HC Deb 14 April 1831 vol 3 cc1359-65

Lord William Graham, in presenting a Petition against the Reform Bill from the county of Dumbarton, complained of the sweeping nature of the plan proposed by the Government, and observed, that Ministers had drawn their line with a very impolitic hand, for, by the present arrangement, the influence of many counties would be totally absorbed by that of others.

The Lord Advocate

said, the petition presented by the noble Lord was agreed to at a meeting, which was not numerously attended, and on a division, thirty-six persons voted against, and twenty-five in favour of, the Reform Bill. The petition, therefore, emanated from a very small majority. A meeting of a different description —a meeting of the landholders, and including a great portion of the wealth and respectability of the county — was about, however, to be convened, and he was confident that the result of their decision would show a very different feeling with respect to the Reform.

Lord William Graham

reminded the noble Lord, that the majority which decided at the late meeting against the Reform Bill, was composed of men who had twice the amount of landed property in the county which could be claimed by the minority.

Mr. Charles Douglas

said, that the county of Dumbarton contained 27,000 inhabitants, according to the Census of 1821, and under a new system, of which population was one of the bases, it was certainly entitled to a larger number of Members than that allotted to it by the Bill.

Mr. Kennedy

was surprised to hear so much importance attached to the petitions from the counties of Scotland. A few gentlemen assembled in a room in Edinburgh, and determined to oppose Reform, presented a petition from the city of Edin- burgh. Then they got up another petition, which they called the petition of the county of Edinburgh, and, being Magistrates of various counties, they proceeded afterwards to them for the purpose of swelling the majorities in favour of petitions of the same description. He entreated the House to look at the divisions which had taken place in different counties on the subject of the Bill, and to take into their consideration the number of persons who decided the fate of the petitions compared with the real amount of the inhabitants. In Banffshire, where there were 43,000 inhabitants, a petition was agreed to against the Bill, at a meeting where there were thirteen persons, four of whom were in favour of Reform, and nine against it. In Berwickshire, with 33,000 inhabitants, thirty-three persons met, and there certainly they were unanimous against the Bill. Then came Dumbartonshire, in which the petition against Reform was carried, as stated by the Lord Advocate, by thirty-six to twenty-five. He admitted there was a majority of persons of property against the Bill, but the members of the minority had greater property elsewhere. Then came the county of Elgin, with 31,000 inhabitants, in which there was a meeting of nine persons. Haddington, with 35,000, in which there were eight in favour and four against; and Roxburghshire, in which the petition was carried by forty-seven to twenty-three. In that county, however, there was a real meeting of the landholders and inhabitants on the next day, and they were unanimous in favour of the Bill. In fact, wherever the real opinions of the people could be collected, apart from those of the voters for the rotten borough system of Scotland, they were unanimous in favour of the Bill. It appeared, indeed, to him most extraordinary that, under such a system, so many persons of property should be found to vote at county meetings in favour of the plan of Reform.

Sir George Murray

deprecated the use of such language with reference to the county votes of Scotland. The hon. Member, sitting as he did for a set of close boroughs, had been decrying the counties of Scotland, and applying to them, most improperly, the same language which he would use with respect to the rotten boroughs of England. If the hon. member for Preston had used such language with respect to Scotland, he could have under- stood him, for it was consistent with his avowed opinions on the subject of Universal Suffrage; but it certainly appeared strange that an hon. Member, well acquainted with the nature of the mode of election in Scotland, should characterise the county voters in such terms as those used by the hon. member for Ayr, and decry property, while he cried up the influence of numbers. The hon. Member, in his attempt to prove that all Scotland was in favour of the Bill, had alluded to the county of Roxburgh. Now he happened, by accident, to have in his pocket a letter from Sir Thomas Brisbane, the gentleman who presided at the second county meeting, to which the hon. Member alluded. Great importance had been attached to the opinions of that second meeting, and he would therefore, with the permission of the House, read a short extract from the letter. Sir Thomas said in it, "When I attended the meeting of the county of Roxburgh, to petition in favour of Reform, it was because I believed it to be a Government measure, and before the introduction of the Bill which, I must say now, I consider far too sweeping in its provisions." This was a specimen of that re-action among a higher class, which the member for Preston had already described as having taken place among a lower. That change had taken place among men of education and property, as well as among the lower classes. He never denied that some amendment could be made in the system of Representation in Scotland; but he was satisfied that the plan of substituting for the old a totally new system of Representation would be productive of very injurious consequences. He applied himself particularly to Scotland, because he was better acquainted with that country than any other. He could say of it with sincerity, that its county Representation was as pure and independent as any to be found in England. For himself, he could declare that he was as free to act according to his judgment as any Member of that House. When he was solicited to stand for his native county, for which he had now been returned four times, and the honour of representing which he prized above all other honors, he had expressly stated, that he would connect himself with no party, and bind himself to follow no course of political conduct, save that which appeared best calculated to promote the interests of his country.

Mr. Kennedy, in explanation, denied that he had decried the influence of property, and said, he used the term "rotten" with reference to those voters who possessed franchises for counties without any property whatever in those counties.

Sir James Mackintosh

observed, that the fact of Sir Thomas Brisbane having presided at a second meeting, after attending the first, proved beyond question, that he did not think the first meeting expressed the true opinion of the county of Roxburgh. If the right hon. Baronet spoke of the freeholders of Scotland as being properly represented, or as not desiring some better Representation, he laid himself open to a total contradiction. In some cases they did agree with the opinions of the people of property against the Bill, as other persons agreed with its opponents; but the great majority were decidedly in its favour. The reason why Scotland had increased in prosperity and wealth under the present system, was not because it was a sound one, but because the Constitution of England protected her, and the Representation of England was spread over her as a shield, to guard her from the consequences which might have followed the defects of her own.

Sir G. Clerk

was not a little surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman extol the merits of the English Constitution, and speak of the Representation of England as forming a shield for the protection of Scotland, at the very moment when he was using his utmost exertions in support of the Bill which totally changed the nature of that Constitution, and the Representative system which was connected with it. How, he would ask, could the right hon. Gentleman reconcile his praises in the one case with his censure in the other, and say, that system of Representation should be destroyed which he at the same moment admitted to have formed the protection of Scotland from the abuses of the system which prevailed in that country. He contended that those who were opposed to the Scotch Reform Bill formed a vast majority of the men of property of that country; and although the Bill was drawn by the Lord Advocate, and the Government declared they would have that Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill, he believed that not a single individual in Scotland was fully satisfied with its details, and he suspected that the noble Lord himself contemplated many alterations and modifications of its provisions in the Committee. If the Bill passed in its present shape, every person in the country saw that it would be impossible to refuse any, even the most extensive changes which might afterwards be demanded from them.

Mr. Cutlar Ferguson

defended the Representation of Scotland, and contended that its Members were returned by a constituency as pure and incorruptible as any in the empire. The counties of Scotland, although they had few voters, were never bought and sold like the boroughs of England. No man ever came into the market to dispose of the Representation of a Scotch county. The voters were men of integrity and independence, and their property secured them from all improper influence.

Sir G. Warrender, after the best consideration he could give the subject, and after attentively examining the opinions of the country, was compelled to come to the conclusion that popular elections must take place in Scotland, and that the present system would not be much longer preserved. All he hoped, and all he asked, from the learned Lord was, that he would give the recommendations contained in the petitions laid on the Table their due attention, and avail himself of their recommendations to improve the details of the Pill. He approved of the principle of the measure, but he objected to that part of it which went to the disfranchisement of some of the boroughs; although he had no objection to a more popular election at counties.

Colonel Lindsay

remarked on the inconsistency of the hon. Baronet, who said he approved of the principle of the Bill, while at the same time he disapproved of the disfranchisement of the boroughs. For himself, he was strongly opposed to the measure. The people of Scotland were in the enjoyment of property, intelligence, and happiness; but the learned Lord was not satisfied, he wished to give them politics.

Mr. John Baillie

gave his cordial support to the Scotch Bill. He was opposed to the English Bill, which took a great deal away, and gave very little; but the Bill for Scotland took little or nothing away, and gave a great deal. As an instance of the absurdity of the present system, he stated, that in one of the counties of Scotland he had what was called a Superiority, the value of which was only a few shillings, but which gave him a vote; while in the same county he had an estate worth a thousand a year, in right of which he had no vote at all.

Mr. Henry Scott

said, that among the landed proprietors of Scotland, there was undoubtedly a strong feeling against the measure which the Government had introduced. They looked upon it as violent and sweeping, and calculated to place the whole power of the elections in the hands of persons of little or no property.

Mr. John Campbell

stated, that a large majority of the county of Fife was in favour of the measure. There had been no meeting of that county, because the convener, by whom alone a meeting could be called, being hostile to the Reform Bill, resolutely refused to call a meeting.

General Gascoyne, with reference to the statement of the hon. member for Middlesex, that there was only one opinion in Scotland with respect to the Bill, and that that was in favour of it, remarked, that it now appeared that no fewer than seven counties in that country had petitioned against it. All that had taken place with respect to the Bill proved how inconvenient it was that a Cabinet Minister did not bring forward a Cabinet measure. There certainly was a general understanding that the noble member for Tavistock had on Tuesday abandoned an important part of the Bill; although yesterday the members of his Majesty's Government appeared to be enraged at the supposition. The noble member for Tavistock certainly did say one thing on one night, and another thing on another. With respect to the instruction to the Committee on the subject of maintaining the proportion in the Representation of the three kingdoms of which he (General Gascoyne) had given notice, he had hoped that the necessity of his interference on the subject would have been obviated; but as that was not the case, he should certainly feel it his duty to persevere. As it was quite impossible that the House could be called upon to pronounce at once upon Monday on the new propositions which the noble member for Tavistock intended to submit, it would be convenient to know what previous time would be allowed for consideration; and he begged to ask the noble Lord what course he intended to pursue?

Lord J. Russell

said, that it was evi- dent the gallant General wished to avail himself of his (Lord J. Russell's) answer to his question, as an assistance to him in his plan of defeating the Bill. On Monday he would state explicitly what were the alterations which it was proposed to make in the Bill; and when the House had heard that statement, they would be better able to say what course of proceeding ought to be adopted.

Mr. Henry Fane

observed, that if his Majesty's Ministers had made up their minds with respect to the alteration which they intended to propose, it was their duty at once to state it; if, however, they were merely watching the shifting of every blast of public opinion, they were adopting a wise course. On a subject of such vast importance, it was surely not too much to ask for a few days' deliberation. In his opinion, the real principle of the proposed Bill was, to traffic in the suffrages of the people of England; to sell one man and buy another; to sell one country and buy another; to induce Scotland and Ireland to support the Bill by reducing the Representation of England. He begged to put these distinct questions to the noble Lord —whether it was in contemplation to propose any alterations in the Bill? and, if so, whether they were to be absolute, or to depend on contingent circumstances?