The Scottish dimension (2)

Following on from the first blog in this series in January, this post focuses on the distinctive nature of the Scottish representative system before and after the 1832 Scottish Reform Act. Both the franchise (who had the right to vote) and the nature of constituencies (which geographical areas were represented) differed significantly from England and Wales, and Ireland.

As in England and Ireland the Scottish electoral system drew a distinction between urban and rural areas, or burghs and counties. Before 1832, there had been 45 Scottish MPs who represented 30 counties and 15 burghs. All constituencies were single member, unlike in England and Wales where double-member seats predominated. Apart from Edinburgh, all the burghs were actually groupings of royal burghs, sometimes geographically diffuse. These burgh districts, as they were known, had no equivalent in England or Ireland and were a legacy of the 1707 Act of Union. Unlike Ireland and England and Wales, there was no property qualification for MPs who represented Scottish constituencies.

The burgh franchise was vested in the corporations. In burgh districts before 1832 each constituent burgh corporation possessed one vote. An election result in a district containing five burghs might, for example, be 3-2.  Importantly, this meant that before 1832 there was no popular electoral franchise in urban Scotland. There was no equivalent to English freemen or scot and lot boroughs with relatively large popular electorates. As a result the Scottish urban electorate was tiny. The skulduggery that went on behind the scenes, both within and between corporations was memorably satirised by John Galt in his novel The Provost (1822). Before 1832 the small size of the Scottish county electorate and the creation of fictitious votes served to facilitate the control of the county representation by the great landowners.

The limitations of the Scottish electoral system made it relatively easy for successive Tory governments to manage, notably through Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, Pitt the Younger’s Scottish adjutant. Research undertaken for the House of Commons, 1820-1832 project has revealed that Scottish MPs were much more likely to support the government and oppose reform than their Irish or English counterparts.

The 1832 Scottish Reform Act increased the number of Scottish MPs to 53, representing 51 constituencies. All were single member apart from Edinburgh and Glasgow which returned two MPs each. Dundee, Aberdeen, Greenock, Paisley and Perth were given separate representation for the first time. There remained 14 burgh districts (although some of these were reconstituted) and 30 counties. The Act established a £10 household franchise in the burghs and gave the vote to various categories of owners, tenants, life-renters and leaseholders in the counties. As married women were allowed to retain property in their own name in Scotland (unlike in England before 1870), husbands could qualify to vote through their wife’s property after 1832. However, these voters accounted for just 1.4% of the total urban electorate in 1844.

Norman Gash observed in 1953 that the 1832 Scottish Reform Act was ‘far more revolutionary’ than its English counterpart because of the restricted and oligarchic nature of the unreformed Scottish system. ‘The Act was not so much reform as enfranchisement’. The electorate rose from a nominal 5,000 to 65,000, or by 1,400% as a result of the Act. By 1865 the Scottish electorate stood at 105,000. These were impressive increases, but most of the growth after 1832 was in the four largest cities: Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow. In some counties with small electorates the franchise was manipulated by the great landowners to create ‘faggot’ votes, creating paper properties given to tenants or dependents. The electorates of many constituent burghs within districts remained small. In the 1840s 13 out of the 69 burghs that comprised the 14 districts had less than 50 electors.

Despite these limitations, reform ushered in a new era in Scottish electoral politics, which has received remarkably little attention compared to England or Ireland. The role of religion, parties, issues and rituals in Scottish electoral culture will be addressed in subsequent blogs.

Further reading:

M. Dyer, Men of property and intelligence: the Scottish electoral system prior to 1884 (1996).

W. Ferguson, ‘The Reform Act (Scotland) of 1832 – intention and effect’, Scottish Historical Review, 45 (1966), 105-14.

D.R. Fisher, ‘Scotland’, in History of Parliament: The House of Commons, 1820-1832, (2009), i. 97-146

J. Galt, The Provost (1822), chapters V, XLI, XLII

N. Gash, Politics in the age of Peel (1953), chapter 2.

G. Pentland, Radicalism, Reform and National Identity in Scotland, 1820-1833 (2008).

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1 Response to The Scottish dimension (2)

  1. Pingback: The History of Parliament, 1832-1868: a four nations project | Four Nations History Network

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