HC Deb 30 July 1839 vol 49 cc993-8
Sir C. Grey

rose to move for leave to bring in a bill for establishing throughout England annual meetings of people in their parishes, and for securing to the industrious classes a regular influence in the election of Members of Parliament. If any one supposed he was trifling with the House, or had not an earnest desire of carrying the Bill into effect, they did him great wrong. The time was come when it was absolutely necessary that Parliament should consider the situation and claims of that portion of the people who had no share in the election of Members, and he believed the circumstances of the age and time had, by increasing the intelligence, and consequently increasing the excitement and aspirations of that class of people, made it quite impossible that they should remain in the condition in which they had previously subsisted without danger. If any one suspected him of revolutionary principles, or of rashness in adopting this motion, he would appeal to the whole course of his life, to his known principles of loyalty, to the situations of trust he had held under the Crown, to his time of life and disposition, to protect him from so injurious a suspicion. In consequence of the great difficulties connected with the consideration of this question, he had selected this period of the Session for making Isis motion, and although it might appear paradoxical, yet he would avow it was not his expectation—it was not his wish that the measure should be carried into a law and completed this Session. His main object was to call the attention of the House to the subject, and his desire would be accomplished if he were permitted to lay the bill on the table of the House, and have it printed for future consideration. He proposed to confine the operation of the measure in the first instance to England. In a measure of such importance, it appeared to him that it should be tried in that part of the kingdom where it could be introduced with the greatest safety, and where it would be most under the controul of the executive government. But, besides, he was bound to admit that he was not so well acquainted with the internal divisions or local organization of Scotland as to enable him to say how it would be likely to work in that country, He therefore thought it would be more expedient to confine it in the first instance to England, and if it were found to work well there, it could be extended afterwards to Ireland and Scotland. He hoped that would be a sufficient excuse to those Gentlemen who represented Scotland and Ireland for his not extending it to their countries. He would now state the objects and details of his proposed measure in as few and plain words as possible, for he thought he should be highly culpable if he availed himself of his position to use topics or language that should act on the minds of the people under present circumstances so as either to inflame their passions or raise their hopes beyond what he saw some probability of accomplishing. His, object was, that the people should be enabled to hold meetings without riots, tumult, and disorder, and tending to secure to those who were not qualified by property to vote in the election of Members of Parliament—not universal suffrage nor household suffrage, but something which he hoped would satisfy the public, and produce that good looked for by some from more extensive and sweeping measures, namely, an influence in the election of Members of Parliament. His measure had a two-fold object; first, the right of meeting and speaking publicly and freely for redress of grievances, and sending petitions to the Crown and Parliament, expressing the sentiments and claims of the petitioners; the second object was still more important, as it presented a new feature in the constitution. He proposed to secure to those not qualified to vote at present by property, an influence in elections, through the influence of a certain limited number, to be chosen by themselves. The right of petition, and the right of meeting to frame petitions, was already established and recognised as an undoubted part of the most valuable rights of the people. So late as Lord George Gordon's riots there was an attempt by the then Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench to put a restriction on the right of petitioning, and of assembling for the purpose of petitioning, by reviving the antiquated statute of the 13th of Charles 2nd. But it was unnecessary for him to state how that attempt was met by that House, and in particular by Mr. Dunning. The practice of petitioning and meeting had since universally prevailed, and no limit whatever could be put to the number of persons who might meet for the purpose of petitioning, or who might sign the petition they wished to present. What he wished to propose was, that instead of meetings occasionally taking place in a disorderly and tumultuous manner, there should be stated periods at which it would be known the people would assemble—that there should be stated places, and such subdivisions of those meetings, that in none of them should there be overwhelming numbers, or so many as were likely to lead to confusion or tumult. There was at present no criterion by which persons were enabled to judge whether a meeting was legal or illegal except by the conduct of those composing the meeting, from which they might infer what their intentions were. The consequence was, that the right of assembling, valuable as it was, produced often a great deal of mischief. He might allude in support of this assertion to what had lately happened in Birmingham, and to what had often occurred before of a timilar nature, and in bringing forward this proposition he was actuated by a feel sng that the proceedings that had lately occurred were likely to force upon the Government the necessity of some measure for controlling and regulating the important right of meeting to petition Parliament upon public grievances. He should be very sorry to see the present ministry reduced to the necessity of introducing any such measure, and he thought that that necessity would be obviated by the plan which he had to propose. That plan provided that at stated periods, say about the time of Easter week, there should be meetings of the people in every parish throughout the country. This he begged leave to say was no novel principle, for it was the ancient law of the land that the people of every hundred, without distinction, should meet annually within the hundred; and the 60th of George 3rd, which prohibited meetings of more than sixty persons, made a special exception in favour of meetings in separate townships or parishes. It might be said that such meetings were impracticable; but let him remind the House, that for the purposes of such meetings, it was not necessary to have a large room with a long table covered with green cloth, and surrounded by red morocco chairs; no, he did not think that the people of this country had so far de- generated from those who, in the open air and under a canopy of oak trees in the field of Runnymede, obtained Magna Charta. Supposing, then, that his proposition was neither novel nor impracticable, he might be asked what advantage did he propose to draw from it? In the first place, if they were driven to the necessity of adopting measures which should give the people an idea that they were going to take away from them the right of meeting to represent their grievances, he thought that this measure would go a great way to re-inspire confidence. At present the right of meeting was exercised in a disorderly and dangerous manner, because the people only met under circumstances of agitation, so that it was hardly possible that evil should not result from such meetings; but if meetings were established for the express benefit of the people, and to give them the legal opportunity of expressing their feelings and wishes, he thought that the disorder and tumult at present attending more or less upon public meetings would be avoided. He thought also that by rendering such meetings open to all classes by bringing the different classes of the people into frequent and friendly communication, instead of standing aloof from each other as at present, this measure might be made an instrument to raise the country to a pitch of prosperity it had not yet seen. The second object which he proposed was to secure to the industrious classes a regular influence in the election of Members of Parliament. There were various signs to show that the people—the great mass of the people—were discontented at not having some influence over the making of those laws which they were called upon to obey. That discontent was, he thought, at a fearful height, and it was time to consider whether it was not possible to gratify to a certain extent the wishes of the people in this respect. Some hon. Members would, he was aware, recommend universal suffrage; but, in his opinion, universal suffrage was incompatible with the fundamental principles of the constitution. He would not discuss the difference between direct and indirect taxation, as that difference was universally recognised, but by the law of this realm the property of no Englishman could be taken in the way of direct taxation. The taxes were a gift on the part of the people, through their representatives, and were levied on the property of those who elected representatives. If they adopted the principle of universal suffrage, they would call into power an overwhelming number if those who had no property, and who could not suffer from direct taxation; and if that overwhelming number had the power of taxation—and he thought it must be conceded that they would, inasmuch as they would have the power of returning a majority of the representatives—it would amount to nothing more nor less than if they gave to a foreign power—France, for instance—the power of taking from the people of this country, having property, a certain portion of that property. Instead of adopting the principle of universal suffrage, he would propose that if these meetings should be found to act in a salutary and orderly manner, they should be allowed to elect annually one person, calling him by any name they might choose, foreman, for instance, and that the persons so elected should have the right of voting in the election of every Member of Parliament that took place within their county. This would call into action in England, about, he should think, 15,000, or if Ireland and Scotland were added, about 30,000. And this, whatever might be thought of it, would be no trifling boon. The persons thus elected would in most instances be active and intelligent men, and would exercise a very considerable influence in the election of the Members of that House. He thought that this proposition, in comparison with household suffrage, would be a cautious measure. He was afraid that, although this empire was one of the richest, the most extensive and the most intelligent on the face of the globe, the lower classes of its inhabitants were less happy than those of any other part of the world, not excepting India and Canada. All these circumstances, which had pressed very heavily on his mind, had induced him with all humility to suggest a plan for the remedy of these undoubted existing evils. In conclusion, therefore, he moved that leave be given to bring in a bill for establishing throughout England annual meetings of the people, in their parishes, and for securing to the industrious classes a regular influence in the election of Members of Parliament.

Mr. Hodges

seconded the motion.

Mr. Hume

said, there could be no mo- tion made for securing to the working classes their proper influence in the election of Members of Parliament which he should not be inclined to support, and this motion was of that nature, and therefore, he should support it. He regretted, however, that his hon. Friend had not explained any of the details of the measure, by which he expected to effect his object. He, therefore, hoped the House would allow the hon. Member to lay his bill upon the table, when, perhaps, some at least of its provisions might be carried out.

Motion negatived without a division.

Back to