132. PROCEEDINGS IN PARLIAMENT (1831-66)

(A) Debates on the Reform Bill (1831)[1]

[1 March.] Lord John Russell: ... The measure I have now to bring forward is a measure, not of mine, but of the government in whose name I appear — the deliberate measure of a whole cabinet, unanimous upon this subject and resolved to place their measure before this house in redemption of their pledge to their sovereign, the parliament, and to their country....

It will not be necessary on this occasion that I should go over the arguments which have been so often urged in favour of parliamentary reform; but it is due to the question that I should state shortly the chief points of the general argument on which the reformers rest their claim. Looking at the question then as a question of right, the ancient statutes of Edward I contain the germ and vital principle of our political constitution. The 25th of Edward I, c. 6,[2] declares in the name of the king that "for no business from henceforth we should take such manner of aids, tasks, nor prises, but by the common assent of the realm and for the common profit thereof, saving the ancient aids and prises due and accustomed." The 34th Edward I, commonly called the Statute de Tallagio Concedendo,[3] provides "that no tallage or aid shall be taken or levied by us or our heirs in our realm without the good will and assent of archbishops, bishops, earls, barons, knights, burgesses, and other freemen of the land." Although some historical doubts have been thrown upon the authenticity of this statute, its validity in point of law is asserted in the Petition of Rights,[4] was allowed by the judges in the case of Hampden,[5] and is, in fact, the foundation of the constitution as it has existed since the days of the Stuarts.

To revert again for a moment to ancient times, the assent of the commonalty of the land, thus declared necessary for the grant of any aid or tax, was collected from their representatives consisting of two knights from each county, from each city two citizens, and from every borough two burgesses. For 250 years the constant number of boroughs so sending their representatives was about 120.

Some thirty or forty others occasionally exercised or discontinued that practice or privilege, as they rose or fell in wealth and importance. How this construction of the house of commons underwent various changes, till the principle on which it was founded was lost sight of, I will not now detain the house by explaining. There can be no doubt, however, that at the beginning of the period I have alluded to the house of commons did represent the people of England. No man of common sense pretends that this assembly now represents the commonalty or people of England. If it be a question of right, therefore, right is in favour of reform.

Let us now look at the question as one of reason. Allow me to imagine, for a moment, a stranger from some distant country, who should arrive in England to examine our institutions.... He would have been told that the proudest boast of this celebrated country was its political freedom. If, in addition to this, he had heard that once in six years this country, so wise, so renowned, so free, chose its representatives to sit in the great council where all the ministerial affairs were discussed and determined, he would not be a little curious to see the process by which so important and solemn an operation was effected. What then would be his surprise if he were taken by his guide, whom he had asked to conduct him to one of the places of election, to a green mound and told that this green mound sent two members to parliament, or to be taken to a stone wall with three niches in it and told that these three niches sent two members to parliament; or, if he were shown a green park with many signs of flourishing vegetable life, but none of human habitation, and told that this green park sent two members to parliament! But his surprise would increase to astonishment if he were carried into the north of England, where he would see large flourishing towns, full of trade and activity, containing vast magazines of wealth and manufactures, and were told that these places had no representatives in the assembly which was said to represent the people. Suppose him, after all, for I will not disguise any part of the case — suppose him to ask for a specimen of popular election, and to be carried for that purpose to Liverpool; his surprise would be turned into disgust at the gross venality and corruption which he would find to pervade the electors. After seeing all this, would he not wonder that a nation which had made such progress in every kind of knowledge, and which valued itself for its freedom, should permit so absurd and defective a system of representation any longer to prevail? But whenever arguments of this kind have been urged, it has been replied — and Mr. Canning placed his opposition to reform on this ground — "We agree that the house of commons is not, in fact, sent here by the people; we agree that, in point of reason, the system by which it is sent is full of anomaly and absurdity; but government is a matter of experience, and so long as the people are satisfied with the actual working of the house of commons, it would be unwise to embark in theoretical change." Of this argument, I confess, I always felt the weight, and so long as the people did not answer the appeals of the friends of reform, it was indeed an argument not to be resisted. But what is the case at this moment? The whole people call loudly for reform.... The chief grievances of which the people complain are these: first, the nomination of members by individuals; second, the elections by close corporations; third, the expense of elections....[6]

Having now, sir, gone through the principal provisions of the bill which I propose to introduce, I cannot but take notice of some particulars in which, perhaps, this measure will be considered by many to be defective. In the first place, there is no provision for the shorter duration of parliaments. That subject has been considered by his majesty's ministers; but upon the whole we thought that it would be better to leave it to be brought before the house by any member who may choose to take it up, than to bring it in at the end of a bill regulating matters totally distinct.... There is another question, sir, of which no mention is made in this bill, although it at present occupies very much the attention of the country — I mean the question of vote by ballot. Sir, there can be no doubt that that mode of election has much to recommend it. The arguments I have heard advanced in its favour are as ingenuous as any that ever fell under my observation on any subject. But at the same time I am bound to say that this house ought to pause before it gives its sanction to that measure....

I arrive at last at the objections which may be made to the plan we propose. I shall be told, in the first place, that we overturn the institutions of our ancestors. I maintain that, in departing from the letter, we preserve the spirit of those institutions. Our opponents say our ancestors gave Old Sarum representatives; therefore we should give Old Sarum representatives. We say our ancestors gave Old Sarum representatives because it was a large town; therefore we give representatives to Manchester, which is a large town.... It has been asserted also, if a reform were to be effected, that many men of great talents, who now get into this house for close boroughs, would not be able to procure seats. I have never entertained any apprehensions of the sort, for I believe that no reform that can be introduced will have the effect of preventing wealth, probity, learning, and wit from having their proper influence upon elections.... It may be said, too, that one great and injurious effect of the measures I propose will be to destroy the power and privileges of the aristocracy. This I deny.... Wherever the aristocracy reside, receiving large incomes, performing important duties, relieving the poor by charity, and evincing private worth and public virtue, it is not in human nature that they should not possess a great influence upon public opinion and have an equal weight in electing persons to serve their country in parliament. Though such persons may not have the direct nomination of members under this bill, I contend that they will have as much influence as they ought to have. But if by aristocracy those persons are meant who do not live among the people, who know nothing of the people, and who care nothing for them — who seek honours without merit, places without duty, and pensions without service — for such an aristocracy I have no sympathy; and I think the sooner its influence is carried away, with the corruption on which it has thriven, the better for the country....

To establish the constitution on a firm basis, you must show that you are determined not to be the representatives of a small class or of a particular interest, but to form a body who, representing the people, springing from the people, and sympathizing with the people, can fairly call on the people to support the future burdens of the country and to struggle with the future difficulties which it may have to encounter.... I conclude, sir, by moving for leave to bring in a bill for amending the state of the representation in England and Wales.

[6 July.] Sir Robert Peel: ... I do not admit ... that the settled opinion of this country is fixed, and permanently decided, in favour of this bill. I would advise those who assert it not to rely too confidently on the duration of the present excitement, to bear in mind the causes which have combined to foment it, and to consider whether they are of lasting operation. Our sober judgment has been disturbed by the recent events in France, by sympathy in the triumph of liberal opinions, and by a natural indignation at the illegal exercise of authority. While those feelings are at their height, a government is formed pledged to reform, and they redeem that pledge by a more extensive measure of reform than was expected by the most sanguine reformer. They dissolve the parliament in order to take the opinion of an already excited people on a question of all others the most requiring sober and dispassionate inquiry, and they superadd to every other cause of agitation an appeal to the personal wishes and opinions of the king. With regard to the dissolution of the parliament, it might be right or it might be wrong; but nothing could be more unwise than to countenance the popular belief that the king was personally interested in the question of reform. I do not for a moment call in question the undoubted prerogative of the crown to dissolve the late parliament; but I do call in question the prudence with which that prerogative was exercised, the time and mode of its exercise, and above all the lavish use of his majesty's name and authority with the view of influencing election contests. I regret most deeply that through their organs of the press the government condescended to the humiliation of propagating tales which could only be addressed and suited to the lowest and most vulgar class of minds. I regret most deeply that they should, for any purpose whatever, have resorted to the dangerous expedient of teaching the people to associate loyalty to their king with hostility to the constitution of parliament. I do not think it a happy circumstance that the feelings of the people have been thus excited; I doubt the existence of an unanimous feeling as connected with this measure on their part; and I deeply regret that the sober and temperate judgment of the people has been disturbed by a variety of causes. But, sir, if this feeling be such as we have heard it represented, and if it shall permanently endure, I am then ready to admit that no government can go on without enacting such measures as shall alleviate and remove that intense feeling....

[20 July.] Sir Robert Peel: ... The noble lord said that, when they looked at the measure as a whole, they would see that its object was to give to the people a full and fair representation in parliament, and that, as such, it might be justly described as a restoration of the ancient principles of the constitution; for that those principles were that the people should be fully and fairly represented in the commons house of parliament. Now that involved the fallacy that the people of this country ever had the right which it was proposed to give them by this bill. He would deny that the phrase, the people of England, ever meant the people of England as they were polled by this bill. What was meant by the people of England, when we spoke of the representation of the people of England in ancient times, consisted in the great corporate bodies and those great classes of the community to whom the franchise was entrusted and of whom the members sent to parliament were the representatives. But the word people was never used then as it was in the present bill — it was never used so as to mean 10 householders who had never hitherto possessed a right to that franchise which it was now proposed to give them. The elective franchise, as it had been established in England in former times, had never existed in the form in which the present bill proposed to establish it, but in a much better, more practical, and more beneficial form.... So far as burgage-tenure boroughs were concerned, they certainly could not be described as any usurpation on the rights of the people. It was said that the possession of such boroughs could not be advantageous to the aristocracy and, indeed, the lord advocate of Scotland has argued upon a former night that, as the right of returning members from such boroughs was vested in individuals, it was not probable that it could be exercised for the benefit of the general body, and that, in fact, the possession of such boroughs was disadvantageous to the interests of the aristocracy at large. But though the power might be vested in the hands of a single individual, was it to be supposed that it ever would be used by him for the promotion of his individual and personal interests, and not for the promotion and support of the interests of the general body to which he belonged? If, for instance, they should give members to Birmingham, was it probable that those members would attend only to the interests of Birmingham, and not to the interests of the iron-manufacturers at large? Now those nomination boroughs served the same purpose exactly with respect to the property and interests of the aristocracy....

[4 October.] Viscount Melbourne: ... My lords, we have been told by one of your lordships that we ought not to yield to popular opinion ... , and that it frequently becomes the duty of legislative and representative bodies, and of all those having authority, to resist the will of the people. I readily admit the truth of that proposition. Else why have a representative body at all? The wildest democrat in existence, those who assert that all power is derived from the people, would hardly deny the proposition. No man can suppose for one moment that it is the duty of a legislative body to yield to every gust of the popular breath. No man can suppose that in questions involving the immediate petty interests of the people this should be done, much less in making those fundamental changes which affect the whole interests of a great country and of which the people are necessarily very incompetent judges. But, my lords, although it may be our duty to resist the will of the people for a time, is it possible to resist it forever? Have we not in this case resisted it long enough? ...

The noble lord has asked what is the basis of the measure, and whether it is not population. Population is not the basis of the measure. It was necessary that we should have, for the purposes of disfranchisement, some practical rule, and therefore the want of population was adopted as the rule to disfranchise nomination boroughs. But there is nothing about population on the face of the bill.... We never intended that population should be the basis of the representation of the country. The whole measure goes to effect an extension of the present system of representation and adapts it more completely to the circumstances and situation of the country; but it looks at property, at different interests, and at different classes, as well as at population....

The duke of Wellington: ... A bill was introduced into the other house of parliament ... , which after long discussion was read a second time by the decision of a small majority. This measure altered everything; it changed or destroyed every interest in the country. Instead of proceeding upon the basis of the established institutions, it destroyed them all and, among other things, altered the relative numbers of the representatives in parliament from the different kingdoms of the united empire. It was proposed in the house of commons that the proportion of representatives for England should not be diminished; to which proposition, after long debate, the house of commons agreed by a majority of seven. The principle of the noble lord's bill had been agreed to. Why did not the noble lords persevere and carry through their bill, making such alterations as might render it palatable to the house of commons and consistent with the established practice of the constitution? This did not suit their purpose. They dissolved the parliament and advised their sovereign to appeal to his people. I attribute all our misfortunes to that event.

The noble lords advised their sovereign upon that occasion to come to parliament and to make this speech: "I have come to meet you for the purpose of proroguing this parliament with a view to its immediate dissolution. I have been induced to resort to this measure for the purpose of ascertaining the sense of my people in the way in which it may be most constitutionally and authentically expressed on the expediency of making such changes in the representation as circumstances may seem to require; and which, founded upon the acknowledged principles of the constitution, may tend at once to uphold the just rights and prerogatives of the crown and to give security to the liberties of my people."

The dissolution then made and the speech delivered by his majesty were both upon a principle entirely different from that of the precedents according to which the measure was adopted. In 1784 the king, George III, differed from his ministers upon a great question. They retired from his service, and his majesty appointed other ministers. Those ministers did not enjoy the confidence of the house of commons, and the king dissolved his parliament and put an end to the session in the words which I am about to read to your lordships: "On a full consideration of the present situation of affairs and of the extraordinary circumstances which have produced it, I am induced to put an end to this session of parliament. I feel it a duty which I owe to the constitution and to the country in such a situation to recur as speedily as possible to the sense of my people by calling a new parliament. I trust that this measure will tend to obviate the mischiefs arising from the unhappy divisions and distractions which have lately subsisted, and that the various important objects which will require consideration may be afterwards proceeded upon with less interruption and with happier effect. I can have no other object but to preserve the true principles of our free and happy constitution and to employ the powers entrusted to me by law for the only end for which they were given — the good of my people."

I will not give your lordships the trouble of listening to the perusal of the case of 1807, which stands precisely upon the same principle as that of 1784. In both the king differed in opinion with his ministers and with the parliament upon measures upon which his majesty had decided, and he appealed to the sense of his people and called upon them to elect a parliament which should give their confidence to the ministers of his choice in carrying on the measures which he approved. The transaction was brought to a close before the appeal was made to the people. The people were not called upon to deliberate upon any measure, but the appeal to them was rather, it may be said, in favour of the men whom his majesty had named as his ministers. In the case of 1831, however, the noble lords have advised their sovereign to refer for discussion to the people, not whether the king was to be supported in naming his ministers — not whether parliament is to be reformed, because upon the principle of reform there was a majority in the late house of commons — but upon a particular plan of reform which was accordingly discussed throughout the country.

It is on the ground of the dissolution and of this speech from the throne that I charge the noble lords with having excited the spirit which existed in the country at the period of the last general election, and with having been the cause of the unconstitutional practice hitherto unknown of electing delegates for a particular purpose to parliament — delegates to obey the daily instructions of their constituents and to be cashiered if they should disobey them, whatever may be their own opinion, instead of being, as they have been hitherto, independent members of parliament to deliberate with their colleagues upon matters of common concern and to decide according to the best of their judgment after such deliberation and debate. This is an evil of which the country will long feel the consequences, whatever may be the result of these discussions....

Parliamentary Debates, Third Series, II, 1061-89; IV, 891 f.;
V, 114 f.; VII, 1177-82, 1191-93.

(B) Debate on Melbourne's Government (1841)

Sir Robert Peel [moving a vote of no confidence in the ministry]: ... The interests of the crown and the interests of the house of commons are identical. You cannot strike a blow at the house of commons in its just and legitimate authority without at the same time striking a blow at the monarchy of this country. But can it be said to add to the authority of the monarchy that its ministers and representatives ... counsel measures in this house on the authority of the crown? Can it be supposed that the sorry triumph of being maintained in power by the crown is a compensation for the delays, for the spectacle of insufficiency and want of authority in the government we have recently beheld? It may be said, "True, we may not have the confidence of the house of commons; but perhaps, as Mr. Pitt was able to say — though Mr. Fox denied it — if we fail in the house of commons, there are sufficient indications that we possess the confidence of the country." First, however, I should say with Mr. Fox it is dangerous to admit any other recognized organ of public opinion than the house of commons. It is dangerous to set up the implied or supposed opinions of constituencies against their declared and authorized organ, the house of commons. The house and the constituencies should not be brought into this unseemly contest. But if you deny the force of that argument, if you hold that it is right to refer to the opinions of the constituencies, can you, I ask, show me in the elections that have recently taken place any just ground for the boast that the confidence withheld from you by the house has been extended to you by the constituencies of the empire? I know not exactly how many vacancies have occurred since the commencement of the present parliament; I believe them to have been upwards of one hundred. But this I can say with confidence: that upon the general balance there have been twenty elections in which there have been changes of the former members, and of those twenty — embracing large towns, boroughs, agricultural districts, in fact, every kind and description of constituency — out of those twenty in which changes have taken place, sixteen have been averse to you and four only have been in your favour; so that upon the whole, in those places where changes have taken place during the present parliament, there has been a positive loss of not less than twelve members. I say, then, whatever may be the object you expect from an appeal to the people — if that be the course you are meditating — you have no right to say from the result of the elections hitherto that the opinion of the constituencies differs from that of their representatives. I know it will be said that all my general doctrines may be true, that it is right under ordinary circumstances that ministers should have the confidence of the house of commons — "But there are special and peculiar circumstances," her majesty's ministers might say, "that except us from the ordinary rule and entitle us to continue in office." Now it is perfectly obvious that this plea will apply in fact to all times. Who can deny that in the important position of this country, with such complicated affairs to be administered, there must be at all times special and peculiar circumstances connected with the executive government of the day, and that you (the government), being the judges, will be enabled to discover special and peculiar circumstances why you should be exempted from the ordinary principle; so that, in fact, there will be no limit to the application of that principle? The men who have to determine are not quite impartial judges as to the urgency of the circumstances which constitute the special case. Perhaps, however, it may be said that you contemplate an appeal to the people, and that you are holding office for the purpose of making that appeal. I know nothing whatever upon that subject. As a member of the house of commons, I can have no evidence of the intentions of the crown. But I see you repeatedly in minorities; I see indications that you have not the confidence of this house. I know that you have power, at any time, to dissolve. I know, too, that you can choose the most favourable time for a dissolution. No doubt that is the prerogative of the crown — a prerogative of a delicate nature for the house of commons to meddle with. But all this does not relieve me from the performance of what I conceive to be a duty in calling upon the house of commons to say if her majesty's government possess their confidence or not. And here, too, I will say that I shall have no additional confidence if, after exciting the public mind upon such a subject as the sustenance of the people, you then make your appeal to the country by a dissolution. I believe that you are not, by that course, advancing the measure which you advocate.... Sir John Hobhouse: The right honourable gentleman has taunted us with wishing an appeal to be made to the people at an inopportune time, but what degree of weight there is in the argument I cannot see. If we propose what we consider to be measures which would give the greatest possible relief to the suffering industry of the country and those measures are opposed, and we think that the country are with us, is there any harm in having our schemes and reasons and our principles fairly laid before the country? It seems to me there is not. Surely the agitation, if agitation there is to be, is no fault of ours. The question is a great fiscal question of monopoly or no monopoly. It is a question whether or not we shall, by adopting a new scheme, relieve the industry of the country and at the same time increase the revenue, and thereby render any additional burden on the people unnecessary; or whether the present system shall be maintained — that is to say, whether a reduction of duties shall take place, and thereby supply the deficiency of the revenue, or whether that deficiency shall be made up by the ordinary mode of imposing fresh taxes on the people. This is the point which the country have to determine. If the people feel a lively interest in the determination of this question, I cannot help it. If the industrious classes are anxious to remove the burdens they now labour under, and are desirous of eating cheaper bread and cheaper sugar and of obtaining cheaper timber than they are now capable of obtaining, we cannot be held responsible for it. And if this strong wish for a reduction of the prices of those articles is agitation, and if the fact of asking the people whether or not they think that these fiscal schemes are right and that they think we are doing our duty in proposing them is agitation, then I am afraid we must plead guilty to having excited that agitation. But this is not, I beg leave to inform [the] honourable gentlemen opposite, a fault resting with us alone. I could quote very recent instances where agitation had been called in to bear upon elections. (Cheers.) The honourable gentleman cheers out of place. I do not deny that agitation has been used for the purpose of acting on the feelings and prepossessions of the people on our side; but I do not see that any great backwardness has been evinced on that score by [the] honourable gentlemen opposite. I never saw, in my experience, any reluctance on their side to avail themselves of that mode of carrying any question which they advocated. The right honourable baronet has said, now that the appeal is made, and now that we are to go to the country, that he shall not make any particular exposition of his principles. But when the right honourable baronet came into office in 1834, he thought differently. He then thought it right to make an exposition of his political principles in his famous Tamworth Manifesto[7] — at a time, too, when parliament was not sitting. He did not then deem it improper to make an appeal to the country. And then again at a subsequent period, at the Mansion House, he did not object to a mode of proceeding which he now seems so much to eschew. And I recollect well that some things dropped from him on those occasions which looked very like what the right honourable baronet now calls bidding for the favour of the people. Moreover, he did make so high a bidding that I and my friends were at the time not a little apprehensive of the result. Now, however, he takes, and is to take, a totally different course....

Mr. Macaulay: It was the first duty of the ministers of the crown to administer the existing law. If the house of commons did not place sufficient confidence in the government for this purpose, it might express its opinion, either indirectly by the rejection of all the propositions of the administration, or directly, as was the case in the instance alluded to by the right honourable baronet, Sir Robert Walpole. The proceedings in either case sufficiently marked the want of confidence of the house of commons in the government. Under such circumstances, there was only the one or other constitutional course to pursue: namely, either to retire from office, or to dissolve the parliament. He denied, however, that it could be called a want of confidence, if the house withheld its assent from any new legislative measure, or refused to sanction the alteration of an old law.... For himself, he did not hold that any government was bound to resign because it could not carry legislative changes, except in particular cases, where they were impressed with the conviction that, without such and such a law, they could not carry on the public service; and then this was a case which did not depend upon whether the hindrance arose from king, lords, or commons. He was quite sure that on both sides of the house gentlemen would feel that there were many ways in which it might be ascertained whether the house did or did not repose confidence in a ministry, without putting on the records of the house so ill-advised and unsound a resolution as this, declaring that such and such were the principles of the constitution.

Sir Robert Peel: ... Can any man survey the course of government in this country and not see that acts of legislation are so interwoven with acts of administration as to render it utterly impossible to draw a line of distinction between them? Nay, I go further and say that the character of an administration, that their claim upon public confidence, is infinitely stronger on account of their legislative measures than on account of their administrative acts. If mere departmental administration, not liable to question, is a sufficient ground for a government to retain office and to be regardless of legislative defeats, it is pretty clear that there need be no union or concert among ministers. I dare say in ordinary times, when questions of peace or war are not in agitation, it may be tolerably easy to fill the departments of office with honest, respectable, and sufficiently competent men who, each in his department, would be able to conduct the duties devolving on him in such a manner as not to be much liable to question by the house of commons, and no matter what opinions such men may entertain upon the legislative policy of the country. They may either avoid legislation altogether or take the safer course — propose measures and, being defeated, fall back upon their acts of administration. But, I say, survey the course of the legislative and executive administration of this country and look at the great measures which the government have had to consider of late years, and see whether the character and vigour of a government do not depend upon its legislative more than upon its executive administration. Take the measures which the noble lord has referred to with so much pride and satisfaction. Take the removal of the Roman Catholic disabilities as affecting Ireland. Take the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, as affecting this country. Take the reform of parliament; take the poor law bill; take the municipal bill; take the proposition for the repeal or alteration of the corn laws — are not these the great questions by which the character of administrations has been judged and determined? And is it possible to contend in a reformed parliament, with these great measures in our view, that a government can be safely indifferent to the success or failure of its legislative acts? See what the inevitable consequence would be if such a doctrine were to prevail. See what an inducement would be given, both to the crown and to the house of commons, to depart from the sphere of their proper respective functions. The crown would, or might, be constantly attempting to place the house of commons in the wrong by proposing popular legislative measures and throwing upon the house of commons the odium of rejecting them. The crown might constantly labour to place the house of commons in opposition to the constituent body and to lower the character of the house of commons by inducing it to reject popular measures, purposely proposed with that view. If the doctrine of the right honourable gentleman were to prevail, all that the crown would have to do, in order to stop the useful functions of the house of commons, would be to say: "Legislative measures are matters of indifference; the government I have chosen shall remain in office in spite of the rejection of the measures they have proposed; and we, the crown and the government, shall have credit with the country for propounding popular measures which you, the house of commons, have rejected." Such would be the effect as regarded the crown. Then see what an inducement you would give to the house of commons to step beyond its functions, and thwart the executive. If the government say: "We are independent of the legislative measures and decisions of this

house; that which is your peculiar function we will disregard; our fate shall not depend upon your decisions; nothing but your interference with our executive administration shall influence our retention of power" — what an inducement do you not hold out to the house of commons to interfere with the prerogatives of the crown! The house of commons then, knowing that the only way in which it could influence the fate of the government was by interfering with its administrative functions, would press for the production of dispatches the production of which possibly may be injurious to the public service, or would protest against appointments made by the crown! In short, knowing that by the exercise of its ordinary legislative control it could not affect the government, the doctrine of the right honourable gentleman would present to the house of commons the greatest inducement to depart from its proper sphere and to interfere with the most important functions of the executive.

Ibid., LVIII, 817 f., 850 f., 881, 885, 1224 f.

(C) Disraeli on the Work of the Commons (1848)

... Perhaps it would not be uninteresting to the house and to the country that I should state what, independent of our debates, this house of commons, which it is the fashion to blame at present, has really done; and, in doing so, I will refer to a short paragraph in the report of the committee on public business, which, though already laid on the table of the house, has accidentally not been circulated among members. It appears from that report that there have been this year forty-five public committees, some of more than usual importance, with an average number of fifteen members serving on each committee. Then there have been twenty-eight election committees, with five members serving on each committee; fourteen groups on railway bills, with five members on each group; seventeen groups on private bills, with five members on each group. And there have been also one hundred and eleven other committees on private business. Of the public committees, that on commercial distress sat thirty-nine days; that on sugar and coffee planting, thirty-nine days; that on the navy, army, and ordnance expenditure, forty days; and that on the miscellaneous expenditure, thirty-seven days. There have, besides, been presented this year upwards of 18,500 petitions, showing an increase of 25 per cent. above the greatest number presented in any former year, except 1843.

Here I would make one observation on these petitions, since considerable error exists out of doors among our constituents on the subject. There is an idea that the presentation of a petition is an empty form, that it is ordered to lie on the table and is never heard of again. Now it is as well that our constituents should know that every petition laid on the table is scrutinized by a select committee of the most experienced and influential members of this house; that every petition which, from the importance of its subject or the ability of its statements, appears to merit more particular notice is printed at the public cost and afterwards circulated among the members. And I believe that at this moment the right of petition, although it is not permitted to make speeches on every petition, is a more important and efficient right than has ever been enjoyed at any time by the people of England in this respect....

Ibid., CI, 672 f.

(D) Debate on the Rebellion Losses Bill of Canada (1849)[8]

[22 March.] Mr. Gladstone said he would take this opportunity, in consequence of the intelligence lately received from Canada, of asking her majesty's government the two questions of which he had given notice. The first was whether any instructions have been given to the governor general of Canada as to the course which he is to pursue, in the event of its being proposed to him by his advisers to allow them to introduce into the house of assembly any bill giving compensation to any persons known to have been implicated in the rebellions of 1837 or 1838 on account of the damage sustained by them in those rebellions, or in the event of the passing of any such bill through the two houses of the provincial legislature. His second question was whether, according to the usage of Canada, if any such bill should have passed through both houses of the legislature, and should have become an act by the governor general's assent without a suspending clause, the money thereby authorized to be paid would be payable forthwith, or before her majesty's servants had had an opportunity of advising her majesty with respect to the allowance or disallowance of such act. And perhaps, for the convenience of the house, he had better put a third question: namely, whether any official information had been received by her majesty's government from Canada with regard to these proceedings; and if so, whether they had any objection to place it upon the table of this house.

Mr. Hawes said, in answer to the question of the right honourable gentleman, he had to state that no instructions whatsoever were given to the noble lord at the head of the Canadian government with reference to the introduction of this bill or in contemplation of any such measures. His noble friend (Earl Grey) had entire confidence in the noble lord the governor general's judgment and discretion, and was not in the habit of giving him instructions of that kind. With regard to the second question of the right honourable gentleman, who had himself filled the office of secretary of state for the colonies, he had to state that all colonial laws ... , having passed through their formal stages and received the assent of the crown through her majesty's representative in the colony, come into immediate operation unless they contain a suspending clause. This would apply, of course, to all acts, whether they were for the appropriation of money or not; and therefore, from the passing of such a bill, of course the act would come into operation and would continue to have the force of law unless disallowed by her majesty. In that case, it would only cease to be law upon the arrival of the specification of her majesty's disallowance in the colony. With regard to the right honourable gentleman's third question, he had to say that no dispatch whatever had been received from the earl of Elgin with reference to this transaction.... He used the word dispatch advisedly. His noble friend (Earl Grey) had a private letter from Canada, which he only received yesterday; but, with regard to any public dispatch, nothing of the kind had been received....

Mr. Robinson wished to know if the honourable gentleman the under-secretary for the colonies, when he made use of the expression, "when the measure receives the assent of the crown it will come into immediate operation," meant the governor general.

Mr. Hawes had said that, when the measure received the assent of the representative of the queen in the colony, it would come into immediate operation.

Subject dropped....

[19 June.] Lord Brougham: I rise to bring before your lordships a subject of very great interest and fully equal importance.... I mean the later affairs of the province of Canada....

A notion sprung up at one time which was very much encouraged by Lord Durham and his council, and which goes by the name of responsible government. If I were to say that I clearly understand what is meant by the term, I should be arrogating to myself a degree of perspicacity to which I have no right; I should, moreover, be invidiously placing my intellect in contact with that of my noble friend at the head of the government. The principle of responsible government is this, that whosoever governs a colony ... shall be bound to choose as his ministers whomsoever the legislature of the colony is disposed to give its confidence to. And further, whatever be his opinions of their conduct, so long as the confidence continues, he cannot remove them.... Such is the construction put upon responsible government in the colonies; and Lord Elgin, I see, has put this construction upon it. Indeed, but for such a construction, nobody could ever have dreamt of appointing Mr. Lafontaine. He was first appointed in the time of Sir Charles Bagot, who was, I believe, an able governor.... He was, however, in very bad health during the greater part of his government — which thus added to the weight and influence of his ministers. He appointed Mr. Lafontaine because responsible government had become the order of the day.... Then came Lord Metcalfe, a most excellent governor....

Soon after Lord Metcalfe assumed the reins of power, he dismissed the government which he found in office; and I can well believe that he was most anxious and willing to part with Mr. Lafontaine. But there came afterwards another change, and the doctrine of responsible government was applied, in the utmost rigour of its absurd interpretation, by the new governor, Lord Elgin. He restored Mr. Lafontaine and his friends to office.

This notion of responsible government, as applied to the colonies, almost passes my powers of comprehension. It is utterly inapplicable in the colonies — that is, as it is upheld in the mother country. It is no doubt to a certain limited extent applicable, but only to a limited extent. I would, for my part, interfere as little as possible with the powers and workings of the colonial assemblies in respect to the making of roads, bridges, and canals, and as to all matters of a like nature; but in matters that touch in the slightest degree the honour of the crown, or the interests of the imperial government, I deny that you can have responsible colonial government. According to that theory, it is said that whatever the majority of a colony may choose to do, their acts are always to bind the minority, without the power of appeal to the crown. I, for one, say that, if that is to be the rule, gross injustice will be done, frightful cruelty will be exercised....

Now, having stated this, and before I come to consider the bill in question, I shall only refer ... to one of the ablest state papers which I ever recollect to have proceeded from a statesman. It is a dispatch dated the 14th October, 1839, sent by the Lord John Russell to the right honourable Poulett Thomson....[9] But he, perspicacious as he is, and imaginative to conceive cases that might arise, could not anticipate this other case which has arisen — where British loyalists are taxed to pay French rebels for losses which they, the rebels, sustained in a rebellion that was crushed by those loyalists....

Mr. Lafontaine asked for a creation of new peers.... He gets the governor to send home — because the governor, according to this doctrine of responsible government, is a mere tool or puppet in the hands of the colonial ministers — he gets the governor to send home and obtain blank tickets for peerages, and he uses them at his will. Having thus prepared everything for their movement, they bring in their bill; and I venture to say that such a bill was never before produced before any assembly.... It is a bill of compensation for losses sustained by rebels. Allow me now to refer your lordships to the dispatch of Lord Elgin.... In it Lord Elgin says: "I shall not fail by the first mail to furnish you with full information respecting its character and objects, the circumstances which led to its introduction, and the grounds on which I resolved, after much reflection, to sanction it." This is after he had given his assent to the bill....

I have now, my lords, got to a close. I am perfectly certain that here cannot be a more fatal error than carrying to the extreme to which it has been carried the doctrine of responsible government.... Let us therefore come to the consideration of this question uninfluenced by the farce of responsible government, so well exposed to ridicule and reprobation in the dispatch of Lord John Russell which I have read.... It is ill adapted where there is not the check of a house of lords, where the colonial assembly is small in point of numbers and may be therefore packed, as I have shown that the Canadian parliament is packed.... I do not call upon you absolutely to refuse assent to this bill. I do not ask you to interfere with the royal prerogative by addressing the crown to withhold that dissent; but I ask you to take care that the bill should be made clear and plain and intelligible ... , and that in the meanwhile the bill shall be suspended, not refused, in order that due time may be afforded for making the amendments.

It is impossible, my lords, to know the strong and sincere feelings of loyalty which pervade masses of your fellow subjects and not be sensible to know how cruel it would be to take any steps which would throw them into the hands of the Americans.... My lords, you are not to hasten that catastrophe. I call upon you to save them from it. I implore you to save your Canadian fellow subjects from being made a sacrifice to this whim of responsible government.... I therefore implore your lordships to adopt these resolutions which, I am positively certain, will act like oil poured upon the troubled waters, and will restore peace and concord. I move your lordships to resolve that, by an act passed in the parliament of Canada entitled An Act to Provide for the Indemnification of Parties in Lower Canada ... , no security is afforded against compensation for losses sustained in the rebellion in Canada in 1837 and 1838 being given to persons engaged in the said rebellion; that it is just and necessary, either by recommending a further and amending bill to the legislature of Canada or by such other means as may be effectual, to provide security against any compensation for losses sustained in the said rebellion being given to persons engaged in or having aided or abetted the same.

Earl Grey: I have listened, my lords, most attentively to the very able and elaborate speech which the noble and learned lord has just addressed to the house; but I confess that at the close of it I am as utterly unable as I was at the beginning to comprehend what is the great public object, and what is the great public interest, which the noble and learned lord thinks will be answered by this house assenting to the resolutions he has moved.... I have heard no explanations from the noble and learned lord of how he considers the government of the province could advantageously be carried on after the wishes of the great majority of its representatives had been set at naught by a resolution of this house....

In calling upon your lordships to reject the resolution of the noble and learned lord, I do so far less by way of asking you to express an opinion upon the details of this bill than to say that this was a subject upon which the wishes of the people of Canada have been shown by their representatives, and that no grounds have been made out for calling upon her majesty to interfere to prevent the making of an act which the people in Canada, as shown by two-thirds of their representatives, think ought to become law.... The question whether the measure is a right one or a wrong one has now merged in the larger and much more important question of whether it is politic, when the parliament of Canada has passed a measure, the minority should be allowed to appeal to the crown to overrule the decision of the majority. That is the point now to be considered; that is the large and important question we are now at issue upon; that is the question upon which the great majority of the inhabitants of the province — of whatever religion, of whatever rank, and, I believe, of whatever political opinions — are at variance with the noble and learned lord, who says, if we adopt this resolution we shall be throwing oil upon the troubled waves, and produce a calm upon the agitated ocean of Canadian politics. Instead, however, of that being true, it is my firm conviction that, by passing a resolution of this kind, we shall be endangering the connection between this country and Canada by shaking the confidence which all persons cherish in the system of government now happily established there.... If therefore, my lords, you adopt these resolutions, you will be striking a grievous blow at our Canadian possessions; and it is upon that ground that I oppose the resolutions, and I hope and trust your lordships will concur with me in that opinion....

Their lordships divided. The numbers were: ... content 96; not content ... 99....

Ibid., CIII, 1124 f.; CVI, 450-347.

(E) Lord John Russell on Palmerston's Dismissal (1852)[10]

... It is as well that I should state what I conceive to be the position of a secretary of state as regards the crown in the administration of foreign affairs, and what I conceive to be the position of a secretary of state for foreign affairs as regards the prime minister of this country. I think that when, on the one hand, the crown, in consequence of a vote of the house of commons, places its constitutional confidence in a minister, that minister is bound, on the other hand, to the crown to the most frank and full detail of every measure that is taken, and is bound either to obey the sanction of the crown or to leave to the crown that full liberty which the crown must possess, of no longer continuing that minister in office. Such, sir, I hold to be the general doctrine. But, with regard to my noble friend, it did so happen that in 1850 precise terms were laid down, in a communication to my noble friend, with respect to the transaction of business between the crown and the secretary of state for foreign affairs.

I became the organ of making that communication to my noble friend, and thus became responsible for the sanction of the document I am about to read. I shall refer only to that part of the document which has reference to the subject now under consideration: "The queen requires, first, that Lord Palmerston will distinctly state what he proposes in a given case, in order that the queen may know as distinctly to what she is giving her royal sanction; secondly, having once given her sanction to a measure, that it be not arbitrarily altered or modified by the minister. Such an act she must consider as failing in sincerity towards the crown, and justly to be visited by the exercise of her constitutional right of dismissing that minister. She expects to be kept informed of what passes between him and the foreign ministers before important decisions are taken, based upon that intercourse; to receive the foreign dispatches in good time; and to have the drafts for her approval sent to her in sufficient time to make herself acquainted with their contents before they must be sent off. The queen thinks it best that Lord John Russell should show this letter to Lord Palmerston." I sent that accordingly, and received a letter from my noble friend to the following effect: "I have taken a copy of this memorandum of the queen and will not fail to attend to the directions which it contains." I conceive those directions were such as should be maintained between the foreign secretary and the crown.

And now, sir, I will state what is the duty of the prime minister; and I will state it, not in my own words, but in the words which were used by the late Sir Robert Peel in giving evidence before the committee of this house with respect to official salaries. The words are: "Take the case of the prime minister. You must presume that he reads every important dispatch from every foreign court. He cannot consult with the secretary for foreign affairs, and exercise the influence which he ought to have with respect to the conduct of foreign affairs, unless he be master of everything of real importance passing in that department." I conceive Sir Robert Peel there lays down the duty of a prime minister and makes him responsible for the business of the country. I may say, likewise, that I was informed both by her majesty and Sir Robert Peel that Sir Robert Peel had advised her majesty to consult me whenever a question should arise with respect to foreign affairs, and to take my advice on such question. Such, then, being the state of the relations which I held towards the crown on the one hand and to my noble friend on the other, I must say I have found the situation one of great difficulty. When my noble friend first held the seals of the foreign office, he was placed under Earl Grey, a statesman of age and experience, to whom my noble friend, then young in that particular office, would no doubt readily defer. When Lord Melbourne was at the head of the government, that noble lord's long intimacy and connection with my noble friend would naturally incline him to place some confidence in the conduct of my noble friend. Without either of these advantages I have certainly found, from time to time, that those relations were very difficult to maintain; while, at the same time, I felt that great responsibility devolved upon me....[11]

When this took place ... , it appeared to me that I had no other course than to inform my noble friend that, while I held office, he could no longer hold the seals of the foreign office. Later in the day, and after I had formed that resolution, I received a long letter from my noble friend, stating the reasons why he approved of the act of the president of France. But it appeared to me that those reasons no longer touched the case, because the real question now was whether the secretary of state was entitled, of his own authority, to write a dispatch as the organ of the queen's government in which his colleagues had never concurred, and to which the queen had never given her royal sanction. It appeared to me that, without degrading the crown, I could not advise her majesty to retain that minister in the foreign department of her government. I at the same time informed her majesty that a correspondence had taken place between Lord Palmerston and myself with respect to her majesty's wishes on the subject of dispatches and diplomatic notes. This was on the Wednesday. I waited until the Saturday following in order to consider and reconsider the matter before I finally resolved to submit this correspondence to her majesty. On Thursday I informed my noble friend that I should wait until that day, as I thought it possible that he might either propose some course or suggest some course by which a separation might be avoided. Nothing of that kind, however, occurred and, being then as fully convinced as before, I on Saturday, the 20th, wrote to her majesty conveying copies of the correspondence which had passed and likewise intimating my advice to her majesty that my noble friend should be required to give up the seals of the foreign office. In coming to a decision so weighty, by which I must be separated from a colleague with whom I had acted so long, whose abilities I admired and whose policies I had approved, I felt fully — whether I was right or wrong in so acting I do not say — that it was one which I was bound to take by myself, and one upon which I ought not to consult any of my colleagues, and one for which, in order to avoid anything which might hereafter be tortured into the appearance of a cabal, I ought to assume the sole and entire responsibility....

Ibid., CXIX, 89-99.

(F) Gladstone on the Advance of the Working Class (1866)

... Since 1832 every kind of beneficial change has been in operation in favour of the working classes. There never was a period in which religious influences were more active than in the period I now name. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that within that time the civilizing and training powers of education have for all practical purposes been not so much improved as, I might almost say, brought into existence, as far as the mass of the people is concerned. As regards the press, an emancipation and extension have taken place to which it would be difficult to find a parallel. I will not believe that the mass of gentlemen opposite are really insensible to the enormous benefit that has been effected by that emancipation of the press — when, for the humble sum of a penny or for even less, newspapers are circulated from day to day by the million rather than by the thousand, in numbers almost defying the powers of statistics to follow, and carrying home to all classes of our fellow-countrymen accounts of public affairs; enabling them to feel a new interest in the transaction of those affairs and containing articles which, I must say, are written in a spirit, with an ability, with a sound moral sense, and with a refinement that have made the penny press of England the worthy companion — I may indeed say the worthy rival — of those dearer and older papers which have long secured for British journalism a renown perhaps without parallel in the world. By external and material as well as by higher means, by measures relating to labour, to police, and to sanitary arrangements, parliament has been labouring, has been striving to raise the level of the working community, and has been so striving with admitted success. And there is not a call which has been made upon the self-improving powers of the working community which has not been fully answered. Take, for instance, the working men's free libraries and institutes throughout the country. Take, as an example of the class, Liverpool. Who are the frequenters of that institution? I believe that the majority of the careful, honest, painstaking students who crowd that library are men belonging to the working classes, a large number of whom cannot attend without making some considerable sacrifice. Then again, sir, we called upon them to be provident; we instituted for them post-office savings banks, which may now be said to have been in full operation for four years. And what has been the result? During these four years we have received these names at the rate of thousands by the week, and there are now 650,000 depositors in those savings banks. This, then, is the way in which parliament has been acting towards the working classes. But what is the meaning of all this? Parliament has been striving to make the working classes progressively fitter and fitter for the franchise. And can anything be more unwise, not to say more senseless, than to persevere from year to year in this plan, and then blindly to refuse to recognize its legitimate upshot — namely, the increased fitness of the working classes for the exercise of political power? ...

Ibid., CLXXXII, 1132 f.


[1] In 1830, on the defeat of Wellington's Tory ministry, Earl Grey became head of a new government pledged to reform parliament. Accordingly, in March of the next year, Lord John Russell, leader of the majority in the house of commons, introduced such a bill. Dispute over the bill led to the dissolution of parliament in April. Having won a large majority in the ensuing election, the government resumed its efforts to secure reform in the new parliament. Finally, in June 1832, an amended form of the bill passed both houses and received the royal assent (see no. 130A). The following extracts are from speeches by Russell and Peel in the commons and by Melbourne and Wellington in the lords.

[2] No. 51A.

[3] See p. 165, n. 1.

[4] No. 92D.

[5] No. 94C.

[6] Russell here takes up these grievances in order and shows how the proposed bill meets them.

[7] A statement of what were to be the guiding principles of the Conservative Party, issued by Peel in 1834.

[8] An act recently passed by the Canadian parliament to compensate those who had suffered damages during the Rebellion of 1837-38. The following extracts are (1) from proceedings in the house of commons and (2) from those in the house of lords. With the defeat of Lord Brougham's resolutions, debate on the matter came to an end. For earlier discussions of responsible government, see no. 133.

[9] Brougham here quotes parts of the dispatch (no. 133C).

[10] In December, 1851, Lord Palmerston, foreign secretary in Russell's government, expressed his personal approbation of the coup d'etat by which President Bonaparte had overturned the republican constitution of France. How this indiscretion led to his dismissal from office is explained in the following excerpt from a speech in the commons by the prime minister.

[11] Russell here explains at length how Palmerston had embarrassed the government by expressing, without the concurrence of the cabinet and without the sanction of the crown, his approval of Bonaparte's action.


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