How did Britain’s political system work?
The United Kingdom, based on a single Parliament at Westminster, was quite new in the 1780s. Wales was united with England by legislation in 1536 and 1542. The Act of Union with Scotland was in 1707. However, Ireland did not lose its independence in 1801. The British Constitution of monarchy, House of Commons and House of Lords was held up, particularly by continental writers, as a model of how a country should be run. The American War of Independence (1775-1783) and the outbreak of revolution in France in 1789 led to increasing radical demands for reform of the system.
In the 1780s about 435,000 people in England and Wales could vote out of a population of nine millions, or just over five per cent. In Scotland and Ireland it was less than one per cent of the total population of ten millions. The Septennial Act 1715 established seven-year parliaments though general elections were also held on the death of the monarch, a practice finally ended in 1867.
The House of Commons was made up of MPs from the boroughs or towns and the counties. Both counties and boroughs sent two MPs each to Parliament. In the counties, all forty-shilling freeholders were entitled to vote and some of the counties had a considerable number of voters. Yorkshire, for example, had about 20,000 in the 1780s. Bedfordshire had nearly 4,000 just before the Reform Act, which was average for English counties. In the boroughs, the situation was much more confused. In some towns, the vote was given to the corporation or town council. In others, it was restricted to 'freemen' or to all who owned or occupied certain types of property, who paid local taxes ['scot and lot'] or who were not getting alms or charity ['potwallopers'].
Counties were more democratic than boroughs because the size of the electorate was important in determining the level of corruption. There were 'rotten boroughs', like Dunwich in Suffolk where thirty-two electors chose the two MPs. Where there were a small number of voters, elections allowed them to sell their votes. When William Cobbett stood, unsuccessfully, for parliament in 1806 on a non-corruption ticket he was accused of talking the bread from the mouths of voters. The price varied. Some electors accepted straightforward bribes. Others preferred to negotiate benefits for the town or corporation. Successful candidates were expected to show their gratitude and 'treating' was widespread. An elector had two votes, but could give both their votes or ‘plump’ for one candidate. When it is recalled that more than 40 per cent of the English boroughs had electorates of less than 100 and that two-thirds had electorates below 500, the importance of influence through corruption or 'management' is more understandable. Some boroughs were under the control of a particular family or patron: they were known as 'pocket boroughs' or 'nomination boroughs'. Although control by patrons was accepted, it could not be taken for granted and once achieved it had to be cultivated carefully. Since elections were expensive great efforts were made to avoid a contest whenever possible. Local Whigs and Tories might agree to share the representation rather than incur the cost of disputing it. When the ambitions of two families clashed, it was cheaper for them to take with one seat each rather than embark on the costly and uncertain procedures necessary to win both.
Eighteenth and early nineteenth century elections were noisy, rough and held in public. Drunkenness and rioting were normal events and through the days on which polling took place, the mob revelled in the exhilarating diversions that accompanied the poll. Voting took place over several days on an open husting and unpopular preferences were greeted with catcalls, whistles or over-ripe fruit. Opponents were lured into taverns where they were got drunk and locked up until voting was completed. A memorial tablet in Leeds Parish Church reads "Roger Holt Leigh severely injured by an excited populace when engaged in the exercise of his franchise as Burgess of Wigan that he subsequently died." Since there was no voting register documents were often forged to give people the vote that did not have it. Dead men were impersonated, votes were cast twice and the returning officer often embarrassed his opponents by transferring the hustings to some inaccessible and unadvertised spot. Known enemies were disqualified on trumped up charges. Once all the votes had been cast, there could still be disputes over whether individuals had the right to vote.
Before 1832, working out election results was complicated by the vagueness of party lines, the number of uncontested elections and the presence of 'independent' candidates. National political parties, like those we have today, offering distinctive political programmes and with an organised national and local party machine, did not begin to emerge until after the 1832 Reform Act. However, from the 1780s the number of MPs consistently supporting Tory or Whig positions in divisions in the House of Commons did increase. To talk about the 'Whig' and 'Tory' parties is deceptive. In neither case did the term mean a tightly knit political group, although they both came from the aristocratic landed elite, and it is necessary to give both words a very loose meaning. Lord Liverpool led a broadly Tory government between 1812 and 1827 but his cabinet was not united on fundamental issues. Liverpool remained in office not because he had a united and disciplined party behind him but because he could manage a majority in the Commons and Lords, on most occasions, and because he had the support of George, as Regent before 1820 and then as king. His long period in office demonstrated two particular things. First, as Prime Minister, he had at his disposal large amounts of political patronage, which he used to maintain his authority and 'manage' Parliament. Secondly, the pursuit of planned policies was difficult and through the period successive Prime Ministers tended to react to situations rather than determine them. Changes in direction were only possible when they had widespread support across the political establishment or if the policies were uncontroversial.
Organised religion in the 1780s played a dominant role in people’s lives. Christian principles formed the bedrock of society and its system of morality. Baptism, marriage and burial were key events for individuals. The pulpit was an important means of communication. The churches provided education, especially for the poor, in the form of day and Sunday schools. People often learned to read from the Bible. The language, images and messages of religious belief permeated throughout society.
The fundamental religious division was between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, the religion of the state throughout Great Britain. The Church of England or Anglican Church was the Established Church except in Scotland where the Presbyterian Church had the same role. It was created by Parliament in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and its archbishops and bishops, a conservative body largely unwilling to contemplate reform, sat in the House of Lords. The strength of the Church of England lay in rural England and was based on the bond between the squire and the parson. By the 1780s, this cosy relationship was threatened by a weakening of social ties and widespread criticisms of clerical abuses. It was, however, weak in the growing towns. It failed to accommodate growing congregations leaving a religious vacuum among the working population that Nonconformity or Dissent filled from the 1760s and 1770s. Anti-Popery ran deep in British society and Roman Catholics were, until 1829, denied the same civil rights as Protestants. Catholicism in Ireland, the religion of the majority, was seen as a means of expressing nationalist aspirations and consequently as subversive. In Wales Calvinist Methodism increasingly took a similar stance. Chapel and Church were at the heart of many communities providing a focus for spiritual and practical support.