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Chapter XXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 4

Pages: 1 2 3 <4> 5 6 7

The committee was fixed for the 8th April. On the 1st, Mr. Disraeli made the first of his promised concessions; he announced that the Government were prepared to withdraw the clause relating to the dual vote. That removed one of the bugbears of the Liberal party, and left them to direct their interest to the interminable and vexatious question of the compound householder. The exact position of this person under the Small Tenements Act has already been sufficiently described; and it will be remembered that his enfranchisement had supplied Mr. Gladstone with one of his principal themes in the early stages of the bill. The acceptance of a rating franchise at once raised the compound householder to a position of public interest, almost of notoriety. It was felt that the character of the bill, as a popular measure, depended mainly on his admission to the suffrage. The enormous number of small occupiers who " compounded " for their rates - amounting, it was confidently said, to two-thirds of the occupiers under £10 - was a fact which showed the importance of the question. Before the end of the session the compound householder was destined, not only to be the watchword of parties, but to cause a serious, almost fatal, split in the Liberal Opposition; and to compel the Government, as the only way out of the difficulty which he caused, positively to abolish him altogether. The compound householder rose first into prominence at a large meeting of Liberal members, held at Mr. Gladstone's house on the 5th of April. There it was agreed that the point in the Government bill which lay most open to attacks from the Liberals, now that the dual vote had been withdrawn, was this point of the personal payment of rates. Without amendment on this head, it was thought, the Government bill was illusory; j it gave with one hand what it took away with the other.! Mr. Gladstone recurred to what he had himself said earlier in the session - that there should properly be a " hard and fast line," below which occupiers should neither pay rates nor exercise the suffrage. This was, in fact, a proposal for a £5 rating franchise; for the abolition of all distinctions between persons who paid their rates directly and those who paid them through their landlord; and for the relief of all those who occupied tenements at less than £5 rateable value from the liability to be rated at all. With a view to carrying his view, he proposed that Mr. John Duke Coleridge, member for Exeter, should move an instruction to the committee in the following words: - "That it be an instruction to the committee that they have power to alter the law of rating; and to provide that in every parliamentary borough the occupiers of tenements below a given rateable value be relieved from liability to personal rating, with a view to fix a line for the borough franchise, at and above which all occupiers shall be entered on the rate-book, and shall have equal facilities for the enjoyment of such franchise as a residential occupation franchise."

At the meeting where this line of action was planned there was some criticism, but little open dissent from the course. During the three days, however, which were to elapse before the proposal of Mr. Coleridge's amendment an ominous change took place in the position of affairs. Mr. Disraeli had promised he would not resign, and that he would not withdraw the bill; but he had not promised that he would not dissolve Parliament, supposing the conduct of the Opposition were to drive him that way. Now, the threat of a dissolution is always a terrible threat to many members. Only a small proportion of sitting members are at any time quite sure of their seats at a new election; and to the rest a dissolution means either the loss of a place in Parliament, or the wear and tear of a contest and a great expenditure of money. Hence, when the word " dissolution " began to be whispered, the Opposition began to disunite. A meeting of dissatisfied members took place in the tea-room of the House of Commons, transformed for the moment into a new cave of Adullam; and a cabal was formed for breaking up the plans of the Liberals in reference to Mr. Coleridge's instruction. Forty-eight members of the Liberal party agreed to vote against the amendment, and a deputation waited upon Mr. Gladstone to inform him of their decision. In the face of such a defection it was, of course, impossible to proceed. Forty-eight members means ninety-six votes on a division - a number sufficient to destroy any parliamentary majority. Mr. Coleridge practically withdrew his instruction, reserving his right to proceed on the subject of it in committee; Mr. Gladstone began to feel that, as concerned really Liberal amendments, his hands were not so free as he had hoped; and the Government faced the committee with new strength and satisfaction. Mr. Gladstone, however, was not satisfied with the result of the tea-room cabal; for much of the discontent which had promoted it had been directed towards the "hard and fast line " of the £5 rating franchise. It was resolved, therefore, to divide upon a different amendment - one which should relieve the compound householder from the disabling clauses of the bill, but which should still keep to the original basis of household rating suffrage. Mr. Gladstone's amendment inserted in the restrictive clause the words " whether he in person, or his landlord, be rated to the relief of the poor;" and the arguments which, with his usual force, he urged upon the House in its support were, first, that the houses below £10 rental which compounded for their rates were two-thirds of the whole number of such houses, and that therefore a bill which excluded compounding householders from the franchise was an illusion; and secondly, that the case standing so, the " settlement" for which the Government was clamouring would not be attained unless the bill were amended. " Agitation will begin," he said, "as soon as the true character of the bill is seen, and will never cease until the last vestige of such restrictive legislation is swept away."

The debate on Mr. Gladstone's amendment occupied two nights, and was chiefly valuable as showing the extraordinary difference of opinion which prevailed among the supporters of the bill, and the equally different points of view from which members were found to oppose it. Such different men as Sir William Heathcote, the Tory member for Oxford University, and Mr. Coleridge, the Liberal member for Exeter, joined to support the amendment; such different men as Mr. Roebuck and Mr. Gathorne Hardy joined to oppose it. The truth is, that the subject of rating, viewed statistically, is so extremely complicated that hardly any members of the House, except Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Bright, were masters of its details; and on a question of statistics, where details are doubtful, men wholly agreed on points of principle will take opposite sides. Such men as Sir W. Heathcote supported Mr. Gladstone because they thought the success of his amendments would lead to the adoption of a £5 rating suffrage; men like Mr. Coleridge, on the other hand, supported him because they thought the restrictions laid down in the bill were inconsiderate and unwise. Lord Cranborne supported the amendment strongly, because, as he said, " the only reason why a Reform Bill was desirable was that it would quell agitation; and because, unless the personal rating scheme was altered, agitation would simply be increased in every parish which was under the Small Tenements Act." Now, as has been said, the Small Tenements Act was an Act which vestries might or might not adopt, at their pleasure; and, again, it might be adopted for a time and then dropped by a vestry. In other words, according to Mr. Disraeli's bill, it lay with the vestry of each parliamentary borough to enfranchise or disfranchise a large number of voters at its pleasure. This giving of excessive political power to the vestries is what Mr. Gladstone thought so monstrous; but the Government was resolved, and the principle of personal rating was strongly supported by the Ministerial speakers. Mr. Hardy said: " We say that the rate-book should be the register. The right hon. gentleman has certainly not provided for that in his amendments. He maintains that, though the landlord pays the rates, the tenant shall have the vote. We say, on the other hand, that as the payment of rates induces an interest in local affairs, the man who pays his rates is more likely to be educated and take an interest in the concerns of his country."

When the division came, the Government triumphed. The numbers were found to be - For the amendment, 289; against, 310. Majority for the Government, 21. This was an important majority, and, as the division lists showed, it implied far more unanimity among the Conservatives (in spite of the defection of Sir W. Heathcote and Lord Cranborne) than among the Liberals. Twenty- five of the old " Adullamite " party voted with Mr. Disraeli - a fact sufficiently indicating the opinion which was held as to the tendency of the amendment. The Adullamites voted for the original bill because they wanted the compound householder - the dangerous being who occupied a house below £10 annual rent - to be kept without his vote.

The immediate effect of this division was to draw from Mr. Gladstone an important statement of policy. He wrote a letter to Mr. R. W. Crawford, member for the City of London, to say that he felt it useless to proceed personally with the other amendments standing in his name. He was compelled to own that the Liberals who thought together on the question of Reform were not a majority, but a minority, "and they have not the power they were supposed to possess of limiting or directing the action of the Administration, or of shaping the provisions of the Reform Bill. Still," Mr. Gladstone went on, " having regard to the support which my proposal with respect to personal rating received from so large a number of Liberal members, I am not less willing than heretofore to remain at the service of the party to which they belong; and when any suitable occasion shall arise, if it shall be their wish, I shall be prepared again to attempt concerted action upon this or any other subject for the public good.... I shall not proceed with the amendments now on the paper in my name, nor give notice of other amendments such as I had contemplated; but I shall gladly accompany others in voting against any attempt, from whatever quarter, to limit still further the scanty modicum of enfranchisement proposed by the Government, or in improving, when it may be practicable, the provisions of the bill." A letter which showed that Mr. Gladstone was disheartened; but his discouragement only increased the zeal of the reforming party throughout the kingdom. The House broke up for the Easter holidays immediately after the vote; and during the recess meetings were held at every important town in England, and at many in Scotland, to express confidence in Mr. Gladstone, and to encourage him and his followers in their attempts to liberalise the bill. The number, enthusiasm, and unanimity of these meetings had, in all probability, much to do with Mr. Disraeli's subsequent concessions.

When the House met again, the first important act of the committee was to accept Mr. Ayrton's amendment, substituting one year for two years as the period of residence necessary for borough voters. There seems to have been a general idea in the House that to require two years' residence in a borough before a man could be entitled to vote in an election of members of Parliament was vexatious; and in spite of the strenuous efforts of the Government, Mr. Ayrton's amendment was carried by the large majority of 81. A majority as large as this is never, however, so much to be dreaded by a Government as one a fourth of its size. To a majority of eighty - that is, supposing it is only an accidental majority, and not a habitual one - any Government may with decency bow. A defeat by eighty votes on a point of detail never turns out a Ministry; and, accordingly, Mr. Disraeli stated on the next day that he and his colleagues " deferred to the opinion of the House." Then came Mr. Hibbert's notice to amend the bill, by allowing all compound householders who chose to pay personally to pay reduced rates - a proposal which became celebrated, from the conduct of the Government " whip " with regard to it. It came out in the course of the debate - Mr. Bernai Osborne revealed it - that the whip, Colonel Taylor, had undertaken, " as a gentleman and a man of honour, to press upon the Cabinet the desirability of adopting Mr. Hibbert's amendment; " and also that Colonel Taylor had stated to Mr. Dillwyn, a Liberal member, that " he believed Lord Derby and Mr. Disraeli to be personally in favour of accepting it." That is to say, just before a division, the Government whip entered into negotiations with some of the enemy's forces, and endeavoured to win them over to his side by a statement - afterwards disavowed on authority - of the opinions of his chief. The episode affords an interesting comment upon the manœuvres of party government.

The debate on Mr. Hibbert's motion turned on the question - Whether, supposing a compound householder wanted a vote (which, according to the bill, would require him to pay his rates personally), he should be compelled to pay as much as other non-compounding householders, or whether the same amount should be accepted from him personally as had been accepted previously from his landlord on his account P Mr. Disraeli aimed not only at making him pay the full rate, but even at repealing a section of Sir William Clay's Act (14 and 15 Vict., c. 14) which had defined certain electoral rights of householders above £10. That Act had allowed non-rated occupiers - compounders above £10 - to claim to be rated, in order to be put upon the register of voters, and had declared them liable only for the reduced or commuted rate. Under that Act, according to Mr. Bright, electoral rights were guaranteed to not less than 94,000 persons; and Mr. Disraeli's proposal, to say nothing of its immediate effect in excluding new voters, simply amounted to a proposal either to disfranchise these 94,000 altogether, or to make them pay higher rates than they had previously paid. We can understand the spirit in which Mr. Bright spoke of this as an " audacious proposal." Still, audacious or not, the proposal of the Government for the time succeeded. The division was taken on the question, whether the borough voter should be rated as an " ordinary occupier," always and without exception, and the Government had a very great majority with them, affirming that he should. The numbers were - Ayes, 322; Noes, 256. Majority for the Government, 66. A majority of 66 declared that if the compound householder desired his vote, he must make an immense sacrifice, and pay what, in most cases, must have amounted to an impossible sum for the privilege. "We will not," said the House of Commons on May 9th - "we will not have household suffrage if we can help it."

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Pictures for Chapter XXIV, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 4

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