A-M u s i n g s- Rotten Boroughs

Musings are thoughts, the thoughtful kind. For the purpose of these articles, a-musings are thoughts that might amuse, entertain and even enlighten.

A couple of days back, I heard someone talking about the government’s rumoured plan to increase the number of constituencies before the next election. Frankly, the ideas stinks, and I cannot imagine why any government would actively work to increase the chance of perverting the electoral process. Well come to think of it, there are several reasons why government would manipulate the size and number of constituencies, none of them good! Consider the Rotten Boroughs!

There were two major problems with Rotten Boroughs: the first was the low number of eligible voters in each constituency. The fewer the voters, the easier – and cheaper – it is for politicians to buy votes to gain a majority. Of course this would never happen in St Lucia. Would any of our political candidates ever stoop to buying votes, or offering services or favors just for the chance of serving in parliament?

In St Lucia, the number of voters in each constituency is very small, and because of the ridiculous system of winner-takes-all the purchase of a few votes, or any acquisition of votes through dubious means, could make the difference between victory and defeat, so the reduction in the number of eligible voters in smaller constituencies constitutes a real threat to democracy. After all, you need a majority of just one vote to be declared winner. Fortunately, none of our politicians would ever stoop so low.

I’ll get to the second major problem in a little while, but just sit back and let me pontificate about Rotten Boroughs for a moment. This is interesting. To my mind, throughout the ages, one of the major democratic parliamentary reforms in Britain was the doing away with rotten boroughs, which were defined as “boroughs that were able to elect a representative to Parliament despite having very few voters, the choice of representative typically being in the hands of one person or family.”

Sadly, and somewhat curiously in a country that has long been seen as a democratic example, rotten boroughs were part of the British electoral process. They were a product of a system that did not want change, where, as members of parliament, fathers passed on constituencies, and the influence and power that went with them, to their sons as if the seats were their own personal property, not a responsibility bestowed upon them by the electorate. Seldom could the very few who voted vote for a candidate of their choice due to the lack of a secret ballot, or even of an opposing candidate.

And that brings me to the second major problem: some members of parliament viewed their constituencies as their own personal property. Now wouldn’t it be terrible if any parliamentary representative in St Lucia lived in the belief that his family, his relatives, owned the constituency that he represented? And wouldn’t it be even more terrible if any parliamentary representative got it into his head that he could sell the seat for big money once he had milked all he could from his position? Again, we can congratulate ourselves on not having such undemocratic ways in St Lucia.

Some rotten boroughs swept away by The Reform Act of 1832 were so bizarre that they beggared belief. Take Dunwich, for example. Americans probably pronounce the name Dun-Wich; Brits prefer Dunnich. Dunwich was a coastal village in Suffolk, pronounced Suffuck. Much of the village had collapsed into the sea but its 32 voters still returned two MPs to the Commons at each election. Old Sarum was, in medieval times, a thriving town. By 1832 it had seven voters living in three houses yet returned two MPs to parliament. Gatton in Surrey had likewise just seven voters and returned two MPs.

Then there would be the third major problem with people buying and selling the right to contest seats, if ever that sort of thing did occur in St Lucia. How could anyone put a price on the right to run for a seat if there were, as we all hope, no money, corruption, favoritism, personal gain or nepotism involved? And why would anyone, especially anyone experienced in doing business, invest all that money in buying the right to run for a seat if he did not anticipate making a helluva return on his investment?

And finally, voters are not stupid. If they ever got to hear that a candidate had paid millions for the right to contest their seat, they would surely ask why he did not spend the money more wisely for the benefit of the constituency, like building an old folks’
home, a kids’ playground, or a community centre. Well, no, the opposition would cry
foul and accuse him of bribery. You see, in societies other than ours people accept payments under the table, but not politically motivated acts of charity. Disillusioned? Don’t be! I know one political candidate running for the first time who is working his butt off in his constituency. You see, he believes he can make a difference.

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