Tuesday, 23 February 2010

The Good Old Days?

"The King (George III) responded by giving (Henry)Fox the unofficial position of 'cabinet councillor and his Majesty's minister in the House of Commons'. His duty was to obtain a majority vote to approve the peace treaty (with France). How he did it would be no concern to the King, but he would have all the resources of the Crown at his disposal.

Fox vigorously attacked his new assignment, using the resources of the Crown to bribe the members of the House. He offered them places in the government, commissions in the military, or chairs in the universities. If such favors for themselves or their families failed, he offered money. John Almon wrote, 'The royal household has been increased beyond all former example. The lords and grooms of the bedchamber were doubled. Pensions were thrown about indiscriminately. Five and twenty thousand pounds were issued in one day, in bank notes of one hundred pounds each. The only stipulation was, Give us your vote. A corruption of such notoriety and extent had never been seen before.' According to Walpole, 'A shop was publicly opened at the Pay Office, whither the members flocked, and received the wages of their venality in bank-bills, even to so low a sum as two hundred pounds for their votes on the treaty'"

This account is to be found in Arthur H. Cash's biography 'John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty.' I've been enjoying this fascinating book about a hero of the fight for liberty in eighteenth century England. I will soon be at the point where his support for the American Revolution is described.

We might think that some MPs have not conducted themselves well in recent years. We may bemoan the way that governments are able to push legislation through with the force of their majority - but things have been worse in the past. Sometimes people paint a very rosy picture of parliaments in former days. The truth is that Westminster has seen some appalling behaviour. I'm glad to say that much of that behaviour is now illegal. Despite the view of MPs as sheep following the orders of the whips - MPs today are more prepared than ever to vote against their party. [The work of Lord Norton and Philip Cowley establishes this.] During the 1950s there was a whole session in which no backbencher voted against their Government - nowadays rebellions are frequent, and very few MPs have no record of 'rebellious behaviour'.

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