HC Deb 29 May 1868 vol 192 cc1053-76

said, he rose to ask the First Lord of the Treasury, If he can inform the House what steps he in tends to take in reference to the contemplated measure for expediting the dissolution of Parliament on the new constituency in the autumn? He believed that both sides of the House would be agreed that it was desirable that as little uncertainty as possible should prevail in reference to that important subject; and, before they separated for a short holiday, he wished to remind the House of what he considered to be the condition in which they stood with respect to it. The right hon. Gentleman at the Head of the Government had brought the matter before them in a Ministerial statement about three weeks ago. The right hon. Gentleman then told them that Her Majesty, acting on his advice, had announced her readiness to dissolve Parliament as soon as the state of Public Business would permit; and, he added, that by that he meant the autumn of this year, when, he believed, an appeal could be made to the new constituencies. The right hon. Gentleman informed them that the House of Commons having come to a vote opposed to the views of the Government upon a most important point of public policy, the Government only held Office upon the condition of making that appeal at the earliest possible moment; and he repeated that assertion on last Monday, in urging them to proceed as rapidly as they could with the Scotch Reform Bill. On the following day the right hon. Gentleman in replying to a question from the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Sandford) said the matter had been under the consideration of the Government, and that he was bound to state that the difficulties connected with it were greater than had at first been contemplated, and the answer of the right hon. Gentleman must be his (Mr. Foster's) excuse for bringing the subject, at that moment, under the notice of the House. It appeared to him, after having looked into the question as carefully as he could, that the difficulties were not insuperable—that it would be possible so to facilitate the registrations as to enable Parliament to meet in the middle of November—say, Thursday, November 12. By the present law, six weeks were allowed for the work of the Revising Barristers; but he believed that if they appointed more barristers, that work might be completed in four weeks. Then, again, the printing of the register, under the present law, occupied two months; but that was an alteration of the previous law, under which the register was printed in one month, and he saw no reason why they should not return to that former system. Thirty-five days were at present allowed for the actual process of election; but he thought that on an emergency, twenty-five days would be found sufficient for the completion of the whole of the elections. Then there might be a few days gained by shortening the time within which claims and objections could be furnished. He did not believe there could be any change made with respect to the date at which the new registration was to begin. The existing law declared that it should begin on the 1st of August; and he did nut think it would be possible to ante-date that event. Under any circumstances, some new legislation would be necessary. The 10th section of the 6 Vict. c. 18, provided that the town clerk of every borough should issue his precept to the overseers, to make out the lists before the 10th of June in each year. The precepts should, of course, be issued for those additions to the boundaries to be made under the Boundary Bill, and he supposed it would not be possible to get that measure passed before the 10th of June; so that some fresh legislation would be necessary, in reference to that matter. That was not, however, an important point, because there would be time between the 10th of June and the 11th of July for the overseers to prepare the lists. Under all the circumstances, it appeared to him that it would be quite possible for Parliament to meet in the middle of November—say, the 12th of that month, so that they might begin business on Tuesday, the 17th, which would be the same time at which they had commenced business last year. But other Members might entertain a different opinion upon that subject; and that being the case, he hoped that the Government and the House would take into their consideration the suggestion which had been made by his right hon. Friend the Member for South Lancashire (Mr. Gladstone), that the question should be referred to a Select Committee. There would be this advantage in adopting such a course, that as the Committee would no doubt consist of Members from both sides of the House, any decision to which it might come would be regarded as one perfectly irrespective of party or personal considerations. Many Members, it was true, objected to having their holidays cut short by an autumn Session, but, on the other hand, a longer Recess with several months spent in canvassing, would come to much the same thing. Whatever might be the general opinion, however, he was sure the House would not approach this question in any personal or party spirit. How an early dissolution would tell on party aims, he, for one, had not the remotest idea. There were several reasons for having as early a dissolution as possible. Undoubtedly it might be found that the difficulties in the way of the adoption of such a course might be insuperable, and that the new elections could only be hurried forward at the risk of disqualifying the voters who had been enfranchised under the new Reform Bill. In the latter event, of course, it would not be advisable to have an immediate dissolution, for certainly it was the first duty of the House to take care that the new electors to whom votes had been given by the English, Irish, and Scotch Bills, should not be disqualified in consequence of any haste in the registration. But if there were no such difficulties he thought little difference of opinion could exist as to public convenience being promoted by an early election. Even the right hon. Gentleman opposite had himself stated that a great question of public policy having been debated, and the House having arrived at a decision adverse to the opinion entertained by Her Majesty's Ministers, it was important that the opinion of the country should be taken without delay. There was another reason why the decision of the country should be given as soon as possible, and that was that the longer this great question was in debate, the worse it would be for England and Ireland. If it turned out, as was urged from the other side, that the feeling of the country coincided with that of the minority of the House, the quicker that opinion was known the better, in order that Gentlemen on the Opposition side might give up a fruitless agitation. If, on the contrary, the majority of the people in the country coincided with the majority of the House, even Gentlemen from the North of Ireland would agree that the sooner the question was settled for the interests of Ireland the better. The saving of three months during the present year might be the means of saving much bad blood, agitation, and hot water in Ireland. He did not think the question whether or not the present Administration possessed the confidence of Parliament was of sufficient importance to justify the putting of the country to inconvenience in the matter of a General Election; but nobody could deny that owing to exceptional circumstances the Constitution of the country was strained at the present time. Her Majesty's Ministers were holding Office in a manner that was contrary to the usual custom of this country. They held it in opposition to a majority of the House, upon a question of the very utmost importance. The Government had stated that they held Office simply because, in the present exceptional circumstances, they found it difficult to appeal to the country, though they were most anxious to make such an appeal. He gave them credit for that being their view, and upon the whole he believed that they had not taken a wrong course in determining to appeal to the new constituencies. That however, was only another reason why the Constitution of the country should be strained as little as possible, and that the appeal should be made at the earliest possible opportunity. These were the reasons which induced him to put his Question to the First Lord of the Treasury.


said, he could fully confirm what had fallen from his hon. Friend the Member for Bradford as to the possibility of having an election in the middle of October, and he thought that only very slight alterations would be required in our electoral machinery for the purpose of accomplishing that end; but the real question to be determined was whether the House were really desirous to have a sitting in November? He went so far with his hon. Friend as this—that he should be very glad, in common he was sure with most hon. Members, to have the opportunity of eating his Christmas dinner in peace, find unless there was to be an election during the present year, that desirable object could not be attained. According to the present law Parliament could not be dissolved until after the 31st of December, and consequently there could be no elections till the beginning of January; but without going as far as his hon. Friend proposed, and without even attempting to alter any part of our electoral machinery, he wished to point out that we might have an election in December, so that the new House might meet either in the early part, or the middle of January. Thus the unpleasantness of canvassing during Christmas would be got rid of. He would briefly indicate how this might be accomplished. Under the present law the lists must he handed over by the Revising Barristers to the clerks of the peace on the 31st of October, and the clerks of the peace were allowed two months from that time to prepare the lists, by putting them into alphabetical order, and causing them to be printed. But prior to the Act of last year the clerks of the peace were only allowed one month to prepare the lists, and were obliged to have them ready on the 30th of November. Now, if a return were made as to what was the law on this subject previous to last year the elections might easily occur in the middle of December, and the House might then meet not less than thirty-five days afterwards, or some time in the middle of January. That would be one way of getting over the inconvenience and unpleasantness of a long canvass during the winter months. He did not, however, say that the object of his hon. Friend could not be accomplished; for he thought there might be an autumnal meeting of the House in November, if the House desired it. That object might be attained, either in the way just sketched out by his hon. Friend, or in the way sug- gested by the Solicitor General some evenings ago. At all events, he was sure that all hon. Members must desire to prevent the long period of excitement which would be inevitable if the elections were postponed till after Christmas.


Sir, last evening when the Scotch Reform Bill was under discussion the late Lord Advocate said it was the unanimous wish of the House that the dissolution should be hurried forward. I expressed my dissent by a "No," which found a response on both sides of the House. Now I think this is a question which affects other persons in this House besides the right hon. Gentlemen who sit upon the front Benches. It affects the convenience of private Members, and the interests of the public, though I perceive it is too much regarded simply as a question between right hon. Gentlemen on this side of the House and right hon. Gentlemen on the other. On this side of the House you have right hon. Gentleman who, no doubt, suppose it is not in the interest of the country that a Government in a minority should continue in Office. On the other hand, we have Gentlemen on that side of the House who have thought it their duty to carry on the Government with a minority. I should remind the House, however, that although the Government were in a large minority on the Irish Church question, yet they were in a majority on the great constitutional question which has occupied so much of our time. Last year, when the English Reform Bill was under discussion, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Lancashire (Mr. Gladstone) did all he could to carry certain propositions which would have turned out the Government, but he failed to do so. Last night we had the Scotch Reform Bill under discussion, and again the right hon. Gentleman spoke against the proposition of the Government, and his party to a certain extent supported him; but what was the result? Why, the propositions of the Government were carried. On this great constitutional question, therefore, the Government has been able to command a majority. Is there, then, any important public reason which would justify the forcing of our whole system of registration, and the torturing of the machinery of registration, in order that two mouths, or perhaps one month earlier, a vote may be taken in this House as to which right hon. Gentleman is to be at the head of affairs? I maintain that there is no public reason which justifies or demands that such a course should be taken, and as a private Member I boldly say, that after the hard work of a long Session, we ought not to be put to the inconvenience of spending the months of August, September, and October in electioneering. I say boldly that I want to have those three months free. I want ray holiday in August, September, and October, instead of having it sacrificed in order that an early decision may be come to as to whether this or that right hon. Gentleman should be in power. At the same time, I, with other private Members, shall be quite willing to make the sacrifice if the public interest required that that decision should be precipitated. The speech of the hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. W. E. Forster) showed the great difficulties in the way of bringing about a dissolution in time to enable the House to re-assemble on the 12th or 17th of November. You were to repeal and enact, and, indeed, such a description of the difficulties to be got over was given that it seemed to me the argument by which the hon. Gentleman attempted to show how possible it would be to do, what I hope is unnecessary, proved the impossibility, or, at any rate, the impolicy of doing it. The right hon. Gentleman says that if we postpone a dissolution we shall be spending all the autumn—the time we should naturally spend on the hills of Scotland, or the hills of Switzerland, or, at any rate, in enjoying the country—in canvassing our constituents. Let the hon. Gentleman speak for himself, if his constituents have so little confidence in him that he has to spend a whole holiday in going about from door to door canvassing them. I hope my constituents have more confidence in me than to require that I should go about from door to door for three months waiting upon them. I maintain that the public interests, so far from requiring all this, require that it should not be done. The hon. Gentleman talks about registration agents, but a letter appeared in The Times this morning from the gentleman who is, perhaps, the best authority in this kingdom on the question—an authority which, at any rate, the right hon. Member for the City of London (Mr. Goschen) will not dispute; for it is in a great measure to the exertions of Mr. Sidney Smith the Secretary of the Liberal Registration Society in London, that the light hon. Gentleman and his Colleagues, including the worthy Alderman (Alderman Lawrence), owe their seats in this House. Mr. Smith's opinion is not that of a theorist, as the opinion of the hon. Member for Bradford is, for the hon. Member is no more competent than any other Member who is not a lawyer, nor a practical registrar, to express an opinion on the subject. What does this practical man say? He says— Sir,—May I be permitted to ask" [not on behalf of the right hon. Members on the other side, but] "on behalf of the world outside the House of Commons, what urgent necessity there is for hastening the business of registration and the dissolution of Parliament? If the new constituencies are to be properly tested, the register must be rightly formed. Every official has a new and excessively ill-drawn Act to understand and to work; every Revising Barrister has to dispose of a fresh statute, bristling with points of doubt which will all have to be argued out, and to reconcile, if he can, anomalies betwixt the new and the old Acts, which will puzzle all concerned. The whole letter is equally to the point. Towards the close of it, he says— It the General Election is to be anything but a scramble, in which nobody will be allowed time to discover the colours under which he would march, it should not be before January at the earliest.


Which party would gain by it? Bead the latter part of the letter.


I am ready to read the whole, but I do not wish to trouble the House. I had marked that passage to read— The only faction that can gain by precipitating the business of revision is that which would be weakest if the new statute were duly carried out, and that is certainly not the Liberal party. I never said it was in the hope that you would gain by precipitating things that you wished to precipitate them. All I say is that you are of opinion it is absolutely necessary in the interests of the public that the two sides of the House should change places—because you believe they will ultimately do so—two months sooner than this Gentleman says is compatible with a fair testing of the constituencies—instead of a scramble—which testing, he says, ought to be in January instead of November. I can enter into the feelings of the right hon. Gentlemen who sit upon the Treasury Benches—to a certain extent, unconstitutionally, because they have not a real and trusty majority at their backs; but we must not forget how they are there, and that the right hon. Member for South Lancashire inherited from Lord Palmerston a majority of 70. ["Question ! "] There can be nothing so much to the question as that that majority was destroyed simply by the action taken on this side of the House—["No, no! "and" Yes, yes!"]—by the mode in which this side of the House was led. I can understand the feelings of honourable men, who must naturally writhe under the accusations of tenacity to Office which have been made so freely this Session from this side of the House—so freely, indeed, that they had been reproved from the same side—and I therefore can understand the anxiety and the strict sense of duty which impel these Gentlemen to meet this accusation at the earliest opportunity, and even to force the registration, so as to have the question decided yea or nay whether they are to continue sitting on the Treasury Benches. But, on the other hand, the interests and convenience of private Members of this House, and the importance and necessity of obtaining a purified register and a fair decision from the constituencies, furnish, I maintain, stronger grounds for delay than can be shown for pressing forward the Dissolution and torturing the machinery of election in the way the hon. Gentleman has suggested. Although it may be painful to the Government, it is their duty to hold on until the question at issue can be fairly tried, and not to put us to the unnecessary inconvenience we should be put to if the course suggested by the hon. Member for Bradford were adopted.


said, he had never accused right hon. Gentlemen opposite of undue tenacity to Office. On the contrary, he was of opinion that the course they had taken was the right one. Although it might be doubted whether any Prime Minister ever had a right to a dissolution before leaving Office, he believed that, if ever a Prime Minister had that right, it was the right hon. Gentleman opposite, not on the ground on which he himself had put it, that the present Parliament was not elected under his auspices, or those of his predecessor; but because his Government had passed one of the most remarkable and important Acts in the history of this country, and he had every right to ask whether the country gave him credit for it or did not. He had his own opinion as to the answer that would be given, and thought the country would rather give the credit to the Liberal side of the House; right hon. and hon. Gentleman opposite had as good a right to their opinion; and it certainly was a question which they were entitled to put to the country. That feeling was very general on the Liberal side of the House; and it was because of that that remarkable forbearance had been shown to the Government. That forbearance was entirely due to the very peculiar circumstances in which the Government were placed. It must be recollected that the ordinary chance of a dissolution was almost denied to the present Government by the necessity of appealing to the now constituencies. Nothing but the direst necessity would have warranted the Government in dissolving with the existing constituencies. Under ordinary circumstances, he believed the right hon. Gentleman opposite would not, but for this reason, have delayed a dissolution the first time he was beaten by a majority of 60. At that time a dissolution would have been almost wanton, and would have brought together a Parliament which could have sat only for a few months and could have settled nothing. It would have been a serious inconvenience to hon. Members, and, which is of far greater importance, a serious disaster to the country, to have had two dissolutions within a year: of each other. It was owing to these circumstances that we had not a dissolution two months ago, and that very proper forbearance was shown to the right hon. Gentleman opposite. It certainly behoved the Government, for the sake of their own characters and to justify the the forbearance to them under circumstances of peculiar difficulty, to see that not a moment was lost in consulting the country as soon as it was possible to do so. The country undoubtedly expected it; and he had been asked over and over again, "Do you believe the Government are sincere in telling us that they will expedite matters as much ns possible in order to give us an early dissolution?" He always said he believed such was their intention; and he still held that belief. Whether that were so or not, it was the right thing for them to do, and for the Opposition to insist upon as the only means of justifying the forbearance they had shown. At the commencement of the Session, looking forward to the difficulties that were sure to arise, to the probability of the Government being in a minority, and to the probability of a Vote of Want of Confidence being moved, which he and others, however, had determined not to be parties to, it was his idea that the proper Business of the Session was the passing of the Scotch and Irish Reform Bills, and of the Bill against Corrupt Practices at Elec- tions. That was the Business that Parliament ought to endeavour to finish now, and the Opposition ought to insist on a dissolution at the earliest possible moment.


Sir, after it has been admitted that this Parliament would have been dissolved were it not for exceptional circumstances, it appears to me that we are not in a position to deal with contested measures, or measures of public importance about which there may he great difference of opinion. The supplemental measures of Reform relating to Scotland and Ireland—which may be considered to form part of the original question of Reform—should alone be the measures dealt with by this Parliament. I have doubts whether the Bill with regard to Corrupt Practices at Elections ought to be decided by this Parliament, because it is proposed by it to transfer the jurisdiction over contested elections to Judges out of the House. And we can never get that jurisdiction back if we part with it, without the consent of the other House. Therefore, a question of that importance should not be disposed of by the present Parliament. There is also the Telegraph Bill, involving questions of importance that will lead to long discussions. There is also the measure relating to the Importation of Foreign Cattle. That will lead to discussion. I think that all these measures had better be deferred to a new Parliament, rather than that we should take upon ourselves the responsibility of deciding upon them. This may be considered a dead Parliament, and we ought not to attempt to settle these great questions in it. I beg to ask the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government, whether he will give us some assurance that the business of the Session will be limited to the subjects to which I have referred?


said, he wished to remind the House of the position in which they stood with regard to the Corrupt Practices Bill. In 1860 his hon. Friend Mr. Bentinck, who was then Member for West Norfolk, proposed as an Instruction on going into Committee upon Lord John Russell's Reform Bill that the Committee should have power to deal with the question of bribery and corruption. Lord Palmerston, with his usual good sense, assented to that view, and the Instruction was adopted. In 1866 he (Sir Rainald Knightley) made a similar Motion. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Gladstone) thought proper to object to it; but the House re-affirmed their former decision, that bribery and corruption were part and parcel of the same question. In deference to this repeated expression of opinion, the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli) last year said he would either deal with the question of bribery and corruption in the Reform Bill, or on the same night would bring in a separate measure. He did not reproach the right hon. Gentleman for failing to carry out that intention, for circumstances made it almost impossible to do so. But both sides of the House were pledged to deal with the question of bribery and corruption, and as soon as the Irish and Scotch Reform Bills were dealt with he hoped that the Government would proceed with the Bribery Bill without any delay.


said, he had not hitherto uttered one word about the "clinging to Office "which was said to characterize the Government; but, on the other hand, he had seen nothing of the "writhing" process which the noble Lord the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho) had described as going on upon the Treasury Benches. He was not surprised that the noble Lord should have taken advantage even of this opportunity of expressing his sympathy with her Majesty's Government. But on this occasion it seemed to be wasted. He (Mr. Otway) thought that Ministers retained their seats with astonishing calmness and composure, although there had been a Ministerial crisis about once a fortnight. The fact was that the question of the gravest importance just now was not what party should be in Office; the credit of the House itself was at stake. Of late the House of Commons had fallen into great discredit throughout the country. Scenes had occurred there which had rarely been witnessed before; and those who presided over the affairs of the country had shown such an indifference to public opinion and to constitutional usage as had never been shown by any Government of recent days. Now, he did not believe that the right hon. Gentleman the First Minister of the Crown would say anything on this matter which he thought would bring discredit upon the House of Commons. But as the right hon. Gentleman had said it was his earnest wish to dissolve as soon as possible, and the Solicitor General added that means might be taken for facilitating a General Election, it was desirable, that the House should know whether the right hon. Gentleman would on an early day introduce a Bill to shorten the time between the dissolution and the elections. Not only was the honour of public men at stake on this occasion, but the House would remember that the longer this question of the Irish Church was kept in abeyance, the greater would be the turmoil and the disorder in Ireland itself. Again, from the moment the House separated it was tolerably certain that canvassing would be carried on all over the country. For instance, if he (Mr. Otway) gathered correctly the opinions of Scotchmen, the noble Lord must make great exertions in order to secure his return for Haddingtonshire, and would have to make a larger distribution of tobacco than at the last election. He believed the feeling of the country to be that the right hon. Gentleman should do all in his power to expedite the General Election, and he trusted that he would make a declaration to that effect.


said, he did not think that any arguments could be advanced on public grounds in favour of an early dissolution. Hon. Members were well entitled to a quiet holiday when they left Westminster; besides which, the period between the dissolution and January was short enough for the country to form an opinion upon the great question of Popery and Protestantism on which the new Parliament would probably be elected.


Sir, with reference to the inquiry of the right him. Gentleman the Member for Ashton (Mr. Milner Gibson) as to the conduct of Business, I thought I had before expressed the views of the Government upon that subject. Our opinion is that we should confine our labours, generally speaking, to that which is necessary; and I should describe as "necessary" only the supplementary Reform Bills and the Estimates. With regard to the Bribery and Corruption Bill, I myself should relinquish it with a pang. It is, in my opinion, most desirable, if not absolutely under the circumstances, indispensable; and if, after proceeding with the supplementary Reform Bills, and the Public Business which is absolutely necessary, we have time also to carry the Bribery and Corruption Bill, there will be no lack of effort on the part of the Government to do so. Then, with regard to other measures. We have allowed some of them, such as the Bankruptcy Bill, to drop. There are, however, two measures, which have been especially alluded to by the right hon. Gentleman—namely, the Telegraphs Bill and the Bill with regard to the Importation of Foreign Cattle which have not been formally withdrawn. There are special reasons why these subjects should be brought under the consideration of the House; but then it will be for the House to express an opinion whether they should be proceeded with or not, or whether certain objects of public interest connected with them might not be accomplished without going on with the entire measures. With regard to the inquiry of of the hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. W. E. Forster) as to the steps which we intend to take in reference to the contemplated measure for expediting the dissolution of Parliament and the appeal to the new constituency in the autumn, I have nothing, certainly, more precise to say than I had forty-eight hours ago, when the subject was introduced to my notice. It is a matter on which it is useless to speak unless you are prepared to speak with great precision. When I originally made to the House that declaration to which the hon. Member adverted—namely, that I was assured by those in whom I placed confidence that an autumn Session was practicable—and of course at that time I never contemplated a Session earlier than November—I felt that it was a very great object to obtain that result, and great incredulity was expressed by many hon. Gentlemen opposite. It was even intimated that I had made a random observation without having consulted the Law Officers. The right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie) brought the matter before this House, but he brought it forward in a spirit of scepticism and incredulity, not for the purpose of pressing the Government to accomplish an autumn Session—or facilitating that operation, but rather of making some critical remarks by which he wished to prove that it was impossible. Upon that occasion the Solicitor General—though it has been insinuated that I had not consulted with the Law Officers of the Crown on the subject—placed before the House the general conclusions at which he had arrived. But that was not a mature statement on the part of the Government, but was rather intended to show to the House that we were in earnest, and had given considerable attention to the matter. We were obliged to make that statement then in self-defence; but it was not put forward by the Solicitor General as a complete mid mature exposition of the views of the Government, and the means by which they hoped to accomplish their purpose. Well, the subject has been more or less under our consideration since that period, and though some time has elapsed, not a day has been lost so far as regards the ultimate accomplishment of our object. But we had not only to consider what were the best means by which that object could be accomplished; some regard was also due to the progress of other Public Business, and our calculations must be affected in some degree by that consideration. I said when I spoke first that it was very important that the Boundary Bill should be passed by the 10th of June. That was an element in our calculation, but, unfortunately, now there is no chance that it can be passed so soon. Then you are to have questions of boundary with regard to the Scotch and Irish Reform Bills which are of a very vague and disturbing character. But, at the same time, I am bound to state that these are difficulties which I think may be overcome; but, nevertheless, we must remember that in preparing any proposition for the consideration of the House, it is of the utmost importance that no suspicion should enter into the minds of the new constituencies of this country that there is any attempt to neutralize the great privileges which we, in my opinion most wisely, accorded to them last year, by, as it were, hurrying and hustling them in obtaining their electoral privileges. And although I have had schemes put before me for reducing the period of registration—which I must say were far from impracticable, though they might have been expensive—but in a matter of this kind the House would not hesitate as to the expense—still, in other respects they proposed such a serious reduction of the time for making claims and defending and vindicating rights, as to require the utmost delicacy and consideration on the part of this House, otherwise the result might be of an undesirable and even a calamitous character. Because, if there be an impression after all that, though we have given those privileges to the great body of the people, yet at the last moment they have been deprived of time to avail themselves fully of their new rights, the House of Commons that would be elected would be one in which the mass of the people would not have confidence. That consideration has not been absent from the mind of the Government, nor should be absent from that of the House for a moment, and in any propositions which we shall make to accomplish an earlier dissolution than the law at present provides, that consideration will necessarily influence us. I must repeat to the House that no time has really been lost, and that Her Majesty's Government have given to this subject a constant, and, I hope, a candid consideration.


Sir, there are two brandies of this subject. One of them relates to the Bills as to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton (Mr. Milner Gibson) has inquired whether, in case they are contested, the Government would go forward with them or not, and on that matter the answer of the right hon. Gentleman the First Minister of the Crown is a perfectly just and fair answer. He says that in his opinion all Business ought to be dropped except the measures necessary as a supplement to the Reform Act, unless there be some very special cases indeed. I think the right hon. Gentleman has specified in a very fair manner all the measures essentially supplementary to the Reform Bill. I presume him to mean the Irish Bill, the Scotch Bill, and the Boundary Bill. I think the House entirely sympathizes with the right hon. Gentleman in his strong desire to dispose, if possible, of the Corrupt Practices Bill. But, with regard to the Foreign Cattle Market Bill and the Electric Telegraph Bill, we are not precisely cognizant as yet of the special reasons which make the Government desirous of carrying them forward at this moment. As to the Foreign Cattle Market Bill, I confess I am very sceptical, if not extremely jealous, of the policy it involves; but I will not give any opinion upon it now. But, with regard to the other branch of the question, I cannot speak with quite so much satisfaction. And here I greatly regret that, after my hon. Friend (Mr. W. E. Forster) introduced the subject in a tone which could give offence to none, and which involved no matter of controversy, my noble Friend the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho), in that indulgence if not of his sympathies, at all events of his antipathies, found it necessary to trouble, perplex, and embroil the question by the introduction of very invidious, not to say offensive topics. Now, Sir, I must very frankly make this protest in the face of the noble Lord. The noble Lord says he is anxious for the credit of the House. It is not for the credit of the House that this matter, with respect to the time of dissolution, should be made to turn upon the holidays of the noble Lord or any other person. I must say that ingenuous confession of his is one which I must take the liberty not to pass by in silence, and I think the noble Lord himself will feel it is not a consideration upon which this matter ought to turn, [Lord ELCHO: Hear, hear.] I am glad we are agreed in that; it was a part of his speech on which the noble Lord dwelt with some emphasis, and it elicited some cheers from another quarter of the House. Well, the Session of Parliament, by the very declaration of the right hon. Gentleman, is a maimed and mutilated Session. It is a Session in which the House is quite averse from carrying forward a variety of important measures, not simply from want of time, because we have not yet reached that period of the year at which measures would have been dropped from want of time, but on account of the political situation which has arisen. What is that situation? On an occasion upon which this House arrived at certain votes with regard to the Irish Church, the right hon. Gentleman attached, I will not say an exaggerated, but an enormous importance to those votes. I thought, however, that there was some degree of exaggeration in the remark of the right hon. Gentleman—that the consequences were more important and vital than those of a foreign conquest. But at the same time he recognized, and properly recognized, the facts then before him as constituting what we in our peaceful way looked upon as a constitutional crisis, The right hon. Gentleman, though he did not say so at the moment, stated afterwards that the votes of Parliament did not justly represent the opinions of the country. That is the opinion which he has expressed, and he holds that opinion irrespectively of other doctrines to which I do not assent, but which the right hon. Gentleman has sometimes laid down with regard to the general right of a Minister to dissolve Parliament. But with respect to the case of dissolving Parliament when the Advisers of the Crown consider that the existing Parliament does not actually represent the country, they are clearly in the right when they undertake upon a bonâ fide declaration of that kind to appeal to the sense of the people. But do the facts supply the reasons for delaying that appeal which my noble Friend said had been supplied in this case? Undoubtedly, it would have been a great waste of labour on the part of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford (Mr. W. E. Forster), if he had entered into an elaborate argument and exposition of facts which he naturally supposed to be present to the mind of every man. The Government have recognized them; they have declared that a case had arisen either fur resignation of their offices or for an appeal to the people. Well, now, it is the A B C of Parliamentary knowledge that when such an appeal to the people is to be made under circumstances like these—that is to say, as an alternative to resignation, it is to be made at the first practicable moment, and I am certainly astonished that a man of the experience of the noble Lord should have to be instructed in a truth so elementary. Well, let me look back to what has happened in former years. There were three of those cases. In 1841, a case of this kind arose. A Vote of Want of Confidence having been passed, the supplies were voted for a few months, Parliament was dissolved, and the new Parliament met in August. [Lord ELCHO; There had been a Reform Bill.] I will come to that presently; for I like to deal with things in order. In all these cases, it was a matter of course, and according to the practice of the Constitution, that the appeal should be made at the earliest possible moment, and that the new Parliament should meet immediately after that appeal. The case of 1841 was a remarkable instance of that kind, and in neither instance was there any direct declaration of want of confidence in the Government, but the Government was in a minority in a general vague sense—not that they were unable to carry on the Business of the country, or that they did not sometimes obtain majorities in the House; but they were in circumstances which the Government itself recognized as rendering it its duty to wind up the business of the Session, and appeal to the people. The appeal was made in due course, and the new Parliament met for the purposes of an autumn Session. There was, therefore, nothing special in the inquiry of my hon. Friend to justify the noble Lord in going out of his way to find or impute motives to that inquiry. The affair, says the noble Lord, is not an affair between Gentlemen on this Bench and Gentlemen opposite. It is, however, so far an affair between different Members of the House that the intention of an appeal to the people is that they should affirm either the policy which has been pursued on this side of the House, or the policy which has been pursued upon that. Both Bides, I am certain, with the exception of the noble Lord, and of an hon. Member opposite must recognize that the Constitution requires the earliest possible appeal to the people, in order to bring our machinery of Parliamentary government again into play. Well, then, the question is, how is that to be done? Now, here, I admit, the interpolation of the noble Lord is in place; that is to say, there has been a new Reform Bill, and consequently, the question arises how far this matter is qualified by that circumstance which renders the machinery of the present constituencies a machinery which it is undesirable to use for ascertaining the opinion of the people. Well, then, we come to the statement of the right hon. Gentleman, which was very much like an authoritative declaration that, according to the sentiments and judgments of men well skilled in these matters, there might be an autumn Session. That statement was made, I think, a full month ago. [Mr. W. E. FORSTER: On the 4th of May.] It was made, my hon. Friend informs me, on the 4th of May, and on the 29th of May the right hon. Gentleman gives us to understand that he does not see his way; that he has a vague hope something may be effected, but cannot say what or when; and that he cannot indicate the time when he will tell us his intentions. I must say there is something very extraordinary in this change of tone on the part of the right hon. Gentleman. It was the duty of the right hon. Gentleman to know his own meaning at the time when he told us that in the judgment of skilled and experienced persons it was practicable to have an autumn Session. The right hon. Gentleman says no time has been lost. I entirely disagree with him. Every day that passes is a day lost, because the operation to be effected is an operation upon the machinery of registration. It has no connection with the progress of Business in this House. The progress of Business is, it may be, very important with respect to a limited number of Bills, and as to those we can see our way perfectly well; but what is really important is that we should now ascertain, at the earliest practicable moment, what can or cannot be done to expedite the operation of the machinery for the new registration. Now, it was with reference to that point that I suggested the other day that a small Committee might possibly afford a convenient instrument for arriving at a conclusion. The right hon. Gentleman made no response to that suggestion either then or to-night; and, of course, if the Government have a plan to propose, it might be more advantageous than to refer the subject to a Select Committee. It is plain, however, that if day after day and week after week slip from us, while the declarations of the right hon. Gentleman, instead of becoming more clear and precise as we approach the point, become more vague and ambiguous and misty—if we pass the 10th of June, when the first step in the registration is to be taken, and the 20th of June, when the second step is be taken, and if all those periods which we intend to shorten are to be allowed to slip away—why the question will practically decide itself. I wish, therefore, to impress on the mind of the right hon. Gentleman much more than it seems to be impressed at present the gravity of this question, and the absolute necessity, after he himself laid the ground in a declaration of the most solemn kind, which, in my judgment, exists for bringing it to an early issue. We have now come to the Whitsun holidays, and must pass another week in total ignorance of what course the Government intend to take. I hope that when the House reassembles, the right hon. Gentleman will be in a position to make a distinct and determinate declaration of his intentions. If he is not in a position to make such a declaration, I think that, looking to all the circumstances, and to the undoubted and unquestionable argument applicable to the subject, as well as to the precedents to which I have referred, it will become necessary—in default of just action on the part of the Ministers of the Crown—a default which I, for one, should deeply regret—for independent Members to consider whether they ought not to take some steps of a definite character for the purpose of obtaining the judgment of Parliament upon the subject.


said, he was glad that reference had been made to the shame and disgust which prevailed out of doors with regard to the language which had been used in the House during the last few weeks, and which had recently called forth a cutting rebuke from the hon. Member for Nottingham (Mr. Osborne). Only last night an hon. Member gave the he direct, and was obliged to retract, and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Lancashire (Mr. Gladstone) had just de- scribed the remarks of the noble Lord the Member for Haddingtonshire (Lord Elcho) as offensive. [Mr. GLADSTONE: My words were "Not to say offensive."] Well, that was a negative way of saying that they were offensive. There had been a great number of dictatorial speeches, and the exhibition of angry passions which ought to have been kept under control; and he was bound to say that not the least dictatorial speech of all was that which had just been delivered by the right hon. Gentleman opposite. He could see no reason why the House should listen to such speeches or why such language should be used, and surely those who had most contributed to the delays of this Session had the least right to press the Government to forego the satisfaction of carrying necessary and desirable measures. The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Milner Gibson) in his usual fascinating manner, had appealed to the Government to withdraw all measures except those relating to Reform; but he had omitted to mention a little Bill which was quite unnecessary and which might be dropped with very great advantage—the four-clause Suspensory Bill. What justification could there be for proceeding with that Bill, which would throw all ecclesiastical affairs in Ireland into confusion for twelve months? How had the proper Business of the Session been delayed but by the sudden introduction of proposals for disestablishing the Irish Church? What object that procedure could serve, the right hon. Member for South Lancashire could best say. The right hon. Gentleman knew well the firebrand he was throwing down. In fact, of all the Bills before the House there was none for which there was less cause than the Bill in question. A Suspensory Bill ought not to have been introduced unless there was a reasonable certainty that within the twelvemonth during which it was to be in operation permanent legislation would take place; but he could see no such certainty in this case. For his own part, considering that long intervals between dissolutions and elections were extremely in convenient and expensive, he should like to get the election over within a fortnight of the close of the Session, so that Members might begin their holidays with their difficulties over; but it was only right that time should be given to the country to consider the questions at issue. It took some time to arouse the political feelings of the people, and he trusted that during the next few months the country would consider the position of the Church in Ireland, and the results which would follow to the Church of England if the Irish Church were disestablished. It was but fair that the people should have time to reflect on the changes which had been proposed, and to consider whether they should support the present Government or the right hon. Gentleman opposite He hoped that a dissolution would not be pressed forward too hastily, but that the difficulties in the way of registration and other matters would be fully considered and carefully investigated by the proper authorities.


said, they had at last got an avowal as to the cause why the postponement of the dissolution was thought to be desirable, namely—that they might have an opportunity of getting up a cry. He thought it greatly to be deprecated that an attempt should be made by any political party to get up a religious cry. Nothing would be more disastrous to the interests of the country than to inflame the passions of the people on the ground of religion. He believed no cry was likely to do such permanent injury to the country, or to inflict more indelible mischief and disgrace on those engaged in getting it up. Whether or not it would be successful he could not say; but they had already seen the peace of this country broken by religious riots in the North of England, and he believed a most serious responsibility would rest on any Minister, however, eminent his fame and talent might be, who lent the sanction of his high authority to raising a religious cry, whether that of "No Popery," or "No Protestantism." There had been other ominous signs and indications, though of a minor nature, as to the course of proceedings intended to be taken. A Notice of Motion given by a Member of that House had been distorted and misrepresented in a way which, during his experience of Parliament, which now extended over sixteen years, he had never seen equalled. He alluded to the manner in which the Notice given by the hon. Member for Clare (Sir Colman O'Loghlen) for the insertion of clauses in the Oaths Bill had been vilified and misrepresented in doubleleaded columns in an organ of the party opposite, and to the extraordinary interpretation put upon it by the noble Lord the Member for Haddingtonshire a short time back.


The hon. Member refers to a past debate, which he is not at liberty to do.


said, he would not pursue the topic further. He thought it a serious matter that these religious questions should be stirred in this manner, and the public passions inflamed. The sooner the issue was taken the better for the country. He sincerely believed that the condition of Ireland was was one of very serious import, and if not soon remedied might be a cause of permanent disaster to the interests of the Empire. There was a lull at this moment in the dangers of Fenianism; but he trusted the House and the country would not be led into false security by the peril appearing to have passed away for the moment, and that the hopes excited by the course taken by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Lancashire, and affirmed by a majority of the House, might not be indefinitely postponed. Nothing could be more injurious to the prosperity of the Empire, or to the interests of Ireland, than that the faith of the country in the wisdom of Parliament should be shaken, and that the public should be led to think they had no redress for the evils that oppressed that portion of the Empire. He believed in the justice of the English people, and was happy to think that the efforts to create discoid had to a great extent failed. He looked forward with confidence to the public supporting that policy which was directed to the maintenance of union and harmony between both branches of the Empire, and which would ultimately, he trusted, attain a prosperous issue.


said, he very much regretted that the discussion had not been continued in the tone in which it had been introduced by the hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. W. E. Forster). The question raised by the hon. Member was a very simple one. With respect to the statement of the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Gladstone), that the Government were going back from something they had stated before, he entirely repudiated any such insinuation. He asked the House whether it would be possible to introduce a Registration Bill, or to adopt means to facilitate the registration, until they knew what the boundaries of the boroughs were to be, and until the matters were settled which were to be the basis of the registration? When his right hon. Friend made his statement, he expected that the question of the Boundary Bill would have advanced much more rapidly. The House, however, although it was the Commission of their own appointing, had thought proper to refer the subject to a Select Committee. He understood that some changes had been made by the Committee, which would have to be discussed, and either adopted or rejected by the House. Until that was done, it was impossible to say in what way the registration could best be facilitated. He was prepared to say on behalf of the Government that they did not go back in any sense from what they had stated. At that very moment, those who were acquainted with the matter, were waiting and watching for the completion of the Boundary Bill, and the Government were prepared, if the opportunity were given them, to hasten a dissolution as much as it was proper to do.


said, he had heard with very great pleasure the statement just made by the Secretary of State for the Home Department. When the First Minister of the Crown made his statement on the 4th of May, he asked him whether he had spoken after consultation with the Law Officers of the Crown? He understood the right hon. Gentleman to give him an assurance, and he had since remained in the hope that he would do so, and would then make a more definite statement to the House. He had never taken any step to press the right hon. Gentleman, though he had certainly expected to hear something more definite. It appeared to him that the statement now made by the Secretary of State was satisfactory, and he had no doubt that after the Recess the House would receive some definite proposal from the Government on the subject.


said, he wished to know whether the two Bills having reference to the Government of India would be proceeded with?


said, he would make inquiry of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for India as to the Bills, and take an early opportunity of stating the intentions of the Government.

Motion agreed to.

House, at rising, to adjourn till Thursday next.

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