Following the Voting reform 150 years on from the 1872 Ballot Act: A symposium at the IHR in honour of Valerie Cromwell event earlier this month, our research fellow, Dr Martin Spychal, discusses Francis Henry Berkeley and his stewardship of the national campaign for the ballot between 1848 and 1866.
In 1872 secret voting – or ‘the ballot’ as it was known to contemporaries – was introduced at UK parliamentary elections. Until then voting at general or by-elections had been a public act. This meant that if you were fortunate enough to be able to vote, your neighbours, employers and landlords could view your vote in readily published poll books.
Radicals and reformers had been demanding an end to open voting since the late eighteenth century. While the details of their arguments differed, their primary hope was that secrecy at poll booths would end electoral corruption and aristocratic dominance over the political system.
In the aftermath of the 1832 Reform Act secret voting was one of the major issues debated, and voted on, in Parliament. As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, the ballot campaign of the 1830s was orchestrated by George and Harriet Grote, and culminated in 1839 when 221 MPs supported George’s annual ballot motion. In the decade that followed, the ballot formed one of the six points of the Charter, but as a single issue fell off the radar of most parliamentarians at Westminster.
In 1848 the introduction of secret voting at parliamentary elections was revived as a topic of annual parliamentary debate by the Liberal MP for Bristol, Francis Henry Fitzhardinge-Berkeley (1794-1870), more commonly known as Henry Berkeley. He became the parliamentary and public figurehead of the ballot campaign for the next two decades, earning him the nickname at Westminster and in the national press of ‘Ballot Berkeley’.
Berkeley was the illegitimate son of the ‘gambler and libertine’, the 5th earl of Berkeley. In his teenage years he was an eager amateur boxer, and after dropping out of Oxford University spent his twenties travelling around Europe. He joined his equally fast-living brothers in Parliament in 1837, when he was returned as MP for Bristol. He continued to represent the constituency as a Liberal until his death in 1870.
Berkeley introduced a ballot motion to the Commons (when the topic was debated and voted on) every year between 1848 and 1866. These motions passed on three occasions in thin houses (1848, 1851, 1862). They were usually held towards the end of a parliamentary session and attracted varying numbers of MPs. At least one motion per Parliament attracted around 400 MPs to the division lobbies. With pairs included, Berkeley’s 1858 motion saw 540 MPs record their opinion: 318 opposed secret voting, 222 supported it. This was 20 fewer than the 560 MPs that voted or paired on Grote’s 1839 motion on the issue.
Although he continued to be able to rally a sizeable number of MPs to support secret voting into the 1860s, Berkeley’s annual ballot motions developed a reputation for being ‘choice parliamentary entertainment’ rather than serious attempts at legislation.
One characteristic of his annual debate was Berkeley’s ceremonial crossing of the floor of the House in order to propose his motion. By doing so he distanced himself from the Whig-Liberal Prime Ministers or leaders of the Commons – Lord John Russell and Viscount Palmerston – who consistently opposed secret voting. Berkeley made his annual speech standing in front of the Conservative leader of the Commons opposition – often waking a slumbering Disraeli – with his ‘collection of note-books’ detailing instances of electoral corruption scattered in front of him on the table.
He rarely offered new theoretical arguments in favour of the ballot, and always acknowledged and often quoted directly from George Grote’s speeches of the 1830s. His speeches always cited contemporary examples of successful instances of the ballot’s introduction. At various times between 1848 and 1866 he lauded the implementation of secret voting in some American states, in Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, France, and Australia, where he believed it had brought ‘peace, order, and freedom of election’, as well as in several British institutions and political clubs.
For contemporaries, the most entertaining aspect of his annual speeches were his anecdotes of corrupt practices at elections. At various points he regaled the Commons with stories of the ‘golden reservoirs’ of ‘bowls full of sovereigns’ at Great Yarmouth, the ‘ladies of rank’ and ‘lofty dames’ intimidating voters in their homes at Westminster, landlords coercing their tenants and the 49 peers that controlled 62 small boroughs. He recounted scenes of ‘slaughter and intimidation’ and men in ‘dying state[s], quite unconscious’ with ‘gaping wound[s]’ on ‘fractured skull[s]’ at Cork. There were also ‘three Roman Catholic priests’ getting beaten up by ‘a crowd of women’ at New Ross, and voters being kept in pens ‘like sheep’ at Devonport.
Outside Parliament, Berkeley sought to rally support for secret voting as chairman of the Ballot Society, which he formed on the advice of Richard Cobden in 1853. The society aimed to replicate the success of the Anti-Corn Law League of the 1840s. Both Cobden and Berkeley reasoned that without external pressure, Parliament, and more importantly, Russell or Palmerston, would never act to make the ballot a reality.
The society was beset by problems, however, and never achieved the popularity it needed. As the historian Bruce Kinzer has demonstrated, the society triggered jealousy among reformers, provoked disagreement as to whether the ballot should be considered a single-issue policy and suffered from increasing indifference on the issue by the late 1850s.
Significantly, Berkeley was regularly advised by his fellow Liberal and radical politicians that the ballot on its own could never generate mass support while suffrage remained limited. The radical MP Joseph Hume, advised him, perhaps rightly, that the unenfranchised ‘lower orders’ would see the Ballot Society as a ‘middle class movement’ to ensure secrecy in the voting process and exclude non-electors from participating in, and influencing, elections.
In addition, by the mid-1850s, previous supporters of secret voting like John Stuart Mill were arguing that open voting was the best means of ensuring the morality of voters to act for the public good. And by the 1860s the ballot seemed a little old-fashioned in comparison to new Liberal movements associated with temperance, disestablishment, secular education, pacifism and land reform.
Berkeley was also a problem. By the 1860s his health was faltering, his speeches seemed to be tired or lacking in humour, and they attracted increasingly thin numbers in the House. Rumours (which were unfounded) even spread that he no longer supported the ballot.
In 1863 the usually neutral Illustrated London News opined that ‘the ballot without jokes has no meaning for members’, and in 1865 the Conservative Punch happily mocked the ‘farce called the ballot motion’. By 1865 even the Ballot Society had concluded that the cause was suffering from Berkeley’s leadership. Berkeley’s jokes had turned the ballot into a joke! As a result, the Ballot Union, which Berkeley was still chairman of, asked him to stop introducing his annual motions. He refused, resigned from the society, and introduced his final motion in 1866.
This marked the end of Berkeley’s ballot campaign. And, when the Liberal leadership failed to back secret voting during the 1866 and 1867-8 reform debates, all hope appeared lost. There was little indication that secret voting in parliamentary elections was just around the corner…
B. Kinzer, The Ballot Question in Nineteenth-Century English Politics (1982)
M. Crook & T. Crook, ‘The Advent of the Secret Ballot in Britain and France, 1789–1914: From Public Assembly to Private Compartment’, History (2007)
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