HC Deb 08 April 1892 vol 3 cc1039-82
* SIR WALTER FOSTER (Derby, Ilkeston)

I beg to move the Resolution which stands in my name, viz.:— That in the opinion of this House the Septennial Act should be repealed for the purpose of shortening the duration of future Parliaments. In doing so I will ask the indulgence of the House while I endeavour, in a short space of time, to open this truly important subject, which, on many occasions, has provided matter for Debates of considerable interest. In the first place, I wish to say that I intend to discuss the subject as far as I possibly can without the introduction of anything like Party passion, and to treat it from the general point of view of the electorate of the country. My first object is the repeal of the Septennial Act, and then I propose that the duration of Parliaments should be shortened. The Septennial Act dates from 1716, and was passed to meet a temporary danger to the Constitution. That danger has long since passed away. The Preamble of the Act sets out the reasons for it in a clear and definite manner. Among other reasons it recites that the Triennial ActIf it should continue, it may probably at this juncture, when a restless and Popish faction are designing and endeavouring to renew the rebellion within this Kingdom, and an invasion from abroad, be destructive to the peace and security of the Government. The Act referred to the rebellion then happily suppressed, but there was still some danger of a renewal of disturbances from frequent Elections, and consequently the lengthening of the duration of Parliaments from three to seven years was carried out. At that time it was regarded by many, and more especially by the Representatives of the Tory Party, as an encroachment on the Constitution which made three years' Parliaments the law: an encroachment on the part of the Whigs, no doubt justifiable, although there were strong protests against it. In the House of Lords there was a very strong protest from 30 Peers against the Bill signed by the Duke of Devonshire and Lord Salisbury. But protests in either House were ineffectual, and the duration of Parliaments was extended from three to seven years. The Triennial Act thus repealed was passed in 1694, and the Preamble of that Act declared— Whereas by ancient Laws and Statutes of the Realm frequent Parliaments ought to be held, and whereas frequent new Parliaments tend very much to the happy union and the good agreement of the King and his people. Well, there are many of us on this side of the House, and I hope many who have inherited the principles of their predecessors on the other side of the House, who still feel that frequent Parliaments are for the good of the nation at large, and bring about a closer sympathy between the rulers and the ruled. At one time the Motion I am now moving was repeated almost annually in the House of Commons. It was repeated for a long number of years while the Whigs remained in office, not only by the adversaries of the Whigs, but by a faction of the Whigs called "Patriots." From time to time attacks on the Septennial Act were renewed until, in the course of political events, those who led the attack obtained seats on the other side of the House, when the zeal of reformers in Opposition gave place to the complacent indifference of statesmen in Office. These yearly Motions of the old reformers were carried on to nearer our own time. In the early stages of Parliamentary reform we had this shortening of the duration of Parliaments made one of the chief planks in the Liberal platform. It was among the six points of the People's Charter, and in all the early discussions of reform it ran close in importance to the extension of the franchise. I do not propose to-night to enter at any further length into the history of this great question, but this I will say—that the old Debates on the subject will well repay perusal by any hon. Member who may devote time to them, not only from the rich quaintness of the language and arguments used, but from the energy of the opposition to the extension of Parliamentary life. The history of the custom of yearly or triennial Parliaments was most eloquently expounded in the last Debate twelve years ago by Mr. Joseph Cowen, then Member for Newcastle. Twelve years ago seems a long period for a question like this to remain dormant. But it has slumbered only—it has never died. In 1883, when Parliamentary reform was in the air, it was much discussed, and popular feeling was strong in its favour. But it became overshadowed by the question of the extension of the franchise—that great and crowning triumph of Parliamentary reform in our day. And this other question, deemed subsidiary, but intimately connected with the freedom of the popular voice, was allowed to take a secondary place, while the extension of the franchise absorbed the attention of the Legislature. But the notion of making the life of Parliament an entirely secondary question is, I think, founded on a mistake, for the possession of a vote is only of avail when associated with the opportunity for exercising it. To-give a large extension of the franchise, and to keep from the people, or a large number of them, their just opportunity of making their voices heard in the election of the Parliament that rules, them and makes their laws, is a one-sided and unequal distribution of the benefits of reform. This point was argued in the Reform discussions of 1883, and an admirable history of the movement for short Parliaments was written by Mr. Alexander Paul, full of quaint extracts from the speeches of the old reformers. In 1886 there was evidence that the feeling had still been growing, for ever since then there has been year by year before the House a Bill most ably drawn for a complete scheme of reform, introduced by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green (Mr. George Howell); one of the points of which has been the limitation of the duration of Parliaments—the repeal of the Septennial Act. Now, I want to-night more especially to call attention to the effect of the Act on the duration of Parliaments in more recent times. I think I shall be able to show, from reference to the duration of Parliaments since the Act was passed, that the effect has been to lengthen the life of Parliaments, and that that effect has been increasing in late years. If we take the first period after the introduction of the Act, from the date of its passing, 1716, to 1801, we find that in that period there were 13 Parliaments. Of these eight lasted over six years, three over five and a half years, one nearly five years, and one three years and five months. So within that period, the Act passed for lengthening the duration of Parliament, and directed to meet the dangers of a time when rebellion was rife, and appeals to the electorate were said to be dangerous, had full effect for the purpose intended. Now from 1801 to the present time there have been 22 Parliaments, giving an average of over four years each, so that the duration of Parliaments from 1801 to the present time may be said to be limited by practice to that period of four to five years. Of these 22 Parliaments three lasted over six years. Six (including the present) lasted over five years. But if we compare different periods since 1801 we find that the duration of Parliaments has varied considerably. From 1801 to 1830 there were seven Parliaments, giving an average of about four years each. From 1830 to 1860 there were ten Parliaments, giving an average duration of three years. Then, if we take the period from 1860 to the present time, we find six Parliaments, giving an average duration of over five years. The tendency, therefore, in recent times has been to increase the duration of Parliament to five years, whereas the average of the 92 years since 1801 was only a little over four years. An increase in the length of Parliaments in recent times has, then, been brought about by the operation of the Septennial Act, aided to a considerable extent by the presence of powerful majorities under the personal influence very often of Prime Ministers of exceptional genius and ability. But this action has not been popular, and I think the best evidence of the unpopularity of long Parliaments is shown in the extreme swing of the political pendulum in successive elections. If we take the more recent elections this is most clearly made out. In the period since the Reform Bill of 1868 it comes out in remarkable figures. In 1868 a Parliament was elected in which there was a Liberal majority of 128. That Parliament lasted five years one month and 16 days. Well, on an appeal to the electorate in 1874 the representation was almost reversed, the pendulum swung over to the other side, the Conservative majority became 106, replacing the Liberal majority of the previous Parliament of 128. This Conservative Parliament of 1874 lasted a little longer than its predecessor, six years and 20 days. Then in 1880 we find the figures exactly reversed; the Conservative majority of 106 was replaced by a Liberal majority of 106. This Parliament of 1880 with a Liberal majority of 106 lasted for five years six months and 20 days; but during the last few months of that period the Liberal majority were not in office. In 1885 an appeal was made to the country, after there had been considerable alterations in the franchise. The county franchise was extended, and a numerous class was added to the electorate. Now, on that occasion the new Parliament returned a Liberal majority of nearly 100, exclusive of Irish Members, and that apparently falsifies the law I am endeavouring to establish—namely, that lengthening the duration of Parliament brings about a swing of opinion to the opposite point. But if we analyse the direction from which that majority came, we shall find that the law I am endeavouring to lay down was maintained even in this exceptional instance. In 1885 the appeal was made to a great and new electorate in the agricultural districts of the country through the extension of the franchise to rural labourers; from these came the Liberal majority. If we look, however, at those parts of the Kingdom that returned Members to the House on the old electorate—the boroughs where the franchise had not been altered by the Reform Act of 1884—there we find the same law still holding good. The Parliament of 1880 gave in the boroughs 85 Conservative Members and 185 Liberals, giving the latter a majority of 100 in the borough representation; the Parliament of 1885 showed 115 Conservative Members from the boroughs and 110 Liberals, a Liberal minority of five in the boroughs to replace a majority of 100. So, my contention is unaltered by the result of the Election of 1885, the swing of opinion, as before, endeavouring to substitute a change of Parties in consequence of the undue prolongation of Parliamentary life. Now, I think the inference from the figures I have given is that there grows up in the constituencies a feeling of resentment against too long a duration of Parliaments and the long continuance of one Party in power. I do not think it is due merely to fickleness on the part of the electorate as some have said; on the contrary, I believe the electorate never were more inclined to follow and maintain the principles they have adopted, but I believe the electorate do get tired of one set of men being in office too long. People in the present day know the character of the work of Parliament. Parliamentary work is carried on under a vigilant scrutiny of the people of this country such as did not exist in the old time, and I think they have noted the fact, and taken it to heart, that in all the Parliaments to which I have referred the best work has been done in the earlier years. So we must agree it was with the Liberal Parliament elected in 1868. The great legislative work of that Parliament was done in its earlier years, and I believe the fortunes of the Party would have been better, if the Government had retired a year or two before they did, instead of holding on to office for the period I have indicated. Certainly, with reference to the Parliament of 1874, its best work was done in its earlier years, particularly in its social legislation. That Parliament, although it kept a Government in office by a vigorous majority for a number of years, and had the influence in its favour of the so-called "Jingo" fever, yet that Parliament outlived the impulse of "Jingoism," which subsided under the eloquence of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Gladstone). Again, with reference to the Parliament of 1880, setting aside the great Reform Act passed in its last days, it did its best work in its earliest years. It would seem as if these long-lived Parliaments, after three or four years, lose touch with the people, and cease to be in harmony with the desires and aspirations of the electorate, and so, when the appeal is made, the Party in power meet with the condign punishment of a reversal of the judgment given at the previous Election. This is natural, I think, on other grounds. If one considers for a moment the enormous alterations in the electorate itself, there is ample reason for the constituencies becoming out of touch, out of harmony with a Parliament which has lived so long. Taking the figures of the last Census of the United Kingdom I find we have every year 255,000 men becoming eligible by age to be put on the register. Unfortunately, only a small proportion of the number do get on the register; but a considerable number are added every year, and we may expect, as time goes on, and the difficulties of registration are removed by future legislation, that many more thousands will be annually added to the electoral roll. Taking England and Wales, I also find that since 1886—that is, in five years—there has been an average of nearly 90,000 electors added each year. This is an enormous addition to the voting power of the country, especially when we consider that at the last General Election 100,000 votes would have made a vast difference in the representation of Parties in this House. Multiply this 90,000 by five, and we have nearly half a million of new electors at the end of a five years' Parliament. That is not all. According to statistics, it may be estimated that 74,000 persons die out of the register every year, and, adding these, there are thus in round figures 164,000 changes in the register each year, and the grand result is that there is a change to the number of 820,000 votes in the electorate to which a Parliament appeals at the end of five years. That is an enormous change: one-sixth of the entire electorate changed during the existence of a five years' Parliament. Is it any wonder that under such circumstances, at the end of its long life, a Parliament ceases to be representative? Is there not truth in the comment of an old Member, made two centuries ago, that Parliament is like manna—when it first comes from Heaven, it is fresh and pure and sweet in the mouth, but if kept long it only breedeth worms?—a forcible way of describing the corrupting influence of time; but that influence in the decay of sympathy with the people, and in the want of harmony with popular wishes, exists in these days, though it is referred to in less forcible language. This enormous change in the composition of the electorate is sufficient to account to some extent for the extreme swing of the political pendulum, and I believe the shorter duration of Parliaments would result not only in greater harmony between Parliament and the people, but in greater stability in the composition of the House of Commons itself, and by that very stability would afford opportunity for a more continuous policy in matters domestic and foreign. I have not in my Resolution fixed any time limit for the duration of Parliament; that may be left for statesmen in the future, who will draft the next Bill dealing with the subject; but I hope, when they do consider it, they will limit the duration very considerably. So far as my own opinion goes, I would say four instead of seven years. When we think of the changed conditions of life since 1716, seven years of our day are equal to 20 of the olden time. That is not an exaggerated estimate when we consider the enormous advances we have made in popular knowledge and education, the great influence of the Press on public opinion, the means of rapid communication with people far away from us, the wonders worked by electricity, the almost miraculous annihilation of space, the great characteristic of modern scientific progress—taking all these things into consideration, I think we must agree that if in 1716 seven years were long enough for the duration of Parliament, it is vastly too long a period in 1892. Parliament in a long life changes its attitude to the people, but represents in itself comparatively little change. Members sent here to vote for either Party retain, and very often acquire, an additional dose of the original sin called "political partisanship." They retain the same attitude they assumed at the time of election towards great questions then occupying men's minds. We know in the present Parliament how solid has been the majority on one side of the House in carrying out a policy which we believe will be reversed when an appeal is made to the country. But although Parliament remains, very much the same, I have shown from figures and other arguments that people outside change very much, and so the influence of the constituency on the Member, or of the Member on the constituency is, I think, considerably lessened. As "Junius" wrote— With regard to the influence of the constituent over the conduct of the Representative there is little difference between a seat in Parliament for seven years and one for life. The prospect of your resentment is too remote, and although the last Session of a septennial Parliament may usually be employed in courting the favour of the people, consider at this rate your Representatives have six years for offence and but one for atonement. A death-bed repentance seldom reaches to restitution. That opinion of "Junius" is appropriate, I think, to the present day. Although a Government may in the last year of office, with the death rattle almost in its throat, pay more deference to opinions to which they paid no respect in former years, yet that does not come up to the point of restitution, and does not atone for the wrongs arising out of a too long duration of Parliamentary life. But there is a change in Parliament in other ways. In four or five years the Members change not only in their relations to their constituencies, but become more crystallised in their Party vote. An old Coventry Member once said, "Men come hither free men, but are here made bondmen." Hon. Members opposite, who have long been under the domination of the Whips, can appreciate what it is to be a bondman in the present day. It may be good discipline for individual Members, and essential for the success of the Party in office; but at the same time it produces facile votes: a result not always desirable in what ought to be the independent Representatives of the constituencies of the country. In shorter Parliaments Members would have a somewhat happier lot than at present. Their lot would be rendered happier by the inward conviction that they were in closer sympathy with their constituencies. It must, I am sure, be unpleasant to any Member of this House to feel he is out of touch with his constituents, and that feeling must overtake many of us in the course of a long Parliament. If there is one thing more than another which makes a seat worth holding in this House and an honour to the holder, it is the fact of being the real Representative of the wishes and feelings and interests of the people you represent. Nothing else would make the drudgery of Parliamentary life at all tolerable to the mind of an independent man. Mr. Bright expressed his opinion on this point in very forcible language in a Debate on Parliamentary Reform. He said— He believed it would be better for Members if they were more responsible to their constituents at the beginning of a Parliament. He found them suffering from an intense feeling of responsibility just before a Dissolution. He should like that the feeling of responsibility should be spread over the whole period of Parliament. He believed that it would add very much to the conscientiousness with which Members would perform their duty to that House. It would render it difficult for the Government to call a Party meeting in Downing Street to frighten them with a Dissolution, a course pursued by Governments from both sides greatly to the injury of the House. That feeling of responsibility to the constituency is one of the most wholesome feelings that can exist in this House, and would be strengthened and maintained by a shorter duration of Parliament better than by the present system. It has been urged that shorter Parliaments are not advisable on the ground of expense. None of us desire too frequent elections; but once in in four years would not be too often to call on Members to bear the expense. I think the expenses would be lessened by shorter Parliaments, even if they were not lessened by law. Members would find it less worth while to spend money for a seat for three or four years than they do now for five or six years. On the other hand, it is contended that the personal labour of Parliamentary life would be increased. I am not at all convinced on that point; I believe, if anything, it would be lessened. At all events, it would not be worse than during the last five years. For that period Members on both sides have been engaged, as it were, in a continual election contest from one end of the country to the other, and the result has been a great strain on public attention, and on the health and strength of individual Members. Another result has been the building up of a great political programme for the Party to which I belong, which we hope to carry out. Hon. Members opposite say that a four or five years' Parliament would never carry out the Newcastle programme; we are prepared to take the risk. We feel that so much of it would be carried out that we could appeal with confidence to the electors to give us a chance of carrying out the rest, and in future such great programmes would not grow up, because the desires and wishes of the people in three or four years would not be so great as they become in five or six years. Another point is that the personal change in long Parliaments becomes very great. It is argued that shorter Parliaments would introduce many new men. I think we have seen many changes in this Parliaments, and we hear on all sides of a number of men who are unwilling to come back to the arduous labour of Parliamentary life, and no one can regret that more than I do. I think that would be prevented if we had shorter Parliaments; a larger number of Members would be willing again to serve their constituents than under the present system. The results of inquiries in foreign countries as to the duration of Parliamentary Bodies ought to convince this House that we, the mother of Parliaments, have been lagging a little behind our offspring. In none of our colonies have we sanctioned septennial Parliaments, and in no other Continental country is the duration, seven years. We believe work would be more effec- tive with shorter Parliaments; we should come fresh from our constituencies with a fresh mandate, and carry it out in the first three or four years of our existence, and not drag on, as sometimes happens, a comparatively useless life to the end of the tether allowed by law. The practice for the last 100 years has been for Parliament to dissolve in about four years; I do not see why that should not be sanctioned by law, and so the law made to agree with the practice. There are many other points and arguments which I will not trespass on the time of the House to give, but, in conclusion, I thank the House for its indulgence, and hope that this Resolution will receive support from both sides. The Tory Party were the first and strongest opponents of the Septennial Act, and I hope their descendants have not degenerated. It is true that at that time they were out of office, and remained so for many years. It has been said that "no one man in office has ever promoted or encouraged a Bill for shortening the duration of Parliament." If that has been true in the past, I hope it will not be so in the future. The opportunity now rests with the Leader of the House; he has the opportunity of saying that he agrees with the old Tory principle of shorter Parliaments. He described himself the other night, in a very interesting speech, as "an old Tory politician." I ask him to-night to support old Tory principles and vote for shortening the duration of Parliaments. If he does so—the authorities are not all on my side of the House—I would refer him to many distinguished Members of his Party who have worked in this cause. I would refer him to the most distinguished of his predecessors in recent times — Mr. Disraeli — who, in 1848, said— I am the less inclined to say anything against Triennial Parliaments, because they are part of those old Tory principles which I have ever taken every opportunity of propagating; they are a portion of that old Tory creed around which I am happy to observe more than one indication that the people of this country are inclined to rally. If he lets them rally round it to-night he will do much for the benefit of Parliament, and for bringing about that purification of it, which results from an appeal to the people. There are many distinguished Members of former Parliaments whom I might quote on my side—Members of the Whig, the Radical, and the Tory Parties—but I think I have given enough to back up my appeal to the right hon. Gentleman, and I would appeal beyond him to this House, to shorten the duration of Parliaments in future. I believe it would add to the dignity and character of the House of Commons, and to the usefulness of our legislation. It would bring about a higher and better relation between the Crown and the people, and finally make the House of Commons, in the highest and best sense, what it ought to be—in the words of Mr. Pitt—"an Assembly united to the people by the closest sympathies."

*(9.43.) MR. ROBY (Lancashire, S.E., Eccles)

The Mover of the Resolution has spoken with so much force and clearness that there is no need for me to say more than a few words in seconding the Resolution. In fixing the duration of Parliament we must be guided by two considerations—it must not last so long that it will get out of touch with the people or lead them to be discontented because they have not an opportunity of expressing their opinions. On the other hand, the period must not be so short as to disturb the progress of business by frequent elections. I do not think anybody is in favour of extending Parliament beyond seven years, and then there is the other side of the question. I remember very well the agitation in favour of annual Parliaments. A great many of the proposals of the Chartists have become law; that one has not, and I do not think it has grown in favour with either people or politicians. But seven years is much too long. My hon. Friend has shown that long Parliaments get out of touch with the people. He has shown it à priori by pointing out the inevitable change in the electorate which is made by a few years, and à posteriori by showing that on a dissolution of a long Parliament, the election has proved that the people were thinking very differently to what Parliament was thinking. I do not fear large changes in many things; but I desire that change should be gradual; and if it be gradual and not revolutionary, it may in the long run be very great, and yet be perfectly safe. Parliament ought to exist only so long as the Members represent the people; it is not desirable that they should sit one day longer than they possess the confidence of the people. I do not measure that confidence by momentary impulses and expressions of opinion. The people elect us, and we come here to legislate according to their wishes, and so long as we have reasonable ground for believing that we are, on the whole, representing their wishes, there can be no legal or constitutional objection to our continuing to occupy our positions. But when we find that a change is in progress, and that it is continuous and progressive, and is increasing from year to year, then it is time for Parliament to be dissolved. I have no desire to speak in any Party spirit on this occasion; but I think those who have looked at the bye-elections for the past four or five years will find abundant evidence that the wave or tide which has been advancing is a real tide, and not merely a splash of the waves in one or two places. It is shown, as all tides are, by rising high in some places and lower in others, but it is continuous and almost universal. I have examined the bye-elections for two years and there has been a gain for one Party—the Liberal Party—in every election but four, and only one of those four is really of very substantial importance, that of Aston Manor; and in two other cases there was only a slight diminution of the Liberal majority. I want to ask whether there is not another indication, not only that seven years is too long, but that the present Parliament has sat long enough? I have been struck during the short time I have been in the House with the air of languor manifest in the great mass of the Debates and the small attendance on all but very important occasions. It is not at all uncommon to find present only 20 Members on the one side and 20 Members on the other out of 670 Members. As a general rule there are more persons at a Division than are present in the House, and during the present Session, until yesterday, there were only four Divisions where there were more than 400 Members present—that is, very little more than half the total number of Members have shown by their votes that they take any real part in the business of the House. I think that is some indication that this Parliament has reached its period of real usefulness. If this kind of thing is to continue, it would be well to revert to the old practice under which the Sheriff required two persons to stand surety that the Member would attend when elected. Is it not natural that after four or five years many Members should have had enough of active service in the House? It should be remembered that many of us are elected late in life, and our time is not always at our own disposal, and that the hours of attendance are likely to make those getting on in years somewhat weary. We should get Representatives to sit for periods during which they would not get wholly out of sympathy with the work, or unable to perform it properly. But the main consideration is, does not this period of seven years put the Members out of their proper relation to the people they are professing to represent? At the present time this House does not represent the opinion of the people of England, Scotland, and Ireland, in 1892; what it really represents is a slightly modified expression of the opinion in 1886. It is not safe for the country generally, it is not wise for us as Representatives, or judicious for the people who desire to see their wishes carried out and work done, that we should stay one day longer in office than the confidence of the people is fully placed in us. Seven years is very different now to what it was at the beginning of the last century. The people of England are not separated by great distances, as many of them were, from the proceedings of the House, so that they only got occasional glimpses of what took place in the House. They are practically present with us, and it is obvious that they come more quickly to a decision than they used to do. And I do not think we shall be doing our duty if we do not give them more frequent opportunities of saying who shall be their servants, what measures they consider most important, and what principles they desire to be put in action. I do not wish to lay down any arbitrary rule as to the period, but I am inclined to think that five years instead of seven years would be quite long enough, for that would mean practically a four years' Parliament. Some people, I know, think that a little too long; but I think in that time a Parliament acting with vigour, and carrying out the instructions of its constituents, would do very much more useful work than a Parliament which drags out a weary existence in its last years under the Septennial Act.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, the Septennial Act should be repealed, for the purpose of shortening the duration of future Parliaments,"—(Sir Walter Foster,) —instead thereof.

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

(9.58.) MR. AMBROSE (Middlesex, Harrow)

I wish to congratulate both the Mover and Seconder on the conciliatory tone they have adopted, and the moderation of the views they have expressed. But I have been somewhat struck by the peculiarity of their arguments, because, as I understood them, what they have put forward with a view of supporting this Resolution, to my mind, is an argument in an exactly opposite direction. One of the hon. Members gave various figures representing the majorities in the Parliaments of 1868, 1874, and 1880, and said that the majority of 1868 was changed in 1874, and the majority of 1874 was reversed in 1880. This he declared was calculated to give greater solidity to the Government. I thought it was important to the maintenance of a Government that there should be continuity of policy; that there should not be fickleness on the part of the Government of the day, and that when a policy was declared and acted upon it should be continuous. Take, for instance, the case of Ireland. When the right hon. Member for Midlothian introduced his Home Rule Bill he observed that our treatment of that country had been unequal, and thus unfair, and that at one time we had a Government which courted the favour of the Irish people, and at another a Government which produced Coercion Bills. That is the swing of the political pendulum, and it is to that very swing that the right hon. Gentleman attributes many of the evils which affect Ireland. I always thought that one of the evils of a strictly democratic Government was that there was no permanence of policy. The populace was fickle, and frequently foiled statesmen in their efforts at wise government. They were apt to be led away by any outcry of the moment, or by sensational articles in the newspapers. Is it the object of this Resolution that the Government and the country should be governed by sensational writers in the newspapers? I have a great respect for the Press, and when the Press produces sensational articles based on fact and reason no one respects the Press more than I do. But that is one thing, and I say that the interests of the British Empire should not be left to the writers of sensational articles or the changeable views of the populace, but should be dealt with by the steady views of statesmen and of men who have been sent to Parliament as the Representatives of the people, and not merely as delegates. That is another point which has been raised. If you are a Representative of the people you do not need to be going back to the people every now and then, because the people have confidence in you. But the whole force of the argument of the Mover of this Resolution is that when a man comes into this House, he comess, not as a Representative of the people, but as the delegate of his constituents, and, as I say, of that portion of his constituents who may force themselves to the front and claim to be the representatives of the people whom he actually represents in this House. That is a very different thing from the position of a Member under present circumstances, when he is really the Representative of the people, and ought to be free from pledges with respect to particular Bills, and free to exercise his judgment on a subject which may come before the House. I came into this House unfettered, and if I come again I will come free to exercise my own judgment. I quite recognise that there are particular questions which affect a constituency sometimes on which the constituency has a right to ask for the support of its Member. But you find one section of a constituency wanting its Member to vote one way on the liquor question and another section wanting him to vote for the deceased wife's sister, and you would find Members come into this House bound hand and foot by their pledges upon the hustings. If it is the wish of the Mover of the Resolution, let us understand it. Are Members of this House to be free to use their intelligence and experience, or are they to be merely the delegates of a faction, and to surrender their own judgment in order that they may carry out the behests of that faction which is most forward at the time of the election? I know of nothing more calculated to hamper the usefulness of a Member of this House than the feeling that he is bound to act upon the instructions of a section who say that they represent his constituents. We all know that as soon as any particular class is affected by any Bill, an organisation is started, with branches and secretaries, and influence is brought to bear in the constituencies, and a number of people who profess to speak in the name of the constituency try to bring pressure on the Member. When I am told that my constituents wish this, that, or the other, I reply that I am their Representative, and I take every opportunity of learning their views, but I decline to recognise any particular section who profess to speak for the whole. And I say I know of nothing so calculated to lower the tone of the House as that Members should give up the position they have occupied and become mere delegates. Another argument which rather pointed the other way was the one that shorter Parliaments would shorten their labours. Does the hon. Member mean to say that as a Parliament ceases the labour of a Member ceases? One of the difficulties which has arisen in this House this session is that so many Members, under the belief that the Dissolution is imminent, are electioneering and cannot be here. Does the hon. Member mean to say that that shortens the labours of a Member? It increases their labours fourfold, or even more than that, and I say that frequent election campaigns are calculated so to increase his duties as to unfit him for the honest, faithful, and serious discharge of his duties. The hon. Member who last spoke (Mr. Roby) says that he has observed the languor of the debates, and the small attendance of Members, and half suggested, I believe, that there should be some security for attendance. Does he suggest that the Business of this House would be better done if there were 500 or 600 Members sitting on these Benches than when the ordinary number are present? If he does I disagree with him, for I think that the worst thing that could happen to this House is a large attendance of Members at every Sitting. Such an attendance is not only wholly unnecessary, but it would be found to be very inconvenient. Very little Business would be done. I do not accept the hon. Member's estimate of 20 or 30 as the number generally present in the House. I put the normal number down at something like 100, and I say that number is much safer for the discharge of the ordinary duties of the House than a larger number would be. The work is now done, to a large extent, by delegation. It is not always the same 100 men who are present. A particular question arises, and the men who are interested in that question are present, and those who are not interested may be in the libraries preparing for other questions that are coming on. The other men come in when the Division bell rings, and are instructed by those who have been present. It is, as I have said, a question of delegation. When a financial question is on, the City men are here, and the other Members, when they come in, are content to follow their lead. So it is with questions of Local Government and other questions—the men who are experts on the particular subject before the House are here, and the others are quite content to leave the matter in their hands, knowing that it will be treated with full knowledge. What would be the effect of extremely short Parliaments? The Members would not have as much experience as is necessary for the proper discharge of their duties. I do not know what may be the experience of other Members, but for a long time after I came in I had a difficulty with the forms of the House. Then I suppose, just as I began to feel my way, hon. Members would wish that I should go back to my constituents, and perhaps a new man comes in who has to go through the experience that I went through before I think the experience of the House, and the knowledge of—I will not say statesmanship, because that would be an impertinence on my part, but the knowledge of Government matters and the affairs of the nation—for one cannot help becoming acquainted with them to some extent in this House—all that would be thrown away if we were constantly changing the Members, which is the view suggested by these frequent dissolutions. But there is another argument against the proposal which is far more important in this connection and which seems to me to be most conclusive. It is a fact, of which we have evidence every day, especially by the questions put to Ministers, that some of those who occupy the Front Bench are supposed at all events to have great difficulty in dealing with the permanent officials of the Government. I want to know if you are to have a constant change of Parliament how are you to keep the permanent officials under control? You must have these permanent officials under the control of Members of the Government who are responsible to Parliament; but if you have these constant changes of Parliament you will have constant changes on both Front Benches, you will have constant changes of Ministers; and the result will be that you will have Ministers who have insufficient experience to assert their proper authority over the permanent officials, and you will have the Government of the day—and if you have the Government of the day then you will have this House—practically controlled by irresponsible permanent officials. There is this further argument: that however much we shorten the duration of Parliaments, we must recognise this fact, that whenever you come to the last year, and a dissolution is imminent, as soon as you come to that the Members of the House have their attention directed to electioneering, and the business of the House is neglected. Nobody has got energy enough to apply themselves to the real business of the House. Suppose you reduce the duration of Parliament to four or five years, as soon as you got into the fifth year the very difficulty which we now see in the case of a seven years' Parliament would be apparent, and there is no getting over it. The next movement would be to reduce it from five to four, from four to three, from three to two, and so it would be brought to a minimum, till, in fact, you would have annual Parliaments, and the swinging of the political pendulum would then be to your most entire satisfaction. But the result would be that you would have no permanency, no continuity. Our foreign policy would change from day to day, our domestic Government would change from day to day, and our policy as regards Ireland would change from day to day. That would be most disastrous. Therefore I shall vote against this Resolution.

(10.18.) MR. COGHILL (New-castle-under-Lyme)

The hon. Member who moved this Resolution told us that this question had slumbered for the last twelve years, but I must say that this question might be allowed to slumber on for twelve years longer. I do not remember myself that either in the year 1880, or in the year 1885, when a Liberal majority was returned, this question formed a leading item in the Liberal programme. This Resolution has been most ingeniously worded, because while it proposes that all future Parliaments should be shortened, it evades all mention of the precise term to which they should be shortened. So far as the present Parliament is concerned it is well within the terms of the Resolution. The present Parliament has only lasted five years and nine months, which is a long way off seven years. The hon. Member for Ilkeston would be inclined to set up a Parliament at any particular period; the hon. Member for the Eccles Division suggests five years. In this diversity of counsels, I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wolverhampton if he would kindly tell us what is the period that Parliament is to last if the Septennial Act is to be repealed? I think we ought to know what it is proposed to substitute for it. It is all very well for hon. Gentlemen to go up and down through the country talking about triennial Parliaments, and then in this House to bring forward such an innocent indefinite Motion as this about the shortening of Parliaments. I should like to know whether the Gladstonian Party are coming back to power at the next General Election? The hon. Member for Ilkeston says not, because, in bringing forward this Resolution, the hon. Member for Ilkeston has, at any rate, no confidence in the Gladstonians being returned at the next General Election. I should like just to press this question from the historical point of view, and I must say the conclusions which I have formed from studying the Statutes are just in an opposite direction to those put forward by the hon. Member for Ilkeston. The Act 6 William and Mary is referred to as the Act establishing triennial Parliaments. It is quite true that it mentions a period of three years, but what is meant by triennial Parliaments was never taken into contemplation at the passing of that Act, and I will tell the House why. The whole object of that Act was to prevent the King reigning without calling Parliament together. That is shown by the title, which is—"An Act for the frequent meeting and calling of Parliaments." If we go back from that to the 16 Charles II., this becomes still more apparent. If we go back to the previous Statute, 36 Edward III., we find it there provided that a Parliament shall be holden every year; and this is proved more conclusively by the Act 4 Edward III., in which it is provided that a Parliament shall be holden every year once, and more often if need be. That proves that the object of this so-called Triennial Act was not that a Parliament should be held every three years, but that the King should not reign over us without having Parliament called together. The Preamble of the Septennial Act—1 George I.—which has been referred to is most instructive. It shows, I think, that, after a period of 22 years it was found conclusively that the triennial period was not a satisfactory one, and therefore the septennial period was substituted for it. The Septennial Act has lasted for 180 years, and before we repeal that Act I think a much stronger case should be shown than has been shown by the Mover or Seconder of the Resolution. There are four distinct reasons, in my opinion, why the Resolution should not be accepted by this House. In the first place, if the Septennial Act were repealed, and a Triennial Act passed, it would result in a great increase in the Election expenses. Unless we were all millionaires we could not afford to meet the expenses which would be incurred by holding Elections so frequently unless the Election expenses were paid by Act of Parliament, or in some other way. The second objection is, that with all these frequent and almost continuous Elections that would result Members of Parliament would naturally demand to be paid for their services. I need hardly remind the hon. Mover of the Resolution that that subject has been discussed only very lately in this House. The Motion, which was rejected, did not receive the support of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Midlothian; it did not receive the support of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Newcastle; and it was opposed in the Division Lobby by that sturdy Radical the hon. Member for the Cirencester Division of Gloucester. There is another difficulty in the way of short Parliaments, which the hon. Member for Middlesex (Mr. Ambrose) has touched on already, and that is, that as frequent Elections would take place hon. Members would be scampering all over the country for the purpose of keeping up their popularity, and they would net be here. The result would, be that legislation in this House would come to a standstill, and the legislative business would be almost entirely transacted by the House of Lords over the way. The hon. Member for Ilkeston entirely forgot the existence of the House of Lords. We must remember that this is not the only House. A comparison is made by the people of the country between this House and the House of Lords; and we hear many remarks made about the excessive amount of talk there is in this House, and that there is very little business transacted; whereas as regards the House of Lords it is just the other way about—there is very little talking, but a great deal of business is done. And there is another objection also with regard to the House of Lords. This House has to contend in a certain sense with the House of Lords as a Legislative Chamber, and if the Members of this House were liable to lose their seats every three years, while the Members of the House of Lords sit there for life and cannot be removed, it is perfectly obvious that the power of the House of Commons must be seriously weakened in contrast with that of the House of Lords. It is not the theory of the Liberal Party to increase the power of the House of Lords; and if it were for no other reason—only this—I should certainly oppose the Resolution. We must remember that the machinery of our Constitution is of a very delicate and complex character, its existence depending on the nice balancing of the different parts. If we disturb this system of balances and checks on which our Constitution exists, then you throw the whole machinery out of work. And I should like to know for whose benefit this great change is going to be made? So far as I know, it is not desired in the country at the present time. There is no great popular outcry in its favour. It seems to me that it is only desired by a certain number of election agents in the country, and possibly by a few restless and unhappy spirits who find their chief delight and enjoyment of life in the excitement, confusion, and turmoil of a General Election. The hon. Member for Dumfries in a recent magazine article has been very candid in the expression of his views with regard to a matter of considerable interest at the present time. I am not prepared to go so far as the hon. Member for Dumfries, who is quite evidently prepared to give up our Constitution and begin over again. I am not prepared to start afresh in that direction. I think we should be content with our present Constitution, considering, as we have been reminded by the hon. Member for Ilkeston, that our Parliamentary Institutions, whatever may be their defects, have served as a model for all other nations in the world. The hon. Member in bringing forward his Resolution has been very indefinite in his language; and I must say that the appeal with which he concluded was one of the most extraordinary that I ever heard in this House from the mouth of a Member of the Liberal Party. He appealed to the Tory Party because this was a Tory measure. I am a Liberal myself, and I am surprised at the hon. Member for Ilkeston advancing that argument from the Liberal Benches in this House. I hope the House will deal with the Resolution of the hon. Mover to-night in a proper way, and that it will be defeated by a large and decisive majority.

(10.36.) MR. MACNEILL (Donegal, S.)

I think the speech of the hon. Gentleman which has just been delivered from these Benches would be a very strong argument in favour of shortening Parliaments, because if such a change were brought about gentlemen who were sent to Parliament as Liberals and voted as Tories would have a short period put to their Parliamentary entertainments. There are some gentlemen whose constituencies have their eyes intently fixed upon them—gentlemen who have passed into this House as Liberals and who vote with the other side—those pseudo-Liberal Members of Parliament. I have said that the gentleman who says he is a Liberal and votes Tory is a pseudo-Liberal. I would not have intervened in this Debate if it were not for the extraordinary theories of history propounded by the hon. Gentleman, who is as ignorant of history as a good Liberal Unionist ought to be; and that is a strong expression. He assured the House that if we interfered with life of Parliament the Constitution would topple down. Does he know that within this reign, as late as 1867, the duration of Parliament was interfered with in a very remarkable and stringent and strong measure. Until 1867 the demise of the Crown ipso facto, or practically within six months after the demise, put an end to the Parliament. Now the demise of the Crown has no effect upon Parliament at all. I think I would be able to show, without fear of contradiction, that it is from the shortening and curtailment of Parliaments that all our constitutional privileges have taken their origin. The hon. Gentleman says that if the Septennial Act be repealed the power of the House of Lords will be increased. The House of Lords did not think so, because the Septennial Act originated in the House of Lords, like many another bad measure of the time. And a remarkable confirmation of that theory is that the Septennial Act for many years—for almost one generation after it was enacted—was considered to be a temporary measure, the real theory of the Constitution limiting the duration of Parliament to three years. In no one of our Colonies has there been a septennial Parliament; and more remarkable still, when in the time of George III., about 1783 or 1784, the American jurists drew up their Constitution, which is admittedly drawn on the model of the English Constitution, they went practically not on the model of the Septennial Act, but on the model of the Triennial Act, which they believed to be the best model and theory of the English Constitution. Hon. Gentlemen on both sides have stated in terms of indignation that they were not mere delegates—that they were Representatives of the people, and not mere delegates. That is utterly at variance with the great principles laid down by the Conservative philosopher Edmund Burke. It is an insolent assumption that hon. Members understand and know better than their constituencies. We are here the servants of our constituencies, to carry out their behests. In that great letter which was written by Edmund Burke to the Sheriffs of Bristol he, it is true, expressed a different view; but that was 100 years ago, when there was no Newspaper Press, when it was a matter of privilege to publish the Debates of this House, and when gentlemen who published the Debates could be summoned to the Bar, and have punishments inflicted on them. He then said he should exercise his own discretion, and that he would be unworthy of his position if he did not do so. A few days ago the hon. Member for Northampton wished to have a Return of the duration of Parliaments, from the date of the first reformed Parliament to the present time; but the First Lord of the Treasury said: "No; let us have the Return from the date of the Septennial Act." The right hon. Gentleman was right from his point of view, because from 1716 to 1784 every Parliament continued for the full term of its existence. In 1784 there was a great majority at the back of Fox, but that majority feared the people and a Dissolution, lest Pitt should be returned, as, in fact, he was returned with an enormous majority. In 1834, Mr. Tennyson, the father or grandfather of the poet, said that up to the time of the Reformation there had been 42 Parliaments, and of these 26 lasted less than a year; that from the time of Charles I. to the Revolution there had been twelve Parliaments, the average duration of which was three years; but that their average duration, excluding the Long Parliament, would not be more than nine months. Therefore, it is clear that this Parliament has exceeded the usual time allotted to the life of Parliaments. I will conclude by saying that as long as I have a humble voice in this assemblage—and I hope that will be for a very long time—I shall never allow any gentleman to say without challenge that he is a Representative and not a delegate. He and every other person who is a true Representative of the people should look upon himself as the representative of their wishes and the mouthpiece of their wants.

*(10.35.) MR. F. S. STEVENSON (Suffolk, Eye)

There is a remarkable contrast between the present state of things and those which were in existence before the Septennial Act was passed. The Triennial Act of 1694 was supported by the Tory Party, whilst the Septennial Act of 1716 was opposed by them. Yet on the present occasion, so great has been the change in the constitution of Parties, that we find the first voice which is raised against short Parliaments is that of the hon. and learned Member for the Harrow Division of Middlesex, and the second that of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. The hon. and learned Member for the Harrow Division argued as if this proposal would impair altogether the character of a Member of Parliament as a Representative, and convert him into a mere delegate, and he urged that he would become more and more the mouthpiece of a particularly organised section of his constituents instead of representing their general opinion. The argument of the hon. and learned Member might well be turned in an exactly opposite direction, because, the longer a Parliament lasts, the more likely he is to accept as the views of his constituents an expression of opinion which might be sent up from a particularly organised body which might not represent the sentiments of the majority. On the other hand, if he were brought into frequent contact with his constituents, the more disposed he would be to be guided by the real opinion of those to whom he owed his seat. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme did not appear altogether to appreciate the crisis when the Septennial Act was passed. That crisis occurred just after a most important dynastic change had been carried into effect. There were at the time plots and counterplots which might have developed into most serious proportions, and there was danger of foreign invasion in the interest of the Pretender. There was, therefore, justification for the introduction of such a desperate measure. But that is no reason for thinking that the causes which then existed were of a permanent character. It has been said by the present Duke of Devonshire, with regard to the question of Disestablishment in Scotland, that it ought to be settled in accordance with the opinion of the Scotch people; and the noble Duke said afterwards that a General Election ought to be fought on that question. But if that is to apply to such a question as the Disestablishment of the Church of Scotland, it would also apply to many other questions of equal importance. Therefore it is desirable that more frequent opportunities should be given for consulting the constituencies on questions which may be brought to the front. It may be said that the logical alternative would be the introduction of something like the referendum in Switzerland; but the introduction of any such system, under our present condition, would be attended with difficulties of such a serious character that no one would advocate the adoption of such a course. The only alternative is a more frequent consultation of the electors by Members of Parliament; and this becomes the more important as time goes on, because one Parliament is called upon to deal with many questions. Take the case of the present Parliament. It has been in existence now for nearly six years. Was it anticipated in 1886 that it would have to deal with the questions of Irish Land Purchase, the Sugar Convention Bill, or the compensationand endowment of brewers? It is highly desirable that some decided step should be taken at the present time, when the present Parliament is drawing to its end, and when Members can, therefore, be supposed to be impartial. Some expression of opinion should go forth from this House as to the advisability of shortening the duration of the life of Parliaments, though the exact period to be fixed is a matter for careful consideration whenever the time comes to embody the expressed opinion in a specific measure.

* MR. H. H. FOWLER (Wolverhampton, E.)

I rise for the purpose of expressing my surprise that we have not had any statement from the Government with regard to the Motion dealing with this great constitutional question, and on behalf of which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilkeston has made an able and powerful speech. The arguments in that speech deserve, and will, I hope, receive, some notice from the Government before we are called upon to divide upon the question. Whatever else may be said of this Debate, I think we must have enjoyed very much the ideal picture of Parliamentary life which was drawn by the hon. and learned Member for the Harrow Division of Middlesex. The picture was that of an irresponsible Member, superior to the criticisms of the Press, enjoying an unbroken continuity of representation, and absolutely free from all kinds of pledges. The hon. Member told the House how humiliating it is to make a pledge, and he seemed to think that it would be almost as humiliating to keep a pledge. But I think the hon. Member's constituency had a very distinct understanding as to which Party their Representative would support before they elected him; and the steady loyalty with which the hon. Member has supported his Party is a conclusive proof of the honourable manner in which he has carried out his obligations to his constituents. The House has been asked to express the opinion that the Septennial Act should be repealed for the purpose of shortening the duration of Parliament. The Septennial Act was passed in 1716, and the Parliament that passed it was the only one that sat for seven years. What, then, has been the length of the life of Parliament? I will take the period commencing in 1784, for it was in that year, I believe, that the first General Election occurred which practically put a Minister into power. Up to that time Ministers were put in power by the will of the Sovereign or by the action of the House of Lords, or by the intrigues of the ruling families. It was in 1784 that Pitt obtained the great majority which gave him the confidence of the country. From 1784 to 1886 there have been 25 Parliaments. If you take the period as 100 years, that would give to each Parliament an average life of four years. I can, however, hardly imagine any subject to which it would be more delusive to apply the test of averages than to the life of Parliament. We must look a little further to see what the Septennial Act means. The existence of Parliaments has been terminated by four causes—(1) the death of the Sovereign; (2) by electoral reforms which necessitate new elections; (3) by what we call a Ministerial crisis; and (4) by effluxion of time. I think that classification comprehends all the diseases of which Parliaments die. Now, Sir, I find that during the century of which I have been speaking three out of the twenty-five Parliaments were dissolved owing to the death of the Sovereign. Of course, as the House knows, the law has been altered, and the demise of the Crown does not now involve a Dissolution, though up till 1867 the death of the Sovereign involved a Dissolution within six months. The three Parliaments thus dissolved followed upon the death respectively of George III., George IV., and William IV. There have been three great Constitutional alterations—the great Reform Act of 1831, the Extension of the Household Franchise in 1867, and the Extension of the County Franchise in 1885. On each of these occasions there was necessarily an Election. In the century there have been nine Ministerial crises — nine occasions upon which the Ministry have been in conflict with the House or divided amongst themselves so that it was necessary to appeal to the nation; and there have been ten Parliaments which have expired by effluxion of time. In endeavouring to ascertain what the duration of Parliament under the Septennial Act is we ought to see how long each of these ten Parliaments has lasted during the present century; who have been the Prime Ministers in power when the lives of the Parliaments were determined; and from this date we can pretty accurately arrive at what the Constitutional position is. I shall commence my retrospect with Mr. Pitt, who was firmly in power in 1784. His first Parliament expired by effluxion of time in 1790. This great Tory Minister, with a majority in Parliament, dissolved in 1790. In the zenith of his power he again dissolved in 1796. That was the second time he put the seal of his Constitutional interpretation upon the Septennial Act. Again in 1802, Mr. Addington, being Prime Minister, dissolved the Parliament. Then came a series of short Parliaments, partly due to the death of Mr. Fox and partly to the Catholic Question. We do not come to another Parliament which was allowed to run its course of six years until 1812. That Parliament had a Tory majority, and Lord Liverpool kept it sitting until 1818, again recognising the principle of six years, and six years only. The Parliament of 1818 was dissolved on the death of George III. A new Parliament was called together in 1820, and that was the longest Parliament of the century, and under Lord Liverpool lasted until 1826, its actual duration being a few days over the six years. No Parliament after that expired by effluxion of time until the Parliament of 1841, the Parliament which put Sir Robert Peel in power. Then Parliament was dissolved in 1847, and if Sir Robert Peel is accepted on the one side of the House, surely on the other Lord John Russell will be accepted as a great Constitutional authority. When Lord John Russell was called upon to construe the Septennial Act his construction corresponded with that of Mr. Pitt and Lord Liverpool, and he dissolved the Parliament of 1841 in the year 1847. The next Parliament that expired by the effluxion of time was the Parliament of Lord Palmerston in 1859. No pressure was put upon him; it was understood his political opponents would keep him in power as long as he liked; yet Lord Palmerston dissolved in 1865, so that again Parliament sat only a few days over the six years. The Parliament of 1868 of my right hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian was dissolved in 1874. Lord Beaconsfield's Parliament, which was summoned in that year, was dissolved in 1880. In no case have these Parliaments exceeded six years and a few weeks at the most. Now, Sir, my point is that the practice of these great Prime Ministers and the uniform precedents of upwards of 100 years show that the clear, undoubted interpretation of the Septennial Act is that that Act means that the duration of Parliament is six years, and six years only. Therefore, if I am called on to deal with the Motion of my hon. Friend behind me, who says it is necessary that the Septennial Act should be repealed in order that Parliaments may be shortened, it would not be fair to say that we are dealing with Parliaments of seven years' duration. Seven years' Parliaments are not known to the Constitution. There is no precedent for them. The Parliaments we have had to deal with for a century have been for six years, and six years only. It may be said—and said with justice—who is to decide what is Constitutional in a case of this sort, and that we cannot go beyond the text of an Act of Parliament. We have no written Constitution, and I am very glad of it. The elasticity of our system has secured greater freedom than where a Constitution is arbitrarily defined by some legislative Act. But that necessarily involves an enormous reserve of power in the hands of the three branches of the Legislature — the Sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, and you might reduce the case of each to an absurdity by defining the extreme powers they undoubtedly possess and by saying that they might exercise them to the uttermost. But our Constitution rests upon the play of the various parts of the Constitution, and on the tradition that no branch of the Legislature—neither the prerogative of the Sovereign, nor the Upper House, nor this House—is justified in stretching to the extreme any one of its powers or privileges. Therefore I put it to the House as clear that the Constitutional Law of this country is that Parliament should last for six years, and for six years only, and that any Motion put before the House that Parliament should be shortened must deal with the question, whether right or wrong, of shortening the period of six years. Well now, Sir, is it desirable to shorten that period of six years? Some of my hon. Friends have been induced to state the period which they think a Parliament should last. I do not think that this is the proper occasion for attempting to define that period. This is not a Party question at all. It is an undoubted truth that the Tory Party opposed the Septennial Act. I suppose there is a tendency on either side which happens to be in power rather to strengthen its grip upon its period of power than to loosen it, and I do not claim for the Opposition any superior virtue over hon. Gentlemen opposite in that respect. But, looking at it as a public question, is it desirable that the period of Parliamentary life should be shortened from six years? I think it is. I do not attach the slightest importance to the contention that if we had frequent elections the expense would be so enormous. The expenses, as we all know, have, thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bury, been substantially reduced during the last ten or fifteen years. There was another reason, that Members would have to be paid; another reason, that Members would be always skirmishing about the country; and another reason, that it was not advisable to shorten Parliamentary life to Members themselves. Sir, the best way of renewing the Parliamentary life of a Member is for him to have the confidence of his constituents. The principle of Parliamentary Government is representation. It is not that a Member of Parliament is put, as the hon. Member for the Harrow Division of Middlesex suggests, as a superior sort of being exalted above and beyond the criticism of his constituents. He is not here as a delegate, and if ever this House consists not of Representatives but of delegates, it will cease to be the House of Commons. But the House must represent the people that elected it, and my experience is that the new and the enlarged constituencies repose greater trust in their Representatives in what may be called the minor matters of administration and legislation than was the case under the older and more restricted system. The constituency has a right to know what its Members are going to do on certain great questions. When the present Government dissolve it will be on a great question of public policy—one of the gravest ever raised in the history of this country. Will anybody criticise or deny the right of the constituencies to know how their Representatives are going to vote on that question? It may be assumed that the new House of Commons will be an accurate reflex of the opinions of the constituencies. But how can you keep a Representative Body in touch with those whom it represents unless you give them not too frequent but moderately frequent opportunities of contact? It has been stated to-night that a period of five years affects the votes of a million of voters. No fewer than 500,000 persons who voted in 1886 have ceased to be voters now, and 500,000 persons who were not voters in 1886 are voters now, so that putting the two together that means 1,000,000 voters, or one-fifth of the whole constituency. In these circumstances the constituencies have aright to be heard. It is not what will be more convenient or more costly to us, but how best to carry out the representative system to enable the represented to make their power felt through their Representatives, without going into the question of three years or four years or five years. We ask the House confidently to say that six years is too long a period for Members to be elected. There is another feature in the present state of public life in this country which was alluded to by hon. Friend the Member for the Ilkeston Division in terms of disapproval—namely, what he called "the great swing of the pendulum" when General Elections take place. The tendency of the present day is rather to diminish the number of Dissolutions arising out of want of confidence between the Government of the day and the House of Commons of the day. I think the remark of Lord Beaconsfield was very accurate when he said he had observed that the duration of Parliaments and of Ministries was co-terminous. Well then, Sir, as appeals to the constituencies will be by effluxion of time rather than from any want of confidence between the Government of the day and the House of Commons, I think that is another reason for shortening the duration of each Parliament. There is one reason more. In the present day—during the last Parliament and during the present Parliament, and it will be the same in the next Parliament—the tendency is to increase the power of the House of Commons. Seventy or eighty years ago the House of Commons had not appropriated to itself, as it has now done, the powers of the Executive. Now it exercises supervision over every Department of the State, over the permanent officials, and a more minute and continuous control over the various branches of the Public Service than was ever done before. The House of Commons is now more than ever the fountain of new legislation. We are in a period of great social reform; and when this great Constitutional question which is at present under discussion is disposed of, the probability is that the attention of the House of Commons will be brought to bear more and more upon what are called social problems. If that be so, if the House is to be called upon to discuss questions of capital and labour, of master and servant, of the condition of the masses of the people, and the distribution of various rights and powers among the bulk of the population, it is necessary that the House in so doing should faithfully and adequately represent the views of those by whom it is elected. That in itself is an additional argument for shorter Parliaments. My desire in supporting this Motion is not either to reduce the status or the efficiency or the independence of the House of Commons. I wish to see the House of Commons fulfilling in the broadest manner and in the highest degree that conception of its duties which was defined in the quotation from the speech of Burke at Bristol, which was read to-night. Upon the broad ground that it is for the public interest—I do not care to put it for the convenience of Members, for that is a question that ought to be absolutely excluded from consideration—but on the broad ground of public convenience, and in order to promote its efficiency and its adequate discharge of its rapidly increasing public duties, I am convinced it is desirable that the period of the duration of Parliaments should be reduced.

(11.30.) THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. A. J. BALFOUR, Manchester, E.)

I have listened with very great interest to the speech which the right hon. Gentleman has just delivered; but I confess that in some respects my surprise was even in excess of my interest. The right hon. Gentleman spent the greater part of his speech not in defending the thesis that Parliaments should be shortened, but in establishing by elaborate historical analysis what is the precise duration of Parliaments which he thinks is in conformity with Constitutional usage. I do not know whether he had an eye to consequences other than those raised by the Motion before us; but if he had, I would point out to him that if there is any attempt made by any section of politicians to establish in this country the novel Constitutional doctrine that no Dissolution is to take place on an old register, then it is possible it may be thought necessary on the part of others to seek to establish the equally novel Constitutional principle that Parliament shall last more than six years and one month. I do not develop that point, but I pass to the second part of the right hon. Gentleman's speech—the more important and the less prolonged part, in which he dealt with the question more immediately before us. There, I confess, I was rather surprised to find that the right hon. Gentleman, in common, I think, with every other Member who has spoken from the same side of the House, has taken up the position that though Parliaments are to be shortened, they are not necessarily to be shortened by any considerable period of time. One hon. Member suggested six years, another five years, and another mentioned four years; but I do not think any one Gentleman has specifically suggested three years, and yet I had understood it was one of the accepted items of the Newcastle programme that triennial Parliaments were to be introduced. ("No, no!") Some hon. Members say "No, no!" Well, I have not refreshed my memory recently by a perusal of the document, and I do not deny that hon. Gentlemen opposite have a greater title than I have to speak on the point; but certainly I had understood that the authorised view of the duration of Parliaments, as embodied in the Newcastle programme, was that they should be three years instead of seven. I believe I am right in that.


May I state to the right hon. Gentleman that there was no period specified in the Newcastle programme; but simply a statement that there should be shorter Parliaments?


The hon. Gentleman was not the author—at least I do not think he was the author—of the Newcastle programme. If he says on authority that no period was named, I have no desire to contradict him; but I should like to refer to contemporary documents before I entirely give up the opinion which I have formed. If triennial Parliaments are to be the rule, and if we are not to follow the universal constitutional usage, founded not merely upon custom, but upon obvious convenience, of not running out any Parliament to within a month or two of its death, it means that two years, or at most two years and six months, will be the duration of a Parliament. Remembering that proposition, that particular period, and not merely the general proposition, that Parliaments are to be shortened, and, keeping in view that two years and six months will be the extreme length of Parliament—("No, no!") Do I understand that hon. Gentlemen opposite are unanimous in rejecting triennial Parliaments? Keeping in view that, according to a large body of opinion, two years and six months will be the extreme limit of Parliaments, let us consider what will be the practical effect upon the Government of this country of such a change. I will not dwell upon the cost to Members, or upon the dislocation of the business of the country, though they are both matters of considerable importance. The matter of cost the right hon. Gentleman who has just sat down dismissed with a wave of the hand. He attributed such merits to the Bill—a most excellent measure passed by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bury—that he seemed to think the cost of an election was really of no moment in these days. I take it, however, that the cost of a great county election might reach the limit of £1,400 or £1,500. That spread over a triennial Parliament is about £500 a year, in addition to the other expenses and the subscriptions which a Member of Parliament is expected to pay. If the hon. Member thinks that is a matter of absolute indifference, I congratulate him on the condition of his banker's balance, but I fear his happy fortune does not attach to every gentleman who sits in this House. I do not wish to dwell upon that in the short time at my disposal, because there are considerations, in my judgment, of incomparably more importance, and which ought to be more in the minds of hon. Gentlemen when they go into the Division Lobby. I have heard a great deal to-night from every Member who has spoken in support of this Motion in favour of what he is pleased to term the bringing of the opinion of Parliament into exact conformity with the opinions of the people. That is a good, sound, constitutional doctrine, against which I have nothing to say. But what does "opinions of the people mean?" It does not mean that the people of this country, the 37,000,000 who inhabit these islands, change their opinion from one side to the other. What it does mean is that out of the very large body of electors, 100,000 perhaps either abstain from going to the poll or alter their vote. That amount of alteration, and that amount of alteration alone, is sufficient to transfer power from one side of the House to the other, and to place gentlemen in power who now sit in the cool shade of Opposition. The change is not a change in the opinion of the nation; it is a change, and always has been a change, of a very small fraction of the nation. Our constitutional system is that the majority should decide what Government shall be in power, and the necessary result of this, in a country where Parties are fairly evenly balanced as in this country, and as I believe they must be fairly evenly balanced if Party Government is to continue to exist—the result, I say, is that a relatively small number of abstentions, or a still smaller number of changes of opinion, are quite enough to make what is called the voice of the people give utterance to opinions diametrically opposite to those of three, five or seven years ago. The necessary effect of our constitutional machinery is greatly to emphasise the result of any such change, because the consequence of this relatively small change of opinion is to place in power a Ministry who, on all controversial questions, profess precisely opposite doctrines to those professed by their predecessors. I do not complain of that, because I think it is the necessary result of Government by Party. It is not the part of a wise man to change anything that is necessary, but we should not deliberately aggravate that which may become a necessary evil when we are considering how far this House is capable of fulfilling the colossal duties which in process of time it has taken upon itself to perform. I understand the right hon. Gentleman to say that he endorses the view which modern experience shows to be correct, that Ministries and Parliaments always change together, and that is to be taken in connection with his view that Parliaments should last such a very short length of time.


It was not my view; it was the view of Lord Beaconsfield.


I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say he endorsed the view that modern experience shows that habitually the Ministry changes with the Parliament; and, undoubtedly, recent experience does tend in that direction. I thought the right hon. Gentleman adopted that view. If he does, it means that the Administration of this country is for all time to be broken up into short lengths of two or three years. Is that a desirable or a safe thing? Is it desirable, in the point of view of foreign policy, that Parliament should be broken up into short periods? I quite admit that the great traditions of the country have established the practice that one foreign Minister shall not, at all events, violently change the policy of his predecessor. A continuity of foreign policy has always been aimed at by the great Parties in the State. But whether that is to last, or the heat of controversy is to break through that tradition, or whether it breaks through or not, my argument remains untouched, because foreign Powers, whose opinions we have to consult, will always hope that on a change the Ministry will be found more pliable, and that after a General Election they will find a foreign Minister who will carry out a policy which they think will be more congenial to their own special interests. Therefore, if we really are to look forward to the time when no foreign Ministry especially is to last more than a comparatively few months, then I say a continuous foreign policy will become more and more difficult, and this country cannot possibly escape from having a difficulty of some kind, for her interests are bound up in having a foreign policy of a kind to maintain her honour abroad. Unless she has such a policy, I say the public interests of the country must most seriously and gravely suffer. To turn from foreign affairs to domestic affairs, no doubt at one time England flourished under a system of short Parliaments, and possibly no difficulties followed from it, because in these times, as I think the right hon. Gentleman has just stated, the Ministry depended just as much upon the Crown and the House of Lords as upon the House of Commons. The result of the modern system is that the House of Commons not only supports the Ministry who carry out their domestic legislation and are supported in their domestic policy, but it insists upon knowing all that they are doing in each one of the numerous Departments of State. Is it desirable or possible that we should entrust these enormous functions—functions never dreamt of in the time of Pitt, never dreamt of in the time of Lord Liverpool, only first dreamt of at the time of the first Reform Bill—are we going to hand over these enormous executive powers to Parliaments whose experience is going to be limited to one or two or three years at the most? In these days, when a large change in its personnel occurs at each Election, during the first year Parliament is learning its business, and during the last year it is not doing its business at all. It is thinking of its constituents. It has passed from the stage of callow inexperience through a stage of mature experience, and has lapsed into a position of senile courtship—and I do not think we ought to endeavour to repeat too often that period of Parliamentary experience. We all know, on both sides of the House, that there are a very large number of gentlemen so anxious to retain the honour of a seat in the House that they have not time to perform the duties of a Member. I do not think that is altogether a desirable or creditable state of things. But I go further; I confess that I think this habit of anxiously scrutinising the effect which each vote or which each speech is to have on the electorate is not a wholesome state of mind for Members of Parliament. Hon. Members have spoken as if that frame of mind simply consisted of a desire that a Member should conform to the wishes of those who have returned him. It is nothing of the sort. He knows very well that he is secure of the support of the great body of gentlemen who support him. What he is anxiously looking for is the good opinion of the small and doubtful margin of support which he may get, but of which he is not quite certain, by a stray vote or a stray speech. I feel that to be a very bad electoral calculation; but it is a calculation constantly made by Members of this House, and which does not conduce to the dignity of Members responsible for the government of a great Empire. It appears to me that some stability of administration is absolutely necessary for the mere conduct of affairs. In America they have biennial Parliaments, but, according to their system, they elect a Ministry for four years, for the President does not stand in the position of the Crown. He stands in the position of Prime Minister of the country, who settles the Ministry to carry out the work of the Government, and in the American Constitution you have more security for that continuity of Government which is so absolutely necessary. But, remember this, America has no foreign policy; it is not brought into constant contact with every European State; it has not affairs to transact with every Power on the face of the globe; it has not colonies in every latitude and in every sea. We have all the difficulties of a great Empire to face. Do not let us rashly, out of some abstract theory of the Constitution, which takes no account of the practical facts of the case, deliberately alter a system which has worked admirably in the past, which I am sure is rendered more and more necessary by the progress of democratic power, and from which I am convinced we shall be able to gather as beneficial fruits in the future as we have in the history of the past. For these reasons I hope the House will emphatically record its conviction that this Motion should not pass. We on this side of the House have nothing to gain or lose by it; and if I spoke from a purely Party point of view, I do not think the Conservative or Unionist Party are likely to be losers by any system which will shorten Parliaments. But whatever the balance of Party gain or loss, I am convinced from the point of view of general administration that it will be perfect folly to make it impossible to have continuous administration either in our foreign or our domestic affairs.

Question put.

(12.0.) The House divided:—Ayes 188; Noes 142.—(Div. List, No. 78.)

Main Question again proposed.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

SUPPLY—Committee upon Monday next.