HC Deb 12 March 1861 vol 161 cc1798-809

said, he rose to move a Resolution, of which he had given notice, in the following words:— That it is the opinion of this House that, immediately after the publication of the Census of the present year, it will he the duty of this House to lose no further time in giving such complete effect to the Act of the last reign, whereby reforms were made in the Representative system, as shall carry out the subsequent recommendations of the Crown, and fulfil the just expectations of the people. He wished, however, to ask the permission of the House to make an alteration in the Resolution as it stood on the paper. He proposed to omit the first clause, and the Resolution would then stand as follows:— That it is the duty of this House to lose no further time in giving such complete effect to the Act of the last reign, whereby reforms were made in the representative system, as shall carry out the subsequent recommendations of the Crown, and fulfil the just expectations of the people. He had done that because he understood that some misconception existed, and that it was thought, if the Resolution were passed as it originally stood, it would interfere with the progress of two Bills which were before the House—one for extending the franchise in boroughs to houses of £6 by his hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, and the other for reducing the franchise to £10 in counties by his hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey. Now his object was not to obstruct, but if possible to expedite, those Bills. He had, therefore, made the alteration. He begged to thank the two hon. Gentlemen for having introduced those Bills, and as far as his humble endeavours went, they might be commanded to assist in bringing the measures to a triumphant issue. When the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) introduced his Reform Bill last year he (Mr. Duncombe) took the liberty of predicting that it would create no very great enthusiasm throughout the country, and he also stated that he did not think the country would be inconsolable at its loss. Those predictions had been verified; but he must confess that he did not expect the subject of Reform was to be altogether abandoned. But at that moment it was at least indefinitely postponed; for it would be remembered that in the debate on the Address the noble Lord (Lord John Russell), when he was found fault with for not having promised a measure of Reform, twitted the House for not accepting his little miserable Bill of last year. Why, it was the fault of the Bill itself that it was not accepted. But the noble Lord went further. He not only twitted them with not accepting his Bill but snapped his fingers in their faces, and congratulated himself and complimented them on being satisfied with the Act of 1832. The noble Lord knew such was not the fact. He (Mr. Duncombe) would say that the question of Reform was in an unsatisfactory position; nay, he would say more—the position of the question was most humiliating to Reformers; it was discreditable to the Government, disrespect- ful to the Sovereign, and most insulting to the people. Then, if that were so, he thought something should be done for the credit of Reformers. So far from being satisfied with what the noble Lord called his Act—but which was no more the Act of the noble Lord than it was his—so far from being satisfied with that Act he (Mr. Duncombe) might state that within two years after its passing he, for one, submitted several Motions to the House to the effect that the Act was not sufficiently comprehensive. And it had now come to that point that the whole spirit of the Act had completely evaporated. What with ratepaying clauses and the complex machinery of registration, and what with the ingenuity of parties, the country had gone back in point of fact to the old plain, straightforward, unblushing, dishonest system of nomination which previously to the passing of the Act was prevalent at such places as Gatton and Old Sarum. Indeed, now some of the counties were no better than nomination boroughs. Well, then, how could the noble Lord suppose that Reformers could be or would be satisfied with the Act of 1832? It was perfectly true that this Parliament was not called together for the purpose of discussing a Reform Bill. It was the House of Commons of the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Disraeli). The Earl of Derby dissolved the then Parliament, and appealed to the country, and to do justice to the right hon. Gentlemen the Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Disraeli), in his address to his constituents he said nothing about Reform; on the contrary, the whole subject was dropped, and he said merely that two Administrations had been unable to command the confidence of the country, and he called upon the country to comprehend the evil and to apply the remedy. The way they applied the remedy was by returning to that House a majority—a small one certainly—which enabled it to declare against the Earl of Derby's Government, and the noble Lord the present Prime Minister of the Crown then came in on the distinct understanding that they were to introduce a measure of Reform. Well, what was the first step after that? Several Bills on the subject of Reform were proposed by private Members, and leave was given to bring them in. He himself introduced one on registration, making it quarterly instead of annual. They were, however, asked not to proceed any further with those Bills, as the Government pledged themselves in the following year to introduce a Bill on the subject of the representation. The House was told now that it was inconvenient to pledge themselves to anything like Reform. Why the Government in 1859 pledged themselves, and the Bills which had been introduced by private Members were withdrawn on that understanding. He would next show that the conduct of the Government on this question was disrespectful to the Sovereign and insulting to the people. In 1852 the House of Commons agreed to an Address in which they Thanked Her Majesty for the expression of Her opinion that this is a fitting time for calmly considering whether it might not be advisable to make such Amendments in the Act of the late reign, relating to the representation of the Commons in Parliament, as might be calculated to carry into complete effect the principles upon which that Act was founded. Now that was eight years ago. He asked what had been done? In 1854 what did they do? What was the pledge given by the Government then? In the speech from the Throne Her Majesty said— Measures will be submitted to you for the amendment of the laws relating to the representation of the Commons in Parliament. Recent experience has shown that it is necessary to take all effectual precautions against the evils of bribery and corrupt practices at elections. It will be also your duty to consider whether more complete effect cannot be given to the principles of the Act of the late reign, whereby every just cause of complaint in the state of the representation of the people may be removed. That was in 1854. He asked had they removed "every just cause of complaint in the state of the representation of the people?" Then they came to 1860. And they then begged To thank Her Majesty for informing us that measures will be laid upon the table for amending the laws which relate to the representation of the people in Parliament, and for placing that representative system upon a broader and firmer basis, and to assure Her Majesty that we will give our best consideration to that important subject. Now, he again asked, was the position of the Reform question satisfactory as regarded the Throne, and the expression of thanks which they had offered to the Throne for the consideration which the Throne had promised to give the subject? He repeated it was disrespectful to the Throne and insulting to the people. And who was responsible for that state of things? Why, nobody more than the noble Lord the Member for the City of London. And then this year, after all the declarations by this Whig Minister in favour of a reform of our representative institutions, not one word was said on the subject in the speech from the Throne. There were two ways of omitting so important a matter. When the leaders of parties proposed to make changes in their policy it was usual to call their adherents together and explain the reasons on which they acted. The least the noble Viscount could have done was to call his supporters together and tell them why Reform was to be altogether omitted from the Queen's Speech. Instead of which they were left in ignorance of the noble Viscount's intention until the last hour, when it became necessary to move an Amendment. The Liberal party was then humiliated by the manner in which the noble Lord made his exit as a Reformer. The Reform party ought to be rescued from such a position, and he should, therefore, take the sense of the House on the Resolution he was about to submit. No one, he repeated, was more responsible than the noble Lord the Member for the City of London for the present state of the question. The Liberal party for twenty years had constant contests with the noble Lord in endeavouring to break down his finality doctrine. Over and over again he had brought forward Amendments which the noble Lord opposed, and they (the Reform party) always divided from eighty to one hundred against three or four hundred, because the Whigs joined with the Tories upon those occasions, as he supposed they were ready to do again. The noble Lord went on in that way until 1838, when his (Mr. Buncombe's) hon. Colleague (Mr. Wakley) moved three Resolutions—one simply that it was expedient that the franchise should be extended; another in favour of triennial Parliaments; and the third in favour of the Ballot. The noble Lord then made one of his usual violent speeches against anything that at all interfered with the finality of the Reform Bill. But what occurred? In the debate it was asserted that there was a sort of compact made, from the manner in which the Reform Bill was passed in 1832, that it was not to be disturbed. But what occurred? Who came out on that occasion? No less a person than the Lord Chancellor of the Cabinet which proposed the Reform Act. And he was enabled to quote not only the opinion of the noble Lord with regard to finality, and that no such compact was entered into, but also what the noble Lord would consider a proper amendment of the Reform Bill. The noble Lord (Lord John Russell) at that time addressed a letter to the electors of Stroud, who were then favoured by having their representation in the hands of the noble Lord. Lord Brougham answered that letter. In that letter, which was addressed "Dear John Russell," and dated "May 4, 1839," the noble Lord denied the doctrine of finality, or permanence. He said the Reform Act had called into existence many boroughs with so few voters that great scope was given to jobbing and direct corruption. That learned Lord said that his remedy for this was not disfranchisement, but the extension of the franchise and the protection of the voter. That remedy, he added, would remove an evil far greater than jobbery and corruption— the exclusion of so many thousands who had as good, and in many cases a better, right to be represented than those who now possessed the franchise. The noble and learned Lord did not consider the possession of a house any test of fitness, and said that even if every householder had a vote he was far from thinking that enough had been done. What, he asked, could be a safer depository of political power than personal respectability and a good education? He said let the Government bring in a Bill like that without delay, and, if defeated, let them take a bold course and appeal to the people of the country. Let them not bring in such a maudlin measure as that of last year, but one founded on comprehensive principles, and then the people would stand by them. If they had not the courage to do this, then the Members of that House must go on fighting as well as possible with Bills like those of the hon. Members for East Surrey and Leeds, and must bide their time until there should be at the head of affairs men with stronger hands and stouter hearts, who would be prepared to do justice to the great, generous, and loyal people of this country. The hon. Member then moved the Resolution. Motion made, and Question proposed, That it is the duty of this House to lose no further time in giving such complete effect to the Act of the last reign, whereby Reforms were made in the Representative System, as shall carry out the subsequent recommendations of the Crown and fulfil the just expectations of the People.


Sir, whatever charges of inconsistency the hon. Member for Finsbury may make against the members of the Government for declining during the present Session to bring forward a Reform Bill, I think he must admi that he is obnoxious to a still graver charge of inconsistency in making the Motion now under the consideration of the House. As the notice originally stood, and as it remained until we came down to the House, it was, in fact, a Motion directed against the Bill of my hon. Friend, the Member for East Surrey, and against the Bill of my hon. Friend, the Member for Leeds. It called upon the House to abstain from action during the present Session, and pledged it to take no step in the road of Reform until the results of the census of this year had been published. Therefore it is quite clear that, according to my hon. Friend's original conception, the House was proceeding at too rapid a rate in the road of Reform; and that it had become necessary for him to interfere, in order to put on a drag and diminish the speed at which the Legislature was travelling, and to say, "Do not pass—do not even entertain — any measure upon the subject of the county franchise during the present Session." [Mr. DUNCOMBE: I did not say anything of the sort.] I am sorry to disturb the equanimity of my hon. Friend, but he perhaps will allow me to explain the way in which I understood— and I think I may venture to say every hon. Gentleman in the House understood — the notice which he gave. My construction of his Motion, as it originally stood in the notice paper, was, that it was to this effect—that the House is of opinion that, immediately after the publication of the census of the present year, it will be the duty of the House to lose no further time in passing a measure of Reform. That certainly meant that nothing was to be done until that census was published. Now the returns of the enumerators cannot be made until the month of April. I do not know what time will be necessary for collecting them; but I feel quite certain that this House will not be in possession of the results of that census until some time in the next Session. It is absolutely impossible that all that immense mass of figures can be collected and printed before the end of present Session. Therefore, I maintain that my construction was not only the obvious, but the inevitable construction of my hon. Friend's notice. He evidently meant to say, "I wish to arrest the course of the two Bills of the hon. Member for East Surrey and of the hon. Member for Leeds, with regard to the county and the borough franchise, until the House have the results of the census in their hands, and those results they cannot obtain until next year." If any Gentleman can put any other construction upon these very plain words, I confess I shall be greatly surprised, and I can only repeat what I have already said appears to me to be the true construction of them. Therefore, the House must feel that my hon. Friend so framed his notice in order to obtain a declaration from the House that the two hon. Members were making too rapid progress in the course of Reform. I suppose that circumstances have occurred during the last two or three days, or this morning, to change his opinion. I am, of course, unable to say what may have been the cause that induced him to shift his direction from north to south, and entirely box the compass with regard to this Motion; but it is clear that he now thinks it is incumbent upon him to call upon the House to proceed without further delay in the path of Reform. It seems to me that, having started with a Resolution which, whether expedient or not, was at any rate intelligible, he now proposes a merely superfluous and nugatory Resolution, because we have now before the House two measures of great importance and of great extent exactly complying with the definition given in this Resolution. They deal with the two great branches of the representative system— namely, the county franchise and the borough franchise. It is open to the House to read these two Bills a second time. It is open to the House to make any change they may think fit in those Bills consistent with their titles. I really do not see, if the House should carry the Resolution, what would be done in pursuance of it that has not been already done by private Members, unless any Gentleman should wish to introduce an extensive measure for transferring seats—for disfranchising some boroughs, and transferring their franchise to other boroughs. If my hon. Friend thinks that enough has not been done by the two measures which have been already submitted to the House, it appears to me that the more practical course would be for himself to lay upon the table an extensive measure for the transfer of seats. Whether he will be able to carry that measure during the present Session is, of course, a matter of uncertainty. At any rate, by introducing that measure he would complete the picture, parts of which have been presented to the House by the two hon. Gentlemen. The whole canvass would be then filled for the inspection of the House, but it seems to me that, if we were to agree to this Resolution, no advance would thereby be made in the cause of Reform; it is a mere formula leading to no practical result. It is, therefore, unnecessary for me to go into the question how far the census is connected with the question of Reform. That subject is now withdrawn from our consideration. We are merely called upon to say that it is the immediate duty of the House to consider the question of Reform. Such a Resolution, however, is unnecessary, as the House, having given permission to the two hon. Members to bring in two measures embracing the whole question of the county and the borough franchise, has afforded facilities for the discussion to which this Resolution points. If any hon. Gentleman considers these two measures as insufficient in extent he has nothing to do but to propose an additional Bill. The Resolution seems idle and nugatory, without any practical result whatever, and for that reason I certainly shall not give my vote in favour of it.


said, he came down to the House intending to vote for the Motion as it originally stood, but he was also prepared to vote for it in its present form. He did so on a similar principle to that laid down by the late Mr. Henry Drummond for never voting against any Budget. He (Mr. Drummond) held that the prejudices and interests arrayed against taxation in all its forms were so formidable that those whose duty it was to contend against them deserved all the sympathy of the House, even when they failed to lead its convictions. Parliamentary Reform was now so unpopular, both in the House and elsewhere, that with his (Mr. Warner's) views of its necessity, he could not bring himself to vote against any proposition which might even seem to promote it. But the present Motion had something more than a mere negative claim upon the attention of the House. The present Government had been placed in power for the express purpose of carrying a Reform Bill, and the vast majority of both sides of the House were pledged to the principle of such a measure. When he observed the change which had taken place in the policy of the Government, and the altered tone of the great Leader of the Reform party—the noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs—from the boiling enthusiasm of opposition in 1859 to the cold irony of office in 1861, he thought it due to the reputation of the House, and the pledges which Members had given to their constituents to put on record their continued adherence to those principles which so many of them were sent there to advocate. The Motion was not certainly quite so clear as it might have been. The hon. Mover had failed to show any recognized incompleteness in the Reform Act of 1832 which would be established by a reference to the text of that Act, or to the speeches of those who took the chief part in passing it. He also thought the last phrase in the Motion, "the just expectations of the people," was too indefinite. It seemed to him that the whole difficulty of Reform had been to know what were the expectations of the people, and how far they were just. But he would not quibble about words. He supported the Motion because it recognized the duty which the House owed to the constituencies. He was glad that his hon. Friend had struck out the reference to the Census. He could never see how the results of a new Census could influence the principles of a Reform Bill. The most sanguine enthusiast in that House never dreamed of even an approximate equalization in the numbers of constituencies; and, except with a view to some such arrangement, the accurate results of a new Census had no hearing on the question. The House was not now called upon to do anything extravagant or to recognize any revolutionary doctrine, and he trusted the opportunity would not be lost of affirming its adhesion to principles of Reform. There was great danger in doing nothing on this subject, for, while such a policy offered no guarantee against violent change, it would throw further into the distance than ever all hope of a safe and durable settlement, it would encourage the movements of those who lived by agitation, and lead to unreasonable demands.


I feel indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Finsbury, not for the Resolution which he has submitted to the House, but for the speech by which it was prefaced. I think there is great truth in what he said, and I feel assured that the question of Reform has gained from every discussion that has taken place in the House upon it. But with regard to the Resolution, although I believe my hon. Friend's intention was to pledge the House again, and more especially the leaders on this side, perhaps on both sides of the House, to take this question up at some not very remote period, I am bound to say that I have never thought very much of official pledges, and on this subject at this moment I think they are, if possible, worth less than nothing. Therefore, I would not recommend my hon. Friend, even if he could see a prospect of being able to carry the Resolution, to put it to the House as being a thing of any value. The House will understand, and my hon. Friend will understand, that I should not value the pledge of the noble Lord, for example, the Member for the City of London, or the pledges of his colleagues with regard to this question. But looking at the Resolution as a matter of business before the House, it appears to me quite unnecessary, because the House has before it at this moment—that is so soon as they may come up in the progress of the business—two Bills of great importance upon this question; and if this Resolution were passed tonight, and if anybody, the Government for example, were to choose to bring in a Bill in consequence of it, that Bill could not come on in anticipation of the Bills now before the House. Therefore, it does appear to me that the passing of this Resolution would not facilitate the question at all; and, this being so, I should hope that my hon. Friend—having made the speech which he has made, and which was very much to the point—will be content not to ask the House to divide upon the Resolution — a course which practically will be of no value, for although it may be successful in extracting pledges from those who do not like Reform, can only tend, should they break these pledges—which the experience of the past shows to be a thing not at all improbable—to add to the other sins they might have committed. I would ask my hon. Friend, therefore, to be content with the discussion that has taken place, and not to ask the House to divide upon the Resolution.


said, when the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary stated that he thought this a nugatory Resolution, he had evidently overlooked certain words. If he had recommended that the question of Reform should not be proceeded with until the Census had been taken there might have been some point in the right hon. Gentleman's observation, but what he had said was "not to lose further time;" consequently he had at once stated that he considered the House —at the present moment—was losing time. His object, however, in bringing forward the Resolution was to expedite, and not to delay, the passing of a measure of Reform. If, however, the pressing it to a division appeared to those who entertained views on the subject similar to his own likely to be of no practical utility, he should, with the permission of the House, withdraw it. He was aware that the present was an anti-Reform Parliament, and he, for one, was not anxious to afford hon. Gentlemen opposite an opportunity of displaying their strength on the question under the present circumstances.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.