HL Deb 09 March 1854 vol 131 cc519-26

, in rising to move an Address for certain Returns connected with Population and the Franchise, said that it seemed to him obvious that the same returns which had been ordered by the House of Commons on the 15th February last, in reference to the Government measure of Parliamentary Reform, should be laid before their Lordships' House. In moving for these returns, he hoped that, as he was not in the House on Friday last, he should be permitted to make a few remarks in reference to what had fallen from the noble Earl (the Earl of Aberdeen) on that evening, in answer to certain questions put to him by the noble Earl (the Earl of Derby) opposite, in reference to the measure introduced into the other House for the amendment of the representation of the people in Parliament. He would preface the remarks he was about to make by saying, he had learnt with sincere pleasure that the Government had decided upon deferring the second reading of that measure at all events until the 27th April, for he was persuaded that, in deciding not to press that Bill at the present time, the Government had yielded to a necessity to which it was their duty to yield. He must say they had only done what he had expected from them; for, notwithstanding the very discouraging answer he received when he ventured, at an earlier period of the Session, to recommend that the Bill should be deferred, he confidently anticipated, from his knowledge of the character of his noble Friend who had charge of the measure in the other House, that when he came calmly to consider the probable effect of urging the Bill forward at the present time, he would abstain from doing so. He rejoiced to find that, in forming that opinion of his noble Friend's judgment and patriotism, he had not been deceived. He hoped he was equally in the right, notwithstanding the terms in which the announcement of the Government had been made, in supposing that, although the Bill was nominally deferred until the 27th of April, it was not intended to persevere with it then, unless the objections to its now being proceeded with should have been by that time removed. It appeared to him that those objections would not be removed unless the state of the country was very different from that which we had every reason to believe it would be. He knew it had been said that there was no objection to bringing in a measure of this kind at the commencement of a war, and he could well conceive cases in which no solid objection could be urged to great constitutional changes in time of war. These changes might be of such urgent necessity that they could not safely be postponed, and there might be reasons in the internal circumstances of the country why they should be brought forward. He thought this was the case in all those instances which had been cited as showing that there was no objection to the course which Her Majesty's Government had taken. It was true that both the Union with Scotland and the Union with Ireland had been carried in time of war, though these measures involved a great change in the representation, and the disfranchisement of many places which previously returned Members to the Parliaments of Scotland and of Ireland. A measure had also been proposed, but not carried, for amending the representation of England and Wales at the w beginning of the revolutionary war with France. But it was well known that all those measures were considered to be of urgent necessity when they were brought forward, and that, on the other hand, the difficulties which we apprehended now were not likely to arise. He certainly thought it would have been better if the Government had at once deferred the further consideration of this Bill till another Session; at the same time he would be indisposed to offer any objection to its postponement to the 27th of April, if it was understood that it would then only be proceeded with in the event of the circumstances of the country being by that time entirely altered. He thought the abandonment of the measure would have been a more judicious course, because, considering the character of the Bill, considering the many interests it would affect and the many provisions it contained, it seemed to him that the second reading of such a measure at so late a period as the 27th of April, even if it should be pressed with all the despatch that was possible, would not enable it to receive all that full and deliberate consideration which it ought to receive, and without which he trusted there would be no attempt to force it through their Lordships' House. In the meantime, however, what he intended to urge was that they should come to the understanding that the measure would not be brought forward at the time specified, unless the objections which now existed were removed. He certainly could not consider that the proper time for effecting a great constitutional change like this, if the dispute in which we were now involved with Russia should not be by that time adjusted. If the only objection to consider this measure had been a difficulty with regard to mere taxes, he should have seen very little occasion for deferring it, because he could not believe there would be greater difficulty in getting taxes to defray the expenses of the war, than there had been found in obtaining votes to authorise incurring these expenses. That, therefore, formed no part of his reason for wishing the postponement of the measure. The great reason for wishing that this Bill should not be proceeded with at the moment of an opening war was, that if the measure were pressed forward for consideration, they would run the risk of weakening the hands of the executive Government—perhaps, of paralysing them—at a time when it was of peculiar importance that the hands of the Government should be strengthened to enable them to conduct with vigour the war on which we were entering, and to enable them to command the confidence of those foreign Powers with whom they must act, either in conducting that war or in negotiating to bring it to an end. Let their Lordships compare the circumstances under which the present Bill was brought in with those that existed in 1831–32. Their Lordships would remember the enthusiasm with which the measure of the Government of that day was supported by the country, and the power which the support of public opinion gave to the Government in the course they were pursuing; and they would agree with him when he said that nothing could form a greater contrast to the apathy and indifference with which the present proposal had been received. They knew that not only had that proposal been received with apathy, but that, had the second reading of the Bill been proceeded with on the day originally intended, it was highly doubtful, to say the least, whether such a Motion would have been carried. Now, it required no argument to prove that in the present state of affairs it would be dangerous to the interests of the country if the Ministers should needlessly expose themselves to a Parliamentary defeat. If, after encountering such a defeat, they should be willing still to conduct the affairs of the country, they would find their authority impaired and their powers diminished; while, on the other hand, no one could doubt that, in the actual state of our foreign relations and of parties at home, a change of Administration and a prolonged Ministerial crisis would be attended with great difficulty and danger. The Government had no right to expose their Sovereign, Parliament, and the country to such a state of things by forcing on the discussion of a measure at a time so very inopportune, not only in the opinion of the opponents of the measure, but of the great majority of its supporters. He owned he had heard with great surprise that it was held by some of the opponents of the Government, and also by some of their supporters, that they were bound in honour to persevere with this measure, in consequence of a pledge they had formerly given on the subject. That was an opinion altogether unreasonable. He could not conceive how public men could possibly be bound by promises made in one state of public affairs to proceed with measures in a totally altered state of affairs, when it became obvious that by doing so they might be acting injuriously towards the country. The honour and duty of public men could not possibly be at variance with each other, and it was the obvious duty of all, men engaged in public affairs, and, above all, of those who were in the service of the Crown, to adopt that course which was best for the safety and the interests of the country. Instead, therefore, of their honour being pledged to persevere in that which in the altered circumstances might be injurious to the country, their honour and their duty were both on the other side, and a very heavy responsibility would rest on the Ministers, both collectively and individually, if, having failed in averting the war—he would not say whether by their fault or otherwise, for on that point it was unnecessary to give any opinion—but, having failed in averting the war, they were to leave undone anything that was in their power to diminish, as far as possible, the difficulties and dangers with which that war might be attended. He should also desire to see this measure postponed to another year, because, while the Bill which had been laid on the table of the other House contained much that he highly approved, it was impossible to conceal his opinion that, as a whole, the measure was not so well digested and matured that Parliament could properly pass it in its present shape. It seemed to him that its provisions involved many principles which, if right, ought to be carried further; and this applied more especially to the extensive disfranchisement of places now enjoying the right of returning Members of Parliament for the purpose of transferring that right to other bodies. They could not but feel that the original Reform Bill, by disfranchising so many small places, gave a great blow to prescription as a ground on which that right should be continued to various cities and towns which at present enjoyed it; but if, after that event, a se- cond blow was given to the principle of prescription, and they were again further to disfranchise small constituencies and transfer the right of representation to others, it seemed to him impossible to doubt that, with regard to those small constituencies to whom the right of returning Members would remain, prescription would form but a very insecure basis on which they could keep their right. If, therefore, this arrangement was to be proposed and carried out, it would have been far safer that a larger and more complete reconstruction of our electoral system should be effected. He thought so, because, in common with the authors of the original Reform Bill, he believed that almost the very first requisite of a safe measure on this subject was that it should hold out a reasonable prospect of settling, at least for some considerable time, the question to which it related. It would be in the recollection of those who attended to what passed with respect to the original Reform Bill, that one of the chief reasons assigned by the authors of the measure for its extent was, that they hoped by the largeness of the measure to avert the necessity of again dealing with the subject for as long a period as in human legislation it was possible to look forward. And it seemed to him that the result had justified the foresight and wisdom of those by whom that reason was given, because, while the measure carried in 1832 had been successful in greatly improving the constitution of the House of Commons as an instrument of legislation, and for securing good government, that measure, after an existence of twenty-two years, still remained substantially unaltered. It appeared to bins that the present measure was framed on precisely the opposite principle, and was drawn up in such a manner as positively insured, if it were to pass in its present shape, that further changes must again be forced on the attention of Parliament almost as soon as the new scheme could have been brought into operation. He did not see, when such principles were admitted, that it would be possible to refuse to go further; and he was the more confirmed in that opinion because he observed that by far the largest proportion of those who had given the measure anything like a hearty support had declared that they did so because they considered it as an instalment of the measures they hoped to obtain. These he thought very important considerations, and it would be no small advantage, in his opinion, that the measure should now be delayed, in order that the Government might have an opportunity of reconsidering the subject, and of submitting hereafter to Parliament a better digested and more matured plan for accomplishing the object they had in view; and—what was hardly less material—public opinion would also have the opportunity of forming itself upon it. On all questions of this kind the Government and Parliament could only act with success by following, rather than going in advance of, public opinion. All the leading provisions of the measure proposed in 1831 had been for forty years, and even longer, under the consideration of the public, and the country had been prepared for them by ample discussion; but the present Bill contained many provisions of a different character, which had not been so considered, and which were imperfectly understood. The truth was, that the public had, till very lately, so little contemplated seriously the probability of any great change in our internal constitution, and the real difficulties of the changes had been so little considered, that he believed there were few men who were actually prepared to give a definite opinion on the subject. After what had occurred, however, men's minds would be directed to this important question. Inquiring and reflecting persons would, no doubt, give expression to their opinions through the press; by the conflict of opinion truth would be elicited, and the public would be better prepared for considering with advantage such a measure as Parliament ought to pass. For these reasons, he greatly rejoiced that the Government had deferred for some time, at least, any further proceeding with this Bill; and he hoped, unless there was a great change in the circumstances of the country, greater than could be anticipated at that moment, that the measure would be still further deferred. The noble Earl concluded by moving for the returns.


said, he need scarcely say that there could be no objection to produce the returns moved for by the noble Earl; nor did he mean to complain of the course which the noble Earl had taken on the present occasion; for he had always great pleasure in hearing his noble Friend, even when he differed from him. But the noble Earl would permit him to say that, on this occasion he did think that he had extended his obser- vations beyond the strict bounds of regularity; for to discuss in this House whether a measure before the other House of Parliament shall be read on one day or on another day, or whether it shall be postponed or deferred altogether, he (the Earl of Aberdeen) thought scarcely formed a regular subject for discussion before your Lordships. He was not aware that he could add anything to the statement which he made last week in that House on this subject, when a noble Earl (the Earl of Derby) asked him a question which he had no difficulty in answering, and which he thought it perfectly natural should be put, in consequence of the importance of the subject to which it referred. He then said, that his noble Friend who took charge of this measure in the other House of Parliament had postponed the second reading till the 27th of April—that he had done so in sincerity and good faith, and that it was his intention to move the second reading on the 27th of April. He said that announcement was made, and he repeated it, in sincerity and good faith; but, if he was asked whether that intention would be irrevocably executed on that day or not, of course, he must humbly decline to give any positive pledge on the subject. In the present state of this country, and in the present state of Europe, who could tell what a day or an hour might bring forth? But, he said—reserving that which must, of course, belong to all intentions, and which must depend on a sense of public duty—the intention which He announced last week, on the part of his noble Friend, he repeated to-day; and when that time came it would be for Her Majesty's Government to consider of it, and to act according to that which appears to them most consonant with the great interests of the country and with a due regard to their own honour.


was understood to say that he was perfectly satisfied with what had fallen from the noble Earl.

Motion agreed to.