The ‘most difficult’ subject for legislation
Parliament and electoral corruption in the nineteenth century
in The many lives of corruption
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Despite hopes that the 1832 Reform Act had ushered in a new era of electoral purity in Britain, bribery and other forms of corruption remained persistent problems at elections in subsequent decades. Historians have tended to focus their attention on the major reforms intended to curtail electoral malpractice in the nineteenth century, notably the 1854 and 1883 Corrupt Practices Acts and the 1872 Ballot Act, neglecting the wider trajectory of legislative proposals to improve electoral morality. This chapter aims to redress this gap, demonstrating the ongoing extent of contemporary concerns about this issue by considering the amount of parliamentary time it occupied, both in the Commons chamber and in the committee rooms. It explores the wide range of potential remedies which legislators discussed, including the disenfranchisement of constituencies, curbing election spending by candidates and reforming the system of election petitions, and it reassesses the rationales shaping MPs’ priorities and concerns in their often abortive attempts at reform. It argues that for MPs grappling with this problem, the growing demands on their own pockets due to their constituents’ expectations regarding election spending – corrupt or otherwise – served as a crucial incentive to take decisive action on this question, with the landmark 1883 Corrupt Practices Act eventually tackling the twin evils of electoral corruption and excessive election spending.

The many lives of corruption

The reform of public life in modern Britain, 1750–1950

Editors: Ian Cawood and Tom Crook

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