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Hogarth's hustings get my vote

William Hogarth painted the squalid side of 18th-century politics – a stark reminder, as the AV referendum approaches, that our electoral system needs to change

William Hogarth's series of paintings The Election hang in Sir John Soane's Museum in London. They are his most paradoxically balletic satires, holding hilarious details of drunkenness, violence and mob mayhem in musical balance across cleverly organised designs. Look at the sunlight, the landscapes and arrangement of bodies in these pictures and it is clear that by the time he painted these raw yet lyrical scenes he was steeped in European high art and was able to juggle forms like a low-life Poussin.

Another reason to look at these paintings right now is that they portray an electoral system that made no pretence at democracy. The hustings Hogarth portrays is the squalid political world of the 18th century, many decades before the Great Reform Act started to lay the foundations of modern British politics. Reformers would call the system Hogarth shows "Old Corruption", and his Election Entertainment, with its burghers slumped in their seats from all the free oysters and punch, takes visual delight in exactly how corrupt Old Corruption was.

Old Corruption looks likely to win a new victory in the AV referendum. Public opinion seems to be moving towards a "no". The No campaign has been scarily well-organised. Months before the issue came to the fore, No campaigners were setting up street stalls. Where did they come from, these folk with a passion for constitutional stasis? After all the outrage and allegations of corruption thrown at politicians in Britain – parliamentarians have gone to jail, remember, as a result of the expenses scandal – it seems outrageous, and insulting, that the chance to change the voting system a little bit might be spurned. What was all the fuss about? The prison sentences? Just to stay the same?

Perhaps Hogarth can tell us something. He painted his satires long before reforms took place. They are sardonic accounts of human nature, rather than campaigning polemics. In today's politics, he would be a Tory because in the end he thinks the status quo is a laugh. But his urban, carnival art is an exception in the art of his time, when portraits of race horses and landscapes of aristocratic ease displayed the glory of the ruling order. They echo down to this day as icons of British conservatism. If Cameron gets a No to electoral reform, this will surely be a decisive moment when we can see what is happening in Britain today: the resurgence of Conservative habits that are as old as the painted hills and hustings. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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