HC Deb 18 February 1886 vol 302 cc689-702

Order for Second Reading read.


Sir, when I opposed the Motion for the adjournment of the House I promised that I would not occupy more than five minutes if I had the privilege of moving the second reading of this Bill, and I intend to keep that promise. I must apologize for appearing hero for that purpose, because my name is not upon the back of the Bill; but the House will be a ware that my hon. Friend the Member for Hanley (Mr. Woodall) has accepted the position of Surveyor General of Ordnance, and I can only regret that the Bill has now passed from his hands. In the meantime, until further charge of the Bill is taken by some hon. Member, I have promised to look after it. Sir, the simple ground on which I shall ask the House to accept the measure is one which I believe will commend itself to hon. Members on this side—it rests upon the principle laid down some years ago by the present Prime Minister, that the franchise ought to be extended in every ease unless it was barred by personal unfitness or political danger. Now, I think it is impossible to allege that the enfranchisement of women comes within either of these qualifications. We have already given the franchise to women in the election of school boards, and also in the election of municipal councils, and in each case in the opinion, which has been verified by experience, that they were not personally unfitted to exercise the franchise. Now, what is the allegation made as to the political danger of giving them the franchise? I say it is an allegation which I am ashamed to hear, and one which I think those who make it ought to be ashamed to utter. They say that the giving of the vote to women would be politically dangerous; they refer to Primrose Leagues, and say that it will add to the Conservative strength in the country. Now I do not believe that. The experience we have had of the use of the vote given to women in connection with school boards and town councils is not consistent with that declaration. That experience shows that women are divided in opinion very much as men are between the two political Parties; and there is no reason to believe that the extension of the franchise to them would lead to any increase of Conservative strength. Even if it were so, I should not hesitate to extend it to them. I hope that the support of hon. Members who sit on this side of the House will be given to the Bill, and that they will not say that they oppose the enfranchisement of women because they believe it will benefit one political Party more than another. Now, I believe that if there is any fear of danger from the Primrose League, and from the introduction there from of women into politics—an introduction not of a direct character—that such fear or such danger will be lessened, if not altogether removed, by giving women the privilege of claiming to vote; for, in my opinion, it is simply because they have not been allowed to have the vote as a privilege and as a right, and to feel what they owe to the country in giving their vote, that we have witnessed the action of women in respect of some elections which does not appear to have been inspired by the best possible motives. But, Sir, I look to this gift to have the greatest influence over the character of women themselves. Because it will give them a larger range of ideas, because it will introduce them to the highest and best in the public life of the country, I would give the franchise to women. I would give them the franchise even if I anticipated some temporary political danger. But there is no ground whatever for that anticipation; experience has shown that the danger is imaginary. There is only one other observation I wish to make, and that is in relation to the framing of this Bill. This Bill proposes to give the electoral vote to all women, being single, unmarried, or widows, who possess the same qualifications in respect to property which now gives to men the right to vote. I do not think it can be seriously said that danger would attach to the gift proposed to be given by this Bill; and I most sincerely and confidently recommend the Bill to the acceptance of the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Courtney.)


I do not propose to detain the House more than one moment. What I am particularly desirous of saying is that a large majority of the Members of the House will support this Bill upon grounds altogether different to those stated by my hon. Friend the Member for the Bodmin Division of Cornwall (Mr. Courtney). It is not for the House to consider whether there is any fear of danger involved in the en- franchisement of women—the question is purely and simply whether women are entitled, under our Constitution, to the franchise. The supporters of this measure claim that the franchise rightly belongs to women. Personally, I do not share the opinion the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Courtney) entertains as to the effect which will not be produced, nor do I share his opinion as to the effect which will be produced, by the passing of this measure. Single women or widows who pay rates and taxes either have a right to the franchise, or they J have not. I claim that they have a right to it. It was felt by many that the passing of the Franchise Bill last year afforded Parliament a fitting opportunity of adopting the principle embodied in this Bill. I regret to say, however, a great many hon. Members—the hon. Member for Bradford (Mr. Illingworth), and others whom I see sitting near the hon. Gentleman now—though pledged to the principle of this Bill, deliberately voted against the proposal to engraft it upon the Franchise Bill. I contend that there would have been very little difficulty in passing through both Houses a clause embodying this principle in the Franchise Bill, because it was shown that a very large majority of the Members of both Houses were then in favour of the enfranchisement of women. Such being the case, and knowing as we do that at least 100 Members upon the Ministerial side of the House pledged to support the Bill in obedience to a Party Whip deliberately went into the Opposition Lobby when the question was introduced during the passing of the Franchise Bill, I trust the second reading will be agreed to without further delay.


I have much pleasure in supporting the second reading of this Bill. I am fully convinced that there is no class of people now exercising the franchise in this country who would exercise it more intelligently and more independently than would the class this Bill proposes to enfranchise. I know many women who, but for the fact that they are women, would be voters, and they feel most keenly the deprivation they suffer in not being allowed to exercise any influence in the passing of the laws of this great nation. We have a lady as the Sovereign of this Realm; we have admitted ladies to exercise votes in respect to the lower departments of public life; and to exclude them from any voice in the doings of this House, where measures more important than any others are debated and passed, appears to me to be a very unreasonable and inconsistent proceeding on our part. With the certain knowledge that a large number of this class of persons would exercise the franchise intelligently, independently, and with an earnest desire to do good to the country, I most heartily support the second reading of this Bill. I believe that by passing this measure we shall still further add to the strength which was given to the nation by the extension of the franchise during the last Parliament.


I appeal to the House whether the length and character of the speeches to which we have just listened is not a very good argument that this is not the hour or the occasion on which we can properly debate this measure? Whether the Bill is a good or a bad Bill it is a very important Bill. It proposes an enormous and unknown addition to the franchise—an addition to the franchise of a class of persons totally different from those who have hitherto voted. It comes, too, on the very morrow of the largest addition to the franchise we have ever had, when I think everyone might have wished and have expected there should be a little breathing time to see how the addition of last year worked. It is only by the merest accident that it has been possible to bring this Bill on to-night—a Government night—and now we are asked to hurry it through with five-minute speeches. I dare say the speeches are excellent. Still, they are only five-minute speeches, and a Bill of this sort should not be dealt with in five-minute speeches. In point of fact, if the Bill is read a second time now it will, for all practical purposes, have been read undebated; and to carry a Bill of this nature, excellent as it may be—and I am not inclined to admit it is excellent—would be nothing less than a scandal: it would be a misfortune, because it would lower very considerably the national respect which is entertained for the way we do our business. I wish to spare the time of the House, and therefore I do not now argue the Bill on its merits, as I should have done at another and more reasonable hour; to-night it is quite sufficient to argue on the points I have mentioned. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Courtney), who moved the second reading, pointed out that it was only proposed to enfranchise widows and spinsters, and not married women. Whether that is an advantage in itself or not—whether it is an encouragement of morality or not, I will not say. But this I do say—that the safeguard is tainted with the proverbial worthlessness of all safeguards. We know that a safeguard, generally speaking, amounts to dust to be thrown in someone's eyes. If we allow dust to be thrown in our eyes in this case, we shall in a short time see very respectable married women clamouring at our doors and demanding a share in the government of the country.


I, Sir, also intend to make a short speech, although short speeches have been so much complained of by the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken (Mr. Beresford Hope). I am rather astonished that it should be felt that to debate a subject in five-minute speeches, if they are to the point, is a disgrace to this Assembly. I am sure that a Bill like this, which has been so long before the country, and so frequently before the House of Commons, is much more effectually dealt with in such short speeches as have just been deprecated than in long speeches. I have to argue in favour of this measure in the briefest possible manner. It is a measure of justice, Mr. Speaker; and on that ground I, for one, base my support of it. We give the franchise to classes or bodies of persons for a double reason—first, because they have their own interests to protect; and, secondly, for no less a reason—namely, that it is very difficult to ascertain what will benefit a given class of people, or what is the best way to deal with their difficulties, unless we have the opinions of that class before us. There is no officially recognized method by which the opinion of any body of persons is brought to the notice of this House, other than the recording of votes at the ballot. Women are at this moment gifted with a considerable amount of political influence. That political influence is now exercised free from any responsibility, and that is an evil and a misfortune. If we could stop their political influence we might get rid of the misfortune; but we cannot do that now; and, therefore, why not attach responsibility to it? I believe that the varied misfortunes which have been so repeatedly foretold and indicated by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the University to which I have the honour to belong will vanish under the happy touch of responsibility.


I do not propose to detain the House even for the proverbial five minutes, but merely wish to add one argument which seems to have been overlooked by hon. Gentlemen who have already spoken—an argument which, I think, is not unworthy of the attention of the House. It appears to me that one of the best arguments in favour of granting this measure of justice to those who have been denied it so long is that women, as the mothers of future generations, can and do exercise considerable influence upon the minds of those who are to come after us. We have every reason to believe that it will be to the interest of generations yet unborn that the mothers of our posterity should be able, by having the vote, to take such an interest in political matters as will enable them to educate properly the minds of their children. For during the early years of childhood, when the infant mind is most open to receive impressions, it is from the mother, rather than the father, that the child derives that instruction which it most readily assimilates. No one can have studied the history of this country without knowing that this question has been debated many years; and, therefore, if we can dispose of the subject now in five-minute speeches much good will result.


I am one of the many new Members of the House; and if I feel a little diffidence in making a short speech upon this Bill, the House, I am sure, will accord me its indulgence. Sir, it does astonish me, as an Englishman and as a Member of this deliberative Assembly, that at 1 o'clock in the morning, and in three or five-minute speeches, a great Constitutional change—a change greater than any that has ever been effected in any country in the world—should be made by a jaded Legislature. ["Oh!"] I suppose that I, a new Member, feel more tired than experienced Members, and that I have used an improper word. I heard some hon. Members who sup- ported this Bill speak of having had experience of women franchise. Where? I think that it is only in the somewhat wild States of America—the Mormon State, for instance—that the franchise has been given to women. We are asked to make this enormous Constitutional change on such experience as that. The speeches of the two Members who last addressed the House were, I consider, strongly opposed to the measure. Those hon. Members spoke of the weight and importance in the country of married women. All the advocates of this measure based their support of it upon the circumstance that the grievance which one sex suffers springs from the action of the other sex, and that those grievances cannot be redressed because the one sex have not the vote. Now, the grievances of which women complain spring from the marital relation. I suppose, quite unconsciously, I have been very amusing; but if we read The Woman's Suffrage Journal, a copy of which was sent to me to-day, we find that it is because of the behaviour of the husbands, and the rights which they exercise over the property of their wives, that the women demand the franchise. It is because husbands come home drunk and kick their wives, and sometimes injure the children—it is for all these reasons, which seem to me to be associated with the marital condition, that the franchise is wanted for women. Well, the hon. Members who bring in this Bill propose to give the franchise to women who know nothing about these reasons, widows who had known something about them, and spinsters. Let us reverse the case. Let us suppose that in this country the franchise was conferred upon women, and not upon men, and that we, the men, wished redress from the grievances which we suffer from the women, those grievances arising only as they can arise, out of the marital relations. I have repeatedly said I suppose I am very amusing; but I would respectfully ask the House what grievances spinsters and widows suffer from men? Well, should we be satisfied if it was proposed to give the franchise only to old bachelors and widowers? The hon. Member based his argument upon the question of personal fitness, yet he seeks to exclude the fittest of their sex who are selected for the most important function. [Laughter.] It is no laughing matter; it is getting beyond that. We are excluding the most fitting of their sex—namely, those who are selected for the most important functions. All the grievances suffered by women arise out of the marriage relation. Most Members in this House are desirous of seeing classes represented, and the class of women who suffer grievances at the hands of men are not the spinsters and widows, but the married women; and if women are to be represented at all, the married women ought to have their interests represented in Parliament. My hon. Friend on my right says that married women do not pay taxes; but that is not the point. The point is whether we shall give women, as women, the vote, or not. Further than that, if we pass this Bill, it is inevitable that we must eventually admit women to Parliamentary representation. I will tell the hon. Member why I think so. Will women be satisfied by being represented by persons of the opposite sex? Is it likely they will be satisfied by the franchise being given to widows and spinsters? It appears to me inevitable that they would demand to have women Representatives of women. We are not satisfied unless we have class Representatives; and it is obvious that the women will not be satisfied unless they are represented by their own sex. I have only one word more, and that is that a measure so important as this—more important than any Reform Bill that was ever introduced, whatever its scope might ultimately be—ought not to be left in the hands of a private Member, but should be dealt with on the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government.


I have risen so often in past Parliaments to discuss this question that I should not have taken part in the debate on this Bill if it had been brought on under ordinary circumstances. I do not intend to discuss the merits of the question now; but I think that an opportunity should be afforded for those who oppose the measure to be in their places. My hon. Friend was within his right in moving the second reading of this Bill; but I think I am also within my right in saying that it was not expected that the second reading would be taken to-night. That being so, I will not detain the House by entering into arguments to show that this is a very grave question. We all admit that; for it is clear that the Bill would interfere with the political prospects of this country—and still more so on any future extension of the franchise hereafter. Such a question does not deserve to be dealt with in five-minute speeches. In this new Parliament, when the subject was being discussed before Members who had, probably, never heard it discussed before, I think that so important a measure should not be introduced for the first time at this hour. At all events, it cannot be dealt with, at least, from the point of view of those who oppose it in five-minute speeches; for they have much to say upon the subject, and the opportunity is not afforded them to-night to discuss it. I appeal to those who support the Bill. If it is to have any weight in the country, will it not be better, before voting for or against so grave a change, to learn the views of the occupants of the Ministerial Benches? I will keep my word, and I will not take part in the discussion of the Bill; but those who are opposed to the principle of the Bill ought to have an opportunity of addressing the House; and, therefore, with a view of enabling others to discuss the question, I beg to move the adjournment of the debate.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Sir Henry James.)


There is a great deal of force in what my right hon. and learned Friend has said upon this subject. When the late Home Secretary (Sir R. Assheton Cross) suggested that we should adjourn the House I quite concurred and voted with him, and I am sorry that the majority was not in favour of adopting that course. Although, after all, we might deal with small measures on the first night of a Session, it has never been according to custom to deal with Bills of first-rate importance on such occasions; and, as everybody knows that this is a measure of first-rate importance, nobody expected that it would come on at this Sitting. My right hon. and learned Friend thought very properly that so important a question should not be taken when none of the Leaders of the Party opposite are in their places. It is perfectly certain that this division will be regarded in the House and in the country as a snapped division. Everybody knows that it is so. Nobody expected that the question of female suffrage would be dealt with to-night; and it would not be fair to the House or to the country that in a new Parliament, and at such an hour, a question of such magnitude should be dealt with in this absurd way. I shall certainly support the Motion of my right hon. and learned Friend for the adjournment of the debate.


I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not second the proposal, because the Motion for the adjournment of the House was suggested by him to the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite.


It was suggested by the right hon. Gentleman the late Home Secretary.


When the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Sir Henry James) rose, he had no intention of moving the adjournment of the debate until it was suggested to him by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We have heard a great deal on previous occasions from the Chancellor of the Exchequer about submission to the will of the House; and if ever there was a division taken which showed the will of the House, it was that which was taken a short time ago, when the House deliberately decided that it would deal with this question now. What is the objection to this course? It is that the question has not been adequately discussed. If this was a new question, there might be a great deal in that argument; but it is a very old question, and has been discussed over and over again; and although we have had amusing speeches to-night, there has not been one single new argument advanced on one side or the other. Now the House, which is a full one, has decided that they would come to a division on the second reading to-night. The Chancellor of the Exchequer knows, and we all know, that there will be ample opportunity for those who oppose the Bill to express their opinions upon it in its future stages; but I do not suppose that there are half-a-dozen Members in the House who have not made up their minds upon this subject years ago; and all I ask is that in this full House, in obedience to the will of the House, we shall be allowed to express our opinion on the second reading of this measure. Under these circumstances, I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not press his Motion to a division; but if he does, I trust the House will adhere to its former decision.


I should like to point out to new Members what the Motion for Adjournment really means. If the Motion for Adjournment is agreed to, all hope of passing the Bill must be abandoned, for it will inevitably be blocked or talked out on future days, and would have no chance whatever of being passed. The proposal to adjourn the debate is exceedingly disingenuous; but the effect of it, if passed, would be to prevent the Bill now before the House having any legislative effect. The supporters of this Bill are entitled, when they get a chance, to bring it forward; and they should have the courtesy of the House extended to them now that they have secured an opportunity of doing so.


The history of this Bill shows that, for many years past, it has always been lost because of having been talked out on a Wednesday, or because of having been blocked after half-past 12 o'clock at night. On that ground, and because the measure has been fully discussed over and over again in past years, I beseech the House not to lose this opportunity of passing the second reading of the Bill, but to allow the subject a fair chance of being considered by the new Parliament.


Reference has been frequently made to-night to the position of the Bill, and its chance of coming on again if this opportunity is lost. I may be allowed to suggest what will be easily understood by everybody—that if we take a vote on the question of the adjournment, it will be a direct vote against the second reading of the Bill, and not only a direct vote against the second reading, but against the principle of the measure. I would point out that this is not the first, or the second, or even the third time that this and similar Motions have defeated the Bill; and I shall be curious to know, after we have taken the division, how many hon. Gentlemen pledged up to the eyes to support the measure have gone into the Lobby on a Motion of this kind to defeat it, as they did last year when the Reform Bill was before the House.


I wish to make an appeal to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House (Sir William Harcourt) for one moment. It will be in his recollection that many Members on this side of the House, during last Session, and at a critical moment in the progress of the Reform Bill, deliberately supported the Government when they appealed to us not to give our votes in favour of this measure. Well, to-night I have been reproached by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Devonport (Mr. Puleston) for the course I took on that occasion. I would remind him that I got up on that occasion, and appealed to the House net to jeopardize the measure before it, but to postpone the vote on the principle of the proposed change to a time when the matter could be decided on its merits. I consider that that time has now come. I should be quite content if 25 out of every 100 Members have made up their minds on the Bill. When the Reform Bill was before us, and that curious move was made by the House in the sudden conversion of hon. and right hon. Gentlemen who were supposed to be supporters of this measure, I had an idea that the feeling then was that it would embarrass the Government to extend the franchise to women, and might lead to the defeat of the Franchise Bill. I would remind my hon. Friend that it will be found that all those who honestly express themselves in favour——


The Question before the House is that of the adjournment of the debate; and I would remind the hon. Member that he must confine himself to that.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 102; Noes 159: Majority 57.—(Div. List, No. 6.)


I would crave the indulgence of the House just to say one word. I am not disposed, if I may say so, to press this matter further. We have made our protest in asking for the adjournment of the debate; but as the adjournment has not been agreed to, and as there is so large a majority against it, it would, it seems to me, be discourteous to continue further opposition. I would appeal to the opponents of the Bill not to take a division against the second reading. If we do the result may be misunderstood in the country. For my own part, I shall take no share in any division, as I think it desirable to make our stand on another stage of the measure.


I understand the right hon. and learned Gentleman (Sir Henry James) appeals to hon. Gentlemen below him to postpone the consideration of the measure. I wish to observe that there are many Members of the House who would have been glad to have spoken on the subject if an opportunity had been afforded them—hon. Gentlemen who feel very strongly on the subject before us. For myself, I should be sorry to separate myself from my political Friends; but, in common with many others, I feel very strongly on the matter, and should have liked to have spoken. We have, however, come unprepared to do so, not anticipating that the subject would come on to-night; and, under the circumstances, I think we are entitled to ask the indulgence of hon. Members.

Original Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Tuesday 2nd March.

Resolved, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. John Talbot.)

House adjourned at half after Ono o'clock.