HC Deb 18 February 1867 vol 185 cc480-91

, who had a Notice on the paper— To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whether it will be necessary to proceed with the Committee on the Representation of the People if he receives sufficient assurances that no obstacle will be interposed to his proceeding to a Committee on his intended Bill for amending the Laws relating to the Representation of the People, said, he considered it to be his duty, notwithstanding what had been said that evening, to press upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer the question of which he had given notice. It had occurred before now in the proceedings of the House that when considerable embarrassment was felt on the part of a great number of hon. Members in arriving at a satisfactory determination on any important subject about to be brought under their notice, great advantage had arisen from some preliminary conversation on the point before they reached that stage where party excitement was aroused, and when they came there arrayed on one side and on the other, and prepared to discuss the question rather for the sake of victory, perhaps, than for the solution of it upon its intrinsic merits. Therefore, in regard to the state of the great question of Reform it might be desirable that in anticipation of the explanations promised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Monday, they should endeavour to arrive at some understanding as to the best mode in which the House might express its determination upon the leading and most important points awaiting its decision. He did not press his Question on the Chancellor of the Exchequer in any spirit of discourtesy or of hostility to the Government. He could quite understand how it should have occurred to them, having regard to some historic facts, to have re-introduced this subject of Reform in a somewhat unusual and circuitous manner, so as to protect themselves from a repetition of what had previously taken place. He could quite understand that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, recollecting how on two former occasions a Conservative Government had been subverted by the proceedings of then-opponents, must have felt, in endeavouring for the second time to approach one of the subjects which led to their destruction, very desirous to protect himself from the repetition of a similar mode of attack. He did not, therefore, complain because the Government had taken a somewhat circuitous course of bringing the subject of Parliamentary Reform under the consideration of the House. He did not think he should be permitted by the rules of debate to examine in any detail the course the Government proposed to pursue; because he would not be allowed to examine the Resolutions of the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the purpose of seeing whether they were intricate, complex, or difficult to deal with, or whether, in point of fact, they were likely to embarrass the House in its proceedings, rather than to elucidate the subject which they had to discuss. Still less should he be allowed to refer to those Resolutions for the purpose of asking how far they were consistent with all that was urged during the last Session of Parliament against the proceedings of the late Government, in not disclosing fully, completely, and at once, their entire scheme with regard to Reform. He thought it unnecessary to allude further to these points; because since the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer first brought this subject under the consideration of the House, he had made an announcement of the utmost importance, and one that, regarded from that (the Opposition) side of the House, must naturally affect any course that they might otherwise have been inclined to pursue. The subject had been presented to them in an entirely new light by the announcement made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the Government would be at once prepared to lay before the House a Bill which would explain and develop the Resolutions that had been laid upon the table. They were now no longer under the impression, as it were, that the Government were groping in the dark—that they were going into Committee for the purpose of finding out what the inclinations of the House might be. The Government had now announced that they were prepared to accept the full responsi- bility of placing a Reform Bill on the table of the House. [An hon. MEMBER: No!] His hon. Friend behind him said "No;" but he understood the Chancellor of the Exchequer to have made a statement substantially to the effect that the Government were prepared to accept the full and undivided responsibility of laying a Bill on the table of the House that would fully explain and develop the general propositions contained in their Resolutions. If that was so, he was entitled to ask what necessity there really was for any preliminary proceedings such as had been proposed? What ground had the Government now to fear that they would be met on this occasion by courses such as those to which he had referred? It was true that many hon. Members on that side of the House took part in the proceedings of 1859; but he thought they ought not to forget that they were now led by a right hon. Gentleman who took no part in those proceedings, or in the anterior proceedings to which he had adverted. As far as they could judge—as far as they had the right to form an opinion from everything the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Gladstone) had said, not only when he was sitting on the Ministerial Bench, but also since he sat on the Opposition side of the House—the right hon. Gentleman had no great respect for those precedents, and had little desire to imitate them, and was rather of the opinion that what then happened had not been much for the interests of the country. The question then arose, who were the persons who were likely to obstruct the progress of the Government with their Bill? Who was prepared to repeat the tactics the use of which in 1859 had since been so frequently condemned? He confessed he was quite at a loss to know. No doubt some hon. Members on his own side of the House had expressed the strongest objection to any reduction of the franchise at all; but their numbers were comparatively few, and however powerful they might be in debate, they certainly could exercise no very great influence on the division list. Well, what other ground was there for anticipating that the Government would be obstructed in their endeavours to carry a measure of Reform? It was true there were also some hon. Gentlemen—but their numbers were still fewer than those whom he had before referred to—who thought that upon some grounds of political philosophy and morality a Conservative Government ought not to be allowed to bring in a Reform Bill at all. He did not think, however, that this opinion had been so far recognised as to be a source of danger or distrust to the Government, In the present day, when the doctrine of development was so fashionable, he could see no reason why a Conservative Government should not develop a Reform Rill as well as any other party in the State. What cause of difficulty then remained. Where was the real necessity for the circuitous method proposed by the Government? He was unable to find them. He was bound to say that he had heard expressed by hon. Members on his side of the House such disinterested views—he thought he might say, without flattery, such patriotic views—on this subject—such an entire disregard of all the pretensions that they might have made as belonging to a great, and perhaps he might say an ascendant party in the State, that he entertained a deep conviction that there was an anxious desire—on the part of many of them at any rate—to assist in every way the progress of the Bill, so that they might have at the earliest period a legitimate and proper opportunity of expressing the opinions that would arise in the solution of this great question. Well, then, he said that, looking also to the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Lancashire (Mr. Gladstone), in withdrawing the Reform Bill last Session, and looking also to what the right hon. Gentleman had said in the present Session, he was justified in believing that the right hon. Gentleman would be ready to lend his assistance to the Government in a frank and loyal spirit, and so to enable the House to legislate successfully on this subject without further delay. If he had taken a right view of the subject, he wanted to know why the Government should pursue a career which was pregnant with the greatest embarrassment, difficulty, and perplexity to the House? It would be much better if they could accomplish that which was avowed to be the real object and purpose of the Government without this embarrassment and perplexity; and he thought that it would tend not only to the honour of the Government, but to the honour also of the entire House, if they at once adopted the more usual and more suitable course of proceeding to legislate on this subject by Bill. No doubt, as the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House had said that night, the Government were entitled to prescribe the course they thought it right to adopt; nor did it in any way derogate from their views on this subject when he asked them to alter their present course and prescribe a different one, provided they had sufficient assurance that that course would not result in embarrassment and perplexity. It was the province of the right hon. Gentleman to lay down to the House the mode in which the House should proceed with the consideration of any great measure. He occupied a position which required him to take the initiative and to act for the Government. On the other hand, the Leader of the Opposition could take no course until the Government had completely developed their views on the subject. As he hoped that any overture on the part of the Government would be met on that (the Opposition) side of the House in the most frank and liberal manner, he thought the right hon. Gentleman would do well to indicate his disposition to waive the preliminary proceedings of the Government if he had that satisfaction accorded to him in return. He therefore pressed upon the right hon. Gentleman the Question of which he had given notice, and was sure the Government would sacrifice nothing of its importance or dignity by acceding to that request; and if they could dispense with long debates on the abstract question, and on hypothetical grounds, and get to the investigation of the measure itself, it would tend not only to maintain the reputation of the Government, but what was still more important, the reputation and honour of the House, and the just influence which it ought to exercise over the minds of the people of this country. The hon. and learned Member then repeated his Question.


I am quite willing to accept the assurance of the hon. Gentleman that his observations are made in no unfriendly spirit to the Government, and in a similar spirit I respond to them. I can assure him that he has mistaken the character of the Administration if he fancies they have formed an erroneous or exaggerated idea of their own importance. They ore only anxious to use such influence as they possess to favour the advancement of good legislation in this House, and if possible the settlement of the important question which has so much occupied the attention of the Parliament and the country. I must say, with great respect to the hon. Gentleman, that I cannot think we have erred in the course we have adopted. In taking that course we have been guided by a strict adherence to Parliamentary precedent and practice, not from any superstitious veneration for them, but because we know that our precedents embalm the wisdom and reflect the practical sagacity of former generations. We thought it absolutely necessary to have recourse to procedure by way of Resolution; and when I addressed the House a week ago, if I had confined myself to arguments in favour of that procedure, and had given the main reasons which had induced the Government to adopt that course, I should have been strictly in order, and nothing more would have been required of me. But representations were made to me by hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House to the effect that it was desirable that the general character of the Resolutions should be known, and that the House should understand whether the Resolutions expressed general principles or went into great detail. Therefore, I wished frankly to explain to the House that the Resolutions expressed principles, and I took the opportunity of vindicating in some degree the course pursued. I think it impossible to bring forward Resolutions as the basis of legislation, especially on a subject so vast ns that of the representation of the people in Parliament, except in the way of expressing principles, and I cannot see we have any cause to regret the course we have pursued. From all that has happened since, I have reason to believe that the prospect of legislation on this subject has been advanced and facilitated, and nothing has been said or done by the Government, notwithstanding the criticisms offered here and elsewhere, which the Government have cause to regret or wish to see altered. Therefore, I hope that they may be allowed to pursue the course they have selected to follow. They would not pursue that course if they believed it would lead to delay. On the contrary, I am convinced that, with that candid reception on the part of the House on which we now rely, the course adopted by the Government is one calculated to facilitate the ultimate settlement of the matters in question. The Resolutions are on the table of the House. It would be irregular to enter now into a discussion of their character—as the hon. Gentleman has studiously refrained from discussing them, I think I ought also to refrain from doing so; but this I may say, that the Resolutions express principles, and the Government will put the House in possession of the applica- tion of the principles expressed in the Resolutions which they recommend. It is possible, in the situation in which the Question is now placed, that in adopting these principles the House may think proper to apply them in a manner different from that proposed by the Government; but, at the same time, it would be most unwise in the Government to lose the advantage of the discussion which would arise on the Resolutions, and we believe that, without occasioning delay, the passing of them by the House will greatly facilitate the progress of the measure we shall have to introduce. I trust that the House, considering the difficulty of managing this question, will put a charitable construction on the motives of Ministers, and not believe that they have had recourse to the procedure they have selected in order merely to amuse the House for a time, with a view to the ultimate postponement or procrastination of the subject. They have resolved to use their utmost energy in forwarding the settlement of the question; they have put their hands to the plough, and they will not desist from the work unless arrested in their labours by the House, or until the field is tilled.


I am prepared to bestow that charitable construction on the motives of the Government for which the right hon. Gentleman has made an appeal; and I think that the best mode of doing so is to avoid all imputation or reference of whatever kind with respect to the motives of the Government. We are here embarked in a common cause. I am bound, however, to say I think my hon. Friend (Mr. Ayrton), who received just credit from the right hon. Gentleman for the spirit of his observations, was so far justified in the course he has taken, inasmuch as he endeavoured to give expression to the feeling generally entertained in the House that we are placed in a position of considerable embarrassment. As I understand the case, there are in the country and in the House various currents of feeling with respect to the subject of Parliamentary Reform. Some of these currents are in opposite directions, and tend to neutralize one another. Some are desirous of extensive enfranchisement, others fearful of its consequences. They are opposed to each other; but I venture to say there is one powerful and prevailing feeling which, I think, pervades nearly the whole community united, and which likewise is reflected faithfully and generally within these walls, without reference to political opinion, and that is a strong and earnest—I might venture to say an absorbing and overpowering—desire that we should now, within the limits of this present Session, arrive at length at a legislative settlement of this question. There being that desire in the House and the country, it follows that what we wish for includes this important point likewise, that the question should be settled if possible by those who are now in power. It is wholly out of the ability and capacity of any one set of men to conduct the deliberations of this House to a real and satisfactory issue with respect to the representation of the people unless they be the responsible Advisers of the Crown. We have before us a Government, and as far as I am individually concerned, I have expressed my perfect willingness and earnest desire—and I believe that in so doing I have expressed the sentiments of many others on this side—to co-operate with the present Government for an effectual and, above all, an early settlement of this question. What we are anxious for is that the Government should avail themselves of this favourable state of feeling, and take all steps to conduct to a practical effect this disposition so generally prevailing in the House. The Government have presented Resolutions on the subject of Reform, and I, for one, have stated a perfect willingness—suppressing, I am bound to say, my own strong opinion that such was not an expedient course—to accede to the mode adopted by the Government, and to take no objection on general grounds to the course of proceeding by Resolution. But the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we listened with much anxiety and with careful attention to the justification which he, as the organ of the Government, made for the mode of procedure which he had proposed for our adoption. The right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave a special reason for that course, stating in effect—for I do not pretend to quote his words—that had the Government submitted their intentions with respect to Reform in the shape of a Bill, they might have been met, as on a former occasion, by the invidious selection of some one point from among the provisions, and thereby their general and comprehensive scheme might have been by no very legitimate process got rid of in this House. My hon. Friend (Mr. Ayrton) has endeavoured to convey to the Government the assurance that there was not the smallest probability of such a proceeding; and after what has fallen from the right hon. Gentleman as well as from my hon. Friend, I cannot help expressing my strong belief in conformity with his. Sir, of course it would be presumptuous in me were I to undertake to bind any Gentleman in this House, far less any body of the Members of this House, by the expression of an opinion of my own beyond the limits to which my personal communications, may have extended; but, at the same time, the circumstances of this case are so clear, and they have assumed a character so historical, that I can hardly think they leave a doubt on the mind of the Government or the right hon. Gentleman for the apprehension he has expressed, and which he has stated led him to the conclusion he has announced. The right hon. Gentleman adverted on a former evening in terms of disparagement and censure to the proceedings of 1859. I am not bound to defend those proceedings further than to say I do not think they merited the kind of censure bestowed upon them. That, however, is immaterial, except so far as to guard me as to what I have further to say. The proceedings of 1859, whether prudent or not, would in my opinion have been perfectly justifiable, had they been taken by a Parliament that had its heart and its mind earnestly set on legislating for the purpose of Parliamentary Reform. But now, with the light that experience affords, it is impossible to regard the proceedings of 1859 without including in our review the proceedings of 1860; and taking the operations of these two years as one operation—taking the strong and decisive measure adopted in 1859 together with the lame and unsatisfactory completion of it in 1860—I am certain I cannot misrepresent either the public sentiment, or the general sentiment of this. House, or the sentiment of the powerful party that occupies these Benches, when I say that these proceedings cannot be repeated. Therefore, the reasons assigned by the right hon. Gentleman for the course he has adopted have disappeared; and undoubtedly it would have been to me a matter of great gratification had the right hon. Gentleman been disposed to accede to the suggestion offered to him in no unfriendly manner by the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets. From what he has stated, I fear he is not disposed to accede to that suggestion. For my part, whatever my regret and concern may be, I do not withdraw from any assurance I have ventured to give. I do not refuse, for one, to entertain the method of procedure by Resolution; but I must observe, that at the present moment we are placed in a peculiar position, especially with reference to a particular point. We are greatly desirous of prompt proceeding, and another request was addressed to the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer of a much more limited character than that which proceeded from my hon. Friend the Member for the Tower Hamlets; it was that we might be favoured upon the earliest day—upon a day earlier than Monday next—with those additional explanations to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, and which he calls the explanations of the Government Resolutions which are due to the House. Sir, I will not so far bring into question the Orders of this House as to make a single observation on the character of the Resolutions themselves—as to their being general or precise, as to their being declarations of principle or of practice—what they may or may not be; but this I must observe, that upon the comparatively narrow point raised by the request I have just referred to we are in a position, so far as I know, without precedent. On Monday last the right hon. Gentleman gave us an explanation of the Resolutions. The right hon. Gentleman most properly recognised the Parliamentary rule that a measure of such a character cannot be advantageously considered by the House immediately after the statement of its principles by the Minister of the Crown. He proceeded in the same manner as does every Chancellor of the Exchequer upon the somewhat analogous question of the Financial Statement of the year. He submits the Financial Statement, but he never asks the assent of the House to that statement until a future day; or if for financial reasons the affirmation is asked of any particular proposition, it is always considered a mere formal affirmation, and its merits remain open to further consideration. That principle is well established. We thought we had received the statement of the right hon. Gentleman as to the propositions of the Government on Monday last, and we thought we should be in a position on the 25th to proceed with their discussion; but we find now—not to-day only, but on a previous occasion, on Friday—that we have not yet the full explanation of the right hon. Gentleman. We are in possession of one moiety of that explanation, and the other moiety of the explanation is to be delivered on the very day on which we are to be invited to consider the Resolutions. Therefore, Sir, it appears to me that it was with consistency and propriety that my hon. Friend the Member fur Leeds (Mr. Baines) suggested that, as time is admitted to be of such value in this matter, and as the principle is recognised that the Ministerial explanations of a plan or proposition of this kind ought to be in the possession of the House before Members are called on to vote upon it, the right hon. Gentleman would at least have been disposed to accede to that limited and moderate demand, and afford his explanations on an earlier day than Monday next. These explanations, it is quite evident, must be very important explanations. So far as I know, it is very rare—indeed, I do not recollect any example of a Minister in submitting Resolutions that are to be adopted in Committee of the House—to introduce them, not by one, but by two statements of the views of the Government. I am fearful of treading on tender ground, and therefore I confine these remarks simply to matters of fact, patent to us all; but I own I am hardly so sanguine as to believe that it will be possible for the House, after receiving the second statement of the right hon. Gentleman, which must necessarily be a statement in enlargement of the first, and which may possibly be a statement in modification of the first—I do not at the present moment see how the House can be in a position to proceed with advantage to a definitive judgment on the Resolutions on Monday next, unless it be the pleasure of the right hon. Gentleman to save, I think, our time and expedite the progress of business by favouring us at an earlier period with those explanations which, as he says, still remain due to the House. Sir, I feel deeply the responsibility which attaches to us all in the present state of affairs. I hope that I have endeavoured in these remarks to confine myself exclusively and rigidly to what is connected with prompt and effectual progress in dealing with this question. The observation I point out is that I fear a farther delay beyond Monday may have to be encountered, unless the right hon. Gentleman can accede to the proposition of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds; that these delays, if multiplied, will become highly unsatisfactory both to the House and to the country. Having said so much, I leave it to the impartial consideration of the right hon. Gentleman and the Government whether they cannot in some way or other meet the desire—we think not an unreasonable desire—that without any avoidable loss of time whatever we should find ourselves brought to deal practically with the great issues involved in the subject of the Representation of the People.

Motion, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," agreed to.