History lesson for all MPs

PUBLISHED: 10:07 18 June 2009 | UPDATED: 23:43 15 June 2010

READING the self-serving statements of our local MPs, there is little indication they did anything wrong or made any effort to clean up the system.

READING the self-serving statements of our local MPs, there is little indication they did anything wrong or made any effort to clean up the system. Will Honiton have an MP who will stand not only for the end of such scandals but a radical reform of Parliament?

Well, it actually happened 200 years ago! In 1806, only months after Trafalgar, Honiton elected Lord Thomas Cochrane, the most admired naval officer after Nelson, the 'Sea Wolf' and model for Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey.

The famous William Cobbet, who campaigned for Cochrane, called Honiton "one of the most notoriously corrupt boroughs in the country" where it was said "money, not principle, counted" - five guineas per vote was the going rate. But the Honiton election of 1806 turned Cochrane into one of the most radical and reformist MPs of his time. On his second attempt, he won after refusing to bribe the 400 voters of Honiton - though he felt obliged to provide a thank you meal after the election, which almost bankrupted him.

After Parliament was dissolved, Cochrane was determined not to subject himself to Honiton's corruption, which lasted for another half century, and became MP for Westminster, then the most radical and democratic constituency in the country, for 11 years he was highly regarded by his constituents, becoming leader of the Reform Union, a chartist before chartism and the scourge of a corrupt parliamentary system - helping to expose the selling of parliamentary seats and the selling of army commissions by the Duke of York.

He set up a committee "to enquire into an account of all offices, posts, places, sinecures, pensions, fees, perquisites and emoluments of every description...held and enjoyed by any member of this House, his wife or any of his descendants". Hugo Swire, please take note.

Seventy-six MPs were exposed as receiving £150,000 and 28 were getting undeclared pensions worth £42,000 - government kickbacks worths millions at today's prices.

Cochrane was, of course, sent back to sea, excluded from the House of Commons, unjustly fined and pilloried.

He went on to become "an illustrious person who rendered great service to the country", according to The Times.

Cochrane said: "So long as the people are not fairly represented, corruption must increase, our debts and taxes accumulate, our resources dissipated, the native energy of the people be depressed."

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Cochrane thought our real problems were political not economic, for which he blamed "parasitic placemen".

Read again the interviews with today's MPs to see how they compare and how far-sighted Honiton's most radical MP was.

Tony Simpson

Ashleigh Road

Honiton

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