HC Deb 06 August 1831 vol 5 cc881-6
Colonel Lindsay

presented a Petition from the royal burgh of Anstruther, against the clause in the Scotch Reform Bill, for disfranchising the eastern division of boroughs in Fife, which, he contended, would be a violation of the principles on which the Act of Union had been founded. He could not conceive how such a measure could be justly entertained. In these boroughs there was a population of upwards of 6,000, and among them, more than 300 10l. householders; and they had a considerable trade. The number of 10l. houses did not appear in the parliamentary returns, from the difficulty of defining what a 10l. house really was. The only reason assigned for this proposed disfranchisement was, to give the franchise to more important places, which did not, in his opinion, justify such spoliation. Scotland was not justly treated in having so small a proportion of Members. She had a right to equal privileges with England, for the articles of the Union were to be violated by uniting counties, and the disfranchisement of boroughs. According to the principles laid down in the English Reform Bill, these boroughs had a right to retain their Members; and Perth a city containing 21,000 inhabitants, which had been refused a Member, had a much better claim to that privilege than Gateshead (a mere suburb of Newcastle), with its 10,000 or 11,000 inhabitants. Surely the Scotch Members would not tamely submit to this unjust act. The population and wealth of Scotland had greatly increased in proportion to that of England, since the Union, and this constituted a fair claim for an additional number of Representatives. He trusted Government would see the justice of these arguments, and comply with the prayer of the petitioners. These boroughs also laid under an additional disadvantage, owing to the temporary disfranchisement of Kilrenny, from a trifling informality in the election of its magistrates; while Dundee, which, from a more flagrant violation of the law, had been in the same state, had received back its privileges just previous to the last election. These two boroughs had experienced very different treatment, and he called upon the learned Lord opposite to explain the circumstances, and state, whether there was not some parliamentary influence, connected with the present Ministry, which had caused this difference.

Mr. Andrew Johnston

felt obliged to the hon. Gentleman for having so ably advocated the cause of his constituents, but he had suggested, that this petition should not have been presented until the Scotch Reform Bill was before the House. He had several petitions from these burghs, but had delayed presenting them on this account. He would take the opportunity, when the Scottish Reform Bill was before the Committee, to bring the subject under its notice,

The Lord Advocate

said, it would be inconvenient to anticipate the discussion on the Scotch Reform Bill, by going at present into the case of these boroughs. The hon. Gentleman had stated, that the district from whence this petition had emanated, contained upwards of 300 10l. houses, whilst the returns gave only about forty; probably the case was as much over-rated on one side, as it was underrated on the other. The borough of Kilrenny had been disfranchised before he had entered office; but since then, he had bestowed his best attention on the subject, in conjunction with the Law Officers of the Crown, and the question had assumed great difficulties, because it was doubted whether Kilrenny had ever a right to act as a royal burgh. The hon. and gallant Member said, that a more speedy decision had been come to in the case of Dundee, and had hinted, that this speed was to promote the parliamentary interest of Government; but the hon. Member had overlooked the fact, that he (the Lord Advocate) had been returned without the assistance of Dundee, and before the privileges of that place had been restored.

Sir William Rae

said, that from the manner in which the English boroughs had been disposed of, he was of opinion that it was necessary to make a favourable impression of the claims of these burghs before the Scottish Reform Bill was before the House, for it would be in vain to look for relief then. He had always considered the proposed disfranchisement of these boroughs most unjustifiable. They were contiguous, and might be considered as one town, and had, in 1821, a population of upwards of 6,000. They were in no respect nomination boroughs, as was proved in his own case, for, although he was aided by the great landed proprietors, and by all the influence of Government, he had failed in a contest with the present member for the county of Haddington. If the Ministry desired to disfranchise small and nomination boroughs, they could apply their rule to Inverary, Bervie, Kintore, and Dornoch. The noble family to whom the nomination of the last place belonged, could spare it, as a nomination county was left in their hands. If, however, there could be any justification for taking the Member from these Fife boroughs, it might be found in giving to Dundee a Representative in its own right; but even then, these burghs ought to be allowed to exercise the elective franchise in conjunction with other towns, which would prevent the landed interest of that county from being overwhelmed. It certainly looked strange, that these boroughs should have returned a Member at the last election, pledged to support the Bill which took away their privileges; but this arose from the disfranchisement of one borough, and had it retained its privilege, the return would have been otherwise. The restoration of those privileges had been withheld, while favour had been shewn to another borough which supported opposite political principles. No other explanation had been given of this than the statement, that a doubt existed whether Kilrenny was a royal burgh, but it had been so described in the articles of Union, and had exercised its privileges as such ever since. There could not, therefore, be such a difficulty as was stated. The former Crown Counsel would at once have decided in its favour, had they not felt some delicacy in giving a preference in point of time, to a town which was known to entertain favourable sentiments to the last Government. For that reason, they had resolved to make their report on the case of the two boroughs at the same time, and it was owing to the information required in regard to Dundee, which involved a question of great difficulty, as to how far his Majesty ought to acknowledge an alteration in the Sets of this burgh, of a description which Courts of Law and a Committee of this House had declared to be illegal, that prevented the Report being made before they went out of office. Their successors entertained different sentiments, and hastened to restore the franchise to the burgh favourable to their interests, while they left the other in the condition in which they found it.

Mr. Keith Douglas

said, that as many of the English Members had declared, they were only prevented from leaving town by the necessity of passing the English Reform Bill, it was clear so soon as that was accomplished, they would depart, not considering the Scotch Bill as deserving of their assistance. On this account he was of opinion, that it was necessary to promote this discussion at present. Probably the hon. Member who represented this district of burghs had received some private information from the noble Lord, the Chancellor of the Exchequer; but that was not enough, the case should be clearly known to all the Members. These places were contiguous, they had a population of upwards of 6,000, and 100 houses of the requisite value; yet it had been determined to disfranchise them totally, when, at all events, they ought to be allowed the enjoyment of their franchise in conjunction with some other places.

Petition laid on the Table. On the Motion that it be printed,

Mr. Andrew Johnston

could not suffer himself to be schooled by the hon. Gentleman as to the course he should hold in dealing with his constituents. This discussion was a proof of the impropriety of raising the question at the present time. He begged, however, to corroborate the statement, that these were not nomination boroughs, but the hon. and learned Gentleman who had made that remark had not been correct on one point. The hon. and learned Gentleman said, he had been supported by the whole landed interest of the vicinity; but he and his connexions had opposed the hon. and learned Gentleman. With respect to Kilrenny, he understood the case was so difficult as to require an Act of Parliament for the restoration of its privileges.

Mr. Pringle

said, that an explanation of the cause why this district of boroughs alone should have been selected for disfranchisement, had been often demanded but in vain. Neither had it been explained why the two burghs of Dundee and Kilrenny had been so differently treated. The hon. Gentleman who represented the district, had stated, that he had received a petition from them remonstrating against this injustice, but had delayed presenting it until they came to discuss the Scottish Reform Bill. Of course the hon. Gentleman would use his own discretion, as he acted, undoubtedly, under the best advice, but it was right he and the House should be made aware, that considerable impatience and anxiety were manifested in these burghs to bring their hard case fully before Parliament. This was proved by their having sent separate petitions, and intrusted them to his hon. friend who represented the county of Fife, such as the petition now before them. It was fit and proper, that the intentions of Government should be known, during the discussion on the English Reform Bill, to the most distant parts of the empire, the utility of which was strongly illustrated by what had occurred in giving a Member to Gateshead, a mere suburb of Newcastle. When they granted this valuable privilege, it ought to have been known that they were to be called upon to disfranchise a set of Scotch burghs which did not come within the Ministerial rule of disfranchisement in any one particular as that was laid down in the English Reform Bill. It had been stated, that there were doubts whether Kilrenny was a royal burgh, but admitting the defects in its original Charter, they had been remedied by long usage and an Act of Parliament. The borough was as much entitled to its share in the return of two Members as the county of York had to return four. At all events, there had been ample time to investigate and decide the case before the late dissolution of Parliament. He remained of opinion, that the learned Lord had not given sufficient reasons for the difference of treatment shewn to the two burghs.

Petition to be printed.