Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden
[The subject of Parliamentary Reform occupied the attention of the House of Commons for a short time during the session of 1851, for Mr. Locke King carried the first reading of a bill to reduce the county franchise, on Feb. 20, an occurrence which was followed by a Ministerial crisis. In the country, however, the feeling in favour of Reform grew till it was arrested by the Russian war, and the circumstances which followed that war.]
I feel too much commiseration for you to delay you more than a very few minutes with any remarks upon this important question. I have been sitting on a comfortable chair with a back to it, and have been surveying the scene before me, and I have felt my heart melt at the position in which you must be placed. And after all, gentlemen, there is nothing new to discuss about the matter that is before us. There have been four propositions, as old as the hills almost, that have been now submitted to this meeting. We have had a discussion in a Conference this morning for five hours; this Conference resulted simply in declaring itself in favour of those four points, which Mr. Hume has for four successive years been bringing before the House of Commons,—household suffrage, with a right to lodgers to claim to be rated and to be upon the rate-books,—triennial Parliaments,—a redistribution of electoral power, and the ballot. Why, gentlemen, these four points have been subjected to a discussion, within the House and out of it, which I am sure renders it impossible for any one to say anything new upon the subject here. There may be persons who think that this programme of Mr. Hume, who is as honest, and sincere, and disinterested, as any man in this assembly or out of it, does not go far enough to satisfy the demands of all. On the other hand, I have no doubt there will be many people who will laugh at us, and treat with scorn a demand which they will consider so unreasonable, because so great.
Well, now, household suffrage is the old recognised Saxon franchise of this country. The whole community in ancient times were considered to be comprised in the householders. The head of the family represented the family; the heads of all the families represented the whole community. With the addition of a clause which shall give to those who are not themselves householders, but who may become so, the right to claim to be rated, I think the rate-book of this country may be taken now for as good a register as it could have been in the time of our Saxon ancestors. When you have a redistribution of the franchise proposed, no one would suppose that you could continue to give Manchester and Harwich the same number of representatives. It does not require an argument; the figures that the chairman gave you are sufficient to settle the point. There is not an argument that can be used to enhance the force of those figures. We don't propose—Mr. Hume never proposed—that you should cut the country into parallelograms in a new fashion; he has always said in the House of Commons,—we have always said in the country,—that we will take the ancient landmarks and respect them as far as we can. Keep to the bounds of your counties; group boroughs together where they are too small to have a representative of their own, that by such means you may get an equalisation of political power, a fair distribution of the franchise, which alone can give anything like a fair representation to the whole country.
Well, we come to triennial Parliaments. Many people say it ought to be annual; in America they say biennial; some people say triennial; we had friends at the Conference who were for quinquennial Parliaments. I think we have precedents for three years' Parliaments in the old custom of the country; but as there is a ground of union sought on that question, I think there can be very little difference about reformers who are in earnest agreeing to the extent at least of triennial Parliaments.
Well, now, I come to another question, to which I confess I attach great importance—I mean the ballot. Give us the franchise extended, with the other points alluded to, and yet they will be comparatively worthless unless you have the ballot. The ballot in other countries has been adopted as necessary to the protection of the voter. You have never had, I believe, a large representative system anywhere without the adoption of the ballot; but it is perfectly necessary that you should have the ballot in this country, because in no country in the world where constitutional government exists, is there so great an inequality of fortune as in this country, and so great an amount of influence brought to bear upon the poorer class of votes. And I don't confine my advocacy of the ballot merely to protecting the farmers or the agriculturists; give me the ballot also to protect the voter in the manufacturing districts; for you may depend upon it that you have quite as glaring an evil arising from the influence of great wealth and station, in your electoral proceedings in Lancashire and Yorkshire, as you have in any purely agricultural district.
Now, go into any borough like Stockport, or Bolton, or any other neighbouring borough; give me the names of the large employers of labourers, and I will tell you the politics of the men employed by these capitalists, by knowing the politics of the capitalists themselves. Nine-tenths of them in ordinary circumstances vote with their masters. Why is that? Is there any mesmerism, or any mysterious affinity which should make men think the same as those who happen to pay them their wages? No; it is from an influence, seen or unseen, occult or visible, I don't care which, but it is an influence which operates upon the mind of the labouring class. But they have a right to a vote without any such restriction, or any such coercion. I want the ballot to protect everybody in their votes from the influence of everybody else. I want it as a protection against landlords, manufacturers, millowners, priests, or customers; and I for one would look upon any Reform Bill—I don't hesitate here to declare it—as nothing than delusive, that does not comprise the ballot; and I don't call myself, and never will own myself, as a member of any political party, the heads of which set themselves absolutely in opposition to the ballot.
Now, other questions admit of modification, and other difficulties also admit of being surmounted by electoral bodies themselves, and their representatives, without going to Parliament at all. For instance, though the Parliament won't give a vote to a man, there's a way by which some men may get a vote without going to Parliament to pray for it. Though you don't get triennial Parliaments, there's a way by which constituents can arrange with their representatives, as is often done, and make a bargain with them that they will come every year to give an account of themselves, and to receive their re-election. So with the question of the redistribution of the franchise. Well, we all know that that is a question, after all, so vague, that a greater or a less degree of adjustment may be pleaded as meeting our demands, and I don't see how you can lay hold of any defined principle by which you can secure a fair and equal re-adjustment of the representation; but when I come to the ballot, it is something ay or no; you have the whole thing, or you have nothing; and you cannot get it without an Act of Parliament. And I say, I take my stand upon the ballot as a test of the sincerity of those who profess to lead what is called the Liberal party in this country.
Now I, once for all, beg to state that, according to my opinion, settled now for three or four years, ever since the passing of the repeal of the Corn-laws, when parties were all broken up, I have never considered that we had a political party in this country, nor a Whig or a Liberal party: we have had a Free-trade party to fight for and maintain the Free-trade victory; that party is as much a Sir Robert Peel party as a Whig party; but I have always thought that the necessities of parties, and the difficulties of carrying on business in the House of Commons, for want of a party organisation, is no longer to be rendered necessary, and that as the time must come, and come speedily, when everybody would admit that Free Trade was a matter of history, and no longer to be made a bugbear for maintaining this or that party in the ascendant; so the time must come when there must be a reconstruction of parties, and that there should be now a bid made to the country, by which there could be a reconstruction of what is called the Liberal party. Well, now, I once for all state that, not recognising the bonds of party in any way, since the time of the passing of the Corn Law Bill,—feeling that I as much belonged to Sir James Graham's party as I did to Lord John Russell's party from that moment, I wanted to see where there would be a flag hung out that would warrant me in ranging myself under that organisation, without adding the gross imposture of pretending to belong to a party, when I knew there was no bond of union or sympathy existing between us.
Now, I say, I take the ballot as one test, and it is the smallest test I will accept, of the identity of any political party with myself and my opinions. And I say more, that if any body of statesmen attempt to carry a Reform measure, and launch it on the country with the idea of raising such an amount of enthusiasm as shall enable them to pass such a measure; and if they think that the constituencies will allow that Ministry to leave the ballot out of it, they are under a very gross delusion, and don't know what they're about. In fact it is more palpable every day and every hour, that what the people have fixed their minds upon as one of the points in the new Reform Bill, is the ballot. Why, listen with what acclamation the very word was mentioned here;—there was a perfect unanimity in the Conference this morning, amongst the men who met from all parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, upon the subject; and I venture to say, that if you take what is called the Liberal party in this country,—that party which is reckoned upon by your Reform Ministry as a support to them in carrying any measure of reform in the House of Commons, I have no hesitation in saying, that nine-tenths of that party are in favour of the ballot; and that being the case, there being a greater unanimity out of doors amongst the Liberal party upon the ballot than on any other question, I say it would be the most absurd, and most inconceivably unreasonable thing on the part of the leaders of that so-called Liberal party, to think that that which constitutes the greatest bond of union amongst the party, should be left out in the programme of their Reform Bill.
I can understand that people should have their doubts about the efficiency of the ballot. I am not intolerant at all with people who tell me that we are deceived with respect to the ballot; who say, 'I don't think it would cure this drunkenness or demoralisation, or that coercion or intimidation would cease; I don't believe that it would prevent many of these evils;'—I can fully understand that there may be a difference of opinion about it; but I never can understand how a person calling himself a reformer, should set himslf up resolutely to oppose the ballot; that he should make a point at all times to speak against it, and to quarrel with those who advocate the ballot; that I can't understand, and I must confess, that so far as I am concerned, I can have no party sympathy with any leaders who do take that course in repudiating and opposing the ballot.
Now, gentlemen, I have only to say in conclusion, that I have seen to-day a meeting at the Conference this morning which has exceedingly gratified me, because I there met men from all parts of these great counties, and other parts of the kingdom, among whom were some whom I saw thirteen years ago this very month, when we began another struggle, which, after seven years, was successful, for the repeal of the Cornlaws. I have seen great numbers of those men to-day, meeting in Manchester, some of them more mature in age, I am sorry to say, for the thirteen years that have elapsed, but as earnest and resolute in giving their adhesion to what they believe to be the interest of the great mass of the people, as ever they were in the contest for free trade in corn. Yes, it is a good augury when you find men who possess the sinews of war, as these men do, joining the rank and file of the people in their efforts to obtain political justice. And don't let anybody persuade you, the working classes, for a moment that you can carry out any great measure of political reform, unless you are united with a large section of the middle and capitalist classes; and don't let anybody persuade you, either, that you have an especial quarrel with those rich millowners and manufacturers down here. For I will tell you, the result of my observations and experience is this: that of all the rich men in the country, the most liberal men are those that you have among you in these two counties. It is not to be expected that a man who has a large balance at his banker's, and perhaps 100,000l. capital in his business, should rush at every proposal for change quite as readily as a man who is not so fortunately situated; because the natural selfish instinct occurs to him,—'What have I to gain by change? I have got the suffrage; I don't want political power; I don't want the protection of the ballot;' and, therefore, you must make allowances for all such men; but, also, you must value them the more when you catch them. And I can assure you, if you go to Lombard Street, or any other quarter where rich men are to be seen, you will find much fewer liberal politicians, fewer men that will ever join together, pulling shoulder to shoulder with the working classes for great political reforms, than in Lancashire and Yorkshire; and I was glad to find, this morning, the hearty concurrence with which these men joined in advocating the ballot. Let it not be said by the great landowners, or any people elsewhere, that the manufacturers and millowners of this part of the world, those, at least, with whom I have ever been accustomed to associate, are afraid of giving to the working classes political power, and ensuring them in the full exercise of that power. The experience of this morning has redounded to the honour of those men; and if the union which I perceive to have arisen between the working classes and a large portion of those who should be their natural leaders in these struggles, be cemented and continued, nothing can prevent you, be assured, from obtaining those political rights which you seek.
Now, since I have been in Manchester, we have heard news from France, which probably some of our opponents will think ought to be turned in argument against us, as discouraging further political change. We have heard that one branch of the Government of France at Paris has shut up the shop of the other branch. And the latest accounts are, that he and his soldiers together have carried off some hundreds of the representatives of the people, and locked them up. Will it be pretended that that is an argument against our advancing in the course in which we now propose to advance? I tell you what I find it an argument for,—for doing away with some of these soldiers, like those that are doing the work for the President over there. Is it not a nice illustration of the beautiful system of governing by 350,000 or 400,000 bayonets? The Assembly meets, votes the army estimates without any discussion at all; it would be quite heretical to think of opposing a vote for the maintenance of this army. As soon as they have got their pay the President sends for them, and says: 'I intend to-morrow to shut up that Assembly; and you shall assist me by occupying all the streets, and I will declare Paris in a state of siege, and you shall enable me to do it.' Now, I hope one of the lessons learnt from such proceedings as this will be, that no constitutional Government, at all events, is likely to be served by basing itself on the power of the bayonet. But what other lesson do I find in this state of things in France? Why, this, that the French people have not learnt to do what Englishmen have done—to make timely repairs in their institutions; not to pull them down, not to root them up, but to repair them. The French, instead of building upon old foundations, expect the house to stand without foundations at all. They expect the tree to grow without the roots in the ground. The English people have been in the habit of repairing and improving their institutions, and widening the base of their Constitution, as we are going to do now. It is by widening the base that we intend to render the structure more permanent. And when I look at France, and see what a terrible evil it is that men have not confidence in each other, and that there is such a separation of classes, and such a want of cohesion in parties, that there scarcely exists a public man who can be said now to possess the confidence of the people, or whose loss, if carried off to Vincennes, will ever be felt in the hearts of the people; therefore do I rejoice again for the safety and security of my country, that I have witnessed to-day such an instance of the union and confidence that exists among the people of this country.
I entreat all classes to cherish this union for the common benefit of all; for there is no other security for you. I remember, quite well, that, at the time of the passing of the Reform Bill, I was then living in London. Just before the Reform Bill passed, as you will recollect, the Duke of Wellington was for a few days called to power, and there was a momentary belief and apprehension in the country, that the King, aided by the military, was going to resist the passing of the Reform Bill; you know the awful state of perturbation in which the country was placed; you know how you sent off, in a carriage and four, your petition from Manchester, and petitions were carried up with it from all along the line of road; you know what a dreadful state of excitement the country was in. I remember, at that time, one of your largest calico-printers in Manchester called upon me, in my warehouse in London. He employed between 700 and 800 men, and was a very rich man, but had never formed any decided political principles. In our conversation, I spoke to him of the crisis then impending in the north of England. He was deeply anxious, and he said:—'Yes, I expect every day that the cauldron will boil over, and that we shall be in a state of social anarchy.' I said, 'If such is the state of affairs, what do you intend to do in this emergency?' He said, 'I'll go home this very night by the coach, and I'll put myself at the head of my men, and I'll stand or fall by my men; for that is the only security I have, to join with my men, and to be with them. Now, I tell all the manufacturers, and the capitalists, and the men of station in the country, that, whether it be a time of crisis or a time of tranquillity, the only safety for them is to be at the head of the great masses of the people. I therefore do rejoice at the proceedings of this day, which have given so favourable a prospect of that union, in which there is not only strength but safety.
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