HL Deb 17 April 1866 vol 182 cc1492-503

, in rising to move— That a Select Committee be appointed to examine the Electoral Returns laid upon the Table with a view to the Changes they suggest as desirable or necessary in the Rights of Voting; and to inquire into the Conditions upon which the Occupation Franchise may be lowered with Advantage in Counties or in Boroughs of England and Wales. after a tribute to the labours of Earl Grey upon the Committee of 1860, and a statement of the circumstances under which the Motion was presented said: My Lords, in order to establish a proper case for some inquiry on the franchise, it is only necessary to advert to the parity of circumstances which marks the present year and the year 1860, when at the instance of the noble Earl your Lordships did resolve upon appointing it. Now, as then, a measure of organic change has been submitted to the other House of Parliament. Now, as then, the noble Earl the first Minister, at that time the Foreign Secretary, is regarded as its most assiduous promoter. Now, as at the time when the Committee of 1860 was appointed, the debate upon the second reading is advancing slowly in the House of Commons. Now, as then, electoral statistics have been laid upon the table and become an object of anxiety and controversy. Now, as in 1860, the correcting, the enlarging, the moderating power of this House over the Bill when it comes before your Lordships may be essential to the safety of the public. Now, as then, that power would be strengthened by the preliminary labour of inquiry. The labour must itself increase the credit and authority of this House among the public. It must give greater weight to the conclusions at which your Lordships may arrive. At the same time, it tends to ascertain what the conclusions are on which a stand ought to be made in reference to any Bill which comes before you. My Lords, the circumstances in which we now find ourselves as regards representative Reform, are, in the main, identical with those in which we stood in 1860. In one grand respect, however, the identity is broken. At that time Lord Palmerston presided in the councils of Her Majesty. His power was a guarantee against the progress in the House of Commons of any rash or ill-considered scheme for altering its structure. Among superficial men his knowledge of the subject has been questioned, as if it had not occupied his thoughts or entered into the pursuits with which he was conversant. In point of fact, he was a master on the question of Representative Reform, if that man deserves to be considered as the master of a question who, on a long series of transactions which arise from it, is never hurried into error. Can a severer test of knowledge be imagined or applied? In the year 1829 Lord Palmerston sacrificed his office and left the Duke of Wellington, in order to transfer the disfranchised rights of East Retford to a county; a step he never could have possibly repented of. As a Member of the Cabinet he gave the Bill of 1831 a powerful and luminous support, in which he represented the enlightened judgment of the age and that which has come after. He maintained an attitude of firm and silent opposition to the democratic schemes which Mr. Hume in later years occasionally mooted. When, in 1852, a crude and dangerous proposition was submitted by the Government, which no one was disposed to advocate and no one ready to confront, amidst the general excitement and perplexity he came forward and relieved them by handing to a common fate the Bill and its promoters. In 1859 he gave a temperate resistance to the measure of Earl Derby; a resistance in which he was sustained by Parliament and by the public. His services in 1860, when he arrested the unhappy project of that year, are too familiar and too recent to be cited. Such was his career on Representative Reform. And in that long career can any flagrant error be detected? Did he once miscalculate the interest or misinterpret the opinion of the country. We had, therefore, in 1860 a security of which the present moment is deprived. The circumstances are not exact in their identity. And does the difference weaken or enhance the ease for an inquiry? Does it add to, or diminish the necessity for, caution? Dees it make it more or less important that the deliberative function of your Lordships on Reform should be raised above the chance of failure and the possibility of weakness? My Lords, the reasons for appointing a Committee have now been stated to the House narrowed as they are by what took place in 1860. If, however, I am asked what kind of useful labour might devolve upon it, it would not, I think, be difficult to answer such a question. It ought, in the first place, to throw light on the political conclusions to which the statistics on the table point, and which, instead of being summed up in some intelligible form, are left to the toil of every person who examines them. On this defect an able and interesting pamphlet has appeared from Mr. R. Dudley Baxter, a gentleman of great experience in figures, and well known by his evidence before the Committee of my noble Friend in 1860. I refer your Lordships to his work that I may not detain you on this topic. The ask of the Committee would also be to complete the labours of the old one, in which, as your Lordships are aware, many glimpses were thrown on questions not entirely explored, and no Report was made as to the changes which appear to be desirable. As regards the county franchise they may ascertain the new limit, if there be one, consistent with the purity of contests, the, ascendancy of freeholders, and a restraint on the expenditure of candidates. The purity of contests, by which counties have been happily distinguished over boroughs, is illustrated in a Return presented to your Lordships, and for which we are indebted to Lord Belper. It appears that during the last thirty years not a single county Member has been unseated for corruption. Such a distinction, it will be allowed on all hands, ought not to be endangered, The policy of retaining a majority of 40s. freeholders, in relation to the occupying voters or fifty pounders in the counties, has been repeatedly insisted on by the noble Ear at the head of the Government. It is usually allowed that the drawback as to counties—it might be termed even the blemish—consists in the immense, although not the illegitimate, expenditure they lead to, from the dispersion of the voters, the numbers of the polling places, and many other causes. No change; which tended to increase these burdens should be very hastily adopted. As regards the borough franchise, no doubt the task of the Committee would he more delicate and vital. They ought to ascertain what direct extension is consistent with the principles established in 1832. The various solutions by which it has been proposed to do justice to the claims of labour, without bringing all classes under its control, should be deliberately sifted. And here, my Lords, I cannot help remarking with regard to the borough franchise a mode of thinking its delusive as it is unfortunately prevalent. Your Lordships must have heard it constantly assumed that we have only to compute the number any vertical extension will add to the constituencies, in order to ascertain the wisdom or the danger of conceding it. With a simplicity which must delight projectors of such changes, their adversaries usually begin by granting the very thing which ought to be established, but which seldom is—namely, that they are likely to endure without a further alteration, and that nothing has to be examined beyond the total they would bring at first upon the register. To your Lordships I feel certain the more important question will appear, not how many voters will such and such a vertical extension in the borough franchise bring about, but how many years, so far as we can reason on the future, will the change remain inviolate and permanent. Sismondi, the historian of the Italian republics, an ardent friend of liberty wherever it has flourished, well pointed out that the lower suffrage is more difficult to guard against ulterior encroachments than the higher one. When you admit a class whose circumstances are uneasy, they desire laudably, perhaps, by new organic change to reach the tangible advantages which the possession of a vote has not been able to confer upon them. The truth has had its illustration in this country. In counties hardly any agitation against the limit of £50 has been exhibited. In boroughs the limit of £10 has always, with a part of the electors, been more or less an object of impatience. This is not an argument against vertical Reform. It does not show that a high qualification is bettor than a low one. It merely tends to the conclusion that an arbitrary limit of £5, £6, or £7, will be taken by itself more destitute of all pretensions to finality than that for which it is a substitute. The great and interesting problem for a Committee to resolve with regard to any given change in the borough franchise is whether it contains within it the germ of household suffrage, by which I mean the principle that all householders shall vote upon an equal system, not to be confounded with the principle of all householders possessing votes upon a system graduated or unequal. As regards household suffrage, as the phrase is generally used, it may be shown by the statistics on the table, or by a Return I have with me here, dated 1857, that it involves an absolute and unmitigated transfer of power from the middle class to the numerical majority. But if any given change would tend directly or demonstrably to such a transfer, the point for the Committee to approach would be by what collateral securities could such a tendency he balanced.

My Lords, in order to appreciate the vast importance of any step in vertical extension of the borough franchise, it ought to be perpetually before us, that the step, whatever it may be, will be the first, and therefore must determine as a precedent those which may come after. In 1832 the £10 limit upon which the Parliamentary majority, and therefore the Empire rests, was called into existence. Since then no change has been enacted in it, so far as England is concerned. The first extension will control our future policy upon it. If it can once be said the borough franchise was extended without securities against a downward march to universal suffrage, that downward march is unavoidable because those securities could never be attained. No toil, therefore, can be too anxious or too circumspect in preparing the first scheme by which the borough franchise is extended. And this consideration, I submit to your Lordships, places beyond all doubt the wisdom of appointing a Committee. Of course, I am prepared to hear that the statistics on the table are all sufficient in the knowledge they impart. My Lords, I trust I have already shown incidentally that the task of the Committee I suggest is not a task which Returns, however full, however perfect, could anticipate. But if required formally to meet such an objection, it would not be difficult for any one to point to a variety of questions which must be faced in lowering the borough franchise, and which no statistics could in any way explore. No statistics can explain to you how far the new electors are likely to be influenced by agitators—how far to have opinions of their own. No statistics can explain how far they would oppose the views of masters who employ them—how far they might be expected on the contrary to vote as the capitalist dictated. Statistics tell you nothing of the venality or purity of any class which you enfranchise. So, too, with regard to the prospect of their seeking further alterations in the limit, or resisting further alterations in it, statistics are entirely irrelevant. On these points we stand in need of light—on these points statistics cannot possibly afford it. My Lords, there are more considerations arising from the borough franchise which might be stated here in favour of inquiry, and which, indeed, I thought of stating. It is better, perhaps, to pass them over, lest I should trespass too long on the indulgence of your Lordships. The case being now, I trust, sufficiently established, I only wish to guard it against i one or two impressions to which it seems to be in some degree obnoxious. In spite of the experience we have had in former years, it is still a kind of fashion to demand some large final and comprehensive project of Reform, and to object to any separate amendments of the system formed in 1832. This feeling would of course beget aversion to an inquiry of which the town and county franchise is exclusively the object and which appears to countenance the principle of limited Reform as opposed to that of vast and re-constructive legislation on the subject. My Lords, to satisfy these minds, I shall not touch upon the mass of arguments by which a general and re-constructive scheme may be resisted, because if I am not deceived, there is but a single view which recommends it. It is the view that such a scheme would lead to long and permanent repose upon these questions. But it is not a view which seems to bear examination, No comprehensive scheme can lead to permanent repose, or even long tranquillity, unless it takes away the causes of uneasiness and movement. As yet, those causes have been mainly physical distress, which in 1839 or 1840 roused the Chartists into action and European revolution, which in 1848 provoked a democratic spirit in this country. No comprehensive scheme can put an end to, or affect in any manner the occasional recurrence of these causes. But there is yet another larger and more constant in its action. It is the natural ambition of the democratic party in the State to gain a Parliamentary majority. No scheme which Governments win frame, I will make that ambition cease, until its object is surrendered. While that ambition lasts, it will exert itself. And so long-as it exerts itself, tranquillity on these questions cannot be obtained. The same conclusion may be seen through a medium altogether Parliamentary and practical. No comprehensive scheme can prevent Motions on electoral Reform from being submitted to the Legislature. No comprehensive scheme can prevent Governments from yielding to them when they think their own existence seriously menaced. Nor can any project of the kind prevent a set of men from engaging to bring forward an organic change, in order to recover power when they have quitted it. While these liabilities remain, liabilities with which the last fifteen years have made us too conversant, to aim at what is called a settlement appears to be illusory. And your Lordships will not, I trust, object to the inquiry because its limitation does not sanction hopes which cannot be fulfilled.

My Lords, there is but one other current of opinion, so far as I know, by which the Motion may be thwarted and which I ought, if possible, to state in order to protect the case I have submitted to your Lordships. It has been alleged, not indeed by a large number, but yet by some considerable persons that the course of the noble Earl at the head of the Government on representative Reform has been so just, consistent, and sagacious, that to his hands the topic—vital as it is—may he consigned with quiet confidence and absolute security. No doubt, if this opinion were correct, inquiry would be useless, because precaution would be idle, and the functions of the House might be allowed to sleep under the vigilance of the Executive. The speech delivered by the noble Earl in Downing Street, not long ago, was evidently framed to strengthen that opinion. And if I venture for a moment to demur to it, I wish to take shelter under the manifest authority of that party of which I am but an humble unit and with which the noble Earl has been so long and so conspicuously associated. Why did the noble Earl fall in February, 1853, but because the measure of Reform which he presented in that year look away from him the confidence of those who formerly sustained him. When his friends came back to power in 1852, why was the noble Earl unable to resume the post which the regular routine of public life and the established precedents of history would have given him, but because his conduct upon representative Reform appeared to have disqualified and lowered him? On what other subject had he sunk in general esteem? In 1855 Lord Aberdeen resigned. Another Liberal Administration was composed, of which again the noble Earl was not permitted to be loader the circumstance could only be ascribed to weakened confidence and alienated friendship. But what had happened to disturb them? In 1850 again a Liberal Administration was created, in which again the noble Earl was doomed to secondary office, thirteen years having elapsed since in 1846, with general consent, he reached pre-eminence and power. What but his conduct on the subject of Reform occasioned this eclipse of his ascendancy and retrogression in his fortunes? But had the party no foundation for its verdict? Had the noble Earl taken no steps to forfeit its allegiance? Prom 1848 to 1851 I grant he had not done so. Year after year he resisted the proposals of Mr. Hume for democratic change with all his eloquence and power arraying vast majorities against them; and after that resistance he enlarged the Irish franchise in a reasonable manner. But on the 20th of February, 1851, a new scene was opened in his history and our own. A few days before the 20th of February, in answer to a question from a Parliamentary opponent, the noble Earl declined to engage himself at any stated time to bring forward further change in the Reform Act. But on the 20th of February, without any now event or new necessity, he made such an engagement. He did it, as we clearly see, without the sanction of his Colleagues, because no Colleagues could have possibly advised a Minister on the 20th of February to grant the pledge which he had just conspicuously refused before the House of Commons and the public. My Lords, from that memorable night and that unauthorized engagement have flowed our present complications. The pledge of February 20th, 1851, so far from being acceptable, at once consigned the noble Lord to a minority. But it produced the Bill of 1852. The Bill of 1852 produced the Bill of 1854. The Bill of 1854 occasioned the Bill of 1859, or the necessities which prompted it. The Bill of 1859 directly led to that of 1860. The Bill of I860 raised the very clouds which darken our horizon. But on the critical occasion I have pointed to, the noble Earl did more than call into existence a series of abortive schemes, and difficult conjectures of which the issue is uncertain. He invented what was then unknown, the system of Ministerial engagements on the legislation of the future. My Lords, this matter is of primary importance. Why is it that year by year Cabinets assemble in November more regularly than at any other time, but in order to deliberate upon the measures which the state of the country and the world may demand upon the one hand, may prohibit on the other? And can such deliberations take effect if the action of the consulting body is forestalled, and if its liberty is stifled by an engagement nine months before that, come what may, a certain subject shall be forced upon the country? Three times the noble Earl has sacrificed the deliberative power of the Cabinet as to whether, at a given time, Reform should be presented by them. The noble Earl is the inventor of the system. But, in order to appreciate its character, we have only to remark the situation to which the noble Earl has been, himself reduced by its effects. In 1852 it forced him to produce a scheme of representative Reform, although the circumstances of the time, affected as they were by the revival of despotic power in France, then uncertain in its tendency, rendered it a sacrifice of principle and policy to divide the country, as the Bill must, had its life been longer, have divided and inflamed it. Again, in 1854, the noble Earl was too enlightened to believe that the Empire ought to be convulsed upon the question of Reform, when nothing but its concentrated energy could fit it for the noble task it had accepted against Russia. But his pledge of 1853 was there to overrule the judgment of the country and his own. In spite of every interest at home, and every interest abroad, the Bill was forced upon the Legislature, and only yielded to the stern remonstrance of the public and of Parliament. So much for the engagements of the noble Lord, and the dilemmas they have brought upon us. But how far have his different Bills been calculated to inspire faith in the conviction and capacity which your Lordships have a right to ask in any statesman who presumes to alter the Reform Act. I will only take a point of illustration. In 1852 the noble Earl, with all the grave responsibility which falls upon a Minister, intimated by his measure that a £5 franchise ought to be established in the boroughs. No debates arise upon the subject; no new inquiry alters its position. In 1854 the noble Earl as solemnly declares that £6 is the limit to which the borough franchise ought to be extended. In the present year we know that another limit is propounded as the true one. Where do we detect the real opinions of the noble Earl upon the subject? In which Bills were they concealed, in which were they exhibited? Has the noble Earl presented schemes upon the vital subject of the borough franchise without conviction of their soundness? But if he was convinced that all three were sound, as all three were contradictory, what reliance can be placed upon his judgment? In 1852 he tells mankind that £5 is the just qualification. In 1854 it ought to be a higher one. In 1866 it ought to be still higher. Why should the last conclusion be firmer or more final than the others? Why should not the noble Earl in a few years allege that £8 ought to be the limit? Why should he not come down afterwards to Parliament and explain that the £10 franchise ought to be maintained? Why should he not advance in his ever-varying perceptions until he is at last prepared, instead of lowering, to raise, it? The inconsistency and levity would have at least, an equal inclination. On these grounds the noble Earl can hardly urge a title to our confidence on representative Reform; and that feeling ought not to be a bar to the inquiry I have asked for.

My Lords, I think the cogent reasons for appointing a Committee may be now intelligible to your Lordships. The facts which guided you in 1860 have been suddenly revived. The death of Lord Palmerston has added to their force, and by itself, perhaps, would double their significance. The work which a Committee may attempt is as exact in outline as it would be important in result. The power of the noble Earl is not a pretext for inaction and security. Should the deliberative freedom of your Lordships be impaired, for want, of such a course as I suggest, when the Bill comes before you, it will then be too late to conquer the deficiency. There is but one thing, my Lords, which it occurs to me to add, and I rejoice that it has not escaped me as it might have done. Should a Committee be appointed, without any wish to escape the care or labour they involve, I should readily transfer its conduct and direction to the noble Earl on the cross-benches, tried as he has been in 1860. To me it would suffice to have been the humble means of suggesting to your Lordships a proceeding calculated in an eminent degree to avert legislative error on a subject upon which if made it cannot be recalled—upon which if made it tends to compromise the future of mankind as well as of our country.

Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to examine the Electoral Returns laid upon the Table with a view to the Changes they suggest as desirable or necessary in the Rights of Voting; and to inquire into the Conditions upon which the Occupation Franchise may be lowered with Advantage in Counties or in Boroughs of England and Wales.—(The Lord Stratheden.)


The noble Lord proposes that a Committee shall be appointed to examine the Electoral Returns laid upon your Lordships' table. He has supported his arguments in favour of the Motion by the precedent of 1860, when a Committee was appointed by your Lordships' House for, as the noble Lord contends, a similar purpose. But it appears to me that the precedent does not apply. When the Bill of Lord Palmerston's Government was brought forward in 1860, the accuracy of the Returns on which it was founded was very much questioned. It was stated that the "estimated numbers" of those who would be admitted to the franchise founded on such Returns were exceedingly inaccurate, and that the numbers who in reality would be admitted would be very much larger than these given by the Returns. One of the arguments by which that assertion was supported was undoubtedly true—namely, that the valuations in the assessments under the Poor Law Act were exceedingly loose. I am bound to confess that it seemed to me that these were valid grounds for the appointment of a Committee by whose inquiry the facts in dispute could be, to a great extent, ascertained. Accordingly, the Committee was appointed and a great deal of evidence, part of it being contradictory, was elicited; and in consequence the Committee did not think it proper to report. Rut although the Committee did not report, the testimony which it had received was of great value for general purposes as well as for the information of the Members of this House. I think the inquiry then instituted was a legitimate inquiry. It was very properly conducted; and, though I differ materially from some of the statements made by witnesses whom the Committee examined, those statements were contradicted by other witnesses, and it was in the power of any person to determine for himself which of the statements were well founded. I do not exactly understand what is the meaning of the noble Lord's Motion, The proposal of the noble Earl is for a Committee— To examine the Electoral Returns laid upon the Table with a view to the Changes they suggest as desirable or necessary in the Rights of Voting. I should imagine that while those Returns may be the foundation of a measure of Reform, they do not of themselves suggest any change in the rights of voting. Electoral Returns do not give any opinion, or state what they may think as to the right of parties to vote. The noble Lord goes on to state, in the terms of his Motion— And to inquire into the Conditions upon which the Occupation Franchise may he lowered with advantage in Counties or in Boroughs of England and Wales. But I do not know that this House has yet decided there are conditions on which the occupation franchise may be lowered with advantage. I should have no objection that this House would take for granted the occupation franchise should he lowered; but I cannot presume that the House is of that opinion, and I do not think we should appoint a Committee on the assumption that a matter on which there is a difference of opinion is to be taken for granted. Neither can I think the case made for inquiry now is at all similar to that on which the Committee was appointed in 1860; because, by an Act passed through Parliament since that time, a very great improvement has been made in the assessments, and what is called the "gross estimated rental" corresponds far more accurately with the facts than it did in 1860. There are, no doubt, a certain number of boroughs in which the more accurate tests have not been applied, and with respect to those it will be matter of judgment how many electors will be added by any particular reduction in the franchise. But, as I have observed, there is no Franchise Bill before your Lordships' House. If any Bill is presented to your Lordships for making what my noble Friend calls an organic change, but what I should not call an organic change, I am sure your Lordships will listen with patience, and with a discriminating judgment to any proposals which Her Majesty's Government, and other noble Lords, may submit to you on the subject; that the arguments, both for and against the Bill, will be such as ought to be submitted to a deliberative assembly; and that on both sides there will be such a discussion as will befit the dignity of your Lordships' House and the importance of the subject. With regard to the noble Earl's personal attacks on myself I think it quite unnecessary to reply to them.

On Question, Resolved in the Negative.