HC Deb 10 March 1817 vol 35 cc921-5
Sir R. Fergusson

presented a petition from Arbroath, signed by all the respectable inhabitants of the place, and praying for a parliamentary reform, and a diminution of the public expenditure. Adverting to the assertion made the other evening by the lord advocate, that the people of Scotland were perfectly satisfied with the way in which they were at present represented, he declared that he differed from the learned lord in tota, for he was persuaded nine tenths of the people in Scotland were anxious for a reform in the representation.

Mr. Brand

said, that his opinion with respect to the wishes of the people of Scotland for a reform in the representation perfectly coincided with that of his hon. friend. A very large majority of those who were most respectable for character and talents in that country, maintained the necessity of parliamentary reform; and it was highly honourable to them, that although they asserted their rights with ability and energy, they in no case evinced the least disposition to recommend any thing that might lead to tumult and violence.

Mr. Boswell

observed, that there was not a single petition from the landholders of Scotland in favour of parliamentary reform. In the counties, there were few-freeholders who were not voters, and though the roll was small, he believed there were generally as many voters as landholders who were freeholders. The petitions sent up on the subject he did not hold to be of much importance. Many of these petitions did not express the sentiments of those from whom they were supposed to come. They were sent up to London, like children to the Foundling-hospital, and left to their fate. From one little village, which did not contain more than 15 houses, a delegate had been sent to meet the other delegates lately assembled in the metropolis. Had all parts of Scotland engaged in the cause with the same ardour, the delegates sent to discuss the question of parliamentary reform would not have been fewer than 140,000.

Lord A. Hamilton

expressed his astonishment at the declaration made by the hon. gentleman, that in Scotland the voters for the counties were commensurate with the landholders. He denied that the people of Scotland were satisfied with the present state of the representation. What was meant by "the people of Scotland?" Those who had the right of voting in Scotland were, as a body, absolutely a nonenity compared with the entire numbers of the people. Many of the towns were perfectly close, the very electors electing themselves. Let the state of Glasgow or of Edinburgh be considered as an instance. Did the House think the inhabitants of either of those cities were satisfied to see its police and government in the hands of a dozen persons, self-elected, a few of whom went out annually and were reelected, and who constituted the voters for its representation? The great advance which Scotland had made in wealth and improvement during the last fifty years, demanded some amendment in the representation.

Mr. Boswell

explained. He had never asserted that the voters for counties in Scotland were commensurate with the landholders, but with those landholders who were freeholders.

The Lord Advocate

of Scotland, in explanation of his statement on a recent occasion, repeated, that it was his firm con- viction that of the classes of the people in Scotland capable of forming a correct judgment on the subject, nine-tenths did not wish for any change in the representation of that country in parliament. In evidence of this was the fact, that no petition had come to that House from the landed interest, from any corporate body, from the commissioners of supply, or from any meeting of freeholders, praying for an alteration in the existing system. The presentation of petitions from two out of all the corporate bodies of Scotland did not diminish the strength of his observation. Nor were the petitions which had been presented from many of the boroughs of Scotland in favour of reform expressive of the genuine opinion of the respectable part of the inhabitants. For instance, a petition had been presented by the hon. general from the borough of Kirkaldy, to which not a single individual among the hon. general's constituents had signed his name; whereas a counter-declaration had issued from the same place, signed by one and all of the hon. general's constituents, and by every respectable inhabitant. What he had said with respect to the state of representation in Scotland, as settled at the Union in 1707, was, that he thought Scotland satisfactorily represented in that House, but that at all events the representation of Scotland had been settled by a Whig government in 1707. He had heard nothing to shake his opinion that that representation was satisfactory. The number of electors had considerably increased since that period, more especially in the counties; in some of which, as the noble lord well knew, the number was very seriously increasing [a laugh.] As to the municipal regulations of Glasgow, or any other place, that was a question quite distinct from parliamentary representation, and ought not to be confounded with it. And of this he was persuaded that the inhabitants of Glasgow, or any other city or town in Scotland, would much rather that the representation should stand as it did, than that the country should be exposed to all the evils of granting "the boon" (as it was called by many of the petitioners to that House) of universal suffrage.

Mr. Douglas

maintained, that the enlightened part of the people of Scotland were so apprehensive of the dangers which might result from meddling with the existing system of representation, that they had serious thoughts of petitioning parlia- ment against any alteration on the subject. In order to show the way in which signatures to petitions for parliamentary reform were frequently procured, the hon. gentleman read a letter from the clergyman of Langholm, with reference to the petition lately presented from that place, in which the reverend gentleman stated that the most shameful acts were resorted to on the occasion; and, among others that an evening school had been entered by the framers of the petition, and the signatures obtained of every child who was able to write its name.

Sir R. Fergusson

said, the counter declaration, as it was called, from Kirkaldy, opposed annual parliaments and universal suffrage—nothing else. It most decidedly prayed for that which was so painful a subject to the learned lord and his adherents—the most rigid economy and retrenchment.

Sir M. W. Ridley

said, that if the learned lord when he undertook to state the sentiments of the people of Scotland on this subject, had mentioned what the actual number of voters was, it would have been much more satisfactory to the House.

Mr. Brougham

observed, that the House must consider it extremely material to know whether it was true that the petitions from Scotland, in favour of parliamentary reform, did not speak the opinion of the people of that country. The learned lord went the length of saying, that they were adverse to that measure—that they were not only not zealous for its adoption, but most anxious that it should not be even entertained. Another hon. gentleman declared that the sound part of the Scottish nation were preparing to petition against the extension of the elective franchise. From whom, he begged to ask, would these petitions proceed? Why, from the few who monopolized that right against the many under the present system excluded from the enjoyment of that privilege. What would be thought in this country of a petition from the holders of burgage tenures against parliamentary reform? Would it receive any serious consideration? There was no very great difference between such a petition and one from the freeholders of Scotland, respecting the right of representation. A man might have 20,000l. per annum in Scotland, and yet have no vote, whilst men without an acre of landed property had the power of returning members. The learned lord had observed, that the electors in the counties had increased since the revolution; the fact was so, but by no means in proportion to the population that had very nearly doubled.

Lord Binning

denied, that the petitions presented from Scotland in favour of parliamentary reform, afforded any fair criterion to judge of the well educated part of that country. The real fact was, that those reform petitions were sent to the manufacturing districts of Scotland, as they were in this country, where operating on the minds of men suffering under temporary distress, they were at once voted as a panacea for every evil. The enlightened part of the people were, in his opinion, wholly adverse to any change in the system of the representation.

Mr. Curwen

could not suffer this opportunity to pass without stating what he believed to be strictly the fact—that in the county of York there were 60,000 freeholders, while in Scotland there were not above 2,000. He did not profess to know what the feelings of the great body of the people of Scotland might be on this subject, but it would be a most singular occurrence if they should petition the House against a reform. He could not believe that they would adopt such an extraordinary proceeding until he actually saw the petitions on the table.

The petition was ordered to lie on the table; as were also petitions from Montrose and Brechin.