Friday, June 19, 2009

House Points: Bishop's Castle shows there is nothing new about poltical corruption

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News was clearly influenced by my recent break in Shropshire.

The Tale of "The Honest Burgess"

I have just spent a few days in one of my favourite English towns. The steep main street of Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire runs from the site of the long-vanished castle down to a church with a Norman tower.

At the top of that street is a collection of fine Georgian houses. When you discover how they were paid for, you realise there is nothing new about political corruption.

Before the Great Reform Act of 1832 Bishop’s Castle was a notorious rotten borough. Despite having fewer than a hundred electors for much of its history, the town returned two MPs. (There were worse cases: Old Sarum – a hilltop above Salisbury – had two MPs and no residents at all.)

Not surprisingly, this situation led to corruption. But it did not take the form we generally imagine when we think of the elections of past centuries. This was not a case of candidates plying voters with free drink and then dragging them off to the polls.

Instead, the electors of Bishop’s Castle realised their votes were of great value to would-be MPs and sold them for hard cash.

In 1726 one defeated candidate was able to prove that, of the 52 people who voted for his rival, 51 had received bribes. At the 1802 election the price of a single vote was £25 – more than most people earned in a year. Hence all those fine Georgian houses.

Not everyone succumbed. Bishop’s Castle churchyard contains the grave of Matthew Marston – “The Honest Burgess”. His tombstone records that his “steady and uncorrupt conduct presents an example to his brother Burgesses for perpetual imitation, and a useful lesson to the Parliamentary Representatives of the Borough, that Opulence and Power cannot alone secure independent suffrage”.

The town’s political history does contain more honourable episodes. During the English Civil War Bishop’s Castle and neighbouring Clun raised a force of Clubmen to defend the two boroughs against anyone who attacked them. They described themselves as "standing out against both sides, neither for the King nor Parliament, but only for the preservation of their own lives and fortunes".

And today Bishop’s Castle gives its name to a large rural ward of Shropshire County Council. It is held by the Liberal Democrats.

1 comment:

Jane said...

Oh don't tell people about Bishop's Castle Jonathan! I was thinking of retiring there, I don't want the house prices to go up.