said: I have given formal notice of my intention to present the Petition on Parliamentary Reform which I hold in my hand, because, while I do not in all particulars concur with the petitioners, their views are, I think, in general so sound, that I am anxious to recommend them to your Lordships' serious consideration. This petition, which is from certain electors of the town of Wolverhampton, after referring to the fact that the question of Reform is again under the consideration of Parliament, says—That the alteration of the electoral law a the most important and difficult subject on which the attention of the Legislature can be engaged, I since its results will give a direction for good or for evil to the conduct of public affairs in all future time. That in the proposals that have yet been made there appears to have been no distinct prineiple—nothing beyond concessions, more or less timorous, to the demand for change; nothing that I could long be of service either in establishing a settled order of things, or in providing the rules by which further changes should be directed. That the I Constitution of England has never recognised in every inhabitant a right to share in the Government or in the election of those who govern, but has required some qualification for every voter. I That while the claims of education to a voice in I public affairs have been recognised in the seats given to the Universities, yet the principal qualifications insisted upon have been, on the one hand, the possession of real property, and on the other the performance of public duties, and in particular the payment of public claims; and that, speaking generally, the former has been considered the 1891 proper franchise for counties, and the latter for boroughs. That many householders who are not resident in boroughs have to perform, and do perform, public duties, and take their full share in the support of the poor, and in the payment of property and other taxes; and your petitioners believe are worthy of being placed, as far as practicable, on a footing of equality with the burgesses of represented towns, but that if all such householders are added to the county constituency the representation of the freeholders as a class will be practically annihilated. That this difficulty can only be met by including as much as possible of the counties in some borough.What I understand to be the view of the petitioners is, that by a large extension of the borough boundaries, larger and more independent constituencies might be secured for these towns, the right of voting would be given to a class well adapted to exercise the privilege with advantage, and, at the same time, the character of the county representation, as mainly a representation of property, would be preserved. Such would be the effect of what they propose, since, under the existing law, householders within the enlarged boundaries of the boroughs would vote for the boroughs, while freeholders would still retain their votes for the counties. So understanding the views of the petitioners, I am disposed to concur in them. The petition then proceeds to state—That the same complete revision and extension of the borough system is rendered necessary by the inequalities in the distribution of seats—inequalities so great as to give to two and a half millions of people in towns of less than 50,000 each a greater weight than to ten and a half millions living in the counties, and more than twice the power held by six millions of people in large towns and cities; and that the proposals hitherto made for curing this evil have been utterly inadequate. That while the system of equal electoral districts is opposed to the character of our Government, and while the history and circumstances of each locality should be duly considered, yet it cannot possibly be right to give to towns of 10,000 inhabitants the same weight in Parliament with towns and counties of 200,000, and that some limit ought to be fixed, beyond which such disproportion should not be permitted.In this part of the petition I entirely con cur. One of the first conditions of a good Reform Bill is that it should hold out the prospect of settling the question at least for a considerable number of years, and should not render it necessary that we should soon be again involved in all the difficulties and dangers of a farther change in the Constitution. But no arrangement can be durable which fails to remedy the crying inequalities of the present system. I trust, therefore, Parliament will consent to no measure of Reform which does not 1892 deal with this question of the re-distribution of seats in a bolder spirit, and on a larger scale than has hitherto been proposed. It is the more necessary to do so, because I am convinced that it will be requisite to have a greater number of seats to dispose of than is usually supposed. By an extension of the franchise you will necessarily increase the influence of the class that enjoys the smallest advantages of education. At the same time, by disfranchising small boroughs in whole or in part, you will diminish the means by which professional men, and men of ability who do not possess local influence, now practically find their way into Parliament. You ought, therefore, to provide some new facilities for admitting Members of this kind into the House of Commons, at the same time that you adopt measures having an opposite tendency. For this purpose it will, I think, be most desirable to increase the number of seats at the disposal of constituencies, in which the right of voting depends not on the occupation of property, or on residing in any particular place, but on some qualification which implies a superior education. The only constituencies of this kind which now exist are the Universities; and, in my opinion, a good Reform Bill ought to provide both for increasing the number of Members now returned by the Universities, and also for creating new constituencies of the same character, The London and Durham Universities together would form an excellent constituency of this sort. So would the Scotch Universities; and the Inns of Court, as representing the legal profession, would furnish another. The last, I think, would be particularly useful. Different Administrations have been compelled to look to what are virtually nomination boroughs for the means of bringing their Law Officers into Parliament, and it has been extremely convenient that they should be able to do so. This resource will no longer exist when a new Reform has been carried; but the same purpose would at least in part be answered if the legal profession were enabled to send three Members to Parliament, as their choice would naturally fall on the persons marked out by the professional distinction they had attained as fittest to become Law Officers of the Crown. The petitioners also say—That whatever may be the household qualification for a vote in boroughs, it is of the utmost importance to adhere to the principle that all the duties of a householder shall be first performed, 1893 and especially that all rates and taxes shall be paid in full; and that whereas certain Acts have of late years transferred the payments of rates to the landlord and allowed a composition to be made, it is essential to provide that no tenant who avails himself of such relief shall have a vote. That if any claim to be registered is allowed to the occupiers of houses on which a composition may be paid, that claim should be supported by giving up the relief of the composition and paying the full rate, and this not only on the principle that taxation should go with representation, but also because the permission to make such claims without regard to the amount of the rate paid, is really a permission to political partisans to increase at their own pleasure the list of electors.On this point I think there can be no doubt that the opinion of the petitioners is right. I would remind your Lordships that, in the year 1859, you appointed a Select Committee to inquire what had been the effect, in municipal elections, of a clause in an Act passed a few years earlier, by which persons occupying houses on which the rates had been compounded for by their landlords were enabled to claim to be placed on the register both of Parliamentary and municipal electors. The limitation of the Parliamentary franchise to the occupiers of houses of £10 value has prevented this enactment from producing much effect in Parliamentary Elections; but I speak in the presence of some noble Lords who served with me in the Committee, and I have no doubt they will agree with me that the evidence laid before us was conclusive as to the evils that had arisen from the change of the law to which I have adverted, and that we had proof of its having encouraged bribery and treating, and caused a great deterioration in the character of the municipal government in these boroughs in which the "Small Tenements Act," as it is called, has been brought into operation by the parochial authorities. The evidence to this effect was so clear that the Committee unanimously agreed to a Report, recommending the repeal of the clause in question.
The petitioners also state that they have seen with regret proposals to confer votes in respect of qualifications they regard as shifting, and worthless for political purposes. They think that the "Lodger Francliise," the "Savings Bank Franchise," and the "Funded Property Franchise," would be liable to constant abuse; but they do not consider the same objection to apply to the enfranchisement of every person paying income tax, because the tax Returns would supply the register 1894 as impartially as the rate book. They further state that to confer the franchise on persons holding academic degrees, or educational certificates, would be a small matter, but they would approve of it as consistent with the principle which originally gave a vote to the Universities. This is as the petitioners say a small matter, but I confess cannot agree with them upon it. I do not believe that any educational franchise could be contrived to confer the right of voting in local elections without being unequal and liable to abuse, while the object such a provision would have in view would be more effectually and more safely accomplished by creating special constituencies of the kind I have already described. The petitioners next proceed to state, that the true theory of representation requires that the minority as well as the majority should be fairly represented. That in former times when there were great peculiarities in different places, and much difference in the opinions prevailing in them, the representation of the minority was roughly and partially accomplished; but that in the present state of society, when the whole country is more immediately swayed by one idea, some additional provision is necessary, and to provide that each elector I may give as many votes as there are Members to be chosen, and distribute them to one or more candidates at his pleasure, appears to be the safest and easiest mode of providing for the representation of minorities. They remark that the objections to this plan have scarcely any weight as regards constituencies by which three or more representatives are chosen, and in such cases, if in no others, they pray the House to insist on so just and useful a provision. Even where two Members are to be elected they show by figures—with which I forbear from troubling your Lordships—the injustice would be incomparably less than at present.
On this point I think the argument might have been pushed further than it has been by the petitioners. I am prepared to maintain that by the plan they recommend no injustice whatever would be done, since nothing can be fairer than that if a man is allowed a certain number of votes he should be allowed to dispose of them as he pleases; and, on the other hand, by the existing system great injustice is very often done. I refer to that very common case, which those of your Lordships who have had any experience of contested elections must often have wit- 1895 nessed, in which a single candidate on one side stands against two who have coalesced on the other. In such cases the only chance which the single candidate has of success is in inducing his friends and supporters to give him what are called "plumpers," that is, to throw away one-half of their votes. Thus, by what seems to me an arbitrary provision of the law, the electors of the weaker party are prevented from giving more than one vote each, while those of the stronger can give two. I am sure that those who, like myself, have had experience of contested elections under such circumstances, will bear me out in saying that this system is altogether repugnant to the feelings of ordinary electors—so much so, that it is often found necessary to put up a second candidate on the weaker side, merely to take off the votes which electors do not like to waste. But this only increases in another way the disadvantage of the weaker party. The effect, therefore, of the present system is to commit this injustice, that while it gives two votes to every elector on one side, it practically allows only one to those on the other. The system of voting recommended by the petitioners, and which is commonly known by the name of "cumulative voting," would further have the great advantage of affording the only solution yet suggested of the problem, as to how additional weight in elections may be given to the working class, by an extension of the franchise, without giving them a complete predominance. This class is so much more numerous than any others, the circumstances of those belonging to it are in general so nearly alike, and they inhabit so much the same sort of houses, that it is hardly possible to discover any qualification for voting based upon the description of house they occupy, which shall admit any considerable number of working men, without admitting so many as altogether to overpower the existing constituency. This has throughout been felt to be one of the main difficulties of arranging the franchise; and what is called "plural voting" is one of the methods proposed for escaping from it. By "plural voting," I understand a system of voting which, adopting the principle partially in use in elections under the Poor Law, would give one or more additional votes to electors occupying houses exceeding a certain value, or having more than one qualification. To such a proposal there are two strong objections. In the first place, it is invidious, it 1896 gives an advantage to mere wealth in a peculiarly offensive form; and secondly, it is calculated to do either too much or too little. If it should give so much weight to the wealthier classes as to secure them a majority, it would be open to the reproach of withdrawing with one hand from the working men the power it professes to give them with the other. If, on the other hand, it should fail to do this, it would be of no value as a security. Now, the other system, the "cumulative vote," is free from both these objections. It is in no degree invidious, since it gives precisely the same power of using his votes as he pleases to the poorest elector as to the richest, while it effectually solves the problem of giving to the working classes substantial weight, but not absolute predominance, and completely insures you against giving a monopoly of power to any one class in a constituency. And, looking forward to what is likely to be the state of things in future years, I regard this as a matter of great importance; because I think no man can carefully watch the signs of the times without perceiving it to be highly probable that with the enlarged constituencies, borough elections at least will often turn less on questions of general policy than on those by which the interests of the employers on the one side, and of the employed on the other, are supposed to be affected. Though these interests are never, I am convinced, really opposed to each other in the long run, they are often believed to be so, and we must expect severe contests to arise with reference to measures supposed to be favourable to the one side or to the other. If so, it would be most undesirable that a state of things should exist in which either the employers or the employed would obtain a monopoly of the representation. Both parties in such circumstances ought to have the means of making their views and opinions fairly heard in the House of Commons, and the mode of voting, recommended by the petitioners, would afford the surest, if not the only means by which this object could be obtained. But I know it has been objected that in the great majority of counties and boroughs returning two Members to Parliament, the Liberal and Conservative parties are so nearly balanced that, under the proposed system, each side would return one of the Members, who would thus in a party division neutralize each other, and the result would be that the control of Parliament, and the real predominance of power, 1897 would be left in the hands of the constituencies returning single Members or three. This argument rests altogether upon what is, I think, the unfounded assumption that the whole country is divided into two great parties, calling themselves Liberals and Conservatives, and that these parties are far better disciplined than is really the case, I am persuaded that while the names of I Conservative and Liberal will, no doubt, continue to be freely used, the Members chosen under the proposed system would owe their seats far more to opinions prevailing upon local matters, and to the respect and popularity they may enjoy, than to their bearing the name of one or other of two parties, between which the line drawn by a real difference of opinion on great public questions is daily becoming more faint. And in future we may expect that though Members may still be called Liberals and Conservatives, their conduct in Parliament will be guided less by these names than by the judgment they may form on the questions that arise, and what they may believe to be the prevailing opinion of the public with regard to them. In support of this view of the subject, let me refer your Lordships to the history of the last Session. I would remind you that when the new Parliament assembled, according to the calculations of those useful functionaries of both parties who make such calculations, the late Government were supposed to have a clear majority of from 70 to 80. And no doubt this was true; but how rapidly this large majority melted away when the measures of the Government failed to command the approval of the House or of the public. There is another consideration which, in my judgment, is of great weight in favour of this system of voting; I mean its tendency to check the ruinous expense of elections and corruption. We must all, I am sure, feel that the enormous cost of contested elections, and the increasing prevalence of corruption, are alarming and growing evils; and it is obvious that this mode of voting would greatly reduce the amount of money now so lavishly and mischievously spent in a General Election, by diminishing the number of contests. I am quite aware that this would be looked upon as anything but an advantage by certain persons who exercise great power in elections, and to whom even an increase of the expense of contested elections would be far from disagreeable; but to the public the advantage would be clear. But what 1898 is of still more importance is, that this system is the only measure I have yet heard proposed which affords any fair prospect of checking corruption. I, for one, am very incredulous as to the probable success of attempts to stop bribery by penal legislation. So long as the corrupt inclination to give, and to accept bribes, continues to exist, little good will be done by such legislation. You may possibly suppress the modes of bribery now usually practised, but new ways of evading the law will be found out, and in some shape or other the corrupt inducement will be given to those who wish to make gain of their votes. Now, the various measures against bribery that have hitherto been tried or suggested have no tendency to diminish the inclination to take bribes; but the "cumulative vote" is calculated to do so. For, how is it that bribery is generally introduced into a borough? From the facts discovered by Election Committees, and by the Commissions which have of late years been appointed to inquire as to the existence of corrupt practices, we have learnt very clearly that such practices generally arise in this way. Two parties in a borough being nearly equal in strength, and the honest voters on the two sides almost balanced, a small number of mercenary voters, sometimes freemen, and sometimes not, find that the election is in their hands, and make it understood that they are ready to sell the power they possess. Then an unscrupulous partisan on one side or the other offers bribes to these men, and the opposite party is soon led in I self-defence to do the same. Unfortunately, the bad example thus set is generally followed by others, and voters who have no strong political feeling, but were inclined honestly to give their votes in favour of the candidates they on the whole referred, seeing their neighbours getting £15 or £20 for their votes, and apparently I not the worse thought of, and knowing how; great a convenience receiving such a sum: would be to them, are unable to resist the temptation. And thus from a few mercenary individuals the taint spreads, till, as we learn from recent reports, whole constituencies become infected. The "cumulative vote" would stop this process, because under that system, when parties were equally balanced, instead of being led into a desperate contest by electioneering agents and others who have an interest in causing money to be spent, each party I would choose a Member.
1899 My Lords, I fear I have entered somewhat further into this question of the "cumulative vote" than I ought upon the present occasion, though I am far from having stated all the arguments in its favour. I will now revert to the petition, and there is only one further point in it to which I have to call your attention. The petitioners conclude by saying that looking to the vast importance of this question, the necessity for distinct principles as the basis of legislation, and the tentative devices that have been hitherto suggested, they fear lest great injury may be done by crude and hasty measures, and they pray the House to insist upon such a well-considered scheme as may serve to check agitation and content the people of this country, and rather even to postpone for a few months the passing of any law than to allow a partial and ill-digested measure to regulate all future elections.
Such, my Lords, is the prayer of the petition, of which I have brought under your notice the most material parts. Before I move that it be laid upon the table, I will venture to trouble you with a few remarks on the present position of the important question of Reform, for which I hope you may not consider this to be an unfitting occasion. I, for one, cannot regard the position in which this question is now placed without very serious alarm. We have reason to fear that one of two things may happen; either we may see another Session consumed in fruitless debates on this question without arriving at any practical conclusion upon it, while useful legislation is impeded; or we may do that which the petitioners deprecate—pass a crude and ill-digested measure. Either of these results would be bad; but the last is, I fear, the most probable, while it would be by far the worst. Delay and the waste of another Session would indeed be grievous evils; but they would be temporary evils, and evils we might hope to get over; the passing of an ill-considered measure would do permanent injury to the institutions of the country, and inflict upon it an evil that never could be repaired. And this appears to be what is most likely to happen. It has been announced to us that legislation on the subject of Reform is to be attempted in the present Session while there is too much probability that from sheer disgust and weariness of the subject Parliament may consent to pass the bill which may be submitted to us however imperfect it may be. And from 1900 the extraordinary revelations of the last fortnight, it is plain that the measure has not been framed and matured with the deliberation and care which the difficulty and importance of the subject demand. We know what great and sudden changes there have been up to the last moment in the views of Her Majesty's Government, and within how very short a time the task of embodying these views in a Bill has been undertaken. I believe it to be impossible that a measure deserving the approval of Parliament can be produced in this manner. We have been told, indeed, that the principles of the measure were settled long ago by Her Majesty's Ministers; but I venture to remind your Lordships that this is a subject on which the principle is involved in the details. To bring forward any Reform Bill implies a proposal to extend the franchise more or less, and to take away seats from some places to confer them upon others. But the whole character of the measure depends upon the figures which determine the extent to which these changes are carried, and on the manner in which the various parts of the arrangement are adapted to each other. For instance, it is impossible to form a judgment on any proposal for the extension of the franchise till we know how the question of the re-distribution of seats is to be dealt with, and what therefore will be the probable numbers and character of the constituencies the new franchise will create, and what are the conditions under which the new electors will be called upon to exercise their privilege. Without having before us a scheme of Reform as a whole, and in its details, no man can even guess how it will be likely to work. Remember, that in dealing with the question of Reform our object ought to be not merely to give satisfaction to a large number of persons who demand that a share of political power should be conceded to them. To a certain extent I admit that this is a legitimate demand, and to meet it ought to be one of the objects of a Reform Bill; but the more important object to be aimed at is to improve the character of the House of Commons, and to render it more fit to discharge its high duties in the Government of the country. The noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Derby) indeed, a few evenings ago said that he doubted whether the result of any change we could make would be to produce a House of Commons more truly representing the feelings and opinions of the people 1901 of this country, or more judiciously, more wisely, and more impartially consulting the interests of all classes of the community. If such be the opinion of the noble Earl, I own I have some difficulty in understanding how he can have consented to attempt any alteration of the constitution of the House of Commons. For my own part, I cannot go so far as this. I think there are faults in the present constitution of the House of Commons which it would be desirable to remove; though, on the whole, since the passing of the Reform Act of 1832, it has admirably performed its functions, and satisfactorily filled its place in the Government of the country. But while I recognise the necessity of endeavouring to improve the constitution of the House of Commons, and of giving more weight in it to the working class, I am convinced that there is so much truth in the opinion of the noble Earl, that we ought on no account to consent to such au alteration, as would render the House of Commons a mere instrument for expressing the opinions, and enforcing the wishes, of the numerical majority of the population. That House ought to continue to be what it has hitherto been in theory, and to no small extent in practice, a deliberative Assembly, in which the opinions and wishes of all classes are heard, but which habitually acts under the guidance of those best able to judge what is really most for the common good. To a great extent—I am far from saying altogether—this idea has been fulfilled in practice. By means of anomalies and irregularities, in themselves open to no small objections, the important end has been attained of introducing into the House of Commons Members of various opinions indirectly representing most classes of the community, while the body as a whole has, in general, pretty correctly expressed the true opinion of the nation, meaning by the nation the majority not of mere numbers, but of those who, whether high or low, are capable of forming an independent judgment on public affairs. And guided by this opinion, it has usually caused both legislation and the Executive Government to be carried on in a manner calculated to promote the real welfare of the people. If we look back at its conduct for the last thirty-five years, such, I think, is the judgment we must form of the character and conduct of the House of Commons; and till very lately, such was the received opinion of even the most advanced Refor- 1902 mers. Very few years have elapsed since Mr. Bright himself endeavoured to reconcile us to the prospect of a further Reform of Parliament, by telling us how happy had been the results of the former measure. He reminded us how great had been the fears of a powerful party as to what would be the effect of the Act of 1832, and then pointed out how visionary experience had proved these fears to have been. He described in glowing words the useful and beneficent legislation which the country owed to the Reformed House of Commons, and asked how, after this experience, we could hesitate to make a further change in the constitution of that House, in the same direction with one which had proved thus successful? Up to a very recent period, that was the opinion of even such advanced Reformers as Mr. Bright. The views which Mr. Bright lately entertained—I know not whether he still adheres to them, but I hope he does—are rejected by those who have now come into the front rank of the advocates of Reform, and a totally opposite doctrine has of late become popular. We are told that a great Reform, a complete alteration of the character of the House of Commons, is necessary, because it has utterly failed in the performance of its duties; all the faults, real or imaginary, in our laws, all the evils to be found in our complicated society, are described and exaggerated—Parliament is fiercely denounced as responsible for them all, and the establishment of the unqualified supremacy of democratic power is loudly demanded as the sure and only remedy. Such is the new doctrine. Certainly, my Lords, I am not here to deny that the country is still suffering from many most serious evils, though much has been done during the last five-and-thirty years for the removal of these evils, and to increase the welfare of the people. Those who, like myself, are old enough to remember what the condition of the people really was in 1832, and who have watched the progress and effect of the various remedial measures which have one by one been since adopted, cannot doubt that in these years a great work has been accomplished. But I freely admit that while much has been done, much still remains to be done. No one can be more deeply convinced than myself of the urgent necessity for further measures for the benefit of the people. But I venture to deny that the existence of faults still remaining to be removed in our laws, and of great social evils 1903 still requiring a remedy, can be traced to the absence of sufficient popular power in Parliament, and to the want of a more democratic character in the House of Commons. If time would admit of my going into an examination of the various evils of which the continuance is imputed to the defective constitution of the House of Commons, I think I could demonstrate to your Lordships in nearly every case that there is no ground for these imputations. It is impossible for me to attempt this without making an unjustifiable demand on your patience; but I hope you will not think I am taking up too much of your time, if I ask you to permit me to examine how far, in one particular instance, it is true that evils, alleged to be owing to the insufficiency of the democratic element in the House of Commons, are really to be thus accounted for. Perhaps there is nothing for which Parliament and the Government have been so severely condemned as for the abuses which have of late been detected in the administration of the Poor Law, more especially in the metropolis. The accounts which have been given of the state of some of the London workhouses, and of the manner in which the destitute and the sick have been treated in them, have, with too much reason, created a general feeling of horror and indignation. But how have these abuses arisen? Not because the law sanctions such things as have been done. On the contrary, nothing can be clearer than that the law imposes on certain local authorities the imperative duty of providing adequate relief for the destitute and humane attendance for such of them as are sick. The provisions of the law to this effect are clear and stringent, and these abuses have only arisen because the local authorities, charged with the administration of the law, have failed in the discharge of their duty. Why have they done so? We are told it is because the Government and Parliament have neglected to exercise sufficient control over them, and this is in part, at least, the truth. But I would ask those who, like myself, sat in the House of Commons thirty years ago, and took part in discussing these matters, how did it come about that the Government and Parliament did not sooner exercise a more effective control over the local authorities? How was it that local Acts were allowed to remain in force, exempting large districts of the metropolis from the effective interference of the Poor Law Commissioners, and what is it that has 1904 mainly contributed to cripple the efforts of those Commissioners to enforce a satisfactory performance of their duties by the local authorities? Those who remember the proceedings on this subject thirty years ago, and for many subsequent years, will, I am sure, bear me out in the assertion that it was the Members of the House of Commons of the strongest democratic opinions, and amongst them especially some of the metropolitan Members, who were chiefly responsible for the vestries and Boards of Guardians not having been placed under proper control. These Members were never tired of declaiming against centralization, and the tyranny of the Commissioners in seeking to overrule the representatives of the ratepayers. I think my noble Friend the Master of the Rolls must remember those days in the House of Commons ns well as myself, and the Select Committee so ably presided over by my lamented Friend Mr. Fazakerley, in which it was the object of the metropolitan Members, and the Members of the Democratic party, to make out a case against the continuance of the powers of the Poor Law Commissioners. This statement will, I trust, convince your Lordships that at least so far as regards the maladministration of the Poor Law, the faults which have been committed by Parliament cannot be ascribed to the too small influence of democracy in the House of Commons. If time admitted of my going into other cases, I could, I think, show you that in most of them the same thing is true, and that the chief errors committed by the House of Commons in the last thirty-five years have arisen from its having too faithfully reflected mistaken opinions which at the time prevailed in the nation. The nation is not infallible, sometimes it is the small minority that is right, and the great majority that is wrong, and it is only slowly that on some subjects the nation comes round to sound opinions. In these cases Parliament, representing the nation, necessarily follows its opinions, and it cannot sometimes adopt reforms, and measures of improvement, which are right in themselves, because public opinion is not yet prepared for them. But the British Parliament may safely challenge a comparison with Legislatures of a more democratic character, with respect to the manner in which it has performed its duties and the wisdom of its measures.
I wish I had time to compare our Parliament with the Legislatures of the 1905 Australian colonies, or with Congress and the State Legislatures of the United States, as I think I could demonstrate to you by the results, how far it is from being true that the Legislatures of the most democratic character have been the most successful in the performance of their duties. But, though I cannot now attempt this, perhaps I may venture to ask your attention to a comparison between the British Parliament and the Congress of the United States in one respect only. A distinguished Member of the other House of Parliament, and one of the most eminent modern writers on politics—I mean Mr. Stuart Mill, the Member for Westminster—has said, in his admirable work on representative government, that one of the great uses of a representative Legislature is to instruct and educate the nation, and gradually to prepare the people for the adoption of sound measures. In this respect Parliament has been eminently successful. Its debates have been the principal means by which political wisdom, and the results arrived at by the patient researches of philosophical inquirers, have been made gradually to sink into the minds of the people, and truths at first recognised only by a few of the ablest men of their day, have at length been practically adopted in legislation. Let me refer to what has happened with respect to the principles of free trade. For many years after these principles had been proclaimed by Adam Smith, they continued to be rejected, and the necessity of commercial protection to be insisted on, alike by statesmen, by landlords and farmers, by manufacturers and merchants, and especially by the working classes, who on many occasions broke out into violence in opposition to what all persons now admit to have been their own true interests. We have had in former days mobs to insist upon Parliaments excluding foreign silks, or to break frames or thrashing machines, and committing gross outrages in the hope of enforcing a mistaken policy. Even so late as when I first had the honour of a seat in the House of Commons, it was only a very small minority that ventured to declare themselves in favour of free trade. In the year 1827 I remember voting in a minority of only 12 against adopting the principle of the sliding scale in the duties on corn, which everyone now admits to be a fallacy; and so strong at that time was the general feeling in favour of protection on both sides of the House, that those who 1906 denied its policy were compelled almost to apologize for the opinions they entertained, and even Sir. Huskisson himself, in recommending his wise measures for gradually breaking down the system of monopoly, was obliged to support them by arguments which I can hardly believe to have been those by which his own mind had been convinced, A total alteration of opinion has since been brought about, and the principles then generally scouted are now admitted to afford the only sound basis for legislation, and the debates in Parliament have been chiefly instrumental in producing this change. Speeches at public meetings, and the discussions of the press, great as their influence undoubtedly is, have yet less effect upon public opinion than the debates of Parliament. And it is natural that it should be so; there is no other mode by which opposite opinions can be so fairly pitted against each other, and when such men as Mr. Cobden and my right hon. Friend, the brother of the noble Earl near me (the Earl of Clarendon), one of the earliest and ablest advocates of free trade in corn, have the opportunity of exposing the fallacies brought forward against I sound principles, errors are gradually broken down by the power of truth, and what was originally a minority becomes at length a majority. Now, by universal acknowledgment Congress is immeasurably inferior to the British Parliament in fulfilling this important object of a representative Legislature. Its debates command nothing like the same interest and attention, and exercise far less influence for good on the minds of the people. This is partly owing to the intellectual inferiority, as a body, of the House of Representatives at Washington to the House of Commons, partly also because in America the natural tendency of giving unlimited power to the numerical majority of the population is developing itself more and more. An assembly representing the numerical majority of the population is by its very nature intolerant of contradiction, and we know that a system of not only outvoting, but of silencing the minority, has been adopted in Congress by means of the "previous Question."
I have particularly called your Lordships' attention to the difference in this respect between the American Congress and the British Parliament, because it appears to me that nothing can afford so strong a proof of the importance of not making such a change in the mode of electing the 1907 House of Commons, as to deprive superior education and intelligence of their just influence. And I think this deserves to be the more considered, because very opposite views have lately been put forward. We are now told that political knowledge is unnecessary for the people, that it may be required in Legislators and Governors, but is not wanted in those by whom Legislators are to be chosen. The people, it is said, may be incapable of judging how the evils from which they may suffer can be cured; but they alone feel these evils so acutely as to be determined to insist on their being removed, and when this determination, backed by power, exists, they will find men capable of accomplishing the work to be done. Experience affords little ground for such an expectation. The people suffered great oppression in the reign of Henry VI, they were acutely sensible of the evils they endured, but it may well be doubted whether a real improvement in their condition would have been accomplished if they could have succeeded in raising Jack Cade to power, when he led them into rebellion by promising that seven halfpenny loaves should be sold for a penny, and that the three-hooped pot should have ten hoops. In the same manner you may remember that twenty-five years ago the great mass of the people were more inclined to trust Mr. Fergus O'Connor than Mr. Cobden, as the person who was to deliver them from the severe distress they at that time endured. Mr. Cobden told them that to relieve industry from artificial restrictions, and especially to get rid of the Corn Laws, would be the surest mode of giving relief to the suffering working classes. Mr. Fergus O'Connor told them that these measures would do little for them, and were really wanted only to increase the gain of their masters, with the risk of sacrificing the British to the foreign labourer, and that what they ought to ask for was the five points of the Charter. At out-of-doors meetings it was generally the views of Mr. Fergus O'Connor, not those of Mr. Cobden, which were popular; and in like manner in the present day, I fear it would be found that the most ignorant classes, if they should be enabled to determine to what hands power is to be trusted, would be too likely to confer it upon men little able to deal with those difficult questions of law and policy, from the right solution of which any real improvement in the condition of the people can alone be looked for.
1908 The conclusion I would draw from these considerations is, not that you ought to refuse increased representation to the working classes, but that when you admit a larger proportion of them to the franchise you are bound by ordinary prudence, and by a regard for the interest of these classes themselves, to take care that such other amendments shall at the same time be introduced into our system of representation as may be necessary to prevent its balance from being overthrown. How this ought to be done, whether by adopting the suggestions of the petitioners, or by what other means, is a question into which it would not become me to enter further at present; but I must repeat that to make a large alteration of the franchise, unaccompanied by some measure or other calculated to maintain the balance of the Constitution, would be a most dangerous course. It was on this ground that I disapproved of the Bill brought in last Session by the late Ministry. I did not think the mode of extending the franchise they proposed the best or wisest that might have been suggested; still, I should have been prepared to accept it (as it was not to its extent I objected), if it had been accompanied by other arrangements I considered indispensable. It was because it was not joined with any provisions of this kind, while we were expressly told it was to be a beginning of further alterations, that I so heartily joined in the almost universal condemnation of the first, or the "single barrelled," Bill, as it was called. Unfortunately the additions afterwards made to this Bill by the Government, in deference to the general wish for a complete measure, were so hurriedly decided upon, that they proved, as might have been expected, unsatisfactory. Still, I regretted the mode of opposition to this Bill which was adopted, and thought then, as I think still more now, that it would have been far wiser for men of moderate opinions to propose a distinct scheme for the amendment of the Bill, than to thwart and obstruct it. Another Bill is now about to be submitted to Parliament: for the reasons I have already stated, I fear that it can hardly prove to be one deserving the approval of Parliament; if not, I must express my earnest hope that Parliament may be induced to declare that it will neither allow another Session to be wasted in fruitless debates, while all the other useful legislation which is so urgently wanted is impeded, nor yet consent to pass a crude 1909 and ill-digested measure. I would venture to suggest that as the best mode of escaping from one or other of these great evils, the Bill, if it turns out as I apprehend a bad one, ought to be returned to Her Majesty's Government (whether it be the present or any other Government), in order that it may be more maturely considered, and then Parliament might again be called together in November for the express and single purpose of dealing with this very difficult question.
I have but one more word to add. I feel that an apology is due from me to your Lordships for having taken upon myself to bring this subject under your notice, at this time, in the manner I have done. The only excuse I can offer for having assumed so great a responsibility, though I am well aware I have no claim to authority or influence in the House, is, that I think the situation of affairs, with reference to this question, is as full of danger as I am sure it is unexampled. By an extraordinary combination of circumstances, and owing to what I believe to have been great faults on all sides, we are rapidly drifting towards what, in my judgment, would be the greatest evil that can befal the nation. A combined and earnest effort on the part of independent men may possibly still check the fatal progress; and, feeble as my voice may be, ineffectual as I know the attempt will in all probability prove, I have thought it my duty, not in such circumstances to be silent, but to endeavour to the best of my power to warn your Lordships of the perils before us. I move that this Petition do lie on the table.
§ Petition ordered to lie upon the Table.