25 AUGUST 1866, Page 6


1 HE newspapers are busy making merry at the expense. of Sir E. Lacon for his ingenuous, confession that he was quite ignorant of the existence of corrupt practices on his own side at the. Yarmouth. election of 1865, and that he was horrorstruck last week, on reading the evidence given before the Commission of Inquiry,. to discover that his partner and intimate friend, Mr. Nightingale, had spent 4,0001. in bribing electors to vote for him. But Sir. Edmund's happy and childlike unconsciousness of the friendly devices which secured him his place at the head of the poll, but which he could. not personally sanction without compromising the safety of his seat,. is not a whit more strange and perplexing than the virtuous indignation of the moralists- who comment on the Yarmouth. story as if they had never heard. of anything of the kind before, and were. therefore. inexpressibly shocked. by disclosures of the. facility with which a large class• of voters in English. boroughs can at election times be bought for so much a head, and yet the law which professes to fix on candidates the responsibility of bribery be successfully evaded. Every new Parliament has. its own special crop. of scandals, all bearing a strong family resemblance to that of the Yarmouth election. (whichis only distinguished by the unusual magnitude of the amounts paid for the votes), and the whole machinery of electoral corruption. has been so often exposed to public view,, that it ought to be as, well known as the plot of an. ordinary sensation novel.. We have all heard over and over. again of the " illustrious stranger " from some unknown gold-digging,, who,. in such.cases, visits a borough a week before the election, carrying with him in carpet bags, or, as once in Yarmouth,.by way no doubt of graceful. allusion to the fishy character of the place, in oyster barrels, bushels of sovereigns, which he. places in safe hands for distribution among deserving voters whose opinions with regard to the respective merits of the Whig and. Tory candidates are so evenly divided that a present. of 51. or 10/. will suffice to turn the balance either way. Of course the successful candidate knows nothing of the stranger, or of the " illegal agent." who is his almoner in the borough. Nothing can be more decorous than the proceedings in the committee-room ; and if the returns of " promises " show some remarkable cases of con- version of political opponents, what more natural than that a candidate, conscious of his own uprightness and firm deter- mination to give no bribes, should attribute this gratifying- result to the influence of his high personal character and the- power of his persuasive eloquence ? He may certainly be- called upon after the election is over to pay a very heavy bill, containing charges that he cannot account for, but no generous- man, having attained the.dearest object of his ambition, would think of salting indelicate questions about this or that item of expenditure ; and, instead of haggling with his solicitor, the new member pays his bill without looking at it twice. The- next stage in this solemn farce is perhaps the appointment of- a Commission, which goes down. to the borough, and expose& the systematic bribery by which the member's friends, care- fully shielding him from responsibility by purchasing votes. without saying a, word to him about it, gained him his seat in the House of Commons. The evidence taken before the Com- mission, especially if it be published in the dull season of the year,. furnishes a text for a. goodly number of leading articles, by critics whose astonishment and disgust at the prevalence of electoral corruption which these inquiries reveal never knows any bounds ; the public, we fear, laugh at instead of being- edified by loud professions of political virtue, of which it knows by experience the exact value ; and, when the game hat. beenfairly played out, the actors take their masks off and put them aside, to be brought out again whenever the time seems. favourable. for another performance. The revelations made at Yarmouth. conclusively prove, if proof were needed of a fact se notorious, that the present law is not stringent enough_ to put down bribery, but they- by no means teach ua that it is hopeless for Parliament, if it be sincere, to attempt to make the- law effectual for that. end. The most difficult matter, in legislating upon thin question,. is: to establish the connection between the candidate and the- " illegal" or unrecognized agent who buys votes for him. R- io clear, from, Sir E. Laeolis, evidence, that as this law now stands a candidate is pits• safe so long as he makes it a rule to- ask. no questions, and has friends who are zealous enough to, use every means to. further his. interests without consulting- his wishes or requiring his previous sanction. for their acts. There are very few candidates who would be willing to run the risk of directly violating the law, though the penalties. which it inflicts are comparatively light ; but the craving of- the wealthier class; the class who have the means to bribe, for the social distinction and influence which appertain to• members of Parliament has now become so intense, that they have no scruple in availing themselves of any loophole to evade the law. To a rich merchant or tradesman a seat in the House of Commons is a prize that he would think cheaply purchased at the expenditure of a few thousand pounds, half the amount perhaps of his immense yearly income ; and such a- man may confidently reckon on possessing many obliging friends. who will secure him the object of his desire by dishonest means, provided only that they do not render themselves liable to a cri- minal prosecution for their misconduct. What, then, the. Legisla- ture ought now to aim at is to strike the candidate himself in the persons of his obliging friends: It may not be possible to- show that Sir. E. Lacon had any knowledge of the proceedings of his partner at the Yarmouth election, but the conjecture is not unreasonable that Mr. Nightingale would have hesitated a. long time before spending 4,0001. in bribery to assist the- cause of Sir E. Lacon, if he-had known that he would thereby subject himself to the disgraceful punishment of several years" imprisonment. Nor, even if Mr. Nightingale were willing to- carry thus far his complaisance to his partner, is it likely that Sir E. Lacon himself would be willing to purchase the honour of a seat in' Parliament by means of the dishonour of so kind.a. friend.. He would, we may be sure, abandon the judicious reti- cence that has hitherto stood him in good stead, and ascertain that no one of his friends was offering himself as the scapegoat of his offences, if before next election.the law were so altered as to- make it a crime for any man, whether recognized or not as a. candidate's agent,. to bribe electors to give their votes on one side or the other. If the. Legislature.were to make this amend meat in the Corrupt Practices Prevention Act, and furthermore to inflict the brand of disqualification for the public service on any member of Parliament convicted of having sanctioned bribery, it might congratulate itself on having at all events done something to abate the political profligacy of whose foul depths 've have just caught a glimpse at Yarmouth—a political profligacy which must make Mr. Lowe's diatribes about workmen's venality, seem to them cynically false. Yarmouth is just the sort of borough in which a Conser- vative delights, not big enough to be popular, not small enough to be an anomaly, with a constituency entirely of the middle and shopkeeping class ; and this revelation shows it to be one of the most corrupt boroughs in the kingdom, corrupt till the very possibility of a candidate entertaining a moral objection to bribery is scouted, and reluctance to bribe is set down at once to want of means. We have always resisted. the adMission of workmen in the petty boroughs, but we begin to doubt whether even that limitation may not be a mistake, whether journeymen carpenters, and masons, and painters would not be better electors- than the rascals who at Yarmouth not only accepted bribes, but in many- cases refused, when they had pocketed the' cash, to fulfil the shameful contract They agreed to perjure themselves for money, and then- Dar more money broke the agreement. Parliament may well be weak while it is carved of such rotten wood.