HC Deb 24 February 1880 vol 250 cc1316-52

rose to move— That, in the opinion of this House, the duration of any future Parliament should not exceed five years. That, he considered, was a proposal of a very moderate character in itself; and it was one, as it appeared to him, that would benefit the country at large. He admitted that the conduct of the Government with reference to the continued existence of the present Parliament had been perfectly within the law of usage; but it must be apparent that enormous obligations had been entered into during the lifetime of this Parliament which were not contemplated when it was called together. The map of Europe had been re-drawn. The map of Africa had also been changed; and it was clear that the Government were at this moment engaged in changing the map of Asia. A short time ago, the right hon. Baronet the Secretary of State for the Colonies, at Tewkesbury, stated that Her Majesty's Government had matured many measures that, in all probability, would occupy the time of Parliament this Session, and that he saw no reason why this, the seventh Session of Parliament, should not be capable of doing good work. Ministers were entirely within their right to continue Parliament even up to the very end of seven years; and the speech of the Colonial Secretary indicated the possibility of straining the law up to the complete point; and, indeed, by the principle which he laid down a Ministry which possessed the confidence of the country might repeal the Septennial Act and extend the Parliament beyond the period of seven years. Well, so far as continuing the seven years, he entirely supported Her Majesty's Government in the course they had pursued. They had law—certainly they had precedent—on their side. Within a century there were four Parliaments which lasted seven Sessions all but 10 weeks; one of which lasted, indeed, within seven weeks, of seven years. Again, Her Majesty's Government had usage on their side. Since the year 1832 there were 11 Parliaments, 10 of which came to an end, not by, but against, the will of the Minister, simply because the Government were defeated. There was but one Parliament which could be put in contrast with the present Parliament, and that was the Parliament of 1859. It was opened by Her Majesty in person in May, and the first Session concluded at the usual time in August. It was a short Session; but it was a Session, and some good work was done in it. Six Sessions followed, and the Parliament was dissolved in 1865. It had existed so long because the Ministry had a distinct majority from the beginning to the end, and considered that it was wise and for the benefit of the country that there should be a seventh Session. That Parliament had at its head a Minister who would always be regarded as one of the leading statesmen of the country—Lord Palmerston. That noble Lord had for Colleagues the Earl of Clarendon, Lord John Russell, and for his Chancellor of the Exchequer the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich.




Well, he begged the right hon. Gentleman's pardon; but he understood that he was a Member of the Government which existed from 1859 to 1865.


No, no.


It was evident that the present Government interpreted the Act as though it enabled them to remain in office for seven years, and he hoped the House would say that such ought not to be the case. They had departed, to some extent, from the custom which was carried out from 1780 down to 1837. According to that custom, they had Parliaments of only six years' duration. Hallam, the historian, said that that custom established substantially that six, not seven, years constituted the natural life of a House of Commons; and he added that "an irregularity in that respect might lead to consequences which most men might deplore." It was for them now to put their foot down firmly, and say that no Parliament should sit for seven years again. They were at the present time adding another precedent to the solitary case of the Parliament of 1859; and it would hereafter be said that both Liberal and Conservative Governments, when they had power at their back, had continued in office for the full legal term. By his Motion the question divided itself into two considerations—the one historical, the other practical. As regarded the historical part of the question, he might remind the House that immediately after the Revolution of 1688 the Parliament of England laid down one clear and distinct principle—namely, that the people of England should govern themselves, and to that end they passed the Triennial Act. That Act was not hastily passed, for the Parliament in which it was passed lasted six years and six months, and the Bill was well considered before it was agreed to; and during more than 20 years the Triennial Act was in force, and no one could doubt, who was acquainted with the facts, that that period was one of great success as regarded art, commerce, and literature. But, although it was a period which could be turned to with satisfaction, the Parliament of 1715 passed the Septennial Act. That Act was passed for a temporary purpose; but, notwithstanding that fact, it was allowed to become permanent. But the people had never been consulted on the subject; and he thought he might safely say that the Act had never been heartily accepted by the House of Commons. During the last century the subject had been frequently debated, very often as forming a part of the great question of Parliamentary Reform; and on four occasions it was discussed this century on its own merits, and on each occasion there were a considerable number of the House in favour of the repeal of the Act. He would ask the House to bear in mind the great difference that existed between the condition of the country in 1716, politically, socially, and commercially, and its present condition—the increase of its population, the greater extent of its Colonies, and its increased wealth and expenditure. Considering all this, he thought he was not wrong in saying that seven years now were practically as long as a generation was then. In 1716 the population of the United Kingdom was 6,000,000, now it amounted to 35,000,000. The expenditure then was £7,000,000, now it was £80,000,000. He could not say what the number of electors was in 1716, but in 17C0 it amounted to 160,000; no w the number was about 3,000,000, while the population of our Colonies had risen from 2,000,000, which included 1,500,000 in the United States, or, for the purposes of comparison, 500,000 to 13,000,000, apart altogether from India. The question of locomotion had, to his mind, a most important bearing on this question. At the period of passing the Septennial Act a man was the least transportable species of luggage it was possible to find. In the year 1750 there was a coach only once a month from Edinburgh to London, and it took 12 days to complete a journey which could now be made in 10 hours. The other day there was a great election at Liverpool, at which 60,000 votes were taken. The Writ was issued on one Friday; the election took place on the following Friday; and the result was flashed to all parts of the Kingdom at 8 o'clock on the day of polling. In 1784 an election took place in the City of Westminster. It lasted for 46 days, although there were less than 19,000 votes recorded. Let it also be remembered that in the middle of last century there was a war which lasted during seven years; but in the middle of the present century there was a war between pretty much the same combatants which only lasted for seven weeks. These historical aspects of the case showed the changed circumstances of the times, and, he thought, made it clear that the more rapid movement of events, and the in- creased facilities for locomotion, rendered necessary some such change as he proposed to the acceptance of the House. So much for the historical view of the question. He would now refer to one or two practical points in connection with the subject. He knew that he should be told—and truly told—that our Parliamentary system was one that had drawn forth the admiration of all those countries in the world which had adopted a Parliamentary form of government. As an illustration of this fact, he was in Paris in 1870, when the French Assembly commenced existence under a Parliamentary system; and he heard the President of that Body tell the assembled Deputies that he had been to London in order to consult the Speaker of the House of Commons as to the Rules followed in the Imperial Parliament of this country. This was a high, as it was also a deserved, compliment to our system; but let it not be forgotten that neither France nor any of the other countries which had based their Constitution to some extent upon that of England had adopted the principle of septennial Parliaments. America had adopted two years; France and Germany three years; Holland, four years; and Spain and Italy five years. What had this House itself done? Whenever it had discussed the duration of Parliaments for our Colonies seven years had never even been mentioned. In some cases the triennial period had been adopted, and in others quinquennial Parliaments had been ordered. Another practical consideration in connection with the question was the economy of time. It must be perfectly well known that in septennial Parliaments there was very little work done in the last two Sessions when the Parliaments lasted to their normal close, and that, therefore, a great deal of valuable time was cut to waste.The Timesnewspaper—an organ whosedicta,he supposed, were much respected by hon. Members opposite—had an article immediately upon the re-assembling of Parliament after the Easter Recess of last year, which contained a sentence with every word of which he heartily concurred.The Timessaid— Half the Session is over, and for all the work that has been done this might almost as well have "been the opening day. This was perfectly true; and he put it to the House and the country that they could not afford to lose an occasional year or two. He could not but think that a more frequent appeal to the country than once in seven years would produce more method and greater earnestness in the political work of the House of Commons, alike with regard to great measures and mere administrative detail. Macaulay, Brougham, and Romilly were all opposed to the Septennial Act; and a host of other great political thinkers and statesmen. He might be asked why he had fixed on five years, and had not proposed to restore the Triennial Act? His reply was that he was not in favour of triennial Parliaments, on account of the principle laid down that no Parliament should continue to sit for its full legal term. A wise Minister would always dissolve a year earlier if the country were in a peaceful condition, and then, practically, the duration of Parliament would be four years—a period long enough for the discharge of good and efficient work. He was opposed to triennial Parliaments, if only on the ground that there would be an election after every second Session, and it would be quite impossible for new Members in that time to understand the ways of the House at all. When triennial Parliaments existed they did not average more than two years and seven months, which was too short a period. With regard to the objections which might be urged to his proposed quinquennial Parliaments, there were only two he had heard which were of any importance, and, curiously enough, they were diametrically opposed the one to the other. The one was that there would be fewer elections, and the other was that there would be more elections. He admitted that, on the average, there would be fewer elections. He found that from the year 1802 to 1832, a period of 30 years, there were nine Parliaments, the average duration of which was less than three years and four months; whilst from 1833 to 1874, a period of 41 years, there were 10 Parliaments, averaging three years 11 months and 24 days. Taking the whole of those 19 Parliaments, he calculated their average duration at three years seven months and eight days. But the question of averages did not really come into play. His object in advocating quinquennial Parliaments was to provide a regulation for a discovered danger—a safeguard against the danger of Parliaments running to extreme lengths. As to the other objection, that we should have more elections, his own belief was that the number would be pretty much the same as it was now, and he doubted very much whether the expenses would at all be increased by the proposed change. The House had to consider what the people outside would think in regard to the question of expense, which was not confined to the candidates. The blunders of the Government for one week would cost the country more than five times the expense of a General Election. The shortening of the duration of Parliament would have a direct influence on the finances of the country. If the Government had to go to the country at the end of every fourth year they would very likely be economical during the whole duration of the Parliament. Of course, although the Parliament came to an end, the Administration might continue to exist—nay, they might increase their majority at the new Election. The hon. Member for North Staffordshire (Mr. Hanbury), who had given Notice of an Amendment to his Resolution, took some interest in foreign affairs; he asked him to remember this fact—Lord Beaconsfield and Lord Salisbury had at Berlin added considerably to the territory of this country, and immense obligations were incurred by our Protectorate of Asia Minor. But while framing a new Constitution for Bulgaria, what was the first and foremost part of it? It was this— The territorial limits of the Principality of Bulgaria can neither be enlarged nor contracted without the consent of the great National Assembly. It would have been well, indeed, had the same principle applied to this country during the last two years. Looking to the events which had recently taken place, and the serious obligations which had been imposed on the country without the consent of Parliament, he thought it due to those they represented to enter a protest against such a state of things, and, to avoid the recurrence of such difficulties and dangers, to move— That, in the opinion of this House, the duration of any future Parliament should not exceed five years.


said, he had great pleasure in seconding the Resolution of his hon. Friend the Member for Hackney (Mr. J. Holms). After his able and exhaustive statement, little remained to be said in support of it. The suggested change would have to encounter, no doubt, the stereotyped set of adverse prophecies; but its supporters need not, therefore, be discouraged. Evil forebodings as to the result of a new course of action were more easily found than sound arguments. There was no established custom in connection with their representative system—however anomalous, however indefensible, however inconsistent—that had not found ardent champions to assert its value, to insist on its sacredness, and to predict the ruin that would inevitably ensue if profane reformers dared to touch it. Their repeated failures might have taught them the folly of attempting to foretell the future; but prophets were not soon abashed. Whatever crop failed, there was always an abundant harvest of them. The proposition before the House was not an untried and dangerous novelty. It was not a wild "leap in the dark," nor a heedless "shooting of Niagara." It was the adoption, in a modified form, of a time-honoured Constitutional practice. "Frequent and new Parliaments"—such was the ancient phrase—had been a point in every Reform programme for generations. Annual Parliaments, or, to speak more correctly, Sessional Parliaments, were the principle of the English Constitution; and they had certainly been the unquestionable practice of this country for centuries. Mr. Prynne, a plodding, painstaking, but somewhat verbose political antiquary, was appointed Keeper of the King's Records in the Tower after the Restoration. When put in that office he collected all the parchments committed to his charge, and had them assorted, arranged, and tabulated. Some had been destroyed, some damaged. But those that he could decipher he copied, and re-published in a book entitledParliamentary Writs Revived.From the catalogue then printed, it was shown that during the 143 years that immediately preceded the accession of Charles I. there had been 103 new Parliaments. When they considered that Kings frequently broke the law, and failed to call a Parliament; that some of the Writs were lost, and others of them were illegible, this catalogue of Mr. Prynne's sustained his (Mr. Cowen's) argument that Parliaments—at least during that period—were frequent. Mr. Hakewell, a gentleman in a position to obtain correct information, published about the same time a book entitledThe Manner of Holding Parliaments in England.In that volume a list of the Speakers in the House of Commons was given. Every new House chose a fresh Speaker. The list of these functionaries given by Mr. Hakewell, and the list of Writs given by Mr. Prynne, tallied. The one corresponded with the other. During the Recess an interesting Blue Book was issued on the Motion of the hon. and gallant Member for Kidderminster (Sir William Eraser), entitledThe Roll of Parliament.It contained the information got together by Prynne and Hakewell, with further details. The whole combined to confirm and sustain his (Mr. Cowen's) contention that Parliaments, up to the time of the Stuarts, were either Sessional or annual. The late Earl Russell, in the last discussion on this question, maintained that the assertion that annual Parliaments were the principle of the English Constitution was an historical fallacy. A statement made by that noble Earl on such a subject—or, indeed, on any subject—was entitled to respect, and should be considered with deference. But his Lordship, on the occasion in question, gave his authority for his statement, and, unfortunately, that was not a dependable one. He justified his argument by quoting extracts from the writings of that not very scrupulous placeman and pensioner, Sir Richard Steele. He (Mr. Cowen) could occupy the House for hours reading quotations having the very opposite meaning, and upholding the very opposite opinion, from eminent lawyers, distinguished statesmen, and influential political writers. He would not, however, weary the House with such an infliction; but compress into a sentence or two the opinions of men entitled to as much—in his judgment to more—confidence than that of the editor ofThe Tatler.Mr. Prynne, in the preface to the book just quoted from, said— The power of the Representatives continued no longer in force than during the Session of the particular Parliaments to which they were summoned, when they presently ceased to be knights, citizens, and burgesses in any succeeding Parliaments or Councils, unless newly elected and restored to serve in them by the King's new Writs. Mr. Samuel Johnson—not the lexico- grapher, but a writer of great influence of the time of the Revolution of 1688—said— We will never be better for this Revolution till we have a settlement of Parliaments. Our ancient right of anniversary Parliaments and nothing else can set the Government to rights. I wish that all our rights were reduced to one line, which is our right to have a Parliament every Kalends of May. In an essay by the same author, entitledConcerning Parliaments,published in 1693, he said— Our ancestors would no more have dreamed of having an old and stale Parliament cut into new Sessions than of having an old moon cut into new stars. Mr. Wynne, a celebrated writer on the Law of Parliament, said in hisDialoguesThe law formerly had as little idea of a Member of Parliament being fixed for more than a year than it had of a parish officer being-chosen for more than 12 months. Sir Robert Raymond—who was Solicitor General to Queen Anne, Attorney General to George I., and afterwards Chief Justice of the King's Bench—asserted in a discussion on this subject, that a "prorogation" of Parliament was against the law of the land, and that every departure from annual elections was not only illegal, but mischievous. Mr. Archibald Hutchinson, another Parliament man of distinction, said that frequent and new Parliaments were more valuable than all the other reforms claimed. The ancient Constitution, he added, was in favour of annual Parliaments, and not triennial. Dean Swift—who was sent by Sir William Temple to see King William, with a view of inducing him to consent to reduce the duration of Parliaments—wrote— As to Parliaments, I adored the wisdom of that Gothic institution which made them annual. For who sees not that while such Assemblies are permitted to have a longer duration there grows up a commerce of corruption between the Ministry and the Deputies, wherein they both find their accounts to the manifest danger of liberty He further said that— Our liberty could never be placed upon a firm foundation till the ancient laws should be revived, by which our Parliaments were made annual. Lord Somers, in his plan of reform, advocated biennial Parliaments; and in the famous Petition presented by Lord Grey in 1773, from the Society entitled "Friends of the People," annual Parliaments constituted one of the main points. But if these authorities were not sufficient, he (Mr. Cowen) would quote one, the force of which even Earl Russell himself would have admitted if he had still been spared to them. At a famous meeting of Whig statesmen and politicians, held on the 20th of March, 1780, at the King's Arms Tavern, Westminster, the following resolution was unanimously adopted. Mr. Charles James Fox was in the chair on the occasion, and Mr. Sheridan submitted the motion— That annual Parliaments are the undoubted right of the people and law of England; and that the Act that prolonged their duration was subversive of the Constitution, and a violation on the part of the Representatives of the sacred trust reposed in them by their constituents. He (Mr. Cowen) contended—from evidence supplied by Mr. Prynne, Mr Hakewell, and the Blue Book recently published—that the custom of this country up to the time of the Stuarts was to hold Sessional or annual Parliaments; and from the authorities submitted, he held that that was the principle of the Constitution. Two Acts passed in the reign of Edward III. declared that Parliaments ought to be held annually, if need be. The testimony he had supplied, and the opinions he had quoted, proved that that was not only the principle, but the practice of this country up to the period named. Charles I. introduced a new system. He attempted to tax and govern the people without a Parliament. But in the 16th year of his reign a Bill was passed, requiring the King to call a Parliament every three years. If the King failed, neglected, or refused to do that, the Lord Chancellor and the Keeper of the Great Seal could summon the Peers and issue Writs for the election of Members of the House of Commons. If, for any reason, these officials neglected to discharge that duty, it could be undertaken by 12 Peers. If they failed, the Sheriffs in the different counties could proceed to the election without Writs. But if the Sheriffs, the Peers, the great Officers of State, and the King all evaded their responsibility, the people themselves could undertake the work. The citizens in cities, the freeholders in counties, and the burgesses in boroughs could meet on their own motion and elect Representatives; and if anyone so elected refused to obey the mandate of his constituents, he was liable to fine, if not imprisonment. It might not be generally known, but it was a fact of some interest, that this Act was copied from one passed by the Spaniards in the Kingdom of Arragon and Castile some years previous to meet an analogous position of affairs to the one that existed in England under the Stuart King. This Act establishing triennial Parliaments continued in operation until the reign of Charles II. That Monarch regarded it as an invasion of his Royal Prerogative, and as lowering him in the estimation of his brother Sovereigns. He said—with what truth he (Mr. Cowen) did not profess to know—that foreign Princes refused to enter into Treaties with this country as long as the Triennial Act remained in operation, because such Treaties would be dependent for their existence on the temporary and transient impulses and caprices of the people. He appealed to Parliament to repeal the Act, and the Parliament then sitting was an obsequious one. It was filled by servile placemen, and was known by the well-meritedsoubriquetof "The Pensioners' Parliament." In 1694, at the instance of the Duke of Devonshire, a Bill re-establishing the system of triennial Parliaments was introduced into the House of Lords. The King had put his veto on a Bill of a like purport that had passed both Houses of Parliament some years previously. At the time referred to, circumstances favoured his accepting it. There were special reasons why he should stand well in the opinion of the House of Commons. He had been engaged in expensive wars on the Continent, and required at that moment £5,000,000 to pay the debts he had incurred. The Queen, too, was ill, and likely to die. The King knew that his position in the country would be greatly weakened by the death of his Consort. For the double purpose, therefore, of obtaining the necessary money and securing the good opinion of the House of Commons, he assented to the Bill introduced by the Duke of Devonshire, although he had opposed a like measure so recently. The object of the Bill, broadly stated, was to curb the power of the Crown, to curtail the corrupting influence of the Court, and to increase the authority of the constituents over their Representatives. Nine Parliaments were elected under the Triennial Act; and the testimony of all historians goes to prove that its action was beneficial; that the liberties of the people were strengthened by it; and the authority of the country abroad was augmented and sustained. It was repealed in 1716 in a somewhat extraordinary manner. At the General Election held in 1714 the Whigs had obtained a majority; but during the year afterwards the first Stuart rising occurred. This was put down with fierce and almost brutal severity by the Hanoverians. A-natural and, he (Mr. Cowen) was free to confess, in his judgment, an honourable and generous re-action was generated by the cruelties of the conquering party. The Hanoverians, feeling and knowing this, were afraid to appeal to their constituents at the time legally prescribed by law, and they passed an Act that not only increased the length of Parliaments in future, but the length of the one that was then in existence. In other words, they made a law that kept themselves in power and in place four years longer than they were justly entitled to remain. It was the grossest and most outrageous act of unconstitutional aggression that they had any record of in modern history. There was no assault on popular freedom to be compared to it since Charles I. attempted to collect ship money. The Act, therefore, that his hon. and gallant Friend opposite (Colonel Alexander) was going to defend was tainted at its birth. It was the historical memorial of an unhappy era, and an evil event. It was opposed at the time by independent Members of both the Whig and the Tory Parties. There was recorded, on the Books of the House of Lords, an able, logical, even eloquent protest againt the Act, signed by 30 of the most influential Peers, beginning with the Duke of Somerset, and ending with Lord Salisbury. Lord Grrosvenor—speaking and acting in the name of the Whig Party in 1817—concluded an exhaustive and indignant speech against the Septennial Act by declaring that it was a violation of the rights and liberties of the people. He said, further, that the Act repealed itself, and ought to be erased from the Statute Book, which it disgraced. It repealed itself, because the Act cited the reason why it was passed, and that reason had ceased to operate. Its supporters apolo- gized for—they did not attempt to defend it—on the ground that it was a temporary measure, passed in troublous times, to meet exceptional circumstances. When those troubles terminated, and when those circumstances ceased, it was promised that it should be repealed. That promise, however, had not been kept. By the Preamble of the Bill, four purposes were sought to be served by it. First, it was designed to defeat the intrigues of the Pretender; second, to circumvent the machinations of a powerful and restless Papist faction; third, to lessen and allay the heat and irritation—such was the language used—that attended elections; and, fourth, to reduce the costs of contests. There was now no Pretender to the Throne of England. The last of the Stuarts—like the last of the Capulets, or the last of the Mohicans—had long since gone to swell the "great majority." The dreaded Papal faction had vanished into thin air. It existed only, if it existed at all, as a heated hallucination in the minds of weak women and weaker men. The disturbances that formerly distinguished elections had not been destroyed, it was true, but they had been diminished. There was little of the roysterous rioting that once characterized those trials of Party strength. Polls could not now be kept open 10, 12, or 15 days, during which all the corrupt influences in a constituency were let loose. The law now prevented excessive expenditure for agency, for display, and for refreshments, and the votes were collected in a quiet and orderly manner by ballot. He (Mr. Cowen) did not contend that their electoral system was perfect. On the contrary, he thought it capable of great amendment. But he did contend that it was better than it was. There might be heat, and there might be irritation; but these excesses were more characteristic of a period preceding the election than of the elections themselves. The cost of contests had not been reduced by the Act. He did not say they had been increased by it; but he did say that the electoral expenditure at present largely exceeded what it was 100 years ago. In 1764, the average cost of an election was £500 or £600. Prom Returns supplied to that House, they knew that the average cost of a county contest at the General Election in 1874 was £11,000; while the average cost of a borough contest was £2,500. Those figures, as everybody was aware, understated rather than overstated the reality. There were many cases in which they were considerably exceeded. It was quite true that the extravagant expenditure which distinguished some contests previous to the passing of the first Reform Bill was not now common. The restrictions and limitations that the law had thrown around elections had prevented that. It would be difficult for a wealthy man to ruin himself and permanently impair the fortunes of his family by a single contest now, as he could have done half a century ago. There was a time when £150,000 was thrown away over a contest in the City of York, and when from £80,000 to £90,000 was wasted in an election for the County of Northumberland. Such an expenditure could not take place now. But although the outlay in individual contests was lessening, the gross cost of a General Election was greater than it ever had been, and its disposition and tendency were to increase. Formerly, when a constituency was under the control of a patron, or a couple of patrons, they settled the terms of the contest without reference to the constituents. Even in large boroughs, contests were not so numerous in the past as they were now. He (Mr. Cowen) knew best the town he represented; and in Newcastle there was for 50 years prior to the passing of the Reform Bill no contested election. But in the 40 years immediately succeeding that Act, out of 16 elections there were 14 polls. The case of Newcastle fairly well represented that of the country generally. The position of the Septennial Act might be explained thus—The Pretender was at rest; the Papal faction that disturbed the dreams of their ancestors had ceased from troubling; and the heat and irritation of contested elections had cleared off; but the costs of contests had been increased. Three of the purposes of the Act have been accomplished, not by it, but through circumstances that it did not influence, and the last one it had failed to answer. Some arguments that were used in effect against the Act at the time it passed could not now be upheld to its detriment. He willingly confessed that. By the Revolution the House of Commons gained the influence in the direction of affairs that the Crown lost. The Government soon found that they could not coerce Members, but they could buy them. Sir Robert Walpole openly argued that the power and the means of Ministerial corruption were indispensable to Parliamentary government. Members bought their way into this House, and when there they sold their votes and influence to the Party that paid them best. A room at one time was open in connection with the Treasury, where Members regularly went, without shame, to receive remuneration for their services. Sometimes they got £100, sometimes £200, and at other times £300 for help they had given to the men in power. An entry in Sir Samuel Romilly's diary in 1807 throws a strange light over the traffic in seats, even at that comparatively late period. The distinguished Reformer said— I shall procure myself a seat in the new Parliament. Tierney, who manages this business for the friends of the late Administration, assures me he can hear of no seats to he disposed of. After a Parliament which has lived little more than four months, one would naturally suppose that those seats which are regularly sold by the proprietors of them would be very cheap; they are, in fact, sold now at a higher price than was ever given for them before. Tierney tells me that he has offered £10,000 for the two seats at Westbury, the property of the late Lord Abingdon, and which are to be made the most of by the trustees for the creditors, and has met with a refusal. £6,000 and £o,500 have been given for seats, with no stipulation as to time, or against the event of a speedy dissolution by the King's death, or by any change of Administration. No one would attempt to say that that condition of things existed in these days. Many hard things were said against the House of Commons now; but no one could, with justice, say that the votes of its Members were bought and sold. It might have intellectually degenerated; but, at least, it was honest. It might be sometimes disorderly, and not unfrequently too loquacious; but it could be affirmed, however, with satisfaction, that men of all Parties would spurn bribes by whomsoever they might be offered. In that respect the House of Commons to-day presented a marked and honourable contrast to the House of Commons even 60 years ago. The historical arguments in support of shortening the duration of Parliaments was interesting, as it recalled memorable political struggles. It was instructive, as it showed how stoutly their Constitutional rights were fought for, and how resolutely they were retained. But it was of less practical value than reasons that could be adduced from our changed social condition, and the different circumstances of our national life. The entire aspect of the country had altered since the days of the Pretender. Myriad-minded and million-handed enterprize had been busy in that period, weaving a new garment for humanity. The condition of existence had been changed, and the current of public affairs had been quickened. As his hon. Friend (Mr. Holms) had said, it took in 1714 12 days to travel between Edinburgh and London, and the journey could only be accomplished with difficulty and with discomfort. Now they could cover the same distance with ease and with security in less than as many hours. The lumbering stage-waggon had been succeeded by the high-fiying coach, the coach had been displaced by the locomotive, and the locomotive itself had been supplanted in many instances by the telegraph. They could not only correspond, but converse by electricity. The poetic promise that Puck gave to Oberon—that he would put a girdle round the earth in 40 minutes—had been practically realized. The England of to-day was as different from, and superior to, the England of the days of Walpole as the England of that time was different from, and superior to, any semi-civilized country. A man's life was measured not by his years, but by his sensations, his sufferings, his experience, and his knowledge. And as with the life of a man, so should it be with the life of a Parliament. Now-a-days Parliaments not only attempted, but accomplished, ten times as much work in a year as they formerly aspired to perform. They had been assured that one year of Europe was worth 100 of Cathay. If that was so, surely three years or five years of a Parliament, worked as theirs was, must be worth seven years of such drowsy legislation as their forefathers had a century ago. The opponents of the Septennial Act resisted it mainly because of the dread they had of the illegitimate influence which the Court, the Crown, and the Cabinet could bring to bear on Members of Parliament. That, however, was past. The danger now lay in an entirely opposite direction. They had extended the suffrage, they had increased the constituencies, and they had invented (he thought very unwisely) a complicated and complex system of elections. Those changes had driven the supporters of all Parties in the State to systematic and minute organization. It had been thought, indeed, that they could only develop and apply their strength through such channels. They were, he (Mr. Cowen) feared, now running the risk of suffering from over organization. It was possible that their enlarged constituencies might disappear before cliques and caucuses, as had not un-frequently been the case in America. That had not taken place yet, and he knew no better means of preventing it than by making elections frequent. The best antidote to that excessive organization was to bring the Representatives and the represented, into closer and more direct contact with each other. Shorter Parliaments would help to accomplish that. And if, along with such a change, the legitimate expenses of elections were thrown upon the constituents as they ought to be, and it was rendered illegal for candidates either to pay for canvassing, conveyances, or agency, the necessity for—and certainly the danger that would arise from—the organizing spirit of the time would be avoided. If there were more appeals to the constituencies, the political intelligence of the people would be quickened, a healthy independence of thought would be generated, and the breath of national life would be sweetened.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, in the opinion of this House, the duration of any future Parliament should not exceed five years."—(Mr. John Holms.)


rose to move, as an Amendment— That, in the opinion of this House, the Septennial Act has been satisfactory in its operation, and ought not to he repealed. The hon. and gallant Gentleman said, the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Shaw Lefevre) said, last Session, that the present was the worst Parliament that had been elected since the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832. He (Colonel Alexander) was very glad to see, however, that the hon. Member for Hackney (Mr. Holms) did not, at least, share that opinion. That hon. Gentleman thought so well of this Parliament, that he was prepared to propose it should fix the duration of all future Parliaments. Moreover, although in his (Mr. Holms's) opinion the natural life of a Parliament should not exceed five years, he confidently submitted to a Parliament in its seventh year of existence the decision of this most important question. The hon. Member for Newcastle (Mr. Cowen) had maintained that the House of Commons which had passed the Septennial Act, having only been elected for three years, was not constitutionally competent to prolong its duration for seven years. But Lord Brougham, although himself an advocate of triennial Parliaments, had triumphantly disposed of this objection, and pointed out that the acceptance of such a doctrine would involve the validity of the Unions with Scotland and Ireland, and imply a denial of the supreme power of Parliament. Assuming then, as he thought he was entitled to do, that the Parliament of 1716 was legally competent to prolong its own existence, the question now before the House was whether the hon. Member for Hackney had succeeded in showing to its satisfaction that the Septennial Act, which had been in operation more than 160 years, ought now to be repealed? If he (Colonel Alexander) rightly understood the hon. Gentleman, the main objection he brought forward against the Act was this—that under its working Parliament might be seised of questions on which the electors had never been consulted. Unquestionably it might; but he would ask, why not? Lord Brougham, an authority who had been often cited, speaking on this point in 1818, said— Ho must take leave to observe that the supreme power necessarily vested somewhere, and that it was the constant practice of the Legislature to perform acts which the electors had never had in contemplation, but which they had confided full authority to their representatives to perform if necessary. But even if they admitted the validity of the objection raised by the hon. Gentleman, he (Colonel Alexander) would ask, how would it be met by the substitution of quinquennial for septennial Parliaments? It was, after all, only a question of degree. A Parliament elected for five years might, equally with one of longer duration, be called upon to decide questions of the gravest importance as on which the opinion of constituencies had never been collected. Take, for instance, the Eastern Question, and supposing the present Parliament to have been quinquennial, a dissolution would have occurred immediately after the return of Lord Beaconsfield and Lord Salisbury from Berlin, and who could doubt what would have been the result of a General Election under such circumstances? The hon. Gentleman was haunted by the dread of the dangers into which the uncontrolled power of the Government might lead the country when their majority in this House no longer represented the majority of the electors. But upon this point, he (Colonel Alexander) would commend to his attention a very apposite sentence from a speech of Lord Althorp's delivered in the year 1834. Lord Althorp said— Gentlemen who found the decision of the House directly against their opinions were, no doubt, apt to think that the House decided against the opinion of the people at largo."—[3Hansard,xxiii. 1061.] It struck him that those words of Lord Althorp, uttered in the year 1834, were not wholly inapplicable to the circumstances of the present day. The other day he read a letter from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich, in which he said— The Government did not dissolve because they were afraid to submit their conduct to the verdict of the country; and almost immediately afterwards two of the largest constituencies in the Kingdom gave an emphatic denial to the assertion of the right hon. Gentleman. Had it not been for the remarks of the hon. Member for Newcastle, he need not have said so much about the early Parliaments of this country; although it had always been the custom in debates upon this subject to refer to the famous Statute of Edward III., which provided that Parliaments should be held at least "once a year, or oftener if need be." The fact was, there was no analogy; and, therefore, no comparison could be profitably instituted between those Parliaments which were summoned sometimes only for a few days, for the purpose of granting Supplies, and the Parliaments of the present day. In former days it was necessary to compel men to serve in Parliament, and our forefathers very unwillingly quitted their homes in Cornwall or Cumberland for the purpose of giving their attendance at Westminster Hall or elsewhere, even though the Sheriffs were em- powered and ordered, in fact, to assess all reasonable expenses to the Knights"veniendo morando et redeundo."It happened not unfrequently, in the days mentioned by the hon. Member for Newcastle, that the time occupied in passing to and fro between Cornwall and London was longer than that taken up by the actual Session of Parliament. Thus, in the ninth year of Edward III., Parliament sat for only eight days, while the Members for Cornwall were allowed travelling expenses for 32 days, or just four times that period. Then as to boroughs, so little at that time did they value the electoral privileges and their rights of returning Members, that some boroughs actually refused to make any return; whether by reason of inability or poverty, or because they had no fit persons to return or who would serve. In other boroughs they allowed their privileges to go by default; the Sheriff having to make the following report—"Nullum mihi responsum dederunt."How, then, could the House compare, as the hon. Member for Newcastle had done, the Parliaments of those days with the Parliaments of the present? The fact was, as was pointed out by Mr. Lamb, afterwards Lord Melbourne, that this Statute of Edward III., mentioned by the hon. Member, was disregarded almost as soon as it was enacted, because towards the end of the reign of Edward III. no less than 21 years elapsed without the holding of any Parliament at all. The fact was that the complaint in the old days was not that Parliaments were not new, but that they were not frequent enough; and it was for that reason that in a famous Statute—namely, the 16th Charles I., to which allusion had already been made—it was provided that Parliament should not be intermitted above three years. The Preamble of that Statute ran— Whereas by the Law and Statutes of this Realm, the Parliament ought to be holden at least once a year."—[Statutes at large,16 Car. I., cap. 1.] No mention whatever was made of elections. The word "chosen" was not used. What was meant was "frequent Parliaments," not "new Parliaments;" and, in point of fact, until the Triennial Act in the reign of William III., the duration of Parliament was limited only by the pleasure or by the death of the Sovereign. He was quite aware that the hon. Member (Mr. J. Holms) did not propose to return to the triennial period; but, nevertheless, as he had extolled that period, thinking it would bear a favourable comparison with the septennial, and as the hon. Member for Newcastle had followed his example, and had pointed out all the corruption which had existed in the septennial period, perhaps the House would permit him (Colonel Alexander) to prove—which he hoped he would be able to do to its satisfaction—that the triennial period was not quite the virtuous period which the hon. Members for Hackney and Newcastle supposed, and that the evils complained of in the one were equally rife in the other. It was quite true, as the hon. Member for Newcastle had stated, and also as had been said by the hon. Member for Hackney, that the power of the House of Commons was largely increased in the reign of William III.; but he did not think that at that time that fact was a source of unmixed blessing, for although the House of Commons had been emancipated from the control of the Crown, no means had as yet been taken to insure its responsibility to the people. The triennial period lasted altogether about 22 years; and as Lord Macaulay had been quoted, perhaps the House would allow him to quote a few words from that authority, referring to a third of the period, beginning with 1698 and ending 1705. Lord Macaulay had said of that period— No portion of our Parliamentary history is less pleasing or more instructive. It will be seen that the House of Commons became altogether ungovernable, abused its gigantic power with unjust and insolent caprice, browbeat the King and the Lords and the Courts of Common Law and the constituent bodies, violated rights guaranteed by the great Charter, and at length made itself so odious that the people were glad to take shelter under the protection of the Throne, and of the hereditary aristocracy from the tyranny of the Assembly which had been chosen by themselves. Another writer, Tindal, told them, with regard to the Parliament that sat in 1701, that the French had a great Party in it; that the French pacquet boat always brought over 10,000 louis d'or and sometimes more; and that, instead of the old practice of treating and drinking and entertainment that was formerly adopted, the most scandalous practice came in of buying votes. Then, how infamous was the conduct of the House of Commons at the time of the trial of Lord Somers, when, pending the impeachment, the House prejudged the question, and carried an Address to His Majesty, "praying him to remove John Lord Somers from his Council and presence for ever." They would find that during the whole of the triennial period the conduct of the Upper formed a brilliant contrast to the conduct of the Lower House of Parliament. Early in the reign of Queen Anne, grants to the enormous sum of £100,000 a-year were voted in Committee of the House of Commons as a provision for Prince George of Denmark in case that Prince survived the Queen; and they were told by Lord Stanhope that the Bills embodying this lavish grant were adopted by the Commons with only a semblance of debate, although stoutly resisted in the House of Lords. Then the Bill for preventing occasional conformity, which imposed heavy penalties on Dissenters who took the Sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England as a qualification for office and afterwards attended conventicles, was twice carried by immense majorities in the Commons, and on both occasions rejected by the Lords. At the Dissolution in 1705, Burnet writes— Thus this Session and with it this Parliament came to an end; it was no small blessing to the Queen and Nation that they got well out of such hands. Go on to the next triennial period—1707. When a Committee of the Lords was appointed to examine the complaints made by the merchants against the Admiralty, they were told by Burnet that the Committee of the Lords called the merchants before them and treated them not with the scorn which had been very indecently offered them by some Members of the House of Commons, but with great patience and gentleness. In 1708, Parliament was dissolved on the presentation of the most fulsome Addresses to the Queen after the trial of Dr. Sacheverell. With a General Election held under such circumstances in 1710, it was not surprising that at the end of the first Session Burnet wrote'— All considering persons had a very melancholy prospect when they saw what might be apprehended from the two Sessions that were yet to come of the same Parliament. That was the Parliament which sent Walpole to the Tower, and was adjourned no fewer than 11 times for the purpose of keeping him there. Of this period, Burnet wrote— The scandal of corruption was now higher than ever, for it was believed men were not only bribed for a whole Session, but had new bribes for particular votes," and he added, "this is the worst Parliament I ever saw. He (Colonel Alexander) thought it would be difficult to find a more conclusive proof of the great rise in importance of the House of Commons after the passing of the Septennial Act than the circumstance that whereas Harley and St. John caught eagerly at a seat in the Lords, Walpole and Pulteney reluctantly quitted the Commons. Archdeacon Coxe, in mentioning the refusal of a Peerage by "Walpole in 1723, observed that— Hitherto it had been customary for those who are entrusted with the chief direction of affairs to be placed in the House of Lords; but, conscious that his talents were best calculated for the House of Commons, and that his consequence would soon decline if called to the Upper House, Walpole waived the dignity for himself, but accepted it for his son. But perhaps the most remarkable testimony in favour of the Septennial Act was that given by one of the most eminent of the Predecessors of the right hon. Gentleman at present occupying the Chair. They were told that Mr. Speaker Onslow was frequently heard to declare— That the passing of the Septennial Act formed the era of the emancipation of the British House of Commons from its former dependence on the Crown and the House of Lords, and from that period it has risen in consequence and strength. The very men who suggested the Triennial Act were so convinced of its failure that they earnestly advocated its repeal; and when the Septennial Act became law the venerable Somers observed to Townshend—"I have just heard of the work on which you are engaged, and congratulate you on it." The hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. J. Holms) had stated that the triennial period was glorious for our arms; but against Blenheim and a glorious war they might set the Treaty of Utrecht and a discreditable peace. Besides, what did hon. Gentlemen opposite care about successful wars? It was only the other day Lord Derby told people how much Blenheim cost them, and he spoke of that battle as "the gunpowder and glory business." He (Colonel Alexander) did not, of course, deny the corruption of the septennial period; but having shown that the same corruption prevailed during the triennial, he contended that corruption was altogether independent of the duration of Parliament. The Legislature was corrupt because "the people loved to have it so." The statesmen of the reign of George II., though conscious of the evil, failed to discern the remedy. They saw in the repeal of the Septennial Act a panacea for every evil. To Lord Chatham in the succeeding reign belonged the credit of first suggesting what eventually proved to be the only true mode of reforming Parliament. Speaking in 1766 of the borough representation, he called it "the rotten part of our Constitution," and said—"It cannot continue a century, if it does not drop it must be amputated." His son, Mr. Pitt, also saw what was the true remedy for the evil. He said— There were boroughs which had now, in fact, no actual existence but in the return of Members to that House. They had no existence in property, population, in trade and weight. There were hardly men in the borough who had a right to vote, and they were the slaves and subjects of a person who claimed the property of the borough and who, in fact, made the return. The hon. Member for Hackney had quoted a great many eminent statesmen—Lord Macaulay and others—who were in favour of triennial periods; but against that, he (Colonel Alexander) would quote others who were as decidedly against the proposition. Mr. Pitt, it was true, languidly supported the annual Motion of Alderman Saw-bridge for shortening the duration of Parliaments; but it was clear that his faith in the remedy was not very robust, for it found no place in his Reform Bill of 1785. When Mr. Grey, afterwards Lord Grey, in 1797, brought in his Reform Bill, he made one brief and almost contemptuous reference to this subject in a few words at the close of his speech— If the reform in the representation was adopted, but not otherwise, it occurred to him that the duration of Parliament should be limited to three years. But in the Bill of 1831 the proposal was not included. Lord John Russell, in introducing the Bill, said that— It was not the intention of His Majesty's Government to originate any proposal on the subject of the duration of Parliament. And in the many speeches on the subject of Reform made by Lord John Russell between 1820 and 1830 there occurred no allusion whatever to shortening the duration of Parliaments. When Mr. O'Connell, in 1830, moved Resolutions advocating triennial Parliaments, Lord John Russell moved a counter Resolution entirely negativing the proposal. When, in 1834, Mr. Tennyson brought forward his Motion to shorten the duration of Parliament, Lord Althorp made use of very remarkable language. He said— He had voted formerly for the repeal of the Septennial Act during the continuance of an unreformed Parliament, because he never then entertained the least hope of carrying the great measure of Parliamentary reform, and knowing that so large a portion of the then Members of that House were sent there on the nomination of individuals, he thought it desirable that the power of the people over them, whom they actually did elect, should be increased to the greatest possible extent. And in the same speech there was a sentence which was very applicable to some remarks recently made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich— One reason why the duration of Parliaments had been shorter than the law permitted, had been that the Governments had taken advantage of the period when it was most convenient to dissolve the House of Commons with the greatest prospect of advantage to themselves. The fact was that Lord Grey, Lord Althorp, and Lord John Russell saw that shortening the duration of Parliament without reform would be useless, and with other reforms would be unnecessary. When they were told that at an election in Bute, within living memory, only one person attended the meeting, that he took the chair, called over the roll of freeholders, answered to his own name, moved and seconded his own nomination, put the question to the vote, and was unanimously returned; what did it matter whether a gentleman so returned elected himself for seven, or, for the matter of that, seventeen years? He was entitled to ask the hon. Gentleman the Member for Hackney—Who asked for this measure? Had he been able to evoke any enthusiasm in favour of it? He dangled it before the House and the country during the whole of last Session, and presented, he (Colonel Alexander) thought, some three or four Petitions, with about as many, or, at any rate, not many more, signatures attached to them. The hon. Gentleman in that respect trod in the footsteps of his Predecessor, Mr. Tennyson, whose Motion in favour of shortening the duration of Parliament was so feebly supported out-of-doors that the late Lord Derby, then Mr. Stanley, contrasted the small number of Petitions in its favour with the enormous number presented in favour of the abolition of the Slave Trade, a circumstance which so discouraged Mr. Tennyson that he allowed many years to elapse before he attempted to renew his proposal. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Hackney, in a very interesting article, had said last year that the question of the duration of Parliaments had not been prominently before the country during the present century. He (Colonel Alexander) would go further, and say that the utmost apathy had been shown by the country on the question. The hon. Gentleman had adduced the example of foreign Legislatures; but he (Colonel Alexander) did not think that they need go to foreign countries to ascertain how they were to legislate on such a question. He knew the hon. Gentleman was a great admirer of the German military system; but he was not aware that he was also an admirer of the German legislative system, lie had spoken in favour of quinquennial Parliaments; but he (Colonel Alexander) desired to point out that they had had no experience of them. If the theory of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Gladstone) were adopted, that no Parliament was ever to have a last Session, the quinquennial Parliament of the hon. Member for Hackney would become nominally quadrennial, and practically triennial. Lord John Russell had on two occasions spoken of quinquennial Parliaments, and he spoke of thorn at an interval of 16 years, during which time he had considerably modified his views on the subject. Speaking in 1833, Lord John Russell said that— If he had to frame an abstract Constitution.…he should certainly prefer the term of five to that of seven years. Living, however, as he did, under a Constitution which was already formed, he did not see any advantage likely to result from altering the duration of Parliaments … equal to the inconvenience of making the change."—[3Hansard,xix. 1127.] That was the opinion of Lord John Russell on quinquennial Parliaments in 1833. Sixteen years later, the same noble Lord withdrew his modified approval of quinquennial Parliaments. In 1849, he said— My right hon. Friend (Mr. Tennyson) asks me whether I am now prepared to state that I think seven years the best term for which Parliament should endure? After the experience we have had for the good many years which have elapsed since the passing of the Reform Bill, I am prepared to state my decided opinion that we had better not alter the present term for which Parliament now endures."—[3Hansard,cv. 865.] He (Colonel Alexander) commended the attention of the House and that of hon. Gentlemen on the other side to the "decided opinion" of this distinguished veteran Reformer, and repeated that they had no experience of quinquennial Parliaments. The adoption of the proposal would be simply change for the mere sake of change. They had heard what the hon. Member for Newcastle had said of annual Parliaments. They might establish quinquennial Parliaments; but that would not settle the question. Lord Brougham told them that Mr. Burke once observed to him in jest— I see you have got to universal suffrage and annual Parliaments; but you will still be beat by the oftener if need be-ans,"—[1Hansard,xxxviii. 1166.] alluding to the words "once a-year, or oftener, if need be," in the Statute of Edward III. The oftener if need be-ans would still start up and carry the day. Their existence was eternal; there was no pitch too high, no base note too low for them. They knew of no obstacle, hardly any difficulty; their only rule in the comparison was to go beyond the last man who had offered. He asked the House to reject the Motion, which, in his humble opinion, was both unnecessary and harmful. It was unnecessary, because the country, whenever it desired a Dissolution, had ample means at its disposal for giving an expression to its wish; it was unnecessary, because, in the words of Lord John Russell, the change would make Members of Parliament dependent, not on the settled opinion of the people, but on their transient and temporary impulses. Let the House say, and say decisively—"Hic statui signum—hic optime manebimus." The hon. and gallant Gentleman concluded by moving his Amendment.


said, he had great pleasure in seconding the Amendment. There was no magic in the precise number of years a Parliament endured. In ancient times Parliament was called together for the nonce, and for every Parliament there was a fresh Election. That, however, was not the case at the present day, and that House did substantially represent the opinions of the body of the people, although its term lasted seven years instead of one. The desideratum was to get a Parliament whose duration should be sufficiently long without being too short. Its duration should be sufficiently long to enable Members to learn their business and to gain experience, without which they would be of no use, and not so long as to enable them to forget that they were not independent legislators, but Members of a Representative Assembly. It was said that under a septennial system Members were of little good during the last two years, because they were talking to their constituents rather than endeavouring to transact the business of the country. But the same thing would happen under a quinquennial, a triennial, or an annual system, and the useful years of a Parliament would be proportionately shortened. Moreover, it was contended that no Parliament should be suffered to run out its full term; and, therefore, the five years' Parliament would become a four years' Parliament, and a three years' a two years' Parliament. He thought that the present Government were acting well within their right in refusing to dissolve Parliament before the expiration of its full term; and if they were wrong in that respect they would be answerable to the next Parliament. Again, if this demand for a five years' Parliament were complied with, an agitation would be got up for a three years', for a two years', and, ultimately, for an annual Parliament. If Parliaments only endured for very short periods, the result would be that the House would be filled with a number of adventurers, whose only object would be to get into some office or otherwise enrich themselves at the expense of their country, while lawyers would refuse to imperil their professional prospects by coming into that House for a year or two only. The shortening of Parliaments would necessitate great expense, and the ablest men in the country would hesitate before expending large sums of money in order to procure seats which in all probability they would not retain except for short periods of time. The main results, as far as he could see, of shortening the duration of Parliaments would be to bring into the House a large number of agitators whose only object was to appeal to the passions of the mob. As far as he was concerned, he would prefer to see the duration of Parliaments doubled instead of shortened, feeling assured as he did that such a course would increase the independence of Members and insure their taking a wider course than they would do if they were in continual fear of incurring the displeasure of constituents less wise than themselves.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being found present,


said, the tendency of the present time was in the direction of democracy, not only abroad, but in this country; and he strongly urged as a means of stemming the tide which was setting in that direction that the House should pause before acceding to any proposal which could have the effect of shortening the duration of Parliaments.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "House" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the Septennial Act has been satisfactory in its operation, and ought not to he repealed,"—(Colonel Alexander,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, that the hon. and learned Baronet who had just spoken had simply indulged in a hypothetical harangue. He (Mr. H. Samuelson) did not think any results so terrible as those anticipated by the hon. and learned Baronet were likely to flow from adopting the proposal of the hon. Member for Hackney. It was not, in his view, logical to suggest that adventurers and men who sought their own interests only would be induced to seek seats in Parliament by the passing of a law which would probably shorten their Parliamentary life. If men who aspired to Parliamentary careers sought simply to make hay during the shining of the sun, they would have larger opportunities for doing this in a possible seven years' Parliament than they could have in one which could only last for five, three, or, perhaps, one year only. The last Parliament only lasted five years; and no one, he thought, would be found to say that there was not a great deal of good legislation during the life of that Parliament. Then it was urged that Parliament ought to last long enough to teach hon. Members their business; but he believed that 100 years would not be long enough to teach some people. Parliament was supposed to represent the opinion of the country; but it was not only possible, but probable, that within seven years the opinion of the country would change, and how could that fact be ascertained but by an appeal to the country? The last Government was strong when it came into power; but it was found at the end of five years that it had lost all its strength, and that the mind of the country had undergone a change. If a Government desired to retain strength, he thought it could best do so by submitting its conduct and its measures at the end of each five years to the judgment of the people of the country. He had heard no valid argument against the proposal of his hon. Friend; and if an additional reason were wanted for his support of the Motion it might be found in the fact that he believed it would, if carried into effect, lessen the expenses of elections, which were, in many cases, so great as to be positively scandalous.


who had the following Amendment on the Paper:— That, in the opinion of this House, the Septennial Act provides a sound expression of the matured wishes of the nation, and no occasion exists for its repeal, said, he had not heard from any supporter of the Motion a single argument in favour of a quinquennial Parliament which did not equally apply to a triennial Parliament. The Motion he regarded as a mere caprice of political speculation. They had no experience in this country, and no great principle to appeal to. The only principle he re- cognized in the Motion was the somewhat unstatesmanlike principle of splitting the difference between triennial and septennial Parliaments. The hon. Member for Newcastle (Mr. J. Cowen), in his eloquent speech, did not conceal his real wishes on this subject; for the whole of that speech was in favour, not of the Motion, but of annual Parliaments. In his opinion, it was quite by accident that the hon. Member for Hackney had fixed upon five years for the duration of Parliament, because the hon. Member not only made an able speech, but he had written an article—always a dangerous thing to do—upon the subject. That article appeared inThe Nineteenth Centuryin January last year; but it so happened that that was a time when the Government had reached the end of their fifth year, and it was a period also when many people who had at one time lost their head were barely beginning to recover their sober senses. Of course, it was natural for the hon. Member for Hackney, if he believed that the people were influenced by what had been told them of the foreign policy of the country, to think that a system of quinquennial Parliaments would have at that time given the Liberal Party an admirable chance. In considering the proposition of the hon. Member, they should narrowly examine the charges which he brought against the present Parliament. The hon. Member said that it failed to represent the opinions of the constituencies, and pointed out that great changes had taken place in the foreign policy of the country since the Parliament began to sit in 1874. He believed that both these allegations were unfounded. With regard to the first, it was unfortunate for the hon. Member that since he placed his Motion upon the Paper they had had some test elections, which had shown, if anything could, that Parliament was not out of harmony with the electors. It had been declared that test elections were of no real value, but he would remind the House that it had been in consequence of test elections that Parliament had been dissolved in 1874 in a most sudden manner; and if those elections were not to be taken as an expression of opinion outside the House, then he would say that Parliament had never been dissolved in a more arbitrary manner than had been the case on that occasion. Then the hon. Member spoke of a great change in the foreign policy of the Government. Should it not be remembered that the war that took place in South Africa was in distinct opposition to the wishes of the Government, and that it would have taken place whatever might have been the legal duration of Parliament? In everything that the Government had done they had carried out the policy approved by the people, who would have unanimously adopted the policy of maintaining the Ottoman Empire in 1874 if they had then been asked whether they would do so. But if the Government had really been in the wrong the remedy proposed by the hon. Member would really be no remedy at all, for the occurrences for which he blamed the Government took place in 1878, within three years of a dissolution; and how could he show that a Government was more likely to act under the control of the constituencies when there were only three years to run in a five years' Parliament than when there were only three years to run in a septennial Parliament? The hon. Member had given them some facts which, in his opinion, altogether upset the hon. Member's theory. He had told them that, since 1833, the average duration of Parliaments had been a little less than four years. Now, what did that show? Why, that when Governments under the present system had not been in harmony with the country they had dissolved. It was only when a Government was supported by Parliament, and Parliament by the country, that Parliament was allowed to last seven years. The hon. Member, therefore, would not allow a Parliament to run on for seven years, even though it had the support of the people, but would put the country to the trouble of a General Election when an election was not required. Was it possible for the nation to have a greater control over Parliament than could be exercised at the present day, when there were such multifarious means of communication by which hon. Members were brought into association with their constituencies? Ancient history had been quoted to a considerable extent in support of the Motion, but quotations of the kind were totally irrelevant, because the times were so much altered. Popular opinion acted upon the House in a far greater degree than formerly, owing to increased representation. The abolition of pocket boroughs also removed the need which might have been said to exist once for more frequent elections. It might have been wise in old days, when corruption was prevalent, to shorten Parliaments in order that Ministers might not exercise too great a control over Members; but they had been told, in the eloquent speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle, that there was no danger of such control being exercised at the present day. Thus one great reason for diminishing the length of Parliaments had really ceased to exist. It might be said that, under the present system, the influence of the constituencies over Parliament was indirect. Well, he hoped that it might ever continue to be indirect; for that indirect influence rested upon what had always been at the basis of our Constitution—namely, the principle that confidence must be placed somewhere. He believed it would be an evil epoch for England when they became so democratic that the people would not trust those who represented them, and when they scrutinized their acts more as if they were delegates than as if they were Representatives. The hon. Member for Hackney had quoted foreign precedents; but there were no foreign precedents for a quinquennial Parliament. Again, there was an essential difference between our Parliament and any Parliament abroad. In this country there existed a condition of public integrity which in some countries of the world was not so conspicuous as it might be; and in few countries was the control of Parliament over the Executive so great as in England. The House of Commons had to deal with subjects of greater importance and variety than had ever been dealt with by any Parliament which had ever sat; and it was, therefore, most important that they should have in their Assembly men whom the people could trust, who would bring to the consideration of public affairs a sense of justice and independent opinion, and who would not be easily led by popular clamour. Public opinion was apt to be influenced by tides and floods of sentiment; and he held that it would be a bad thing for this country if the Representatives of the nation, renouncing their indepen- dence, were to allow themselves, in all cases, to be ruled by that opinion. There was nothing to gain by substituting this direct control for the indirect Constitutional control which now existed; the control might be greater, indeed, but we might buy it at a perilous price. It was admitted that a more honest House of Commons never sat; and yet, at a time when popular control was greater than ever it was before, it was proposed to shorten Parliaments, on the ground that that control was not sufficient—that, in short, the Members could not be trusted. To do that would be to bring discredit on public life—to bring it down to its level in America, where the majority of thinking and independent men refused to have anything to do with polities. In this country we had to deal with affairs of the greatest importance. If the work was to be done thoroughly it must be done by men who felt their responsibility; but could we obtain men who would appreciate the responsibility if Parliaments lasted only two or three years, and if we had constant appeals to the country rendering it impossible that it could have any permanent policy? That would not only diminish the responsibility of Ministers, but it would discredit the House itself. It would be destroying the substance for the sake of the shadow. While it would nominally give fresh power to the constituencies, it would destroy the prestige and influence of the House, through which the people defended their rights. The people would have increased control, but over what kind of a Parliament? Over ono very much sunk in the popular estimation. At present men were too much inclined to get into Parliament by giving reckless pledges—too many had been given lately. With quinquennial Parliaments there would be practically a Dissolution every four years; at any rate, constituencies would know more certainly than now that an election was impending, and, therefore, there would be a greater chance of their exacting these pledges. If we had not that evil, we must have another—the mischief of a snap Dissolution like the last. At times we should have triennial Dissolutions, with all the results of triennial Parliaments. At present Members had to resign their seats when they took office, and submit to a new election; and we should have Ministers elected twice in three years, or four times in six years; and what men were likely to undergo such an amount of trouble and expense? It was a serious question whether we had not too many elections now. If we increased the number, we should be likely to increase the number—already too large—of electors who abstained from voting, and the best men would go through the turmoil of an election every three years. It was essential that we should have men trained and experienced in political life; but with shorter Parliaments we should have a constant succession of inexperienced men, who would take two out of their first three years to learn the Business of Parliament. What would be the effect of these changes on our foreign policy? Having to face a great Power like Russia, it was important, if we were to maintain our position among the nations of the world, that we should have a firm national purpose; but he contended that this was impossible with triennial Parliaments. The result of these constant appeals to popular opinion would be that it would be worked upon by irresponsible agitators. That would furnish the best argument to despotic Powers against a Government like ours, based on popular control. It would be said it was impossible for a great nation to combine our institutions with a firm and consistent national purpose. The domestic Business of Parliament was so enormous, it was almost impossible to deal with it, and it was growing every day; and how should we get through it with fresh and inexperienced men? At present there was a great deal of talk, much of which was deemed irrelevant by some of them; and one result of the lowered suffrage was that more men were sent in whose constituents expected them to talk. With growing work, increased talking, and shorter Parliaments, it would be almost impossible to transact the Business of the country. It was also important to consider the relation of that House to the other Estates of the Realm. Although the intention of the hon. Member for Hackney was to increase the influence of the House of Commons by bringing it more under the control of the constituencies, the result would be the increased authority of the Crown and of the House of Lords, and the greater influence and power of the permanent officials. He should heartily support the Amendment, because it would maintain the prestige of Parliament, and defend the Commons against the Crown and the House of Lords on the one hand; and, on the other, against the more serious dangers of bureaucracy, arising from the concentration of power in the hands of the permanent officials of the country.


in reply, said, most of the hon. Members who had spoken against the Motion had dealt with the question as if he had argued in favour of triennial or annual Parliaments, whereas he entirely avoided doing anything of the kind. He still held to the views which he had so fully stated to the House—that quinquennial Parliaments would be of vast service to the country.

Question put.

The Housedivided:—Ayes 60; Noes 110: Majority 50.—(Div. List, No. 22.)


Main Question, as amended, put.

Resolved,That, in the opinion of this House, the Septennial Act has been satisfactory in its operation, and ought not to he repealed.