, in rising to call the attention of the House to the abrupt Dissolution of the late Parliament on the 26th January last, and to the precipitate General Election consequent thereon; and to move—
said, that in interposing between the House and Supply on that occasion, he trusted he should receive the kind attention of hon. Members, because although not "entirely unaccustomed to public speaking," he feared he had rusted a good deal from disuse during the last five or six years. In the first place, be begged explicitly to declare that in bringing forward and endeavouring to ventilate the subject of the late Dissolution he was not acting in accord with any party in the House; he had not taken counsel with a single person in the House; and as regarded the Resolution he was about to propose, he alone was responsible for its wording. In point of fact, he did not expect to obtain much sympathy or assistance from either of the two great parties, for the chiefs of the Conservative party, now in the enjoyment of office, owing mainly to the political madness of the Leader of the opposite party, were perfectly satisfied with the late Dissolution, and had great reason to be contented; while hon. and right hon. Gentlemen on the other side, politically disorganized, were not disposed to wrangle over spilt milk, or expose the follies of those who had brought them into their present unhappy position. However, he would go on with his Motion because, though it appeared to be a mere Vote of Censure for a particular act, he had a practical measure to propose. The question which the House must face—and it was a grave question—was simply this—How were future General Elections in this country to be conducted? Was it to be permitted to any party to organize a Dissolution in secret, and "spring it" without notice upon bewildered constituencies for party purposes, or was it not? That was the question which, in his opinion, the House ought to discuss, and if it shirked the discussion it would be evading its plain and positive duty. The Resolution which he had put on the Paper was a very moderate one. It did not in any way assail Her Majesty's Prerogative. He admitted it was the undoubted Prerogative of Her Majesty, and her undoubted right, to terminate the existence of a Parliament at any time, always acting under Ministerial responsibility. But the Resolution assailed the wisdom, honesty, and necessity of the advice tendered to Her Majesty on a late occasion, and it condemned and challenged the surprise and deception which marked and characterized the proceedings which led to the late General Election. Those, he thought, were charges which ought to be met and discussed upon principles of plain common sense, having no relation whatever to legal technicalities or musty precedents. Now, properly to understand the circumstances under which the late Dissolution had been brought about, it was necessary that he should take a short retrospect of the political situation in 1873, and he promised he would make that retrospect as short as he possibly could. The House was perfectly aware that the late Liberal Cabinet had existed for a term of five years, and perhaps they also knew that in the eyes of the supporters of that Cabinet, that term of five years was supposed to constitute the most glorious epoch in the legislative history of Great Britain. He, however, was not going to argue that point, because he thought it had been settled by the country at the late General Election; but he was quite ready to admit that for the first four years of his administration the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Gladstone) conducted the business of this country with much vigour—namely, from 1809 to 1872, for he had then at his back a rattling majority, and he then enjoyed the loyal support of all sections of the Liberal party in that House. It was only in 1873—the fifth year of his administration—that the fortunes of the right hon. Gentleman began to wane, and when they did begin to wane, his "decline and fall" were very rapid. It was on the night of the 11th, or the morning of the 12th of March in that year, that the Cabinet of the right hon. Gentleman nearly foundered in the attempt to puss through that House the Irish University Bill. That Bill had been personally introduced by the right hon. Gentleman, and it was then declared to be a Bill vital to the general interests and prosperity of Ireland. It was described to be a measure which would be the last act of conciliation which Ireland needed at the hands of the Imperial Parliament, and the right hon. Gentleman staked his Ministerial existence on the success of that Bill. Well, it failed. He would not describe at length the resignation of Ministers and their immediate resumption of office; it would be sufficient for his purpose that he should state that the right hon. Gentleman, with the general concurrence of the House, resumed the direction of the House and of affairs, and conducted them during the year 1873 successfully to a close, Parliament having been prorogued as usual about the first week of August. He would not say one word, either, about the Ministerial successes of that year, for their legislative achievements were almost a blank. Well, in August, 1873, when the House was prorogued, the right hon. Gentleman had abundant leisure to consider what course his Cabinet should thereafter pursue. At that time a general impression prevailed that there would be a Dissolution in the autumn at some convenient period. The right hon. Gentleman had been foiled in an attempt to pass a great measure for the pacification of Ireland; but the right hon. Gentleman used always to assert—and he (Mr. Smollett) believed as- serted still—that the Bill did not meet with fair play in the House of Commons. The right hon. Gentleman asserted that it was defeated by a concurrent effort of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Disraeli) and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Ireland. Well, if the Bill had been defeated by a factious combination of that nature, there would have been abundant opportunities for the right hon. Gentleman, if so disposed, to appeal to the country in the autumn of 1873, and to have gone to it upon the merits of that Bill, and that, probably, would have been done had the right hon. Gentleman entertained the smallest expectation that an appeal to the country under such circumstances would have been successful. But if any idea of that kind ever flashed across his mind it appeared to have been speedily relinquished, for very shortly after the Prorogation, on the 5th of August, the right hon. Gentleman proceeded to make some modifications of his Cabinet, and when those changes were effected he continued to prorogue the Parliament from time-to time agreeably with established custom. At last, on the 20th of November, at a Council held at Her Majesty's Palace at Balmoral, a Proclamation was ordered to be issued by which Parliament was still further prorogued to the 5th of February, 1874, and Her Majesty's Royal Will and Pleasure was signified that Parliament should meet for the despatch of important business on the 5th of February, and the attendance of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and of the Members of the House of Commons, was commanded for that day. Now, he contended when a Proclamation of that nature had been published in The Gazette, a pledge was given by Her Majesty's Ministers that the Crown would meet the National Council on the day named in the Proclamation, unless some crisis should arise or some emergency crop up which should make another arrangement essentially necessary. Indeed, there was, he believed, only one instance in the constitutional history of Great Britain in which a Parliament summoned to meet for the despatch of Public Business had been dissolved before the day of meeting. That instance occurred in 1806; it was much noticed at the time as a deviation from established usage; and it was then ex- cused. or rather justified, on the ground that a crisis had arisen; that war had been proclaimed between England and France, and that it was advisable to take the opinions of the constituents upon that particular matter without delay. [Mr. GLADSTONE: Hear, hear!] The fact that intimation of the time when Parliament should really meet was now given two months before the actual date of meeting, was an act of courtesy to the public, to enable them to know when Public and Private Business would be commenced. An honourable understanding had heretofore existed between Ministers and the Members of the Legislature, which enabled them to make their arrangements for the winter without danger of disturbance, and without detriment to their public duties; and it was on that honourable understanding that a great many Members of both Houses last winter went abroad in shoals, as was now the custom, in search of health and recreation, without dreaming that any deceit was intended, or any mischief brewing; but they reckoned without their host. Mischief was meant, and it came like a clap of thunder upon them, when it was least expected, and at a time when a Dissolution was most inconvenient for the public service. On the 24th of January a notice appeared in the London morning papers that Her Majesty had been advised abruptly to dissolve Parliament, and that a new Election, for which no preparations had been made, would immediately follow. No act of a mere political nature ever created so much astonishment. When it was telegraphed across the country it was universally believed to be a hoax, and the right hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Baxter), who was then domesticated in the far-off Isle of Sicily, had informed the constituency he represented that the news so far affected his nerves, that for a time he did not know whether he was standing on his head or his heels. In this country, when surprise had somewhat abated, resentment took its place in the mind of the constituencies. The electors determined that they would do their best to get rid of a Government which dealt in these sensational surprises. Contests were got up in almost every locality, although great difficulties were experienced in many places from new candidates not putting in appearance, and ox-Mem- bers being absent. Nevertheless, the Liberal party was almost universally defeated, and for the first time since 1841 a decisive Conservative majority was returned. The Ministers who had raised the storm in utter wantonness, when no one was dreaming of a Dissolution, bowed to the tempest they had unnecessarily created, and tendered their resignations on the 17th of February. With regard to that, he would only say that nothing in the political life of these Gentlemen so much became them as their political death. That was at once prompt and dignified, and yet on the 20th of March the right hon. Gentleman apologized for the act as if he had committed a misdemeanour. No apology was necessary. If the right hon. Gentleman had stood his ground; if he had refused to resign office until driven from it by an adverse Vote in this House, he and his Colleagues would have been most unmercifully ridiculed as prototypes of the Ministers of a "Happy Land"—kicked here, kicked there, kicked everywhere, and who would yet not resign. There was only one Member of the House, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate), who thought that the political death of the Ministers was otherwise than honourable; but he was a Gentleman who stuck to precedent, and the more musty the precedent the more he stuck to it. Having thus sketched briefly the circumstances of the Dissolution, he would now proceed to comment on it, and he would at once declare that if the House was not prepared to condemn the act as it ought to be condemned; if, in point of fact, it was not determined to take some legislative action in the matter, then they would be doing their best to establish a precedent of the worst possible character—a precedent which future unscrupulous Ministers—if we ever had such things—would not fail to avail themselves of at the earliest opportunity. He did not object to the Dissolution of the last House of Commons from any admiration of that House. He never was a Member of it. He rarely saw its Members within those walls; but he had read of them in Liberal prints, which somewhat irreverently described them as an antiquated assemblage of soap boilers. Whatever might have been the composition of that House, it was treated with great indignity by the Minister in being dissolved in the manner it was. The Members of that House, however, who had survived the Dissolution, had their revenge, for they had seen the Ministry who had so served them scattered to the winds at the Election: they had seen many of its Members left out in the cold; some of them had been consigned to oblivion by being pitchforked into another Assembly, while the residue—he would not call them the "residuum," were sitting at long intervals from each oilier on the Opposition benches, where some of their ancient associates prophecied they were likely to remain at least a quarter of a century, and to that prediction he said "Amen." When the late Cabinet was in existence, it was styled by its friends a "great historic Cabinet," and an "heroic Cabinet." Of course, any number of Gentlemen who were permitted for a time to sway the destinies of that great nation would have a conspicuous place in the annals of our common country, and so far the Cabinet was historic; but History would be a lying jade, indeed, if she did not record of the right hon. Gentleman and his Colleagues, that, carried into office by a wave of popular sympathy in 1868, they so demeaned themselves in office, that in the course of five years they had alienated the affections of a somewhat subservient and obsequious House, and that the right hon. Gentleman shrank from meeting his friends on the appointed day, the 5th of February. That was surely not an act of heroism, but an act of political cowardice. So, too, when they considered the time and circumstances under which the Dissolution took place. That was not an act of heroism, but an act of political audacity. He might be told the advice given to Her Majesty was strictly legal, and that Her Majesty's Prerogative was not in abeyance: but abstract legality was often at variance with propriety, prudence, and common sense, and the country believed it was so in this instance. On the Continent the Dissolution was universally characterized as a coup d'état, which meant, in his judgment, an attempt on the part of a Minister to seize power and place by improper, unconstitutional, and unworthy means, and that was what he charged the late Ministry with endeavouring to do. Parliament on a certain day was ordered to assemble for the transaction of Public Business; every arrangement was made for their meeting; Members and intending candidates were scattered over the world, never dreaming that their attendance in the interval would be required; there was not a cloud on the political horizon in England, and everything seemed to betoken that the last Session of the Parliament of 1868 would be a quiet one. Abroad there were no omens of disturbance, except the unfortunate war with King Coffee, of whom they had heard more than enough of late. Certainly, during the autumn of 1873 and the winter of 1874 various isolated elections had been held in Great Britain, in several of which the Ministerial candidates had been defeated, but Liberal orators and Liberal statesmen continually assured the country that these Conservative successes were of no earthly value, and could be of no avail in breaking down the compact majority of 60 or 70 votes which the Ministers had at their command. Besides, Ministers had their successes in 1873. They had returned their Attorney General for Taunton, and in Oxford City their Solicitor General had walked over the course. In Newcastle they had achieved a signal triumph, for they had returned by a majority of more than 1,000 votes the candidate of their selection—a Gentleman who was at once a Ministerialist, a Home Ruler, and, he believed, the president of a Republican club. This success was achieved, he believed, so late as the middle of January last, at which time every arrangement had been made for the House to meet, and it now appeared that at that very time the First Minister and his Colleagues were engaged in a plot or secret understanding to get rid of the Parliament to which their Friend had just been elected. To allay all suspicion of what was going on, every artifice seemed to have been resorted to. Circulars had been sent out from the Treasury advising the Friends of the Ministry to attend at the opening of a Parliament which was never to meet. Besides that, Cabinet Councils were held, at which it was ostentatiously stated that the programme of the Session had been successfully arranged; and two or three days before the plot exploded, the right hon. Member for Greenwich rose from his sick couch in Carlton House Terrace, went to his official residence in Downing Street, and there received a deputation from the North of England, introduced by the newly-elected Member for Newcastle (Mr. Cowen). With these Gentlemen the late Prime Minister took sweet counsel how he and they might best tinker the British Constitution, or what of the British Constitution remained, in the course of a Parliamentary Session which he well knew was not intended to meet. By these devices all suspicion of what was going on was averted; by means like these the pious fraud was consummated. Why, even the right, hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire, who was generally wide enough awake, was caught napping. He, too, having no suspicions of the designs of the Government, had sent out his circulars to his Friends, inviting them to be present as soon as possible after the opening of the Session. Not only so, but, being "on hospitable thoughts intent," that right hon. Gentleman had issued cards for a great banquet, which was to come off on the 4th of February. It was under these circumstances, in the midst of these festive preparations, on a dark morning in the end of January—the 24th—that the Members of the moribund Parliament found from The Times newspaper on their breakfast tables that they had been doomed to death, and this without a note of preparation or a single word of friendly advice. That, to his mind, was sharp practice—practice more likely to come from a sharp attorney's office than to emanate from a Cabinet composed of English Gentlemen. Conduct like that, in his judgment, was calculated to lower the character of English statesmanship throughout the world. In love and war stratagems and surprises were supposed to be fair; but in politics, in his judgment, honesty was the best policy. Certainly, if not the best, at any rate it was the only policy fit for an English gentleman. Therefore, looking to the facts of the case, he was constrained to say the conduct of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich was at once ungenerous to his friends, insolent to his opponents, and dishonest to the nation at large. That, however, was not the only matter in which he thought the conduct of the right hon. Gentleman liable to grave censure. The right hon. Gentleman, 36 hours before the appearance of Her Majesty's Proclamation, dissolving the late and calling together the present Parliament, thought it not unbecoming to issue a manifesto on his own account. That manifesto was of great length; he had heard it described as containing two Queen's Speeches and a Budget. In that manifesto the right hon. Gentleman appeared to fear a disturbance. He did not ask for a season of repose, which they now heard he was so much in want of; he came before the public asking for a renewal of his lease of power for five or six years; he appeared, in fact, like an Irishman asking for fixity of tenure. The Times newspaper at the time declared that the right hon. Gentleman appeared before his constituents at Greenwich surrounded by a shower of gold, which would, no doubt, in the hands of the Minister, be as potential with the constituencies as that in which the King of the Gods was enveloped when he came down to seduce Danae. The right hon. Gentleman called on the people of England on that occasion to give him their confidence, and the inducement he held out was a bait so magnificent that the leading journal of Europe, which said it never fawned on the right hon. Gentleman, declared it would have an incalculable effect on the voters. The constituencies, however, refused to swallow the bait; and consequences directly opposite to what the right hon. Gentleman desired ensued. Conduct like that was so extravagant that it could only be excused on the supposition made in "another place," that the late Government had been "ballooning"—that in the course of their aerial voyage they had lost their wits, and were not at the time responsible agents. He had now done with the Dissolution; but before sitting down he must say a few words about the precipitate and scrambling Election which ensued. On that point he would just say that, although in the scramble he happened by chance to get a seat, he could not for the life of him conceive any circumstances which in a time of perfect quiet and contentment could justify the precipitate and indecent speed with which the Election was hurried on. The Queen's Proclamation ordering the Election of a new Parliament was issued on the morning of the 26th of January, and the same afternoon the writs for boroughs were to a great extent in the hands of the Returning Officers. There was no law requiring them to be issued I on the day of the Proclamation; if there was it certainly ought to be abrogated. For the Friday following the nominations were fixed in a great number of boroughs, and on that day a considerable number of hon. Members were returned for places where there was no time or preparation for a contest. The polling was fixed for the first three or four open days in February, and when these were over, the greater portion of the borough elections in England had terminated. In several places, in con-sequence of this great haste, the electoral machinery had broken down, and that very day an election was going on for Hackney because the voters had no opportunity given to them at the previous Election of recording their suffrages. That itself was a great scandal. And why had all that indecent speed been resorted to? He believed it had been purposely taken to give a great, pull at the borough elections to the Liberal Members. The Minister well knew that the strength of the Liberal party lay in the borough constituencies. He knew that possession was nine-tenths of the Jaw. He knew that time and organization, as well as cash, were needed to oust the men in possession. It was to prevent that time and organization from being applied that the Election was hurried on. He had heard the right hon. Member for Greenwich repeatedly in his place in Parliament, talk of the necessity and propriety of extending the franchise. They ail remembered "his flesh and blood" argument, and he (Mr. Smollett) had heard him declare that every sane man of mature age untainted by crime had abstractly the right, to vote for a Member to represent him in Parliament. But if they were to have universal suffrage and electoral districts—and they were coming to that—was time and opportunity not to be given to constituencies to look for men to represent them? An adequate amount of time to make a free choice of a representative was fully as important to the voters as the protection of the Ballot; and it had just been to prevent them from having this advantage, that unnecessary haste had been shown at the last Election. He might be asked—"Why dwell upon these disagreeable topics, which are so very grating to sensitive minds?" He might be told of the engineer who was hoisted by his own petard—of the plot that had failed—of the stratagem which had recoiled upon the trickster. For his own part, he was very glad that the right hon. Gentleman and his Colleagues, in taking that strange and false step, had been tripped up and had got an awful header; but, beyond that, something must be done to protect those who had the right to exercise the franchise, but who might be deprived of the opportunity by a repetition of a coup d'état similar to that lately performed by the right hon. Gentleman. He would suggest that, besides expressing their regret at the things which had occurred, they should take some legislative action in the matter. He could not see why a Bill should not be introduced with the consent of Her Majesty's Ministers, requiring that in future when any General Election was brought about by surprise, and without previous notice, no writ should be issued for five or six days after the publication of the Proclamation in The Gazette. A Bill like that would not block Temple Bar, even in the present Session. It would be a plain, honest measure of constitutional law, such as he thought was very much needed; and there was no reason to fear that it would be a leap in the dark. When a Member of the House died, it was reckoned indecorous to apply for a new Writ till five or six days had elapsed, and if that course was taken on ordinary occasions, how much more necessary did it become in the case of a Dissolution of Parliament, which gave rise to 300 or 400 different elections? Some such measure as he had suggested was absolutely necessary, in order to protect Her Majesty's Prerogative from being dragged through the mud, and to protect the people of this country from the evils attending the indecent haste with which the last Election had been carried on. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the Resolution of which he had given Notice."That, in the opinion of this House, the advice given to the Crown by Her Majesty's late Ministers to dismiss the last Parliament upon the 26th January last, in an abrupt manner and without any previous warning, at a time when both Houses had been summoned to meet for the dispatch of public business, and when no emergency had arisen for such a step, is censurable: and further, that the precipitate appeal to the Constituencies consequent on such Dissolution is opposed to the spirit of the Constitution,"
After a pause.
Does any hon. Member second the Motion?
Sir, I second the Motion.
To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, the advice given to the Crown by Her Majesty's late Ministers to dismiss the last Parliament upon the 26th January last, in an abrupt manner and without any previous warning, at a time when both Houses had been summoned to moot for the despatch of public business, and when no emergency had arisen for such a step, is censurable: and further, that the precipitate appeal to the Constituencies consequent on such Dissolution is opposed to the spirit of the Constitution."—(Mr. Smollett,)
Sir, as the Motion of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Smollett) has been so fortunate, after a short period of delay and anxiety, as to find a seconder in my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Whalley), I feel that the authority and weight of these two distinguished Gentlemen, combined in a formidable endeavour aimed principally, if not exclusively, against myself—of which I do not complain, for I think that was inseparable from the nature of the case—make it necessary for me to lose no time in replying to the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Cambridge. At the same time, I think it would have been a great assistance to me if the hon. Seconder of the Motion had pursued the practice which is usually, though not invariably, pursued in this House, and had disclosed the weighty motives and considerations that induced him to give the almost immeasurable advantage of his countenance to the proposal. Now, the hon. Gentleman the Member for Cambridge approaches this question under conditions which in some respects make it a little difficult to contend with him, for his claim amounts to nothing less than this—that he shall be permitted to state both sides of a contradictory proposition, and to take advantage, first of one, and then of the other. The hon. Gentleman says, for example, that it was an act of cowardice on the part of the late Advisers of the Crown to take any step which relieved them from the responsibility and the duty of meeting the late Parliament; and he then goes on to say that it was an act of audacity on their part to dissolve. Well, Sir, as the act which relieved us from our responsibility and the act which brought about the General Election were one and the same, it is for the hon. Gentleman to explain how he can call on the House to censure it both as an act of cowardice and as an act of audacity. That, however, is a matter of small im- portance, and I shall pass on to a point of much greater consequence. The hon. Gentleman—who has studiously assured us that he has not consulted any Friends in relation to the Motion—though I presume he made an exception in favour of the hon. Gentleman who seconded it—has described the facts of history and the principles of the Constitution as "musty precedents," and yet has founded his proposition on what he calls, I think, an historical retrospect. Now, I complain of the historical retrospect of the hon. Gentleman. Although his name seems to give him a title to quote history, I doubt whether the specimen he has given us to-day of his powers in that direction, and especially of his accuracy and fidelity in the statement of facts, will add greatly to the lustre with which that name may previously have been surrounded. Sir, what the hon. Gentleman calls history, I call romance, and I will proceed to give the House the means of judging whether he or I can best justify the title which we affix to the recital of what purports to be fact. There are several distinct charges which the hon. Gentleman has brought. I call them charges, because it is my duty to treat this matter seriously: and, indeed, everything of this nature relating to the Crown must be serious in itself, whatever may be the manner in which it is brought forward. With that in view, I have endeavoured to follow the speech of the hon. Gentleman with all possible care in order to extract from the midst of his jokes, and his invectives, and his references to what he terms history, the charges upon which he founds the Resolution which he asks the House to adopt. In the first place, I object to the Resolution; not that I intend to give any vote on the subject, for I need not say that having submitted to the House those remarks which seem to me called for, I shall at once withdraw, as the Motion has so direct a reference to myself, and offer no further opposition to the hon. Members for Cambridge and Peterborough. I object, I say, to the Resolution, on the ground that it is a great deal too weak and emasculated when compared with the speech of the hon. Gentleman. In the Resolution the hon. Gentleman objects to the precipitate and abrupt manner in which, without previous warning, the country was invited to give its opinion upon the further existence of the Government. He describes what undoubtedly are offences, although, I apprehend, they are offences of a hind which, even if they were proved, it might not be politic for this House to take notice of. But the hon. Gentleman in his speech has not confined himself to the statement of offences such as these. The hon. Gentleman observes that he has grown rusty during the five years of his enforced absence from Parliament, and he observes that the Parliament in which he did not secure a seat was, in his opinion, a very indifferent Parliament. I have no doubt of the sincerity of that declaration. But let me comfort the hon. Gentleman by assuring him that if he has grown rusty in his oratory—and I must confess it appears to me he is as brilliant now as at any former period—he has certainly not lost in any respect the faculty which I remember he possessed in other years in a remarkable degree—indeed, I think he has even improved in it during his five years of exile—I mean the faculty of using hard words. He says, the conduct to which he refers was "ungenerous." That, however, is a small matter, and I shall let it pass. But he goes on to say that it was "insolent;" that it "insulted the nation;" that it was barely honest. He talks significantly of honesty being the best policy, and he calls the person against whom his Motion is aimed a "trickster." He says, that it was far from his wish to use strong language, and far be it from me to say that the use of strong language in this House is censurable. I think the use of strong language, however, should be judged entirely with reference to the facts on which it rests; and I shall go further, and say that this strong language of the hon. Gentleman was backed up by certain statements, which if they could have been made good—if a single shred or tittle of evidence could have boon produced in support of them—would have gone far to justify him in the course he has taken. I will first deal with the other charge of a precipitate appeal to the Constituencies in order to clear the way to the main issue which the hon. Gentleman has raised. The hon. Gentleman in his Resolution says—
Now, Sir with the precipitancy of the Dissolution and everything that concerns the Dissolution we have to do, but with the precipitancy of the appeal to the Constituencies, as apart from the Dissolution, we have nothing to do. That is a mere question of the use of established machinery. But the hon. Gentleman seems to think that the Government ought to have exercised some discretion—that we should have given instructions to the executive officers of the Crown not to send out the writs for calling Parliament together in the usual manner, but that we should have adopted some new method of proceeding. I hardly think that the hon. Gentleman himself would be disposed to adhere to such a charge. Everything that follows a Dissolution is a pure matter of routine. The Crown Office invariably proceeds on the principle that as soon as the Dissolution is declared, the sooner the questions connected with it are brought to a practical issue the better. Those officers act upon the principle that when certain orders reach them from the Crown, their business is to give effect to those orders with all possible despatch. Now, Sir, there have been several statements made by the hon. Gentleman and by others with which I will proceed to deal. He says, that it was a most gross offence on my part, in an address to a constituency, to set forth the measures which it was the intention of the Government to propose, and which we thought would be acceptable to the country, and would incline the country to return a Parliament of the same character as that of 1868. And that, as is said by the hon. Gentleman, was a strange and almost monstrous offence. Has the hon. Gentleman—who disclaims all precedents as musty precedents, when he thinks they do not serve his purpose—never read any of the addresses published by the responsible Advisers of the Crown on the eve of a Dissolution of Parliament? He has never read, I presume, the rather celebrated address of Sir Robert Peel in 1834–5, in which that celebrated statesman set forth in the utmost detail all the measures he intended to submit to Parlialiament, with the very view of producing, and with the result of producing, a very remarkable effect upon the constituencies favourable to himself. I will take another instance, of the right hon. Gentleman opposite, the Member for Bucking- hamshire (Mr. Disraeli). In 1852 he published a short address to his constituents, in which he declared that the Government to which he then belonged—the Government of Lord Derby, and of which he was the principal organ in this House—would have for its first object to relieve the agricultural interest from taxes which, at that period, in the opinion of the Government, bore hardly upon that interest. Did the hon. Member ever read the address, or was it anterior to the happy day of the birth of the hon. Gentleman into the political world? Sir, it is not only allowable on the part of a Minister, but it is his absolute duty, whether considered as a citizen or a party man, when he advises the Crown to dissolve Parliament, to set forth as well as he can to his own constituents the motives and considerations which he thinks ought to incline them to give their verdict in his favour. That is also one of the lighter matters he touched upon. I now come back to another point. The hon. Gentleman says, that this Dissolution occurred after the announcement that Parliament was summoned to meet for the despatch of business. That is perfectly true. He says that such cases are rare, and there again he is right. But he has not taken notice of the fact that of late years, owing to some change of circumstances, it has become the practice to prorogue Parliament for much longer periods than was formerly the case. If the hon. Gentleman had examined that very case of 1806—of which some one seems to have informed him—he would have found that the Prorogations were then much shorter. The Prorogation last November was made known to the public on the 17th of that month, and Parliament was prorogued to the 5th of February, or more than one-fifth of the entire year, and it is impossible to hold that a Prerogative such as that of the Dissolution of Parliament can possibly be placed in abeyance by a notification published so long beforehand. If the doctrine of the hon. Gentleman be sound, the effect must be this—that instead of these long Prorogations, and instead of giving to Members of Parliament the longest possible notice for their convenience, the Crown, in order to save its Prerogative, must resort to shorter Prorogations, and it can only be for a period of three or four weeks that the Prorogation can be made. The hon. Gentleman admits that there is a precedent in 1806, and he proceeds to comment upon it; and here, at length, I come across the path of the hon. Gentleman in the field of authentic history. The hon. Member says that the Dissolution was much noticed at the time; I say, it was not noticed in the sense or for the purpose mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. It was commented upon with reference to the excitement of religious passions: but it had no reference to the abrupt and precipitate Dissolution of Parliament upon which he dwells. The hon. Gentleman has invented—with perfect unconsciousness, I am sure, for I would not suggest for a moment that he has knowingly foisted into history what does not exist there—that he discovered a justification of that. Dissolution of 1806. And what is it? His justification is that in 1806 war with France was proclaimed. And that is the history of the hon. Gentleman ! Has he ever heard of the battle of Trafalgar? Docs he know anything of Austerlitz? Has he ever heard of the death of Pitt and of the concern of Pitt in the fortunes of the war which was going on in 1805, when that great luminary was unhappily extinguished? But that is ancient history. The hon. Gentleman has shown another most remarkable faculty in producing what I did not believe any one would have produced—namely, musty modern history, and that is a very fine thing indeed. His history of the last year, of the last few months, and the last few weeks, is as musty as any history he could extract from the records of Egypt and Assyria. He has certainly produced a charge of the most grave character, and I do not wish him to suppose that I am going to treat it lightly. He says, that the Government proceeded to organize the Dissolution in secret—to concoct a plot under which they were to go to the country. Well, if the hon. Gentleman can show that, I am not the man to object to the severest censure that he can inflict; but there is not a single shred of evidence in support of that statement. It is not only untrue, but absurd; and not only absurd, but impossible. What are the statements in support of that allegation? The hon. Gentleman says, that instructions were conveyed from the Treasury to Members of the Liberal party that a Dissolution was about to take place."And further, that the precipitate appeal to the Constituencies consequent on such Dissolution is opposed to the spirit of the Constitution."
No, I did not say so.
Well, what was it then?
What I said was, that the usual circular had been sent out inviting the Liberal Members to attend.
Suppose the usual circular had been sent out inviting the Members of the Liberal party to attend on the 5th of February, how would that tend to support the allegation of the hon. Gentleman, that we were prosecuting a plot for the purpose of deceiving our opponents, while we were enabling our friends to have the advantage of the knowledge we possessed?
I said, deceiving not the opponents of the Government, but the country.
Did we deceive our own friends and opponents alike?—for the charge of the hon. Gentleman rests on this, that we were deceiving those opposed to us, and seeking an advantage for our friends. If that were true, the usual circular would have been perfectly irrelevant; but besides being irrelevant it is absolutely untrue. No circular whatever went out from the Treasury, except that the circular was contemporaneous with the Dissolution. It is true a deputation, which had been arranged for three months before, waited on me a few days before relative to the county franchise; but on that occasion not a word was said by me as to the course that would be taken in this coming Session of Parliament. That was the second point of the hon. Gentleman. The third point was, that notice of a banquet, and of coming convivial engagements, was issued; and here again I must say I think the musty history of the hon. Gentleman is at fault. There were no invitations to a banquet, and no convivial expectations or hospitality whatever; and there is not a single shred or word of relevancy or accuracy in any of those three statements which the hon. Gentleman has made—and which he knows he has made—to sustain the grave charge that we proceeded to organize the Dissolution in secret, and that we deserve to be branded by him with the name of tricksters.
I did not bring any such charges as the right hon. Gentleman is endeavouring to make out. I spoke of an invitation to a banquet issued by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire.
I want to know in what manner a circular of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire could be regarded in any way as a declaration of our intentions, or as an indication that we were in consultation with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire as to the issue of that circular. What I wish to point out is this—I repeat that the hon. Gentleman has made the charge that the Dissolution was organized in secret, and that those who organized it are to be branded with the name of "tricksters." I want to know whether the hon. Gentleman adheres, or does not adhere, to that name of "tricksters." Now, let the hon. Gentleman, if he likes, rise in his place, and give a plain answer to a plain question.
I shall not rise in my place again.
Then it comes to this—that when the hon. Gentleman thinks that he can gain some advantage by an explanation, he is perfectly ready to rise; but when he is called upon and is challenged upon this matter by men who are entitled to the same respect as himself, when he has addressed the offensive and insulting name of "tricksters" to those hon. Gentlemen, and is asked whether he adheres to his charge, he has has not the decency to say—he has not the manliness to say—that he does, but keeps an ignoble silence, and takes refuge under it from the consequences of his act. I, however, wish to meet an opponent in the fair and open field of discussion, satisfied that the issue there will be an issue favourable enough to justice and truth. I have now done with what may seem the most exciting and interesting element in this discussion, and I now proceed to deal with the terms of the Motion, which I may say appear prosaic, and do not present in any shape an adequate idea of the very high flight exhibited by the hon. Gentleman this evening. I hope, after a life spent in the public service, if I have exhibited any warmth in resenting such a charge as that we are tricksters, that that warmth does not require any very ample apology. Well, then, I come to the common sense of the subject, if I may so call it, and it is I not the common sense of it that we have been dealing with hitherto. The hon. Gentleman has stated very truly that this was an abrupt Dissolution, and the abruptness of the Dissolution is a question to which I thought him perfectly entitled to call attention. I justify that abruptness by the peculiar circumstances out of which it sprang, and I will endeavour to remind the House what those peculiar circumstances were. The hon. Gentleman is here, I think, under a great misapprehension. He stated that our condition was very satisfactory, that we had conducted the business of the House last year with success, that all was perfectly smooth and easy at the time of the Prorogation and during the Recess. But if the hon. Gentleman had read an article in the last number of a most respectable organ of the party to which he belongs—namely, The Quarterly Review—he would have found in it a statement, that at the opening of the year they did not know what was going to happen; that it was a time of political disquietude, and of great uneasiness in the minds of men. Of course, they proceeded to contrast all that uneasiness and disquietude with the perfect satisfaction and calm contentment which had prevailed since the Dissolution, and since it was known that the affairs of the country were to be managed by safe men, instead of unsafe men. That is a perfectly legitimate advantage for them to take; but I wish to point out how wrong the hon. Gentleman is, if he supposes that at the commencement of this year, or at any period during the last 12 months, the position of the Government has been a position free from doubt and difficulty. Our position was peculiar in two respects. As to the bye or single elections, the hon. Member denounced the absurdity of Liberal orators who attached no sort of consequence to them. That was never the language of the late Government. I, for my part, attached great importance to those elections. I conceived it was a peculiarity of which I knew no parallel within the Parliamentary experience of the present century. We have had many Parliaments in which slight indications of change of popular opinion were given by single elections. I think the Parliament which met in 1837, and was dissolved in 1841, was an instance of that kind; but I have never known a Parliament—subject always to the peculiar historical knowledge of the hon. Member—in which single elections of themselves went so far towards establishing a presumption that the opinion of the country had changed with reference to the politics of those whom it desired to conduct public affairs as that of the last, and the consequence was that from time to time it was a matter of inquiry to us whether our position gave us the strength that was necessary to enable us to conduct with dignity and with credit the affairs of the country. The other point, which the hon. Gentleman has not taken into his view is this—that since March last we could not resort to that alternative which, under all ordinary circumstances, is open to a Government—namely, the alternative of resignation. It was not possible for us in the month of January to take that course. What we had to consider was this—is our strength sufficient to enable us to go with credit through the work we have to do; or if we have not that strength, shall we advise Her Majesty to dissolve Parliament? That was a peculiarity in our position of which the hon. Gentleman took no notice whatever, and without which it is totally impossible for him to comprehend the position in which we stood. With regard to the question of convenience, I really think it would be difficult to base a sound argument upon that. I am not quite sure, with reference to the ultimate result, that a very long notice of Dissolution, such as is commonly given, more as the result of circumstances than of direct intention, is best for the well-being of the country, or even for the comfort of hon. Members. Do not, however, suppose that I state this as a justification of our policy. I admit that the act was externally an abrupt act; but I submit it was justified by the special circumstances of the case. The principle on which we proceeded was, that at all times—it does not signify whether it is after a Session, whether it is before a Session, or whether it is during a Session—it is the duty of Government not merely to be waiting for some Vote of Censure from this House, but to consider within itself and for itself, whether it has with the existing House of Commons the means of carrying on the Government of the country. The party opposite, for instance, three times found occasion within the course of 15 years to ask the country the simple question, whether it desired that the heads of that parry should continue in office; and it is an admitted right of a Government to appeal to the country upon the question, although, of course, they ought not to do so repeatedly or factitiously. But here was a Parliament with respect to which the hon. Gentleman himself let drop, in one of his more lucid moments, a statement that in the autumn everybody expected a Dissolution, and our friends of The Quarterly Review also say, that at the commencement of the year everybody was looking for a Dissolution. Not only that, but what said the right hon. Gentleman the present Prime Minister at Glasgow last year? His words were these—"We well know that a General Election is at hand." Do not let it be for a moment supposed that I mean to say a Dissolution was expected at the particular time it actually occurred; but I say that at all times it is a prime duty of Government to consider and examine the question of its strength, as compared with the duties it has to perform; and, if it has not sufficient strength, it is the duty of the Government to resign or dissolve. However, if in peculiar circumstances, such as those of last year, there is no power of resignation in its hands, the only course open to the Government is to advise a Dissolution. Such is the case as far as principle is concerned; but now I want to test a little further the question of convenience. I will tell the hon. Gentleman, and the House, what were our anticipations. In the beginning of January we had before us a full view of the financial possibilities of the year. The data had not been absolutely fixed, our Estimates were not decided upon, but both lay within a certain margin, and on the whole, we perceived what would be the financial possibilities of the year. We knew very well, that great things might be done in the way of popular relief from taxation, and, when practical inconvenience is not incurred by a premature Dissolution, I know of nothing which is more entirely within the legitimate province of the country to entertain than the nature of the taxes which every person in the country is to be called upon to pay. But together with that, we looked at the question of local taxation. We had endeavoured to deal with the question piecemeal. I will not enter now into the reasons why our endeavours produced little effect, for that would import into this discussion a controversy which I would rather exclude; but we had made attempts to deal with portions of the question, and we saw plainly it would be our duty to endeavour to deal with the whole of it during the present year. Now, I appeal to the House on the point I am going to state. The view we entertained was, that that was by no means a mere money question, but one full of danger to self-government, to public economy, and to sound principles of taxation, and that we ought not to begin by giving away the money, and afterwards seeing what we could do with the question of reform. It was plain that the handling of the question required the full strength of the Government; but at that very period, according to our view, the course of the elections in the month of January was extremely unfavourable. Thus, while we had before us the prospect of a most arduous Session, we had likewise the evidence of the continual progress of that sapping process which was taking away piecemeal the Parliamentary strength on which we had to depend; and, in saying that, I do not mean merely the numerical process of taking away first one vote and then another vote; it was the loss of authority which was continually going on. I admit the inconvenience of a Dissolution in January; but what was the alternative? I have no doubt that a few hon. Gentlemen who were travelling abroad suffered serious inconvenience from the suddenness of the Dissolution, and some of them in consequence do not now sit on what I consider the right side of the House, although it happens at present to be the left. But what I should like to know is this—Is there not something more inconvenient than a Dissolution immediately before a Session—namely, a Dissolution in the Session? The hon. Gentleman has very little respect for my opinion, and he has described my qualities of mind with the delicacy of language which is peculiar to himself. Still, a man cannot help sometimes trusting his own judgment. Well, it was my deliberate and distinct opinion in January, I as it is still, that it would not have been in our power, considering the loss of authority we were continually suffering from, to deal in a satisfactory manner with the difficulties and intricacies of the subject of local taxation and all the consequences it involves. We should have begun the Session, and, after passing the uncontested portions of the Budget Estimates, we should have been in honour bound to carry the House into the thick of all the questions relating to local taxation. "We should probably have broken down in the endeavour to deal effectually with this question, and about May or June it would have been our duty to dissolve Parliament. Admitting that, and admitting the inconvenience which has occurred, I would ask any hon. Gentleman whether he thinks there would have been greater convenience if we had ourselves initiated and tarried to a certain point the proceedings of the Session, and then, when nothing but initial stages had been made and no real progress effected, had dissolved Parliament, and brought hon. Gentlemen opposite into power at a period when they could only deal in the most formal manner with the business of the Session. I hope I have given a satisfactory account of this portion of the case, which I admit is a very fair subject for calm, reasonable, and dispassionate discussion. I have not endeavoured to set the case too high. I have not stated that it was a thing conformable to general practice, but that it was a thing done in satisfaction of a primary duty; and that, although of necessity it was done in a manner which entailed certain inconvenience, yet according to my conscientious belief and the best judgment I could form, the amount of inconvenience so entailed, and the loss of the public time, which was the chief part of the inconvenience, was considerably less than if we had endeavoured still to cling to office in the state of affairs which we then saw around us. I am bound, however, to say one thing more before I sit down, and that is, I do not regret the Motion of the hon. Gentleman, and although he seems to think it a small matter indeed to put in operation the enormous power of this House; yet after the temper he has shown tonight, I will take care he never receives from me any request in relation to his proceedings; and I do not object to his taking what steps he pleases in regard to this or any other proposition. Still, there is with me one subject of regret. The result of the Elections was probably not that which was expected by Gentlemen on either side of the House. I admit it was not that which was expected by myself. I was not greatly sanguine; I did not feel any certainty whether we should have a majority or not. I felt the necessity of asking the question of the country; but I admit I did not expect the opinion—I will not say of the nation, but of the constituencies who constitute the nation for the practical purposes of an election—would place hon. Gentlemen opposite in office with so clear and considerable a majority. Therefore, my regret is, not that the Dissolution took place when it did, but that it did not take place before, for I am not willing to hold office under any circumstances, with a minority either in this House or the country. It is repugnant to my feelings, and not compatible with the best interests of the country that a Government should continue to govern, even with a numerical majority, when its strength is falling away, and when there are daily increasing evidences that it no longer represents the will and opinions of the constituencies. That is the regret of which I have to make a frank expression. Had I known as well as I know now what was to take place, it would not have been I upon the 24th of January or the 24th of December, nor upon any day in January or December, but at a much earlier period, that my Colleagues and myself would have advised the Grown to dissolve. That is the reply which I have to make to the hon. Gentleman's Motion. I do not ask him to withdraw it. I do not complain of much that he charged against the late Prime Minister. The more that he says about such charges against the late Prime Minister in this House the better. Responsibility in such a case, if it is deserved, cannot be too definitively brought home. I accept the responsibility cast upon me. I do not evade it. I do not flinch from it. I have made my justification, and I shall retire from the House while this discussion yet lasts to wait its decision, and to receive with satisfaction what that decision shall be, reserving at the same time my right to act as circumstances may render necessary.
said, he wished to say a few words to explain why he had seconded the Motion of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Smollett). After the clear statement of the hon. Member he felt that some explanation was necessary on the part of the right hon. Gentleman the late Prime Minister, whose course and conduct during the last five years had brought disgrace on the Liberal Party of this country in the eyes of Europe. During those five years he (Mr. Whalley) had more frequently voted against the right hon. Gentleman than any Member of the House, and at the General Election of 1868 he was the only one who foretold that the right hon. Gentleman would inevitably break up the Liberal Party. He was quite content with the fulfilment of this prophecy, and perhaps he ought not to have intruded on the attention of the House; but he felt bound to say that the hon. Member for Cambridge did not charge the right hon. Gentleman with being "atrickster." What the hon. Member said—and he fully agreed with him—was that the right hon. Gentleman had done "a distinct Parliamentary trick;" and after hearing the right hon. Gentleman he (Mr. Whalley) in a Parliamentary sense, repeated that there was no other phrase in the language which could describe it better. It was "a Parliamentary trick," for the purpose of obtaining—speaking always in a Parliamentary sense—a majority upon false pretences. The right hon. Gentleman distinctly alleged that he had a surplus of £5,000,000, and would take off the income tax. That was a false pretence; for if it were not, why did the right hon. Gentleman make the speech he did last night? The country acted rightly in dismissing the late Government, and depriving so many hon. Members on that side of their seats, for they had disgraced this country before Europe. He was glad to have the opportunity of protesting against the great inconvenience to which he had been subjected. It was all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to express regret for the inconvenience he had put some Gentlemen to who were not now Members of the House; but his was the greatest inconvenience of all. That Dissolution liberated him from prison. Being a Member of Parliament, he believed if he had continued in prison until the question of his imprisonment had been brought fairly before the House, as he intended it should be, he would have prevented the recurrence of that which in his humble judgment was a serious inroad on the rights and Privileges of the House of Commons. He—humble and insignificant as he was—would have been the means of bringing before the House an exercise of authority by the Judges of the land, unprecedented, monstrous, most injurious, which would sap the foundations of confidence in the administration of justice—[Laughter; "Question!"]—well, he withdrew what he was going to say, and begged pardon for having introduced a subject on which he felt deeply, but not on his own account. But he was resolved to undergo imprisonment, in the hope that the House might have felt called upon to inquire into the circumstances under which he was discovered in prison on the morning of the 24th of January. He would now return to the serious part of the question, and ask the House whether the light hon. Gentleman had answered the charges which had been brought against him by the hon. Member opposite. It was most plain that when the late Government thought fit to call upon the country to return a new House of Commons, especially under the circumstances stated by the right hon. Gentleman—circumstances involving the settlement of the question of local taxation and the abolition of the income tax—time ought to have been afforded for deliberation, and hon. Gentlemen in Sicily, in prison, or elsewhere, ought not to have been sent on a sudden before their constituents. He would not go further. He would leave it to the Prime Minister to rebuke the right hon. Member for Greenwich, and to enunciate those constitutional principles which he was in the habit of defending in the House with much greater effect than could be done by the furious, impassioned, unreasoning addresses of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich. He submitted that the right hon. Gentleman had not given sufficient reason for having inflicted on the country a sudden Dissolution. When he seconded the Motion of the hon. Member for Cambridge he had not fully made up his mind whether he should vote for it or not; but after hearing the right hon. Gentleman's explanation, he would, if the Motion were carried to a division, cordially vote with the hon. Member for Cambridge. So far as he understood the hon. Member for Cambridge, he brought forward his Motion in a temperate manner, and therefore he supported him.
said, he very much regretted that the Motion had been brought forward, because the question had been discussed at the beginning of the Session, and that was sufficient; while the discussion of the question at the present moment only served to produce feelings of acrimony which were to be regretted. He thought the hon. Member for Cambridge should withdraw his Motion. ["No, no!"] He thought, by doing so, the hon. Gentleman would show good feeling, and also that he did not mean to use those expressions which in the heat of argument he had used, and he thought the withdrawal of the Motion would come gracefully from him. The Motion having been made, he had contemplated seconding it, in order to afford the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich the opportunity of making the speech he had made in reply.
Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question," put, and agreed to.