" If he were answered three or four hundred pounds, it was all very well, because the lawful cost might amount to so much. But if he were informed that it would take three or four thousand pounds, and went to the contest on such terms, he was morally guilty of the bribery that ensued, because he must know that since Lord Grey's Reform Bill, the legal expenses could not be more than the smaller sum, and that the larger one could only be required for bribery. Since the Bill, then, and in consequence of it, no candidate could pretend ignorance of the bribery his money went to support. It was lamentable to think, that bribery and intimidation had been more rife of late than in former times, though there were some brilliant exceptions. He knew of one case in which a person lost his election by a single vote, and refused to be a party to undue means of bringing back the voter who determined it, and who had been drawn over by his adversaries. He preferred to lose his seat, which he did lose, to being a party to such a proceeding. Another instance was that of his noble Friend, the son of the author of the Reform Bill. Lord Howick was engaged in two contested elections, and on both occasions took effectual means for preventing unlawful interference. He had come forward and said, he would neither allow his influence to be used, nor thank any friend of his who should use that influence; and he also freed all those over whom he or his family had any influence from all obligation to vote for him. Such conduct was most honourable; but it was also most fitting, and most worthy of that distinguished family, and the Great Statesman at its head; for what could be more appropriate, than that they who had been the first to make the possession of the elective franchise extensive, should also be the most strenuous to keep the exercise of it pure? He knew others, some filling and adorning the highest ranks in that House, who regarded bribery with such abhorrence, that they refused to contribute anything to what were called election funds, because they could not feel secure that their money would not be spent in bribing the electors; and yet these noble persons were as zealous in devotion to their principles, as anxious to further the progress of those principles, by promoting the election of men, agreeing with them in opinion, and were as generous, as munificent in the disposal of their money for all lawful purposes, as any individuals in or out of that House. With regard to intimidation at elections, he should observe that in his opinion it was all but as bad as bribery. He held, that any person whatever, whether priest, peer, or prince, or the coadjutor of a priest, the agent of a peer, or the servant of a prince, who interfered to prevent a man from the free exercise of the franchise, by threats, forced that voter's conscience, and did a criminal act. He said so, because the law declared that elections should be free; and also commanded every one so to use his own property, as not to injure his neighbour. In his belief, it was an offence by the laws of England to threaten a voter either with a loss of his tenement, or any other loss, if he did not vote in a particular way; and if in the opinion of any one it was not an offence indictable by the law, as it now stood, he hoped that another Session would not pass without its being made indictable. But until he heard the contrary from the judges of the land, he should continue to hold it an offence punishable, either for a priest to threaten a voter with a refusal of the rites of religion, or for a landlord to threaten a voter with the loss of his tenement, or for a Court-lord to threaten a voter with the loss of Court custom. There could be no doubt, that a public officer who so acted, was guilty of an offence for which he was impeachable; hut he had yet to learn, that in any one it was not indictable; and he did not expect to learn this, either from the first civil, nor certainly from the first criminal judge in the country. He would close his observations on this subject by giving another instance of a refusal on the part of a candidate unduly to influence constituents. It was recorded in the history of the Court of George 3rd, that a noble person, being a candidate for the borough of Windsor, at a very early period of his life, refused to allow the Court tradesmen to be spoken to by any of the officers of the household, and thus risked the loss of their votes. A complaint having been made to the King upon the subject by one of those over-zealous and officious persons who are always to be found at Court as elsewhere, his Majesty sent for that noble person and said to him, "You did quite right; it was much better that you should lose a few votes, than that my tradesmen should be influenced by the officers of my household." The case he referred to, derived an additional interest from considering who the noble candidate was. That candidate was the brother of his noble Friend opposite (the Duke of Wellington), then Lord Mornington, now Marquess Wellesley; and such was the auspicious dawn of a public life which had since shone forth with so surpassing a lustre.

Petition to be laid on the Table of the House.

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