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Chapter XXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 2


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" It was on February the 16th," said Lord Cranborne, " that I first heard of the proposition (household suffrage, guarded by various conditions) which I believe has now received the formal sanction of Her Majesty's Government. I then stated at once that it was a proposition which, to my mind, was inadmissible. I believed at the time that it was abandoned; but on the following Tuesday, the 19th I think, the proposition was revived, and revived with the statement of certain statistics.... After we separated on Saturday the 23rd, I naturally gave myself up to the investigation of those figures. The position was one of extreme difficulty. The materials which I had were, in my opinion, exceedingly scanty. The time I had for decision was forty-eight hours. On the Sunday evening I came to the conclusion, that although j the figures on the whole had a fair seeming, and although it appeared, when stated in block, that upon them the proposed reduction of the franchise might be safely adopted; yet it appeared to me that, with respect to a very large number of boroughs, they would scarcely operate practically as anything else than as household suffrage."

In these marchings and counter-marchings of the Government much valuable time had been thrown away. " No less than six weeks of the session," said Lord Grey, " have been wasted before any step whatever has been taken." The Conservative leaders, however, vehemently protested that it was no fault of theirs; and now that the confession had been made, and the three refractory colleagues got rid of, affairs did at length assume a business-like aspect. "It is our business now," said the Chancellor of the Exchequer, "to bring forward, as soon as we possibly can, the measure of Parliamentary Reform which, after such difficulties and such sacrifices, it will be my duty to introduce to the House. Sir, the House need not fear that there will be any evasion, any equivocation, any vacillation, or any hesitation in that measure."

In the interval between these Ministerial explanations and the production of the real Reform Bill in Parliament various great meetings of their supporters were held by the leaders of both parties. At a meeting held in Downing Street on the 15th, Lord Derby explained to 195 members of the Conservative party the distinctive features of the proposed bill. Startling as the contemplated changes in the franchise must have seemed to every Conservative present, only one dissenting voice was heard - that of Sir William Heathcote, who declared, in strong terms, that he wholly disapproved of the measure, and that he believed, if carried out, it would destroy the influence of rank, property, and education throughout the country by the mere force of numbers. The scheme, of which only a few fragments were as yet generally known, was given to the public on the 18th of March, when Mr. Disraeli described it at great length in the House. And although the measure at first proposed was so greatly altered in its passage through Parliament, that by the time it had become part of the law of England its original projectors must have had some difficulty in recognising it as theirs, it is worth while to take careful note of its various provisions as they were originally drawn up, that the action of the two great parties engaged throughout the subsequent struggle may be the more plainly understood.

The first quarter of Mr. Disraeli's speech was taken up by a review of the past history of the question - an old and well-known story, somewhat impatiently listened to by the House. He picked the various Reform schemes of his predecessors to pieces, and finally declared that the principle at the bottom of them all - the principle of value, regulated whether by rental or rating - had been proved by long experience to be untenable and unpractical, and the Government were now about to abandon it altogether. The rental standard, indeed, had been put out of the question by the vote on Lord Dunkellin's amendment in the preceding summer. " The House," said Mr. Disraeli, " in one of the largest divisions which ever took place within these walls, asserted a principle with regard to the borough franchise which was carried by a majority. "That principle was that the borough franchise should be founded on rating.... I take it for granted that if ever there was a decision of the House of Commons which meant something, it was that decision which determined the fate of the Ministry; and if anything ever had the character of authority in this House, it was the vote arrived at on that occasion. The House, I assume, meant by the decision then arrived at, that the person who was to be entrusted with a vote to elect members of Parliament should be one with respect to whom there should be some guarantee and security for the regularity of his life and the general trustworthiness of his conduct; and the House thought that the fact of a man being rated to the relief of the poor, and being able to pay his rates, gave that fair assurance which the State had a right to require."

Behind this last declaration, so cleverly fathered upon the House, it was immediately felt, lurked household suffrage. Nor was Mr. Disraeli slow to disclose his secret. The very next paragraph of his speech announced that, in the opinion of the Government, any attempt to unite the principle of value with the principle of rating, any such solution as a 6 or 5 rating franchise, would be wholly unsatisfactory. " The moment we endeavoured to control the operation of the principle of rating by a standard of value disturbing elements appeared, which promised no prospect of solution and gave no chance of permanency. We then proposed to ourselves to examine the whole question of occupation in boroughs, and see what would be the effect of the application of the principle of genuine rating, without reference to value" In the boroughs of England and Wales, Mr. Disraeli went on to say, there are at present 1,367,000 male householders, of whom 644,000 are qualified to vote, leaving 723,000 unqualified. Now, if we examine these 723,000, we shall find that 237,000 of them are rated to the poor and pay their rates. So that if the law were changed in such a manner as to make the borough franchise dependent upon the payment of rates only, unrestricted by any standard of value, these 237,000 would be at once qualified to vote, making, with the 644,000 already qualified, 881,000 persons in the English and Welsh boroughs in possession of the franchise. There would still remain 486,000, belonging mostly to the irregular and debatable class of compound householders - householders paying their rates, not personally, but through their landlords. Now, as the Government thought that the franchise ought to be based upon a personal payment of rates, it became a great question as to what was to be done with these 486,000 compound householders. "Ought the compound householders to have a vote?" As a compound householder the Government thought he ought not to have a vote. But he was not to be left altogether in the cold. Ample opportunities were to be afforded him for raising himself out of the anomalous position to which the Small Tenements Acts had consigned him. Let him only enter his name upon the rate-book, and claim to pay his rates personally; and having fulfilled the constitutional condition required, he would at once succeed to the constitutional privilege connected with it. It had been said that the working classes did not care enough about the suffrage to take so much trouble to obtain it. " That, however," said Mr. Disraeli, oracularly, " is not the opinion of Her Majesty's Government." Thus 723,000 additional persons might, if they wished, obtain the franchise under the new bill. To these were to be added all those who paid 20s. a year in direct taxes, whether compound householders or not; while, to prevent the working classes from swamping the constituencies and nullifying the influence of the middle and upper classes, the Government brought forward the curious expedient of dual voting. "Every person," said the Chancellor of the Exchequer, " who pays 1 direct taxation, and who enjoys the franchise which depends upon the payment of direct taxation, if he is also a householder and pays his rates, may exercise his suffrage in respect of both qualifications." In simpler words, a householder might have two votes - one for the yearly payment of 1 in imperial taxes, and one for the personal payment of rates. Now, the persons who would have been benefited by this dual vote would have been all, or nearly all, householders at a rental of 20 and upwards, so that the direct taxes qualification would have enfranchised hardly any new voters, while it would added considerably to the number of votes possessed by the wealthier classes of the constituency. " This," it has been said, " as far as the rest of the electors (of the poorer classes) were concerned, would have had a disfranchising effect, by reducing then- votes to one half their relative value."

The dual vote, however, provoked such hot opposition that, as will shortly be seen, the Government eventually withdrew it. The direct taxes qualification, Mr. Disraeli calculated, would add more than 200,000 to the constituency; and the three other "fancy franchises," as fhey were called - the education franchise, the funded property franchise, and the savings bank franchise - another 105,000. In all, the Government held out the splendid promise of an addition of more than 1,000,000 voters to the borough constituency. In counties the franchise would be lowered to 15 rateable value - a reduction which would enfranchise about 171,000 additional voters; while the four lateral franchises mentioned above would bring the number of new county voters up to about 330,000. With regard to the redistribution of seats, the Government had substantially the same proposals to make as those originally described to the House on the 25th of February. Mr. Disraeli, however, vigorously defended them from the charge of inadequacy which had been brought against them in the interval. Neither the Government nor the country, he said, were prepared to go through the agitating labour of constructing a new electoral map of England; and this being the case, all that would be done would be to seize opportunities as they arose of remedying grievances and removing inequalities by some such moderate means as those proposed in the bill. The Chancellor of the Exchequer concluded his speech as follows: - " It may be said that this bill, in providing a system of checks and counterpoises, tends still further to strengthen the barriers of class. If there are checks and counterpoises in our scheme, we live under a Constitution of which we boast that it is a Constitution of checks and counterpoises. If the measure bears some reference to existing classes in this country, why should we conceal from ourselves, or omit from our discussions, the fact that this country is a country of classes, and a country of classes it will ever remain? What we desire to do is, to give every one who is worthy of it a fair share in the government of the country by means of the elective franchise; but, at the same time, we have been equally anxious to maintain the character of the House, to make propositions in harmony with the circumstances of the country, to prevent a preponderance of any class, and to give a representation to the nation."

Alas! for Mr. Disraeli's figures when they came to be handled by Mr. Gladstone. Instead of 237,000, it was stoutly maintained by Mr. Gladstone that scarcely 144,000 would be admitted to the franchise by extending it to all who personally paid their rates. And as to the facilities to be offered in such tempting profusion to the compound householder for obtaining a vote, they amounted to this - that he was to have the privilege of paying over again that which he had already paid. It was difficult to believe that he would ever avail himself of this privilege to any great extent. Practically, the bill did nothing for the compound householder; so that, while it would introduce household suffrage - nay, universal suffrage - into- villages and country towns where there was no system of compounding for rates, in large towns, like Leeds, with a population of a quarter of a million, where the majority of the inhabitants were compound householders, its effect would be little or nothing. Comparing the case of Leeds with that of Thetford, Mr. Gladstone said: " In the borough of Thetford the bill of the right hon. gentleman will go to establish something very close upon universal suffrage. Thetford is a village, or, rather, an assemblage of villages constituting a rural district; it is, strictly speaking, no borough at all. There is a population of 4,200, of whom 829, or one in five, are male occupiers. That proportion is close upon universal suffrage. And the same proportion throughout England would give a constituency of four millions, which I imagine would entirely close the mouth of Mr. Beales. An immense proportion of the people of Thetford are the mere peasantry of the country, and by that I mean they are unskilled labourers.... Nothing can be more preposterous than that you should say to a peasant, or common hodman, or day labourer, earning Is. 6d. or 2s. a day, in a town where there is no composition in force, ' You shall have your franchise for nothing, and be put on the register without knowing it;' while in great communities, such as the vast parishes and boroughs of London, and many other towns of the country, you absolutely fine, both in time and money, or both, the compound householder."

In fact, the results of the bill, had it been passed as it was originally drawn up, would have been almost grotesque. In Hull, for instance, where the Small Tenements Act is almost universally enforced, the number of personally rated occupiers under the 10 rental who would have been enfranchised by the bill would have been 64 out of a population of 104,873; while in the small borough of Thirsk, where the system of compounding for rates was not in use, 684 would have obtained the franchise as personal ratepayers. In Brighton, where compound householders abound, the bill would have enfranchised 14 out of every 10,000 occupiers under the 10 line; while in York it would have enfranchised 100 out of every 1,000. The enfranchising effect of the bill would have been between " six and seven times as great in the boroughs not under Rating Acts as in the others."

It is more than probable that in framing their measure the Conservative Government foresaw none of these anomalies, and that they were revealed to them and impressed upon them in the course of debate. There was, in fact, no adequate knowledge among them of the working of those complicated details of rating machinery upon which they made the whole effect of their bill ultimately depend.

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Pictures for Chapter XXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 2

Sir John Pakington
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Lord Cranborne
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Mr. Gathorne Hardy
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Mr. Disraeli
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Mr. Beresford Hope
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