HC Deb 31 May 1880 vol 252 cc862-76

in rising to move— That the Committee on Parliamentary Oath (Mr. Bradlaugh) do consist of Twenty-seven Members:—That Sir Hardinge Giffard, Mr. Otway, Lord Elcho, and Mr. Shaw be added to the Committee. said, that the reason which had led to his putting this Notice on the Paper was fresh in the recollection of the House. It would be necessary for him, however, to refer briefly to the proceedings on last Friday week. The Prime Minister then stated that if he had had his own way there would have been no occasion to prevent Mr. Bradlaugh from taking the Oath. Evidently, the House was not of that opinion, and his hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth (Sir H. Drummond Wolff) moved a Resolution which led to considerable discussion. The right hon. Gentleman, seeing what course the discussion was taking, at the last moment raised a very important question. The right hon. Gentleman proposed that the whole question of the Oath should be referred to a Committee, and gave the words of his Resolution which was to guide the decisions of that Committee. Then there came another discussion, and it was agreed by the right hon. Gentleman that it would be wise to postpone the consideration of the question to another day. Consequently, the right hon. Gentleman agreed to the adjournment of the debate. On Saturday morning there appeared on the Notice Paper an Amendment in the name of his hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General (Sir Henry James). This gave rather a wider scope to that which the right hon. Gentleman had proposed, which confined the Committee to the narrowest issue possible, and which rendered it almost impossible for the Committee to come to any conclusion other than the one evidently indicated by the statement which the right hon. Gentleman had made. ["No, no!"] At all events, that was his (Sir Walter B. Barttelot's) opinion, and the opinion of a large number of the Members of the House. When they came to discuss the question again his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Carnarvonshire (Mr. Watkin Williams) pointed out some great omissions in these Resolutions. The hon. and learned Gentleman showed that that House could have dealt better than any Committee with the grave question before it. The House came, however, after due deliberation, to the decision that a Committee should be appointed, and that it should take the Resolution of the hon. and learned Member for Carnarvonshire as amended and sanctioned by the Prime Minister. Now, there was a very different question before the Committee, and one on which they would be able to give a far different opinion than they could have given on the narrow and restricted issues raised by the Prime Minister and the hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General. It was necessary that a Committee of that sort should be essentially a representative Committee; and he would appeal to anyone as to whether the Committee, as originally struck, was a representative Committee. At first, it was proposed that it should consist of 19 Members, and the number was afterwards increased to 23. Even with 23 Members, it was shown by the noble Lord the Member for Woodstock (Lord Randolph Churchill), and by many others on both sides of the House, that the Committee did not represent the general feelings and views of the House. This was a most grave question, and the Committee to which it was referred ought to have such a representative character that their Report would guide the House both as to the legal aspect of the case and also the aspect of the case at issue between the House and the hon. Member for Northampton. He did not himself vote for the adjournment of the debate, and he afterwards thought the best course to pursue would be to increase the numbers of the Committee from 23 to 27. Accordingly, he took the four best names he could find to represent the different views of the different sections of the House. His right hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Sir Stafford Northcote) had urged especially that the hon. and learned Gentleman the late Solicitor General should be on the Committee. Therefore, he ventured to propose his name. Next he went to the other side of the House. Ho saw an hon. Friend of his who had been in the Ministry and had shown himself to be an independent Member of the House. He referred to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Rochester (Mr. Otway), whom he should propose to place on the Committee. He would also propose the name of a Home Ruler, his hon. Friend the Member for Cork County (Mr. Shaw), who represented the largest Roman Catholic constituency in Ireland, and whose honesty and integrity no man in that House would dispute. Lastly, he took his noble Friend who represented that Scotch opinion which was so controverted as being absolutely unrepresented (Lord Elcho). This very grave question ought to be approached most calmly and deliberately. Hon. Gentlemen opposite said that a Committee should be judicial, calm, quiet, and conciliatory; and he believed it would be found that the Gentlemen he had named would add much to the weight and intelligence of the Committee. The wider the Committee was the better it would represent the views of the House, and the more likely the House would be to agree to its judgment. The hon. and gallant Baronet concluded by formally proposing the Motion of which he had given Notice.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Committee on Parliamentary Oath (Mr. Bradlaugh) do consist of Twenty-seven Members."—(Sir Walter B. Barttelot.)


Sir, I am not at all sorry that the House should have had time given it to consider the point raised by the hon. and gallant Baronet; but the result of that consideration is that the Government remain of the opinion which they entertained on Friday last, and that they cannot agree to the Motion of the hon. and gallant Baronet. Ill the first place, we should not agree, if we were disposed to a further increase of the Committee, to the selection of the names which the hon. and gallant Baronet proposes. He states that it is eminently and above all things requisite that this should be a representative Committee. Well, Sir, in a representative Committee, it is, I apprehend, usually the rule and practice of this House that the Committee shall have some regard, in the distribution of its Members, to the distribution of political opinion in the House. ["Hear, hear!"and "No, no!"] If I understand that some hon. Member or hon. Members question that statement, I can only suppose that they are among the very numerous new Members. If any hon. Member who has sat in this House before this Session remains ignorant of the fact that there are rules with regard to the ordinary selection of Members upon Select Committees according to which they have reference in a considerable degree to the distribution of political opinion in the House, I can only say that I thought the proposition incapable of being disputed. Perhaps I may be told that this is not a Party question; but when the Government, exercising a very usual function, proposed to refer the question to a Committee, a Motion was made to refuse them leave so to refer it, and that Motion was supported by the whole of the Opposition in this House. I am afraid, therefore, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that the question excites a considerable degree of feeling—I will not say Party feeling, but such as corresponds within the limits in which it prevails to Party feeling. I will not follow the hon. and gallant Baronet through the narrative part of his subject, because it did not appear to me that the narrative could have any effect except that of reviving past discussions. I, at the same time, respectfully demur to the accuracy of the narrative which he has given. I observe that the proposition which the hon. and gallant Baronet makes is as follows: — As it now stands, there are upon the Committee 11 Gentlemen who are supporters of the Government, 11 Gentlemen belonging to the Opposition, and one Gentleman connected with what is called the Irish Party. The hon. and gallant Baronet proposes to raise the number of the supporters of the Government, who, I believe, are the majority in this House, to 12; the numbers of the Opposition, who are, I believe, in the minority in this House, to 13; and he also proposes two Members of the Irish Party, of which proposal I make no complaint whatever. This he calls a representative Committee. But I could not agree to the names proposed by the hon. and gallant Baronet, even were we prepared to agree to an increase in the numbers of the Committee. I have, however, these two reasons against agreeing to increase the numbers. In the first place, I am compelled rather reluctantly to state that this list as it stands was the result of communications between the two sides of the House— communications proposed from the opposite Bench, and carried through in the usual and regular manner between the right hon. and very highly respected Baronet who represents the Opposition in such matters (Sir William Hart Dyke) and my noble Friend near me (Lord Richard Grosvenor); and an arrangement was made, according to which the list as it now stands, and without the name of the hon. and learned Member for Launceston (Sir Hardinge Giffard), was strictly and formally drawn up. The list is the result of an agreement from which I should not, without re-opening the whole matter, feel myself at liberty to depart. Perhaps those who heard the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition on Friday may say that that speech was hardly consistent with the statement I am now making. That, however, is a matter for the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition to explain rather than for me. The statement is strictly cor- rect in point of fact, and will not be questioned by the right hon. Baronet the Member for Mid Kent (Sir William Hart Dyke). But, beyond that, I see in the statement of the hon. and gallant Baronet who proposes this Motion this disposition. He complains of the decision of the House that this question should be referred to a Select Committee; and he says as it has been referred to a Committee that it should be a very unusually largo one, so as, in fact, to bring the question back as much as possible to the nature of an inquiry and judgment by the House. Now, in my opinion and that of the Government, the original number of the Committee when it was first created was a proper number and wisely chosen, and its complete impartiality was established by the verdict which it gave. At any rate, it could not be supposed that the Government had a sinister object in proposing the re-appointment of the Committee, because the verdict which it gave was adverse to the view of our constituted legal authorities—namely, the Law Officers of the Crown. Notwithstanding, however, the communications from the opposite side of the House which I have described, Her Majesty's Government, in deference to the hon. Gentlemen on the Bench opposite, whom they believed to be representative of those among whom they sat, agreed, reluctantly, but still with the view which they have had all along, to secure a general concurrence of the House to an increase of the number of the Committee to 23. It is now proposed to carry the number to 27. But even to increase it to 23 is not to improve the Committee, viewing the nature of its task, and to increase the number to 27 would tend still further to deteriorate it, and make it still less specially fit to perform the peculiar functions intrusted to it. The Committee is not a Committee simply to represent the instincts and feelings or general opinions, or constitutional opinions or religious tendencies of Members of this House. It is, in our opinion, a Committee which, before all things, is to examine very nice, delicate, and important questions arising upon the construction of a Statute. It is not the question in our opinion— although I believe it is the question in the opinion of a portion of those who sit opposite, and far be it from me to deny their right to take whatever view they think fit of this case—but in our view it is not the question whether Mr. Bradlaugh is a fit person to sit in this House. That is not the question. It is a question which may come under discussion; but there is a prior question to be decided, and that is the jurisdiction of this House. Has the House this jurisdiction by law? If it has not this jurisdiction by law, has it this jurisdiction by its own nature, considering the relation in which it stands to its own Members? If it has this jurisdiction in either of these ways, or in any other way, has it ever exercised that jurisdiction? And if it has not exercised it— about which I apprehend there is no doubt—is it, on the whole, prudent and politic for the House to assume the exercise of that jurisdiction? If it does assume the exercise of it, upon what ground and within what limits will it assert the propriety of that exercise? Now, I am giving crude and unauthoritative sketches; but these are some portions of the very nice matters that will have to be considered before this Committee, and it is obvious that these are matters entirely distinct from the question whether Mr. Bradlaugh, either by his opinions or by the mode in which ho has declared those opinions and thrust them in our eyes, is, or is not, disqualified. These, I think, are the general grounds on which we have spoken of the inquiry before this Committee as a judicial one, requiring the utmost calmness and impartiality, and a coolness of temper which, I think, however favourably we may view our own discussions, we can hardly assert without qualification has prevailed in the debates we have had on the Parliamentary Oath. For the reason, then, that this Committee has been the result of a compact framed in the usual manner, and from an objection to the mode in which the hon. and gallant Baronet proposes to set about the business of enlarging the Committee, I must ask the House to decline to accede to this Motion, and to allow the Committee, which has now been appointed after due consideration of the names of those who should serve upon it, to proceed to its work. One word I must add about the hon. and learned Member for Launceston (Sir Hardinge Giffard), that what I said on a former occasion was strictly and entirely accurate, and that there was no proposal made that in the Committee of 23 Members that hon. and learned Gentleman's name should be included.


Sir, I must say that I regret exceedingly that the Prime Minister should think it necessary in a matter of this importance to introduce so very much passion into the discussion.[Cries "Oh!"and "Withdraw!"] I am perfectly ready to withdraw. I regret that the Prime Minister should have spoken in the tone which he has adopted. But the matter is one which is really of very great importance as a question of the privilege and of the duty of this House; and I earnestly hope that the House will consider the question before it in a temper suitable to its importance. Now, the Prime Minister has said—perhaps, I am going a little in mediasres —that the Committee was originally agreed upon, and placed upon the Paper, after communication between the two sides of the House in the usual manner. That is a statement which I dispute. In the beginning of these proceedings, when the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh)first appeared at the Table and requested to be allowed to take an Affirmation instead of the usual Oath, a question was raised by you, Sir, as to whether you were authorized to admit him to make such an Affirmation. You stated that you were in doubt as to the power to grant that authority. You referred (he question to the House, and the House referred it to a Committee which was appointed for the strict and sole purpose of construing an Act of Parliament. Well, on the appointment of such a Committee as that, it was natural that there should be a very large proportion of Members of the Legal Profession. I remember that at the time when I seconded that Motion I made the remark that I thought it a pity that the appointment of the Committee should have been proceeded with so immediately, because the Law Officers of the Crown would not be present when it was nominated. That Committee was, however, nominated; and, subsequently, the Law Officers of the Crown—who were not at the time of its nomination Members of the House— were added to its number. That Committee was appointed to consider a particular question? of the construction of a Statute, and it came to a decision which prevented the Affirmation from being taken by the hon. Member for Northampton. Thereupon a wholly new question arose; because the hon. Member for Northampton, who had, in the first instance, claimed the right to make an Affirmation, and had thereby, by implication, refused to take the Oath, or, at all events, by very clear implication informed the House that the Oath was not binding on him, came again and proposed to take the usual Oath. Upon that, objection was taken—not by the Government, by the way—but taken by an individual Member of the Opposition. A question was raised, and thereupon the Government moved as a sort of Motion in bar that it be referred to a Committee to consider whether the House had the power to refuse a Member proposing to take the Oath under those circumstances. On that proposal a very serious question arose. It was not a mere question of the construction of a Statute; but, according to the Resolution which was carried, it was a question as to the Privileges of the House of Commons, and not only, let me say, as to the Privileges of the House of Commons, but as to various other matters of a higher and very grave character. The terms of the Resolution were that the Committee should report its opinion whether the House has a right, founded on precedent or otherwise, by Resolution, to prevent a Member taking the Oath; and, if they are of opinion it has the right of preventing, to report whether it is competent to the House, under the above circumstances, to prevent Mr. Bradlaugh from taking the Oath. And then there were various questions raised on that, and ultimately the Resolution was altered, and the whole matter was raised in a form which asked the Committee to consider the question as to the right and jurisdiction of this House, and to report the opinion which the Committee may form. Weil, it is perfectly obvious by this second Reference very much larger and more important questions are raised than those which were raised by the first Reference. The first question referred to a narrow technical issue—the construction of an Act of Parliament. The second question is one which goes into matters of a very important character touching the Privileges of this House. When, contrary to the opinion of those who sit on this side and contrary, I believe, to the opinion of many on the other side, it was decided that the matter was one which should not be decided by the House as a body, but should be referred to a Committee, it appeared to me and, I think, to many others, that the natural course would be very carefully to consider the selection of the Committee who should be appointed to consider this very grave question, and I had expected that what is called the usual course would have been followed— that there would have been communications between those who usually act in these matters as to the selection of the Members to be submitted to the consideration of the House. But there was no communication whatever, I believe, with this side of the House. The names of 15 or 19 Gentlemen were put on the Paper, who were to decide a technical point. When I saw that I was very much struck with the remarkable character of that proceeding, and I immediately took steps for communicating to the Government that it was not a satisfactory method of proceeding. Well, of course it was open to us to object to some of the names, and to propose the substitution of other names. But I could not but feel that when a number of eminent names are placed upon the Table of the House it is extremely disagreeable and invidious to propose that some of them should be taken off. I, therefore, thought the simpler way would be to add a certain number of names. Considering the nature of the question, a larger Committee might very fairly be appointed. I communicated privately to the Government my wish that three names should be added from our side of the House; and I named my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Lancashire (Sir R. Assheton Cross), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Gibson), and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Launces-ton (Sir Hardinge Giffard), all of whom were well qualified to take part in such an inquiry, and with regard to which they hud taken a very important part. Well, after that, further communications went on; and it was undoubtedly understood that it was I who had put these names into the hands of my right hon. Friend (Sir William Hart Dyke). At the same time, I stated to my right hon. Friend that if it was possible I wished to have all the three names added — that the names of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Lancashire and of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for the University of Dublin were those that I particularly wished to be added. On the last occasion I said I wished to have them all three added. Well, on the next morning it appeared that four names were proposed to be added, and that of those two were added from our side. I was not particularly surprised that he should have thought it impossible that more than four names should be added to the Committee; but when a remark was made the other night upon the absence of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Launceston, the Prime Minister got up and said—"That is only from Lis own side withdrawing him." We never withdrew him at all. Our wish was, and is, that my hon. and learned Friend should be upon the Committee; and I think if any hon. Gentleman will consider what effect such a statement has he will see how very unfair it is to my hon. and learned Friend, that it really gives the impression that his Friends on his own side have not any confidence in him. On the contrary, we have great confidence in him, and we desire especially that his services should be given to the Committee. I make no charge whatever of any breach of faith upon the selection of these names. On the other hand, I wish distinctly to say we do regret very much the absence of my hon, and learned Friend from this Committee; and, as far as we are concerned, we will do what we can to place him upon it. That is really our position. If we had been able to take the usual course of consulting and considering what the composition of this Committee should be, I do not believe there would have been any dispute. I think that upon such a question it will be a great advantage that the Committee should be a large one. I do not look upon the question as being one simply of a technical or merely of a legal character. I think it is a question which will have to come under the review of the House, and I think it is a proper matter for the consideration of the House to determine that there should be as many men of eminence as possible upon the Committee. My hon. and gallant Friend behind me has taken a course which is highly proper. It is one which I myself intimated the other night I should recommend; and, as far as I am concerned, I am prepared to vote for it.


said, he rose merely with the view of remarking upon some of the observations that had fallen from the Prime Minister. The right hon. Gentleman had said that this Committee had been framed in accordance with the distribution of public opinion as represented in that House. In that case, he wished to know how it was that the Nonconformist element was not represented upon the Committee except by the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who bad contented himself the other day with delivering a speech in favour of the admission of Mr. Bradlaugh into that House? He could not understand how it was that the hon. Member for Merthyr (Mr. Richard), or the hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. Illingworth). who were distinguished members of the Nonconformist parly, had not been placed upon the Committee. He had observed the other day that it was stated at a meeting of the Nonconformists that the present Government had the support of 100 Nonconformists, and therefore it was strange that the Government had not thought fit to place more representatives of the Nonconformist Body on the Committee. The statement that the Committee was struck according to the political opinions of the House was not correct.


said, he objected to the Committee as it then stood because it did not sufficiently represent the independent element in that House, it being almost entirely composed of official, ex-official, and legal Members of the House. Only one of the Members of the Committee was neither official nor learned—he meant the hon. Member for the Border Burghs (Mr.Tre-velyan). The question under discussion was one affecting the Government, on account of the action of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. Adam) in interfering with the election of the country. Not that the action of the right hon. Member entirely changed the elections of the country, for the telegraphic homily of the hon. Member for Bristol (Mr. Morley) had something to do with it. But, as the right hon. Member's action had had considerable influence, the Government naturally felt, to a certain extent, bound to enable Mr. Bradlnngh to take his seat in the House. He(Sir Rainald Knightley) denied that the Committee was a fair and impartial one; and he thought that Irish Catholicism and Scotch Presbyterianism should be more fully represented. Constituted as the Committee was proposed to be, it would be impossible for it to arrive at a fair or unbiassed opinion. The Party lines on which the Committee was drawn were altogether too distinctly defined, and the Report of a Committee so framed could not be satisfactory to the House.


I am deeply touched—touched almost to tears—by the affectionate solicitude displayed by hon. Gentlemen opposite, as respects the Nonconformists in connection with this matter. And what renders it more affecting to our feelings is, that it comes upon us with the force of a surprise, denoting, as it does, a change as sudden as it is delightful. In the last Parliament the Nonconformists were so ill thought of that the Government deemed it their duty to bring in a Bill, which was introduced by the noble Lord the Member for Liverpool (Viscount Sandon) in a speech bristling with warlike and menacing images, and the object of which was to deprive the Nonconformists of all share in the administration of the educational endowments of the country. And, then, they were considered so common and unclean that the very idea of admitting them to the churchyards to per for in any religious service was resented as tending to contaminate and profane those churchyards for ever. It is very pleasant to observe the change that has come over the spirit of hon. Gentlemen opposite. No doubt, it is to the same effusion of brotherly love that we owe the constant references, breathing such a spirit of Christian charity, that are made to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol (Mr. S. Morley). I do not know what his offence has been, for I never saw the telegram so often alluded to. But I do know this—that for 40 years my hon. Friend has led a noble life of practical Christian philanthropy before, and that, probably, ho will be able to survive the charitable comments of hon. Gentlemen opposite. The only thing that disturbs our complacency at the changed tone adopted towards us is the doubt which sometimes crosses our minds whether it arises so much from love of the Nonconformists as from hatred of the Government. I feel honoured, of course, that my name has been mentioned as worthy to be placed on this important Committee. But I have no desire to he used merely as a missile to he hurled at the head of the Prime Minister. I believe the Nonconformists are satisfied with the constitution of the Committee as it stands. They are content to he represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, who will take care that their principles and feelings are adequately represented on the Committee.


said, he was very Sony to have heard the speech of the hon. Gentleman who had just sat down Mr. Richard). He would remind the House that the only limits to the subjects of debate in that House were assigned by the Oaths taken by Members. All the Members of the House had taken the Oath of Allegiance, which included the lawful Succession to the Throne, and therefore to the Throne itself, to the Monarchical form of government which had long existed in this country. It was contrary to the Oaths of Members to propose any Motion or Question in the House which implied or proposed a change of the Monarchy or the Succession to the Throne. ["Oh. oh !"J If any hon. Member doubted that, he could test the truth of what he (Mr. Newdegate) had stated by impugning the Sovereignty in that House, or the Succession to the Throne, and whoever did so would find himself stopped by the Speaker, because he would be proposing or suggesting that which was inconsistent with the Oaths of Members. Since the admission of Jews to that House the truth of the Christian religion had become an open question, and might be debated. It was otherwise with the existence of a God. The Oath of Allegiance taken by all the Members of the House, and of the other House of Parliament, marked the difference between a Parliament and a Convention. The Rump Parliament in Cromwell's time constituted itself a Convention, and decreed the trial of the Sovereign, who was executed; it was a Convention, not a Parliament, which effected the Restoration. It was a Convention in 1688 which decreed the deposition of James II., and changed the Succession to the Throne; such were not the func- tions of a Parliament. The Affirmation taken by Quakers and Moravians in lieu of an Oath was equivalent to the Oath, and a Select Committee of this House had recently reported that Mr. Brad-laugh, the Member for Northampton, was not entitled to Affirm. The second Committee, which was now being appointed, ought to inquire whether Mr. Bradlaugh had sought to Affirm, instead of taking the Oath of Allegiance, because he sought to evade pronouncing the words "So help me God" at the conclusion of the Oath of Allegiance, words which he had declared in a published loiter to be to him meaningless. If the House permitted any evasion of those words, or any subsequent allegation that they were not pronounced bond fide and on their merits, the hon. Member might, by means of such an evasion, seek to raise an atheistical debate in the House. It was for the Committee to inquire and report, whether by implication or directly, the existence of a God could be made, the subject of debate in the House of Commons in consequence of Mr. Bradlaugh's proceedings.

Question put.

The House divided: —Ayes 148; Noes 267: Majority 119.—(Div. List, No. 12.)