On extending the franchise

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I rise under great disadvantages to address this House, after the hon. and learned Gentleman [Serjeant Talfourd] who has just sat down; and the difficulty of my position would be very much increased if I were called upon to address myself to this question in the manner, and with the eloquence and fancy, by which his speech has been distinguished; but I make no pretence to follow in such a track. I can only help observing, that the hon. and learned Gentleman has not given us any facts as the groundwork of his reasoning. There is one statement, however, made by the hon. and learned Gentleman, which is not a fact, but on which the opponents of my hon. Friend the Member for Montrose [Mr. Hume] seem very much to rely. The statement to which I allude is to this effect,—that the wishes of the country are not in favour of the change which my hon. Friend proposes. That assertion, as we all know, was made by the noble Lord the Member for London. Now, it must be generally felt that this statement is of more importance than any other that has been uttered upon this subject. On other subjects connected with the Government and Constitution of this country there may be much diversity of opinion; but I ask, is there any great diversity of opinion, at this moment, amongst the great class, who are now excluded from the franchise? I put it to the noble Lord to say, does he, or do his friends, mean to say, or do they not, that the masses of the unrepresented population in this country have no desire to possess political power and privileges? Will any one utter such a libel on the people of England? Will any one say that they are so abject, so base, so servile, as not to desire to possess the rights of citizens and freemen? I have not believed, and I do not believe, that such are the sentiments of my fellow-countrymen. I should entertain a very poor opinion indeed of the people of this country if I were to give a vote in favour of such a proposition; but yet it forms an important element in the reasonings of the Gentlemen who oppose my hon. Friend the Member for Montrose. If you admit the most evident truth that can come under the notice of any man, you must admit that at least six-sevenths of the male population of this United Kingdom are earnestly pressing for and claiming the rights which you are denying them. I will go further, and tell the House that a very large proportion of the middle class regret that so many belonging to a humbler order of society than themselves should have been included amongst the unrepresented portion of the community. They express a sincere desire that the franchise should be extended; they look with great interest to the result of this night's division; and I undertake to say, that you will find those Members of this House who represent large and independent constituencies, comprising, for the most part, persons belonging to the middle class, you will find such Members voting with my hon. Friend—they are the men who will go into the lobby in favour of his motion. It is thus that the strongest and most useful appeal will be responded to by the great mass of the middle orders, and thus, I think, it will be shown, that the middle class entertain no such feeling of hostility against the admission of working men to political power as they are said to indulge. In proportion as the middle class are free and independent, in so far do they desire the freedom and independence of the rank nearest to themselves, in that proportion do they desire to open the portals of the Constitution to the poor man. Some hon. Members in this House have contended against this truth; but I take the liberty of saying, that I have for a long time been accustomed to watch the progress of opinion on this subject out of doors; and this I tell the hon. and learned Gentleman, and I can prove it, even to his satisfaction, that I have had better opportunities than he possesses of estimating the state of opinion out of doors upon this matter; and I beg to inform him, that this opinion in favour of my hon. Friend's motion has arisen spontaneously—that there has been no organization; and the best proof of this assertion that I can offer is to be found in the fact, that the number of public meetings to consider, discuss, and petition upon this subject, has been no fewer than 130. I find it so recorded in the Daily News, and I repeat that this is a purely spontaneous movement. I have no hesitation in frankly acknowledging that we were five years agitating for a repeal of the Corn-laws, before we reached so advanced a point as that which the friends of the present question now occupy. Respecting the repeal of the Corn-laws, the mass of the people were said, truly enough, perhaps, to have been galvanized from a centre. But, with regard to the motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Montrose, the practice has been reversed; and whatever manifestations of opinion have been displayed out of doors, they have arisen without any exertion of central influence.

I do not say that all men are agreed upon this subject—that there are no diversities of opinion; but I say there is much less of this than those who resist my hon. Friend's motion at all like to see. We have had petitions from those who favour the Charter, and from those who desire universal suffrage, and very many in favour of the particular plan upon which we are now speedily to divide. I have not anything to say against those petitions in favour of the Charter, or in favour of universal suffrage. I am not contending against the right of a man, as a man, to the franchise—I mean the right that a man ought to enjoy apart from the possession of property; but I feel I should not be justified in taking the line of argument adopted by the hon. and learned Gentleman, and by the noble Lord the First Minister of State, who addressed himself to the advocates of universal suffrage, and seemed to argue that they were more right than the advocates of household suffrage. If he intends to vote for universal suffrage, I can understand the force of that argument; but as I am not going to oppose universal suffrage, and as I do not stand here to support it, I leave him in the hands of the advocates of universal suffrage, and, judging by what has been done, they seem disposed to make the most of the argument which has been put into their hands.

I will not occupy the time of the House in discussing this point further, but rather prefer to direct attention to this circumstance,—that the hon. and learned Gentleman did not display his usual legal skill and knowledge in dealing with the question of household suffrage, for it certainly is not surrounded with the difficulties which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has imagined. To judge from his speech, it would seem to be the law, that no one except the landlord and occupier of a house enjoys a vote in right of that house. Surely the hon. and learned Gentleman ought to have known that the Court of Common Pleas has decided that lodgers paying more than 10l. annually, and rated to the poor-rates, are entitled to be placed on the list of voters—that is to say, in cases where the landlord does not live on the premises. That is the state of the law as established by the Reform Act, and my hon. Friend seeks only to extend that privilege a little; it therefore can scarcely be considered a matter difficult of arrangement. The mere extension of the existing rule gets rid of all difficulty, and gives the franchise to prudent young men—too prudent to marry and take houses with insufficient means; to them, being lodgers, and paying a rent exceeding 10l., the plan of my hon. Friend gives the franchise. The law of the land already goes very near to this.

The allusion which the hon. and learned Gentleman made to the case of Cooper must be fresh in the recollection of the House. I am sorry he alluded to that part of Cooper's career, who, I believe, greatly regrets those events, and would be glad to forget the part that he took in the affair at the Staffordshire Potteries. I again say, I am sorry that the subject was introduced here, for we want no additional examples to prove to us that a very good poet may be a very bad politician. The object of the motion of the hon. Member for Montrose is, that he may bring in a bill for the purpose, among other things, of giving votes to householders; that is to say, that parties not only paying taxes to the country, but rates to the poor, should have a voice in the election of Members to this House. In advocating this principle, we are really acting on the theory that exists as to the franchise of this country; for we say that the people of this country elect the Members of this House. Is that sham, or is it reality?

Now, if there is one thing more than another that the people do not like, it is sham. The people like realities. The theory of this country is, that the people like political power; and there is nobody responsible, as the hon. and learned Gentleman in his poetical flight seemed to imagine, for the education of the people and the preparation of them for the political franchise. If there had been any such responsible parties, the thing would have been done long ago. But, I ask, what danger is there in giving the franchise to householders? They are the fathers of families; they constitute the laborious and industrious population. What would be endangered by giving this class the franchise? When our institutions are talked of, I always hear it said that they live in the affections of the country, and that the Queen sits enthroned in the hearts of the people; and I have no fear of danger from any such wide extension of the suffrage as we now contemplate. I do not believe that it would lead to any change in the form of our government. I say, God forbid that it should. I sincerely hope, if there is to be a revolution in this country in consequence of which the monarchical form of government shall give way to any other form, that that revolution may happen when I shall be no longer here to witness it, for the generation that makes such a revolution will not be the generation to reap the fruits of it. I do not believe that the people of this country have any desire to change the form of their government, nor do I join with those who think that the wide extension of the suffrage, of which we now speak, would either altogether or generally affect a change in the class of persons chosen as representatives. I do not think that there would be any great change in that respect. The people would continue, as at present, to choose their representatives from the easy class,—among the men of fortune; but I believe this extension of the suffrage would tend to bring not only the legislation of this House, but the proceedings of the Executive Government, more in harmony with the wants, wishes, and interests of the people. I believe that the householders, to whom the present proposition would give votes, would advocate a severe economy in the Government. I do not mean to say that a wide extension of the suffrage might not be accompanied by mistakes on some matters in the case of some of the voters; such mistakes will always occur; but I have a firm conviction that they will make no mistake in the matter of economy and retrenchment. I have a firm conviction, that, if proper political power were given to the people, the taxation necessary for the expenditure of the State would be more equitably levied.

What are the two things most wanted? What would the wisest political economists, or the gravest philosophers, if they sat down to consider the circumstances of this country, describe as the two most pressing necessities of our condition? What but greater economy, and a more equitable apportionment of the taxation of the country? I mean, that you should have taxation largely removed from the indirect sources from which it is at present levied, and more largely imposed on realised property. This retrenchment and due apportionment of taxation constitute the thing most wanted at present for the safety of the country; and this the people, if they had the franchise now proposed, would, from the very instinct of selfishness, enable you to accomplish. Let me not be mistaken. I do not wish to lay all the taxation on property. I would not do injustice to any one class for the advantage of another; but I wish to see reduced, in respect to consumable articles, those obstructions which are offered by the Customs and Excise duties. You ought to diminish the duties on tea and wine, and you ought to remove every exciseman from the land, if you can; and I believe that the selfish instinct—to call it by no other name—of the great body of the people, if they had the power to bring their will to bear on this House, would accomplish these objects, so desirable to be effected in this country.

Then where is the danger of giving the people practically their theoretical share of political power? We shall be told that we cannot settle the question by household suffrage; and I admit that by no legislation in this House in 1848 can you settle any question. You cannot tell what another generation or Parliament may do. But, if you enfranchise the householders in this country, making the number of voters 3,000,000 or 4,000,000, whereas at present they are only about 800,000, will any one deny that by so doing you will conciliate the great mass of the people to the institutions of the country, and that, whatever disaffection might arise from any remaining exclusion (and I differ from the hon. and learned Gentleman, who thought that more disaffection would thereby be created), your institutions will be rendered stronger by being garrisoned by 3,000,000 or 4,000,000 of voters in place of 800,000?

The hon. and learned Gentleman has expended a great deal of his eloquence on the question of electoral districts. Now, when you approach a subject like this, with a disposition to treat it in the cavilling spirit of a special pleader, dealing with chance expressions of your opponents, rather than looking at the matter in a broad point of view, it is easy to raise an outcry and a prejudice on a political question. But, as I understand the object of the hon. Member for Montrose, it is this,—he wishes for a fairer apportionment of the representation of the people. He said that he did not want the country marked out into parallelograms or squares, or to separate unnecessarily the people from their neighbours; and I quite agree with the hon. Member for Montrose, that his object can be attained without the disruption of such ties. The hon. and learned Gentleman dealt with this question as if we were going to cut up some of the ancient landmarks of the country, as the Reform Act cut up some counties in two, and laid out new boundaries. But I will undertake to do all that the hon. Member for Montrose proposes to do without removing the boundary of a single county or parish; and, if I do not divide parishes or split counties, you will admit that I am preserving sufficiently the old ties. I must say that I consider this question of the reapportionment of Members to be one of very great importance.

When you talk to me of the franchise, and ask me whether I will have a man to vote who is twenty-one years of age, and has been resident for six or twelve months, whether a householder or lodger, there is no principle I can fall back upon in order to be sure that I am right in any one of those matters. I concur with those who say that they do not stand on any natural right at all. I know no natural right to elect a Member to this House. I have a legal right, enabling me to do so, while six-sevenths of my fellow-countrymen want it. I do not see why they should not have the same right as myself; but I claim no natural right; and, if I wished to cavil with the advocates for universal suffrage, I should deal with them as I once good-humouredly dealt with a gentleman who was engaged in drawing up the Charter. He asked me to support universal suffrage on the ground of principle; and I said, 'If it is a principle that a man should have a vote because he pays taxes, why should not, also, a widow who pays taxes, and is liable to serve as churchwarden and overseer, have a vote for Members of Parliament?' The gentleman replied that he agreed with me, and that on this point, in drawing up the Charter, he had been outvoted; and I observed that he then acted as I did,—he gave up the question of principle, and adopted expediency.

I say that, with respect to the franchise, I do not understand natural right; but with respect to the apportionment of Members, there is a principle, and the representation ought to be fairly apportioned according to the same principle. What is the principle you select? I will not take the principle of population, because I do not advocate universal suffrage; but I take the ground of property. How have you apportioned the representation according to property? The thing is monstrous. When you look into the affair, you will see how property is misrepresented in this House; and I defy any one to stand up and say a word in defence of the present system. The hon. Member for Buckinghamshire alluded the other night to the representation of Manchester and Buckinghamshire, and made a mockery of the idea of Manchester having seven representatives. Now, judging from the quality of the Members already sent to this House by Manchester, I should wish to have not only seven such Members, but seventy times seven such. I will take the hon. Member's own favourite county of Buckingham for the sake of illustration, and compare it with Manchester. The borough of Manchester is assessed to the poor on an annual rental of 1,200,000l., while Buckinghamshire is assessed on an annual rental only of 760,000l. The population of Buckinghamshire is 170,000, and of Manchester 240,000; and yet Buckinghamshire has eleven Members, and Manchester only two. The property I have mentioned in respect to Manchester does not include the value of the machinery; and, though I will grant that the annual value of land will represent a larger real value of capital than the annual value of houses, yet, when you bear in mind that the machinery in Manchester, and an enormous amount of accumulated personal property, which goes to sustain the commerce of the country, is not included in the valuation I have given, I think I am not wrong in stating that Manchester, with double the value of real property, has only two Members, while Buckinghamshire has eleven. At the same time, the labourers in Buckinghamshire receive only 9s. or 10s. a week, while the skilled operatives of Manchester are getting double the sum, and are, consequently, enabled to expend more towards the taxation of the country.

If this were merely a question between the people of Buckinghamshire and Manchester,—if it were merely a question whether the former should have more political power than the latter, the evil would in some degree be mitigated, if the power really resided with the middle and industrious classes; but, on looking into the state of the representation of the darling county of the hon. Member, I find that the Members are not the representatives of the middle and industrious classes, for I find that eight borough Members are so distributed as, by an ingenious contrivance, to give power to certain landowners to send Members to Parliament. I will undertake to show that there is not more than one Member in Buckinghamshire returned by popular election, and also that three individuals in Buckinghamshire nominate a majority of the Members. If called on, I can name them. What justice is there in, not Buckinghamshire, but two or three landowners there, having the power to send Members to this House to tax the people of Manchester? When this matter was alluded to on a former occasion, the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire treated the subject lightly and jocosely, as regarded the right of Manchester to send its fair proportion of Members to this House, and that jocularity was cheered with something like frantic delight in this House; but I think this is the last time such an argument will be so received. I maintain that Manchester has a right to its fair proportion of representatives, and I ask for no more.

I will now refer to the case of the West Riding of Yorkshire. That contains a population of 1,154,000; and Wilts contains a population of 260,000. The West Riding is rated to the poor on an annual rental of 3,576,000l., and Wilts on an annual rental of 1,242,000l., yet each returns eighteen Members; and when I refer to Wilts, I find six of its boroughs down in Dod's Parliamentary Companion as openly, avowedly, and notoriously under the influence of certain patrons, who nominate the Members. I hold in my hand a list of ten boroughs, each returning two Members to Parliament, making in all twenty Members; and I have also a list of ten towns in the West Riding of Yorkshire which do not return any Member; yet the smallest place in the latter list is larger than the largest of the ten boroughs having two Members each. Is there any right or reason in that? According to a plan which I have seen made out, if the representation were fairly apportioned, the West Riding of Yorkshire should have thirty Members, whereas it now has eighteen only. We do not wish to disfranchise any body of the people,—we want to enfranchise largely; but what we would give the people should be a reality, and they should not be mocked by such boroughs as Great Marlow, where an hon. Gentleman returns himself and his cousin; as High Wycombe, Buckingham, and Aylesbury; but there should be a free constituency, protected by the ballot.

With respect to Middlesex, the assessment to the poor is on an annual rental of 7,584,000l.; and the assessment of Dorsetshire is on an annual rental of 799,000l. Yet they both have fourteen Members, while the amount of the money levied for the poor in one year in Middlesex is as large within 6l. as the whole amount of the property assessed to the poor in Dorsetshire. The assessment to the poor in Marylebone is on an annual rental of 1,666,000l., being more than the annual rental of two counties returning thirty Members. Why should not the metropolis have a fair representation according to its property? I believe that the noble Lord at the head of the Government did intimate a suspicion of the danger of giving so large a number of Members to the metropolis as would be the result of a proportional arrangement. I am surprised at the noble Lord holding such an opinion, as he is himself an eminent example and proof, that the people of the metropolis might be entrusted safely with such a power. I observed, that in the plan for the representation in Austria, it was proposed to give Vienna a larger than a mere proportional share in the representation, because it was assumed that the metropolis was more enlightened than the other parts of the country.

Now, notwithstanding all that may be said to the contrary, I maintain that the inhabitants of your large cities—and of a metropolis especially—are better qualified to exercise the right of voting than the people of any other part of the empire; for they are generally the most intelligent, the most wealthy, and the most industrious. I believe that the people of this metropolis are the hardest-working people in England. But where is the difficulty? An hon. Gentleman has objected to large constituencies, on the ground that Members would then be returned by great mobs. Now, my idea is, that you make a mob at a London election by having too large a constituency. Some of your constituencies are too large, while others are too small. Take Marylebone, or Finsbury, with a population of between 200,000 and 300,000; the people there cannot confer with their neighbours as to the election of representatives. But you may give a fair proportion of representatives to the metropolis; and you may lay out the metropolis in wards, as you do for the purpose of civic elections. I do not undertake to say what number of electors should be apportioned to each ward, that is a matter of detail; but if the subject were approached honestly, it would not be difficult to come to a satisfactory conclusion. I believe that if the metropolis were laid out in districts for the election of Members of Parliament, the people would make a better choice of representatives than any other part of the kingdom. Do not be alarmed by supposing that they would send violent Radicals to Parliament. You would have some of your rich squares, and of your wealthy districts, sending aristocrats: while other parts of the metropolis would return more democratic Members. It is a chimera to suppose that the character of the representation would be materially changed; the matter only requires to be looked into to satisfy any one that it is a chimera. I tell you that you cannot govern this country peaceably, while it is notorious that the great body of the people, here in London and elsewhere, are excluded from their fair share of representation in this House. I do not say that you should have an increased number of representatives. I think we have quite as many representatives in this House as we ought to have; but if you continue the present number of representatives, you must give a larger proportion to those communities which possess the largest amount of property, and diminish the number of Members for those parts of the country which have now an undue number of representatives. You cannot deal with the subject in any other way; and you cannot prevent the growing conviction in the public mind, that whatever franchise you may adopt—whether a household or a 10l. franchise—you must have a more fair apportionment of Members of this House. Do not suppose that this is a mere question of mathematical nicety. No; where the power is, to that power the Government will gravitate. The power is now in the hands of persons who nominate the Members of this House,—of large proprietors, and of individuals who come here representing small constituencies. It is they who rule the country; to them the Government are bound to bow. But let the great mass of the householders, let the intelligence of the people be heard in this House, and the Prime Minister may carry on his Government with more security to himself, and with more security to the country, than he can do with the factitious power he now possesses.

Upon the ballot I will say but a few words; and for this reason—because it stands at the head of those questions which are likely to be carried in this House. I mean, that it has the most strength in this House and in the country among the middle classes, and particularly among the farmers, and among persons living in the counties. Some hon. Gentlemen say, 'Oh!' They are not farmers who say 'Oh, oh!' they are landlords. The farmers are in favour of the ballot. I will take the highest farming county—Lincolnshire. Will any one tell me that the farmers of Lincolnshire are not in favour of the ballot? I say this question stands first; it will be carried. Why, no argument is attempted to be urged against it, except the most ridiculous of all arguments, that it is un-English. I maintain that, so far from the ballot being un-English, there is more voting by ballot in England than in all the countries in Europe. And why? Because you are a country of associations and clubs,—of literary, scientific, and charitable societies,—of infirmaries and hospitals,—of great joint-stock companies,—of popularly governed institutions; and you are always voting by ballot in these institutions. Will any hon. Member come down fresh from the Carlton Club, where the ballot-box is ringing every week, to say that the ballot is un-English? Will gentlemen who resort to the ballot to shield themselves from the passing frown of a neighbour whom they meet every day, use this sophistical argument, and deny the tenant the ballot, that he may protect himself not only against the frowns but against the vengeance of his landlord?

As to triennial Parliaments, I need not say much on that subject. This, also, will be carried. We do not appoint people to be our stewards in private life for seven years; we do not give people seven years' control over our property. Let me remind the House that railway directors are elected every year. Something has been said by the Prime Minister as to the preference of annual to triennial Parliaments. I think I can suggest a mode of avoiding all difficulty on this point. Might it not be possible to adopt the system pursued at municipal elections—that one-third of the members should go out every year? I mention this only as a plan for which we have a precedent. If one-third of the Members of this House went out every year, you would have an opportunity of testing the opinion of the country, and avoiding the shocks and convulsions so much dreaded by some hon. Gentlemen.

I will only say one word, in conclusion, as to a subject which has been referred to by the hon. and learned member for Reading [Mr. Serjeant Talfourd] and the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire [Mr. Disraeli]. They complain that leagues and associations were formed out of doors, and yet in the same breath they claim credit for the country that it has made great advances and reforms. You glorify yourselves that you have abolished the slave-trade and slavery. The hon. and learned Gentleman has referred, with the warmth and glow of humanity by which he is distinguished, to the exertions which have been made to abolish the punishment of death. Whatever you have done to break down any abomination or barbarism in this country has been done by associations and leagues out of this House; and why? Because, since Manchester cannot have its fair representation in this House, it was obliged to organise a League, that it might raise an agitation through the length and breadth of the land, and in this indirect matter might make itself felt in this House. Well, do you want to get rid of this system of agitation? Do you want to prevent these leagues and associations out of doors? Then you must bring this House into harmony with the opinions of the people. Give the means to the people of making themselves felt in this House. Are you afraid of losing anything by it? Why, the very triumphs you have spoken of—the triumphs achieved out of doors—by reformers, have been the salvation of this country. They are your glory and exultation at the present moment. But is this not a most cumbrous machine?—a House of Commons, by a fiction said to be the representatives of the people, meeting here and professing to do the people's work, while the people out of doors are obliged to organise themselves into leagues and associations to compel you to do that work? Now, take the most absurd illustration of this fact which is occurring at the present moment. There is a confederation, a league, an association, or a society,—I declare I don't know by what fresh name it may have been christened, formed in Liverpool, a national confederation, at the head of which, I believe, is the brother of the right hon. Member for the University of Oxford, Mr. Gladstone, a gentleman certainly of sufficiently Conservative habits not to rush into anything of this kind, if he did not think it necessary. And what is the object of this association? To effect a reform of our financial system, and to accomplish a reduction of the national expenditure. Why, these are the very things for which this House assembles. This House is, par excellence, the guardian of the people's purse; it is their duty to levy taxes justly, and to administer the revenue frugally; but they discharge this duty so negligently, that there is an assembly in Liverpool associated in order to compel them to perform it, and that assembly is headed by a Conservative.

It is not with a view of overturning our institutions that I advocate these reforms in our representative system. It is because I believe that we may carry out those reforms from time to time, by discussions in this House, that I take my part in advocating them in this legitimate manner. They must be effected in this mode, or they must be effected, as has been the case on the Continent, by bayonets, by muskets, and in the streets. I am no advocate for such proceedings. I conceive that any man of political standing in this country—any Members of this House, for instance—who join in advocating the extension of the suffrage at this moment, are the real conservators of peace. So long as the great mass of the people of this country see that there are men in earnest who are advocating a great reform like this, they will wait, and wait patiently. They may want more; but so long as they believe that men are honestly and resolutely striving for reform, and will not be satisfied until they get it, the peace and safety of this country—which I value as much as any Conservative—are guaranteed. My object in supporting this motion is, that I may bring to bear upon the legislation of this House those virtues and that talent which have characterised the middle and industrious classes of this country. If you talk of your aristocracy and your traditions, and compel me to talk of the middle and industrious classes, I say it is to them that the glory of this country is owing. You have had your government of aristocracy and tradition; and the worst thing that ever befell this country has been its government for the last century-and-a-half. All that has been done to elevate the country has been the work of the middle and industrious classes; and it is because I wish to bring such virtue, such intelligence, such industry, such frugality, such economy into this House, that I support the Motion of the hon. Member for Montrose.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.