HL Deb 27 May 1852 vol 121 cc1181-92

presented a petition from Members of the learned Professions and others praying that in any change which might be made in the Constitution of the House of Commons, security shall be taken for the distinct and separate representation of the educated intelligence of the country. The petition, his Lordship said, was signed by many persons of the highest eminence in science and the learned professions, including such men as Sir David Brewster and Sir Benjamin Bro-die. This proposal might startle by its novelty, but the circumstances of the times were such as to warrant and require some consideration for this question. He believed the general feeling in their Lordships' House, as well as a large proportion of persons in the country at large, was, that it would be better not to make any further changes in the representation in the House of Commons at all, and not to be constantly altering the machinery already in operation. At the same time, there were circumstances which from time to time compelled a consideration of the question, and it was possible that the corruption which was alleged to exist in boroughs might force it forward. The general feeling was simply, that in representation all that had to be done was to collect the opinions of the majority of the people; and this view seemed to be almost growing into an admitted axiom. But this view, if allowed to prevail, would lead to dangerous consequences. There was nothing in ancient or modern experience to encourage its adoption. The government of numbers gave no security for liberty. In a neighbouring country, universal suffrage had elected two bodies with equal powers, which, as soon as they came into existence, became antagonistic to each other, and the result had been the extinguishment of liberty, and the concentration of all authority in a single person. A majority had no natural right to govern a minority; it was purely a matter of convention. In itself it was merely the domination of the strong over the weak; only one form of tyranny; and the object of all government was to protect the weak against the strong. There was, therefore, neither right nor experience in favour of the domination of mere numbers. They must then look to other sources for representation. It was of no use disguising it from themselves, that the House of Commons was no longer, as in its earlier days, a mere taxing body, but that it was practically the great instrument of government—in fact and truth the Government of this country itself; and it must not be lost sight of that the Government of this country was no longer a municipal Government—was no longer a merely English Government. It was now the Government of the greatest, the most complicated empire the world had ever seen; and thus obviously, if we sought, in our representative system, no more than the representation of our own internal, perhaps even our national interests, passions, and feelings, we were in danger of neglecting altogether those considerations which arose out of our colonial connexions. He was not now criticising the Reform Bill; but it was certain that under the previous system, gentlemen who were the indirect representatives of the Colonies, had been enabled to obtain seats in Parliament; while under the present system such persons would seek in vain to obtain entrance to the House of Commons. Indeed, attention to Colonial questions had already in several instances been made a reproach instead of a recommendation to candidates before a popular constituency. Since the Reform Bill, representation, and consequently the character of the Government, were matters entirely in the hands of constituencies more or less populous; and the necessary result of that was, that candidates for election recommended themselves to one or other section of such constituencies by topics specially interesting to them, to the neglect of the general interests of the Empire, and by professing what were termed extreme opinions on these topics one way or the other. Hence men of temperate natures, matured thought, and moderate opinions—precisely that class of men who would constitute some of the noblest, the most valuable, elements of a representative body—were practically excluded from public life. When a gentleman went down to present himself to a constituency, he insensibly, and as it were instinctively, adopted the tone requisite to recommend him to the crowd he was about to canvass. He was, for instance, violently against the Maynooth endowment; or, on the other hand, he was as violently against meddling with it. He was a furious Protectionist; or he was as furious a Freetrader. Moderation found no place; every conviction was passionately expressed, and to this or that policy in its extremest form, every man came into the House of Commons pledged. This was the undoubted character of the present system; and the result was, the creation of a House of Commons which had less the character of a deliberative assembly than it was desirable that it should have. He was not unaware of the difficulty of avoiding these consequences, and of providing for such an infusion into the House of Commons as he had suggested. It was impossible, of course, to return to the rotten boroughs, through which a desirable class of men, unswayed by the conditions now imposed by the populous constituencies, were passed into the House of Commons. It was impossible to return to the old system of representation, including those rotten boroughs, because the traditions on which that system was based, being destroyed, could never be restored. Such changes as would completely alter the complexion of our present system, or which in any degree were assimilated to the abolished system, could not even be suggested; and the conclusion to which he had come was, that, to effect the limited alteration which he believed alone to be attainable, no means could be so adequate as those indicated in the petition he had presented to their Lordships. The principle, although not entirely novel, inasmuch as the representation of our Universities was a precedent, yet, carried to any considerable extent, might surprise, and the details would in- volve considerable difficulty. But he considered it an advantage to have the subject familiarised to the public mind; for it was of the utmost importance that it should not come to be taken for granted that on any reform, nothing but the increased representation of populous political communities should be considered. This petition prayed that some security should be given that men of high intellect, philosophic grasp of mind, and statesmanlike opinions, untrammelled by the prejudices of ordinary constituencies, should be returned to Parliament; in short, that the vast constituency of learning, moderation, and dispassionate wisdom existing in the kingdom—a constituency now wholly unrepresented, and fit to exercise a most wholesome influence over the deliberations of Parliament—should find some representation in the House of Commons. It might be answered—these men have votes in their several localities, and they may exercise their privileges. No doubt. But this vast constituency was scattered: there were but tens and twenties in the various communities sending Members to Parliament; and, in consequence, their votes were utterly without influence in any one place. Why, then, should not this constituency be organised and brought together, to act together, and be represented as separate communities, so to speak, within the community? It was often contended, that the drawbacks and deficiencies on the present system were but temporary; that the system would work perfectly well when the constituencies themselves were elevated; and that for the security of the future, statesmen and patriots must trust to the education of the people. Now, this argument proceeded upon a great fallacy. Undoubtedly the people were insufficiently educated; undoubtedly their education might be greatly improved. But the mass of the people would always be those who would earn their bread by the sweat of their brow—artisans, men whose lives, however ameliorated and elevated, must be passed in manual toil; and it was obvious that, however excellent the education which might be given to or might be acquired by those men, it was impossible in the nature of things that that education could be otherwise than extremely imperfect. The education fitting a man to decide on the important interests and mighty questions involved in the government of a great nation, could never be acquired by those who, because they were earning their daily bread by daily toil, could never possess the leisure for study or for thought: therefore, he altogether denied that the education of the masses could ever be so raised as to fit them for becoming practically the sole possessors of the suffrage. Look at the conduct of the Society of Amalgamated Engineers on a recent occasion. Here was a body consisting of the best educated and the best paid class of artisans; and yet they were found attempting to enforce regulations which would have been fatal to their own interests—incompatible with the interests of their own body; and, moreover, were fraught with the greatest tyranny over the interests of others, whether above them or below them. There could not be a better example than this to show the unfitness of the class to which these engineers belonged for deciding upon intricate questions of policy or of political economy. He was in this saying nothing offensive or derogatory to the class. He did not doubt the goodness of the intentions of such persons in the views they took of national affairs. He believed them to be loyal and to be favourable to order; and he thought that such classes in this country were singularly destitute of those evil feelings which sprang from the jealousy of one class in regard to the class above it. Still he maintained that because they were without the leisure, they were without the habits of mind, qualifying them for the consideration of difficult and complicated questions, especially when their importance was rather remote than immediate. Moreover, however qualified, they would have their class views, class feelings, class interests; in every community they would compose the great majority, and the result of a system of representation resting on no other basis than that of the most populous communities, would be, that one class only would be represented, namely, the most numerous—all the best educated would be practically and effectively disfranchised. But if to this were added, as was often desired, a shortening of the duration of Parliament; if every Session were to be such as the present Session, that is, with an impending dissolution in prospect, with the experience of that Session before our eyes, well might it be asked, what possible security would they have for good legislation for the Empire at large? He desired particularly to direct attention to the absence, under the present system, of colonial representation. Great discouragement had been thrown by Mr. Burke upon any proposal of that kind, and the question had been little mooted since. But steam had produced great changes in the relative position of the Colonies and of the mother country; and though oceans still rolled between England and her dependencies, the distance between them was now practically as short as formerly between the extremes of these islands; and the question well deserved a fresh consideration. He thought that the importance of this question could not be exaggerated. The history of Borne seemed to him to offer a warning to this country. Under the Roman constitution there were two modes of voting: one in which the voters were taken by classes, in which the poorer citizens had their share, but only as one class; the other, in which mere numbers predominated. When the latter prevailed, all was hilarity and order; when the former, all was anarchy; and despotism was the conclusion. Another main cause of the fall of Rome, and from which also we might draw a warning, was this, that the constitution was a municipal constitution only. It was good for Rome, but good for Rome only; and when the empire extended, cohesion was wanting, and it fell to pieces. The Government of the British Empire ought to be imperial as well as municipal; and the interests and feelings of the colonies should find their representatives in some shape or other in the seat of government of the Empire. He had to apologise for these remarks, there being no distinct proposition before their Lordships; but he thought it would be an advantage to have these questions discussed. He was not advocating a change for the sake of change; for what he most feared was a system of tampering with the Constitution. What he sought was some stable and permanent system; and he thought that stability and permanence would be best guaranteed by a system which would provide a balance against the increasing democracy of the country, and preclude dangers arising from the growing importance of a House of Commons proceeding solely from populous constituencies, and constituted more and more upon the basis of simple numbers, that is, practically on the representation of one only, because the more numerous class, of the community.

Petition presented, and read.


My Lords, I do not think my noble Friend had any occa- sion to apologise to your Lordships for bringing under your consideration a matter in itself of the greatest importance, and which receives some importance, also, from the great respectability and weight of the names attached to the petition he has presented. The subject, indeed, is one which, perhaps, might be usefully discussed in the other House of Parliament previous to its consideration by this House. But, at the same time, I think my noble Friend has not done bad service in introducing to general consideration, both of the Parliament and of the country, the propositions contained in this petition; not asking your Lordships to pronounce any positive opinion, or to come to any decision with regard to the principles enunciated; and still less asking an opinion upon the details of any specific measure. I will not follow my noble Friend into his investigations of the first principles of popular government; but I must say, that I certainly concur in most of the observations, perhaps not in all, which he has made with respect to the present state of things in this country, the present constitution of the House of Commons, and some of the effects upon Parliament consequent upon the Reform Bill. I certainly agree with him that there has been, consequent upon that measure, and consequent upon the abolition, so far as it was abolished, of the indefensible system of rotten boroughs, an increased difficulty with respect to men not known to the public, not possessing that peculiar talent, that peculiar readiness of speech and peculiar fluency, and, withal, those extreme views which would recommend them to populous constituencies, obtaining seats in the House of Commons. I do think that, previous to the Reform Bill, there were means—not direct or regular means—by which the sense of the Colonies was represented in the House of Commons, and that there were similar means by which young men disposed to avail themselves of the advantages of a seat in Parliament, not for their own amusement, but for the service of the country, might find admission into the other House, there to make for themselves a name and a character, which would subsequently recommend them to larger constituencies. At present, and under a new system, those facilities are undoubtedly to a great extent removed; and now, speaking generally, it is necessary that the men becoming candidates for popular elections should be previously well known to the world or to the constituency, either professionally or otherwise, or that they should be prepared to recommend themselves to the electors by adopting the intemperate and usually the impracticable views of extreme parties, on one side or the other; and thus moderate men, of good sense and sound judgment, and not holding extreme opinions, may find it more difficult than it used to be, or than it should be, to find a way into the House of Commons. I also fully agree with my noble Friend, that it is not right or just, but that it is extremely inexpedient and impolitic that everything connected with the country should become a mere question of numbers. I quite believe that, in whatever manner you may distribute the constituencies of the country, however large the number you admit to the franchise, there must be always a large minority which, in a certain sense, must be left unrepresented. Nay, more; I believe that the absolute majority of the country may not be really represented; and in this way—that the majority of seats may not represent the majority of the constituents, for the majority returning may be large in one case and small in another; and the result might be, that the majorities in the smaller constituencies might neutralise the elections in the larger, and thus the majority of the constituents might be virtually unrepresented. Again, the very small majorities might equally balance the few great majorities, and then in reality and in effect there would be no great preponderance of opinion one way or the other. I confess, however, I do not see in what manner we are to escape from the dilemma. Divide constituencies as you please, you must be directed by the aggregate votes of different constituencies, and it would be impossible to take any precautions by which you could ensure a Parliament exactly reflecting the majority of those votes. But I agree with my noble Friend, that if it were necessary to enter into a new distribution of the constituencies of this country—nay more, if we were seeking to supply vacancies, or to make alterations which time and circumstances may render necessary in the state of the representation, it would then be exceedingly unwise to look merely to the question of numerical amount, without considering the other element of property, and, as far as it can be made matter of legislation, the question of intelligence. No doubt the numerical element is that which most readily commends itself to the popular opinion, and no doubt it is the one most easily ascertained. Next in the scale of facility of ascertainment is probably that of property; and that element of all others most difficult to deal with in providing a due balance, is intelligence; either in separate constituencies or by such a plan as my noble Friend suggests, proposing a certain aggregate constituency, which should be entitled to distinct representation, exclusive of property or numbers. At the same time, I am far from saying, though it may be difficult to introduce that element, that its introduction would not be desirable; and I agree with my noble Friend that, as far as practicable, it would be advantageous to consider that question of intelligence and education apart from the questions of numbers and mere property. But I am quite aware that the carrying that principle into operation would be a matter of extreme difficulty. To a certain extent that principle is acted upon in regard to the existing Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Dublin; and I would say that if there are other bodies sufficiently numerous (for I cannot overlook that question of numbers in considering popular representation) and sufficiently distinct in character to be placed on the same footing with the existing Universities, then I think such bodies would have a fair claim upon the Government in any reorganisation or reconstruction, or even amendment, of the existing representative system. I can assure my noble Friend that the subject has not escaped the attention of Her Majesty's Government, and even on a recent occasion they have anxiously examined the system from that point of view. But the difficulties are apparent. Take, for instance, the Scotch Universities. No doubt it is extremely desirable that the Scotch Universities should be represented in Parliament just as the English and Irish Universities are. But there are three or four separate Universities in Scotland; some of them the reverse of numerous; and all of them together not giving a very numerous constituency, supposing it to be confined to those who have graduated in those Universities. And that is not the only difficulty. I am not quite sure that the smaller Universities would receive such a proposition as a boon, for they might be apprehensive that the general interests of science would suffer in consequence of their votes being overborne by the votes of the larger Universities, who might be disposed to elect candidates for political or other reasons, rather than for reasons strictly relating to science. Then, again, there are the Inns of Court. They are a body, no doubt, capable of furnishing a most respectable and valuable constituency, and they would probably return to Parliament Members whose presence in that Assembly would be of the greatest public utility; and I don't at all mean to say that it would not be highly creditable to any lawyer to be returned, thus bearing with him the approval of his profession, who would send him into Parliament to sit as the representative of the law of England. But of all classes of the community the lawyers are precisely that class who find the least difficulty in getting into Parliament, for the tendency of the existing system is to send large numbers of professional men into the House of Commons. Lawyers are men who go on circuit, or otherwise obtain opportunities for public display; who thus form acquaintance and friends, and bring themselves into notice, and obtain means of acquiring local influence. At the same time, again, I do not at all mean to say, if any alteration were to take place, that the Inns of Court would not form a constituency very fairly entitled to consideration; and I have no doubt that the Member returned by such a constituency would reflect credit on his profession and upon Parliament. My noble Friend also seems to propose to go to the learned Societies—and here I think he will find even a greater difficulty than with regard to the Universities and the Inns of Court. There also one proposition in this petition to which great exception must be taken. It appears to be a proposition to create a separate constituency of retired naval and military officers; but obviously that is a body not entitled to distinct representation, the proposition being, in effect, that we should have a Member for the United Service Club. Adopting, however, for the present, the idea of my noble Friend, that it would be advisable to have the science, the education, and the intelligence of the country separately represented in Parliament, I may suggest that he would find it extremely difficult in practice to know where to draw the line between the many societies which would make equal claims to be so represented. I am not sure, indeed, that the introduction of this political element would in all instances tend to harmony. Suppose the College of Physicians to he represented, the College of Surgeons would demand to he represented too; and if you combined them, I am not sure that there might not be discord. With regard even to this particular body, I am not quite certain that it would be for the benefit of physicians and surgeons to hope for that representation, and thereby to be divided by political feelings, which are at present, as they ought to be, completely excluded. Then, with respect to learned Societies, there would be much perplexity in deciding which body would be of sufficient importance to be entitled to send a representative to Parliament. Clearly you would not combine the Geological, Geographical, and Zoological, and the other Societies, into a constituency to return one Member; and it would be not less impossible to give to each society its due share of representation. Again, many of these Societies, although learned Societies, technically so called, introduce members who have no claim to represent science or learning. At present men of rank and station feel it an honour to themselves to be admitted as honorary members of these societies; and although to a certain extent that is a desirable element, yet if you gave the additional inducement, that, in virtue of that introduction, a person shall be entitled to have a vote for a Member of Parliament, I think you would incur a great risk of endangering the character of those Societies, and of converting them from their legitimate purposes into political bodies, if not into political engines and instruments. There is another point to which my noble Friend adverted, and on this, as on the others raised, I would wish your Lordships to understand that I am not offering mature opinions, and that in my position I am, perhaps, hardly right in entering on such an occasion into questions of such great importance. My noble Friend has raised the question of colonial representation—one of great importance and of great difficulty, but one which, if it could be achieved—and the consideration of it is greatly affected by the alterations which have taken place since 1833, and the consequent exclusion of indirect colonial representation—would be well worthy of the attention of Government. If by any means such a representation could be given to the Colonies as would represent, if not their different individual interests, at least the interests of separate groups of Colonies, and as would fairly afford them the power of bringing before Parliament proposals affecting their material, social, and political welfare, I think that a great advantage would be gained, that a great additional tie would be created between the Colonies and the mother country, and—not an inferior advantage, perhaps, in my mind—that thus there would be some degree of control exercised over those amateur colonial legislators who are at present the only representatives of the Colonies, who are not always the most discreet, though they may be always undoubtedly zealous. But there would be an extreme difficulty in considering this question, with regard to the Members to be admitted, to the mode by which the representatives would be returned, and of the manner in which they would represent the collective or separate interests of each group—a return for each colony being obviously impossible. This is a subject upon which I am unwilling to offer a decisive opinion. Perhaps I have gone further than I should. But I can assure my noble Friend, and those who have entrusted him with this petition, that I concur in a great portion of the observations which he has made; and that if I could see my way, by an alteration or addition, to the means of introducing intelligence, education, science, or the colonial element, into the representation of this country, I should think, difficult as it is to be accomplished, yet that if it could be accomplished it would be an object well worthy of serious attention and consideration. I can assure my noble Friend, further, that I entirely concur in his opinion that it is desirable, if possible, to neutralise that which appears to be a prevailing tendency, namely, to throw all power, not into the hands of the most intelligent and the most enlightened, but into the hands of the most numerous and, as I believe in a majority of cases, of the most easily misguided portions of the community. My noble Friend has not brought forward any Motion—I will only, therefore, say the subject is entitled to the most earnest consideration; while I think no greater injury could be inflicted on the country than to bring forward, hastily and without due deliberation, any such proposition for the consideration of Parliament.

Petition ordered to lie on the Table.

House adjourned till To-morrow.