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Political Tranquillity page 2


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It is scarcely possible to conceive a worse government than that which was restored by our arms in Syria. The public officers were supplied from Constantinople. Their characteristics were duplicity and venality of the grossest kind, while the characteristics of the Government were feebleness, irresolution, inactivity, faithlessness, and poverty. All over the country, access to the pashas, and a favourable decision on matters brought before them, were only obtainable by presents of money. The Custom House officers were regularly bribed to allow goods to pass at lower rates than the tariff, or without entering the Custom House at all. In the courts of justice decisions were openly bought, and no man who was not prepared to purchase the Cadi's favour need go there. In cases where disputes were carried to the pashas by the English and other consuls, the most profligate violation of promises and rights was made without shame or fear. The natural consequences were - insecurity of life and property, universal discontent, and contempt of the Government. The English occupation gave some relief while it lasted; and the common salutation addressed to an Englishman by a native on the road was, "May God send more of you! "

To return to events at home. The powers of the English Poor Law Commissioners, which had been limited to a period of five years, now expired. Accordingly, on the 29th of January, Lord John Russell moved in the House' of Commons for leave to bring in a bill to continue the Poor Law Commission for a time, and for the further amendment of the laws relating to the poor in England. The discontent felt by the opponents of the measure was fanned into a flame by a portion of the press, which published every case of alleged mismanagement on the part of those invested with authority under the act, in order to prevent the renewal of the powers of the Commission. Mr. Wakley denounced the principle of the act as harsh and tyrannical, and the Commission as both expensive and useless. He was surprised that a ministry calling itself reformed should propose the re-enactment of such a law, after the experience they had had of its pernicious and most cruel working. The middle classes considered that the workhouse had been made a place of torture instead of protection, with a view to deter the poor from asking any assistance. Among the poor, the abhorrence of the only species of relief the law allowed was still more strong. He knew instances in which they preferred death from starvation to relief in the workhouse, coupled with the condition of being separated from their children. Sir Francis Burdett believed that the system could never be made palatable to the people of England. Men who loved public liberty could never be reconciled to the tribunal of Somerset House, and he hoped that that, at all events, would be abolished. Mr. Hume, on the other hand, maintained that great benefits had been conferred by the law, and the House ought to do their best to make it still more useful. Leave was given to bring in the bill, but on the second reading being moved, a long and important debate took place. Mr. Disraeli said that it was impossible to conceive any resolution more deeply affecting the happiness of the people than the Poor Law. He was persuaded that the measure had produced much disaffection, and he moved the second reading that day six months. Mr. Wakley seconded the amendment. The principle of this act, he said, " was a base and ferocious one, tending to stimulate the bone and muscle of this country to forcible resistance." Whatever the cruelties of oppression committed in the poor-house, the pauper had no appeal, no redress - he could not go out to complain. Mr. G. Knight remarked that it was an easy road to popularity to inveigh against the Poor Law. The enemies of the poor were not those who sought to raise their wages and improve their habits, but those who deluded them with a false sympathy. Mr. Muntz disliked the law because it made no distinction between the respectable and the dissolute poor. Sir Robert Peel observed that they were too apt to forget the past evils, and to dwell only on the present. They forgot how the old system had demoralised the labouring classes. He was for the continuance of the present act; but he hoped the law would not be executed with strict rigidity, and that in matters of feeling, such as churchyard burials, there would be a due deference to the material sentiments and wishes of the people. Mr. Fox Maule held that a central management was necessary, because so little were the boards of guardians fitted for the uncontrolled exercise of their duties, that there was hardly any abuse of the old system of which some one or other of those boards had not solicited the restoration. Viscount Howick believed that the act of 1834 was one of the most beneficial measures ever passed, and he rejoiced that no one had gone so far as to propose the restoration of the old system. Out-door relief, given under pressure, would be an example detrimental to the formation of provident habits. It had been objected that men would endÔire much suffering rather than enter the workhouse - that was the very thing desired. It threw them on their own efforts and the efforts of their friends. It was only on the abandonment of those efforts under the old system that the character and condition of the English peasantry declined. Lord John Russell answered the various arguments which had been brought forward against the measure, and entreated the House not to admit the recurrence of so injurious a state of things as that which existed under the old law, nor to seek popularity by undermining the independence of the labourers. The term of ten years for the continuance of the Commission was considered too long, and five years were proposed instead. The bill, however, was carried by a majority of 147; the numbers being - ayes, 201; noes, 54. The principle of the measure was thus affirmed by a very large majority; but the subsequent discussions upon the several clauses occupied a large portion of the time of the House during the session.

Notwithstanding what had been said in Parliament to show that the poor law was not condemned by public opinion, or that it was not unpopular with the middle and working classes, a remarkable proof of the contrary was given in the month of April at Nottingham. That borough had always been a stronghold of the Liberal party, and without some extraordinary excitement there would have been very lilile chance for a Conservative candidate. Mr. Walter, however - formerly M.P. for Berkshire, and well known as a principal proprietor of the Times - announced himself as a candidate, in opposition to Mr. Larpent. The politics of Mr. Walter were then strongly Conservative, but he took his stand boldly upon the ground of an uncompromising hostility to the new Poor Law. All other differences being merged in sympathy with him upon this question, he carried the election by a majority of 238 - a result which produced quite a sensation throughout the country.

The Annual Report of the Irish Poor Law for this year showed that the total number of unions organised up to that time was 127, leaving only three to be formed, which would make the total number required. Fourteen of the workhouses had been completed. There had been an inquiry about the alleged falsification of certain returns from the offices of the Poor Law Commissioners in Ireland. The result was to fix the blame upon the Secretary of the Commissioners, but as he had resigned his office in consequence, it was stated, of ill-health, the House of Lords, which had taken up the matter, agreed to waive further proceedings against him.

The re-introduction by Lord Stanley of his bill to regulate the registration of voters in Ireland, led to much angry discussion, especially between the noble lord and Mr. O'Connell, who moved an amendment, which was rejected by a majority of 190. But two days after, Lord Morpeth brought in a Government bill for the same object. The main features of the plan were to abolish certificates; to make the register conclusive of the right to vote, except where disqualification subsequently appeared; to establish an annual revision of the registers, and to give a right of appeal equally to the claimant and the objector. The main point of difference between this and Lord Stanley's bill consisted in the tribunal to which the appeal was to be made. The Government proposed for this purpose the creation of a new court, consisting of three barristers of a certain standing. An additional feature of the Government bill was a proposal to settle the question of the basis of the franchise by fixing upon the Poor Law valuation as the standard; and the bill proposed to enact that every occupier of a tenement, under a holding of not less than fourteen years, of the annual value of £5, should have the right of voting previously enjoyed by persons who had a beneficial interest of £10. The Conservatives complained of the unfairness of thus introducing by surprise a fundamental alteration in the elective franchise of Ireland, founded upon principles unknown both in England and Scotland. It was represented as a new Reform Bill for Ireland, tacked on as a postscript to a bill for amending the registration. The £5 franchise, it was argued, would in effect be little short of the introduction of universal suffrage. On account of this addition Lord Stanley strongly opposed the second reading. Not the least objection to the bill was the circumstance that it had been introduced under false colours and under false pretences. He saw in it another step in that line of policy so peculiar to the present administration, which they had pursued from the first moment of their existence until now, not with, a view of achieving any practical result, but for the sake of enabling themselves to maintain for a few years a struggling existence, and delude a portion of their supporters with a plausible semblance of concession.

Lord Stanley's dissection of the measure, and his review of the political state of Ireland, which were very lengthened, and distinguished by remarkable ability, were calculated to produce a strong impression on the House. He was therefore answered by the chief secretary, Lord Morpeth. The clause which was called a postscript he regarded as the preface, or rather as the main portion of the text itself, without which the rest would have no chance of being brought to a satisfactory issue. Ministers were taunted with an excessive partiality to Ireland; but it should be recollected that the forty-shilling freeholders which existed in England had been disfranchised in Ireland to the number of 191,000. All the litigation in the registration courts, or before committees of the House, now turned upon questions of value; and the Irish judges themselves were divided in opinion as to the correct interpretation of the law, so that one interpretation would restrict the franchise materially, while another enlarged it. The Government were satisfied that even a £5 rating would exclude many voters of the class which the former act was intended to admit. He trusted that the House, acting in the spirit of that measure, would guard the honest voter against many difficulties devised by Lord Stanley; and that they would give the preference to a measure conciliatory to the great body of their Irish fellow-subjects. The debate was adjourned.

On the second night it was carried on with much spirit. Lord Howick approved of the principle of adopting the Poor Law rating as a test of value. He adverted to the progressive diminution of voters in Ireland, in consequence of the system which the landlords pursued of refusing to renew leases; and he thought the number would be still further reduced by Lord Stanley's bill. Mr. C. Buller asserted that the object of the opposite party was to re-establish the old Orange ascendancy; and he called forth expressions of disapprobation by advising the House to look not only to the strength and temper of the Irish people, but also to the critical state of our foreign relations. This, he said, was delicate ground to touch upon, but it should be remembered that all the great political acquisitions of Ireland had been made at such critical times. Mr. Macaulay next addressed the House, and the debate was again adjourned.

Mr. Serjeant Jackson, Mr. Thesiger, Mr. Milnes, and Sir James Graham spoke strongly against the bill, and the Government which introduced it, following Lord Stanley in attacking them for their Irish policy, and especially for their Irish appointments. Sir James Graham said that thirty-eight persons who had voted for repeal in 1834 had been since promoted. First on the list was Mr. Fitzsimon, a near relative of Mr. O'Connell, appointed to be clerk of the Hanaper; next Mr. Kennedy, now a slave commissioner at the Havannah; next Mr. Lynch, now a master in Chancery; then Mr. Maurice O'Connell, placed over the Registry Office in Dublin; Sir David Boche, made a baronet; and Mr. O'Connell himself, offered the office of chief baron in Ireland. Mr. Sheil replied to Sir James Graham, after which the debate was adj ourned the third time. On the fourth night Mr. O'Connell delivered a vehement speech, in which he alluded to the danger of a foreign war so long as Ireland continued dissatisfied.

Sir R. Peel rebuked Mr. O'Connell for dwelling on the old animosities between England and Ireland, and declared that it was a libel on the Irish people to say that they would not join England in resistance to a foreign enemy. Referring to the policy of Lord Melbourne's Government, Sir Robert Peel said he could not help thinking, that when the noble lord recalled to mind the declarations of 1834 and 1837, it would abate something of the feeling of satisfaction with which he contemplated his temporary triumph over the pressure of immediate difficulties. Something of dissatisfaction in reflecting on the small majority he might bring to his aid to-night must cast a gloom over the festivities with which, perhaps, he might celebrate the new compact and the new alliance, when the mortifying regret came across him that he had gained that support by receding from the position which had enabled him to arrest the progress of democratic principles, by stopping the progress of social improvement in Ireland, by encouraging hopes in this country, by rousing passions, and by exciting expectations which he could not disappoint without being the object of indignation, and which he could not gratify without being the fomenter of convulsion.

After an effective reply from Lord John Russell, the House divided on the respective merits of the rival bills, when the Government measure was carried by a majority of five. The result was hailed with cheers from both sides of the House^ the Opposition regarding the victory as little better than a defeat. Lord John Russell at first announced that he would proceed immediately with the measure, but he afterwards moved its postponement till the 23rd of April. Then Lord Stanley, amidst the vehement cheers of his party, declared that he would take the sense of the House upon the £5 rating.

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