HC Deb 09 February 1875 vol 222 cc162-89

, in rising to move— That no new Writ be issued for the Election of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Stroud, in the room of Henry R. Brand, esquire, whose Election has been declared void, said, he should venture to ask the sanction of the House to that Resolution, in the first place upon the ground that what was now proposed to be done was only the exercise of the fitting discretion which the House undoubtedly possessed; and, in the second place, on the ground that by passing such Resolution the House would be doing a merciful act to the much-distressed borough of Stroud itself. It would be his duty to establish the first position in order to justify the interference of the House with the primâ facie constitutional right of the borough, and with that object he would direct attention to the electoral history of that borough during the last 12 months. From an electoral point of view the history of the borough of Stroud had, he ventured to say, been wholly unprecedented. It was only necessary to go back to the election antecedent to the General Election of last year, and to trace the electoral history of the place downwards, in order to find the following prominent facts:—There were four elections in the space of seven months. Every election was petitioned against upon the ground of corrupt practices. All the Petitions were tried save the one that was set aside by the sudden occurrence of the Dissolution on the 24th of January, 1874. Owing to that event, the Petition against the return made in the earlier part of that month could not lawfully be hoard. All the three elections which had occurred since the Dissolution, including the one immediately consequent upon it, had been the subject of judicial inquiry—the first on Petition against the two Members who were returned, the second on two separate Petitions against the two Members returned, and the last on a Petition against the Member elected in lieu of the one who was turned out. It must be a matter of satisfaction for the House to know that, in the result of those inquiries, however much they might have reflected on the electoral character of the borough and its constituency, no stain rested on any one of the four Gentlemen who had been evicted from the seats to which they had been elected, and that they had been all free from any participation in the practices of which their agents and supporters had been found guilty. In the result we had this state of facts, that the election which took place in the borough in February at the General Election was wholly set aside; that the election which took place in May to fill up the vacancies caused by the eviction of the two Members who were returned at the General Election was partially set aside, one Member holding and one losing his seat; that the election in July of a Member to supply the place of the one previously unseated also resulted in that Member losing his seat. Every one of those inquiries turned on the question whether corrupt practices sufficient to invalidate the election had existed. The inquiries into the elections of February and May were not carried to their legitimate conclusion, but were stopped by the person petitioned against surrendering his seat under the strain of the evidence already adduced. It was important to recollect that circumstance as part of the strong evidence of the existence of corrupt bodies of men forming a large portion of the constituency of Stroud. It was important also to look at the nature of the Reports of the Judges on each of the three occasions in question. The election in January, 1874, was upset on the ground of corrupt practices; and Baron Bramwell in his Report stated that the inquiry was intercepted not only by the surrender of the seats, but also by the absconding of persons from the neighbourhood, whom the Judge believed to be important and necessary witnesses for the due investigation of the whole case. The same most experienced Judge—in accordance with the terms of the Act of Parliament under which a Commission of Inquiry should be sent down to the borough—said in his Report—" I further report that corrupt practices have extensively prevailed at the election to which the Petition relates." He would ask how came that Report of the Judge to be passed by without any action in the nature of appointing a Commission being taken? A point of law was debated whether, as the corrupt practices in question con- sisted of treating, it was possible under the terms of the Act to have a Commission; and although some eminent lawyers in that House thought it was not, others took a different view, and he ventured to think the question was one that required consideration. Baron Bramwell, who tried the second Petition, as he did the first, in his second Report significantly referred to his former Report, and stated that he abided by it, but said he had no reason to believe that corrupt practices extensively prevailed at the election in May. Only one of the two Members returned in May was unseated. He was unseated on the ground of bribery; and the seat was only defended for a very short time. In the concluding part of his Report the Judge said there was evidence of bribery by others, but that the respondent withdrew from his defence of the seat, and certain persons not having been called, he could not report that bribery had been proved against them. In consequence of that, no action was taken to suspend the writ, and in July last a new election was held, which was also petitioned against. Baron Pigott tried that Petition, and made a most elaborate Report, which was laid on the Table of the House, in which, in the first place, 13 persons were reported by name as bribed by five other persons, and also by some persons whose names were unknown. In addition to that, there were several cases of out-voters who said they had been canvassed by strangers, of whom the agents of the sitting Member denied all knowledge, and had received excessive fares for travelling. It was stated further that that mode of bribing out-voters was carried on by the introduction of two persons from a neighbouring west-country borough, not undistinguished in the annals of Parliamentary Election Petitions; that by a person named, who was engaged in canvassing, four voters were proved to have been bribed, the bribes varying from 2s. 6d. to £2. All knowledge of that person also was denied by the agents. The Election Judge devoted four paragraphs, at the conclusion of his Report, to a most suggestive matter—the various methods in which funds were got up for disposal in ways that would not bear inquiry. Accordingly, they had a statement as to what was called a Decoration Fund, which was raised between February and July, to meet a claim of £1,200 for decorations at the February Election—a fund which, by a most remarkable idiosyncracy, appeared to have been raised after the election to which it applied. Baron Pigott said that that fund was stated to have boon subscribed to pay for a large number of flags and banners at the February Election, when the borough was spoken of as having "gone mad," but that it was not shown how it had been expended; that some accounts had been produced, and some receipts, but he was not able to say whether a portion of it was applied to the purposes of the July Election; but there was enough to show that it had not been altogether applied to the purposes for which it was subscribed, or expended in ways that were wholly free from suspicion. But the peculiarity of the learned Judge's Report did not end there. It appeared that in that remarkable election, the agents of the sitting Members went through the double process of importing bribers at the time of the election, and of exporting bribers at the time of the Petition. The learned Judge spoke of persons who were imported for the purpose of bribing, and of persons who were exported at the time of the Petition, in order that they might not give inconvenient evidence. The persons imported were proved to be James Yard Coles and John Bishop Daniels. Amongst other cases were those of very remarkable gentlemen. One of them rejoiced in the name of Heaven, and he (Mr. C. Lewis) supposed had been removed to Hades, to be out of the way. He, at all events, absconded early in November, just as the Petition was coming on, in order to prevent those disclosures which he might have made in his evidence. But the exportation did not end there, for it appeared according to the Report, that there was a very inconvenient witness, for whose future comfort it was thought necessary that he should change the locality of his residence. He referred to a Mr. Joseph Workman, who, it seemed, it was deemed desirable to induce to go from Birmingham to Liverpool, and thence to emigrate with his family to America, the Judge reporting that John Bishop Daniels and Joseph Daniels, who came from Taunton to do any work that there was for them, were engaged in sending them away. The Judge, in the last paragraph of his Report, said— I have no reason to believe that corrupt practices have extensively prevailed at the election to which the Petition relates; but with the greatest possible respect for the distinguished person by whom the Report was signed, he would venture to remark that if the word "no" had been left out, there would certainly have been more consistency between the preamble, the premises, and the result. Such, then, was the history of the borough of Stroud between the months of January and July, 1874, and he thought the House would admit that it was a history of corruption of every form and kind, from the lowest and most insignificant up to the worst and most flagrant; for he believed that the sitting Members at the February Election lost their seats chiefly because of some breakfast which was given by innocent Nonconformist ministers, who had asked a few of their supporters to partake of tea and toast previous to going to the poll in the morning. But the electors having been treated leniently by the Judges, grew more daring in their delinquencies. It was proved that on the occasion of the election in May, the millowners, who had for years been working their mills on the polling day, were suddenly affected with the most kindly consideration for their hands, so that they reversed the system of Pharaoh's tale of bricks without straw, and not only dismissed their men from the mill for the day of the election, but also paid their wages for the day; while in July, the amount of corrupt talent in Stroud not being found sufficient, strangers were imported, and extravagant travelling expenses paid, while inconvenient witnesses were got out of the way, no matter at what cost. Now, all that showed, in his opinion, that the borough was radically bad, as far as electoral corruption was concerned. He would now pass from that point, and endeavour to show that the House of Commons could exercise its discretion in the matter, and, if it should think proper, suspend the writ for a fresh election. He would so far modify his Resolution as to make the suspension general, without binding the House with respect to any future Session of Parliament. Dealing with the question in that light, it might be convenient to consider how matters stood previous to the passing of the Act of 1854, enabling both Houses of Parliament to join in praying for the issue of a Commission of Inquiry in cases of electoral corruption. Previous to that time the House had claimed a general discretion to suspend a writ. In the case, for example, of the borough of Stafford there was a vacancy in May, 1835, occasioned by the acceptance by the sitting Member of the Chiltern Hundreds, and the strength of that case lay in the fact, that it was not by reason of any corruption which had been proved as having occurred in the existing, but in the previous Parliament, between 1832 and 1834, that the House in the exercise of its discretion absolutely suspended the issue of a writ from the 18th of May, 1835, to the 13th of February, 1837. But it might be said that by reason of the passing of the Act enabling the House to punish a delinquent borough by means of a Commission of Inquiry a totally new state of things had been introduced. In the case of Wakefield, however, a Commission was issued in 1859, which reported in 1860 that the corruption which prevailed was not such as justified them in advising that the borough should be disfranchised; but the House nevertheless refused to issue a new writ for two years after, and it was not, in fact, issued until February 1862; and if, as a matter of principle, the House had the power of suspending the issue of a writ for a week there was no good reason why it should not suspend it for any longer period. It was only yesterday that the House passed a Resolution, that in no case where a Member was unseated for bribery should the writ be moved for until after two days' notice, and why such a Resolution, if the House had no such discretion? The House, he might add, had constantly exercised the power to suspend the issue of a writ, even in cases in which it had no authority under an Act of Parliament to appoint a Commission of Inquiry. That being so, he ventured to say that if it lay within the discretion of the House to refuse to issue a new writ for Stroud, it would be an act of mercy to the borough itself to take that course. He had already referred to the Report which stated that in February last the borough went mad, and he was very much inclined to think that it had since had no lucid interval—at all events, not a sufficiently long one to restore it to its pristine purity. He had a letter—he was not at liberty to mention the writer's name—but it came from a gentleman of high position in the borough of Stroud, and he described its present moral and social condition. He stated that within the last year or so it was the scene of four fiercely contested elections; that during that time four Petitions had been presented, and four Members of Parliament unseated, a sum of not less than £60,000 having been expended in connection with those proceedings. At the present moment, he went on to say, society in Stroud was divided into two parties, the Blue and the Yellow, between whom there ceased to be the usual interchange of visits, while great bitterness of feeling prevailed, and that both parties were ready again to spring at each other in the event of a writ being granted. "In this state of things," he added, "if you can compel us to take a few years' rest, you will help the community greatly." One could hardly conceive the amount of heart-burning, bitterness, moral degradation, and political corruption to which the borough had been subjected in consequence of the leniency of the House in not suspending the writ last year. He had heard it suggested somewhere—whether in the House or out of it he could not tell—that the House should now open the door to a new election in Stroud, in the hope that not only common sense should prevail among the constituency, but that a compromise might be effected whereby a certain distinguished statesman, who would be an ornament to the House and acceptable to both sides of it, might be induced to put his pure feet within the precincts of the corrupt borough, and be returned by the universal esteem of both parties. If that distinguished statesman's name was what he had heard, he could say that, so far as one party in the borough was concerned, the statement was wholly unfounded and a pure fabrication. He ventured to doubt whether any Member of the House would say that the possibility of such a compromise would be either a sufficient or laudable ground for passing over such an amount of electoral corruption as had been proved to exist in Stroud, and he thought the House would only be doing its duty if it discountenanced the suggestion that something should be done different from what justice demanded and what precedent justified with respect to the postponement of the writ. Not only as regarded the moral and political condition of the borough, but even as regarded its social arrangements, the best thing that could be done would be to prevent the occurrence of another election. He hoped the House would acquit him of having placed the matter before it in any strained or overcharged manner. In bringing forward the Motion he had acted with entire independence, and with the simple object that the House should apply the practical remedy for corrupt practices which the case of Stroud seemed to demand. The hon. and learned Gentleman concluded by moving his Resolution.


seconded the Motion. He felt that it would be necessary to say very few words after the speech of the hon. and learned Member who had just sat down. There was no doubt that the whole of the legal proceedings with regard to corrupt practices were somewhat difficult to master. When the question of the Stroud election had been before the House in last April, it was the general opinion that a Commission should issue as a matter of course, and no one appeared aware at the time until the difficulty was started, he believed on the Opposition Bench, that when treating only had prevailed a Commission could not issue as a matter of course. He remembered being one of the Select Committee on the borough of Galway in 1860, when it was reported that corrupt practices extensively prevailed, and upon that occasion he waited some time, expecting that a Commission would be moved for, but no action was taken on the part of the Government, whom he had expected would move, and he asked the Chairman of the Committee if he intended to move, and he replied in the negative. He should very much prefer that a duty so important as that of moving for a Commission to inquire into the prevalence of corrupt practices at elections should always be undertaken by the Government of the day, and that it should not be thrown down, as it were, on the floor of the House to be taken up as the convenience or caprice of private Members dictated. After the time of the General Election of last year it appeared that there was not much reason for proceeding harshly against Stroud; but he now regretted that the writ was not then suspended. A few breakfasts appeared to have been given by Dissenting ministers; but very little else appeared then to have been proved against the borough. But they had not profited by the lesson they had then received. A large sum had been spent in legal expenses, and there had been two elections and two Petitions. He thought the constituency had been somewhat harshly judged; but as a friend to Stroud, he had no doubt that at the present time the best course open to them was to suspend the writ indefinitely. He said" indefinitely," because he understood it would be impossible to limit the action of Parliament in a future Session; and, of course, it would be competent for any Member at a future time to move that the writ should be issued. The amount of demoralization which had been revealed in Stroud, and which, apparently, arose from a determination by the different parties that the borough should be disfranchised rather than that their opponents should win, was such that it was impossible to live in quietness among the constituency. Unless the House arrested this state of things, the result after one or two more elections would probably be the disfranchisement of the borough. It was because he believed Stroud to be not yet thoroughly demoralized that he came forward to ask that the House should suspend the writ. At the same time, he did not quite go to the extent of the statements made by his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. C. Lewis), and he believed that if the borough had time to reflect good sense would assert itself, and they would not have the spectacle of two more gentlemen going down there through a period of trial, excitement, and enormous expense which should result once more in a Petition.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That no new Writ be issued for the Election of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Stroud, in the room of Henry E. Brand, esquire, whose Election has been declared void."—(Mr. Charles Lewis.)


said, it was a fortunate thing that the House could discuss this very important question without any party predilection. Stroud had of late been so impartial in the alternation of its political views and the distribution of its political favours, that it inspired neither sanguine hope nor gloomy despondency as to what its political opinions might be in the future. Therefore, they might calmly discuss the question of issuing the writ of election; but in so doing it must be remembered that the House was dealing with one of the highest of properties by the light of Parliamentary principle and precedent. It seemed to him that there were very grave objections to the Motion of the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry (Mr. C. Lewis). The hon. and learned Member had altered his Motion twice, if not three times. First he proposed that the issuing of the writ should be suspended for the present Session, not for the purpose of taking any action, not for inquiry, not for disfranchisement, but simply as a form of temporary punishment, just as a refractory child was put for a time into a corner or a rollicking undergraduate was rusticated for a term. This might, perhaps, be a proper method of dealing with an adult constituency; but he could only say that it had not, up to the present, been the rule or the practice of Parliament. The Motion of the hon. and learned Member was, in his view, entirely irregular. It, as originally drawn, proposed to bind future Sessions, and, if passed in that form, would have left it open to any hon. Member at any future time to bring forward a Motion for the issue of the writ. As it at present stood, the proposition of the hon. and learned Member would apply only to this Session, but for that period was to be clear and definite, the writ to issue afterwards, if in the meantime Stroud had become good again, and could safely be taken out of the corner. But who was to vouch for this? Was the House to judge of Stroud by the light of anonymous letters written by gentlemen whoso names could not be given to the House? How, again, was the House in future Sessions to judge whether or no the writ should issue? The House had no judicial information on the question, and the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry had not proposed that, by moans of a Commission or otherwise, the necessary information should be obtained. Was the House to be guided by paragraphs in newspapers or this kind of street gossip which, to his surprise, the hon. and learned Member had introduced into the debate? It was below the dignity of the House to take cognizance of paragraphs in newspapers, or to be governed by opinions contained in letters whose authors' names could not be mentioned in the House. The hon. and learned Member had asked the House to create a new precedent in Parliamentary practice. This was not a light thing; for the practice of Parliament was the law of Parliament—a law which affected the rights of the whole country, and particularly the rights of constituents. The course suggested could not be followed, therefore, except for far graver reasons than the light and shadowy ones in which the hon. and learned Member so largely dealt. A great part of the Constitution of this country depended upon precedents of this kind, and the stability of our political system rested upon the existence of fixed rules of practice in matters like the one under discussion. The House was not to be guided by a sentimental desire to perform merciful acts for the benefit of much distressed constituencies, or to consult social arrangements and family comforts such as were described by the writer of the anonymous letter which had been read. The practice of Parliament was clear in relation to the subject-matter of the Motion, and was, he ventured to say, precisely the opposite to that which the hon. and learned Member had laid down. There was one authority in this House which they all well respected, who had stated with the greatest accuracy what was the practice in the issue of writs for Parliamentary election. Sir Erskine May, in his work on the Law and Usage of Parliament, stated that— When general and notorious bribery and corruption have been proved to prevail in Parliamentary boroughs, the House have frequently suspended the issue of writs, with a view to further inquiry, and the ultimate disfranchisement of the corrupt constituency, by Act of Parliament. He would not venture upon his own authority to attempt the difficult task of proving a negative; but he was fortified by the authority he had just quoted when he said that, with the exception of the case to which reference had been made by the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry, no writ had ever been suspended except for the purpose of some ulterior action either by the issuing of a Commission or a proposal for disfran- chisement. The case of Stafford, to which reference had been made, so far front being an exception to the rule, was a strong exemplification of it. On the 6th of August, 1833, Sir Thomas Free-mantle, as Chairman of the Committee which inquired into the circumstances attending the Stafford election, reported the resolution of the Committee, which was in effect that the evidence established such a case of general and systematic bribery and corruption as rendered it expedient that the borough should cease to return Members to Parliament. Thereupon a Bill for disfranchisement was introduced.


said, the suspension he referred to in the case of Stafford occurred not in 1833, but in 1835.


said, he had before him all the records relating to Stafford, and they went on to the Session of 1836, when the disfranchising Bill was introduced. It was not necessary to detain the House with precedents when the rule was clear; but he might mention that from the year 1775—as described by Rowe on Elections—down to the present time the recorded and continuous precedents were all in support of his view, that the issuing of writs had only been suspended pending subsequent and decisive proceedings. This view had been from time to time enunciated and maintained by no less eminent authorities than Mr. Goulburn, the late Sir Robert Peel, and Mr. Williams Wynn. The last-named gentleman, referring to the exceptional ease already alluded to, said "the precedent was one not to be followed, but to be studiously avoided"—[3 Hansard, lxi. 608]—and the eminent authorities who took part in the debate were agreed that the suspension of the issue of writs could only be justified by an intention to proceed further in the direction of inquiry or disfranchisement. In the same debate Sir Robert Peel said— He really thought that if Gentlemen were permitted to take their own views, in cases of this kind, "without knowing about the constituency in question, it was impossible to say what might be the result. The right hon. Gentleman also said— That the House ought to be careful how it interfered with the rights of the constituencies to have Representatives in that House…that it would be a dangerous precedent for the House to interfere with the rights of the constituencies, and that, if they once began to exercise that power, there was no assignable limit to the abuse of it."—[3 Hansard, lxiii. 869.] The hon. and learned Member for Londonderry said the issue of a writ might be suspended for a week or a month by a Resolution of the House. If that was so, then the House by a Resolution might suspend the issue of a writ for ever, and thus disfranchise a place. The power of suspending the issuing of a writ ought not to be exercised except for grave considerations, and after full reflection as to the consequences of the precedent that might be established. The electoral history of Ipswich was far worse than the electoral history of Stroud, and yet Sir Robert Peel said he would not oppose the issue of a writ for Ipswich. In the former case, there was the Report of a Committee that extensive electoral corruption had taken place in the borough. A writ was issued, and another election took place; and then a second Petition occurred. On the 1st of August it was reported that corruption had extensively prevailed, and on the 8th of August a writ was issued for the second time that year. And a great Parliamentary authority, Mr. Charles Buller, with reference to the case of Ipswich, said— It was sought to disfranchise a whole constituency, because of the faults of a few—a proceeding to which he was adverse, because he thought that the vengeance of Parliament ought rather to be directed towards those who gave bribes than towards those who took them, He objected also on the ground that it was unfair to punish all for the faults of a few. It appeared that since the Reform Bill, Ipswich had more frequently than almost any other place had its representatives unseated for bribery; but it also appeared that in no instance had it been shown that any large portion of the constituency were bribed. The largest number of persons accused of bribery at Ipswich appeared to have been about 70 "—he (Sir William Harcourt) believed about six times as many as had been accused at Stroud—" and of these not more than 30, as far as he could judge from those best acquainted with the place, had been proved to be guilty."—[3 Hansard, lxv. 1173.] He would put this consideration to the House: There was a broad distinction between setting aside a particular return and suspending or annihilating the electoral rights of a constituency. A return might be set aside upon proof of bribery; but when they came to the other question—that of annihilating or suspending the electoral rights of a constituency— they came to a question which he must he permitted with great respect to state was not within the competence of one House of Parliament to entertain. They could not disfranchise a borough without a Commission of Inquiry, with a view to disfranchisement, and without the assent of the whole Legislature—of the Commons, the Lords, and the Crown. What was the House now asked to do? It was asked to do something a great deal more than merely to issue a Commission. A Commission of Inquiry was not issued except in cases where the Judge had reported that there had been extensive bribery at an election. The hon. and learned Member for Londonderry asked the House to disfranchise, at least temporarily, a whole borough on account of the reputed offences of a few electors. Now, that seemed to him to be a strange proposition to come from the Conservative benches. It was a proposition to give the go-by to the House of Lords and to the Crown. The hon. and learned Member for Londonderry said his object was to punish this borough; but it was not in the competence of the House of Commons to punish a borough, except with the co-operation of the House of Lords and of the Crown. He (Sir William Harcourt) would ask hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House to consider what would be the consequences of assuming such a power as the hon. and learned Member asked them to assume, and which had never hitherto boon assumed. On previous occasions when the House of Commons suspended a writ it had been merely as a step to further proceedings; but that was not the case here. The hon. and learned Member had not pretended that this Motion was made as part of a proceeding for inquiry, or part of a proceeding for a Bill to be submitted to both Houses of the Legislature. He (Sir William Harcourt) hoped that Liberal Members would not maintain the doctrine that a constituency might be deprived of its electoral rights simply by a Resolution of the House of Commons, and he should be extremely surprised to find such a doctrine maintained by occupants of the Ministerial Bench. If the House of Commons once allowed itself to determine questions of this kind according to its impression, what would be the result? What use would be made of a precedent of that description in violent times? He would illustrate it by a very celebrated case, the expulsion of Mr. Wilkes from the House of Commons. Suppose that some Member had come forward and said—"The last election for Middle-sex was a very turbulent affair; in all probability Mr. Wilkes will be returned again for Middlesex, therefore let us suspend the writ for Middlesex." He (Sir William Harcourt) ventured to say the House would not have done so un-constitutional a thing. Take another case, that of the Clare election, when party spirit ran so high on the question of Catholic Emancipation. Suppose that, on the question of issuing a new writ for Clare, a Member had objected to the issue of a writ on the ground that a Roman Catholic Member would be again returned who, by the Constitution of this country, could not take the oath or a seat, and had therefore proposed, like the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry, as a merciful arrangement, that the writ should be suspended. There might be violent times when the two sides of the House were racing for a vote, and then they would form very different opinions as to what would be merciful for particular boroughs, according to the view they took of what would be the result of a particular election. Take the case of Baron Rothschild when he was returned, in the first instance, for the City of London. Suppose that the issue of a writ for the City of London had boon suspended on the ground that the City would again return a Jew. If hon. Gentlemen thought there never would be times again when a violent party spirit would have an effect on matters of this kind, he had a very different opinion from them. He had no wish to disparage or lessen the privileges of the House, but it had never yet claimed such a power as that now asked for—a power to disfranchise for an in-definite period a particular borough by its sole vote. They certainly had power to make new precedents and to change the Constitution of the country; but in this case the Judge under the law which they had made had reported under three distinct heads—namely, on the conduct of the candidates, on the conduct of the voters, and on the conduct of the constituency. The Judge had three times reported against the candidates and against the voters; but with reference to the constituency the Judge once no- minally reported against it, but the House held that was not a valid Report, and on the last two elections the Judge had reported in favour of the constituency. The Judge had, therefore, twice acquitted the constituency of corruption, and yet the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry asked the House to act as if the Judge had found the constituency "Guilty." The hon. and learned Member said—" Although under the statute you cannot inquire, yet you may suspend." To him (Sir William Harcourt) this appeared a most extraordinary argument, whether it be regarded from the point of view of common law or of constitutional law. The object of the Election Petitions Act was precisely to prevent such discussions as the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry had raised to-night. It was intended to prevent that which was necessary when the decisions of Committees were unsatisfactory—namely, that matters upon which opinions differed very much should be discussed on the floor of the House. The Act was intended to give the House a verdict against the constituency of "Guilty" or "Not Guilty" on which it might act; and the express intention of the legislation was that the House of Commons should not be constituted into a jury to revise the decision of the Judge. There-fore, by carrying the present Motion the House would practically repeal the Election Petitions Act. If the House, ignoring the judicial decision, were to go into a discussion as to the facts of the case, he saw nothing before them but endless disputes. If hon. Members were to attempt to regulate the social arrangements of particular boroughs they would be undertaking a duty which they were little fitted to fulfil. What he could say on the subject would carry little weight; but before the discussion was brought to a close the House would doubtless hear the advice of the Prime Minister, which advice would greatly influence the decision of the House from the right hon. Gentleman's long Parliamentary experience as well as from the high office he filled. For his own part, he deprecated this dangerous innovation in Parliamentary practice—an innovation which shook the foundations upon which rested the rights of the constituencies. He hoped the House would not consent to the Motion; and, indeed, he trusted that, upon further consideration, the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry would not press it to a division.


said, that he could quite have understood the object of the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry (Mr. C. Lewis) if he had moved for the suspension of the writ with a view to some ulterior proceeding; but the hon. and learned Gentleman distinctly and clearly stated that he did not move for the suspension of the writ with a view to any ulterior proceeding at all, but only for the purpose of inflicting some punishment—which he assumed had been deserved—on the constituency of Stroud. It appeared to him that the suspension of the writ for such a purpose as that would be contrary, not only to Parliamentary precedent, but also to the law, and certainly to policy. Why should the constituency of the borough of Stroud be punished for an offence of which they had not been found guilty? and why should they be punished when there was to be no investigation set on foot to discover whether they were guilty of an offence or not? As far as he could make out, the law of the matter was very clear and simple. Prior to the Act of 1854—under which a Commission might issue upon the application of both Houses of Parliament—no doubt writs were very frequently suspended; but a reference to the authorities on the subject showed that the writs were suspended in order that an investigation might be instituted for the purpose of ascertaining whether corrupt practices extensively prevailed, and with a view to the ultimate disfranchisement of the offending constituencies. Under the Act of Parliament in question, both Houses might petition Her Majesty to issue a Commission upon the Report of a Committee appointed to try an Election Petition that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed, or upon the Report of a Committee appointed to inquire whether corrupt practices had extensively prevailed in any particular place. But unless there was such a Report a Commission could not issue. By a subsequent Act the Election Judge was substituted for the Committee to try the Election Petition, and as the law now stood, a Commission could not issue unless there was a Report from the Election Judge that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed. No doubt, if there were such a Report, or if there had been a Committee appointed to inquire whether corrupt practices prevailed, and such Committee had made a Report to that effect, a Commission could issue under the Act of Parliament; otherwise, it could not. Now, the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry wished the writ for Stroud to be suspended, although the Election Judge, instead of reporting that corrupt practices extensively prevailed, had reported distinctly to the contrary. The hon. and learned Member would have the House to ignore the finding of the learned Judge—that was, of the tribunal properly constituted and authorized to investigate the matter. In the teeth of that finding, which exculpated really and truly the constituents of Stroud, and was to the effect that they had not offended, the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry would have the House suspend the issuing of the writ for the purpose of punishing the constituents of Stroud for not having offended. He (the Solicitor General) objected to the Motion.


said, he thought the argument of the hon. and learned Member for Oxford (Sir William Harcourt) was based on two fallacious principles. He was not going to enter into a controversy of precedents, although he thought the hon. and learned Member for Londonderry (Mr. C. Lewis) had carried off the victory, and had shown that the weight of precedents was on his side. The first of the false principles on which the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Oxford rested was that the franchise was a property and not a trust; and the second principle he laid down was distrust of the House of Commons. The first of these principles was a most dangerous one, for if it were sound a voter would be justified in selling his vote to the highest bidder. This point was thoroughly discussed at the time of the passage of the Reform Bill. It was on the same ground that the hon. and learned Gentleman spoke of punishment, saying that Stroud should be put in a corner like a naughty child, or rusticated like an undergraduate. He contended, however, that the House had a right to see that the trust of the franchise was properly fulfilled; and that, if it were abused, the House had a right to put the naughty child in a corner. In other words, disfranchisement was a proper punishment for a borough. The hon. and learned Gentleman's next argument was that a borough might be disfranchised, but not by the House of Commons. It must, according to him, be disfranchised by Act of Parliament. Now, what was the difference between a vote of the House of Commons and an Act of Parliament? The effect was two-fold. In the first place, an Act of Parliament involved the consent of the three Estates of the Realm, and not of the House of Commons alone; and for that reason it was the hon. and learned Gentleman expressed distrust of the House of Commons. The hon. and learned Gentleman said—"Remember the great abuses that may come in if you trust the House of Commons alone, without the Queen and the House of Lords to keep it in check." In fact, he spoke of the House of Commons as if it were the National Assembly or the Constituent Assembly of France in 1791. Then the hon. and learned Member cited a precedent which went strongly against him, for he alluded in a passing manner, as though he was afraid of it, to the Jewish Disabilities. That controversy was raging at the time he first entered the House. A Bill was brought in year after year, and it failed to be carried owing to the votes, not only of Members on that side of the House, but to the votes of many of the extreme Party on the other side, who voted against the measure on the ground that the House of Lords and the Crown had no right to meddle with the qualifications for seats in the House of Commons. They argued that the question whether Jews should sit in the Lower House was one for the boroughs and communes of England to decide, and that the House of Commons alone had a right to settle the matter. Consequently Lord Russell dealt with it by a separate Resolution, which was passed in the House of Commons. The other difference between an Act of Parliament and a Resolution of the House of Commons was, that one was more permanent than the other. If the Motion were passed, next Session the House might, in one evening, vote that the franchise should be given to Stroud; but an Act of Parliament would, in the shape of a Bill, occupy a Session, and have to run the gauntlet of both Houses. But that was the very objection his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Londonderry made. The fact that the franchise might be given back by a vote of the House was an argument in favour of the Motion. Again, the hon. and learned Gentleman said the Judge had reported in favour of the constituency, and that the House should act upon the Judge's opinion, who, having reported on case after case of bribery said, in a lenient mood, that the constituency were not guilty of bribery. Well, if the candidates were not guilty, and if the constituency were not—good Heavens! who were guilty of bribery? The Judge had given sentence, and on that sentence, said the hon. and learned Gentleman, the House were bound to act. If that were so, why did he not bring in a Bill to extend the Bill of the year before last? The hon. and learned Gentleman would practically leave the whole matter in the hands of the Judge; but the House of Commons had already declined to delegate such power to any Judge. The House retained that power in its own hands, and the hon. and learned Gentleman only showed a little more of his distrust in the House of Commons in the course he had that evening pursued. The Judge was still a Judge merely, and not a jury. The House of Commons was in such a case as the present both Judge and jury, and it was because he had no distrust in that House that he supported the Motion.


said, he had risen some time since to support the Motion, but at the same time his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ox-ford (Sir William Harcourt) happened to catch the Speaker's eye. He was very glad he had the benefit of his hon. and learned Friend's speech before he made his own; because, although he felt inclined half-an-hour ago to vote for the Motion, he was perfectly convinced he should do so, having heard the speech of his hon. and learned Friend. That speech was nothing, from beginning to end, than precedent, precedent, precedent. He (Sir Wilfrid Lawson) said—" Away with musty precedents." What did the House of Commons exist for but to make precedents? and he hoped they would make a new precedent that night. Talk about the Motion being unconstitutional, and beyond the powers of the House of Commons! It was nothing of the kind. If there were anything irregular or wrong in it, the Speaker would not have allowed it to appear on the Order Book that day. Let them take a broader view of the question than was usually taken by Gentlemen of the long robe. What was the object in moving for the issue of the writ? There could be only two objects in view—to remove a grievance which was felt in Stroud by the electors of that wonderful borough, or to remove a public grievance which was felt by the House of Commons and the country. He had no doubt that inconvenience and discontent were felt by a certain section of the Stroud constituency. They were very fond of elections there, and the persons who delighted in them, and made most profit by them, had had four elections in seven months, which he thought was quite enough, and ought to satisfy anyone. But there might be other reasons why this writ was moved. His hon. and learned Friend the Member for Oxford talked about street gossip, which alluded to certain arrangements which had been made with regard to the election at Stroud. Now, he would give his hon. and learned Friend, not street gossip, but two or three lines which appeared that morning in the leading journal. That at all events was not street gossip. He read The Times, and very able and well-informed people wrote for The Times. Here was the statement— We have much pleasure in stating that arrangements are in progress, by which it is hoped that the Right Hon. E. P. Bouverie may he returned without a contest for the seat vacated at Stroud by the last decision of the Election Petition Judge. Liberals and Conservatives alike will rejoice to have Mr. Bouverie once more in the House of Commons. They all had a great regard for his right hon. Friend, who had been removed from the House of Commons for about 12 months; but he must say he never heard anything so bad of him as that he was to be supported by both Conservatives and Liberals. But if that were the case, what was the grievance at Stroud? If they really meant to bring in his right hon. Friend—["No, no!"]—well, he thought it very probable. They had one Member now, a very good allowance as times go, for a town of 38,000 people such as they were. If they now returned a Member who would vote Liberal and Conservative, what would they gain in voting power? They had, therefore, no real grievance; but perhaps they were to regard the question as involving some grievance to the public. For his part, he was inclined to think the House was large enough, and that they could do perfectly well without an additional Member, especially at a time when there was so little to do for any one of them. He would put the question impartially to both sides, and first he would say a word to hon. Gentlemen opposite. Last year they were told by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Salt)—a consistent, straightforward, able supporter of the Ministerial party—that that party were a party of silence and consideration. Now, he asked them, if Mr. Bouverie were in the House, could they be silent or considerate? Again, let them look at the Liberal side of the House. They were certainly in a better position than they were in a short time ago, having been last Wednesday consolidated in the Smoking Room of the Reform Club. And, as he understood from the Leaders of the party, their duty at the present moment was to do nothing but sit and watch hon. Gentlemen opposite. But if they got Mr. Bouverie into the House, he would so disturb them that they could not possibly perform that duty. Whatever they did, let them not get a clover man into the House. If Mr. Bouverie got in he would have something to say upon every subject, and the Party which had just been consolidated would fall to pieces like a pack of cards. Let them wait until there was some great question before the country, when Mr. Bouverie might come in, not, perhaps, supported by both parties, but by one party—he should not like to say which. Let them not, for Mr. Bouverie's sake, if it were so—still less for the sake of keeping up old musty precedents, in which his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Oxford delighted—throw the whole town of Stroud into turmoil and confusion, for no good purpose that he could see. Let them wait, at all events. Lot Mr. Bouverie wait, and come in at some other time, not at this moment, to disturb the holy calm and profound peace that at present pervaded every section and fraction of a section of the House of Commons.


said, that having been connected with the general Committee on Elections, and having cordially supported the measure brought in by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli), which handed over Election Petitions to the Judges, he was unwilling to give a silent vote on this question. In his opinion, the position of those who had opposed this Motion was, so far as precedent and principle was concerned, entirely unassailable. They were told that this writ ought not to issue because political excitement ran high at Stroud. They were now asked to make a new crime and a new offence. They were told the borough of Stroud had got into such a state of political excitement, that it was not likely to exercise the franchise properly, and the House was accordingly asked to take a most dangerous step in creating a new precedent on the subject. He appealed to the Prime Minister who brought in this Act to support the authority of the Judges. The law provided for the appointment of a Commission in cases only in which corrupt practices were reported to have extensively prevailed. It seemed to him that they would be taking a new course in refusing upon their own responsibility to issue a writ; and if they once adopted that principle, there was no limit beyond which they might not carry it. The hon. Member for Carlisle (Sir Wilfrid Lawson) would have them disregard precedents; but for himself, after many years' experience in the House, he could hardly remember a case where a precedent had been disregarded of which they did not soon have occasion to repent. He sincerely hoped that the House would not accept the advice given to it, and begin an era of new precedents. Whatever the vote might be, he entered his protest against any such course being adopted.


contended that the fact that the House was the authority to issue a writ was a presumption that it possessed jurisdiction in a case of this kind, and they were called upon to exorcise a kind of judicial function in issuing such writ. It was true that the Judge exonerated the borough of Stroud from a general charge of corruption; but his words were very guarded, being that there was no reason to think that general corruption had prevailed "in the present election." Knowing what the House did of the previous elections for the borough, it could appreciate such a finding on this occasion. The true issue now raised was that there had been four elections, every one of which had been more or less tainted by corruption. Yet the House was now called upon to exonerate the borough from all criminality, and to issue the writ as if the borough was one of the purest in England. He could not consent to take such a course, and he would, therefore, support the Motion of his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. C. Lewis).


Mr. Speaker, my hon. Friend who has just addressed us stated that he would try to put the question before the House in its true light. I will endeavour also to put the question before the House in its true light, and the light in which I view it is, that if this Motion is carried, it amounts to an abrogation of the Election Petitions Act of 1868. In that Act there were certain powers given to the Judges which the House of Commons waived, after ample discussion, after great thought, and with a due sense of the sacrifices they were making. If we were now to announce that because the decision of a Judge, acting under such authority, does not please us, we are to come to a decision contrary to that which according to the provisions of the law has been made public by him, I can only look upon it that if this Motion were carried, the authority of that Act would be entirely superseded. I am not prepared, however, in any way to supersede or abrogate that Act. I believe that it has worked well for the country and for the House of Commons. It is possible that in some of its details it may be improved—and that is a point on which it is unnecessary to enlarge—but the general spirit of that Act is good, and it will be well for the House of Commons always to support it. The hon. Baronet the Member for Carlisle (Sir Wilfrid Lawson) who always addresses us in a spirit of gay wisdom, laughs at experience and denounces precedents. Well, precendents are often attacked and abused, and the hon. Baronet to-night has been profuse in his denunciations of them. But precedents generally—and I will say Parliamentary precedents always—embalm principles; and I am convinced that if we remove far from the line which our Parliamentary precedents indicate to us for our guidance and the conduct of our business, we shall soon repent our rash- ness. The noble Lord the Member for the county of Westmeath (Lord Robert Montagu) sent me a pamphlet the other day, which I have read with much interest—as I read everything that comes from his animated pen. It was a vindication of Infallibility. In what quarter that infallibility is exercised it is unnecessary for me to touch upon, but to night my noble Friend is the champion of the infallibility of the House of Commons. That is a principle which, to my mind, is certainly not orthodox, neither is it always safe. I have sat in this House as long, probably, as most men now in it, and I am deeply interested in its honour and reputation; but I have ever opposed any proposal that this House should assert to itself an authority independent of the other branches of the Legislature, and estates of the realm. The proposal before us, however, essentially aims at such a consequence. My hon. Friend who made this Motion would do well, I think, if he were to consider what course he will adopt if he succeeds. If he carries it, he cannot terminate his connection with the borough of Stroud. He will by the success of his Motion appoint himself the guardian of the honour and interests of the borough. He must be perpetually bringing the subject before the House, and it will be for him, when he has made due inquiry, to tell us when he thinks that the borough of Stroud has returned to that order of mind at which we may entrust to it the noblest franchise of Englishmen. He must keep us au courant with a series of bulletins about the state of the borough of Stroud, because he has no ulterior plan. The proposition itself is one which, if it succeeds to-night, holds out to the House no promise or prospect of any future arrangement; and there-fore I think my hon. Friend will find great difficulty in the course which he has adopted. He cannot, if he wishes really to punish the electors of Stroud; he cannot, if he succeeds in his Motion to-night, call upon the other authorities of the Legislature to combine with him and bind the House of Commons to carry any measure on the subject. He cuts himself off from any constitutional course becoming the occasion by the line he is pursuing to-night. My hon. Friend will do well then to consider these difficulties before he calls upon the House to come to a vote upon this question. The times may come when the spirit of the House of Commons may be very different from what it is at present. I can remember myself some periods since I have been a Member of this House, when the existence of the Government depended upon a single vote—when the country was inflamed on subjects which were peculiarly adapted to excite the passions of a free people, and when things were proposed which those who had any connection with them may look back upon with regret. What saved the House of Commons at that time? What saved it from a course which might produce Parliamentary anarchy and inflict great injury on the country generally? Why, it was respect for the musty precedents which the hon. Baronet holds up to humorous scorn to-night that guided them. There were then great men in Parliament on both sides of the House. There were lawyers—although he sneers at gentlemen of the long robe—who were never equalled probably at any period of our Parliamentary history for their learning and independence, and experienced statesmen on both sides, who agreed that they would adhere to precedents and be guided by the experience of their predecessors. I trust the House, then, will not allow itself to deviate into a path so dangerous and so difficult as the one that has been indicated, and which we have been recommended to pursue to-night. I am sure if we do, we shall open up a scene of confusion which will not easily end, and no question of a Parliamentary contest will ever come before the House without some proposition being made so unconstitutional in its character that the result must be the degradation of the authority of Parliament, and the reduction of our powers of being useful to the country.


said, he was compelled to say a few words on account of the way in which the Motion had been met by the two front benches. He understood the proposition which was now laid down to be that, under no circumstances had that House the power to suspend the issue of a writ for any constituency when there was a vacancy, unless there was a case for a Commission upon the Election Report of a Judge, and that the House could take no other step for the punishment of a borough found guilty of great, though not of ex- tensive, bribery. If so, what was the moaning of the form of asking the House, aye or no, whether it would consent to the issue of a writ? What was the meaning of that indignation which came from the front benches on the other side when, in the case of Wakefield last year, it was found that the writ had been moved for the same night? The other side of the House expressed its indignation at being taken by surprise. How could it be taken by surprise if, in the absence of a case for a Commission by reason of the form of the Judge's Report, the issue of a writ was a matter of right, and not a matter of discretion? What was the meaning of the formality the House was asked to go through yesterday by the Secretary to the Treasury, in passing a Resolution, that in any case where a vacancy had been occasioned by a Report imputing bribery, no writ should be issued, except after two days' notice on the Votes? That must have been proposed under a fallacious assumption if, as was now stated on the highest authority, the House had no discretion, unless there was a case for a Commission. It was he who was asking the House to follow its own precedents. The appeal of the hon. and learned Gentleman (Sir William Harcourt) to the precedent of Stafford failed for its purpose and strengthened his own case. It was not for bribery committed at an election during the existing Parliament, but for bribery committed during an antecedent Parliament, not followed by disfranchisement, that the House interposed for two years to prevent an election; and it was not even a by election, but a vacancy occasioned by a resignation. Neither front bench had attempted to meet that precedent, and when the hon. and learned Gentleman did refer to it, he found he was dealing with what was said in 1833, when the Report of the Committee had just been presented, and had given the go by to the accumulated force of the subsequent facts and the suspension of the writ by another Parliament from 1835 to 1837. Neither the hon. and learned Gentleman, nor the Solicitor General, nor the Prime Minister said anything about Wakefield. In that case, when the Commission had spent its force, when it was functus officio, when no hon. Member of the House ventured to say there was a case to justify disfranchisement, when there was no proposition to deal with the borough in any other form, the House refused for two whole years after the Report of the Commission was laid on the Table to issue a writ for the election of a Member. He was held up as an intruder upon ancient precedents; but, as he had said, he asked the House to follow its own precedents, not to fly in the face of them and tear them up—he left it to the two front benches to do that, remembering that, when they agreed, they were generally in the wrong. He asked the independent Members to maintain the forms, customs, and precedents of Parliament for the purpose of putting down corruption, and not to allow themselves to be led away by the suggestions which had been made. This case would be a dividing line in the history of Parliament if, by the junction of the two sides above the Gang way, the Motion was defeated, and the inference would be deduced that unless the case of corruption was so bad as to come within the purview of a Commission, no amount of subsidiary or detailed corruption would be sufficient to render it liable to a day's punishment. Under those circumstances, he must persist in dividing the House.


was unwilling to intrude on the House after the reply of the hon. Member; but, as he had again referred to the precedent of Stafford, he wished to say that at the election of 1833 it was notorious that there was great corruption, and, as the ordinary forms of inquiry would not reach the case, an Act was passed for a special Committee. The corruption was proved, and in the following Session a Bill was introduced to disfranchise Stafford; but the Bill failed to reach the House of Lords in time to be passed. In 1835 it was again introduced and carried by an enormous majority in the Commons, but it again failed to pass the Lords. In 1836 it was introduced for the third time and carried by the consent of almost the whole House, but it was rejected by the Lords; and when it had been rejected, a writ was moved for, so that the precedent, instead of supporting the hon. and learned Member, told the other way.

Question put.

The House divided;—Ayes 44; Noes 225: Majority 181,