HC Deb 18 April 1821 vol 5 cc441-56

The debate on Mr. Lambton's motion "That this House do resolve itself into a committee of the whole House, to consider of: the State of the Representation of the People in Parliament, being resumed,

Mr. Wyvill

expressed his earnest hope, that the House would accede to the motion of the hon. member. In the present distressed state of the country, when the amount of the taxes was three times as great as it was thirty years ago, reform was loudly called for by the voice of the people, and that voice it would be neither wise nor expedient to disregard.

Mr. Serjeant Onslow

thought the measure which the hon. mover had in contemplation was in every way the most objectionable that could be proposed. It was even more obnoxious than the plan of universal suffrage, seeing that it would, if agreed to, involve the complete disfranchisement of a great number of persons who had committed no crime whatever. He knew he should be told that the persons whom it was thus proposed to strip of their franchise would still enjoy the right of voting in common with others; but still it was evident that they must in a manner be lost in the great mass of persons among whom it was intended to distribute the elective franchise. Great stress had been laid on a paper circulated in the year 1792 or 1793, in which it was stated that a certain number of peers and commoners returned a majority of that House. He had made it his business to inquire into the statements contained in that paper; and though it was sanctioned by the countenance of several persons of the highest respectability, he had never seen such a tissue of mistakes in his life, as that document presented. The names of peers had been put down in that list as returning members to that House, merely because they exercised the legitimate influence of their high lineage and distinguished characters. It was absurd to say, for instance, that the duke of Devonshire returned the member for Derby, because a member of the illustrious house of Cavendish was elected the representative of that county. He trusted, that great property high character, and amiable manners, would always maintain their natural influence in that House. He did not wish to trespass upon the time, when so many hon. members were anxious to address the House, but he could not sit down without entering his solemn protest against a measure which went to deprive any man of his franchise upon mere speculative grounds.

Mr. Sykes

observed, that he rose to discharge a duty which he owed to his constituents, rather than with the hope of throwing any new light on the subject. He felt no difficulty in saying that he was disposed to agree to the motion of his hon. friend, and should vote for going into a committee. It was not his intention to go back to the time of the Saxons with the view of inquiring into the origin of the constitution of parliament, and comparing the commune concilium of old with the parliament of the present day: it was enough for him to consider what was the present state of the representation. He, for one, would not be contented with any thing short of a fair representation of the people in parliament; and in this view he was supported by the authority of Mr. Burke, who had said, that the House of Commons should be the express image of the feelings and wishes of the people. This was not the sense in which the hon. member for Yorkshire interpreted the opinion of that great man; he seemed to have read Mr. Burke in a different edition from that which lie (Mr. Sykes) had seen, for his notion seemed to be this, that the House of Commons should be the express image, not of the feelings of the people but of the feelings of the minister of the day. If the people were, however, entitled to a real representative government, the other question was, whether the people at present were or were not really represented? He had no hesitation in saying, that they were not. If any one doubted this, the recent votes of that House ought to produce complete conviction. He appealed to those votes for the proof of what he advanced, as well as to the vote in the case of the Queen. There the people of this country almost unâ voce petitioned that her majesty should be restored to all her rights and the House decided against them by majorities nearly as large in proportion, as those which agreed to the petitions in the country. The petitions of the people against extravagant expenditure had had no better success. The demands of ministers, however exorbitant, met with the ready concurrence of the House, and in the estimates not a shilling was reduced in compliance with the universal prayer of the nation. It was not enough that there should be able and wise men in that House: if such were sufficient on that ground alone to represent the people, they might as well invite them from foreign countries as look for them at home, but they wanted men in that House who had the feelings of Englishman: there were many clever and ingenious men in that House, but the detect was, that they were not returned by the people. He would rather have a pure representation, than any talent which a corrupt system could introduce. He did not know whether reform would have the effect, as had been said, of bringing into that House none but men who were "as wise as serpents and harmless as doves," but at all events, though some might be returned of a different character, he would prefer purity of councils in that House to the display of the most distinguished abilities without it. He was therefore decidedly of opinion that the House ought to go into a committee, though he did not, in every respect, approve of the plan proposed by the hon. member for Durham. The great vice of that plan was, that it excluded a certain description of electors whose interests ought to be represented; for instance, it shut out all artizans who were not householders. He did not approve of universal suffrage no man abhorred it more than he did; but he thought that the artizans should have a share in the choice of representatives. This, however, could be discussed when they went into a committee. If he might give his own opinion with respect to the plans which bad been proposed, he would say that the first and most efficient plan which he knew of was that of lord Chatham, by adding to the county representation and transferring the franchise from decayed boroughs to large and populous towns. It was no objection to urge against going into committee, that the reformers were not agreed among themselves as to their plans. If those plans did exactly tally with each other, it would be said that they had all come from the same officina. It had been well observed on the preceding night, that the differences of opinion among the religious reformers, did not prevent the establishment of the reformation, yet their differences were more numerous and more important than those of the political reformers of the present day. They differed upon both doctrine and discipline, and yet were now enjoying the blessings of the glorious triumph of their cause. He had early entertained a conviction of the necessity of reform, and was proud to profess the principles of Fox Savile, and Chatham. It must be evident to every one, that reform was in its progress, and could not be stopped. He would therefore rather deal with it now in a friendly manner, while that might be done, than when it should have assumed a character of violence.

Mr. Benett,

of Wilts, said, he would not go at any length into the question then. It was sufficient for him to know that corruption did exist in the representation; and, as far as he knew, that House ought to be the real representative of the Commons of England. The influence of the Crown by peers and other individuals, was too great in that House to allow it to be a pure representation. They were therefore bound to vote for a committee, in which the state of the representation could be considered. As to the plan proposed, many objections might be taken against it. As to the point of shortening the duration of parliament, he was not prepared to decide upon that, and say what should be the exact term of duration; but he could not see how any man who wished for the purity of parliament, could vote against going into a committee. No man, by giving his vote For that committee, pledged himself to any specific plan. If the hon. mover had not presented a bill, the charge would have been made, which had been often made before, that nothing was referred to the committee to decide upon. If the entire plan was not adopted, he hoped some parts of it would. It could not be denied, that a certain corruption did exist with respect to the return of members, and it was not the nature of corruption to stand still. But it was said, that the machine of parliament worked well—it might do so at present, but if the principle was unsound, it could not work well long. Those who supported reform, were told, that it was necessary ministers should have a certain power in that House; for if they lost a majority, they must retire from office. He could not subscribe to this doctrine; for if it was necessary that ministers should always command a majority, why were the members on his side of the House to come there and lose their time and health, in vainly endeavouring to teach ministers that the acts of public men should be subject to the control of parliament? He hoped to see the time when the House of Commons would once more represent the people, and when seats should not any longer be sold like cattle in the market. He knew that the sale of seats was arranged upon a scale of such sytematic corruption, that they brought different prices, according to the freedom of voting. But, whatever the plan for efficiently reforming the representation might be, the notori- ous existence of corrupt practices was ground sufficient for going into the committee.

Captain Maberly

, in giving his sanction to the motion for a committee, was anxious to guard against the supposition that be sanctioned the bill which his hon. friend had in contemplation. He had no hesitation in declaring himself to be a reformer, but one of the most moderate description; and therefore he could only approve of such a plan of reform as was moderate and temperate in its principle. It could hot be denied that there were defects in the representation; and it was natural that there should be, for it was not the result of systematic wisdom, but arose in the course of events, and adapted itself to circumstances, still carrying with it the traces of those remote ages from which it first sprung. The defects he conceived to be these—that several large towns, which, on account of their opulence, commercial importance, and populousness ought to have representatives, were at present unrepresented. In the march of time, another defect had arisen, corresponding to that, it was, that several towns, which had once a degree of opulence and consideration, ceased to possess them, and yet were represented. It was his idea that these latter places should be disfranchised, and their franchise conveyed to the others which were entitled to it. This would have the effect of conciliating the people, who were naturally irritated, from the absence of that political power which they had a right to possess. He then entered into an historical statement to show that there was of old a discretionary power in the Crown to disfranchise boroughs. No less than 68 boroughs had been disfranchised which formerly sent members to parliament, and several boroughs had claimed exemption from returning representatives. As the Crown had that discretionary power formerly of disfranchising boroughs, and exercised it in so many instances, he did not see why the entire legislature was not competent to exercise such a power, when necessary, to rectify the representative system in conformity with the spirit of the constitution. He then stated that be strongly objected to the present bill: it started upon a wrong principle, by recognising householders as competent to vote, it made property the basis of the right of voting, and if property was made the basis, the number of votes ought to be increased, on a scale graduated according to the value of that property, and in proportion as householders were taxed; but to make property the basis, and then proceed on a principle of equality, was an objection not to be overcome, He could not agree with those who were of opinion that the House should be purely popular: he believed it was necessary to the true support of the state and the laws, that both the peers and the Crown ought to have some influence in that House. He did not think it should too exactly represent the will of the people. He could refer to historical facts to show, that a House of Commons, wholly returned and influenced by the popular will, was not the best for promoting the prosperity of the country. The long parliament was an example of this kind: that parliament was supported by the whole power of the people; but the check of influence being removed, it overturned both the House of Peers and the throne. He appealed for the truth of his positions to the parliamentary history in the reign of Charles 2nd. On the whole, he would prefer that that House should be connected with the Peers and the Crown, and be in some measure under the direction of secret influence, than -that it should be controlled by the harsh and overbearing power of popular clamour.

Mr. Ramsden

said, he would vote for going into the committee, as he was perfectly satisfied of the necessity of some effectual reform of that House. In this conviction he had been greatly strengthened by what had taken place in the latter end of the last, and the commencement of the present year. He could not forget the very general outcry from all parts of the country against the misconduct of ministers towards the Queen. Indeed, he could not understand what object they could have had in view, in lending themselves to that act of oppression. But he would not dwell farther on that subject, as it had passed by. On a recent occasion he had supported the motion of his noble friend (lord J. Russell) for disfranchising a corrupt borough, and transferring the franchise to the large borough of Leeds. Such a reform as that was absolutely necessary; although he considered that the main benefit of the measure had been taken away by the qualifications for voters introduced by the hon. member for Yorkshire, and which, in his opinion, left the bill not worth the acceptance; of the borough of Leeds. His principal object in rising, was, to state, that although he would consent to go into the committee, he would not pledge himself to go the whole length of the plan which his hon. friend intended to propose. He would, agree with his hon. friend in shortening the duration of parliaments, provided some means were found of lessening the expense of elections. With respect, to that part of the intended bill which would go to divide the country into districts similar to those in France, he could not consent to it. The great object of reform which he looked to, was the removal of that steady band of placemen who came down to that House ready to vote away the liberties of the people, if such should be proposed by ministers. No reform, he conceived, would be effectual which did not remove so great an evil. His notion of parliament was, that it ought to be the people's House, and that the executive should have a controlling power any Where else rather than in those walls.

Mr. Harbord

said, he was anxious to state the grounds of his vote thus early in the debate, because he was satisfied that nothing but the most commanding eloquence would be sufficient to arrest the attention of members at a later hour of the evening. He would not now enter into the details of the question of reform, but would give his vote for the motion, oil the ground of necessity; for, to quote the opinion which had been so frequently referred to, he was satisfied that, if reform did not take place from within the House, it would from without. Therefore, in voting for it, he thought he should be doing not only an act of justice, but also one of necessity. If he were asked what species of reform he would wish to have effected, he would say, that which gave to the people that power of which they were now deprived—an effective check over the enormous expenditure of the public money, and also a check on those coercive measures which had been carried to so great an extent by the present administration. He did not speak of one administration alone; for he would not give his support to any set of ministers who were not substantively pledged to the question of parliamentary reform. It might be said, that if the reform spoken of took place, the House of Commons would swallow up the power of the Lords and of the Crown; but that was a result which he thought could not be expected; for no man could believe the state to be secure, unless the Crown and the peers had their just influence in the scale of the constitution. As to the influence exercised by ministers, great as it was, he did not think it was so very extensively exercised as it might be, considering the temptations and the means they had; and he thought also that the House and the country ought rather to be obliged to them for not having carried their influence farther; but what he wished to see done was, that those temptations should be removed from them. In conclusion, though he did not go the length of supporting the whole of the plan of reform recommended by his hon. friend, he could see no objection whatever to going into a committee on the subject.

Mr. Ricardo

observed, that the subject of reform was the most important question which could come before that House. He was anxious, therefore, to declare his opinion with reference to it. He agreed with the hon. member for Durham, that it was quite necessary the House of Commons should truly represent the people. It was not necessary for him to have the proof of the recent votes of the House to be convinced that the people at present were not represented. From the manner in which that House was constituted, he was quite certain before of that fact. He would, therefore, embrace any plan which was likely to give the country an efficient representation, and should consequently support the measure now proposed. There was only one thing respecting it which he regretted; and here he was sure that what he was about to declare would be very unpopular in the House: he regretted that his hon. friend did not propose the introduction of voting by ballot, which he thought would be a greater security for the full and fair representation of the people than any extension of the elective franchise. The people would then vote for the man whom they should consider as best calculated to support their interest, without any fear of the overwhelming influence of their superiors. It might be said, that if this were to take place, the effect would be, that in time the people would get rid of the Lords. He denied that this would be the effect. The people would never, when left to their own free and unbiassed choice, be anxious to get rid of that which they considered the instrument of their good government; and unless gentlemen were pre- pared to assert that the Lords were an instrument of bad government, which he believed nobody would assert, they could not entertain any rational fear that 'the people would be anxious to get rid of them.

Mr. D. Brown

would be willing to give up the present system for any better one that could be offered; but finding that it worked well, he could not consent to make the changes now proposed, without having stronger grounds for doing so than had yet been adduced.

Sir G. Robinson

said, he would vote for going into the committee, although he could by no means agree to all the parts of the plan proposed by the hon. member for Durham. That some reform was necessary had been abundantly proved during the present session by the way in which the petitions of the people had been treated in that House. It was impossible, indeed, that the people could expect redress of their grievances from a House of Commons constituted as the present was.

Mr. T. Wilson

said, he could not consent to go into the committee; at the same time he would be at all times ready to give his vote for the redress of any specific grievance which was pointed out. Whenever any instance of corruption in any borough came before the House, he would be willing to vote for its disfranchisement. He could not concur in the principle that a member of parliament was bound by the opinion of his immediate constituents. It was his duty to consider, not so much the particular wishes of those who sent him, as the general welfare of the whole community. If members were to attend to the wishes of the people, one wish would be, that they should not pay any taxes; and he should be glad to know how the business of the country could be carried on without taxes. The effect of the proposed bill would be, that the constituents would have too much control over their representatives. He was aware that in many places at the present moment, if a member happened to differ from his constituents he ran the risk of losing his seat. This, however, was not the case in the metropolis; and he could say that in the whole course of his canvass, he had only in two instances been questioned as to what his conduct would be in parliament. He did not consider himself as by any means bound to adhere invariably to the opinions of those whom he represented. Certainly, he should be ashamed of himself if he did not feel warmly for the interests of his constituents; but when once sent to that House, he considered himself bound to look at the interest of the whole community.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, that he was almost tempted on this occasion to follow the advice which had been given by his hon. friend the member for Galway, and to allow the question to be decided by the honourable members on the other side, in the full confidence that it would be negatived, for certainly no two members on that side seemed to be of the same opinion with regard to the plan which had been detailed by the hon. member for Durham. Much, however, as he disapproved of the plan of the hon. member—although he wished to pay his full tribute to the temper and moderation with which the hon. gentleman had brought the subject forward—he thought it much better, if the House must enter on the subject at all, to enter upon it with a reference to that plan, rather than to accede to the vague, general, and indecisive recommendation to go into a committee to examine the state of the representation, without having any particular proposition whatever before them. Such a step would be to condemn the existing order of things, without being put in possession of any definite measure by which it was proposed to amend it. If they went upon some distinct plan, it might be judged of by comparison; but in the committee the hon. member intended only a general resolution, which could bring them to no decisive pleasure. The proposed bill of the hon. mover would make a most important alteration in the nature and principle of elections, especially in relation to copyholders, leaseholders, and, in short, county representation generally. The extension of the franchise to householders would be very nearly equivalent to universal suffrage; but the general disapprobation the plan had met with, rendered it needless for him to go into its details. It had been taken for granted, that a great majority of the people were anxious for parliamentary reform. Now, he saw no evidence of such a feeling, and he did not believe that it existed. It was true that many petitions had been presented to that House, but they were all, whether proceeding from agriculturists, merchants, or manufacturers, founded on some particular and specified grievance, which no reform of parliament could remedy, because the objects of the petitioners were wholly inconsistent with each other. It was, in his opinion, an assertion equally unfounded, that the House of Commons, as now framed, did not speak the sense of the people. On the contrary, he had never known an instance in which the sense of the people had been expressed on any subject decidedly, and after due deliberation, and had failed to sway the majority of parliament. The abolition of the slave trade was, in the first instance, not agreeable to the wish of the House of Commons, who were apprehensive of the innovation, and of the injury which particular interests would sustain from it. But the opinion of the people having been decidedly and deliberately formed in favour of that great question, and enforced at various periods, it at length prevailed-over the reluctance of parliament, and the abolition was effected. But although parliament was in many cases induced to follow the opinion of the public, it not unfrequently corrected their errors. The public were greatly led by the press, which mixed up with many facts and much sound argument, so much fallacy and misrepresentation, as to impose upon the public to an extent from which the better information and good sense of parliament alone could relieve them. A great deal had been said of the influence of the Crown in that House. In his opinion, that influence had of late years been much more than counteracted by a variety of circumstances; among which were the greater publicity given to the proceedings of parliament, and the consequently greater freedom with which those proceedings were discussed by the public. So great indeed was the influence of the press, under the almost unrestrained liberty which it enjoyed, that he did not wonder that foreigners were constantly apt to apprehend that this country was on the eve of a revolution or convulsion. Year after year such persons were deceived on the subject, because they were not aware how habituated this country was to the utmost licence of discussion on public affairs. Undoubtedly, the advantage of such a free discussion was not unmixed with mischief, but the good very much preponderated; and one most important benefit resulting from it was, that it rendered any attempt on the liberties of the people, from whatever quarter it might proceed, as hopeless as the most sanguine reformer could desire. Never was there in any country a greater degree of practical liberty than was enjoyed by this country under the form of parliament which it was now proposed to overthrow. Such being his opinion on the general question of reform, and the particular plan proposed by the hon. member for Durham not having received the approbation even of those who were the friends of reform, he could see no result from agreeing to the motion for going into a committee, but that of producing a great deal of public agitation to no purpose.

When the Chancellor of the Exchequer sat down, there was a general cry for the question. Strangers accordingly withdrew; but in a few minutes the gallery was re-opened, and we found Mr. Canning on his legs. Before the confusion, however, had subsided, the right hon. gentleman sat down; and strangers were again ordered to withdraw. We were unable to hear a single word that Mr. Canning uttered; but we were given to understand, that lie said, that in the absence of the principal members on both sides of the House, who were in the habit of taking ii part in their discussions, and in the absence even of the hon. member for Durham himself, he felt it his duty to abstain from making any observations on the subject, or from interfering with the general disposition which seemed to exist in the House, to proceed at once to decide upon the motion. The House then divided: Ayes, 43; Noes, 55: Majority against Mr. Lambton's motion, 12.

List of the Minority.
Allen, J. H. Mackintosh, sir J.
Bernal, R. Monck, J. B.
Blake, sir F. Milton, vise.
Bennet, hon. H. G. Martin, John
Bentinck, lord F. Maberly, W. L.
Barrett, S. M. Maberly, J.
Crespigny, sir W. De Nugent, lord
Callaghan, col. Price, Robt.
Curwen, J. C. Plumer, W.
Coffin, sir Isaac Ricardo, D.
Denman, Thomas Rickford, W.
Ellice, Ed. Ramsden, J. C.
Folkestone, visc. Sykes, D.
Gordon, R. Smith, W.
Grattan, J. Scarlett, Jas.
Gaskell, B. Smyth, J. H.
Haldimand, W. Tierney, rt. hon. G.
Harbord, hon. Ed. Talbot, R. W.
Heathcote, G. J. Williams, W.
Hutchinson, hon. C. White, W.
Jervoise, G. P. TELLERS.
Lushington, S. Calcraft, J.
Lloyd, M. Whitbread, S. C.

The order of the day being then read for the second reading of the Scotch Hereditary Revenue bill, lord A. Hamilton was proceeding to make some observations on the bill, when Mr. Lambton, who had been absent during the division on his own motion, entered the House, and a laugh was heard from some members as the hon. gentleman was passing on to his seat.

Mr. Lambton

said, that on entering the House, he had heard a laugh, and from the countenance of some hon. gentlemen who took a part in it, he was led to suppose that the laugh was directed at him. He wished that any of those hon. gentlemen would stand up, and avow that such was the case. Some of those to whom he alluded would doubtless have the manliness to do so, if they felt conscious that the imputation was well-founded.

The Speaker

said, the House must feel that its own dignity would be best consulted and most effectually secured, by taking care that no member should meet with any treatment inconsistent with the rules of order and decorum. Whether the offence was conveyed in language or by any other mode, it was the duty of the House at once to put it down. But as the hon. member himself expressed some doubt, he would submit to him, whether the circumstance was such as could be preferred as a charge, and whether it might not be fairly presumed that nothing improper was intended.

Mr. Lambton

begged shortly to state the circumstances of the case. He had that evening retired to take some refreshment, after the discussion of the measure which he had introduced had commenced—not having taken any refreshment during the whole of the night before.—On his return to the House, he was surprised to hear from the hon. member for Middlesex, that the division had taken place. On entering the House he could not help observing that the attention of several members was directed to him in a very peculiar manner. Among others he would appeal to the hon. member for Chichester (Mr. Huskisson) and to the hon. member for Londonderry (Mr. Dawson), whether they had not particularly directed their attention towards him with a smile. He would move, "That the House do now adjourn."

The Speaker

must remind the hen. member, that he had introduced the present topic at a time when there was already a question before the House, and when an hon. member was in possession of the House; therefore, it was not competent for him to move an adjournment until that question was disposed of. He would again I put it to the hon. member himself, whether by possibility the dignity and decorum of that House could, in any way whatever be increased—or he should rather as is, if it could be preserved—by continuing the conversation? His opinion was that it could not; and if the House went along with him in that opinion, he trusted that it would support him in it.

Mr. Lambton

said, he bowed to the decision of the chair, and certainly would not pursue the subject further. He must, however, lament the unfortunate situation in which he had been placed, and that it should go forth to the people, that this question had been taken by surprise, and had not received that full and mature consideration to which it was entitled.

Mr. Huskisson

denied that the smile on his countenance had any reference whatever to the entrance of the hon. member for Durham. It arose from a totally different cause; namely, a conversation which he was at that moment holding with his hon. friend, the member for Londonderry. The fact was, that he had been absent from the division as well as the hon. gentleman, and regretted it quite as much as he could do. So far from his having used any expressions of contempt towards the hon. member, he was wholly unconscious of his presence m the House, Until he had risen to make his complaint.

Mr. Dawson

also stated, that he had not been present at the division, and that he was never more surprised than at the charge of the hon. member for Durham, of whose entrance into the House he was entirely unconscious.

Mr. Whitbread

did not rise to prolong the conversation, nor to take his hon. friend the member for Durham under his protection. He wished merely to observe, that other hon. members must not judge of his hon. friend's feelings upon the unexpected termination of the debate, by their own. The situation in which he Stood with regard to the measure, made it much more a matter of regret to him than to any other person. He was apprehensive that the country might be dissatisfied with the manner in which this great question had been disposed of.

Mr. Brougham,

in consequence of what had fallen from his hon. friend who had just sat down, wished to observe, that the close of the discussion upon the late motion, in the absence of its mover, arose from pure accident, which might have happened to the most attentive member of that House. Indeed, if there was one member more attentive than another, to whom such an accident might occur without raising a suspicion of neglect, it was to his hon. friend the member for Durham. He must likewise observe, that he could not see why the absence of his hon. friend must necessarily prevent either the progress or the termination of the discussion.