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

Parliamentary Reform - Mr. Disraeli's Resolutions: The Government Explanation of them - The Secret History of the Proceedings of the Government - Sir John Pakington's Revelations - Secession of three Cabinet Ministers - Ministerial change of front - Meeting of Conservatives - Mr. Disraeli's Speech m the House - "Personal Rating" - Mr. Gladstone's exposure of the Ministerial Statistics - Attitude of the Liberals - The Second Reading- Meeting at Mr. Gladstone's House - Mr. Coleridge's " Instruction" - The "Tea Room Cabal" - The Bill in Committee - Mr. Gladstone's Defeat - Concessions of the Government - The Dual Vote, &c. - The Compound Householder - Continued Debates and Divisions - Mr. Hodgkinson's Amendment: Accepted by the Government - The Third Reading - Violent Attacks by Lord Cranborne and Mr. Lowe - The Bill in the House of Lords - The Lords' Amendments: Their Reception by the Commons - Final Passing of the Bill - Triumphant Position of Mr. Disraeli.
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On the 11th of February, 1867, in pursuance of the pledges given by the new Ministry in their various speeches before the beginning of the session, the House of Commons was once more invited to consider the question of Reform, under the guidance, however, of Mr. Disraeli, instead of Mr. Gladstone. The Conservative party naturally felt somewhat strange to the work; they had turned out the Liberal Government upon various pleas, all of which they were to abandon, more or less completely, before the close of the session of '67; they had no such traditional or inherited policy to guide them in framing a popular Reform Bill as the Liberals had; and they had a dread of the Opposition, which, considering their own conduct towards the defeated Reform Bill of the preceding year, was, perhaps, not unreasonable. Still the fact, that the whole question had been already fully canvassed and discussed, - that the House had become familiarised with the details as well as the general principles of Reform, - and that its members had, one and all, with more or less sincerity, it is true, pledged themselves to Reform in some shape or other, was in their favour. When the pros and cons of the situation are considered, the course adopted by Mr. Disraeli, in introducing the subject, seems, at first sight, both natural and ingenious. " We desire no longer," said the Conservatives, " to risk the settlement of the whole question upon a question of detail; the House is pledged to Reform; let us then, instead of dictating to it a definite policy, instead of bringing in a bill of our own immediately, endeavour to ascertain the general sense of the House upon disputed points before framing it, that we may not frame it in the dark, and meet the common fate of those Ministries which have hitherto dealt with the subject." This was the meaning of Mr. Disraeli's famous Resolutions, which he explained to the House in his opening speech. In this speech, throughout ingeniously indefinite, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer provided such men as Mr. Lowe, possessing a keen sense of humour, with ample food for ridicule. In the first place, said Mr. Disraeli, let us lay aside party strife and passions in the consideration of this great subject. " Parliamentary Reform ought no longer to be a question involving the fate of Ministries." It was as if he had said, " No doubt we have turned you out upon this question; last year we held no such doctrine with regard to you; but we implore you do not retaliate upon us. Now that we have got in, let us stay in, and treat us kindly." Mr. Disraeli proceeded to carry his appeal cid misericordiam still further. " The position of the House of Commons," he said, " with regard to this question of a Parliamentary Reform Bill, is different from that which exists between the House and all other great questions which are introduced and initiated in this House by a body of men who are in the possession of office, or are candidates for office. The House of Commons has incurred a peculiar responsibility in this matter of Reform; and is it not wise to consider whether it could not pursue a course' which, while not relieving the Government from its due share of responsibility, would ensure them against a repetition of former mishaps P We presume to recommend to the House that before we introduce a bill, we may be permitted, upon its main principles, and upon other points of great and paramount importance, to ask the opinion of the House, and see whether they will sanction the course which we recommend." The opinion of the House was to be asked by means of resolutions, which Mr. Disraeli proceeded to lay upon the table. After the resolutions had been sufficiently debated, the Government promised to bring forward a bill embodying the general opinion of the House, so far as the discussions on the resolutions should have enabled them to ascertain it. Mr. Gladstone, in answer to Mr. Disraeli, reproached the Government with wishing to shift the whole responsibility in the matter from their own shoulders to those of the House. The principle of Ministerial responsibility was one sanctioned by long usage, and was not to be lightly abandoned. With regard to the resolutions themselves, though at first sight he disliked the plan, he was willing to give them a fair trial, provided they were not mere vague preliminary declarations which it would be of no practical advantage to discuss. The resolutions appeared in the papers next day, and produced general disappointment. It was felt that the Government, in spite of all their protestations, were really " angling for a policy," and that they were treating neither the House nor the nation straightforwardly. The resolutions were as follows: -

  1. " That the number of electors for counties and boroughs in England and Wales ought to be increased.
  2. " That such increase may best be effected by both reducing the value of the qualifying tenement in counties and boroughs, and by adding other franchises not dependent on such value.
  3. " That while it is desirable that a more direct representation should be given to the labouring class, it is contrary to the constitution of this realm to give to any one class or interest a predominating power over the rest of the community.
  4. "That the occupation franchise in counties and boroughs shall be based upon the principle of rating." It will be remembered that it was upon this very question of rating, as against rental, that the Russell Ministry had been thrown out of office in the preceding year. After Lord Dunkellin's amendment, the Conservatives were bound to make the principle of rating a part of any scheme brought forward by them. How much they were obliged to modify it before the end of the matter, and how amply justified Mr. Gladstone's arguments against it were proved to be, will be seen hereafter.
  5. " That the principle of plurality of votes, if adopted by Parliament, would facilitate the settlement of the borough franchise on an extensive basis.
  6. " That it is expedient to revise the existing distribution of seats.
  7. " That in such revision it is not expedient that any borough now represented in Parliament should be wholly disfranchised.
  8. " That in revising the existing distribution of seats, this House will acknowledge, as its main consideration, the expediency of supplying representation to places not at present represented, and which may be considered entitled to that privilege.
  9. "That it is expedient that provision should be made for the better prevention of bribery and corruption at elections.
  10. "That it is expedient that the system of registration of voters in counties should be assimilated as far as possible to that which prevails in boroughs.
  11. " That it shall be open to every parliamentary elector, if he thinks fit, to record his vote by means of a polling paper, duly signed and authenticated.
  12. "That provision be made for diminishing the distance which voters have to travel for the purpose of recording their votes, so that no expenditure for such purpose shall hereafter be legal.
  13. "That a humble address be presented to Her Majesty, praying Her Majesty to issue a Royal Commission to form and submit to the consideration of Parliament a scheme for new and enlarged boundaries of the existing parliamentary boroughs where the population extends beyond the limits now assigned to such boroughs; and to fix, subject to the decision of Parliament, the boundaries of such other boroughs as Parliament may deem fit to be represented in this House."

The House and the country were naturally dissatisfied with such vague statements as these, and between the 11th and the 25th February, when Mr. Disraeli promised something more definite, many attempts were made to induce the Government to declare themselves more plainly. "The Resolutions of the Government," said Mr. Lowe, later on, borrowing a happy illustration from the " Vicar of Wakefield," " have no more to do with the plan of the Government than Squire Thornhill's three famous postulates had to do with the argument he had with Moses Primrose, when, in order to controvert the right of the clergy to tithes, he laid down the principles - that a whole is greater than its part; that whatever is, is; and that three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles." However, Mr. Disraeli kept his secret, in spite of attacks from Mr. Ayrton and arguments from Mr. Gladstone, till the night of the 25th, when he rose to explain the resolutions, and to suggest certain constructions of them on the part of the Government; a very different thing, it will be understood, from bringing in a bill by which the framers of it are bound in the main to stand or fall. In the first place, then, Government proposed to create four new franchises - an educational franchise, to include persons who had taken a university degree, ministers of religion, and others; a savings-bank franchise; a franchise dependent upon the possession of 50 in the public funds; and a fourth dependent upon the payment of 1 yearly in direct taxation. By these means the Government calculated that about 82,000 persons would be enfranchised.

In boroughs the occupier's qualification was to be reduced to 6 rateable value, and in counties to 20 rateable value - reductions which it was supposed would admit about 220,000 new voters. With regard to the redistribution of seats, four boroughs, convicted of extensive corruption, and returning seven members between them, were to be wholly disfranchised; and in addition to these seven members, Mr. Disraeli appealed " to the patriotism of the smaller boroughs " to provide him with twenty-three more, by means of partial disfranchisement. The thirty seats thus obtained were to be divided as follows: - Fifteen new seats were to be given to counties, fourteen to boroughs, an additional member was to be given to the Tower Hamlets, and one member to the London University. The points of likeness and unlikeness between this scheme and that of the Liberals in 1866 will be easily perceived by any one who takes the trouble to glance back over the latter.

This meagre and unsatisfactory measure, however, was short-lived; and the secret history of it, as it was afterwards told by various members of the Government, affords an amusing insight into the mysteries of Cabinet Councils. The fact was that before the beginning of the session, and during the time that the thirteen resolutions were lying on the table of the House, two Reform schemes were under the consideration of the Government, " one of which," said Lord Derby, " was more extensive than the other." When it was seen that the House would have nothing to say to the resolutions, and that a bill must be brought in without delay, it became necessary to choose between these two schemes. At a Cabinet meeting on Saturday, February 23, the more extensive one, based upon household suffrage, guarded by various precautions, was, as it was supposed, unanimously adopted, and Mr. Disraeli was commissioned to explain it to the House of Commons on the following Monday, the 25th. The rest of the story may be told in Sir John Pakington's words.

" You all know," he said, addressing his constituents at Droitwich, "that, on the 23rd February, a Cabinet Council decided on the Reform Bill which was to be proposed to Parliament. On Monday the 25th, at two o'clock in the afternoon, Lord Derby was to address the whole Conservative party in Downing Street. At half- past four in the afternoon of that day - I mention the hour because it is important - the Chancellor of the Exchequer was to explain the Reform Bill in the House of Commons. When the Cabinet Council rose on the previous Saturday, it was my belief that we were a unanimous Cabinet on the Reform Bill then determined upon (Lord Derby, however, afterwards stated that General Peel, one of the three seceding ministers, had some time before the Cabinet of the 23rd expressed his strong objections to the Reform Bill then adopted, but had consented to waive his objections for the sake of the unity of the Ministry). As soon as the Council concluded, Lord Derby went to Windsor to communicate with Her Majesty on the Reform Bill, and I heard no more of the subject till the Monday morning. On the Monday, between eleven and twelve o'clock, I received an urgent summons to attend Lord Derby's house at half-past twelve o'clock, on important business. At that hour I reached Lord Derby's house, but found there only three or four members of the Cabinet. No such summons had been anticipated, and consequently some of the ministers were at their private houses, some at their offices, and it was nearly half-past one before the members of the Cabinet could be brought together. As each dropped in, the question was put, " What is the matter? Why are we convened? " and as they successively came in, they were informed that Lord Cranborne, Lord Carnarvon, and General Peel had seceded, objecting to the details of the bill which we thought they had adopted on the Saturday. Imagine the difficulty and embarrassment in which the Ministry found themselves placed. It was then past two o'clock. Lord Derby was to address the Conservative party at half-past two; at half-past four Mr. Disraeli was to unfold the Reform scheme (adopted on the previous Saturday) before the House of Commons. Literally, we had not half an hour - we had not more than ten minutes - to make up our minds as to what course the Ministry were to adopt. The public knows the rest. We determined to propose, not the bill agreed to on the Saturday, but an alternative measure, which we had contemplated in the event of our large and liberal scheme being rejected by the House of Commons. Whether, if the Ministry had had an hour for consideration, we should have taken that course was, perhaps, a question. But we had not that hour, and were driven to decide upon a line of definite action within the limits of little more than ten minutes."

At two o'clock, then, the change of front was determined on, for the sake of keeping the Ministry together, and propitiating the seceding members; and at half-past four Mr. Disraeli rose in his place in the House of Commons, furnished with arguments and statistics wholly different from those which five or six hours before he had intended to make use of. A notable instance of that ready ability which has seldom or never deserted him throughout his political career.

It was soon felt, however, by the Ministry, that this condition of things was unsound, and could not last. The measure explained on the 25th satisfied neither Conservatives nor Liberals. A large meeting of Liberals, held at Mr. Gladstone's house, decisively condemned it; while from their own friends and supporters the Government received strong and numerous protests against it. What was to be done? Lord Derby once more called his Government together, and they agreed to retrace their steps, even at the cost of the three objecting ministers. " To save the ship of Reform, the captain and crew gallantly sacrificed three Jonahs to their own safety." Upon the 4th of March, Lord Derby, in the House of Lords, and Mr. Disraeli, in the Commons, announced the resignation of Lord Cranborne, Lord Carnarvon, and General Peel, the withdrawal of the measure proposed on the 25th, and the adoption by the Government of a far more liberal policy than that represented. Both in the House and in the country there were naturally some rather free criticisms passed upon a Government who, three weeks before the announcement of a Reform Bill brought forward by them, had not come to an agreement upon its most essential provisions, and upon a sudden emergency, and to keep their members together, adopted and brought forward a makeshift measure, which their own sense of expediency, no less than public opinion, afterwards obliged them to withdraw. General Peel's explanation of his resignation of office, in the House of Commons, on the 5th of March, may be quoted as an interesting expression of the real feeling of the older Conservatives with regard to Reform. Had he considered the Government pledged to Reform, he said, when he was offered a place in it in the preceding year, he should certainly not have joined it. But no pledge was required of him, and he was informed of no definite plan of action on their part. As time went on he became convinced, like the rest of his colleagues, that Reform in some shape was inevitable; but he had strong opinions of his own as to the lawful extent of Reform; and when the resolutions were drawn up, the fifth resolution made him begin to doubt. After Mr. Disraeli's speech on the 11th of February, he saw plainly that the tendency of the Government was towards a far more liberal Reform policy than he was himself prepared to support. As long, however, as he imagined himself to be the only objector in the Cabinet, he consented to waive his objections - at least, temporarily; but when he found that Lord Cranborne and Lord Carnarvon, after a careful examination of the figures, had come to the same conclusion, and felt the same fear as himself, he at once decided to withdraw from the Ministry rather than have anything to do with passing what he could not but look upon as a measure of household suffrage.

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