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Chapter XXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 3


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With regard to the secondary franchises - the direct taxes franchise, the education franchise, &c. - Mr. Gladstone contended that the figures quoted by Mr. Disraeli were wholly erroneous and visionary, and that the new voters it was supposed they would admit were no more substantial than Falstaff's men in buckram. For himself, he had no belief in the principle of rating as a bulwark of the Constitution; and to base the possession of the franchise upon the personal payment of rates, he thought fundamentally wrong. To the proposition of dual voting as a safeguard of household suffrage, he declared himself inflexibly opposed. It could only serve as a gigantic instrument of fraud, and was nothing less than a proclamation of a war of classes. And where was the lodger franchise, so highly praised by the Conservatives in 1859, and which all the world had expected to find in the bill? If that were added, and the so-called safeguards of dual voting and personal payment of rates done away with, the Liberal party would accept the bill as a whole.

A short debate followed, in which Mr. Lowe reappeared, to do battle as warmly against the Reform Bill of the Conservatives as he had formerly waged it against that of the Liberals. Mr. Lowe had been duped; but he was not yet prepared to confess it. Later on, when concession after concession had been made by the Government, and a far more Radical measure than any Liberal Ministry had ever dreamt of was on the point of becoming law, Mr. Lowe did indeed make ample and public confession of his mistake, and loud and bitter were the expressions of his wrath and mortification. But at this stage of the matter the " Cave " had still some confidence in Conservative principles and time-honoured Conservative traditions, and refused to believe that the party they had helped to put into power would ever betray them so completely as was afterwards actually the case. They disliked the bill, and said so; but for some little time they trusted to the genuine Conservative influence still existing behind the Ministerial benches for its modification. Lord Cranborne, a seceder from the Tories, as Mr. Lowe had been from the Liberals, made a short but energetic attack upon the bill on this occasion. "If the Conservative party accept the bill," he said, " they will be committing political suicide: household suffrage, pure and simple, will be the result of it, for no one can put any faith in the proposed safeguards; and, after their conduct last year, it is not the Conservatives who should pass a measure of household suffrage."

During the interval between the introduction of the bill and the motion for the second reading, an important meeting of the Liberal party was held at Mr. Gladstone's house on March 21st, to consider whether opposition should be offered to the second reading. Mr. Gladstone said, "Since the printing of the Government bill, having applied myself day and night to the study of it, I have not the smallest doubt in my own mind that the wiser course of the two would be to oppose the bill on the second reading." He thought, however, " that the general disposition of the meeting would not bear him out in that course; " and to maintain the unity of the party, he was willing to sacrifice his own personal opinion. " If ministers were content to abandon the dual voting, and to equalise the privileges and facilities of the enfranchised in all cases, however the qualification arose, then the measure might be made acceptable. If they would not concede these points, then he thought that the Liberals should not permit the measure to go into committee." It was already evident that both sides had made up their minds to pass some kind of Reform Bill during the session, and that both were prepared to make concessions rather than offer to the country once more the pitiable spectacle of a great measure of necessary Reform overthrown by party spirit and party warfare. Still the Liberals were determined to wrest certain points from the Government; and in his speech on the second reading (March 25), Mr. Gladstone thus summed up the defects in the bill, which must, he said, be amended before the Liberals could give in their adhesion to it: -

  1. Omission of a lodger franchise.
  2. Omission of provisions against traffic in votes of householders of the lowest class, by corrupt payment of their rates.
  3. Disqualifications of compound householders under the existing law.
  4. Additional disqualifications of compound householders under the proposed law.
  5. The franchise founded on direct taxation.
  6. The dual vote.
  7. The inadequate distribution of seats.
  8. The inadequate reduction of the franchise in counties.
  9. Voting papers.
  10. Collateral or special franchises.
Every one of these ten points, except the second, were finally settled more or less in accordance with the demands of the Liberals, - a fact which in itself is an instructive comment on the experiment of " government by minorities," which Mr. Disraeli was making with such great success.

In contradistinction to Lord Cranborne, Mr. Gladstone maintained that while the bill seemed on the face of it to be a measure of household suffrage, it was in reality nothing of the kind; every concession in it was balanced by a corresponding restriction, and what it gave with one hand it took away with the other. For the dual vote he had nothing but hard words: "At the head of the list stand those favoured children of fortune - those select human beings made of finer clay than the rest of their fellow-subjects - who are to be endowed with dual votes. Upon that dual vote I shall not trouble the House, for I think that my doing so would be a waste of time." And, indeed, the general opinion of the House had already pronounced so decidedly against it, that no purpose would have been served by discussing it at length. Mr. Gladstone went on to declaim afresh against the fine which the bill would inflict upon the compound householder before he could obtain his vote. Sir William Clay's Act in 1857 had enabled compound householders above the 10 rental line to place their names upon the register, provided they paid the reduced rate or composition paid by their landlords. Why should compound householders below the 10 line be obliged by the present bill to pay the full rateable value of their houses, while their richer neighbours were allowed a reduction of twenty-five or thirty per cent.?

Then followed an elaborate and masterly examination of the probable results of the bill, if passed in its original form. Making use of some important statistics, the return of which had been lately moved for by Mr. Hunt, he attacked the bill as one that would " flood some towns with thousands of voters, and only add a few in other towns." We have already given some instances of these inequalities of operation; but a few more quoted by Mr. Gladstone may be added. In Abingdon, a town under the Small Tenements Act, 35 would have been qualified as personal ratepayers, while 574 compound householders would have been excluded (assuming, as the Liberals very rightly assumed throughout, that the "facilities" offered to the compound householder for obtaining a vote were no facilities at all, but rather penalties imposed upon the attainment of it; and that, therefore,, practically, the bill excluded him from the franchise). In Carlisle, 406 would have been qualified, and 3,571 excluded; in Evesham there would have been 40 qualified, and 464 excluded, and so on. In boroughs under the Rating Acts, the whole number qualified would have been 25,064, while 139,377 would have been excluded. The effect of these figures was still further increased when Mr. Gladstone went on to consider the case of towns not under the Rating Acts. In these, he said, the franchise would be most lavishly, and, he thought, imprudently, extended. The constituency of Oldham, for instance, possessing at present 3,300 voters, would be increased to 11,800; Sheffield, with 10,000 voters, would rise to 28,000; and Stockport, with 1,600, to 7,200. After reading a long series of these damaging statistics, Mr. Gladstone might well ask, " Is it possible that any one on the Treasury benches can get up in his place, and recommend those clauses respecting the compound householder with all their anomalies? " Men, however, were not lacking to defend them, and to defend them with ability and vigour. Mr. Gathorne Hardy, then Commissioner of the Poor Laws, after a graceful tribute to the power of Mr. Gladstone's speech, made out, perhaps, the best case for the Ministerial measure that had yet been made out. He denied that the bill was a Household Suffrage Bill; the proper name for it was a Rating Franchise Bill; and so far from excluding anybody, as Mr. Gladstone had tried to prove, it opened the franchise to every one who chose to claim it. And as to the " fine" which it was said would be imposed upon the compound householder by the bill, he could recover whatever rates he paid from the landlord - a statement in support of which Mr. Hardy quoted an Act of Queen Victoria, allowing " any occupier paying any rate or rates in respect of any tenement where the owner is rated to the same, to deduct from his rent or recover from his landlord the amount so paid." The Act, however, did not really bear out Mr. Hardy's argument, since it only enabled the tenant to recover the reduced rate, while the bill obliged him to pay the full rate before obtaining his vote. The personal payment of rates, and the two years' residence clause, were, he admitted, meant as safeguards and limitations; but he believed them to be just and reasonable, and such as would be approved by the country.

The debate was vigorously kept up - the Ministry being only represented by Mr. Gathorne Hardy and Mr. Disraeli, and supporters and opponents of the bill being found promiscuously on both sides of the House. In truth, people had not yet got over their surprise, and neither Liberals nor Conservatives quite knew what to think of a measure so Liberal at heart, though cased with Conservative safeguards, brought in by a Conservative Government. Thus the enthusiastic young Liberals, like Lord Amberley, joined with the county Tories, like Mr. Lowther, in opposing the bill; while here and there a voice came from the Liberal ranks applauding it as better than nothing, or even from the Conservative benches, as in the case of Mr. Banks Stanhope, the member for Lincolnshire, applauding and approving. It was only towards the end of the debate, when Mr. Bright spoke, and Mr. Disraeli made answer on the whole case, that the country began clearly to see which way things were going. Mr. Bright was in a happy vein; he mixed in an effective way solid criticism on the details of the bill with sarcastic descriptions of its framers, and earnest denunciation of what he called the "deception and disappointment " of which it bore the marks. He regarded the bill as really equivalent to a measure for 8 suffrage, and therefore less thorough than the bill of the previous year. It was too much inclined to a " set off " - the enfranchising of higher class voters to counteract the lower, which, of course, would not be the removal of the real grievance which the workmen felt. " I complain of this bill," he said, "that, in regard to the working class, there is in it nothing clear, there is nothing generous, there is nothing statesman-like. I believe that if the House were to pass it, there would be universal dissatisfaction throughout the country." Then, after protesting that he would be the first person in the House to support a "fair and honest measure" of Reform, Mr. Bright went on: "I will be no party to any bill which would cheat the great body of my countrymen of the possession of that power in the House on which they have set their hearts; and which, as I believe, by the Constitution of this country, they may most justly claim."

When Mr. Disraeli rose to end the debate, the House clearly saw that, though he was supporting his bill most strenuously, he was really speaking in the spirit of his own resolutions. Those, it will be remembered, had been brought forward early in the session with the avowed purpose of "feeling" or "taking the sense of" the House. Mr. Disraeli made no secret then of his readiness to do as he was bid by the majority; and now, though he pretended to make a secret of it, the same readiness was to be detected in his speech. There was a vast amount of epigram directed at Mr. Gladstone; but Mr. Disraeli, in taking up the amendments indicated by him, confessed that " if satisfactory arguments were brought forward in committee," no doubt the House would adopt them; and the House might adopt them, he implied, without endangering the Government bill. One after another the objections of Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Bright were taken up, roughly handled, and referred to the committee. The lodger franchise - of that Mr. Disraeli claimed himself to be the father - he was not personally opposed to it; it might be left to the committee. The compound householder amendment - why was it that Lord Russell and Mr. Gladstone, in schemes of their own, had wished to keep up the distinction between classes of ratepayers, and now wished to abolish those distinctions? Yet that amendment might be referred to the committee. In the same way with the amendment about voting papers, about the qualification of residence, about the county franchise, about redistribution of seats. On one and all of these points Mr. Disraeli's watchword was " elasticity." The bill's chief merit was that it was elastic, whereas Mr. Gladstone's 5 rating bill would have been rigid and hard. This bill, he said, was so drawn as to secure the " fitness and variety " which was to become security against democracy. Then Mr. Disraeli ended, saying that it was the one wish of the Government to cooperate with the House in settling this question once for all. Till the settlement was arrived at they would not desert their posts. Any concessions, he implied, any withdrawal of obnoxious clauses or substitution of amending clauses, would be consented to. The Government, the House, the country, only asked for one thing - settlement. The bill must be passed at any cost; no personal feeling should make the Government either withdraw it or resign until it had been passed. " Pass the bill," he concluded, " and then change the Ministry if you please."

A speech of which this was the tone very naturally disarmed the Opposition. Mr. Gladstone might, with little difficulty, have defeated the second reading if he had chosen, but the Government gave him no excuse for so doing. Mr. Disraeli had literally made him a present of the bill, on condition that when he had altered it at his pleasure, he was to return it to the original owners for them to present to the country. So, as far as the Liberal party were concerned, there was nothing to be done except to pass the second reading, and to wait for the committee to put the bill into satisfactory shape. The only danger was lest the Conservative rank and file, irritated by their leader's tone of concession, should mutiny. There was no mutiny, however, though there was some murmuring, and the bill was read a second time on the 26th of March, without a division.

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Pictures for Chapter XXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 3


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