30 OCTOBER 1880, Page 9


AN accomplished historical student maintains, in another column, that the sole ground that can be alleged for the immorality of bribe-giving and bribe-taking in Elections is the general immorality of breaking the law. It is wrong, he says, in a moral sense, just so far as smuggling is wrong, and no farther. There would be nothing wrong at all in introducing French wine into England without paying duty on it, did not the law require that you should pay duty on it, and were it not wrong in itself, at least in a free country, to transgress the law. It is just the same, he thinks, with accepting a bribe for your vote. That is wrong because the law condemns it, and makes stringent enactments intended to prevent it. But it is wrong for no other reason. We had better quote his exact words :—" But apart from the law of the land—it may imply gross insen- sibility on my part, but I really do not see how you can say that buying or selling votes is immoral in itself at all. I would not engage in such traffic for my own part, nor, I think, would I encourage it in others; but, looked at by itself, I really do not see that it is a bit worse than playing whist for penny or two-penny points." We think that our corre- spondent is right; that this opinion, if he really hold it, and does not rather air it as a sort of intellectual crotchet worth the trouble of overthrowing, does imply an insensibility on his part which may fairly be described as gross. No wonder the electors of Sandwich take bribes if a writer like • Mr. Gardner can think of them in this way. What kind of ap- proximation to immorality there can be in playing whist for penny or two-penny points, so long as the player can fairly afford to spend all that he may presumably lose on the enjoy- ment of the hour, it is quite past our discernment to discover. It seems to us just as legitimate an expenditure on amusement as spending the same sum, without any element of chance at all, on flowers, or a ride, or any other pleasure,— the element of chance being, in the former case, part of the amusement, but not a less legitimate part than the fragrance of the flower, or the stimulus of the change of place. Nor is the element of chance in the case of bribery any part of the consideration. If the briber could absolutely ensure, by his bribe, the vote he buys, he would be committing just the same immorality as he is now, when he tries to buy a vote, but may, nevertheless, fail in obtaining what he pays for. It is not the gambling element in the matter which affects the moral ques- tion at all. It is the wish on the part of the briber, and the willingness on the part of the bribee, to load the scales by which the political convictions of the country are to be ascer- tained. Supposing that men of science were engaged in a great dispute as to any, point of practical engineering,—say, ivhicli of two modes of constrazting the Tay Bridge is the safer

for the public, and the question were at last submitted to the vote of the engineers' profession. We may well suppose that many of that profession would be entirely without an opinion on the subject, that they would not understand the issue, and would not care which of the two sides gained the victory. But what would be the duty of any such members of the profession who did not feel that they had any right to a voice in the matter P Would it not be to abstain from voting until they had gained some real opinion on the merits? Could anything be baser than to swell the votes on either side, by voting for the candidate who paid them most? Could anything be more disgraceful than for the honest advocates of one side,—having agreed to the arbitration by vote,—to swell the number of their own side by purchasing votes which would represent, of course, no scientific judgment at all? Would it not be perfectly plain that if another train of victims plunged into the Tay in consequence of a verdict obtained by such means, every man who had paid for a vote, and every man who had given his vote for payment, would be morally guilty of that act of wholesale murder P Now, pre- cisely the same may be said of bribers and bribees at an election. If there be any sane men who hold, with Mr. Ruskin, that the contest between parties in an English election is nothing more than a competition between rival ratcatchers, all we can say is that it is the plain duty of those men not to vote. The tacit assumption of an election in every Parliamentary constitution, —the tacit assumption of both sides that the nation is to decide for itself whom it trusts and whom it distrusts. Every vote given in an election is given as immorally as the votes of engineers on an engineering question, delivered not on scientific, but on wholly selfish grounds,—if it is given for any other reason than because the voter feels more political trust in the candi- date or the party for whom he votes, than he feels in the candi- date or party against whom he votes. And it is almost wasting words to point out that the result may easily be of infinitely greater moment even to human life,—to say nothing of human honour and happiness,—than the right or wrong judgment on the engineering of a Tay Bridge. Only cynics like Mr. Ruskin profess to think that it makes no difference to England whether Lord Beaconsfield seizes a scientific frontier, or Mr. Gladstone gives it up again,—whether Lord Beaconsfield mounts guard over the lingering death-bed of Turkey, or Mr. Gladstone fosters the fresh life which is springing up where the impenitent and exhausted sinner is slowly giving ground.

But grant the state of mind assumed,—suppose that thousands of the voters are incapable—as, no doubt, very many, are—of feeling any genuine trust in either leader, are too ignorant even to understand any of the issues on which the question of trust or distrust turns,—their duty is obvious, not to exercise a function for which they are wholly incompetent. Would Mr. Gairdner think it not immoral for a member of the Hanging Committee at the Academy to take money for his suffrage on behalf of certain pictures ? We suppose he would. We suppose he would say that an Academician who accepts a place of trust is understood to use his best judgment for the body to which he belongs, and is a mean rascal if he prostitutes his vote for a bribe; and that if he has no opinion between two pictures, he should abstain from voting, or vote with . the men of whose judgment he has the best opinion ; but that whatever he does, he has no right to use false weights, to let his vote go by corruption. Well, we maintain that precisely the same thing is true of the British elector. The Constitution has defined those whose collective confidence —where they feel any—is to decide to whose guidance the State should be entrusted. If the elector feels no confidence in any party,—if he knows no one on whose judgment in political matters he relies,—he should stand aloof; and the greatest in- justice he can commit is to let gross self-interest supply him with an equivalent for a political conviction. If either party offer to bribe him, that party is playing false, is doing its best to debase the character of the arbitration agreed to. If both offer to bribe him, then in that locality both are playing false, and he ought to expose the falsehood of both. But the one thing that is obviously wrong, even to the meanest capacity, is for an elector to accept the privilege of judging on political grounds, and then not to judge at all, but to make believe that he has given a judgment because he is paid to tell a lie. When utter indifference as to the result of the party fight is seriously made the excuse for the buying and selling of the indifferent elector's vote, one naturally asks whether even a

person who is utterly ignorant of the merits of a cause, and utterly indifferent as to its issue because he is utterly ignorant as to its merits, is at all the less likely on thAt account to forget that every vote given for a bribe is a vote which plays the country false. Even the most ignorant rustic knows that if he takes part in a game at all, he ought to abide by the principles of the game. An umpire may be decidedly ignorant of the principles of cricket, and may also not care a farthing which side wins ; his post of umpire may be forced upon him, without any wish of his own ; but if he accepts the duty, and then decides any question submitted to him, not because he supposes the decision to be right, but because he is to be paid by one side for giving it his vote, the most ignorant village community in England would dub him a rascal. A man who is no poli- tician at all must know as much as this,—that the vote should be given on public grounds, if it is given at all ; and that if it cannot be given on public grounds, it should not be given at all. Is there any difference, even to the mind of a Deal sailor, between the principles on which he is bound to vote for the manager of his own Friendly Society, and those on which he is bound to vote for the manager of the great national society of the United Kingdom He may feel the importance of giving an honest vote in the one case more keenly than he feels it in the other, because his own prosperity or ruin will depend upon it ; while whether the wrong or right manager has been elected for the nation, he may, perhaps, never know. But none the less, lie knows that he is doing a mean and base thing if he allows a personal bribe to disturb the result, just as well as he knows that he is doing a mean and base thing if he takes a personal bribe to vote for a particular manager of his Friendly Society. Whatever ought to determine the matter, selfish greed should not determine it. If he knows no reason for trusting one party rather than the other, still he knows what is an excellent reason for distrusting either, and that is an attempt to bribe him. You might just as well say that if you had appealed to the Deal boatmen collectively to decide which of two lifeboats it was safest to use for wrecks on the Goodwins, any man who had not formed an opinion on the subject need feel no shame if he took a bribe to determine his judgment, as that any elector who had no party bias at the late election need feel no shame for having allowed the present of five shillings to decide his vote. However profound their ignorance of public matters, British electors know very well that it is base to decide public matters on which they are ignorant with the sole view to their private advantage ; and if it is base for perfect ignor- ance to take a bribe, it is much baser for partial knowledge to give one. The country solemnly provides one pair of scales for political issues, and then every bigoted or careless knave who can get secretly at the scales goes and tampers with the balance; but none the less, he knows he is a knave for his pains. The analogue to bribery is not that of playing fairly at penny, or two- penny, or, for that matter, at guinea whist, but that of consenting to play whist at all, and then, like the "heathen Chinee," using cards hidden in your sleeve, which do not belong to the players' pack.