HC Deb 12 April 1889 vol 335 cc449-68

Order for Second Reading read.

*MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

Mr. Speaker, the Bill, the Second Reading of which I have asked the House to pass, is directed against prosecutions, which are partly prosecutions at common law, and partly prosecutions by Statute. The Statute is the 9th and 10th William III., chap. 35, and that Statute enacts that any person convicted of blasphemy shall, for the first offence, be adjudged incapable and disabled in law, to all intents and purposes whatsoever, to have, to hold, or enjoy any office or offices, employment or employments, and shall, for a second offence, be adjudged disabled from being a plaintiff or defendant in any suit, or from being the guardian of his own children, or from being capable of receiving any legacy, and shall be liable to imprisonment for the space of three years. That Act has been held to be supplemental to the common law. I may best describe the Statute by using the words of Lord Coleridge, uttered in a case which was tried six years ago. In the course of the defence, the Statute had been described as shocking, and Lord Coleridge said— Some old things, and amongst them this Statute, are shocking enough, and I do not defend them. In a judgment which Lord Justice Lindley delivered in 1885, His Lordship spoke of this Statute as cruel in its operation against the persons against whom it was directed. The Statute of 6th of George, chapter 47, which applies to Scotland, makes the offence punishable by 14 years' transportation. Now, Mr. Justice Stephen in his "History of the Criminal Law," which was written and passed through the Press in 1882, although it was published in 1883, wrote— Offences against can hardly be treated as an actually existing head of our criminal law. Prosecutions for such offences are still theoretically possible in a few cases, but they have in practice become entirely obsolete. Unfortunately, whilst the History was passing through the Press, several prosecutions were initiated, one of which was tried at Maidstone, two which where tried at the Old Bailey, and two, in one of which I was myself the defendant, which were removed by certiorari to the High Court, and were tried before the present Lord Chief Justice of England. Here are two views of the law which it is my duty to submit to the House, one, the view taken by the present Lord Chief Justice of England—namely, that it is only the manner of a blasphemous libel which should be censured, and that a calm, and clear, and cool statement of views would not bring a person within the operation of the laws relating to blasphemy; and, the other the view which, with all submission to the great Judge who has expressed the contrary opinion, I am afraid is the real view of the law—the other, the view which was formed by Mr. Justice Stephen and Mr. Justice Hawkins sitting in the Queen's Bench Division, which was mentioned in the charge of Mr. Justice North in the trials at the Old Bailey, and which was formed in the case of the "Attorney General v. Bradlaugh," reported in the Weekly Reporter, vol. 433, especially by Lord Justice Lindley. It seems to me that the real state of the law has been very fully explained by Mr. Justice Stephen in an article which appeared in the Fortnightly Review, and which was published in examination and criticism of the charge of Lord Coleridge to the jury in the case of the "Queen v. Foote, and others." Mr. Justice Stephen urges that the law as it now stands is a bad law, and recommends the very measure which I am bringing before the House to night. It is right, however, I should state Lord Coleridge's view—the view that it is the manner and not the matter of the blasphemous libel which should be considered, before I put what I conceive is unfortunately the real view of the law. Lord Coleridge says: — It is clear, therefore, to my mind that the mere denial of the truth of the Christian religion is not enough alone to constitute the offence of blasphemy, and he goes on to point out that all prosecutions for blasphemy, according to his view, tend to failure. Further on in his judgment Lord Coleridge says:— Persecution, unless thorough-going, seldom succeeds. Irritation, annoyance, punishment which stops short of extermination, very seldom alter men's religious convictions. Entirely without one fragment of historical exaggeration, I may say that the penal laws which 50 or 60 years ago were enforced in Ireland were unparalled in the history of the world. They existed 150 years ago; they produced upon the religious convictions of the Irish people absolutely no effect whatever. I submit to the House that all kinds of enactments which are in the nature of persecution for opinion are enactments which fail in doing anything except driving the expression of opinion into its worst and roughest forms, and, therefore, ought not to be desired by anyone who has in any degree any faith in any kind of liberty. Mr. Justice Stephen, reviewing the charge of Lord Coleridge, a charge which he praises in language not too strong, says:— My only objection to it is that I fear that its merits may be transferred illogically to the law which it expounds and lays down, and that thus a humane and enlightened judgment may tend to perpetuate a bad law by diverting public attention from its defects. The law I regard as essentially and fundamentally bad. Now when a learned Judge, who is now engaged in trying cases, can thus describe this portion of the law, I think I can submit there is something like a prima facie case for its appeal. Lord Justice Lindley in delivering judgment in the case of the Attorney General v. Bradlaugh says— It is a mistake to suppose, and I think it as well the mistake should be known, that persons who do not believe in a Supreme Being are in the state in which it is now commonly supposed they are. There are old Acts of Parliament still unrepealed by which such people can be cruelly persecuted. And it was because Lord Justice Lindley found this law on the Statute Book, that he said he felt constrained to hold as he did in the case then before him. What is the state of the law? I prefer to put it in the words of Mr. Justice Stephen than in my own. He quotes in support of his statement a large number of cases, and he says— The result of the examination of the authorities appears to me to he that to this day Blackstone's definition of blasphemy must be taken to be true; and, if this is the case, it follows that a large part of the most serious and most important literature of the day is illegal—that, for instance, every bookseller who sells, every one who lends to his friend, a copy of Comte's Positive Philosophy, or of Renan's Vie de Jesus, commits a crime punishable with fine and imprisonment. It may be said that so revolting a consequence cannot be true; but, unfortunately, this is not the case. I suppose no one will, or indeed can, deny that if any person educated as a Christian, or having ever made profession of the Christian religion, denied that the Bible was of divine authority, even by word of mouth, he would incur the penalties of the 9 and 10 William III. c. 32. I will take a particular instance by way of illustration of this. The late Mr Greg was not only a distinguished author, but an eminent and useful member of the Civil Service. I suppose he was educated as a Christian, and no one could have a stronger sympathy with the moral side of Christianity In every one of his works the historical truth of the Christian history is denied; and so is the Divine authority of the Old and New Testament If he had been convicted of publishing these opinions, or even of expressing them to a friend in private conversation, his appointment would have become void, and he would have been adjudged incapable and disabled in law to hold any office or employment whatever; in a word he would have lost his income and his profession. Upon a second conviction, he must have been imprisoned for three years, and incapacitated, amongst other things, to sue or accept any legacy. About this there neither is, nor can be, any question whatever. And after a long and careful summary of the law, as laid down in many decisions, Mr. Justice Stephen winds up— In my own opinion the practical inference is that blasphemy and blasphemous libel should cease to be offences at common law at all, that the Statute of William III. should be repealed, and that it should be enacted that no one except a beneficed clergyman of the Church of England should be liable to ecclesiastical censures for 'atheism, blanphemy, heresy, schism, or any other opinion.' Such an abolition would not only secure complete liberty of opinion on these matters, but it would prevent the recurrence at irregular intervals of scandalous prosecutions, which have never in any one instance benefited anyone, least of all the cause which they wore intended to serve, and which sometimes afford a channel for the gratification of private malice under the cloak of religion. I ask this House to give effect to what the learned Judge has said. I know there are one or two arguments which may be used to weigh heavily against me. One is, that the class for whom I speak is a comparatively small class. [Mr. DE LISLE: "Hear, hear."] There would be no reason in denying liberty to one man, even if he stood alone. Every opinion, in every age, has been at some time small, and those who hold opinions which within 100 years have been the subject of cruel persecutions within this realm should be the last to endorse the doctrine of persecution against those weaker than themselves. It may be urged that the severe penalties of the law are seldom enforced. It is only about 50 years ago that under this Act one man suffered nine years and 8 months' imprisonment in this country, and was also condemned to pay an enormous fine. It did not check the issue of the literature by him against which the prosecution was directed. It only had the effect of endearing him to a large number of people, and of making many purchase the writings he issued who might otherwise not have done so. I hardly like to seem to be thrusting my personal case upon the House, but I may be permitted to remind the House that the declaration has been made very formally in print that the prosecution which was directed against me was initiated for the direct purpose of disqualifying me under this Statute for the term of my natural life from taking part in the political work of the country. I submit to the House that, ruling as it does over 330,000,000 of human beings, of every kind of faith or lack of faith, it is our duty to treat all alike. What is the effect of the law as it stands. Two years ago a legacy was left to myself and a gentleman in Manchester for the purpose of endowing an institution. We were all persons who might have been indicated as blasphemers under the law. The legacy was left for purely educational purposes, but the legacy was set aside, first of all in the Court of the Palatine of Lancaster, and next on appeal, on the ground that a bequest for such a purpose was an illegal bequest and voidable. It may be said "we would not object to you being allowed to utter your views, but we object to you uttering your views in an offensive language." But if persons utter their views in an offensive manner, and so as to provoke a breach of the peace they are punishable under the law as it now stands. The fact that the law is not always enforced, the fact that it is seldom enforced, the fact that Mr. Justice Stephen in his "History of the Criminal Law," describes the law as obsolete, the fact that Lord Justice Lindley has referred to the law as cruel in its operation should tend, I submit, to induce the House to grant the Second Reading of this Bill. I can quite understand it is possible that people will say that views which are different from their own, should not be offensively urged, but that brings in the question of the manner of the advocate rather than that of the matter, and I put it to persons who hold this view, whether the keeping on the Statute Book of this harsh and cruel law, does not deprive any of us, who may wish to tone and temper argument, of any fair reason for checking harsh or hasty speech or utterance. Again, let me point out that the word blasphemy for which you punish to-day, has been an ever-changing word. It is only 240 years ago that a man, Naylor, the Quaker, of the same faith as the man (Mr. Bright) all of us in this House honoured, was tried for blasphemy. George Fox, William Penn, and scores of their co-workers were sent to gaol, or whipped at the cart tail as blasphemers. The Unitarians, had they lived even later than the times of which I have just spoken, would have come within the penalties of this Statute which Lord Coleridge says gives a ferocious power against people, and which Lord Justice Lindley condemns as an essentially bad law. I feel that this is not a time of night to trespass unduly on the attention of the House. I can only appeal to the generosity of the majority, but I would point out to them the position in which they put those who differ from them when they lack generosity themselves. I have sometimes tried to argue with my friends in France against the strict enforcement some of them have put on the Anti-Clerical laws; they have answered me "the Church shows us no mercy." It is that kind of unfortunate spirit which treats opinion as if it were a crime and thought as if it were a crime, when the very honesty of the utterance of that thought, that expression of opinion, shows you that the persons against whom you direct your Statute have at least the virtue of honesty to redeem their action from being classed as that of the ordinary criminal. It is against this unfortunate spirit I am arguing; it is for these people I am pleading to-night. I am pleading for many who have found trusts for their children cancelled, as was the case with a Member of this House, honoured while sitting in it because of the family to which he belonged, and for the great name and greater traditions associated with it—I mean Lord Amberley. He found his trust for his children cancelled because the man whom he honoured enough to give the trust that might have been brought within the scope of this statute. it is too late to-day to keep these penalties on the Statute Book. The Bill may not receive sanction for its second reading tonight, but it is something—and I thank the House for it—that the House has listened patiently and generously to an appeal made on behalf of an unpopular minority; and one day or other justice will have to be done, and I ask the House to do it whilst those for whom they are asked to do it are few and weak, rather than leave us to win, as win we will, that outside public opinion by the ballot, which determines what the law shall be.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

MR. ADDISON (Ashton-under-Lyne)

I cannot help thinking that the hon. Member to whose speech we have just listened with very great interest has not attempted in the Bill he has drawn or has had drawn for him to grapple with the difficulties that surround this question. He has alluded to a number of Acts that he himself admits are practically obsolete and never enforced, and he has taken care in the illustrations he has given of recent prosecutions to avoid telling the House that none of these prosecutions have been under any of these Acts.


Pardon me; I thought I expressly read from Lord Justice Lindley's judgment in the Attorney General v. Bradlaugh a passage, in which the learned Judge said his judgment was determined by the fact that these were old Acts of Parliament still unrepealed, by which such people can be cruelly prosecuted, and he went on to say that whether the state of the law ought to remain so or not was not for him to express an opinion, but he was bound to have regard to the fact that these Acts remained unrepealed.


Surely, so acute an interpreter of the law as the hon. Member will see that the remarks of the learned Judge exactly bear out my position. Lord Justice Lindley remarked there were a number of old Statutes still on the Statute Book, but, having in view that fact, he did not think the Common Law had been altered or tampered with. But what I was saying, and what I still point out, is this, that neither the hon. Member nor any other of the people prosecuted in recent times for what is called blasphemy, have ever been prosecuted, or indicted, under any of these Acts, certainly not under the Act of Edward VI., certainly not under the Act of Elizabeth, against defaming the Prayer Book, certainly not under the 9 and 10 William III., nor the Act of Geo. IV., in regard to blasphemy. The hon. Member has had a very large experience in these matters, and if he were able to contradict me on this point I am sure he would do so. If he does not it shows I am right, and that not one of these obsolete Statutes during 20 years has been brought into action for any prosecution whatever.


I quite admit there has been, so far as I am aware, no indictment whatever under the Statutes, but it is also true that in eight or nine cases, argued in bancv, these Statutes have been quoted in support of, and as explaining, the Common Law.


That is exactly my position, that learned Judges, who have explained what the Common Law is, have also shown that the mind of the Legislature is expressed by there being so little inclination to tamper with it that they have not repealed any one of these Acts. But it still comes back to the point I make—that all the Acts which the hon. Member has commented upon, pointing out what terrible things they are, and how persons may be sent to prison for this, or Quakers to prison for that, under none of these has anybody, in recent times, been prosecuted or indicted. But the real difficulty in dealing with this matter is that if these Acts are abolished, it will be necessary for the House that makes the abolition to deal with the matter further, and say what should be allowed and what should not be allowed in the way of attack upon religious institutions and the feelings of decent people. The same principle applies to indecency as to blasphemy—they are both matters of the utmost difficulty; and whoever has drawn this Bill has not attempted to deal with the difficulties, but has framed a Bill that goes far beyond the provisions of these Acts of Parliament, avoiding difficulties instead of meeting them, for it provides that in future in this country every blasphemy or blasphemous libel—however insulting to religion — however hurtful to the feelings of decent people, however corrupting to our youth and injurious to the community—are to be made lawful. After the passing of this Act, no criminal proceedings shall be instituted against any person for—amongst other things—schism, heresy, blasphemous libel, blasphemy at Common Law, or atheism. Now, one asks at once what is blasphemy at Common Law? I will quote from a book well known to all lawyers, and from an old edition not intended to put a modern gloss on the definition, "Wharton's Law Lexicon"— Blasphemy is an offence against God and religion by denying to the Almighty His being and providence, or by contumelious reproaches of our Saviour Christ; also all profane scoffing at the Holy Scriptures, and exposing them to contempt and ridicule. This, then, is what blasphemy is. The hon. Member for Northampton proposes that this shall not be punishable by any criminal proceedings whatever. Now, see what the effect of that would be. Hon. Members must be struck by this, that there must be matters which in any decent well organized community, whether the majority or the minority believe in religious principles, ought to be protected. If religious people are in the minority—instead of being, as I believe they are, and as I hope they always will be, in an overwhelming majority—if they are in a minority, their feelings are fully entitled to be respected out of common decency, if out of nothing else. Now, the hon. Member says that vile pictures, and caricatures, and offensive publications exposed in the streets or in shop windows and which might have a tendency to provoke a breach of the public peace, might still be punishable if his Bill were passed; but I cannot help thinking as a lawyer, that would not be so, because such publications would cease to be blasphemous libels, and no criminal proceedings could be maintained in respect to them. What is called tending to a breach of the peace is only the form of theory on which prosecutions for libel are founded, but if you say nobody is to be prosecuted for libel, you abolish the whole doctrine about breach of the peace. So I say the hon. Member has not attempted to grapple with the difficulties that were present to the minds of Lord Coleridge and Mr. Justice Stephen; he does not say what should be lawful, but that everything shall be lawful, however injurious, or irritating to the feelings of the community. The hon. Member quotes France, and he has considerable acquaintance with the laws, manners, and customs of France, so ho must know that French legislation has done that we do not attempt to do. Notwithstanding the opinions of a large minority, although these old-fashioned obsolete blasphemy laws do not exist in French law, yet, in the Penal Code there is an Article making it an offence punishable by fine or by imprisonment up to five years to insult or outrage any recognized religion in France. Now, does the hon. Member propose there should be something of that kind here? What does he propose to establish in substitution of the laws he would abolish but unbounded liberty and licence of every kind? What reason has he given for this? He says opinion should be free. Well, opinion is free, and nobody in England is prosecuted for his religious opinions or the want of them.


Yes; I was indicted.


I do not like to enter into a personal controversy with the hon. Member, but surely he does not mean seriously to maintain that. I pass on from his to another case, "The Queen v. Foote." It was not for religious opinions that in that case the very severe sentence was passed; it was for the publication of caricatures of the most outrageous kind calculated to excite the greatest possible ill feeling in the whole neighbourhood where they were exhibited. I have only just come from the library, and happened to miss the interesting discussion on the House Duty, while reading Professor Huxley's article in the Nineteenth Century. Professor Huxley shows clearly enough that opinion is perfectly free in this country so long as it is nothing more than an honest attempt to express opinion and not to insult other religious opinions. The hon. Member has made no case for the Bill, although I admit that there is very great difference of opinion, as he says, between Judges as to what the law is. Lord Coleridge holds that it is the manner and intention to insult and annoy rather than the matter that should be considered in relation to attacks on religion, and others who wish the law altered, press Mr. Justice Stephen's view and make it more strong. Yet, whether on the one side or the other, everybody admits that if the matter is dealt with at all it should be dealt with not only negatively but positively. We ought to know from those who propose this Bill on what principle they intend to go. If we allow free unfettered licence we shall be below every other civilized country in the world. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time this day six months.

Amendment proposed to leave out the word "now" and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months (Mr. Addison.)

MR. HUNTER (Aberdeen, N.)

I do not intend to occupy the time of the House at this late hour for more than a few minutes, but I must entirely join issue with the hon. and learned Member who has just spoken of the statement he has made in regard to the law of blasphemy. There are two views in respect to the Common Law, but there are not two views in respect to the Statute Law. It is perfectly clear that by the Statute Law any expression of opinion struck at by the Statute, in whatever language such expression may be couched, is punishable as an indictable offence. In regard to Common Law there are two opinions, that of Lord Coleridge, and that of Mr. Justice Stephen. Lord Coleridge takes the view that the mere denial of the prevailing opinion and conviction on religion does not in itself constitute a crime, but in practice I can draw no distinction between the denial of all right to express an opinion and the right to send a man to prison because he has expressed his opinion in a manner not agreeable to 12 men of the jury. What happened in the case of Foote? He was tried by three juries, and two disagreed; but when the jury did agree he was sentenced to a year's imprisonment. And why? Mr. Justice North did not attempt to conceal his bigotry, for in the plainest, if not the politest language, he said that Foote must be punished because he had "dedicated his talents to the service of the Devil;" which, in plain English, meant that he held opinions on religion differing from those of Mr. Justice North. If the hon. and learned Member represents, as I believe he does, correctly the general sense with respect to this subject of religious prosecutions, it does not seem to me it would be at all difficult if the Bill were read a second time to reconcile his view with that of the hon. Member for Northampton. I look for a solution of the difficulty to the Indian Penal Code, in which eminent Englishmen have had to deal in instituting a law for India with this very question of religious irritation. They had to frame a law for circumstances and institutions far more difficult than anything existing in this country, where, indeed, there are few occasions for trying the question, and where very few persons derive any pleasure or satisfaction from deliberately wounding or insulting the religious feelings of his neighbours. But in India among a violent and fanatical people we from time to time hear of terrible riots breaking out from such causes at the season of the religious festivals, when the religious feelings of the people are vehemently excited. In India therefore, we had to provide for the same difficulties that the hon. and learned Member has suggested as existing here in a modified form. I ask the attention of the House to the manner in which this question has been dealt with in the Indian Penal Cede. The section runs thus— Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person, or makes any gesture, or places any object in the sight of that person "—this covers the case of pictures, etc.—" shall be punished with imprisonment, with or without hard labour, for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both. I would suggest that if there exists any bona fide desire to settle the question on fair lines, by which I mean on lines which on the one hand will give a guarantee of religious freedom and on the other hand will afford adequate protection to the religious feelings of the community, then I think a solution might be found in the section of the Indian Penal Code I have read. I would suggest that hon. Members might allow the Bill to pass its Second Reading, and in Committee I would move the insertion of this section as an Amendment that I think would meet the difficulties of the question. I trust the suggestion may meet with approval, and the Bill will then remove what is undoubtedly the cause of great difficulty. I think I can refer to no higher authority than the Indian Penal Code, than which no document in the English language was ever prepared with more careful consideration and ability.

MR. S. SMITH (Flintshire)

To a large extent I agree with what has been said in favour of the Bill. The feeling is unanimous that the age of religious persecution is passed, and no one should now be punished for holding or not holding religious opinions. We are all of one mind upon that. But still I feel that, if we pass the Bill, we shall open the flood-gates of the country to a vile tide of ribald and blasphemous literature of which few in this House are aware. For a few years past I have been making some feeble efforts to stop the irruption of foul, corrupting literature in the country, and so I have become aware of the circulation in increasing quantities of literature so loathsome—so obscene—that those who provide it, and those who habitually read it, must be degraded to the level of beasts. It is extremely dfficult to draw the line between what is blasphemous and what is obscene, the two things run one into the other. If we absolutely take away all power of prosecuting for blasphemy, we may legalize the publication of literature of the most revolting kind. Hon. Members would scarcely believe that such papers could be printed as these of which I have several specimens, which have been issued in London, and some of them, I believe, by a gentleman whose name has been mentioned in the course of this debate—they shock and outrage all feelings of decency beyond description, and woodcuts are attached that turn into contempt the noblest things of the Christian religion. Just to give hon. Members an idea of what would become legal under this Bill, let me mention that one depicts the Almighty dancing a lewd dance with the Devil. It soils one's lips to say such things. I am sure the House does not wish this sort of thing to be legalized. I am told by lawyers that these infamous productions may be made the subject of prosecution, but not if this Bill passes. There are societies supported by a considerable amount of money whose business it is to circulate this infamous literature, and I am advised that if the Bill becomes law abominable publications of this class could be distributed at the doors of our Sunday schools and churches—publications that turn into ridicule and contempt the holiest things of the Christian faith, and the law could not touch them. I have every desire for liberty of opinion, but to remove every restraint upon publications of this kind is liberty carried to madness. I believe that of the whole nation, 99 out of every 100 would repudiate the idea. I am disposed to think that with an amendment such as has been suggested by the hon. Member for Aberdeen (Mr. Hunter) the Bill might become a valuable addition to the Statute Book. I quite agree that these obsolete laws should not be maintained. No one nowadays would wish to prosecute a man for holding opinions or for expressing them in a rational, sober manner, but on the lowest ground, I hold it is contrary to all ideas of civil society, that the holiest, deepest, and strongest convictions of men and women should be affronted in the rudest manner possible without there being any redress at law. I hold that our duty as a country goes beyond that, and that we owe obligations to Almighty God the Sovereign Ruler of mankind to uphold in all lawful and proper ways the authority of his laws. I will not insist on that argument now, but I do insist that we shall not give the stamp of legality to atrocious caricatures and literature, such as I have mentioned. I believe the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh) has no wish or desire that such literature should be legalized or circulated, but I would point out that the effect of passing the Bill will be to give the stamp of legality to such things. I support the Motion that the Bill be read a second time this day six months.


I should be glad if the House were able, after this short debate, to dispose of the Bill tonight, but whether it is able to do so or not, I am anxious to say on the part of the Government that they give it their most decided opposition. The hon. Member for Aberdeen has suggested certain adaptations from the Indian Penal Code, and the last speaker has accepted the suggestion. But were this proposal given effect to, it would be the creation of a new Bill. It would mean the striking out of the only effective clause in the Bill, and the substitution of something entirely different. The Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Northampton is about the most unpractical suggestion which could possibly be. The hon. Member has treated the House to a dissertation as to what is the true common law in this country on the subject of blasphemous libel. It stands thus—that in the case mentioned the Lord Chief Justice laid down the law in regard to blasphemy and blasphemous libel in terms which the hon. Member says he wishes truly expressed the law. He says he should be glad if the decision in the case of "The Queen v. Ramsey and Foote" did correctly represent the law; but because another learned Judge, writing a magazine article, suggested that the Lord Chief Justice was wrong in his exposition of the law, the hon. Member tries to persuade the House that it ought to pass a Bill in order to alter the law.


I thought I had expressly quoted a passage from another Judge. I referred to a citation given at Nisi Prius by Justices Stephen and Hawkins from a dictum of Mr. Justice Lindley in the Court of Appeal.


The hon. Member does not appreciate the point I am putting. He said in his speech that the law is the subject of dispute—that there are two views of it, one being that expressed by the Lord Chief Justice in the case I have mentioned. which judgment was afterwards revised by the learned Judge and published in a corrected form, as he was anxious that his opinion on the subject should remain clearly defined; and the other view of the law, that of Mr. Justice Lindley. I say that the judgment of the Lord Chief Justice at present represents the most authoritative exposition of the law on this subject. So long as it remains, it will be idle to ask the House of Commons to pass a Bill in order to put the law even into that condition which the hon. Member desires. If the Bill would put the law into the position in which the hon. Gentleman desires to see it, then I should say the House has other and better things to do than to pass a Bill to declare that to be the law which has been pronounced to be the law by the Lord Chief Justice. But this Bill would go much further. It would sweep away the whole law, Common or Statute, by which blasphemous libel can be punished. It has been said that there is no prosecution now for the expression of religious opinions. I am astonished that the hon. Member for Northampton should have said that he himself has been prosecuted for the expression of opinions. I am certain that in that prosecution on which the hon. Member was convicted—


I never have been convicted on a prosecution for blasphemy.


If the hon. Gentleman had waited until the close of my sentence he would have seen that I am stating the fact. The prosecution on which the hon. Member was convicted, although the judgment was afterwards quashed on a technical objection, was not a prosecution for the expression of religious opinions. Another prosecution was in respect of the circulation of those very scandalous publications to which the last speaker referred. I have some knowledge of the filthy and wicked publications which have been referred to by the hon. Member, and the character of which the hon. Member cannot even indicate to the House. They were issued week after week, but there is a natural reluctance to institute prosecutions which would have the effect of advertising these publications. They contain grossly indecent suggestions with regard to matters which are regarded as sacred by Christian people. If this Bill were to pass, while anyone would be liable to criminal prosecution for the smallest imputation on the character of an individual, people would be free to scatter broadcast the most scandalous and shocking suggestions with regard to sacred things of religion without being subjected to any prosecution. This is enough to make the House reject the Bill with indignation. One knows perfectly well the terrible mischief which is done when one of these publications comes into anyone's hands, whether it be a child, a young person, or a man. The thing cannot be forgotten. It has existed and it has defiled. If this Bill became law there would be absolutely no law whatever in this country to suppress this wickedness. Some of the Statutes which it is proposed to repeal are obsolete Statutes. They might just as well be erased from the Statute Book, because they are obsolete; but their simple repeal is not the object nor the effect of this Bill. The hon. Member would not waste his time in presenting a Bill simply to get rid of the Statutes. There has been no prosecution under the Act of William III., and no prosecution for heresy since 1640. These Statutes might very well be repealed in a Statute Law Revision Bill; but as it is not the object of the Bill to get rid of these innocuous Statutes, I hope we shall have time to divide against the Second Reading of the Bill.

MR. MAC INNES () Northumberland, Hexham

In the fewest possible words I desire to say why I intend to vote against the Second Reading of the Bill. I cannot say, with the Solicitor General, that I regard the Bill with feelings of indignation; on the contrary, I feel, to a certain extent, in a dilemma. By voting against the Bill I shall be classed with those who seem still to wish to perpetuate prosecutions for expressions of opinion, and nothing is further from my thoughts and wish. Nothing, I trust, is further from the thoughts of the great majority of the Members of this House. The day for such prosecutions has passed, and, I firmly believe, passed for ever. No one here, I am sure, wishes ever again to prosecute a man for opinions in regard to religion. Many of us on both sides of the House regret the prosecutions to which the junior Member for Northampton was subjected, but we are unable to support the Bill, looking at the form in which it is presented and at the fact that it would legalize those scandalous productions to which reference has been made. The House, however, will feel that we have for this hour and a half had a very useful discussion, and that before long, from some quarter or other, we shall have a measure which will deal with the matter in such a way as to get rid of these obsolete enactments, and at the same time, preserve the people from contamination by this offensive literature.

*COLONEL SANDYS (Lancashire, S.W., Bootle)

It had been my intention, but for the intervention of the hon. Member for Ashton, to move that the Bill be read a second time this day six months, but the matter has been so well dealt with by him, as well as by my learned Friend the Solicitor General, that I shall intervene for a very few moments only between the House and a Division. The law in this country is, that those who kill the body shall be punished without mercy; but if this Bill is passed, it will be tantamount to allowing those who would kill the souls of the people to do so with impunity. On that ground I certainly shall vote against the Bill, and I would remind the House that under the law of Moses blasphemers were led out of the camp and stoned to death by the people. I do not think, therefore, that the penalties under these Acts can be regarded as excessive at the present time. I hope the House will reject the Bill by a handsome majority, in order to show that it considers itself insulted by having such a measure brought before it and being asked to sanction it at all.

MR. WADDY () Lincolnshire, Brigg

If this measure were one to do away with the Statutes aimed at what is called schism or heresy, I should not have a word to say against it. But if this Bill is passed I believe that my children might be compelled to see on the walls of this city as they go along the streets things which I would rather they should die than see and take into their minds. It behoves us to stand up boldly for those things which we hold most precious both in time and eternity—which stretch beyond this world into the next. Under these circumstances, and with a feeling of the profoundest responsibility, I declare that though I should he prepared to vote as earnestly as any man for anything that will promote religious and civil liberty, yet, as I believe that this Bill would open the flood-gates of the vilest and most terrible iniquity that it is possible to perpetrate, I shall speak and vote against it on every possible occasion.


I wish to say that a phrase used by the Solicitor General might possibly be understood as putting on me some kind of moral responsibility, in connection with the illustrated publications to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred. I do not suppose that the hon. and learned Gentleman intended his words to convey that meaning, but if he did, I must say that all the evidence adduced at the trial went just the other way.


I did not think that my words had been misunderstood. The quotations I gave were from the words of Lord Coleridge to the effect that the defence was grounded on the contention that the publication was not by the hon. Member's authority.

*MR. PICTON (Leicester)

After the speeches that have been delivered against this Bill, as my name is on the back of it, I wish to say I intend to vote for it purely on religious principles. I read not one word in the New Testament in favour of supporting the infliction of any legal penalty on account of the utterance of any religious or irreligious opinion, I read rather that when the disciples of the Great Master desired to call down vengence on those who differed from them, they were reminded that they knew not what spirit they were of. It is because I feel more strongly on this religious point than the hon. Members who oppose the Bill that I am going to support it. If it were possible for the sense of decency of religious people to be outraged under the Bill as at present framed of course I would in Committee support any amendment which might be necessary to remove that blot.

MR. CHANNING (Northampton, E.)

Will the hon. Member for Northampton accept the suggestion of the hon. Member for Aberdeen, in the sense that will make distinctly illegal insults to the religions feeling of the community, and the outrage to the community offered by publications such as those referred to by the hon. Member for Flintshire.


I should be quite ready to accept something in the direction of the clause from the Indian Code. It will, however, be quite time enough to deal with a particular illustration when it comes before me.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 46; Noes 111.—(Div. List, No. 75.)

Main Question as amended put, and agreed to; Second Reading put off for six months.