A Tale of Two Elections 1820 and 2019

Cinderloo 1821 supporter Geoff Fordham looks back at the 1820 general election and some parallels with our current hustings.

As we go through the agonies of yet another general election campaign, it’s worth reflecting on one that went before, when elections were, at least superficially, different from nowadays; yet somehow managed to display some surprising similarities.  A year before the tragedy that was to take place at Cinderloo, King George III died, which persuaded Lord Liverpool’s cabinet to dissolve parliament and call a general election.  As with us today, the British public in the early years of the nineteenth century had to put up with these events fairly regularly: the 1820 election was the sixth since 1800, but sadly history does not record whether there was a Brenda from Bristol who complained about their frequency. 

Elections then were not the exercises in mass democracy we enjoy today, revealing the ‘will of the people’ (or whatever politicians later deem that to be). On the one hand this meant the electorate in 1820 did not have to put up with hysterical vox pops from Workington or somewhere, where the nation’s voting intentions are inferred from the views of a handful of people outside a supermarket. On the other, few people got to vote.  The population of the constituency of Wenlock (which took in, among other parts of Telford, Broseley, Madely, Coalport and Wellington) was around 17,000.  In 1820 no more than 500 were eligible to vote, and over the course of the 1820 election, only 282 could be bothered to turn out, all of them of course men, and fairly wealthy ones at that.

Contemporary elections may seem to go on forever, but at least the voting is over in a day; in the nineteenth century voting itself went on for weeks.  Parliament was dissolved at the end of February, but the new parliament was not summoned until 21 April, thus beginning a term of a maximum of seven years. This could be and normally was shortened, by the monarch dissolving parliament before its term expired.  The powers of the monarch were less curtailed in those days than today, and they didn’t need to be lied to by prime ministers in order to do the proroguing.

Corruption of the kind you rarely see today was of course commonplace: not for nothing were some constituencies called ‘rotten boroughs’.  Candidates could be withdrawn from standing at the whim of an individual, with no-one consulted, not least because parties didn’t have members.   And in 1820, the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, offered peerages to opposition MPs to gain their vote.  Of course nothing like that happens nowadays.  Oh hang on, what was it Anne Widdecombe said Johnson had offered Brexit candidates? And wasn’t the Brexit party going to contest every seat….

But despite some organisational differences, the issues underpinning the 1820 election demonstrate at least echoes of what we are seeing today.  At the centre of both of course, are our relations with Europe.  Today, the focus is whether we leave the EU, on what terms and when.  The language of some in today’s debate draws on metaphors of warfare: ‘winning wars’, ‘the country going to explode’, or ‘surrender acts’.  But in 1820, war-like references weren’t metaphorical.  Wellington had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo five years before, but the war’s legacy continued, not least because 1815 was the culmination of more than 20 years of conflict.   Francophobia was widespread (though far from universal) at the time.  Long before the 1820 election James Gillray, the great political cartoonist, drew a map of Britain with John Bull’s head (or maybe the King’s) where Scotland should be, showing him defecating fulsomely over France from around the Isle of Wight.  Some of the government’s recent comments about Europe show similarly warm feelings for our neighbours across the channel.

As with most wars our battles with the French came at a high price, compounded at the end of hostilities with massive rises in unemployment.  In consequence the 1820 election took place after years of imposed austerity – sound familiar?  Soldiers and sailors returning from the campaign swelled the ranks of the unemployed – 65,000 men were discharged from the navy alone by 1816.  At the same time, reductions in demand for weaponry, ammunition and other supplies produced job cuts across the northern and midlands industrial areas: by 1817 7,000 Shropshire ironworkers had lost their jobs since the war’s end. There are those of course who are forecasting that changing our relations with Europe will once again cost British jobs and raise food prices, but maybe that’s just project fear again…

People will of course argue about whether these apparent similarities I’ve described are for real; but what Britain is famed for throughout the world are our continuities.  Some things simply never change.  And in 2019, just as in 1820, today’s general election takes place against a background of reports of alleged sexual improprieties by a prince (though not, in this election at least, by the heir apparent as was the case in 1820.)   The Prince of Wales had been unhappily married to Caroline of Brunswick since 1795 (the tradition of members of the Royal Family marrying foreigners goes back a long way).  As is apparently expected of Princes of Wales, he had been having an affair for most of the period of the marriage.  Popular sentiment turned against him when on assuming the throne he sought to divorce Queen Caroline as she would have become, freeing him to marry his mistress.  Of course in those days the prince didn’t have to undergo a long interview with the Emily Maitlis of the time to say he had no recollection of any wrong-doing.

At the time of writing the polls are suggesting a relatively comfortable Conservative victory, but it is still early days. Some commentators are arguing however that tactical voting, a greater willingness of young people to register and vote, and uncertainties about support for the smaller parties could undermine that, maybe producing yet another hung parliament.  And that of course could mean another election, or another referendum, in the near future.   Which will provide another excuse to delve into the history books to find parallels with our past – so who knows?  

See you all again next year?

Please let us know your thoughts on the post.

Geoff Fordham’s interpretation of James Gillray’s cartoon from the period

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