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Ballot Bill—Bill 23

Volume 203: debated on Wednesday 27 July 1870

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( Mr. Leatham, Mr. Hardcastle, Mr. Hibbert, Sir Harcourt Johnstone.)

Second Reading Adjourned Debate

Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [16th March], "That the Bill be now read a second time."

Question again proposed.

Debate resumed.

I propose, Sir, with the permission of the House, to explain very briefly the course I intend to take. No man has, perhaps, a fairer claim to explain his opinions than I have upon the second reading of this Bill, for I believe I have never opened my lips on this subject in the House of Commons, though I have frequuently voted upon it, and have always voted against the Ballot. There are two points to be noticed—one is the ground on which I shall found my opinion of the merits of the Bill; and the other is the question as to the time and peculiar circumstances under which we are called upon to give a vote. Her Majesty's Government were very anxious, if they could, to have brought to a definitive issue a measure of their own during the present Session for the establishment of secret voting. The House is perfectly aware of the cause—the pressure of Public Business—which has prevented the Government from giving effect to that intention. They considered whether it was fitting for them to ask the House to give a second reading to their Bill, avowing at the same time their inability to prosecute it to its ulterior stages; and they determined that this was not a course which it was desirable for them to pursue. And for a Government, indeed, I think both precedent and reason are against that method of proceeding. It is a matter of which the House ought to be very jealous—if, on the part of the Government, a disposition should be shown, especially upon a measure which is popular with a large portion of the community, to claim credit for the adoption of a principle, and, at the same time, to shrink from the adjustment of its details; and, therefore, we decided that we should best discharge our public duty by dropping a Bill which we had lost all hope of carrying to a satisfactory termination. The acts of an independent Member are, in some respects, a different matter. At any rate, we have no power to control the discretion of my hon. Friend (Mr. Leatham); he has exercised that discretion as he thinks best, and I am not here to find fault with him, but to answer the challenge, if I may use that expression, which he holds out to me in proposing that the House should give a vote on the second reading of the Bill. Under these circumstances, I think it my duty to vote for the second reading. I may say why I shall do so, although I shall not attempt to enter into any detailed arguments upon the question of the Ballot. At other times, whether rightly or wrongly, we were quite content to hear the question argued as it was argued by Lord Palmerston. Lord Palmerston had paid great attention to the question of the Ballot—at least, he felt a great interest in it. He always spoke upon it with much ability, and he usually founded himself on this view of the subject—that the franchise was to be viewed as a trust, to be exercised by a limited portion of the community for the benefit of the whole, and that the whole community had just the same kind of right to know how that trust was exercised on their behalf by the limited portion of the community intrusted with the franchise, as the public out-of-doors have to know how the power entrusted to their representatives in Parliament is exercised by those representatives within these walls. I do not refer to that argument for the purpose of claiming any adhesion to it on the part of those who always supported secret voting, but merely to explain my own view of the question. In substance, the change which has been made in the constitution of our Parliamentary system within the last few years is the basis of the change which will be made in my conduct with regard to secret voting. Even those who do not concur with the argument as to a trust, applied in former times by Lord Palmerston and other opponents of the Ballot, must feel that the position of the question has been very largely altered by the extension of the constituency. Lot us consider what that extension is; it is an extension nominally from a £10 suffrage to household suffrage, but really, virtually, and in principle an extension that is unlimited. When we have adopted household suffrage we have, I think, practically adopted the principle that every man who is not disabled in point of ago, of crime, of poverty, or through some other positive disqualification, is politically competent to exercise the suffrage; and it is a simple question of time and convenience when this suffrage shall be placed in his hands. To draw a distinction between household suffrage and lodger suffrage, provided the lodger be a person who has a certain permanence in his residential tenure, would be, in my opinion, wholly impossible; to draw a distinction between boroughs and counties is, I think, equally impracticable. I do not enter into the question now, though it is a very important question, whether, over and above the personal franchise, property franchises should be retained. The course taken upon the Reform Bill by myself and others whom I had the honour to act with showed a disposition on our part not towards the restriction, but towards the multiplication of the franchises—at least towards their extension by lowering the leasehold qualification, and by a variety of other propositions that were discussed. But the question is, not whether these particular franchises ought to be retained or rejected, but whether the principle upon which Parliament has placed the electoral system of the country is such that we may justly say the whole of the people of the country are presumably entitled to the exercise of the suffrage. I think that is the true view of the case, and that the extension of household suffrage to the counties is a question only of time and convenience. I am not at all sure—if this were the occasion to enter upon that subject as a question of party politics—whether the adoption of such a measure might not prove to be beneficial to the Gentlemen who sit opposite. With that I have nothing to do—it is not necessary to give an opinion upon it; but I think, in principle, we have bound ourselves to measures which must infallibly entail that consequence. That being so, I think the first view of the question as it stands is this—that there is no longer, properly so called, a limited constituency acting and exercising a trust on behalf of the whole people; but that the basis on which Parliament desires to found the representative system of the country is a basis not less wide than that of the entire nation, setting aside those who may be subject to positive disqualifications; and, consequently, that the trust which is exercised by the father of a family, or by an adult male, in giving a vote for a Member of Parliament is practically a trust which he holds mainly on behalf of his wife and children, all other persons being presumably entitled to act with him on a footing of equality in giving a vote. I own that, as far as I myself am concerned, under all circumstances—even when the argument has disappeared, as to a trust to be exercised on behalf of others who cannot exercise it for themselves—I should greatly prefer the public to the private discharge of every public function, and, therefore, I am not able to treat secret voting as an unmixed good. I look upon it as a choice of evils; and when we are to regard the Parliamentary franchise, disembarrassed of those peculiar considerations which attached to it as long as we had comparatively a very limited constituency, I ask myself—what is the first condition that it is the duty of Parliament to secure? I cannot doubt as to the answer which should be made to that question. The proper answer is, that the first duty which Parliament has to perform, after having conferred the franchise under those circumstances, is to provide that it shall be exercised freely. That it shall be exercised purely is also of the utmost importance. But then arises a serious question with regard to the character of the Ballot to be established—shall the Ballot be one so devised as to admit of a subsequent verification of the votes, or shall it not? Into that question it is not now necessary to enter; but that the Ballot be exercised freely is a condition absolutely indispensable. This freedom is threatened from many quarters. It is threatened, I do not hesitate to admit, from the dictation and possible violence of more numbers, as well as from the more subtle, more extensive, and more continuous action of those influences which are connected with property. To one case, though I have not the document actually at hand at this moment, I should wish to refer, because it was a case which produced a great action upon the public mind at the time; and it cannot, I think, have been wholly forgotten within the walls of this House—I mean the circular which was issued from the press in the town of Blackburn during the proceedings previous to the Election of 1868. That circular was an invitation issued by one of the political parties in the town—I need not say which, and it does not matter which—inviting all persons who possessed property, station, situations, or anything, in fact, by which they could acquire influence and bring this to bear upon the votes of their fellow-citizens, to meet together for the purpose of concerting measures to give effect to that influence. That was a hardy and daring attempt to put down freedom of election; but it was one that could not have been touched by law. If a law could have been framed which, without interfering with personal liberty, could prevent and nip in the bud attempts of such extraordinary audacity, I think Parliament would do well to consider such a law; but I believe it to be quite impossible. And if attempts of that kind can be made, if the influences of power, and property, and station can be organized in a large mass within the bosoms of great communities, and brought to bear individually upon all the votes to be given by poor and humble men, then I say the freedom of the franchise is in the utmost danger, unless special measures be taken to secure it. And here the vast extension of the franchise which has taken place immensely strengthens the arguments in favour of secret voting, if secret voting be a protection to the voter, In former times the bulk of the constituency consisted of persons supposed more or less to have property, and hence presumed to be more or less capable of defending themselves; but we have now adopted a different principle, and have thought fit to admit to the franchise, in a mass, those who are dependent for their bread upon their daily labour. To expose such persons to the action of this powerful and overruling combination is, in my opinion, to stultify the whole of that great operation of Parliament by which the franchise has been so largely extended as, for the first time, to give it a national character. It is therefore in obedience to necessity, and to a duty, that I think the time has come when the House will best discharge its obligations to the country by giving effect to the principle of secret voting. I rest my opinion upon these grounds—in the first place, that whatever else it be, the franchise ought to be free, and free it cannot be if the infirmities of our nature are exposed to oppressive influences and intimidation, whether coming from above or below. On the contrary, those infirmities will be aggravated, the voter will become a hypocrite in the face of day, he will conceal his intentions, his acts will be falsified, and will belie the convictions of his heart. It is our duty, therefore, above all things, to secure that votes shall be given freely. Next to that, it would be the desire of the Government to consider all the means which would tend to secure votes being given purely. One advantage that helps to mitigate the disappointment of postponing the measure which we intended to introduce, is that we shall have the opportunity of examining more carefully during the Recess than would have been possible during the pressure of this crowded Session the means proposed for this very purpose by my hon. Friend, and the other means which are proposed in competition with them, and of choosing among them what may be the best method of delivering a secret vote. But the secret vote, in some shape or other, does appear to be required by the social circumstances under which we live. I cannot place wholly out of view the fact of the extensive acceptance which the Ballot has received in other countries of the world. I can hardly suppose it possible that any, except those who have become enamoured of the question by studying it from a particular point of view, can feel a warm abstract preference for secret voting; but a practical preference for secret voting has been given, in one shape or other, almost everywhere where the English race has spread itself over the face of the earth. And other nations, our own rivals and companions in civilization, to say the least, have generally resorted to this method of procedure. Our judgment must be governed mainly by the conditions of the society in which we live, and also, in some degree, by the progress of opinion. And it is impossible not to see that opinion has very perceptibly moved in the direction of secret voting since the passing of the last Reform Act. Even the proceedings in the Committee which sat last year, in some cases emanating from members of the party opposite, tend to support that view of the case. But the conclusive consideration which weighs upon my mind is, that while the greatest and weightiest of the arguments against secret voting have either wholly disappeared or have been greatly reduced in scope and weight, in consequence of the change which we have adopted as to the actual constituencies, and still more as to the principle upon which our Parliamentary representation may now be said to be founded—while the arguments upon one side have thus lost much of their force, the arguments on the other side have not lost any of their weight, but, on the contrary, have gained strength. The greater dependence of the mass of the constituency renders them more open than heretofore to the illegitimate influences, if not of bribery, yet of intimidation, and we cannot, therefore, without a measure of this kind, secure the exercise of the franchise in that freedom which is its first, most vital, and most essential attribute. These are the reasons, briefly stated, which determine me to support the second reading of this Bill, for which my vote, if we go to a Division, shall be given unhesitatingly.

Sir, I must express my regret that a most important question of constitutional polity should have been brought forward for our consideration at the fag-end of the Session and in a scanty House of Commons. I regret it the more, because we have had a Bill upon the matter introduced by the Government, and withdrawn for special and sufficient reasons by them, without attempting to obtain any decision upon the principle of their measure. I likewise regret it because time, of course, is valuable at the end of the Session; and I cannot see what the hon. Gentleman, who to-day moves the second reading of this Bill, is to attain practically by any decision of the House, for he cannot for a moment suppose that beyond the second reading the measure is likely to make any progress this Session. I was quite prepared, if the question had been brought forward, according to the original intimation of the Government, to have entered upon the consideration of the matter, at least to have contributed my share towards a discussion of this great question, which upon the part of the House I hoped would not have been inadequate. Anything like a hurried or scrambling debate upon the Ballot appears to me to be a proceeding not worthy the dignity of this House; and such a course has tended, I think, of late years, very much to diminish the hold which the opinion of this House would have upon the country as deciding questions which closely concern the political future of England—though the consequences of the Ballot may be very different from those which are anticipated by Gentlemen upon both sides of the House. But I must protest against being called upon to enter into a discussion under the circumstances and in the manner in which we are met to-day. I cannot say that I thought the reasons of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Gladstone) were, on the whole, satisfactory or consistent. The right hon. Gentleman is the head of a Government that has introduced a measure upon this question. I am not here to doubt the sincerity of the right hon. Gentleman and his Colleagues in bringing forward that measure, or for a moment to insinuate that the reasons why they did not press that measure were not such as, if stated, would be otherwise than satisfactory to Gentlemen on both sides of the House. But the right hon. Gentleman has told us fairly that a Minister is not justified in bringing forward a measure such as the Ballot, when he feels that there is no chance of carrying it; and that to ask for the second, reading of a Bill on the part of the Government, when they have no prospect of entering into the practical details by which the plan thus sanctioned by the House is to be carried into effect, would be, on the part of the Government, a proceeding that could not be justified, I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman. But what has he done to-day? He has given his sanction to a measure embodying the principle of the Ballot, just as much as he would have done if he had asked for an expression of opinion by the House of Commons upon the second reading of his own Bill. I cannot understand how the right hon. Gentleman is justified, according to his own declarations, in taking the course which he proposes to adopt with regard to the measure of the hon. Member for Huddersfield. I cannot understand how the right hon. Gentleman can reconcile the course which he is about to take this evening with the policy which, only a few moments ago, he congratulated himself on having adopted — that of having declined to ask the opinion of the House upon his own measure, which there was no chance whatever of carrying. Nor am I inclined on the present occasion to offer any remarks upon the general observations of the right hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman never addresses us without commanding our attention and engaging our interest; but I have heard nothing from him on the subject of the Ballot which, at any rate, has the charm of novelty. The observations which he has made, and some of which he has introduced to the House, as if he heard of them for the first time, are very familiar to those who have paid any attention to this subject. The right hon. Gentleman has occupied a great part of his address in answering Lord Palmerston. Well, I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman, when he was sitting on the same Bench as Lord Palmerston, and when Lord Palmerston was making those speeches upon the Ballot, felt at the time an impatience—which to-day he has seized the opportutunity of satisfying—to respond in this manner to his former Colleague and chief. But I must say upon this head that an answer to Lord Palmerston, however satisfactory, is no answer to the opponents of the policy of the Ballot, who probably have given to the question as much consideration as the right hon. Gentleman himself. The great principle on which Lord Palmerston laid stress was that the franchise was to be looked upon as a trust; and, though that opinion appears to have been accepted by the right hon. Gentleman during the life-time of Lord Palmerston, the right hon. Gentleman to-day has directed his efforts and energy to demolish the justice of that position. I cannot say, speaking for myself, that I have ever looked upon the franchise as a trust, though I know it was a very convenient view for those who shared the limited opinions of Lord Palmerston upon this subject. I have always looked upon the franchise as a privilege, and it was a privilege that I for one was very glad to see greatly extended. But, holding as I do that the franchise is a privilege, and, as a privilege, ought to be freely exercised, is a matter entirely apart from the merits or demerits of secret voting. Into a general discussion upon that I certainly shall not enter. If we are to discuss the question of the Ballot in a manner worthy of its magnitude, I think it can be shown that objections will arise to it, which at least well deserve the deepest consideration of the House. Nor I cannot agree with the right hon. Gentleman that his conversion to the Ballot is to be justified by the recent extension of the suffrage. On the contrary, I have always thought that the wider the suffrage the less claim there will be for the adoption of the Ballot—that the strength and security of the voters will be proportionately increased. I have no doubt myself that the larger the constituency the greater will be its moral power, and the less would be the inclination, or the opportunity, to bring improper influence upon the exercise of the franchise by that constituency. I do not mean, however, by the phrase improper influence, to refer to that legitimate influence which character, property, and the due performance of the duties of life will happily give in this country to individuals who are thus distinguished. And, therefore, I entirely differ from the right hon. Gentleman in the conclusion which he has drawn that, because the suffrage has been extended to large classes in this country who did not enjoy it before, this circumstance furnishes novel and unanswerable reasons for giving them this protection of secret voting. In my mind, it is more likely that the constituent body of the United Kingdom, as at present composed, possesses in itself elements of independence which would command public respect, and which it would not be in the power of any class of individuals, as a general rule, improperly to influence. I could not help making these remarks after the somewhat unexpected and rather startling observations of the right hon. Gentleman. I am not myself on this occasion going to enter into any discussion of the Ballot. I think it is of great importance—especially when the subject is brought forward for the first time with the sanction of a Minister—that the question should not be dealt with in this by manner. We ought to give to this subject a discussion worthy of its importance; and then, whatever may be the decision of the House of Commons, and, ultimately probably, of Parliament upon the question, it will be felt by the country that the subject has been discussed thoroughly and completely, and that the opinion of either House of Parliament has not been caught by any accident, or by some clever contrivance at the end of a jaded Session on some Wednesday morning — and Wednesday mornings are proverbial for many accidental expressions which are not afterwards carried into effect. Let it not be said that we treated the Ballot as some mere, crotchety question, or one to be incidentally disposed of. Let us await the matured measure which the Government has promised us next year; and I am bound to say, from listening impartially to the right hon. Gentleman, that I think he does require time and opportunity to consider the question. Let us treat this question in a becoming manner; and, therefore, I cannot at all counsel a discussion on the present occasion, which it appears to me would be of a most unsatisfactory kind, and would give to the country a totally inadequate impression of the importance which the House of Commons attaches to this question, and of the spirit which upon the right occasion it will exhibit in dealing with it.

said, the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government had referred to what was known in Blackburn as "the screw circular." But it was fair to remember that political partisans on the other side had killed a man in the same town merely because he called out "Hornby for ever!" The circular had never actually been disavowed, but over very many of the signatures to that document there hung doubts as to their authenticity of precisely the same kind as existed with regard to that much larger document which fell like a thunderbolt upon London the other day when published in the columns of The Times. The right hon. Gentleman seemed to imagine that if there had been secret voting in Blackburn the political results might have been different. But after the two Members returned at the General Election had been unseated, at the next Election, held almost under the shadow of the Election Judge's presence, the sons of those very gentlemen were returned by still larger majorities.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for this day month.