Winston Churchill, as ever, had a quotation about most things, and the political system that he grew up with was no exception, when he said that ‘democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time‘. That was from a speech that he gave in November 1947, just over two years after he had been made to feel the effects of democracy on a personal level, as he was voted out of No 10 in a landslide victory for the opposition Labour Party.
Whatever misgivings the rest of us might have about democracy as a political system, it does matter to us that, if nothing else, the system’s rules are heeded by all taking part. When this does not happen, the anger and outrage can be palpable, or at the very least carry long-term implications for whoever has broken the rules. Exactly 205 years ago, a cartoonist made his own judgment known about a blatant case of electoral fraud in this country, and in the process bequeathed a new word to the English language.
The irony about the act of electoral fraud for which his name would become notorious is that Elbridge Gerry knew what was going on and reportedly found it “highly disagreeable.” He had been Governor of Massachusetts for nearly two years when questions were being asked by his opponents about the re-drawing of electoral boundaries of the district of South Essex. The strange shape of one particular electoral division prompted one cartoonist (probably Elkanah Tisdale) in the Boston Gazette to point out how the division looked like a lizard or salamander. Another member of the Gazette editorial team (and to this day, nobody knows who) opined that the “creature” should rather be termed a “Gerrymander”.
It looked like (and in all likelihood was) a flagrant attempt by the Gerry administration in Boston to manipulate future election results by re-drawing electoral boundaries just so that his governing Democratic-Republican Party could have an artificial advantage over the opposition Federalist Party, and the Federalist-inclined Gazette went to town in a big way over the scandal. Needless to say, the scandal was an influential factor behind Governor Gerry’s defeat at the polls in the year that it broke out. It was not the end of the line for the disgraced ex-Governor, however: he was named as James Madison’s running mate in the 1812 presidential race, and subsequently served as America’s Vice-President until his death in 1814.
Gerrymandering has been practised in a number of representative democratic states around the world. Perhaps the best-known cases of gerrymandering in the English-speaking world took place in Northern Ireland in its Stormont ancien regime days. In what was then called the Londonderry Corporation (the present-day Derry City Council), electoral wards in Derry were manipulated to ensure a permanent Unionist majority on the Corporation – even though Catholics in the city (who were more likely to vote for Nationalist parties) outnumbered Protestants (who were likelier to vote Unionist), as is explained here in this clip from Robert Kee’s acclaimed 1980 documentary series Ireland – a Television History.
Indeed, it may be argued that the creation of the statelet of Northern Ireland is in itself a gerrymander: an artificial area set up just so reactionary-inclined Unionist politicians had something to control and rule over. I say “artificial”, since for all Unionist politicians’ bluster about being prepared to fight and die for Ulster, the area that they wanted to control was not, strictly speaking, Ulster – or at least, not all of it.
When partition was first mooted in 1913 as the least-worst way of heading off a possible civil war between pro-Home Rule nationalists (who represented around 80 per cent of all Irish voters) and anti-Home Rule Ulster Unionists (who in fact represented only about half of all voters in the province of Ulster), the Unionist leader James Craig was offered a temporary partition deal whereby a Belfast parliament would represent all nine counties of the historic province of Ulster. Craig, however, not only refused this offer (which goes to show how fluid Unionists’ definition of “Ulster” has been throughout Northern Ireland’s history), but was also pretty blatant as to the Unionists’ sectarian motives, as the historian Caroline Kennedy-Pipe explains:
Within the nine counties, which were traditionally held to constitute Ulster, there were 900,000 Protestants, most of whom wanted to continue the connection with Westminster, as opposed to 700,000 Catholics who wanted to end it. In the six counties [ie, Ulster minus Counties Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan], however, the religious breakdown was 820,000 Protestants and 430,000 Catholics. C C Craig, the brother of the first Northern Irish Prime Minister James Craig, put the case for the six counties thus: “in a nine-county parliament, with sixty-four members, the Unionist majority would be about three or four; but in a six-county parliament, with fifty-two members, the Unionist majority would be about ten”.
In other words, it was never about maintaining Ulster’s historic civil and religious freedom (at least, not from the point of view of the Unionist establishment, had they but been up-front about it), but actually about control. It is this control, and the Unionist leaders’ blatant abuse of it in the first 50 or so years of Northern Ireland’s history, that is the key to resolving the country’s basic political problem.
Still, who would have thought that it would take a team of Boston journalists to come up with a name for it…?