HL Deb 21 February 1861 vol 161 cc698-708

* My Lords, the notice I have given is to call attention to the Report of the Committee of last year on the Reduction of the Franchise, and to move for a Return of the Forty Shilling Freeholders, by which I mean the freeholders above and at that value, in every county of England and Wales. If the notice only furnishes to those who took an active part on the Committee an opportunity of stating the impression they derived from it, I shall not repent of having put it on the paper. Those noble Lords will, doubtless, recollect that this is the very moment when such impressions may be brought before the public with advantage. Situated as we are, on the question of Reform, the attitude of the country, of Opposition, and of Government, is neutral and deliberative. All three may very soon be forced into a different one, which those noble Lords would seek in vain to influence or modify. Beyond this, it should not be forgotten that the immediate purpose of the Committee vanished, because the Bill it was intended to throw light upon expired before its labours were concluded. Considering that fifty-four witnesses were called, that three thousand seven hundred and seventy questions were put, and that the inquiry stretched into a period of above two months, those labours ought not to pass too soon into oblivion. I meant, at first, to touch upon the evidence of the revising barristers who were summoned; but, on reflection, I will leave that point to those by whom they were examined. My further observations will be directed to support the Return for which I move; and here perhaps, the noble Lord the President of the Council will grant me an indulgence, which it would be too sanguine to expect from many of your Lordships. The ground on which I ask for the Return is one which will enable me to go into the present aspect of the question. The ground is, that as we cannot stand still for any time after the four schemes which different Governments have offered, occasional Reform and comprehensive legislation are the only lines open to the country, while it is clear the country drifts towards the former; that some reduction of the franchise will be necessary; that changes of the borough franchise are beset by difficulties almost insurmountable, and on this point the evidence before your Lordships is instructive; that the county franchise is a safer field on which to move at first, but that it cannot be approached until you have a document to show the number of the freeholders compared with the number of the occupying voters which a twenty pound or ten pound limit would occasion. As regards the borough franchise, it is clear to all who are conversant with it, that you must either keep it as it is, advance it to a point by which the power of the middle classes would be neutralized, or introduce the inequality between those above a certain rental, and those beneath it, which great reasoners have pointed to, but which the public has not yet considered with attention. It would probably be granted that the country franchise is entitled to precedence in the question. It would probably be granted, too, that to stand still altogether beyond the present Session is impossible, after the hopes which Governments have raised and the engagements which they have entered into. But men may differ still whether occasional Reform or comprehensive legislation is the system to be followed, although they clearly see that there is no escape from these alternatives, inasmuch as a Government could only withhold the one by giving or by promising the other. Occasional Reform, as far as I can judge, means that course of dealing separately with the features of the subject according to the exigencies of the time and the opinions of the country, which Lord Palmerston declared to be his policy just before the general election of 1857, from which, last year, his Government departed; but from which nothing tends to sever him at present. In favour of that policy there is one well-known presumption, although too much weight ought not to be attached to it. It has been already sanctioned by the Legislature. On this principle the Irish franchise was extended in 1850 by the influence of one Government; the qualification of Members was, in 1858, abolished with the sanction of another. The country has already, therefore, entered on the line I have adverted to, in the only changes it has yet thought right to make in the Reform Act. A more grave presumption by far in favour of that policy is, that a new and comprehensive, or, as it is sometimes termed, a reconstructive settlement, has been attempted four times with uniform reproach to all the Governments who ventured upon it. It is needless to remind you that the Government of 1852, after finding its scheme an object of severe animadversion from every quarter of the press and of the public, in ten days renounced the desperate position it was placed in; that the Government of 1854 was forced by a concurrence of all parties to withdraw their measure of Reform, on the eve of the Russian war, and never regained the credit which they lost by this unfortunate and ill-timed proposition; or that the Government of 1859 was outvoted on the second reading of their measure, and in vain appealed to a general election to reverse the judgment of the House of Commons. It is still necessary to remind you of what occurred in 1860 on this subject. The reception by which these new settlements of Reform were strangled in their cradles, cannot be ascribed to want of talent in the Cabinets which framed them. It cannot be ascribed to any temporary causes. The more their failure is examined, the more it will be traced to causes which survive, and of which, whenever such attempts are made, the operation may be confidently reckoned on. At any time they must array against them the hostility of Parliament, because they threaten dissolution. At any time they must excite the Opposition of the day into activity, because on projects so ambitious and so vulnerable, far more than on any other, the Government advancing them may he successfully attacked. They must, also, to some extent, create disunion in the Cabinet which forms them; because, unless there is an object to pursue, and a principle to go upon, as there was in 1831, but does not seem to be at present, no twelve statesmen can entirely agree on what ought to be the nature of the settlement. They must excite some degree of popular resentment out of doors when they affect stability and permanence, and when certain changes are excluded from them which interest electors more than any other changes, hut which the leaders of our day are not disposed to sanction. But when the line of occasional Reform is contrasted with that of a now settlement, it suggests another observation. It was the line of policy conceived to be established, as far as their opinions are on record, by all enlightened statesmen, as well as the community in general, from 1832 to 1851. Except among the school who openly avowed that their object was to concentrate the power of the State in the working-classes by means of suffrage, equal on the one hand, universal on the other, no one ever heard of a new settlement till the Minister of the day in 1851 engaged himself to offer one. The shock which all Europe received from the fall of the French throne in 1848, extended its vibrations to this country- It roused into activity passions which had slept, and forced upon the Legislature topics which for many years had been forgotten. But there its power ended. The fever which it led to had subsided, the agitation it encouraged had passed by, before the Minister, in 1851, explained to a resenting House of Commons that a new settlement would soon impend on the Reform Act. From that time and under that authority, no doubt the prospect was indulged in. But now, such language is renounced and such a part has been abandoned, it is not unnatural that the public should relapse into the mode of thinking which nothing else had interrupted; that they should hold a new settlement of representative arrangements as uncalled for, and believe that separate reforms will do all their interest requires, and all their interest admits of. The convulsions of 1831 and 1832 were the price advanced for many caculated benefits. But among those calculated benefits there certainly appeared to be, if you examine the opinions of the period, immunity in all time to come, not from the existence—not from the discussion—but at least from the supremacy above all other matters, of that inflammatory topic which had brought society to the verge of civil war, and placed the country in the feeblest position it could hold towards European Powers. From 1833 to 1851 the intention of the country seemed to be not to resist organic change when prudence sanctioned its adoption, but never to allow itself to be again engrossed in a general and overruling agitation of the question upon what ground to form its representative assembly. Whether or not the intention was a wise one—if it was only clouded for a time by unfortunate events, and by untoward pledges—if the events have passed, and if the pledges are exploded, there is nothing to prevent it from again recovering the firmness and distinctness which originally marked it. When it has twice led to practical results without the medium of disturbance, while four times a tentative departure from it has been at once calamitous and fruitless, we cannot blame the country (even if we differ from it), for reverting to its first ideas, corroborated by its subsequent experience. But these are mere presumptions which ought not to hurry my noble Friend too far towards the line I have submitted to him. He has a right to ask, and he is bound indeed to do so, what are the precise and tangible advantages it has over the attempt at a new settlement. At the very outset, I remind him it does not bring about the dissolution of the Parliament which acts upon it. In 1850, when the Irish franchise was extended, there was not a whisper of dissolving. In this place it may be frankly said, that frequent dissolutions (not to speak of all their obvious disadvantages) reduce the value of the House, which they affect by reducing the mass of Parliamentary experience included in it. Beyond this, occcasional Reform, not vitally endangering the Government which offers it, may be offered with security according to the real convictions of those by whom it has been framed. Individuals might be found, perhaps, so high minded as to think that the Bills of 1852, of 1854, of 1859, and of 1860, all represented the ideas and judgment of their sponsors. But who would face the ridicule which such a view declared would bring upon him in any circle where political events and motives are alluded to? And is the character of leading men of no importance to an empire? But, assuming that a general revision of our system could be offered without an eye to anything beyond the welfare of the public, may it not be too great and too unjust a burden for the hurried and pre-occupied capacity of Governments, who would prosper in the safer, but not less noble flight, of amending it from time to time with the effective aid of both Houses of Parliament? In the next place, a separate Reform is not a barrier to other measures of importance. The Irish Bill of 1850 was carried in the same year with an Act as grave and as much controverted as any which had passed since 1833,— the Act for giving institutions to Australia. The Bill of 1858, which I referred to, was carried in the same year in which India was transferred by legislation to the Crown: night after night being spent in arduous battles on that subject. The comprehensive Bill of 1860, although it never passed into Committee, threw out every other measure except those relating to the Budget, along with which it was proposed. But these considerations may be set aside as insignificant, compared with one I might allude to. Occasional Reform can never add to our foreign difficulties, whereas large and much debated schemes must inevitably aggravate them. So long as the world contains aggressive powers, and the country is resolved to stand by its allies, we cannot afford,—and this my noble Friend will admit more readily than others—to be a weak, embittered, and disorganized society. Such any large and comprehensive project of Reform, such any new settlement of 1832, such any scheme resembling the four which are discarded, must have —to speak with caution and reserve—a tendency to make us. A reconstructive Bill, however well conceived must, in some degree, array class against class, and party against party. When the country is divided and convulsed, it cannot be so powerful against any Government which threatens Europe and itself, as when it still retains its harmony and firmness. While land is aiming at concessions, while boroughs are trembling for existence, while interests are struggling for ascendancy, while Opposition sees its way to power, while public men are looking to elections, a strong national conviction upon foreign questions cannot be supported. In such a case the energy and spirit of the country has already found an object and a channel. I am not giving speculations of my own, but am referring to what not many years ago was shown to be the deep, the genuine and the instinctive judgment of the empire. Why with one voice did they sweep away the ill-starred Bill of 1854? Because they knew it would divide them, and that division would be fatal to their interest. But it was not only in 1854 that the state of Europe was at variance with the reconstruction of our Legislature. 1852 found us engaging in a similar adventure. It also found a military despotism suddenly restored, which, however friendly it might be to us, increased the call on our vigilance, induced the country to revive a long abandoned force, and made disunion more than ever out of season. In 1859 a continental war began at the same moment with the general election, which a reconstructive measure had produced. And few deny that such a general election was a heavy blow to our influence in Europe. In 1860 reconstruction was again the business of the Session. Nice and Savoy were annexed, and the boundaries of France extended for the first time since 1815, while that business consumed the time, degraded the authority, and hung upon the energy of Parliament. If, indeed, the Powers of the world were ready to suspend intrigue, diplomacy, and war, while our reconstruction was proceeding; if history entered into an engagement to stand still until a final project had been carried, the case would be a different one. But an Empire like ours is too extensive in its parts, too varied in its interests, and has too many points of contact with other portions of the world to give a reasonable prospect of the vacancy and freedom a reconstruction calls for. The person who looks forward to it may well remind your Lordships of the benighted countryman in Horace, who stood by rivers in the firm belief that they would rapidly exhaust themselves— Rusticus expectat dum defluat amnis. As yet, however, all the comprehensive projects have been announced beforehand by long engagements of the Governments intending to propose them. As a nation, we have, therefore, had the curious temerity to inform the keen and waking Powers which observe us at what exact time Great Britain will be paralyzed and weakened; when the occupation of a territory will be prudent; when rapine will be safe; when the flames of European war may be judiciously and seasonably kindled; as if the laws of human nature would be reversed for our advantage— as if the blindness and simplicity of one State would be corrected by the virtue and forbearance of another—as if the disposition of the world to abstain from all proceedings adverse to the country, would be proportioned in a scale to our reckless invitation of them. But such a view may be exposed to the reply that these considerations were as applicable in 1831 as at this moment, and that if they had been suffered to prevail the Reform Act would not have been carried. But at that time the Continent was not so near as science has now made it. And, as regards foreign policy itself, it stood in need of a large organic measure to release and to advance it. Under the old system we could not follow the ideas which Mr. Canning had impressed upon the country, when that system was no longer swayed and mitigated by his genius. In order to return to those salutary principles, of which he was the author, which, from his death in 1830 were eclipsed, but which have never since been interrupted, a sweeping change was indispensable. No doubt the country had other ends still more immediately before it; and ends for which occasional Reform would not have been sufficient. The country wanted to transfer power from one class to another; to create an epoch in our history; and at a single blow to put an end to the dominion of proprietors in boroughs. It wanted to destroy interests which only popular excitement could assail, to reverse the state of parties in the Legislature, to pave the way for measures previously impossible. In a word, it wanted to achieve what, as far as we can judge, it is now inclined to prohibit. And if the ends are opposite the agencies may vary. While it appeared at all to clash with the defence of what occurred in 1832, my noble Friend would not be able to accede to the position I have urged upon him as regards the effect of comprehensive schemes on our policy in Europe. But he will see that they are reconciled. After all that we have learnt since 1848, one sentiment alone could induce him or any other statesman to look with favour on another trial of such projects; the hope which once prevailed and lingers yet perhaps, that, if adopted, it would long endure and bring about a strict repose upon these questions. If we recur to facts it will be seen that such hopes have not a shadow of foundation. In 1832, the causes and incentives which urged on a great organic change were nearly all removed by granting it. In our time the causes which still appear to tend towards such a measure, would not, in any manner be affected or extinguished by it. In 1832 they were the desire of new laws, and the desire of improved administration. In our time they are the recurrence of commercial panics, physical distress, and Euorpean revolution; together with the constant action upon Governments of a party in the State which no comprehensive scheme is likely to enfeeble. After 1832, organic rest prevailed, because a long series of legislative problems occupied that party, as it did the other friends of general improvement. After a new settlement enacted in our day, unless it has the magic power to annul all that thirty years have given to the statute book, there will be no such field for the activity of Parliament. Why then, should we think that the influence, whatever it may be, from which this settlement arose, would not at once disturb it? In the general election of 1847 Reform was scarcely mentioned. Before the Parliament which met at the close of that year expired, the pledge to alter the Reform Act vitally was given. The Government of 1846 came in with the clearest understanding that organic change was not to be its policy, and by that very Government the present difficulties of the question were created. Where is the security for permanence?—as it clearly does not rest in the intentions of our statesmen, or in the language of our people. Is it in the generous forbearance of the democratic party? In that party there are men, no doubt, well known for sense and moderation. But my noble Friend, well versed in these events, will not forget that from 1848 downwards, under the lamented Mr. Hume, that party solemnly engaged itself in nu- merous divisions and debates to labour for the full extent of the organic change which he demanded, and that consistency and honour will forbid them to accede to any other settlement. Would you look for your security in general concurrence not to touch these questions? For such a plan has been alluded to. Will all the rising spirits in our schools and universities—will all the coming Members of our metropolitan constituencies join in this concurrence? and if they do not, what can be its value? In 1847 there was such a concurrence, so far as it can happen in the country. And what did it amount to? The more we look into the past, the more it will occur to us that there is no security whatever, the very Session after a comprehensive measure has beeen carried, against the movement for a second one. But setting this aside, and taking a more favourable view of what might happen, if a new settlement was not at once exposed, gibbeted, and torn to pieces by another, to what would it be a preface, except occasional Reform whenever unforseen facts, or party circumstances, called for it? Might we not begin at once with that which, after any large and comprehensive scheme has been adopted, we shall enter on? Have we not already formed the necessary basis for amendments? Or, if we have not, when shall we arrive at it? No doubt such a line would be impossible for Governments, if it combined against them the democratic party in the Legislature, But that very party owes to it the only triumphs which have fallen to them. They, too, like older parties in the State, have found in reconstructive schemes a source of failure and disaster. They have rejected with aversion or indifference the four which Governments proposed to them. If they desire organic change, they value still more nearly the power and name of Britain in the world, which I have shown that projects of this kind endanger and dishonour. And if the system of occasional Reform was not adapted to their sympathy, it would not, in August, 1859, have found in Mr. Cobden out of doors a far more powerful exponent than it has had in me to-night before your Lordships. I have only, therefore, to revert to the position which I started from, that such a line ought to be seriously contemplated, if not at once embraced; that the reduction of the county franchise is the step which circumstances indicate;—that jus- tice to the freeholders is in the way until its influence upon their power has been estimated;—while it happens that no return of their number can be found in the papers which of recent years have been presented to the Houses. Whether or not the noble Lord may deem it right to grant such information, if the train of reasoning which I have most imperfectly endeavoured to convey to you, allowed a place among his thoughts, and, strengthened by the range of practical experience which he can bring to bear upon it, should urge him long to pause and deeply to reflect before again resolving to give his high authority to any reconstructive scheme to alter the Reform Act;—the Motion I submit may not be altogether useless to the country.


said, the information required by the Return was already before the House, though in a form mixed up with other matter. But if the noble Lord wished to obtain it in a separate form, there could be no objection to the Return.

Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at Six o'clock, till to-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock.