HC Deb 22 May 1849 vol 105 cc848-70

rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill for shortening the duration of Parliaments. In doing so, he said it might be objected that there was no great number of petitions calling for the measure he was about to propose; but if hon. Gentlemen would turn their attention to what was passing out of doors, they would see that not a public meeting was held where the proceedings of the House were discussed at which the duration of Parliament and the increasing the responsibility of Members of the House of Commons were not made subjects of recommendation. He trusted he would not be charged with impropriety if, instead of waiting for the result of the agitation, or for any ebullition of public feeling, he at once brought the matter forward. It was declared in the Bill of Rights to be one of the rights of the people of this country that Parliament should meet as frequently as possible. In the year 1694, a sort of definition was put upon the term of their duration by the passing of the Triennial Act. But, of the ten Parliaments which followed the passing of that Act, nine averaged only about nine months each. He had suffered two entire Parliaments to pass since he last brought the subject forward, because the people had not presented petitions to the House upon the subject, and because they did not believe, nor indeed did he himself believe, from the constitution and complexion of those Parliaments, there was much disposition in them to give the question a fair and calm consideration. What the constitution and disposition of the present House were they should shortly see. But, at all events, he had thought it his duty to put; forward a claim for the restoration of their public rights to the people of this country. I He did not say specifically that they should return to triennial Parliaments, or that it was a public right—it was an Act of Parliament; but by a public right he meant simply that Parliament should not be longer than was consonant with the feeling of responsibility that should lie upon the Members of the House. Having in the years 1834 and 1837 entered very fully into the question at large, and having then developed his views upon it—views which remained upon record, he did not mean to fatigue the House by going into a very long statement upon the present occasion. Formerly, the people of this country enjoyed annual, or rather sessional Parliaments. But in the reigns of the Tudors and the Stuarts, a usurpation on the part of the Crown took place, and the Crown took the liberty of extending the time of existence of the Parliaments. As he had already stated, it was in the year 1694 that the Triennial Act was passed, the object of which was to secure the subjects from consequences similar to those which they had suffered under from the preceding long Parliaments, owing to the servility of the Members to the Crown and the general corruption, which was the consequence of the removal of responsibility from the Members of the House of Commons. That Act was passed after William III. had actually once refused to give the Royal assent to it, and he should beg to be allowed to read a very few words from the very short preamble:— Whereas by the ancient law and statutes of this kingdom frequent Parliaments ought to be held, and frequent and new Parliaments tend very much to the happy union and good agreement of the King and the people, be it enacted, that Parliaments in future shall only last for the term of three years. That Act continued in operation for twenty-two years, and he believed there were no statutes that more adorned the Statute-book, or had greater regard to the dignity of Parliament and the liberties of the people, than those passed during this period. But the Rebellion of 1715 was made a pretext for putting an end to the Triennial and passing the Septennial Act, for it was supposed that at the next election an attempt would be made on the part of those who supported the cause of the Pretender to return men who would endeavour to change the dynasty and restore the Stuarts. The passing of the Septennial Act, he con- tended, was a complete coup d'état, an Act of revolution; because, nothing could be more outrageous than that a Parliament elected for three years should vote its own continuance for seven years. It was only under the plea of extreme and urgent necessity that such an Act could be justified; but they would now assume that it was justified. It had been frequently alleged that the whole Act was null and void. He did not think so. He merely asked the House to consider whether it was a wise or an unwise Act. The two chief objections to the triennial Parliaments were, that they were more expensive than septennial ones, and that they were destructive to the peace and security of the Government. As to the first objection, it would not bear examination; and, for the second, the manner in which septennial Parliaments were made conducive to the security of the Government, had been so productive of the grossest profligacy and corruption within the walls of the House, and so disgusting to the people of England, that they merged the minor question of duration in the greater one of complete reform, and so effected finally the Parliamentary Reform Act. But so soon were the effects of the Septennial Act made manifest, that in 1734 Mr. Pulteney, and other Members of the House, who had supported it in 1716, voted against its continuance, and the Motion for its repeal was lost by a majority of only 63, in a House of upwards of 400 Members. The law was then suffered to remain; and so it did remain, until the conduct of the septennial Parliaments was such as to cause the cry for a general reform of Parliament. In that reform, two chief objects were sought for. One was the amendment of the representation of the people; the other, an increase of the responsibility of Members by more frequent elections. That was the unanimous decision of the question of Parliamentary reform. And his noble Friend at the head of the Government, in March, 1831, when introducing the question in the House, thought it necessary to make a statement at the close of his very luminous speech, to account for the omission of that very important branch of the subject, knowing that the whole country expected the two objects to be carried out together. His noble Friend said:— I cannot but take notice of some particulars in which, perhaps, this measure will be considered by many to be defective. In the first place, there is no provision for the shorter duration of Parliaments. That subject has been considered by His Majesty's Ministers; but, upon the whole, we thought it would be better to leave it to he brought before the House by any Member who may choose to take it up, than to bring it in at the end of a Bill regulating matters totally distinct. Without saying, therefore, what is the opinion of His Majesty's Ministers respecting that question, which I myself think to be one of the utmost importance, and to deserve the utmost care in its decision, we shall keep the large measure of reform which this Bill comprehends, separate from every other question, and leave the subject of the duration of Parliaments to be brought before the House by some other Member at a future time. For my own part, I will only say, that whilst I think it desirable that the constituency should have a proper control over their representatives, it is, at the same time, most inexpedient to make the duration of Parliaments so short that the Members of this House should be kept in a perpetual canvass, and not be able deliberately to consider and to decide with freedom any great question. Sir, I do not think it behoves the people of a great empire to place their representatives in such dependence. What the point then is at which to fix the proper control of the constituency, I do not think it necessary to discuss at present. When the question comes under the consideration of this House, I shall be ready to deliver my opinion. I have now only to state, that the King's Ministers are satisfied that they ought not, on the present occasion, to propose any measure for shortening the duration of Parliaments, and that, in providing for a popularly elected representation, they ought to abstain from embarrassing that question with any other which is incumbered with its own doubts, difficulties, and obstacles. That declaration of the noble Lord much consoled them at the time for the want for which he accounted, because they hoped that they would have his Lordship's support upon some future occasion, when some other Member might take the question up; and he (Mr. D'Eyncourt) accordingly brought it forward in 1833 and 1834. He was, however, still ignorant whether his noble Friend really thought seven years was the fit time for the duration of Parliament, for he had merely given as his reason for not voting for his (Mr. D'Eyncourt's) Motion, that there was no specific term mentioned in the Bill, and he asked him what term he proposed to adopt. He (Mr. D'Eyncourt) declined to name any term. He would not take the liberty of suggesting one, as he could not name anything but that which had been adopted into the constitution. In 1833 he had agitated this question, and his Motion had been met, not by a direct negative, but by the previous question. The majority against him on that occasion had been only 49. In 1834 he had again brought forward his proposition, when it was negatived by a majority of 50; and in 1837 the Motion was lost by only nine votes. The last Par- liament sat for six years, and in the fifth year the corn laws were repealed, upon which occasion he recollected its being argued by hon. Gentlemen opposite that it was not wise to pass so important a measure when the Parliament was about to expire, as many hon. Gentlemen might have forgotten the promises and the pledges which they gave five or six years before on the hustings. He believed it would be for the interest of Parliament, the country, and the Crown especially, that the governing body of the nation should have the confidence of the people; but how could they have that confidence if they did not afford the people frequent opportunities of exercising the elective franchise? No man could sit in that House without observing that the vast influence of the Crown in the Army, Navy, and civil departments exercised an influence more or less upon the votes of Members of that House, and it was, therefore, the more necessary to place in the hands of the people a counteracting influence by the frequent opportunity of election. He was satisfied that such a measure would do more than any other to give stability to the institutions of the country. He hoped his noble Friend would not say, as he did the last time, that the people were not calling for such a change, and that he saw no necessity for it. The absence of petitions or public meetings on the subject was no proof that it did not occupy the public mind. It was well known to be a measure most desired by the people generally, and he, therefore, called on his noble Friend to say whether he had other reasons for not considerng it necessary, and whether he looked upon seven years as the golden time, and on no account to be altered. There was no other country in Europe in which the duration of Parliament was so long. In looking over the Sicilian papers that morning, he found it stated that the Sicilian Parliament was reelected every four years. Why should it be seven with us? It had been three, and it was by a kind of fraud that it had been made seven. He called upon his noble Friend to accomplish the other main provision of reform by giving his sanction to a measure for shortening the duration of Parliament, He had only to say in conclusion, that if the noble Lord were to signify his readiness to accept five years as the Parliamentary term, he (Mr. D'Eyncourt) would be ready to consent to the proposition; but until he heard some such statement from high authority, he would continue to urge his Motion for Triennial Parliaments.


I rise, Sir, to second the Motion that has been made by my right hon. Friend. I consider this subject, Sir, one of the most important that can be discussed by this House, and I am well satisfied that it is one which the people out of doors feel a desire shall be discussed and carried. This is a subject which has claimed the attention of the House on former occasions, and one on which the House has heard many able arguments. But, perhaps, it has never been discussed precisely under the same circumstances, and therefore there is room to hope that, although it has not been carried formerly, it may now find favour with the House; and I am sure that the House by passing it into a law would find favour with the country at large. Upon former occasions when this question was brought forward—and it has been brought forward again and again ever since the Septennial Act passed, previous to the time when the Reform Bill was enacted—it was said and felt, that by shortening the duration of Parliament, and repeating the frequency of the appeal to the people, constituted as Parliament then was, was to do nothing but to make a reference to an oligarchy; and, since the great Parliamentary Reform Bill has been carried, whenever it was proposed to enact short Parliaments, we were always met by the appeal that a great change has just been made, give it time to work, give it a fair trial, and do not produce any additional alteration. That argument cannot be used now. I admit that it was an argument immediately after the passing of the Reform Bill. I felt it so much, that when my right hon. Friend first brought forward this question, I did not vote with him; I remained absent, and gave no vote, because I thought I would wait to see what would be the effect of that great measure of reform on the country. But now sixteen or seventeen years have passed away since that great measure—that great and peaceful revolution in the country—was carried. I ask hon. Members, do you think that the people are satisfied with the system under which we now live? Do you think that system is so perfect that there is no objection to it, and that it is looked upon by the people at large with entire satisfaction? I do not know what may be thought of it in the saloons and ball rooms of this great metropolis, or in another place not far off, or, perhaps, on that racecourse to which some hon. Gentlemen are so anxious to hasten to-morrow, to the disregard of the public business of the country; but I ask you to converse with the people on railways, in omnibuses, and steamboats; to go among the middle and trading classes of the community and the people at large, and see whether the people are satisfied with the constitution of Parliament as it now exists. I think, then, the argument which has been used, that we have made a great change, and that we ought to give it time to work, cannot now be renewed, because there has been time, and the system has been tried. There has been a great deal of controversy whenever this question has been brought forward as to whether frequent Parliaments were constitutional or not. Until the reign of Henry VIII no Parliament was prorogued, and previous to that there were instances where there occurred one general election every year. For a long time the danger was, not that dissolutions should not be frequent enough, but that there should not be a sufficient frequency in the assembling of Parliament. Until that time no Parliament was prorogued, but Parliaments were always dissolved after one Session; but the Long Parliament of Charles and of the Commonwealth led men to see the necessity and importance of frequent elections, and the Bill of Rights at the Revolution claimed that Parliaments should be frequently holden as a part of the constitution. Immediately after the Revolution, in 1689—the first year after—a Bill was brought into the House of Lords for limiting the duration of Parliaments, but it was lost. In 1693, in the second Parliament of William III., a Bill passed the Lords, and went to the Commons. Great opposition was made to it, and endeavour was made to swamp it on the ground that the Lords were interfering with that which was particularly understood as affecting this House; but the current ran too strong, and even those who felt this keenly, even those who were indignant at this interference of the Lords, still felt the thing was so important that they were disposed and determined to give it their support. In 1693 Mr. Harley said, on this subject— The Bill is a plausible panegyric on this Parliament for its funeral oration; And Mr. Goodwin Wharton said, in the same year— I believe they (the Lords) thought not ill of this House; for only a good House will consent to such a Bill. Again, Mr. Neale said, in February, 1693— It is objected 'that it came from the Lords.' A good thing sometimes may come. We are told 'this is not a proper time,' but I think, that in so good a reign such a good law is to be obtained. Again, Colonel Titus said, in December, 1693— It is no objection that this Bill comes from the Lords. I tear not a good thing from them. We have had none a long while, The Lords prescribe us times when to meet, and when to be dissolved. St. Paul desired to be dissolved, but if any of his friends had set him a day he would not have taken it well of them. As for the disobligation to the people, good Parliaments they desire, and I never saw long Parliaments good ones. A picture new drawn may be like the person it represents, but in time the colours will fade, and it so alters from itself that no one can tell what it represents. If we would have a picture like, it must be new drawn. The importance attaching to this subject was evinced by the pertinacity with which both Houses demanded it; and yet William III. resorted to that prerogative which has so very seldom been exercised in our constitution, and refused to give it the Royal assent. Yet it was again and again brought in; he could no longer oppose it. It has ever since been ardently desired by the people; and it was repealed twenty-two years after it had been the law of the land, in order to meet a temporary crisis and danger, which has long and for ever passed away. It is not for me, against the opinions of so many statesmen and able orators, to say there were not circumstances at that time which justified this most extraordinary measure; but it will be conceded that if it is to be justified at all, it is to be justified only and solely by the necessity of the case. Now, although the people acceded to it then, they have, from but a short time after the Septennial Act passed, never ceased to demand its repeal. In 1734, the first Motion was made on the subject, only 18 years after its enactment. Since then there have been I know not how many Motions on the subject. Alderman Saw-bridge made an annual Motion on it for sixteen or seventeen years consecutively; and there are a great number of other men, well known in Parliament, who have brought forward this subject from time to time. It was brought on on the presentation of the famous petition of the friends of the people by the late Lord Grey, then Mr. Grey; and it has formed a part of every great scheme of reform, with the single exception of that which now exists. Now, this question is not open to the objections that are made to some other branches of reform. It is no innovation. On the first debate which took place on the subject, in 1693, it was said by Colonel Granville, "This Bill takes care of our constitution; it does not innovate it." It was not an un-English or revolutionary measure, as the ballot has been said to be, because it involved no new principle. Now, after this Bill has been passed through all the branches of the Legislature, and has endured as the law of the land—and that during the most glorious part of our history—for twenty-two years, it is no innovation—it is not un-English, because it was brought forward and passed by some of the best Englishmen that have ever lived. It is no revolutionary measure, because it involves no new principle. The principle that there shall be a limit to the duration of Parliaments independent of the will of the Crown, is now in full operation. Now, it is only a question of degree; it is, in point of fact, a question whether you will have a real or a sham representation; for I contend that the Parliament which is not so frequently elected as that the Members of it should undergo continual—though not a tyrannical—control from their constituents, is not, and cannot be, a real representation of the people. It was said long ago in the old books, that it is better that the King should rely on his people than his Ministers—not excepting the present Ministry—and that is a sentiment which I cordially adopt. It is as good in the reign of Victoria as it was in the reign of William and Mary. Let Gentlemen only reflect on what is passing, and on what has been passing in the last year and a half, on the Continent, and let them ask themselves whether it is not of the utmost importance that the Legislature should be a full, fair, and real representation of the people. One trembles when one thinks what evils and dangers await the country, where those who call themselves, or are called, the representatives of the people, are not really so. Look at what happened in France. Louis Philippe had large majorities in his Chambers of Deputies and of Peers, and yet those Chambers did not represent the people; and in a moment he was hurled from his throne, and the country was thrown into anarchy and confusion and left without a Government, because the Legislature, instead of being a fair representation of the people, was nothing but a delusion, a mockery, and a snare. Now, one argument against short Parliaments is, that short Parliaments will occasion a greater degree of expense; and one of the reasons for the Septennial Act, as alleged in the preamble, was, that larger sums were spent, and greater heats and animosities occasioned, by elections than had ever been known before. Why, will any one contend that the heats, the animosities, and the extravagant expenditure, which occurred during the twenty-two years of triennial Parliaments, can be compared for one moment to either the violence or the extravagance which has existed since, under the Septennial Act? Did Gentlemen ever then go to that extravagant pitch of expenditure that we have seen since? Was there then anything like the violence and bloodshed which we have known, even in our times, under the Septennial Act? Do any Gentlemen remember what has occurred with respect to different elections, the enormous sums of money that have been squandered in many cases to the ruin of great families, who have for fifty years afterwards felt the consequences? In 1768 there was a famous contest for the borough of Northampton—not in one of the largest constituencies of the country, but for a moderate-sized town. On that election the influence of three noble Lords was brought to bear—the Earl of Northampton, the Earl of Halifax, and Earl Spencer. Two of them spent 150,000l. each, and the third, 100,000l. There was 400,000l. spent on a contested election for one borough; and that was under the Septennial Act, which was passed in order to diminish the expenses at elections. There were two reasons, then, for passing the Septennial Act: one was to prevent the danger arising from the machinations of the Pretender; and the other, to diminish the expenses at elections. The one has completely and entirely passed away; and for the other the Septennial Act has proved wholly inefficacious. I say, then, it is time to do away with it. As to the expense being greater in shorter Parliaments, I think it is doubtful whether that would be the case; but, perhaps, if you take a term of 50 or 100 years, there would be more frequent elections of the whole House, and larger sums of money would be spent; but then it is not that large sums shall be spent fre- quently, as that larger sums shall be spent less often. Happily, the extravagance of elections has now very much diminished, but that cannot be referred to the Septennial Act. The improvement in this respect is rather to be referred to the Reform Bill, which shortened the duration of elections from fifteen days to two, and then to one in boroughs; and this is a reason why we should remedy a contrary state of things with respect to elections. But it is not on the ground of economy that I support this Motion, and that I am anxious that it should be passed, but on account of the impossibility, as I believe, of without it obtaining a full, fair, and efficient representation of the people. That is to be the desideratum of all true reform. Without repeating the arguments which were to be found in the debates of our ancestors on this question, such as the well-known illustration of the manna from heaven, let me ask hon. Gentlemen if they do not think men in general are more likely to do their duty honestly and faithfully by their constituents if they are elected for three years, or for more than three, at a time? Have hon. Gentlemen never seen such things in their experience as a Member appearing on the hustings and making all sorts of promises of what he would do, and of the votes he should give, and afterwards find him act in a very different way, forgetting perhaps those promises, perhaps remaining away on important divisions, perhaps actually voting against those measures which he had promised to support, perhaps preferring to the business of this House the amusements of the chase or the battue, or travelling on the Continent, or going to the Derby—or any other amusement; and then, when he knew the time when Parliament must be dissolved was approaching, returning to this House and then perhaps, by some flashy Motion or speech, endeavour, and perhaps succeed, in winning back the good graces of his constituents, whose business he has during a length of time abandoned? Do not hon. Gentlemen think they would be much less likely to see such a spectacle during short Parliaments than long ones? Have you not seen men whose duty sits so lightly upon them, and whose conscience is so easy as to adapt themselves to the wishes of their constituents, when it suits their interest to do so? And would not such men also be disposed to vote against the wishes of their constituents, and according to the views of Ministers, when it may suit their views? I know very well that the corruption which formerly existed has entirely passed away with regard to the Members of this House. I know that formerly Members used to receive bribes, and actually money used to be paid to them for their votes. There is no such thing now. [Mr. B. OSBORNE: There is a Committee now inquiring into the practice of bribery.] My hon. Friend says there is a Committee sitting to inquire into it; but I hope and trust that no such thing does occur; and all I can say is, that I shall not believe it until it be proved by any Member of this House. Still Members may be influenced, for all that, in various ways. We cannot say there is no danger at all that the patronage exercised by the Government shall exert any influence upon them. That patronage, be it observed, has of late years very much increased. We all know there are gallant Officers in this House who may expect appointments, or hon. Members may expect appointments for gallant gentlemen, their relatives; there are such things as appointing persons to ships; gallant officers sometimes are anxious—and are there not other ships besides those at the disposal of the First Lord? Are there not Lordships, commonly called Peerages; are there not baronetships, judgeships, inspectorships, consulships, and clerkships innumerable? All these things may certainly be supposed, and may at one time or other have an influence which perhaps they would not have, if Members were aware that they must very soon appear before their constituents. But then, by shortening the duration of Parliament, you in some degree interfere with the prerogatives of the Crown. In former days it has been objected that, by shortening Parliament, you increased the prerogatives of the Crown. Now, it appears to me that the theory of the prerogative of dissolving is not that the Crown should have the means of intimidating the Members of this House, and of saying, if you don't vote the same way as my Ministers, if you don't carry that measure brought forward by my Government, you shall be sent back to your constituents, and put to the risk, annoyance, trouble, and expense of a general election; but it means that when the Crown has a doubt whether the House does really represent the wishes of the people or not, then that the Crown may have the opportunity of dissolving, of ascertaining the fact. If you shorten the duration of Parliament, the Crown will still have that op- portunity should it be required, and sometimes it is required in a very short space of time. William IV. dissolved a Parliament after it had endured only nine months, supposing that it did not faithfully represent the wishes of the people; and certainly it turned out that the supposition was well founded, because the Parliament, which was afterwards elected, passed that great measure of reform by a large majority which the former Parliament had refused to pass. But the Sovereign, under the triennial system, would have the opportunity of appealing to the people whenever it was thought necessary, while at the same time the people would have the opportunity of signifying their wishes every three years. It may be also observed that as a Parliament elected for a short time is much more likely to represent the wishes of the people than a Parliament for a long time, it is much less likely that the Crown will resort to this exercise of its prerogative. I might also observe that short Parliaments appear to be of consequence with regard to the House of Lords. I am not one of those who look upon that institution with any degree of hostility; I am for the constitution of England—Queen, Lords, and Commons; and I would preserve to the two first branches of the Legislature all their just rights, while I would make this House a real representation of the people. The House of Lords are supposed to have what are called more Conservative tendencies than this House; they are less disposed to change, and have often incurred considerable odium for resisting measures which this House has desired; and it is said that the House of Lords has been frequently a clog on the wheels of the State, when advancing in the path of improvement. I confess for myself that I believe that that clog, or drag, is not without its advantages, and often proves salutary. I am, therefore, not disposed to object to the interference of the House of Lords on measures about which I feel most warmly, for I have observed that that House, whenever the House of Commons has declared its opinion, or contended for any length of time in a decided manner, so as to show what are the wishes of the people, the House of Lords, as experience shows, has never continued its opposition to the wishes of the people. But this House does not really represent the people. Now, as to the term which Parliament ought to endure, I am not wrong in supposing that my hon. Friend wants to re-enact triennial Parliaments; but the Motion is not for that; the terms of the Motion are for leave to bring in a Bill to repeal the Septennial Act, and to shorten the duration of Parliament. I apprehend, therefore, that all Gentlemen who think that seven years is too long a term, may and ought to vote with my right hon. Friend. If there be any Member who thinks that five years is a better term than seven, he will vote with my right hon. Friend—but I apprehend that the people in general (at least I speak for myself) will think that the old system, which was the law of the land so long, which was adopted by our ancestors immediately after the revolution, is the term which it is best to adopt. Some hon. Gentlemen may be for a still shorter term—for annual Parliaments. I don't know whether there are a great many such in this House; but I would say to those hon. Gentlemen, vote for this Motion, if you are for annual Parliaments, for it is a step towards that which you want, and after that, if you can bring forward a good argument in your favour, that a Parliament elected for three years would be quite as likely to pass your measure as any one in the present system. But I don't suppose that there are many Gentlemen who will prefer annual to triennial Parliaments, although the noble Lord at the head of the Government is one, because last year, when my hon. Friend the Member for Montrose brought forward his Motion for a reform in Parliament, the noble Lord declared it as his opinion that annual would be better than triennial Parliaments. I don't think, though that was "open," that it was "advised speaking" on the part of the noble Lord; and I think if it came to a vote on the two, I should have his support of the proposition for a longer term. But I think that three years is the limit which would always secure the continual control of the people over their representative, at the same time that it is long enough to allow him to recover from the fever and excitement consequent on a general election. I, therefore, should be for triennial Parliaments. How triennial Parliaments would be supported, I do not know; of course not by those who are against all reform, and who take to the measure of reform which we have because they cannot help it. Neither by those who, having voted for the Reform Bill, think we have got quite enough of it, and now sail under the flag of finality. Nor do I know how the Government will meet this measure. It must be considered doubtful, for the noble Lord at the head of the Government has vacillated so much during his political life on this question, that he may be said fairly to have "boxed the compass upon it. "First of all my noble Friend declared himself in favour of triennial Parliaments—he would vote for any measure that would limit the duration of Parliaments for three years; and then, when the Reform Bill was brought on, though triennial Parliaments certainly formed no part of that measure, yet the mode in which the noble Lord referred to that subject, in bringing on that measure, was such as that any man might consider him as holding out an intimation that if any independent Member of Parliament proposed such a measure, the noble Lord would not be averse to it, although he did not think it proper to make it part of his great scheme. In 1833 came the Motion of my right hon. Friend. The noble Lord opposed it in the most violent terms, declaring that "it was incompatible with the maintenance of the constitution and the stability of the monarchy." Afterwards, in 1834, he contented himself with giving a silent vote against it; and in 1837 he thought the country did not require the change; and last year, on the Motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Montrose, he said, sooner than triennial Parliaments he would have annual Parliaments. [Lord J. RUSSELL: I was against both.] I knew the noble Lord had said he was against both; but the impression left on the public mind has been that he preferred annual to triennial Parliaments, and it made a great impression on the country. Now, I would appeal to all those who are in favour of progressive reform, to those who wish to see this country governed, not by a faction, but by public opinion—who wish to carry out the spirit of the Reform Bill—who wish to destroy all abuses in the Church, in the Army, in the representation of the people, and in every other department—I would appeal to men of all descriptions, to vote for the repeal of the Septennial Act, for that repeal which has been demanded by the people for upwards of 100 years—which has always been understood to form part of every great scheme of reform—which has been advocated by a Chatham, a Pitt, a Fox, a Romilly, and a Macintosh—which is not revolutionary—which is no innovation—which interferes with no other measure of reform, but, on the contrary, promotes and completes all the others, and which, more than any other single measure that can be named, by placing this House in constant harmony with the people, tends to the security of the Crown, and the well-being of all orders of the nation.


Sir, I consider that, in fact, this is a Motion for shortening the duration of Parliament to a term of three years. My right hon. Friend, in introducing his Motion, stated that such was his intention. He said, also, that if the Government would propose a measure for limiting the duration of Parliament to five years, he would accept that proposition; but that, for himself, he would not descend from the position he had taken, as he considered that on ancient constitutional grounds the people of this country I were entitled to triennial Parliaments, Sir, I see no reason why this question: should not be calmly discussed. My right hon. Friend says that there is not much agitation in the public mind on this subject; and my noble Friend who spoke last says that persons who are to be found in omnibuses, steamboats, and other modes of public conveyance, give expression to their feelings on this subject; but I doubt whether those persons are to be very often found desiring to shorten the duration of Parliament, or believing that any public grievance can be remedied by adopting that course. With respect to the general expression of discontent referred to, I am not inclined to attach much importance to the usual expression which we hear, that "there is much to be found fault with, and much which requires amendment." I remember a person of considerable talent—an Englishman, who had passed much of his life abroad—once saying, that if a man came to this country shutting his eyes and opening his cars, he would consider this the most miserable nation in existence; but that, if he took the other course, of shutting his ears and opening his eyes, he would consider it the happiest. Such, I think, is the general disposition in this country; such is the disposition from which much amendment flows. My right hon. Friend says that, owing to the want of general excitement with respect to this particular subject, he has not made the Motion for the last twelve years, and implied a sort of threat that if this Motion were rejected he would not again bring it forward for a similar period. I confess I think he takes a very prudent and wise course, and, trusting, as I do, that he will not be in the majority to-night, I hope he will allow twelve years to pass before he brings it, calmly and ably as he has done, under the consideration of the House. My right hon. Friend, and the noble Lord who followed him, went into the history of the duration of Parliament, and they spoke of the ancient Parliaments not usually exceeding one year. The reason of that, I think, is obvious, and will not well support the Motion before the House. In those ancient days to which they referred, it could not have been considered by persons to be an object of ambition to come to Parliament, and to be taken away from their business and occupations. Such persons were glad for another Session of Parliament to come round, in order that the burden of representation might be imposed upon others. With respect to later times, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, when he says that at the time of the Revolution it was an object to have new Parliaments, I think he should bear in mind that, although it was considered desirable to have frequent Parliaments, yet that it was considered most desirable that there should be no lengthy intermission of Parliaments. In the Triennial Act, accordingly, one of the principal clauses provides that if a Parliament shall be dissolved, another shall be called within three years at least. That shows that the grievance against which our ancestors thought it necessary to provide could not be one at the present time, as, by various laws in existence, it is impossible that Parliament should be intermitted for one whole year. But the grievance of our ancestors was different from that complained of by my right hon. Friend. It was enacted, however, in 1694, that a new Parliament should be summoned every three years. It was the great object of the popular party of that time—an object to which King William was brought to give his consent with great difficulty. But, after the experience of twenty-one years, we find that that very popular party which had been most instrumental in carrying that measure, were those who most complained of its operation; and in this respect my right hon. Friend has hardly given full weight to their complaint, as embodied in the intended Act. The framers of the Septennial Act not only state that expenses at elections had become greater, but that more "violent and lasting heats and animosities between the subjects of this realm had been occasioned, than were ever before known" by the triennial clause. Now this, I think, might be very well the case with triennial Parliaments then, and might be the case if you establish them once more. You find not only that there were greater expenses at elections, but that the expenses would be more continuous, he-cause, being frequent elections, persons interested in them would have to keep up the registries at a continual expenditure. Such, then, is the result of experience as to triennial Parliaments, and these were the grounds for the change, so far as the present long duration of Parliament is concerned. There was a part of the Bill which made this permanent change. There was another part which provided that the then existing Parliament should continue. The reason for the latter was temporary, that excitement was created in the country by the Jacobite party, which was endeavouring to restore the House of Stuart. For the temporary evil this was the temporary remedy; while the permanent alteration was introduced for two permanent reasons, which are found expressed in the preamble. You have the question before you tested by the experience of that of which our ancestors tried the effect, the very measure which they rejected, but you now recommend. Our ancestors found the medicine they had tried to be noxious and injurious, and they decided upon discontinuing it. But it appears to me that there are other considerations which should have very great weight in the determination of this question. My right hon. Friend who makes this Motion, asks me whether I am now prepared to state that I think seven years the best term for which Parliament should endure? After the experience we have had for the good many years which have elapsed since the passing of the Reform Bill, I am prepared to state my decided opinion that we had better not alter the present term for which Parliament now endures. I think if we had triennial Parliaments—and it might often occur that there would be a dissolution at the end of the second year—that you would find that during the first year a great deal of time would be lost by reason of the inexperience of new Members, by the unnecessary prolongation of debates, and by the anxiety of Gentlemen who had not hitherto had seats in Parliament to take part in the deliberation. You would find, with respect to the third year, a disposition to decide upon any question which might have an immediate effect upon the general election then pending. Now, I ask any Gentleman who has any recollection of the last three years, whether some of those evils would not be found to exist in the last and first year? This consideration is of more importance at the present time than it was in the days of our ancestors: if we reflect upon the quantity of public business which they transacted, the number of their measures, and the scope of their administrative duties, as compared with the labours which this immense empire at this moment enjoins—speaking, as we do, one day of India, another day of Canada, then turning our attention to home, and discussing whether our commercial policy is sound; at another time (the greater part of our time) discussing the affairs of Ireland, and the various questions of administration and legislation. Seeing this, I think it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this House being made a House of practical business; and I think, for the reasons I have stated, that triennial Parliaments would not add to our efficiency in that respect. But I admit that these advantages would be too dearly bought, that it would be too great a price to pay for them, if we found that the opinions of constituencies and of the public at large did not sufficiently influence the opinions and conduct of this House. My opinion, however, based upon my experience of this House since the passing of the Reform Bill, is, that there is that general attention paid to the wishes of constituencies which you would desire—that public opinion has fully as much influence as it ought to have on the votes and transactions of Members of this House; and that if you carried it to a much greater extent, you would find that, instead of Members of this House voting in favour of a measure which they thought was for the public good, and on which they entertained a strong and decided opinion, in too many instances they would be found sacrificing that opinion, and deferring to what might only be a temporary and transient opposition among the body of electors who sent them to Parliament. I have seen many instances in which I am sure Members have voted against the opinions of their constituents at the time; but when those opinions came afterwards to be tested, the constituencies have admitted that their representatives had worthily and properly discharged their duties, and they have sent them to Parliament again, in the full confidence that they would again discharge their duties for the public benefit. I do not know that it is necessary to quote any instances of this kind; but I think that the Bill introduced some three years ago with respect to Maynooth is a case in point. I never knew more clamour than was raised against that Bill. Innumerable letters were received by Members of this House, myself included, stating that they would not be supported again if they voted for that Bill. But the discussion went on; Members of this House did their duty—and I believe they did their duty in voting for that Bill—in resistance to that clamour. I believe that public opinion, in the end, was satisfied that the measure was a right and a wise one, and that independent Members had done their duty by the course they had taken on that measure. But I do not think this would be the result if you so greatly shortened the duration of Parliament. With respect to another part of the question, my right hon. Friend and the noble Lord urge that there are greater means of corruption with respect to long Parliaments than short ones. My right hon. Friend does not give any reason for that opinion. I do not myself believe, considering the force of public opinion in this country at this time, that the influence of the Crown could be exerted in such a way as to interfere with the independence of Parliament. For my own part, I think that such an influence would have greater effect upon a short than upon a long Parliament, for the Members of the latter become sensible of the disappointment to which reliance upon such patronage subjects them. I certainly, then, come to the conclusion that there is no reason for disturbing the present Act prescribing the duration of Parliament in this country. As to whether six years—for that is the actual time—should be the precise period for which a Parliament should endure, I hardly think it necessary to offer an opinion. Whether it is actually five or six years, does not seem to me to be of very great importance. I certainly thought, at one time, that five years would be better than seven, although I do not remember, as my noble Friend says he does, my having expressed an opinion in favour of three years. At one time, as a general question, I thought five years preferable; but I do not think there is any sufficient reason for making a change which would merely diminish by one year the duration of the term of Parliament. I, therefore, do not think that six years is an excessive period. Six years, in fact, do not form the constant period for which Parliaments endure; for from 1826 to 1841, a period of fifteen years, there were no less than six Parliaments, being an average of two-and-a-half and another of three years' duration. Of course, if you diminish the duration of Parliament to three years, you curtail the prerogative of the Crown, which, in cases where parties on either side are equally balanced, and on other cases, can cause an appeal to be made to the people. You curtail that prerogative if you fix the limit at a shorter period than is now assigned. But my right hon. Friend says that in this respect we have a different duration of Parliament from other countries, and that, looking at the other countries of Europe, he cannot find the period for which the assemblies sit to be for the term of seven years—that five and four years is more frequently the limit to which the duration of a popular assembly extends. I am not disposed to quarrel with these new constitutions. Certainly we have seen the monarchy of France overthrown; we have seen the advisers of the Crown of that country exposed to violent popular disapprobation, and the throne itself perish beneath the general convulsion that ensued. But we have seen likewise that the form of government which succeeded to the monarchy did not establish itself in the popular opinion, and that those who, with the most brilliant talents, and the most unquestioned integrity, declared themselves supporters of the form of government then established, have fallen themselves, within only a few days, under the displeasure of the same popular opinion which overturned the monarchy. And if we look to other countries, we find, amidst their disturbances and contests, constitutions which have long subsisted overthrown and levelled with the dust, and men seeking about for some form of government to which they can attach themselves, and for some leader worthy and fit to guide them. Sir, I find no fault with those who, seeking a better form of political government, are exposed to these storms and conflicts. The imperfect forms under which they have long lived, may have rendered such struggles and lamentable contests neces sary and inevitable. But I rejoice myself that we have long ago passed through such contests; and I am not ready to imitate any part of those institutions which I see so little trusted, which I see still so uncertain, and still so little likely to endure. Far be it from me to say that it is agreeable to stand on the shore and behold with indifference the efforts or the dangers of those who are labouring amid the tempest; but, on the other hand, when I see the storm raging, and the bark of others struggling amidst the winds and the waves, I am not ready to launch my vessel on the boisterous deep, to be exposed to the same storms and perils. My right hon. Friend must, therefore, excuse me if I am disposed at this time—whatever I may do at any other period—rather to cling to the security and advantages we already have, and not to be swayed by the prospect he holds out to me on the ground that other nations have no laws similar to those of which he speaks. I conclude, therefore, on this, as upon former occasions, by opposing my right hon. Friend's Motion; and I do not think that the duration of our Parliaments is at present too long. I think public opinion now exercises a very effective influence over the Members of this House; and that by having elections so exceedingly frequent as he proposes, you would lose much on the ground of public security, much on the ground of habits of business, much on the ground of the stability of our counsels, and the due deliberation of our measure; and that you would not gain, in public liberty anything to counterbalance the serious disadvantages to which I have referred.


said, that in discussing this question it was right to know what the constitution was—whether that House was to represent the people. If that was the constitution, then this House ought to be under the control of the people. But the people complained that this House did not fairly represent their wishes and feelings, and one of the causes why it did not was owing to the duration of Parliament. He did not deny that evils might arise and did arise from all forms of government; but the question they had to determine was, whether the public good would be best promoted by keeping the House of Commons under the control of the people. He maintained that it could not be under their control as long as Parliaments continued for seven years. It had been observed that this measure had not excited any strong popular feeling out of doors. The reason of that was, that this was but one of a series of measures which the people believed to be necessary for the amelioration of their condition. The principal of these measures was the extension of the suffrage, which they looked upon as the prime means of placing the House in the position of their real representatives. It was said, that the frequency of elections would increase the expenses. What those expenses were he could not tell, unless they were expenses for the purposes of corruption; and that was one of the reasons why he maintained that Parliament ought to be more frequent, for persons would be less likely to spend much money in corrupt practices when they knew they would be elected for only a short period. Again, it was said that the representatives of that House should not be under the control of the people. If that was so, then they ought to have recourse to that which was the practice formerly in Ireland—namely, elect the representatives for life. But that would be the very reverse of the constitution. He did not think that frequent elections would give rise to frequent changes in the persons elected. On the contrary, he believed that those who did their duty would have a better chance of being re-elected than under the present system, and that greater harmony and good feeling would exist between the representatives and the represented. He did not think it would be worth while to promote a change, for the purpose of establishing a five years' duration of Parliament; but, at the same time, as triennial Parliaments was the principle of the old constitution, and a step in the right direction, he was very willing to vote for the Motion.

Motion made, and Question put, "That leave be given to bring in a Bill for shortening the duration of Parliaments."

The House divided:—Ayes 46; Noes 41: Majority 5.

List of the AYES.
Adair, H. E. Lushington, C.
Adair, R. A. S. Mowatt, F.
Alcock, T. Nugent, Lord
Berkeley, hon. H. F. O'Connell, J.
Bouverie, hon. E. P. O'Connor, F.
Bright, J. Osborne, R.
Clay, J. Pearson, C.
Cobden, R. Pechell, Capt.
Crawford, W. S. Pilkington, J.
Devereux, J. T. Power, Dr.
Duncan, G. Salwey, Col.
Evans, Sir D. L. Scholefield, W.
Evans, J. Somers, J. P.
Ewart, W. Tancred, H. W.
Fagan, W. Thicknesse, R. A.
Fordyce, A. D. Thompson, Col.
Fox, W. J. Thornely, T.
Gibson, rt. hon. T. M. Walmsley, Sir J.
Granger, T. C. Wawn, J. T.
Harris, R. Westhead, J. P.
Hastie, A. Williams, J.
Henry, A.
Heywood, J. TELLERS.
Humphery, Ald. D'Eyncourt, C. D.
Kershaw, J. Stuart, Lord D.
List of the NOES.
Abdy, T. N. Lascelles, hon. W. S.
Adderley, C. B. Melgund, Visct.
Baring, rt. hon. Sir F. T. Milner, W. M. E.
Brown, W. Mitchell, T. A.
Buller, Sir J. T. Mostyn, hon. E. M. L.
Campbell, hon. W. F. Ogle, S. C. IL
Colvile, C. R. Paget, Lord A.
Crowder, R. B. Paget, Lord C.
Cubitt, W. Power, N.
Elliot, hon. J. E. Russell, Lord J.
Farrer, J. Russell, F. C. H.
Fergus, J. Rutherfurd, A.
Freestun, Col. Slaney, R. A.
Grey, rt. hon. Sir G. Somerville, rt. hn. Sir W.
Gwyn, H. Stanton, W. H.
Halford, Sir H. Willyams, H.
Hawes, B. Wilson, J.
Herbert, H. A. Wood, rt. hon. Sir C.
Howard, Lord E. Wyvill, M.
Jermyn, Earl TELLERS.
Jocelyn, Visct. Tufnell, H.
Labouchere, rt. hon. H. Ebrington, Visct.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. D'Eyncourt and Lord Dudley Stuart.