An article by our assistant editor, Kathryn Rix, on ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’ has just been published in a special issue of Parliamentary History, edited by Robert Saunders, and entitled ‘Shooting Niagara – and after?’ The Second Reform Act and its world. This publication, marking the 150th anniversary of the 1867 Reform Act, also includes contributions from Colin Barr, Malcolm Chase, Kathryn Gleadle, Alex Middleton, Jonathan Parry and Gareth Stedman Jones. It can be accessed here.
Kathryn Rix, ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’
This essay considers the role which the issue of bribery and corruption played during the debates on parliamentary reform in 1867-8, a theme previously neglected by historians of the Second Reform Act. It examines the ways in which the 1867 Act itself sought to deal with corruption, analysing the rationale for the disfranchisement of four venal boroughs. It also looks at the attempts made by backbenchers to insert provisions to curtail the growing costs of elections. Above all, it shows how the decision to confine discussion of electoral malpractice largely to the separate 1868 Election Petitions Act facilitated the progress of the main Reform Act. The 1868 Act was of ground-breaking constitutional significance in transferring jurisdiction over election petitions from committees sitting at Westminster to election judges, who tried petitions in the constituencies. Why the Commons – somewhat reluctantly – decided to surrender what had hitherto been a jealously-guarded privilege of the lower House is examined, discussing the failings of the existing tribunal and the role of Disraeli in skilfully guiding through reform. For contemporaries, the 1868 Act was very much part of a wider reform settlement. Reintegrating the question of electoral corruption into historical analysis of the Second Reform Act helps to provide a fuller understanding of the broader concerns underpinning the extension of the franchise in 1867.