Rot­ten Bor­oughs

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Michael Walker

Acou­ple 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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