CAN BRIBERY BE PUT DOWN?
TUESDAY last was a memorable day of the Session. There 1 has seldom been such an amount of virtuous indignation exhibited within the walls of Parliament. Lords and Commqns were unanimous in invectives against bribery, and were quite keen in considering (at least) what steps should be taken to put it down. On both sides of St. Stephen's Hall the topic was hammered at in the old-established something- must-be-done manner. In the Lower House, after hearing a good many speeches overflowing with righteousness and repro- bation, having shaken their heads, and decided that it was very bad—very bad, and having seen Mr. Vivian's motion and Mr. Buxton's amendment safely knocked on the head under the promise of a Bill "to be considered," the faithful Com- mons walked home to dinner, satisfied that they had done their duty by their country and their consciences. The subject was "ventilated," and that was all. The House of Lords ventilated it too, and to more purpose. Lord Grey's motion for a general Commission to institute a "com- prehensive inquiry into the various methods by which corrup- tion is practised at elections, and into the best means of check- ing it," is at least definite in its aim, though the Commis- sioners would have as pretty a piece of work cut out for them as they could well get through. If they should have to go over all the forms and phases of corruption, direct and indirect, from the 5/. note slipped into an itching palm, down through the various stages of venality and election trickery ; if they should have to investigate the different forms of intimidation proper and improper, to go into the question of "local charities," stained-glass windows, and paid agents, to analyze the constituent properties of "paint" of every hue, and enlarge upon the natural history of town- bred "lambs," we wish them joy of their labours. Judging from the roars of laughter which greet all oral revelations of these matters in the committee-rooms, the Commissioners' Report would probably be very funny reading indeed. The Re- port would have a melancholy side, too, for it would show that when modes of corruption are so many and so various, the extirpation of bank-note bribery alone would still leave enough behind to impair wofully the purity of elections. But that extirpation would have at least one good effect, it would help to rid the House of the "vulgar rich," of the snob senators who climb into Parliament by means of a ladder of gold, and who have neither interest in nor sympathy for the honest folks they fain would represent. If bribery could be put down it would exclude them at least, and though the House of Com- mons would still be "the best club in London," its privileges and luxuries would be for those who deserve and earn them, and M.P.-ship would cease to be procurable as a passport to enable the wife and daughters of a lucky " Bear " or a success- full " Bull " from the Stock Exchange to cross the frontier of good society.
If the promised Bill be not speedily forthcoming, it is a pity that Mr. Vivian's motion was allowed to drop. It aimed at, securing the purity of the House by preventing those who had been found guilty of bribery from ever sitting there, and after all that is a more desirable object than the special punishment of individual cases. To put bribery down completely would, we believe, be as impossible as to put down suicide ; to check it is possible, and if by doing so the growing snob element could be got rid of, it would be no inconsiderable Parliamentary victory.
But what is to be done $---that is the question. Bribery has increased, and is increasing ; as long as human nature remains what it is bribes in the shape of coin will be welcome to the poor man, and as long as dispensing them is accompanied by lab moral taint bribes will be to the rich man a ready means of gaining his end. Every one sees the evil, and every one has a nostrum to propose. "Disfranchise the constituency," says one ; but to punish the many for the sins of the few, to punish the guilty and innocent alike, is contrary to all justice; besides, you may disfranchise a tiny constituency, while to disfranchise a large one would be simply out of the question. To deprive the voter who accepted a bribe of his right to vote would effect but little. You might kill the patient, and thus put an end to the malady in his case, but the epidemic would still rage. If a voter wants a 10/. note to-day he is not likely to refuse it, on the ground that if he is found out he will not be allowed to earn another in the same way this day five years. The truth is that if the voter were not tempted he would not fall, and the tempter, then, is the proper object of punishment ; the candidate or his agents are to blame, and their sins be on their own heads. Disqualify the tempter, put it out of his power to tempt again.
Turn the matter as we will, a fresh difficulty presents itself at every step, and almost all the difficulties arise from this, that neither in the House nor out of it is it sufficiently thought that there is any moral culpability in election bribery, and under the existing law there is no punishment attaching to the offence which makes it infamous. A mere term of imprisonment inflicted at the instance of an election com- mittee, as the worst punishment for the offence, would in most cases have the effect of causing the offender to con- sider himself a sort of State prisoner. A little degra- dation added to the punishment would be reflected on the offence. Again, under the present law both the bribing candidate and the bribed elector may be (may be) fined and imprisoned, but it is only after the costly, lumbering process of an election committee that these penalties can be enforced, and by the time the committee have finished their labours all parties are sick of the whole business, and glad to let it drop. Further, to punish both parties to a bribery transac- tion, the bribee as well as the briber, is to shut out the chance- of getting evidence of the most flagrant cases, which are generally arranged between two people in such a way that if both have a strong interest in keeping silence the secret will never ooze out. On the principle that the briber is the tempter, the instigator of the offence, the person who ought to know better, -and in whose personal probity the public have the most direct interest, it is clear that the briber is the party to be punished, and this whether he be principal or agent, and whether the money be offered or given for a vote, or for using influence to obtain votes. Let the punishment for the offence be imprisonment, and let it be inflicted in the ordinary way. It may not make a man think bribery more heinous. because he suffers for committing it as he would for pick- ing a pocket, but it will influence him much in checking his desire to bribe, and this is about all we can hope to effect. The sort of candidate who bribes would object to have his hair cropped. Add to the punishment of imprisonment in the county gaol the penalty suggested by Mr. Vivian of disqualifying the candidate from ever sitting in Par- liament afterwards, and almost all would be done that could be done to put down bribery. It would not be stopped, but there would be less chance of its recurrence. Then, as to the tribunal, it is most desirable that bribery offences should be tried on the spot, at a special sessions, before a jury, and. without delay. The Attorney-General would naturally be the public prosecutor, but as his office is already overworked a Counsel to the House of Commons might be appointed instead.
Let bribery be punished thus quickly, sharply, and cheaply, and though we hold that it can never be "put down" in the sense of being exterminated, it will receive a check that will tend to the purity of the House, and at least prevent its being regarded as a club, with a large entrance-fee, and exclude those whose sole claims to membership are brazen impudence and golden coin.