Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Gary Hutchison, ‘‘A distant and Whiggish country’: The Conservative Party and Scottish elections, 1832–1847’

At our last ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar, Gary Hutchison (University of Edinburgh – and former winner of the HPT’s undergraduate dissertation prize) spoke on his research into the Conservative Party and Scottish elections after 1832. Here he gives an overview of his paper…

The Reform Act(s) of 1832 had far-reaching effects on the practical politics of elections, as well as the wider political culture of the United Kingdom.  These effects, however, varied across Scotland, England, Ireland, and Wales.  Indeed, the need for separate acts was itself a recognition that elections throughout the UK, though all sending MPs to Westminster, could vary wildly from country to country.  This was especially true of Scotland; not only did it possess a separate legal framework, it also had distinctive ideological concerns and cultural traits, resulting in a unique partisan landscape.  Scotland was, in the words of Norman Gash, a ‘distant and Whiggish country’ to contemporary party observers, a place particularly hostile to Conservatism whose best interpreters were politicians with native connections.

The purpose of the paper was to examine just how Whiggish Scotland actually was between 1832 and 1847, and to what extent this affinity for Liberalism was due to the distinctive structure of Scottish electoral politics, as amended by the 1832 Scottish Act.  In doing so, it looked at the Scottish Conservative party’s experiences of traditional (and, to Scotland, somewhat novel) election rituals.  These included canvassing for votes, treating, the hustings, and transporting voters to the poll.  Treating, which involved entertaining voters, was a relatively unpractised custom in Scotland before 1832; it was adopted enthusiastically by Conservatives attempting to throw off the stigma they had acquired in opposing the expansion of the electorate.  Scottish constituencies, unlike England, were almost monolithically single-member, with only Edinburgh and Glasgow electing two MPs.  Not only did this make Scottish elections more starkly partisan, it also helped to make canvassing a more dominant feature of electioneering.

The new (and shoddily drafted) legal framework of elections created by the Scottish Act both helped and hindered the fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives.  Much like in England, registering voters was a time-consuming and expensive process, requiring extensive party involvement on both sides.  This, however, was even more true of Scotland.  Conservative penetration of the Scottish legal system in fact gave them an in-built advantage in this area, as registration courts worked the party’s advantage.  The Conservatives were particularly active in this area across Scotland, doing much to politicise and expand the political nation; even in constituencies which they never formally contested, across burgh and county, the Scottish Conservative party acted as a catalyst for politicisation.  Similarly, they had previous experience of creating fictitious ‘parchment’, or ‘faggot’ votes before 1832; the bad drafting of the 1832 Act opened whole new vistas for the creation of dubious votes, allowing both parties (though largely the Conservatives) to capture several counties and make them safe seats.

The party thought that through canvassing, treating, registrations, and vote-making, they could rebuild their position – if, that is, they could also harness traditional deference and influence amongst the rural electorate.  They employed various positive and negative means to influence electors, ranging from financial inducements to outright coercion, in the form of the threat of eviction or the calling-in of debts.  These methods, though partially effective, were not central, and moreover, declined over time.  Scottish electors (and, more so, non-electors), having lived under the exceptionally oligarchic Scottish system of management, were markedly independent; a trait no doubt reinforced by the polarised structure of the new electoral system.  Though they maintained their hold in some of the counties, their attempts at exercising influence were regularly denounced by the Liberal-dominated Scottish press, and were very unpopular in the burghs.

The Scottish Conservative party fared badly for a number of reasons, and their tactics must rank as a prominent one of these.  A constituency framework of binary choices left the party without hope of benefitting from split votes, as they might in England.  Similarly, as the heirs of the detested old Dundas-managed Tories, they were unlikely to win hearts and minds.  But in concentrating on influence, coercion, registrations and vote-making, they only served to reinforce negative stereotypes.  Moreover, the apparent initial success of these methods sapped motivation to evolve; Peel’s moderate Liberal Conservatism, popular south of the border, was never convincingly espoused by the party north of it.  This failure, among others, resulted in a Scotland that was, indeed, distant and Whiggish.


This paper forms part of Gary’s ongoing PhD research, which is funded by the Wolfson Foundation.

Join us for tonight’s ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar, where Edward Hicks (University of Oxford) will speak on: ‘The importance of character: Spencer Perceval and the early nineteenth century House of Commons’. Full details here.

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