HC Deb 14 June 1910 vol 17 cc1202-7

I beg to move for leave to bring in a Bill to extend the Parliamentary franchise to women occupiers.

First of all, I speak this afternoon as representing, not a Committee of this House in the ordinary official sense, but an unofficial Committee representing every section in this House. This Bill, for the introduction of which it is my privilege to ask leave, is looked upon, rightly or wrongly, as intended to conciliate all those who hold different views with regard to the enfranchisement of women for the Parliamentary vote. So far as I can gather from the correspondence I have received from all sections, who urge that all that should proceed, I believe that this Bill satisfies them for the moment. They agree that as far as it goes this measure gives them a first start as electors in the representation of Parliamentary divisions. It is in that sense I ask leave to introduce it. I do not for a moment say that I think the Bill satisfies what I think ought to be done. Personally, I believe in a far more advanced Bill than this, but it has been one of my ideas throughout my life, not only in the political, but in the industrial world, to get in the thin end of the wedge. I have generally found that to be the most successful way of achieving my object. And it is because I find that this is the only objection to the present Bill that I am so much in favour of it. I think the House will realise, when they calmly consider the question of the claim put forward by women, that this is the minimum, and that, they have striven long and arduously to achieve representation. If they will only think for a moment of the number of women who are employed in factories, I believe they will realise that, if Parliamentary representation be granted to them, a beneficial change will come over the factory and workshop life of the country as the outcome of their direct influence over the legislation of this House.

In all the walks of life the responsibilities of women have increased tremendously. The Education Act of 18v0 gave to women, as to men, the same opportunities, and they have a right to claim that the education which they have received shall be followed by giving them the chance to make the best use of it by granting them representation in this House. I have had some little experience of women workers in various walks in life. In dealing with factory legislation and with the sweated workers in this country no class of the community worked harder than women. For years they have taken part in the local government of the country, and who is there who will point a finger against them in regard to their work as members of boards of guardians? Their work in connection with those bodies has been indispensable to the community. Without them our boards of guardians would have been unsympathetic; without their presence the treatment of women and children in the workhouses might not have been what it now is had men alone been appointed guardians. Their presence, too, in our education authorities has been useful in our educational system, especially in connection with elementary education. Their representation has been extended to the county and borough councils, and we have shown confidence in women by repeated additions to their work. Following on all this women naturally recognise that they have a right to come in and take their part as citizens in the full sense of the term. The object of this Bill is to make it possible that women who to-day are voting in our municipal elections shall have the right to take part in our Parliamentary elections. When we remember that they have had this power for municipal purposes so long, and have used it wisely and well, surely this House need not fear to take the step of enfranchising for Parliamentary purposes the women of the country. It appears to me that this is the first step. It is a step I have advised many years ago. It is a case that cannot be repudiated, because the fact that they have used the power wisely all these years with regard to municipal government proves that they are entitled to have the extended power which the Parliamentary vote would give them.

There is only one other point I desire to make, and that is with regard to the question of opportunity. We are at the present moment living in a sort of truce on the great constitutional question, and surely, this House might well be occupied in giving a few hours' consideration to this Bill. I am assuming that the feeling of this House is the same as that of the last one; and the same as that of every House of Commons for many years back. Since 1902, every Bill presented in this House on this subject has received the approval of a majority of the House. So far as I know, the present House is of that opinion. I hope, if this House does give a First Beading to this Bill, that we may be able to persuade the Government to give us a fair opportunity, during the lull on the constitutional question, to spend a little of that time in order to give full effect to this Bill. I believe that the women are entitled to this small measure, to exercise the tender persuasion during Parliamentary elections which the vote gives them. Every Member of this House realises that the power of the vote behind a deputation is something to all Parliamentary candidates; and if they are receiving a deputation of women, then women should have the power to persuade, not only by argument, but the power also to give effect to their influence with the ballot-box. The women are entitled to that. By it their power in the State will be increased, and rightly so. I feel that this is a modest demand, and I have full confidence that the House will give me the opportunity of introducing this Bill.


The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Shackleton) is a persuasive and moderate advocate of every cause to which he gives his Parliamentary support, and it is certainly no part of my purpose, in the very short time for which I shall ask the indulgence of the House, to depart in any way from the example of moderation and good feeling which he has set me. I think I may be permitted to point out that the preface of his speech was not convincing to those who have not hitherto been able to persuade themselves with regard to this subject. He told us in the few sentences which he addressed to the House, that the proposals contained in the present Bill conciliate all those who support the cause of women's suffrage. That statement would have been a little more impressive if he had not qualified it in two or three sentences afterwards by giving the reason which enabled those who support this Bill to unite all those who are in favour of female suffrage. He was so good as to leave us in no doubt whatever as to the conciliating element in the present Bill. He told us it satisfied them for the moment, that it gave them the first start, and he told us also that the Bill did not satisfy him, but that he supported it because it was the insinuation of the thin end of the wedge. We cannot be too grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the frankness with which he has informed those of us who are not in favour of female suffrage of the motives underlying this unity. It does not mean that any real difference of substance has been composed, but it merely means that all the different sections have united in order to capture the first redoubt, because they know that the assault on the later and ultimate redoubts will be easier if they capture this. We understand exactly, then, the value of the compromise which has been put forward, as if it represented some concession in regard to the real case.

I do not propose in the few moments at my disposal to examine either the principles or the details of the question of female suffrage. I rise in order to caution the hon. Member and those of his friends who share his sanguineness of the futility of hoping in this House, elected under the circumstances which to the knowledge of all of us marked the creation of this House of Commons, by a few hours' discussion to discuss and dismiss this highly controversial question, dividing the whole country, and dividing the House of Commons on lines of cleavage, which are not party lines of cleavage. What was the language the hon. Gentleman used. He said: Surely we may have in the truce under which we are happily living u few hours consideration for thin Bill. A few hours when a few months would be inadequate. I may venture to say that no one who has ventured to consider the long, tedious, and painful processes by which fundamental reforms in the franchise have been effected in this country will say that I am using language of exaggeration when I say that it would take months to make effective legislation which would introduce this prodigious upheaval in our representative institutions. Surely when the hon. Gentleman throws out the suggestion, all the more menacing because of the plausibility and moderation of the language, that the Government should give facilities in order that this matter should be discussed, one may be entitled to point out that the Government to which the appeal is addressed to give exceptional facilities for introducing a highly controversial proposal, is by no means unanimous in its favour. I carefully watched, if I may say so, the countenance of the First Commissioner of Works when the seductive and persuasive appeal was being made to the Government to grant facilities, and I failed to discern the slightest symptom of enthusiasm. I then take the case of the Attorney-General, who has frequently publicly declared his strongest antagonism to the proposals the hon. Member commends to the attention of the House and to the favourable consideration of the Government.

It would be wrong of me to take further advantage of the indulgence of the House beyond saying in the plainest and most explicit language, speaking on behalf of myself and on behalf of those of my Friends on this side of the House who share my views, and I am not entitled to speak on behalf of hon. Gentlemen opposite—I can only say we shall offer to these proposals, now or at any time, the most implacable resistance which the Rules of Parliament permit In whatever other circumstances the Government may lend consideration to the appeal of the hon. Member, having heard the humble warning which I, on behalf of my Friends, address to them, they will not, at least, respond favourably to the appeal under any impression that the Bill is not to be disputed and most seriously contested throughout.

Question, "That leave be given to introduce a Bill to extend the Parliamentary Franchise to Women occupiers" put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Shackleton, Mr. Arbuthnot, Mr. Burt, Sir Thomas Esmonde, Mr. Harmood-Banner, Mr. Henniker Heaton, Mr. Hugh Law, Mr. Leverton Harris, Sir Charles M'Laren, Sir Albert Spicer, Mr. Philip Snowden, and Sir George White.