HL Deb 08 March 1897 vol 47 cc146-56

My Lords, On rising to move the Second Reading of the Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill, I desire to say that I was asked by the Parliamentary Committee for Women's Suffrage to introduce a Bill in your Lordships' House which would be a reasonable and moderato Measure and such as would remove any existing injustice. The Committee have intrusted their cause to me in regard to the scope of the Measure, and I received a copy of a Resolution from them signed by the Chairman of the meeting, Sir Richard Temple, by which the Committee pledges itself— That if in the interests of the Measure, to facilitate its passage through the legislature, it be found necessary to modify the provisions of the Bill, that such modification will receive their most careful consideration. If the arguments used to-day in favour of this Bill convince your Lordships that an injustice exists in properly-qualified women being excluded from the Franchise, and that their inclusion in it would add security to property and benefit the State, and your Lordships give the Bill a Second Reading, I can only say that any reasonable Amendments which may be moved in Committee on the Bill will be considered from a co-operative and not a hostile point of view. I particularly wish to emphasise this, because in such consultations I have been fortunate enough to have with Members of your Lordships' House and others, it seems to me that the overwhelming proportion of criticisms levelled at the Women's Suffrage Bill are, where applicable, such as should be answered during the Committee stage of the Bill. I venture to hope, therefore, that, undeterred by any doubt as to making this Bill in Committee such as it should be when it passes this House, your Lordships will to-day consider only the question of principle involved in the Bill, and if satisfied that an injustice exists and ought to be removed, to remember, as Mr. Gladstone is reported to have said on one occasion, when passing a Bill through the Legislature, that "justice delayed is justice denied." Now, my Lords, there are many justifications for passing a Bill enfranchising properly-qualified women, but I will only refer to those that seem the most important, premising only that it appears that the right of such women—and such women only—to vote is admittedly a natural right, and it is not their entry into the Franchise but their exclusion from it that has to be justified; that it is not for me to prove that right, but for the opponents of Women's Suffrage to produce overwhelming proof, if they can, to show why it is right and expedient to withhold the vote from them. The principle of giving women votes was affirmed in another place without a Division in 1886, and lately, by a very large majority, while those who supported Women's Suffrage consisted of a majority of every political denomination. I need not point out that this question has been discussed for 30 years, and it has during that period received the explicit support of Leaders of thought in all Parties; and particularly from Leaders of this House and the House of Commons. It has been the subject of strong and favourable resolutions passed most unanimously or by overwhelming majorities of various political organisations throughout the country—for instance, the Annual Conference of Conservative and Constitutional Associations at Birmingham in 1891; the Birmingham Liberal Association General Council of 2,000; the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations, England and Scotland; the National Liberal Federation; the Welsh Division of National Union Conservative and Constitutional Associations; Conference of Conservative Party of North Devon; the Lancashire and Cheshire Division of the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations; the Northern Union of Conservative Associations; and the Scottish Branch Primrose League Grand Habitation. Mr. Arthur Balfour, speaking in the House of Commons on 27 April 1892, said:— We support the Bill for practical reasons. I think those who wished to be enfranchised have used the only methods they could use in the matter—they have expressed their desire to obtain the vote on platforms, and by public meetings, petitions, and votes and resolutions. Petitions have been presented, over 700 of them with thousands of signatures, and, indeed, I may say that every constitutional method of proving Women's Suffrage is demanded by the women of this country has been exhausted, up to the point that the one thing in this respect still needed is adequate consideration of the question at your Lordships' hands. The injustice which women complain of existing is thus stated by them:— That whereas women have to pay taxes in the same way that men equally situated do, they have no representation, and this is against a fundamental doctrine of the Constitution that taxation and representation should go together, and that those who have to contribute towards taxation should have a voice in choosing those who are to make the laws, and Parliament cannot sufficiently reflect the wishes of the people while so many desirable voters are excluded. As an example of the injustice that women complain of, I would ask your Lordships' attention, and more particularly of those who are interested in agricultural questions, to the figures quoted by Sir Albert Rollit during the Debate in the House of Commons in 1892:— In relation to the great question of the land, the House, perhaps, hardly realises how many cultivators are in the unfortunate position of having lost their husbands, and are yet carrying on their farms, employing numbers of labourers who have votes, while they, though more qualified in every respect, have none, simply and only because they are women! Few know how many women are farmers and graziers—some 20,000—and few, perhaps, realise that the agricultural interest loses through this cause something like 140,000 votes. Then, my Lords, what was Mr. Gladstone's view in 1870 as a matter of injustice? Mr. Gladstone, on the Women's Disabilities Bill speech in the House of Commons, 1870, said:— I admit, at any rate, as far as I am able to judge, there is more presumptive ground for change in the law than some of the opponents of the Measure are disposed to own.… I cannot help thinking that, for some reason or other, there are various important particulars in which women obtain much less than justice under social arrangements.… I may be told that there is no direct connection between this and the Parliamentary Franchise, and I admit it, but at the same time I am by no means sure that these inequalities may not have an indirect connection with a state of law in which the balance is generally cast too much against women, and too much in favour of men. There is one instance which has been quoted, and I am not sure there is not something in it—I mean the case of farms.… I believe to some extent in the competition for that particular employment women suffer in a very definite manner in consequence of their want of qualification to vote. I do not wish to imply even that these are Mr. Gladstone's last words, but I have never known of any attempt on his part to try and dispute the fact he stated that "there are various important particulars with reference to women's disabilities in which they obtain much less justice than men. "Here I may ask this. Is it not an injustice to a woman that, while she may hold property and must discharge its liabilities, she may not represent it even by a, vote at the elections, and is therefore unable to safeguard it in any way; that she is, in fact, placed in the position of the men of whom Mr. Gladstone is reported to have said, "They have no votes, and may be safely neglected." I have so far pleaded snore particularly for the franchise for properly-qualified women on the ground of justice to them, and on the ground of increasing their influence in defending their own property; but I venture to think that as strong a claim can be made on behalf of the State for the enfranchisement of duly-qualified women. At present the State is deprived of the vote of those who specially represent the opinions of women on questions on which women are experts. Surely this is not, right, and, if properly-qualified women are enfranchised, the Constitution will be pro tanto stronger and more stable. What are the questions on which educated and capable women are experts, often indeed greater experts than men? There is the education question, hospitals, the management of schools, the employment of women, the Poor law, housing of the poor, the question of asylums, prisons, sanitation of the homes of the poor and workshops, various questions in relation to industry and trade, factories, the safeguarding of children, and what is known as the Social Question, besides other matters. Thus, my Lords, I believe that, once you give responsible women the vote, they will use it to try and make the Legislature stamp out by proper regulations the disease which, with its unlimited ramifications, is threatening to destroy the health, if only it goes on unchecked long enough, of the men, women, and children, of this country, and not only that but to destroy the constitution of the generations yet to come. Then, is it wise, my Lords, to exclude on the ground of State interests the women owners of property included in this Bill? When, in 1874, the Representation of the People Bill was before the House of Commons, and an Amendment enfranchising women was under consideration, the late Lord Iddesleigh, then Sir Stafford Northcote, spoke on June 12th, as follows:— The point upon which we lay stress is that upon which the late Lord Beaconsfield laid stress, and upon which so much stress has been laid to-night, namely, that by excluding women you are excluding a large portion of the property owners of this country from representation and from their share in the legislation. Before concluding my arguments in favour of the principle of this Bill and dealing with some of the objections, I will quote two extracts from speeches made by the Marquess of Salisbury. At a meeting convened by the Primrose League at Edinburgh, in November 1886, Lord Salisbury said:— I earnestly hope that the day is not far distant when women also will bear their share in voting for Members of Parliament—[cheers]—and in determining the policy of the country. I can conceive no argument by which they are excluded. It is obvious that they are abundantly as well fitted as many who now possess the suffrage, by knowledge, by training, and by character, and that their influence is likely to weigh in a direction which, in an age so material as ours, is exceedingly valuable, namely, in the direction of morality and religion. Again, at Covent Garden, on the, 29th April 1896, speaking on a new influence in politics:— It has largely brought into action the influence of many men who otherwise would not have devoted their efforts to the support of the country, it has knit together classes who were apart before, and whom it was the interest of agitators to keep apart—[cheers]—and it has brought into action for the support of the fundamental institutions of society those who are the most deeply interested in them—namely, the women of England. [Cheers.] I am one of those—I speak only for myself individually—who are of opinion that women have not the voice they ought to have in the selection of the representatives of the English people. I will now briefly refer to some of the objections raised against Women's Franchise. Amongst them we find it stated that, if votes were given to women, the vote would be followed by their having seats in Parliament. It was in the Debate in 1892 that Mr. Arthur Balfour disposed of this objection. He said:— The argument which appeals most, I am convinced, to those who oppose tins Bill, is the conviction—the ill-founded conviction think—that it must necessarily carry with it as what they call a logical consequence, the result that women must have a seat in this House, in the Cabinet, and should in all respects, so far as public, offices are concerned, he placed on an equality with men. I do not believe a word of that argument. I can quite agree that it is very difficult to stop in such a course—to fix an arbitrary point and say then you will stop—if the arguments for going further are precisely those that made you travel thus far. The point, therefore, to consider is, can the arguments that are brought forward in favour of this Bill be also brought forward in favour of women having a seat in this House? No, Sir, they cannot. And again:— If you want to prevent further progress you ought to stop at a point where defence is possible; but at the present point logical defence is not possible. I believe, my Lords, I am correct in saying that there is a distinct and legally-recognised difference between the right to vote and the right to sit in a deliberative Assembly; the disqualification for the latter has been decided to exist, according to Sir Albert Rollit, as to women, and it has long subsisted in the case of the clergy and the Civil Service. Another objection put forward is that women do not want the franchise. Where is the record of any public meeting in this country against Women's Suffrage? Where are the petitions, signed by the women it is proposed to enfranchise by this Bill, against Women's Suffrage? Women have worked to return Members to Parliament favourable to Women's Suffrage. Where are the women who have worked to keep out of Parliament men favourable; to Women's Suffrage? My Lords, I ask you to compare these two facts; on the one hand large numbers of meetings and petitions, and plenty of work in favour of Women's Suffrage by women, against whom no word can be said; and on the other hand, what? Why, nil. So much for that objection. I lately read that a right hon. Gentleman in another place urged as an objection that as giving the franchise at all meant giving it to every woman, and as there are 1,200,000 more women than men (I believe the last census gave it at 900,000. But what is a trifling error of 300,000?), women with votes would have the predominance. I differ entirely with the right hon. Gentle-man. How can you justify the argument that a Bill which only enfranchises a limited number of properly-qualified women, is a sufficient cause for enfranchising all women without any qualification? Then there is no ground for supposing that all the women any Bill would enfranchise are going to vote; and again, it is against experience and reason that all the women would vote against all the men; and if these two objections to the argument of the right hon. Gentleman are admitted, and I cannot see how it can be otherwise, his contention falls to the ground. In conclusion, my Lords, I would say that I have tried to place before you, I am afraid but very indifferently, the consensus of opinion on this question of some of the most eminent and trusted leaders of thought of different political opinions, because I think your Lordships will rightly attach much more importance to their views than to mine, however similar mine may be. I belong to no Women's Suffrage Society, but plead for tins Bill on behalf of those whom it would enfranchise. I ask your Lordships not to allow any arguments which may be put forward, however eloquently, to try and induce you to vote against this Bill, to obscure the main points of my contention, viz., that it is right that the property winch has so long been disfranchised should now have representation. If you feel, my Lords, that properly needs no further safeguarding, refuse a Second Reading to this Bill; but if, on the other hand, you disapprove of attacks on property, be it that of the rich man or rich woman, or poor man or poor woman, then, my Lords, I would ask you to pass this Bill; and while you will remove the sense of injustice which now rankles in the minds of thousands of capable women, who are eager to support the Crown and Constitution of this Kingdom, you will at the same time remove from our legislation the discredit that attaches to it in excluding from voting on the great questions of the State those who are admittedly the most moral and religious portion of the community.


In the unavoidable absence of the Prime Minister, he has asked me to state to your Lordships the advice which he would have given to the House had he been able to be present. It is perfectly well known that there exists many Members of the present Government as to the merits of this question a certain amount of difference of opinion, and that it has been agreed that it should be regarded as an open question; but I think there is no difference of opinion in the minds of the Government that it would be an undesirable course, and in some respects perhaps even an unexampled course, for this House to undertake what is, or purports to be, a reform of the House of Commons. I think that such a course would not strengthen your Lordships' hands if, as is probable, on some future occasion it may be necessary for you to take into consideration and review proposals made for the further reform of the other House of Parliament. It is generally, I think, acknowledged that the proper function of this House is to review and to weigh calmly and deliberately the legislative proposals which come to you from the other House, if necessary to suggest or introduce amendments, and upon some occasions to afford to the country, and even to Parliament itself, an, opportunity of reconsidering what may appear to be crude and immature suggestions. I do not think that any useful action which your Lordships can take in this direction would be assisted in the future if your Lordships were to adopt the precedent of pressing upon the consideration of the other House legislative Measures of the character contained in this Bill. I hope I shall not be supposed to intend to speak with any disrespect whatever of the other House of Parliament, but I think in the opinion of many persons the reputation of the House of Commons for sobriety of judgment was not enhanced when, on a Wednesday afternoon, after a very short Debate, the principle of this Measure was recently affirmed. ["Hear, hear!"] For myself I regret that it was left to the Leader of the Opposition to point out the levity with which such a Measure as this was proposed, and its principle sanctioned after a Debate which must to most persons appear absolutely inadequate in comparison with the great importance of the subject. ["Hear, hear!"] I regret it was also left to the Leader of the Opposition to point out that proposals such as these, if they can properly be made at all Or adopted, ought to be made, if not upon the authority of the Government, at least upon the authority of some responsible Leader of the Party. But I think your Lordships would be exposed to a much graver and better founded charge of levity in this matter if you were, at the invitation of my noble Friend, to abandon the position which alone, in my opinion, you can occupy with dignity and credit—that of a Legislative whose function it is to review and weigh Measures sent to you from the other House of Parliament—and were yourselves to initiate legislation of a character so grave and important as this. ["Hear, hear!"] I do not think that anyone can doubt that this Measure does not involve constitutional changes of an extremely grave and important character, and it is fraught with possible and even probable consequences which it is almost impossible at present to foresee. ["Hear, hear!"] Small as may be the immediate effect which would be brought about either by the Measure which was proposed in the other House or the different Measure which is now before you, we cannot entertain any feeling of certainty that we have reached the limits of electoral reform, and that we may not have some day to deal with the question of manhood suffrage; and I confess that I find it very difficult to discover any reason why, if the principle of manhood suffrage should ever be adopted in this country, as it has been in European countries, and if you assent to the principle contained in this Bill, it would be possible to stop short of adult female suffrage also. [Cheers.] I do not think I need give other reasons as showing the inexpediency of considering the subject on the present occasion, but I might also point out that the Bill which has been passed in the other House, and which may come ultimately in the course of the present Session before your Lordships, contains, in one important respect, a different provision from that contained in this Bill. It does not seem to me desirable that your Lordships should hamper yourselves for the consideration of that Measure by adopting the principle of the Bill proposed by my noble Friend. Having said this much, I do not think I ought to conceal, and I have no desire to disguise the fact, that personally I entertain a very strong and clear opinion on this subject, and that if I were called upon to give a vote on the principle of the Measure I should give it unhesitatingly in the negative. [Cheers.] That, however, is not the ground for the course which I am about to ask your Lordships to take. The position of the Government in the matter is, that it is not one upon which the House of Lords ought to be called, at the present time, to express an opinion. That being our opinion, I think that it is better to abstain from any argument either for or against the Bill. That would be to a certain extent an admission that we consider this Bill a proper subject for discussion in your Lordships' House, and that is precisely the position we are not prepared to take up. Therefore, I will conclude by moving the previous question, and ask your Lordships, by assenting to that Motion, to decline to consider the question at present or to enter upon an academical discussion on the question until it is presented to you in the only manner in which it can properly and constitutionally be presented to you, in the shape of a legislative proposal coming to this House from the House of Commons. I beg to move the previous question. ["Hear, hear!"]


I have heard with much satisfaction the statement made by the noble Duke, and I cannot add anything to his arguments. I think it must be clear that, generally speaking, the last thing we ought to agree to is that a Bill enlarging the franchise should originate in this House in a case where the adoption of the principle contained in that Bill really involves a change almost, I was going to say, the most revolutionary that could be adopted in regard to the franchise in this country. I have no desire any more than the noble Duke to conceal the fact that if I had to give a vote upon the principle which I believe to be involved in any Measure of this kind I should unhesitatingly vote against it, and should give the most uncompromising opposition to any proposal to give the franchise to women. ["Hear, hear!"] That, however, is not, the subject under discussion. I shall follow the example of the noble Duke and shall not offer any argument upon the subject. The position I wish to occupy in reference to this question is precisely that occupied by the noble Duke; indeed, as far as it is possible for anyone in Opposition to be in the same position as a Member of the Government. I am in that position, because the same difference of opinion on this subject exists among the Party with whom I have to act as exists among the supporters of the Government. In these circumstances I wish most strongly to urge upon the House the desirability of not proceeding with this Bill at present, nor of entering into any discussion upon the subject with which it deals. ["Hear, hear!"]

Previous question put, whether the said question shall now be put; Resolved in the negative.