HC Deb 06 December 1830 vol 1 cc767-72
Mr. Brownlow

presented a Petition from the Town of Armagh, praying for Parliamentary Reform. He stated, that the persons who had signed the petition constituted the most respectable and intelligent portion of the inhabitants of that town, and the conduct of the meeting, at which the petition was agreed to, was most rational and moderate. The petitioners, amongst other allegations, complained that, under the present mode of election, those who possess the right of suffrage are compelled to vote at the will of their landlords, or other powerful persons, for the candidate of whom they do not approve; and they believed that the independence of voters might be effectually maintained if the vote were taken by ballot. He thought it right to mention that the petitioners had requested the members for the county of Armagh to transfer the petition to the hon. member for Middlesex (Mr. Hume) if they themselves could not support its prayer. Now, for his part, he (Mr. Brownlow) could not be induced to make up his mind, 'on the spur of the moment' for the gratification of presenting any petition; and, therefore, if his mind had not already been made up on the subject of that petition, he would have declined to present it. But as he had considered the matter, and entirely concurred in the statements of the petitioners respecting the necessity of the ballot, he found no difficulty in presenting and supporting their petition. He was anxious that every man who had the right to vote should be enabled to use that right in accordance with his conscience.

Mr. Cresset Pelham

supported the Petition. He was convinced that the representation throughout was corrupt, and he hoped to see that House entirely reformed.

Lord Acheson, was fully aware how unacceptable any discussion upon the subject of a petition was to that House, but, circumstanced as he was with regard to the petition which had just been presented by his hon. friend and colleague, he trusted that he might be permitted to say a few words upon it. The meeting at which that petition originated, came to a resolution, that it should be intrusted to the Members for the county, provided they would give it their support, otherwise that it should be sent to the hon. member for Middlesex (Mr. Hume). His hon. friend and colleague consented to support it; he, on the contrary, declined doing so, and he felt it his duty— a duty he owed to those who sent him there—not to let this petition pass without stating his reasons for dissenting from it. It was not his intention to enter at all upon the general subject of reform, but this much he must say, that the abuses which had crept into the representative system of this country were so numerous, and his conviction of the necessity of their speedy removal was so firm, that he had no hesitation in avowing himself a decided friend of reform. He looked to the present Government to do much in this respect, the country expected it. of them; and he, for one, should give his most cordial support to any measure they might bring forward tending to reform the Parliament, so far as he could do so without compromising the spirit and integrity of the Constitution. Among all these abuses, he knew not one which it would be found more difficult to remove, nor one which called more loudly for correction, than the undue influence at present exercised over the votes of electors. No man was more anxious than he was, to see freedom of election existing in substance and reality, —not, as now, a mere empty name. But how was that to be effected? Undue influence might be gradually diminished; the evil might, to a certain extent, be remedied, but how it was to be totally eradicated he knew not. He was told, indeed, that to vote by ballot would effect all this; for that it would establish secrecy and security for the voter. In considering this subject, his first inquiry naturally was, how that could be proved? He must confess, that he had not succeeded in this inquiry at all to his satisfaction. The assertion was every where made, arguments were founded upon it, but he saw nothing to satisfy him that the assertion itself was well founded. The voter might conceal the actual fact of his vote at the time of delivering it, but of what avail was this secrecy, unless it was to be followed by security afterwards; for he could hardly call that a state of security in which a man lives, as it were, by a perpetual falsehood, and in continual fear, lest by a breach of confidence in some friend, to whom in an unguarded moment he may have disclosed the truth, or by some other chance, the whole should come to the ear of the landlord, and his total ruin should ensue. He did not wish to enlarge upon the subject of security. He owned that a speech made last Session by an hon. and learned Member, now a noble Lord, holding a high and important situation elsewhere, was to him very satisfactory in proving the extreme improbability of the existence of that security. The landlords would use every endeavour to obtain the promises of the votes of their tenants for themselves or their friends, and if disappointed in the result, after having received these promises, that they would make every exertion to discover the defaulters he had not the slightest doubt; and as he conceived it to be more difficult for a man to adhere continually to a falsehood than to avoid, by some chance or other, the letting out the truth, he had little doubt of their general success. At all events, the system of chicanery, trick, and perjury, and the total destruction of all confidence between landlord and tenant which would arise from this measure, were, in his opinion, serious objections to its introduction. In addition to this, bribery would still exist. Though it might no longer be worth a man's while to bribe individually, corruption would still have its effect when applied collectively. It would be easy to say to a number of voters, "If I succeed, or my friend, (whichever it might happen to be), such a sum of money shall be distributed among you." Those who would take a bribe now would do so then, and the ballot would fail to put a stop to the influence of money. In corroboration of this, he must beg leave to state to the House a fact, which had come to his knowledge within the last few days, and which he considered to be of the greatest importance; it was the opinion of a very high American authority now in this country, asserting, that not only had vote by ballot failed in the United States to counteract corrupt and authoritative influence, but that such corruption and such influence still existed, and were frequently and effectually exerted; and that, with regard to secresy, it had by no means been established by this system of voting. That high republican authority ought to have weight with those who advocated this principle upon popular grounds. He believed that he was speaking before some Gentlemen, decided friends of vote by ballot, who were acquainted with those opinions, and also with the quarter from whence they sprung. He felt that he had said enough to authorize him to dissent from the petition now before the House. He should not now trouble the House by offering his opinion as to the probable effects of this measure in Ireland. Suffice it to say, that in addition to the general objections he had mentioned,—objections which would apply to either country— there were other and most important objections to this measure, which would more particularly apply to Ireland, and which he should take another opportunity of stating to the House. He should only add, that as a warm friend of reform, he was sorry to be obliged to dissent from the prayer of the petition. Though he differed from his hon. friend and colleague as to the remedy, no man agreed with him more fully than he did as to the existence of the disease, nor could be more anxious than he was to see it removed. His opinions on this subject had not been hastily formed; still they were those of a young man, and he trusted that, whenever he was proved to be in the wrong, he should have the candour to come forward and acknowledge his error. At all events, he should always feel it his duty to turn his attention to any measure which might have freedom of election for its object; and most gratified should he be if he met with a plan which should hold out a reasonable probability of success.

Mr. O'Connell

had been solicited to support the petition. There were few boroughs in which the franchise was limited in a manner more grievous and unconstitutional than in the town of Armagh. The right of voting was possessed by only twelve inhabitants, and they held offices in the Corporation, to which they were appointed by an ecclesiastical dignitary. He complimented the noble Lord (Acheson) for his talents, and for the candour with which he had stated his opinions. In answer to the noble Lord's objection, that the ballot, without some more effectual security, would not promote the independence of the vote, he (Mr. O'Connell) must say, that, if so, it would at all events not make matters worse than they are. In fact, allowing the utmost force to the noble Lord's objection, the ballot could not fail to do some good. If it could not effect the concealment of all the votes, it could not fail to conceal a great number. Secresy would be secured, at least for those voters who stood in need of it. As to what had been said respecting the inefficacy of the ballot in America, it should be borne in mind that there can be no very extensive corruption of voters in that country, for the share which any man can possibly obtain of public plunder by a seat in Congress, is too little to induce him to lay out a sum of money for the chance of it. The noble Lord might have found in a neighbouring country an illustration of the efficiency of the ballot. He was fully convinced that France owed to the ballot the rejection of the fatal Ordinances. He believed, that the protection which the electors of France found in the ballot had secured the liberty of Europe; and he believed, that to the same cause the people of England owed the prospect of reform which was now held out to them. He was much gratified to hear the noble Lord express himself in favour of reform; and he had no doubt, that when that young nobleman should apply his reason to the consideration of the whole subject, the reformers would receive his powerful support in their efforts to obtain universal suffrage with the protection of the ballot.

Sir H. Bunbury

supported the petition, and expressed his hope that Gentlemen who had frequently advocated the cause of reform and retrenchment in that House, and who now had the power of promoting it by their exertions in the other House, and by the influence of the Government, would set a noble example by the surrender of their own patronage. He expressed himself favourable to the vote by ballot, and declared that it was necessary for the national security that measures should be taken as speedily as possible to reform the Parliament. He also expressed his confidence in the Ministry, but he was firmly persuaded that no Ministry could remain in office who did not pluck up corruption by the roots.

Petition to lie on the Table.

Back to