HL Deb 22 April 1858 vol 149 cc1477-86

Order of the Day for Second Reading read.


My Lords, I have to ask your Lordships' indulgence whilst I offer a few words of explanation upon moving the second reading of this Bill. On a former occasion, when a some what similar Bill—at least, a Bill directed to the same object—was introduced, my noble Friend near me (the Earl of Derby) objected to the form of the measure, inasmuch as the two questions — the Oath of Abjuration and the relief of the Jen's from their civil disabilities—were mixed up together; and my noble Friend was of opinion that these two questions ought to be brought forward in a distinct shape, so that we might take a separate vote upon each; and I think that upon that occasion my noble Friend introduced a Bill for that purpose, which for reasons it is not necessary for me now to mention, was afterwards withdrawn. Now, the present Bill is based upon the principle suggested by the noble Earl. Your Lordships will find that the question as to the Oath of Abjuration stands by itself; and also that the other important question with respect; to the disabilities of the Jews stands by itself, so that your Lordships will be able to come to a distinct vote upon each of these separate questions. Now, my Lords, with respect to the Abjuration Oath, the alterations are not very extensive. All that part of the oath which I may consider as obsolete and inapplicable—I moan the provision which alludes to the supposed descendants of the Pretender—all that part of the oath has been taken out, and the remainder of the oath, which relates to the succession, and the Oath of Supremacy and the Oath of Allegiance have been combined, so that these three oaths, in fact, form one oath. The words which are annexed to the oath—" Upon the true faith of a Christian," to which many noble Lords attach so much importance, are retained in the first clause; and I have no doubt, therefore, that this oath as it stands in the first clause of the Bill will be carried, if not unanimously, nearly unani- mously, by the Members of this House, So much, then, as to the first part of the Bill. In the fifth clause of the Bill the other question, with regard to the Jewish disabilities, is raised. It is there proposed that, upon the oath being submitted to a member of the Jewish persuasion, the words "upon the true faith of a Christian," shall be omitted. Now, in Committee upon the Bill it will be competent to any noble Lord to move that that clause be omitted, and upon that Motion the whole question with respect to the disabilities of the Jews will be distinctly raised. Thus your Lordships will perceive that the two important questions involved in the Bill—first, as to the Abjuration Oath, and next, as to the disabilities of the Jews, will be separately and distinctly raised. My Lords, having considered this question over and over again—having discussed it several times myself, and noble Lords themselves having also repeatedly discussed it, and being well aware of all the arguments and facts which have been brought forward on one side and on the other, I consider that it would be altogether idle to have two discussions with respect to this important question— namely, that part of the Hill which relates to the Jewish disabilities. It would be idle to discuss it on the second reading of the Bill, because it is perfectly clear, to my apprehension at least, that your Lordships will be of opinion that the Bill must be read a second time now for the purpose of carrying into effect that part of the measure which relates to the Oath of Abjuration. Therefore, I should advise your Lordships that, with the concurrence of my noble Friend near me (the Earl of Derby), and my noble and learned Friend on the woolsack, we should at present postpone the discussion as to the Jewish disabilities until we go into Committee, when the question can be fully discussed, and we can come to a decision upon the subject; for it is quite clear that the discussion of the question at the present moment could by no possibility lead to a decision. Having thus shortly stated my views upon the subject, I submit it to your Lordships for consideration. Since the present Bill has been in the other House of Parliament the great opponent of the measure, my noble and learned Friend on the woolsack— whose opposition was always conducted with the greatest fairness, but, at the same time, with great eloquence and vigour— has assumed a high position in this House, and I confess that I should feel great anxiety upon this subject, and as to the result of this Bill, in consequence of that, if I had not felt confidence in the strength and justice of the cause which I advocate. Under these circumstances I now beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.


My Lords, my noble and learned Friend has stated this case to your Lordships with that clearness which ever characterises any statement he makes to this House; and I confess that I feel very highly honoured that any suggestions or recommendations which I could take the liberty of making should have had so much weight with my noble and learned Friend, and with those who support this Bill, as to lead them to take a course which the convenience of discussion must recommend to your Lordships. For my own part, I certainly think with my noble and learned Friend with regard to the principal part of the Bill, or that which, whatever the intention of the framers, appears to be the principal portion, and from which the other is, in point of fact, a mere exemption of some part of Her Majesty's subjects, that there is an almost unanimous opinion that these oaths require alteration. I think that there is, on the part of your Lordships, an almost unanimous opinion that some of these oaths have become obsolete and quite unnecessary; and, being unnecessary, ought not to be taken as a condition to sit either in this or in the other House of Parliament. I will go further, and say, that so far as I have been able to i consider the question, I do not see any objection to the alteration which this Bill proposes to make in the oaths. The oath, as it is here proposed to be substituted, does appear to me to contain, in much shorter compass, all that is material in the three oaths now taken, omitting that which is irrelevant and unnecessary. Therefore, my Lords, on the part of Her Majesty's Government, I am ready to give our hearty and cheerful support to the second reading of this Bill, so far as it has for its object to do away with oaths which are unnecessary and obsolete, and therefore improper to be taken. I wish, my Lords, I could say also, looking at the long period during which this question has been the subject of difference between this and the other House of Parliament, and more especially looking to the circumstance that among those with whom I have the honour of acting, I believe no less than three of my colleagues in the other House take a different view of the case from that which I entertain—I confess I much wish that I could say, honestly and conscientiously, that I had changed my opinion on this subject; because great inconvenience, to say the least, has resulted from the protraction of this discussion. But, my Lords, not having changed my opinion, not having seen any reason to change it, not being satisfied of the validity of the grounds on which the admission of the Jews to Parliament is supported, and not seeing in the circumstances of the case any reason for changing my course while my opinions remain the same, it is with some regret, but, at the same time, without hesitation, that I am compelled to tell my noble and learned Friend, that for my own part, I cannot this Session take a course different from that which I have pursued on former occasions; and in Committee I shall certainly support any Motion which may be made for the omission of that clause which exempts persons of the Jewish persuasion from taking the oath which, by this Bill, is imposed upon the rest of Her Majesty's subjects. With these few observations, I can only say that I have no objection to the second reading of the Bill, and that, divested of this objectionable provision, I earnestly and anxiously hope it may receive your Lordships' sanction.


My Lords, I shall say nothing upon the question whether it is desirable or not that Jews should be admitted to Parliament, but I cannot allow the Bill to pass even its present stage without expressing the very great regret with which I heard the noble Earl who has just sat down declare that, retaining his opinion upon the abstract question of admitting the Jews, he sees no reason for changing his course. I cannot refrain from submitting to the noble Earl and to your Lordships, that quite irrespective of the abstract merits of that question, that whatever the views we may take of the propriety or impropriety of admitting Jews to Parliament, there is another question of the deepest importance involved in the measure before us, upon which the noble Earl, retaining his opinions, might consistently alter the course which he has hitherto persued. I must remind your Lordships what are the circumstances under which this Bill is brought under our notice. It is now more than a quarter of a century since the House of Commons, then unreformed, declared its opinion that the Jewish disabilities ought to be removed. From that time to the present, although the House of Commons has sometimes allowed considerable intervals to elapse without raising the question, it has never in any one instance departed from the judgment which it originally pronounced. On the contrary, it has continued by increasing majorities to declare its opinion that the doors of Parliament ought to be opened to our Jewish fellow countrymen. At last, in the present Session this Bill comes up to your Lordships, in which this most important clause has been carried by a majority of not less than 153, after a debate which exhibited an obviously despairing resistance on the part of its opponents. That decision of the House of Commons has been continued during the long period I have mentioned, not by one House of Commons, but by several, under different Administrations, and has therefore been ratified by the nation at large. We have unmistakable evidence that on this subject the mind of the nation is finally and conclusively made up; and, being so made up, let me remind your Lordships of what is the proper duty of this House. Ever since our constitution has been settled in its present shape, there has been a general concurrence of opinion among statesmen and political writers that this House ought not to oppose an obstinate resistance to the declared will of the country; that the attempt to do so can never in the end succeed, or conduce to the dignity and authority of your Lordships' House. If I do not greatly err, among those who have avowed that opinion as to the principles of our constitution and the proper functions of this House is the noble Earl at the head of Her Majesty's Government, who, I believe, has on more than one occasion expressed this sentiment in both Houses of Parliament. Then, my Lords, if this is indeed the settled opinion of the nation, and if it is acknowledged among statesmen and political writers that this House ought not to offer an obstinate resistance to a measure on which public opinion is plainly declared, I ask your Lordships whether it is not perfectly consistent with retaining the opinion that in point of expediency, and perhaps on higher principles, it is desirable that the Jews should continue to be excluded, that your Lordships should think it undesirable that this question should remain any longer unsettled. I have never regarded this as a very easy or very simple question. I have never thought that every opponent to the removal of the Jewish disabilities should be set down as a bigot, or that every friend of religious liberty must necessarily be an advocate of that measure. I hold quite a different opinion. I admit frankly that there is much to be said on both sides; and the arguments for and against the change at one time appeared to me so nicely balanced, that I am not ashamed to confess it was with some difficulty I made up my mind that, on the whole, the preponderance inclined in favour of the removal of these disabilities. But, granting thus much, what, let me ask, is it that you expect to result from repeating your rejection of this proposal? Do you believe that this House can permanently adhere to its determination to close the doors of Parliament against the Jews in the face of the feeling which is now shown to exist both in the other House of Parliament and in the nation? See, too, how this question has progressed even among your Lordships. Remember what an inconsiderable minority supported the Motion when first introduced, and how steadily that minority has been increasing. Remember, also, that the noble Earl opposite himself is unable to form an united Administration on this subject. Even with him it is an open question, and three members of the Cabinet in the other House of Parliament are in favour of the proposal now before us. You cannot, then, always maintain this line of policy; and, on the other hand, when could you ever find a time at which you might yield with more honour to yourselves, or more advantage to the country? Not to look beyond the present year, if we amend this Bill in the important clause which relates to the Jewish disabilities, we all know that that Amendment will be thrown out by an overwhelming majority in the other House. What shall we do then? Shall we insist on our Amendment, or shall we come to a vote declining to insist upon it? If the latter—if we have not fully made up our minds at all hazards to stand by our Amendment—surely it is more dignified to abstain now from taking up a position which we feel we cannot permanently maintain. But if we are determined that the Bill should be lost rather than allow this clause to remain, then we must be prepared for a controversy between the two Houses of Parliament, for angry discussions, for adverse votes, and ultimately, perhaps, for an open rupture between them. How is that state of things to be met? Remember, if we have the undoubted right to refuse our concurrence to any legislative measure submitted to us, the other House has rights equally undoubted, the extreme exercise of which is calculated to bring about a collision between this House and the country which may be attended by great disasters. Your Lordships, I am sure, are aware that should the hope of obtaining the assent of this House to the proposed change of the law be finally abandoned the wiser Members of the other branch of the Legislature will not long be able to restrain that House from endeavouring to accomplish its object without us. And what will be the result of that? An immediate conflict between the other House of Parliament and the courts of aw. Is that a contingency to be contemplated without serious apprehension? Your Lordships know to what extreme and violent measures the House of Commons has in former times resorted in vindication of what it supposed to be its privileges. You know it has sometimes been supported by public opinion in these measures, and that when so supported they have succeeded. But, however such a contest may end, it cannot fail to be deeply injurious to the public interest. Whether the House of Commons or the courts of law should be forced to give way, I hardly know which would be the worst alternative. Both of these important authorities in the State would be weakened and lowered in public estimation by the proceeedings to which they would be driven in such a conflict. No man can say to what painful issues it may lead. These are the dangers to be apprehended, and I have purposely stated them now, when the Bill is awaiting the second reading, and before the Bill reaches the Committee, in order that your Lordships may have time to reflect calmly upon the matter previous to arriving at your decision. If, therefore, I have not implicitly followed the advice of the noble and learned Lord, for whose counsels I entertain the utmost respect, and who recommended us to abstain from discussing this particular measure until its next stage, I assure him I do not wish to excite any debate at present, but simply to entreat your Lordships deliberately to consider the consequences that may ensue from the course you are now called upon to take. Lot me add that the responsibility which rests upon every one of us for the conclusion to which we must come on this subject is great, that of the noble Earl opposite is peculiarly heavy. It will mainly depend on the advice which the noble Earl at the head of the Government may give to your Lordships, and on the manner in which he may exercise the great influence of his high position, what decision this House may pronounce. The power of the noble Earl in this matter is great, and his responsibility is great in proportion; and if from our taking a wrong step at this crisis the fatal results which I have ventured to describe should unhappily follow, then I say the blame for those results, however grave, will justly fall on that noble Earl. He has told us that, not having changed his opinion as to the propriety of admitting the Jews to Parliament, he sees no reason for changing his course on this occasion. My Lords, I will recommend him to pause and consider what was the conduct of a distinguished man who formerly held the situation which he now holds with reference to a similar question. In 1828 the repeal of the Test Act was carried by a comparatively small majority in the House of Commons. That measure was notoriously opposed to the opinion of the Duke of Wellington, then at the head of the Government, and as notoriously contrary to the opinion of a very large majority of this House. But the Duke of Wellington, without professing to have changed his convictions on the subject in dispute, taking a statesman's view of the consequences that would ensue from asking this House to place itself in opposition to the measure which had been passed by the Representative branch of the Legislature, advised your Lordships to agree to it; and his counsel was adopted. I believe that among men of judgment and experience there never has been any difference of opinion as to the Duke of Wellington having on that occasion taken a correct view of his duty. I recommend the example of that high authority to the noble Earl's imitation, and earnestly trust that he will not commit himself further to-night by anything that he may say, but that on Tuesday evening, when we go into Committee, he will not advise your Lordships to persist in rejecting the clause in this Bill which will admit the Jews to Parliament.


said he felt sorry to be obliged to oppose this measure, but it was very little of a Jew Bill. He would not have risen to address their Lordships on the subject, only that his noble and learned Friend (Lord Lyndhurst) has expressed his opinion that it would give satisfaction. He (the Earl of Wick-low) did not believe it would or ought to give satisfaction. If the Bill had been brought in expressly for the purpose of affording relief to the Jews it would have had his most sincere acquiescence; but it appeared to him a most injudicious thing of the framer of the Bill to have confounded together matters that had no connection—to have coupled certain alterations in the oaths with a subject that appeared to him to be totally unconnected with them, namely, the admission of the Jews into Parliament. If a Bill for effecting the latter object were brought in, he would vote fur it with pleasure; But even had he come down to the House with his mind undecided, the speech of the noble Earl (Earl Grey) would have decided him to vote against the Bill. His noble and learned Friend said, that if they rejected the Bill they would have frequent conflicts with the House of Commons. If that argument was good for anything, it went to this, that their Lordships must acquiesce in every Bill brought up from the House of Commons; though, as matters really stood, they often differed with the House of Commons, and occasionally to the great advantage of the public. But the noble Earl had alluded further—and he was grieved the noble Earl should have introduced such a subject at all—to the possibility of a collision between the House of Commons and the Courts of Law. No matter what threats might be bold out, he believed the House of Commons would long reflect before they came into collision with the Courts of Law, most especially when they knew that the general opinion of the country was not with them. He admitted that he believed the general opinion of the country was not in favour of the measure; but he did not think that should prevent their Lordships from discussing the question of admitting the Jews to Parliament and admitting them if they had good reasons for so doing. However, if the House of Commons were so unwise, so rash, and so inconsiderate as to put themselves into collision with their Lordships' House, he ventured to say that nut a single Jew would risk the taking his seat in the House of Commons; because it was against the person so acting, and not against the House of Commons, proceedings would he taken in the courts. With regard to the alteration respecting oaths, if the Bill contained such a form of oath as that embodied in the Bill of 1828, which was introduced by the author of the measure now under discussion, he (the Earl of Wicklow) should have given it his most sincere and anxious support; but the present Bill was framed in a totally different spirit, and, as it was, he should protest against it.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Tuesday next.

House adjourned at Six o'clock, till To-morrow, Eleven o'clock.