HC Deb 26 June 1866 vol 184 cc684-93

Mr. Speaker, the suspense which the House yesterday so considerately consented to prolong is at an end; Her Majesty having been pleased to accept the resignations of their offices, which were last week tendered by the Government. The House is aware that Her Majesty thought fit in her wisdom to postpone the acceptance of that tender when it was first made. It appeared to Her Majesty, upon the first aspect of the vote which led to the tender of our resignations, that the subject-matter of that vote might perhaps be considered as a matter of machinery and detail susceptible of adjustment, rather than as one which went to break up the framework of the Bill; while Her Majesty also felt—and I think the House and the country, without distinction of party, will agree in that sentiment—that in the present state of affairs on the Continent of Europe, there would be necessarily a disadvantage in a change of Government. Without the slightest approach to any invidious reference, or distinction between parties or individuals, it may truly be said that at such a moment it is not easy for any incoming Administration to step at once into exactly the same relations and conditions of intercourse with Governments and Ministers abroad, which were enjoyed after long usage by their predecessors; and the amount of that difficulty, whatever it may be, is in itself a public disadvantage. Her Majesty upon these grounds thought fit to postpone her acceptance of our resignations, as the House has been informed, until she had an opportunity of personal conference with my noble Friend at the head of the Government. This day I accompanied my noble Friend to Windsor; and the opportunity was graciously afforded him of tendering those explanations which appeared to us to warrant the course we had pursued, and of laying before Her Majesty the full circumstances of the case. Upon receiving those explanations the tender which had been postponed was accepted by Her Majesty, and we now by Her Majesty's gracious commands only retain the seals of our offices until the time when our successors shall have been appointed. Having stated thus much, I think it is due from the Government to the House that we should not confine ourselves absolutely on such an occasion to the dry recital of the result arrived at in the communications with Her Majesty; but that, while endeavouring to avoid all contested and controverted ground, we should submit some explanations to the House, of a nature to show that, in the step which we have taken, we have not acted unadvisedly, nor without deliberation.

After the division, Sir, which took place on Monday, and during the interval which has since occurred, the alternative which the Members of the Government have appeared to have principally before them, as the most immediate and legitimate subject of consideration in the present state of the country, has been this, whether it was their duty at once to resign their offices, or whether, on the other hand, they ought to accept the vote which had been arrived at on the Motion of my noble Friend the Member for Galway, and to endeavour, so far as they could, to adapt that vote, and the operation of it, to the framework of their measure, and to the attainment of its essential object.

Now, Sir, let me state briefly the view which we took of the nature and effect of that vote. We did, I avow, carefully examine it, in order to see whether it was in our power to effect such an adaptation as I have spoken of. The House may, perhaps, recollect that at the close of the debate the words I ventured to use on the part of the Government did not amount to an absolute statement that, if the vote were carried against us, we should feel it impossible to conduct the further progress of the Bill; but they did express the state of difficulty in which we found ourselves with respect to the possibility of the adoption of such a vote; and I was obliged to say that we would enter into no engagement as to our conduct in the event of an adverse decision, but that we must remain free to take such course as the public interests might appear to demand. Now, Sir, when we came to examine the effect of the Motion and to consider whether it was possible for us to adopt it, we were struck by these difficulties; in the first place, the inequality of the operation of a rating franchise in different boroughs; in the second place, the inequalities of its operation in the same borough; and, in the third place, the difficulty, I might say the impossibility, of choosing any form or figure of enfranchisement, founded on mere relation to rateable value, which would express faithfully and exactly, without material deviation on one side or the other, the scale of enfranchisement which we had contemplated and submitted to the House, and to which we thought ourselves bound, not so much by any pedantic reference to consistency or any merely formal view of the case, as by a consideration of the public interests. As to the operation of a £6 rating franchise, which was suggested by the noble Mover of the Amendment, we found that it would give rise to the inequalities I will now state; and the figures I give can be tested as to their substantial accuracy by any lion. Member who chooses to refer to the blue book laid on the table. We had submitted to the House a plan under which a certain number of male occupiers would be enfranchised by an occupation franchise of £7 in boroughs. We have now asked ourselves, "In the case of each borough, to what amount of rating franchise must we go down in order to obtain not less than the same number as would be given by an occupation franchise of £7?" We found the following to be the result:—In sixteen boroughs there would have been enfranchised, by adopting a franchise founded on a rateable value of above £6, a number at least equal to the number we proposed to enfranchise. In thirty-nine boroughs we should have required to take not merely those above £6 rating, but of £6 and upwards. In 112 boroughs we must have gone to £5 and upwards. In twenty-one boroughs we must have gone to £4 and upwards. In five boroughs it required us to take in even those rated under £4, in order to give a number not less than that which would be obtained by a £7 rental. Now, I give these figures as being simply the result of a sum. It is not for me to judge what weight they may have with others, but in our minds they had considerable weight. We then considered another matter on which I need not dwell largely at this moment, for it has been opened and argued in our past debates. We felt very acutely the difficulties in which we should be involved from the establishment of different rates of franchise in the same borough, owing to the differences of rating which frequently prevail in different parts of the same town, which parts happen to be in different unions. Lastly, we had this to consider—if we proposed a £6 rated franchise, such a proposal involved on the whole a diminution of enfranchisement which in our view was inadmissible. Had we, on the other hand, proposed a £5 rated franchise, we should have exposed ourselves to taunts and objections, the precise value of which I do not stop to estimate; but undoubtedly there would have been ground for the statement that we had departed materially from the original framework of, and the standing ground afforded by our Bill. Those were among the considerations which led us to the conclusion that the vote on the Motion of my noble Friend could not be considered as of a minor or incidental character, but was one which went in a great degree to break up the framework of the measure; and even this, I must add, was not the whole, nor nearly the whole of our difficulty. We had to consider our position as a whole; we had to consider the previous history of the Bill; and undoubtedly, in our particular case, the issue was additionally grave and anxious because of the pledges we had given in various forms, and of which we had, not unnaturally nor improperly, been reminded time after time in the course of the debates, to stand or fall by our measure. Now, Sir, those pledges, if they seemed to some to be conveyed at any time in rhetorical and inflated forms, were yet as to their substance in every case advisedly and deliberately given. In the opinion of the Cabinet, and in my own opinion, a pledge on the part of the Government to stand or fall by a particular measure is a pledge that should be rarely hazarded. It is the last weapon in the armoury of a Government; it should not be lightly taken down from the wall; and if it is so taken down it should not lightly be replaced, nor until it has served the purpose it was meant to fulfil. Sir, that pledge had been given by us, in the present instance, under the deepest conviction—whether erroneous or not—of public duty. We looked back over the course of fifteen years; we considered what had been the history of this question; we did not take into consideration merely the inherent greatness of the subject; we considered its inconvenient, its mischievous operation during many of those years upon the characters of public men, and upon the character of parties; and further and yet more, permit me to say, upon what is higher still, upon the character of Parliament, and upon the character and credit of representative institutions. We felt that the stake was a stake of the highest order; that the responsibility of error was great; that it was our duty to use every effort in our power to avoid offence, to conciliate support, to unite, instead of distracting, the minds of men; last, and above all, that it was our duty firmly and resolutely to prosecute whatever plan we might adopt, and there is, and can be no such thing as a firm and resolute prosecution of a subject of such magnitude except by attaching the life of the Administration to the life of the measure they propose. That, therefore, was the course we took advisedly and deliberately, not for our own sakes alone, but for the sake of far higher and far deeper interests, involving that which is the first condition of good Government in this or in any country—namely, the confidence of the public in the institutions by which, and in the men by whom they are ruled. Along with that anxiety we had a disposition, perhaps erroneous, but most sincere, to conciliate hon. Members who were timid or fastidious, and even such as might be possibly opposed to us, on the subject of Reform, at the expense, as I am bound frankly to say, of those by whom Reform was ardently supported. What are the facts? In 1860 a measure had been proposed involving as its bases a £10 and a £6 franchise, which would have extended the suffrage to not fewer than 460,000 persons. For those £10 and £6 franchises we proposed to substitute franchises of £7 and £l4. The effect of this change was to reduce the number thus to be enfranchised from 460,000 to about 300,000, or, in other words, to sacrifice about one-third of the enfranchisement which the provisions that I have cited from the Bill of 1860 would have effected. We thought that was a very large concession to make; we thought it was better to make it early than to make it late; and, having made it, it was impossible for us not to see that this very concession rendered it our duty to give a stricter interpretation than we might other wise have been warranted in giving to the pledge we had made to the country to stand or fall by our Bill.

I may be permitted likewise to say, as I have said before, without intending reproach to any one, that it was our opinion, and an opinion upon which we acted, that no secondary difficulty, no secondary consideration should be allowed to interfere with our making progress with the Bill. Accordingly we consented to make changes in our mode of procedure upon the Bill such as I believe have been rarely made in the case of any great measure, introduced deliberately and persevered in by a Government. We agreed cheerfully, though against our own opinions, to produce a Bill for the Re-distribution of Seats; we agreed that that Bill should be united with the Bill we had already introduced. On both these points we yielded to the wish of the majority of the House, waiving, though not disguising, our own convictions, because we held that, however just we might deem our own opinion, it did not warrant the serious public evil of a conflict with the majority of the House of Commons upon a question respecting the representation of the people, especially after what had happened with regard to that representation in former years. In the same manner when some previsions of the Bill, which appeared to us even though valuable, yet to be capable of being parted with, became matter of objection, we agreed to withdraw them. We agreed to withdraw the clause respecting leasehold voters in boroughs. We agreed to modify the 4th clause in a point which was deemed to be of importance. These modifications were acceded to at the instance of hon. Gentlemen opposite, and it will be recollected that the last of them excited lively expostulation from a large number of Gentlemen on our own side of the House, who thought it their duty, from the strength of the convictions they entertained, to give expression to them by a division. There remained but one point of difference in regard to procedure, and that was upon the desire we entertained to pass a measure upon the subject during the present year. With respect to that desire, when challenged to repeat in strong terms the expression of our desire, we deliberately waived any such repetition, because we felt that it was invidious, and that it might even be disrespectful, to flourish as it were such a declaration in the face of the House of Commons; while we covered even that remaining subject by a general declaration made by me, in words expressly authorized by my Colleagues, that we should be loth indeed to quarrel with the House, or with any portion of the House agreed with us as to the object we had in view, upon any question whatever of procedure.

However, Sir, we find that these, which I will now enumerate, were the proceedings upon the Bill. On the 27th of April, my noble Friend the Member for Chester (Earl Grosvenor) made a Motion as an Amendment to the second reading, the effect of which would have been that we should have been compelled to produce the Seats Bill before the House had given any vote or indication whatever upon the Bill I had laid upon the table. That Motion, as is known to hon. Members, was rejected, in a House unprecedentedly large, by a majority of only five, the numbers being 313 for and 318 against the Motion. The next step in the progress of the question which it may be well to notice was that adopted by the House on the 28th of May; when the hon. Baronet (Sir Rainald Knightley) made a Motion to instruct the Committee on the Representation of the People Bill to include in the Bill clauses for the repression of bribery and corruption. Our difficulty already was, and was well known to be, the overweight of the measure, and the almost impossibility of finding time to consider it. We remonstrated against the proposal; we pointed out that at least that course had not been pursued on former occasions; the House thought fit to overrule the views of the Government, and by a majority of ten the hon. Baronet carried his Motion. I do not at this moment ask whether he was right or wrong. I am only speaking of the obstacles which we found besetting us on our road towards the end we had in view. But I proceed. On the 4th of June another Motion was made, in avowed concert with the party opposite, by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Captain Hayter), which certainly ended without a division, but which was debated for three nights, and which evidently must have had and was intended to have the effect of setting aside the consideration of the Bill for the present year. On the 7th of June the noble Lord the Member for King's Lynn (Lord Stanley) made a Motion for the purpose of postponing the clauses of enfranchisement to the clauses affecting the re-distribution of seats. Sir, that Motion was made without any public notice whatever. But it came within the knowledge of the Government at a subsequent period that, through channels I am not able to point out, information that either that Motion, or some such Motion, would be made on that day and at that hour, had been conveyed to certain Gentlemen on this side of the House whose views appeared likely to be favourable to the Motion. Notwithstanding these circumstances, a minority of 260 Gentlemen supported the Motion of the noble Lord; it was, however, rejected by 287. We were then met by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cambridge University, who proposed to raise the county franchise from £14 to £20, and thereby to maim, in our view—at all events, greatly to alter I withdraw the word, "maim," for I wish to use no word that can seem to savour of eagerness or exaggeration—one of the fundamental clauses of the Bill. The Motion was rejected, but rejected by a very small majority—by no more than fourteen. Then came on, in another form, a Motion also admitted to have for one of its objects the raising of the county franchise—I mean the Motion of the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Hunt), to substitute a rated value of —14 for the clear annual value of that amount. That Motion was rejected, but only by a majority of seven. Then, last of all, came the seventh of these great struggles—the Motion of my noble Friend the Member for Galway (Lord Dunkellin), raising the very same point for the boroughs which had been rejected for the counties by this majority of only seven, although it is within the knowledge of us all that whatever difficulties attach to the use of the column of rateable value, be they great or small, they are undoubtedly difficulties which will be felt much more in the boroughs than in the counties. That Motion, however, was carried by a majority of eleven, and it was upon a deliberate review of this series of facts—from the recital of which I have endeavoured to exclude, and I hope I have excluded, every qualifying epithet—it was upon combining that review of the previous divisions and debates with what I have already stated as the nature of the Motion itself, that we arrived at the conclusion that effectual progress with the Bill—progress such as would leave the standing ground of the House of Commons relatively to the Bill sensibly different at the end of our labours for the year to that which it had been at the beginning—such progress had become impossible; and that consequently, as between the alternatives I have named, of an endeavour to accept the judgment of the House and adapt it to the framework of our Bill, and that other equally legitimate alternative of resignation, our duty was, in the first instance, on Tuesday last, to tender resignation of our offices; and finally, on having the opportunity of communication, through Her Majesty's gracious kindness, with Her Majesty herself to-day, to persevere in such resignation.

Sir, I hope that, in conveying to the House the motives which acted upon our minds, I have been fortunate enough to make it understood that our sole desire is to present the subject-matter with which I have dealt simply as we ourselves viewed it; but that I lay down no law and imply no opinion for others, and that I am not using the matter I have stated in the way of, I will not say reproach, but even of argument. These were the considerations which weighed upon our minds. It is the duty of the members of a retiring Government, especially in circumstances of gravity, and with regard to a measure of capital public importance, to place the House of Commons, so far as their duty and regard to public interests may allow them, in possession of the motives and considerations by which they have been guided. That plea, I trust, will be thought to excuse the length at which I have detained the House.

I have no more, Sir, to add than simply this—that as we hold our offices only until our successors are appointed, I now propose to move that this House at its rising do adjourn until Thursday next; not at all with the belief that at so early a date any effectual measures will have been taken for the formation of an Administration, but rather with the idea that on Thursday there may be some person with whom we may be enabled to communicate, and at whose instance, as he will then be the proper judge of public business, we may on Thursday be enabled to propose a further adjournment of the House. I need hardly say that at the meeting of the House on Thursday, and, indeed, at its meeting to-day, I am not aware of any formal rule which would prevent hon. Members from proceeding with Orders or other business which may be upon the Notice Paper. But I am quite sure it will be felt that any such prosecution of business would be inconvenient during the period of what is actually au abeyance of the functions of Government, except business which is absolutely essential and beyond dispute. One such exception is the Vote we propose to take to-day, in order to be able to make some necessary payment in connection with the Packet Service. If that Vote is passed to-day, it may be reported on Thursday, and the Report will then be in time for the purposes for which it is required.

Motion agreed to.

House, at rising, to adjourn till Thursday.