Electile Dysfunction

Election.Pic 1
‘The Polling’ by William Hogarth (1697 – 1764), one of a series of four paintings of 1755 entitled ‘The Humours of an Election’ showing the endemic corruption in voting in Britain before the 1832 Great Reform Act.

Tim Koch writes:

The United Kingdom votes for a new government (or not) on 7 May and even at this late date, the polls cannot indicate a probable winner. All British General Elections are peculiar in their own ways but 2015 is proving to be one of the strangest. Historically Britain’s single member constituencies and ‘first past the post’ voting has produced a strong two-party system with little room for smaller parties or for coalitions. However, in recent years an increasing disaffection with mainstream politics has seen people turn away from both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, with Scotland leading the way in this. The Scots have abandoned the Conservatives for some time now and the joke is that Scotland has more pandas (two) than Conservative Members of Parliament (one). It now looks like it is Labour’s turn for the Braveheart treatment as its traditional supporters consider voting for the Scottish Nationalist Party. In England particularly, the potential demise of the traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats, and the influence of the new kid on the voting bloc, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), are factors which may have a great effect on the results. Of course, cynicism about the established order is nothing new, as the cartoon of 1837 reproduced below shows.

Election.Pic 2
‘An Old Song to a New Tune’ by John Doyle (1797 – 1868).

The caption reads:

“Row brothers row
The stream runs fast
The Rapids are near
And our day-light’s past.”


It was published on 17 June 1837 in expectation of a General Election which would be called as soon as the dying King William IV actually passed away. William died on the 20 June and the subsequent election ran from 24 July to 18 August, the last time Parliament was dissolved on the demise of a Monarch.

The cartoon depicts the character of John Bull (the personification of Great Britain), King William and four prominent members of the reformist Whig Party, then in government. They are Lord Melbourne (Prime Minister), Lord John Russell (Home Secretary), Lord Palmerston (Foreign Secretary) and Viscount Duncannon (Lord Privy Seal). The Whig reformist tradition was absorbed into the new Liberal Party in 1859 and the Liberals dominated progressive politics until they were superseded by the centre-left Labour Party after the 1914 – 1918 War. In 2015, the Liberals’ successors, the Liberal Democrats, have for the past five years been in a coalition government with the Conservative Party, but this has not gone well for them and they seem to be heading for the political rapids. The fate of their 1837 predecessors was a happier one. They had been in power almost continually since 1830 and perhaps Doyle, the cartoonist, thought that it was time for a change, but the Whigs won the 1837 election and were in office until 1841. Russell, Palmerston and Melbourne were all to serve two terms each as Prime Minister.

Although he was fairly even handed in his mockery, Doyle, an Irish Roman Catholic, was said to actually favour the Whigs, mainly because of their support of Catholic Emancipation. Four of Doyle’s sons became prominent in the art world and he was a grandfather of novelist Arthur Conan Doyle. The British Library website says this of him:

Unlike earlier cartoonists such as James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson, John Doyle refused to portray his subjects as grotesque caricatures, preferring instead to produce faithful likenesses of his subjects and to jibe them politely with his subtle wit.

I am sure that modern politicians would provide Doyle with more than enough material but, sadly, these days there may not be much of a market for politeness, subtlety or wit.


  1. I always enjoy Tim Koch’s articles, none more so than when, by some tenuous link , he can join the wonderful sport of rowing with a popular news item of the day. A journalist of the first water. Pun intended.

  2. Thank you very much Bailey, that is very kind. I work on the theory that there are a maximum of six degrees of separation between anything and rowing. Strangely, the more tenuous links tend to be in pieces that I am most pleased with – though I was disappointed not to find any rowing connection in my Richard III article and had to use the rare HTBS ‘nothing to do with rowing’ tag.


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