HC Deb 23 February 1864 vol 173 cc933-41

said, he rose to move for leave to introduce a Bill to extend the franchise in counties in England and Wales. He felt that he need offer no apology whatever to the House for bringing that important question under its consideration. He had done so on many former occasions, because a necessity was felt in the country for an extension of the franchise, and the necessity had been repeatedly admitted. The class, moreover, who would be enfranchised by the Bill had been acknowledged to be a class who might safely be intrusted with the franchise. While he felt, however, that no apology was due to the House for introducing the Bill, something more than an apology was due to the country, because a similar measure had not been already adopted either by itself or as part of a much larger and more comprehensive scheme. He boldly asserted that the circumstances of the country demanded an extension of the franchise, and especially that it was demanded by the state of the county constituencies. Moreover, justice, which never was and never ought to be lost sight of by the House, demanded it not less; and the longer the measure was delayed the greater would be the injustice done. In former times great and grave objections used to be raised to the principle of the Bill, while small and frivolous excuses were not wanting. With the first of these he had nothing whatever to do, for the objections had been answered in the most satisfactory way possible, in nearly every instance, by the objectors themselves. The castles they themselves built up they had demolished by their own hands. It could not be said, in one respect at least, that the Bill was introduced inopportunely. It was not too early in the life of the present Parliament for such a measure; for though it might be said, if the Bill were passed, that Parliament ought to be dissolved, in order to give the new body of electors an opportunity of exercising their newly-acquired rights, the present Parliament was in its old age and not likely to live very long, so that, without a dissolution for the purpose, the new body of electors would be enabled to exercise their rights next year. Again, it could not be objected that a comprehensive measure of reform was looming in the distance. That, indeed, was one of the old stock-in-trade excuses which was so stale and used up, that he felt assured it could not be set up on the present occasion. He would remind the House that the fact of opposing the Bill on former occasions had been attended with considerable difficulty, and occasionally with no little danger to the Government, who had felt it its duty to oppose it; it had caused he knew not how many promises of reform to be made, and many a paragraph to be inserted in Her Majesty's Speech; and that it had also been the means of causing no less than four Reform Bills to be laid on the table in the course of eight years. First, we had the Reform Bill of 1852, which might be called a pure Whig Reform Bill; then we had the Bill brought in under the auspices of the followers of the late Sir Robert Peel. After that we had, he might say, the greatest wonder of them all, a Reform Bill produced from a quarter whence he never expected such a thing to emanate—the Bill brought in during the year 1859 by the Earl of Derby's Government. Later on, in the year I860, we had the Bill brought in by the noble Lord the present head of Her Majesty's Government. In all these Bills the principle was admitted that the franchise in counties ought to be extended to occupiers, and three out of the four measures fixed the franchise at the very sum of £10 that he contended for. The mere fact of all these Bills having been introduced by different parties, proved at once that there was, in their judgment, really a necessity for an extension of the franchise to the exact amount he now asked. Now, all these comprehensive measures having failed of their effect, he asked was it not desirable to give reform in detail—in fragments, if he might so say—and to pass some small and moderate measure like that measure he desired to lay before the House? He really hoped, though his hope might be over-confident, that that would be the last time he should have occasion to bring the measure forward, and that Parliament, in its wisdom, would grapple with the question without suffering a just measure to be longer delayed. Since he entertained that hope, it might not be uninteresting to the House to take a rapid glance at the great progress the question had made during the last fourteen years. At first his Motion for leave to introduce the Bill used to be met by a bold and distinct negative. In later times it was met by that faltering and indirect negative of moving of the Previous Question, which was perhaps an indirect compliment. The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Augustus Smith) had felt it his duty, on the present occasion, to give notice that he would move the Previous Question. But he was gratified to find that the hon. Member had paused and withdrawn his Motion —or, at all events, postponed it till the Second Reading of the Bill. He (Mr. Locke-King) trusted that, as the hon. Gentleman had taken time to consider the matter—for the Second Reading would not be put down till after Easter—he would in the mean time have some little communication with his constituents, and not distinguish himself by being almost the only Liberal who was opposed to the Bill, but rather leave some hon. Gentleman on the other side of the House to move the negative. Returning to the history of the Bill, the House would recollect that, just previous to the year 1850, there was a good deal of discontent in the country. The Chartist agitation had existed, and there was a loud cry for Parliamentary reform. Mr. Hume used to bring in Motions fur vaster measures of reform than were heard of at present, and they were constantly rejected. He felt that that was not a practical method of proceeding, and that the better way to promote reform was to bring in a measure of a just and moderate character. In 1850 accordingly he moved, late in the Session, for leave to bring in a Bill to extend the franchise to £10 occupiers in counties. The Dog Days were approaching, and it was impossible then to pass the Bill, but the ardour of the Reform party was not altogether dried up, and 100 Members voted for it. Early in 1851 he came to the charge again, and brought in the Bill soon in February. His opponents, who in the previous Session numbered 159, dwindled down to 52, and the Bill was brought in. A Ministerial crisis then supervened, and the Government resigned. The old family Whig coach was upset. It was, however, patched up again. The Government came back to office with a distinct promise to bring in a Reform Bill in the following Session. In 1852 accordingly the Whig Reform Bill was brought in, but owing to disputes between two noble Lords—one being Prime Minister and the other a Secretary of State—the Bill was abandoned and the Government went out. The Earl of Derby then formed his first short-lived Administration. There was no Reform Bill before the House. They (the Liberals) were sitting on the other side of the House—and a very delightful side it was for true Reformers to sit on —and he (Mr. Locke-King) being in earnest brought in the Bill again. While sitting on the Ministerial side he could only get 100 supporters; but on the other side the number rose to 149. The House was soon after dissolved. They met again in November, and the right hon. Gentleman the leader of the Opposition (Mr. Disraeli), then Chancellor of the Exchequer, proposed a measure which was to inflict a direct tax on the £10 householders without giving them any representation. The result was that, after an animated debate, the House divided, after a spirited speech from the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, about four o'clock in the morning, and the Government was ejected and a new Government came in under the Earl of Aberdeen. In 1853 he (Mr. Locke-King) brought in the Bill again and elicited another promise, that early in the next Session a Reform Bill' should be introduced. Early in 1854, accordingly, a Reform Bill was brought in by the Aberdeen Government, and it contained the principle for which he contended. In consequence of foreign complications and the war with Russia, however, nothing was done with the Bill, and no more was heard of an extension of the franchise till 1857. In that year he again moved for leave to bring in the Bill. There was this resemblance between the state of things then existing and the present—that the Parliament was of the same age, and that the same noble Lord was at the head of the Government. He was likewise carrying on the Government in 1857 with the fag end of a Parliament elected under the Earl of Derby, as he was now doing in 1864. There was, however, one happy distinction between the state of affairs in 1857 and that of 1864. The noble Lord (Viscount Palmerston) in the former year opposed even the introduction of the Bill, while he would now support it, as he had in later years given it his adhesion. The supporters of the Bill had risen from 149 in 1852, to 170 in 1857. The Bill made a great and decided progress in 1857, for two great men gave their allegiance to the principle of the Bill, as they had done before when it was not contained in a comprehensive measure. The late Sir James Graham said that he believed the extension of the franchise proposed by the Bill was most desirable, and perfectly safe. Such was the decided opinion of a most cautious Member of that House, and, speaking of it as a measure of "bit by bit" Reform, he declared that in his opinion it might be safely introduced, and that he would cordially support it. He would not trouble the House by quoting any long extracts from the speeches of the great leader of Reform, but in supporting the Bill in 1857 the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) said that the present time was far from unpropitious for such a measure; that perhaps in that year or the next, but certainly before two years, they should have a general election; and it would greatly improve the composition of that House if two or three hundred thousand men were added to the basis on which the representation stood. After that he (Mr. Locke-King) was surprised that the noble Viscount at the head of the Government should have gone so far as to oppose the introduction of the Bill. Parliament was again dissolved— this time on the Chinese question. The cry of the Chinese war, however, died away, and there was soon the old cry for Reform, and the loudest cry was for the very £10 franchise in counties which he had advocated. In 1858 the noble Lord (Viscount Palmerston) felt constrained to take up some position in regard to Reform, and there was a paragraph in the Queen's Speech recommending Reform to the consideration of Parliament; but the Government having been thrown out, and the Earl of Derby, who succeeded to power, being unable to bring in a measure, he (Mr. Locke-King), sitting on the other side of the House, asked leave to introduce the Bill, and it was read a second time, no less than 228 members having voted for it. Owing, however, to the pressure of business, he was unable to proceed any further with the Bill. In 1859, the Earl of Derby's Government felt constrained to admit that Reform was a necessity, and they brought in a Bill, in which the £10 county qualification was accepted. That was the only Bill which was really fought in earnest; it went to a Second Reading, but the Bill was rejected, and Parliament was dissolved. No sooner did the new Parliament meet than a Resolution of want of confidence was carried, and the noble Lord (Viscount Palmerston) came back to the benches from which he had been ejec- ted. In 1860, the noble Viscount brought in a Reform Bill, in which the principle of the extension of the franchise was again recognized, and no satisfactory explanation was ever given why that Bill was withdrawn. In 1861, he (Mr. Locke-King) again brought forward his Bill, but it was thrown out. He had shown the House that the question had made almost wonderful progress since its first introduction. A number of great men, who at first opposed it, had come round and admitted that the principle was sound. Sir James Graham supported it strongly; Lord Russell, who opposed it originally, supported it; and the noble Viscount at the head of the Government, though the tardiest in giving in his adhesion, voted for the Second Reading in 1860 and also in 1861. He believed he might appeal to the right hon. Gentleman opposite, the leader of the Opposition. He believed he was one of the most far-seeing and sagacious men in that House, and the right hon. Gentleman had already admitted the principle of the Bill by placing it in his own Bill. The right hon. Gentleman might say it was accompanied with other measures to counterbalance it; but the fact stared him in the face, that he could not attempt to pass a comprehensive measure of Reform without admitting that this class of voters ought to be enfranchised. The right hon. Gentleman would do well to let this measure pass, for sooner or later he must be aware it would pass, and it would come with a much better grace now than if it had the appearance of being extorted from him. He felt bound to speak with gratitude of the right hon. Gentleman, for once when he had this Bill before the House, and when some important business was coming on, so that he felt it would be impossible the Bill could stand in its way, the right hon. Gentleman took care that a day as good as that which was taken from him should be given for its discussion. When he brought in the Property Qualification Bill in 1857, the noble Viscount was at the head of the Government. The Bill was actually read a second time, and the noble Viscount not being present, some person went to fetch him, for there was a mutiny in the camp. The noble Lord quelled the mutiny, and his Bill was thrown out. The next time the Bill was introduced the noble Lord was sitting on the other side of the House, and the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli) passed the Bill. He was sure the right hon. Gentleman did not regret the course which he took on that occasion, and when- ever he should assent to the present Bill, be was sure the right hon. Gentleman would feel great satisfaction in helping to pass it. The circumstances of the country were highly favourable to an extension of the franchise. The population had increased, but what was more looked to than any other thing—the wealth of the country—had increased in a most wonderful manner. Twenty years ago the income tax was raised on a comparatively small sum—£192,000.000; now, it was raised on £276,000,000. The imports and exports at the passing of the Reform Bill were £97,000,000; now, they amounted to £393,000,000. Trade was good, and there had been discovered such a variety of new openings in the country for industry, that it was impossible to enumerate them. Complaints were made formerly, that the wealth of the country was in comparatively a small number of hands; but no doubt the wealth of the country was now most completely disseminated and scattered into a vast variety of hands. The great mass of the people were better fed, clothed, and housed; their houses were better furnished, and there was considerably less pauperism. It was owing to the great progress which free trade had made, and the Government would becomingly acknowledge the success of the free trade policy by granting the boon of an extended franchise. He might mention, as another argument in favour of his Bill, that education had also made rapid strides in the country. Some of the older Members of that House would remember, that when they, in former times, went among the humbler classes of society, they were surprised to find men who could read or write. Now the reverse was the case. If these observations applied to the country generally, how much more did they apply to the state of the county constituencies in England; and when every one must admit that the wealth and population had increased, ought there not also have been a proportionate increase of the electors? But the number of county electors had actually decreased. In 1843 there were 522,000 county electors, and the county population was then 9,700,000. According to the last Return there were 519,000 county electors, while the population of the counties had increased to 11,500,000, They ought to have 622,000 county electors, whereas they had only 519,000, according to the Return of 1862. Was that a proper state of things? Ought the county constituencies to be left in that condition? If not, how was the number of electors to be increased? Some might say by increasing the number of freeholders; but that in practice could not be done, or would not produce any perceptible effect, as land was sold in large blocks, and was difficult to be obtained. There were such things as close counties as well as close parishes, and it would be found that the number of freeholders could not be increased. The only really practical way in which it could be done was by lowering the franchise of the occupiers in the counties. Another argument had come to their assistance in favour of the extension of the county franchise. It might be said that the days of the political agitators were gone by. Thanks to the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade, they had at last a cheap press. The debates in that House given at full length, and admirable arguments on almost every question, were sent through the whole length and breadth of the land. Any man for the price of a penny could buy a newspaper without going as formerly, if he took an interest in politics, to a public-house once a week to read the newspapers. It had been said by some persons that the landed interest was distinct from the other great national interests, and that it ought therefore to have distinct representatives for the counties and for the agricultural boroughs. But if that were the case, the representatives of the landed interest would consist of one-fourth of the Members of the House, while the whole agricultural population did not consist of anything like the fourth part of the population of the counties. But although the great bulk of the county population did not consist of persons who were directly interested in land or agriculture, yet all were interested in land. Some had a special interest in land and agriculture; he himself had, but he would not admit that his interest in land should predominate over the other great interests of the country. He was perfectly convinced that the landed interest was combined with all the other great interests of the country, and that agriculture was nothing but one branch of the manufactures of the country. If the House would consent to pass this measure it would be highly satisfactory to the great body of the people, and he begged to move for leave to bring it in. The hon. Member concluded by moving for leave to bring in a Bill "to extend the Franchise in Counties in England and Wales."


seconded the Motion.

Moved,"That leave be given to bring in a Bill."


said, that on the part of her Majesty's Government, he should offer no obstacle to the introduction of the Bill, on the understanding that the general disposition of the House was that it should he brought in, and that all debate upon it should take place on the Second Reading,

Motion agreed to.

Bill to extend the Franchise in Counties in England and Wales, ordered to be brought in by Mr. LOCKE KING and Mr. HASTINGS RUSSELL.

Bill presented, and read 1°. [Bill 33.]