Page images
PDF
EPUB

ROBERT LOWE

Lowe's oratorical reputation was acquired and retained only during the Parliamentary Sessions of 1866 and 1867. Before that period he had not been conspicuous in Parliament, though he had been an excellent Minister of Education. When he afterwards became Chancellor of the Exchequer, his power of speaking seemed to have almost entirely deserted him. It was his opposition to Parliamentary Reform as brought forward first by Gladstone, and afterwards by Disraeli, that inspired him with the fervid eloquence to which he owes his rhetorical fame. Fear of democracy was the guiding spirit of his indignant denunciations. He had studied it in Australia, where it greatly alarmed him, and his dread of it induced him to treat a moderate, almost timid, extension of the franchise as if it had been a measure for placing the State under the heels of a rabble. There can be no doubt that in expressing his apprehensions he electrified the House of Commons by the pungent vigour of his incisive sarcasm, and the bold flights of his polished vituperation. How far he meant it all the readers of his speeches may judge for themselves. It is certainly more artificial than most real eloquence. The art, however, is extremely good, and the effect produced is not the less triumphant because the material is unusually slender. The enfranchisement of the working classes is a question of the first magnitude. But Mr. Gladstone's, or Lord Russell's Bill would merely have reduced an annual qualification of ten pounds to one of seven, and

to create alarm out of such a change required imaginative · as well as oratorical power. Lowe was a classical scholar

who had imbibed the style of Greek and Latin orators with as much zeal and thoroughness as Pitt. Yet his range was too narrow, his diction was too monotonous, to have been long admired, or even tolerated, in the House of Commons.

He was the man of a subject, and of an occasion. Attack and invective were necessary for the full development of his faculties. His speeches in 1866, and one of his speeches in 1867, remain by themselves, quite unlike and apart from anything he achieved before, or anything he accomplished afterwards. They represent the oratory of protest, the declamation of a man who feels that he is making a last stand against a perilous future. For, though Gladstone's Bill was defeated, Lowe was not among those who believed in the permanence of the defeat.

Representation of the People Bill, 1

House of Commons, May 31st, 1866 MR. SPEAKER, we are now called to go into committee on a Bill which has never been read a second time. The two halves of it have been read, each of them a second time, but the whole measure we have never until this moment had before us. The first half this House was induced or shall I say coerced ? into reading a second time without knowledge of the other part. The second half was really hurried on so fast to a second reading -only an interval of a week being given to master all its complicated details—that I, for one, was quite unable to take part in the discussion on the second reading, for want of time to make up my mind as to an opinion by which I should be willing to stand. I hope, therefore, the House will allow me, even at this stage, to question the principle of the measure. What is that principle ? I must apologise to the House for the monotonous nature of my complaints, which are, I think, justified by the uniform nature of the provocation I receive. That provocation is that the Government keeps continually bringing in measures, attacking, as it seems to me, the very vital and fundamental institutions of the country, and purposely abstains from telling us the principle of those measures. I made the same complaint, I am sorry to say, against the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the Franchise Bill: I make it again now. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in introducing the Redistribution Bill, said that the Government was not

1 This speech was made when Lord Russell's Government proposed to go into Committee on the Reform Bill and the Redistribution Bill of 1866.

desirous of innovation—that is to say, they went on no principle. Their principle, he said, was the same as the principle of every Redistribution Bill. Now, that appears to me to be impossible, because Redistribution Bills may be divided into two classes. There is one, the great Reform Bill—the only successful Redistribution Bill that anyone ever heard of, and then there are the four which succeeded it, and which all failed from one cause or another, and the principle of the four Bills which followed was another. The principle of the Reform Bill, was no doubt, disfranchisement. The feeling of the country at the time was, that the deliberations of this House were overruled, and the public opinion stifled, by an enormous number of small boroughs under the patronage of noblemen and persons of property. That state of things was considered a public nuisance, and one which it was desirable to abate, and hence the principle of the Reform Bill was disfranchisement, and 141 members were taken away from the small boroughs. The Government proposition was to reduce the number of the House of Commons by fifty, because they were very anxious to get rid of these members, and they had no means which appeared suitable of filling up the vacancies they had created. It was only on an amendment carried against the Government that it was determined not to diminish the number of members in this House. But has that been the principle of any subsequent Reform Bill ? I think not; it has been quite the contrary, it has been the principle of enfranchisement; and of enfranchisement only so far as may be necessary in order to fill up the places which require enfranchisement. As I have shown the House, there are two different principles, and the right hon. gentleman does not tell me which is his, but says the principle is that of all other Redistribution Bills. This puts me in mind of the story of a lady who wrote to a friend to ask how she was to receive a particular lover, and the answer was, “ As you receive all your other lovers. Well, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not tell us what the principle of his measure is, I must, I am sorry to say, with the same monotony of treatment, try to puzzle it out for myself, for it seems to me preposterous to consider the Bill without the guiding thought of those who constructed it. There is one principle of redistribution upon which it clearly ought not to be founded, and that is the principle of abstract right to equality of

representation. The principle of equal electoral districts, or an approximation to such districts, is not the principle on which a Redistribution Bill ought to be based. To adopt such a principle would be to make us the slaves of numbers—very good servants but very bad masters. I do not suppose we are eager to see the time :

'When each fair burgh, numerically free,

Returns its members by the Rule of Three." And yet, though few persons stand up for the principle of equality of representation, I cannot escape the conclusion that it has had a good deal to do with the matter, and that the Government will find it exceedingly difficult to point out what other principle than that of a sort of approximation towards numerical equality has guided them. For if it be not a principle of a priori rights, it must be some good to the State, some improvement of the House or the Government—some practical good in some way. Now, the House has had the advantage of hearing the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and I ask whether any of these right honourable gentlemen has pointed out any good of any practical nature whatever to be expected from the Bill. I set myself, therefore, according to my old method, to try and puzzle out what ought to be the principle of a Bill for the Redistribution of Seats. In the first place, I should like to be shown some practical evil to be remedied, but I give that up in despair, for I have so often asked for it and failed to obtain it, that I am quite sure I shall not have it on this occasion. But it seems to me a reasonable view of a Redistribution Bill, that it should make this House, more fully and perfectly than it is at present, a reflection of the opinion of the country. That, I think, is a fair ground to start from. We have suffered in many respects from the arbitrary division of these two measures, and in none more than this—that the arguments for the Redistribution of Seats have been transferred to this Bill for enlarging the franchise. For, although it is quite true that a Bill for the Redistribution of Seats should aim at making Parliament a mirror of the country, it is also true that there can be nothing more inappropriate than the argument when applied to the enlargement of the franchise. For to pass a Bill which puts the power in a majority of the boroughs into

the hands of the working classes, is not to make this House a faithful reflection of the opinion of the country, but is to make it an inversion of that opinion by giving political power into the hands of those who have very little social power of any kind. But that principle applies, to a certain extent, to a Redistribution Bill, and from that point I take my departure. Anyone who makes an examination as to the nature of the deficiency, will see whether this House fails in any considerable degree to reflect the opinion of the country. I confess I have found it exceedingly difficult to discover in what respect it fails to do so. I have, indeed, observed some tendency of a kind, which, if we are to have a Redistribution Bill, ought to be corrected, I think there is a visible tendency to too great a uniformity and monotony of representation. I think there is a danger that we may become too much like each other—that we may become merely the multiple of one number. That is a danger which has occurred to thinking men, and I think it very desirable that in a Redistribution Bill we should find a remedy, if possible, for the tendency to this level of monotony, and perhaps mediocrity. I think another great object we must have in view in a Redistribution Bill should be enfranchisement, and by that I mean not the aggregation of fresh members to large constituencies, but the enfranchisement of fresh constituencies, and by the enfranchisement of such constituencies the giving more variety and life to the representation of the country, and thus making the House what the country is— a collection of infinite variety of all sorts of pursuits and habits. I think the second advantage is, that by making fresh constituencies by fresh enfranchisements you do the most efficient thing you can do towards moderating the frightful, enormous, and increasing expenses of elections. This is one of the greatest evils of our present system. I am not speaking of the illegitimate expenses of elections, but of the legitimate expenses. We had a paper laid upon our tables this morning giving an account of the expenses from "S"downwards. I take the first few large boroughs, and I will read the expenses. The expense of the election for Stafford is £5,400 ; Stoke-upon-Trent, £6,200 ; Sunderland, £5,000; and Westminster, £12,000. These are the aggregate expenses of all the candidates. I take them as they come, without picking and choosing. I wish to call particular attention to the case of Westminster, not for the purpose of saying

« PreviousContinue »