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Chapter XVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9


The Reform Question: Its History since 1832: It becomes a Government Question - Statistics Collected - The Compound Householder - Meeting of Parliament - The Government Reform Bill: Great Speech of Mr. Lowe: Formation of the " Cave " - The Easter Recess - Mr. Gladstone at Liverpool - The Debate on the Second „ Reading: Mr. Gladstone's Speech: Lord Grosvenor's Amendment; Mr. Lowe's support of it: The Division - The Redistribution Bill: Concessions of the Government: Continued Contest and frequent Divisions: Small Majorities for Government: Mr. Lowe on Redistribution: Tactics of the Opposition - The Question of Rateable Value: Mr. Ward Hunt's Motion is Defeated: Lord Dunkellin's Motion: Speech of Mr. Gladstone - Defeat of the Government - Resignation of the Ministry: Mr. Gladstone's Statement.
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During the whole of the year 1866, two great subjects occupied everybody's mind - the subject of the war in Germany, its antecedents and its consequences; and the subject of Parliamentary Reform at home. The history of the former will be told in a future chapter; but we may proceed at once to tell the story of the unsuccessful attempt of Lord Russell's Government to carry the Reform Bill, and of the serious popular agitation which followed upon their defeat. And first we may briefly recapitulate the history of the Reform question since the original Reform Bill of 1832.

That Reform Bill aimed at redressing the disorder and confusion into which, through the irregular restriction of the suffrage to certain corporate bodies, and through similar causes, the franchise had fallen. Originally, the right of electing representatives had belonged to all freemen of the town or shire; but gradually the very term "freeman" had become limited in the sense in which we still talk of " the freedom of the city; " that is, had become applicable - so far, at least, as it implied a right to the franchise - to the "freemen," or members of a close corporation. In a similar way, other limitations had crept in; so that, at the time of the Reform Bill, the " representation of the people " really meant the representation of a number of " deserted villages," owned by territorial grandees, while many great and growing towns were left without a voice in Parliament. Power was wholly in the hands of what Mr. Disraeli, in 1867, called "a heartless oligarchy." To remedy this (if we may still quote Mr. Disraeli), "the Whig party seized the occasion that was before them, and threw the Government of the country into the hands of the middle class." A property qualification was introduced, and the old rights of privileged corporations were either destroyed or greatly lessened. The occupation of a house worth £10 annually became the qualification for the borough franchise. The result of this was twofold: a vast number of voters of the upper and middle classes were enfranchised; and, on the other hand, a considerable number of the working class, who, under the old system, had rights as " scot and lot voters," &c.. were positively disfranchised. As time passed on, and as the working classes became at once more numerous and better educated, the imperfections of the Act which excluded them from the franchise began to be felt. Statesmen on both sides of the House came to admit that, great as had been the results of the Act of 1832, it needed amendment. Lord John Russell, with whose name that of the Act of 1832 will be always associated, brought in a bill, in 1852, to reduce the borough franchise to £5, and the county franchise to tenants of lands rated at £20 annually. Again, when that bill had been dropped through the change of Ministry which happened in 1852, he brought in another similar one two years later, proposing to fix the standard at £6. That bill also fell through, on account of the Russian War, which came to absorb the attention of Parliament and the country. The question was not re-opened till 1859, when Mr. Disraeli introduced a bill into the House of Commons, proposing what was afterwards known as "lateral," instead of " vertical " extension. That is, lie gave a lodger franchise to persons who paid a high rent for their lodgings, a " savings-bank franchise " to persons who had a certain sum in deposits, and a " degree franchise " to persons who had taken an University degree. But he did not by this extend the right of voting downwards. He did not attempt to enfranchise the artisans. The Whig party saw this, and contrived to throw out his bill; and after the dissolution which followed they carried a vote of want of confidence. Lord Palmerston's Government, which then came into office, brought in a bill not very; much unlike that of which we are about to speak: it proposed a £6 franchise in boroughs, and a £10 franchise in counties; it also contemplated a limited redistribution of seats. The bill was in the end defeated on a collateral issue, and Lord John Russell withdrew it.

The cause of the defeat of the Bill of 1860 was undoubtedly the indifferent attitude of Lord Palmerston. In 1865, as has been told in a former chapter, Mr. Baines brought in a bill, which was defeated. Soon after, Lord Palmerston died, and the principal barrier to a successful bill was removed. Even before his death, in the months that were spent in canvassing for the general election, "both among Liberal and Tory candidates," said Mr. Bright, "the question of Reform was mentioned in some way or other, either in their written or spoken addresses to their constituents." But when, after the news arrived that the veteran Prime Minister had died, Lord Russell succeeded to his place, and Mr. Gladstone took the position of unfettered leader of the House of Commons, it was at once known that Reform was to be immediately approached as a Government question.

The whole of the autumn and winter of 1865 was spent by the Government in collecting statistics and an enormous mass of general information, on the subject of borough and county constituencies, for future use. The machinery of the various Poor Law Unions throughout England was set in motion, and statistics poured in. The task of arranging them was given to Mr. Lambert, well known for his special knowledge of electoral questions, and to him was owing the blue-book of electoral statistics which appeared in the following year. Considerable light was thrown by it upon the question of the " compound householder," that unfortunate being, the product of the "Small Tenements Act," over whom the battle was to rage so fiercely in 1867. The " compound householders " are " the tenants in towns whose rates under various local and general Acts are paid, not by themselves, but by their landlords." And, as the Reform Act of 1832 had made burgess suffrage depend upon the payment of rates, largo numbers of such tenants, persons occupying £10 houses and otherwise qualified to vote, were excluded from the franchise at every election, on the ground of the non-payment of rates. " The overseers," said Mr. Bright, in 1860, "refuse in the majority of cases to put anybody's name on the register who does not pay his own rates. They put the landlord on who pays the rates of a street, but the tenant's name is not entered. Therefore, when they come to make out the list of voters from their rate books, they find the names of the landlords, of course, but do not find the names of the tenants; and the tenants under these circumstances are left off the list, and actually disfranchised." The Parliament of 1860, however, refused to do anything for the "compound householder" and he remained a bone of contention up to the very last stages of the Reform controversy. The fact was, that, as has been truly said, " the subject was one of which a large section of the House of Commons was profoundly ignorant," even in 1866; and it required all the information supplied by Mr. Lambert's book, and all the debates in which he figured so prominently, to make the " compound householder " and his grievances really known to the public and to the Parliament which was to legislate for him. But, as Mr. Gladstone very well knew, without a repeal of the rate- paying clause of the Act of 1832, any further lowering of the property qualification for the franchise would be practically ineffectual, since it was the tenants occupying houses below the annual value of £10, the limit fixed in 1832, who came principally under the head of compound householders; that is to say, whose rates were compounded for by their landlord, and paid by him to the parish, instead of by themselves. The object of this arrangement between the parish and the landlords was to secure a more safe and regular payment of rates than it would have been otherwise possible to obtain; indeed, the parish! was willing to accept a reduced rate from the landlord in consideration of this greater security of payment and convenience of collection. The case then stood thus: Under the Small Tenements Act, landlords were allowed, if the parish wished it, to compound for their tenants' rates, paying the rates to the parish, and reimbursing themselves by a corresponding increase of rent from the tenant; in consequence of this arrangement it happened that such tenants did not appear upon the rate books, which only register personal and actual ratepayers; the Reform Bill of 1832 refused the franchise to all who were not ratepayers, and the electoral officers, in most cases, considered nobody a ratepayer whose name was not upon the rate books; consequently, hundreds of persons were disfranchised by no fault or disqualification of theirs, but simply by " the conflict between the ratepaying clause (of the first Reform Act) and the local practice of rate collectors." It would have been well if the House of j Commons had laid these facts accurately to heart before! entering upon the Reform debates of 1866 and 1867; much j blundering and misconception would have been prevented J had they done so. With regard to the proportion of artisans j on the register, the statistics given in Mr. Lambert's book j gave rise to much debate. According to them, the pro- i portion of artisans to the rest of the electors was 26 per cent.; or, in other words, 128,603 out of 488,920 persons on the borough register of England and Wales came under the definition of mechanics and artisans. It was, however, maintained that in many towns the number o£ artisans, properly so called, had been much overrated - a mistake which seems very possible when one considers the difficulty of giving an accurate statistical account of the occupations of the poorer classes in large towns.

Parliament opened amid general interest and excitement with regard to Reform; and in March Mr. Gladstone brought in his "Bill to extend the Right of Voting at Elections of Members of Parliament in England and Wales." This important bill, upon which was based so much of the Reform Bill of 1867, was at first sight extremely moderate. In the first place, it advanced the property qualification for the borough franchise which Lord Russell's bill had fixed at £6 to £7 - a step which Mr. Gladstone explained as follows: " A £6 rental, calculated upon the most careful investigation, and after making every allowance and deduction that ought to be made, would give 242,000 new voters, whom I should take as all belonging to the working class. I should then arrive at a gross total of 428,000 persons " (that is, by adding together old and new electors), " which would, in fact, probably place the working classes in a clear majority upon the constituency. Well, that has never been the intention of any bill proposed in this House. I do not think it is a proposal that Parliament would ever adopt.... I do not think that we are called upon by any overruling or sufficient consideration, under the circumstances, to give over the majority of the town constituencies into the hands of the working class. We therefore propose to take the figure next above that which I have named - namely, a clear annual value of £7." Under the £7 qualification, it was calculated that 144,000 voters of the working class would' be admitted to the borough franchise - enough to give the artisan class its due weight and share in elections, without swamping the other elements of the constituency. Mr. Gladstone also proposed - by means of the abolition of the ratepaying clauses of the Reform Act of 1832, by registration of compound householders, and by a lodger franchise applicable to persons occupying rooms of the annual value of £10 - to further increase the number of borough voters by 60,000, giving a general increase of 204,000. To this increase must be added the proposed number of new county voters, " fourteen-pound tenants," 172,000 in number; and the depositors in savings-banks, &c., 24,000 more. In all, the number of new voters to be added by the bill was estimated at 400,000, equally divided, according to the belief of the framers of the bill, between the middle class and the artisans.

Mr. Gladstone introduced his bill on March 12, 1866, in a speech worthy of the occasion, though the beginning was marked by even more than his usual humility. At the outset he read the passage in the Queen's Speech which bore upon the question: - " When that information (relative to the existing rights of voting) is complete, the attention of Parliament will be called to the result thus obtained, with a view to such improvement in the laws which regulate the rights of voting in the election of members of the House of Commons as may strengthen our free institutions and conduce to the public welfare." Words like this gave Mr. Gladstone a good starting-point. He appealed to them and to the numerous occasions on which the same recommendation had been given from the throne. " By no less than five administrations, in no less than six speeches of the Queen anterior to that of the present year," had the need of Reform been suggested to the House. Such an accumulation of authority, he went on to say, seemed to excuse him from the necessity of arguing the abstract question of the advisability of Reform. He took that for granted. Again, Mr. Lambert's work had been so well and quickly done that the Government found itself ready to offer the bill at once, without waiting a year. But - here was the important point - partly with a view to break up the opposition to the Government proposals, partly to prevent the bill becoming unwieldy and its progress too slow, it was to consist really of two bills. The first, with which Mr. Gladstone proposed now to deal exclusively, was a Bill for the Extension of the Franchise; the second, to be considered after the settlement of the first, was to be concerned with that much more dangerous, much more personal matter, the Redistribution of Seats. Into Mr. Gladstone's details - as clear and as copious in this speech as they always were with him - we need not follow him, for we have already sketched the main provisions of his bill. He commended it to the House, hoping that "if, unhappily, issue was to be taken adversely upon the bill, it would be, above all, a plain and direct issue " - that is, whether jr not there ought to be enfranchisement downwards. In other words, Mr. Gladstone, though he had nearly ignored the general question of the need of Parliamentary Reform, courted discussion of that general question. He brought in his biU, not like a Trojan horse (he said) "approaching the walls of the sacred city, and filled with armed men, bent upon ruin, plunder, and conflagration," but rather as bringing recruits to the Parliamentary army - -children to the Parliamentary family. " Give to these persons," ran his peroration, " new interests in the Constitution; new interests which, by the beneficent processes of the law of nature and Providence, shall beget in them new attachment; for the attachment of the people to the Throne, the institutions, and the laws under which they live is, after all, more than gold and silver, and more than fleets and armies; at once the strength, the glory, and the safety of the land."

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Pictures for Chapter XVII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9

Sir Alexander Cockburn
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Westminster Hall
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Robert Lowe
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Benjamin Disraeli
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