The Earl of Aberdeen and the Scottish Peerage By-election of 1721

With two by-elections to the Commons on the horizon, in the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Stuart Handley looks back on the by-election for a Scots representative peer to sit in the House of Lords that took place almost exactly 300 years ago. For once, both government and opposition seem to have warmed to the winner…

The Act of Union of 1707 provided for the election of 16 representative peers from Scotland. Vacancies were to be filled at by-elections. All Scottish peers were eligible to vote, provided they had taken the oaths of allegiance, supremacy, abjuration and the declaration against ‘popery’ (the abusive contemporary term for Catholicism), and they could vote in person or by proxy.

Notoriously, the Scottish peers became a major bulwark of the ministry, providing a block vote for the government. Ministerial efforts at management, backed by the use of patronage usually resulted in reliable supporters being returned at general elections and by-elections. But this was not always the case.

The death of William Johnston, marquess of Annandale, at Bath on 14 January 1721 precipitated a by-election at an awkward time for the ministry. Surprisingly, the problem arose not from the fall-out from the South Sea Bubble, which was being played out in the parliamentary session – three weeks later, James Stanhope, Earl Stanhope, one of the leading ministers was to burst a blood vessel while defending the ministry causing his death on 5 February. The Rather, the ministry’s problem arose from the failure to deal with the disgruntlement of Scottish peers arising out of the proposal to replace the 16 elected peers with 25 hereditary ones chosen by the king. This aroused a great deal of opposition from those Scots peers who would be denied the right in future to sit in the House of Lords – the electorate for the by-election.

The Hanoverian minister, Jean Robethon summed up the ministry’s dilemma:

the Court will be in no hurry to elect another as in the present temper of the Scottish peers since the Peerage bill the Court is certain to lose its candidate.

The passage of legislation to change the representation would then make such an election redundant.

There was some thought that being in possession of one of the 16 elected seats would automatically secure inclusion among the 25 hereditaries, and this prompted some to put forward Patrick Hume, earl of Marchmont, as a candidate. Earl Stanhope, albeit informally, poured cold water on this suggestion:

the election was to be kept off as long as it could without interfering with the law, that they apprehended that whatever peer should be set up by the Court in Scotland would not carry it in the present conjuncture.

Even John Campbell, 2nd duke of Argyll, gave up promoting his own candidate after both Archibald Douglas, duke of Douglas, and George Douglas, 13th earl of Morton, were considered and discarded.

British (Scottish) School; William, 2nd Earl of Aberdeen; The National Trust for Scotland, Haddo House;

Coincidentally, in April 1720, William Gordon, Lord Haddo, had succeeded his father as 2nd earl of Aberdeen, and was thus eligible to contest the by-election. He had previously sought to enter the House of Commons, securing election for Aberdeenshire at the general election of 1708, only to be unseated on the grounds of eligibility – he was adjudged unable to sit as the eldest son of a Scottish peer. His father had signed a petition against the intended peerage reforms in April 1719, and the new earl of Aberdeen was quick off the mark in asking for support among the electorate, and soon in talks with members of the tightly-knit group of Whig families, known as the ‘Squadrone’, who wished to cement an electoral alliance with Tories such as Aberdeen in order to contest the next general election, due to be held in 1722, and so increase their number of representatives.

Ultimately, Aberdeen’s challenger was another Tory, Alexander Montgomerie, 9th earl of Eglinton, backed by Tories suspicious of Aberdeen’s entanglement with the Squadrone, and for that reason also supported by Argyll. In the event, Aberdeen’s early start proved crucial to securing victory. When the poll was taken at Holyrood Palace on 1 June 1721, 13 peers and 23 proxies voted for Aberdeen; nine peers and 22 proxies voted for Eglinton.

As was usual in a contested election, some of the votes were questioned, so there was the possibility that the election return would be challenged at Westminster, prompting Eglinton to travel to London ready to put his case. However, in the event, Aberdeen took his seat unchallenged on 8 July 1721. Indeed, so well did Aberdeen conduct himself in Parliament that both the Court and Opposition wanted to include him on their lists at the general election of 1722. Aberdeen declined the Court list, but still gained sufficient votes to be re-elected, defeating William Forbes, 14th Baron Forbes, by 38 votes to 28. He was the only member of the opposition list to do so.

Although he lost his seat in 1727, Aberdeen continued to play an active part in Scottish electoral politics in opposition to Sir Robert Walpole, especially in the 1734 general election. He died on 30 March 1745.


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