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Peel's Speech on the Reform Bill, 28 February 1832

Taken from

Peel's speeches

[476] On the motion of Lord John Russell, the House resolved itself into a committee on the Parliamentary Reform Bill for England.

On the question that Greenwich, Kent, stand part of schedule C, —

SIR  ROBERT PEEL said, that in the report there was a distinction drawn between [477] this borough and the four metropolitan boroughs; but he considered it as much a part of the metropolis as the Tower Hamlets. He did not waive his right to object to Greenwich having members; but as his noble friend (the Marquis of Chandos) had a motion on the metropolitan boroughs, he thought it better not to anticipate that discussion, and would therefore postpone his observations on the point.

Question agreed to. A long discussion ensued on the question, that the Tower Hamlets, Middlesex, stand part of schedule C.

Rising after Mr. Charles Grant, —

SIR ROBERT PEEL congratulated his right hon. friend — and he assured him he congratulated him unfeignedly — on the recovery, after so long a silence, of that eloquence with which he had so often delighted the House. His right hon. friend was disposed to contend that, in founding a new system of representation, his Majesty's ministers were not bound to state the reasons upon which they founded it. He could not but think that it would have been safer for his right hon. friend to have adhered to that prudent reserve, and not to have condescended, out of the abundance of his reasons, to have favoured the House with that one argument which he declared to be most just and unanswerable. The argument which his right hon. friend deemed so convincing was this, that, whereas London had always had a preponderance in the representation, therefore it would be an insult to the metropolis — seeing its advance in population, wealth, and commerce — not to give it an increase of representatives, when members were given to places heretofore unrepresented. But he was sure that his right hon. friend was too just to confine his principle to London, and to deny that, if London bad such a claim, in consequence of its increased importance, other parts of the kingdom were also entitled to an extended representation, on the same account. Take the case of two of the most considerable towns in his Majesty's dominions — Liverpool and Dublin. If his right hon. friend was borne out in the position that, according to reason and the constitution, those places which formerly held a preponderance in representation over others to which they were superior in population and importance, should now receive an increase of representation proportioned to their increase of wealth and population; then he would take Liverpool, for instance, and would ask, what had his Majesty's ministers done in respect to that town? He found that in ancient times, that place had two representatives, the same number as either Tamworth or Calne — places, possibly, at some remote period of history not inferior to Liverpool. But Liverpool had since increased beyond example. It was now a great commercial town, of far greater importance than either of the others, and it had held out to all other places a glorious example, not only of commercial enterprise, but of the advancement of science, and the cultivation of the liberal arts. Well, what had been given to Liverpool? Calne was still to have two members, and Liverpool was to have no more. It was childish, he apprehended, to argue, that because London was the metropolis, that therefore it ought to be treated differently. He supposed his right hon. friend never meant to assert such a proposition, that because the population of London had been increased, its representation should be increased also, on the special ground that it was the metropolitan city. [Mr. Charles Grant: Yes.] Well, then, he would try the argument of his right hon. friend further. He never understood that, because a member represented London, he was entitled to more weight and consideration than another, representing a distant city. He knew of no pre-eminence enjoyed by the members for London, save, indeed, that high privilege of being entitled once in every parliament to sit at the right hand of the speaker. That ceremony done with, he had always thought that all members stood there as equals, and that the vote of one was as good and as potent as the vote of another. It appeared, however, that he was mistaken. But if that was the case, did it not rather furnish a reason against increasing the number of representatives for London? But he would repeat, if the districts around the metropolis were to have additional members, why was Liverpool restricted to the number of two? By the bill, two members were given to other places not to be compared to Liverpool in any manner whatever. But had Liverpool even retained its two members? Had not other districts been included within that borough? It had been said by an hon. gentleman, that Toxteth-park, in its vicinity, was a small place, and unworthy of consideration. It contained, however, no fewer than 26,000 inhabitants. Then the case of Liverpool was this – [478] that the number of members remained the same, but the district returning those members was greatly enlarged. Had then the same principles, the same measure of justice, which was applied to the metropolis, been applied to Liverpool. The answer was, “No: but then Liverpool is not a metropolis." A bad answer in the case of Liverpool. But a much worse in the case of the next city he would name — the city of Dublin. Here was a metropolitan city; but you had denied her this advantage, which you pretended to be specially due to a metropolis. Belfast had one member only before the present bill; so had the city of Limerick; so had the town of Galway, and the city of Waterford. Dublin had two members. Dublin had increased in population, wealth, and prosperity. They were about to give an additional member to each of the places he had just stated, viz. to Belfast, Limerick, Galway, and Waterford; but Dublin was to remain without addition. According, therefore, to the argument of his right hon. Friend — the unanswerable argument as it was called — Dublin being a metropolis, was degraded and insulted. Let it not be supposed that he (Sir R. Peel) admitted the justice of the argument. Far from it. He as much denied that it was an insult to Dublin to increase the representation of Cork, without increasing the representation of the former city, as he denied that it was an insult to London to increase the representation of Manchester, without adding to the representatives of the metropolis. He only wished to show, that the argument of his right hon. friend was not unanswerable, and that if it were just, it would apply equally to twenty other places as to London. He would now proceed to notice the speech of the learned member for Calne — a speech which contained many arguments, applicable rather to the general measure, than to the immediate question; and as he had no wish on the present occasion to involve himself in a general discussion of the measure of reform, he would only notice such arguments of the learned member as related to the question before the House. That learned gentleman assumed, that the Reform Bill would ensure the happiness of the country, by making the form of the government more democratical. If that assumption, respecting the effects of the whole measure, were well founded, he should be prepared to admit, that it was expedient to give additional members to the metropolis. But he did not admit the truth of the assumption. He denied that the principle was established, that the happiness of this country would be extended by making the form of the government more democratical. The learned gentleman laid down his position broadly, and without reserve or qualification, and he must contend, that consistently with that position, a monarchy could not be defended or maintained. His attachment to monarchy was a rational attachment, founded on the conviction, that where it controlled the democratic principle, it controlled it for the benefit of the governed — that, secured as it was from encroachment and abuse by a system of reciprocal control, a limited monarchy gave a stability to government, a defence equally against popular violence and military despotism, and a protection to freedom which no democratic form of government could permanently afford. No increase, therefore, of democratic power which trenched upon the authority of the Crown, could be, in his opinion, for the benefit of the people, however flattering to their vanity. He would dwell no more upon that argument, as it applied more to the principle of the bill than to the particular clause under discussion. In reference to that clause the learned gentleman had said, that if the House did not grant the increase of representation to the metropolitan districts, the first act of a reformed parliament would be to grant it. But why should it be the first act of a reformed parliament to grant it specially to them, when it could be shown that many other places were equally entitled to an increased representation. Why should they be selected for the special favour of the reformed parliament? Was it on account of their vicinity to the House that this favour would be granted? Was it on account of the greater facility which they presented of bringing the influence of aggregate numbers to bear upon the deliberations of the House? If it was, might there not be reason to apprehend that the influence of their representatives, backed by a similar support of vicinity and numbers, would be unduly great? But the hon. gentleman said, that it was necessary to give those new members to the metropolitan districts, because representation would operate as a safety-valve against disorder. He begged to ask the House, if facts bore out that assertion? Before it was taken for granted that representation conceded to large bodies of men, congregated together in towns, [479] would operate as a safety-valve to disorder, it ought to be enquired whether that assertion, however plausible it might seem, was borne out by experience. Look to Paris, which had a great preponderance in the representation of France. Was that city remarkable above the other departments for its order and tranquillity? The department of the Seine sent fifteen members to the Chamber of Deputies; but he could not find, that, in consequence of its enjoying so large a share of the representation, Paris was more quiet and free from political excitement and disorder than the rest of France. He was not speaking of the old despotic periods, when the Bourbons ruled with absolute power; but he was speaking of recent times, and he could not find that the tranquillity of Paris, as compared with the rest of France, had been in proportion to the greater share which it possessed in the representation. Turning to the history of this country, and looking to the most memorable riots that had occurred here, although London had stood pre-eminent in the representation, he could not find that it had been pre-eminently tranquil. Looking to the riots which took place in the years 1780 and 1815, he could not say that representation had acted as a check upon disorder. In fact, religious or political excitement would always act upon large bodies of men, unabated by any consideration that they were represented, because such a consideration never occurred to them whilst under the influence of the excitement. Much of the argument in support of the proposition upon which the House had that night to decide, rested upon the assumption, that the existence of representation, and of an extended right of suffrage, prevented disorders. He would beg of the House to advert to some facts which must have come recently within their observation — and which seemed certainly at variance with the theory. There had been of late three special commissions, for the trial of persons charged with serious outrages against life and property, and those outrages were the offspring of political excitement. Were the towns which had been disgraced by them large unrepresented places, driven to madness by the withholding of their franchise? No such thing. The towns — the only towns in which disorder had prevailed — the only towns to which special commissions had been sent — were three towns, Bristol, Nottingham, and Derby — which had the safety-valve — viz., the right of representation, and yet were the sole sufferers from explosion. He could not, therefore, concede as a matter of course, in the face of such facts, that representation would be efficient as a remedy for popular disturbances. Did he, therefore, regard the right of sending members to parliament as a right that ought to be abridged? On the contrary, he was quite of the opposite opinion. All he meant to contend for was, that an extended right of suffrage was not a certain cure for the spirit of disorder. Indeed, in the case of Scotland, they had another proof to the contrary. In Scotland, up to the year 1831, there was the greatest order concurrent with the least popular right of election. He now came to a consideration which he deemed of much importance, and to which he should beg the special attention of the House. He would assume that the principles of reform, as recognised in that bill, were such as ought to be adopted by the House. He would assume — than which nothing could be further from the truth — that the bill was, generally speaking, calculated to carry the sound principles of reform into beneficial effect; but did it therefore follow, that consistency required that every member who gave a general support to the bill should, therefore, vote unconditionally for the metropolitan clauses? The matter resolved itself into two questions, different in themselves. The first question which required consideration was, whether it was right to give these additional members to the metropolitan districts? The second question for consideration was, whether, in the event of their deciding that it was right to give those additional members, the constituency, as laid down by the bill, was such a one as ought to be adopted? With the additional members the metropolitan districts would have no less than twenty-two representatives, including those for the county of Middlesex, and for Greenwich — a number which he conceived to  be enormous. It was a number out of all proportion to the other parts of the kingdom. A very small degree of reflection would enable the House to see the mode in which the influence thus created could not fail to act. These two-and-twenty members would first have the advantage in all probability of being resident on the spot — they would also, during their attendance in parliament, be in constant communication with their constituents — under the immediate force and control of their [480] influence. Thus would there be in that House a body of two-and-twenty individuals, with every facility for combination, and with every means of acting in that House upon the immediate, and therefore ill-considered commands of their constituents out of doors. It must be obvious to all who beard him, that the members returned to sit for the metropolis would represent a political, rather than a manufacturing or commercial interest, and that political interest in general, a popular or democratic interest. The moral influence of those twenty members representing, as it were, the seat of government, and deriving increased power from daily contact with the masses of whom they were the delegates, would far exceed the influence of twice the number of representatives sent from remote agricultural districts. It was said, that the same principle of qualification which was applied to the metropolitan districts was also applied to the smallest borough which had escaped, and barely escaped, schedule B — and such was the fact. But, though it was the same principle in name, he should in a short time clearly prove to the House that it was not in reality the same. Where it was perfectly safe to extend the constituency, there the ministers had curtailed it by this bill; and where it was dangerous to extend it, in those places had they extended it. The £10 voters in the country were not liable to be drawn into combinations, nor were they liable to be swayed by the daily influence of the press, as they were in large towns. In the country districts, the house rented at £10 was a house of a much better description than the house rented at the same sum in a large town. If, in the country, £10 rent was the fit minimum of qualification, a much larger amount should be the minimum in the large manufacturing town. But, comparing the metropolitan districts with large, nay, with the largest towns, he should contend that, on the principles of this bill, the constituent body established in those districts was manifestly too numerous. It appeared from the papers on the table, that the estimated amount of the constituency of twenty-six of the largest places enfranchised by this bill, was, for the whole, about 50,000. The probable number of qualified voters in the metropolitan districts alone, appeared to be not less than 59,000. In order to prove how totally different was the £10 franchise — though nominally the same in the London districts and the country towns — how much more popular was the right of voting, conferred by that franchise, in the one than in the other, he would call the attention of the House to seven of the boroughs in the agricultural districts, and, in order that no unfairness might be imputed to him in the selection, he would take the first seven in the list. In Abingdon, the first in the list, the number of houses were 1,114, while the number of houses above £10 value was only 154, being about at the rate of seven to one. In Barnstable, the proportion was about two and a half to one. In short, upon the whole seven towns the average proportion was about eight to one. When, however, he looked to London he found a most extraordinary difference, which would clearly show that a £10 franchise in the county towns was far higher than a £10 franchise in the metropolis, and that therefore the bill would give a much more extensive franchise in the great towns than it would give in the small boroughs. He would, in the first instance, take the population returns of St. Giles's, Bloomsbury, for the year 1831, by which it appeared that the total number of houses in that parish was 4,456, or, deducting uninhabited houses, 4,025. The House would of course believe, from these returns, that there could not be so many voters; but what was the fact? There were actually more. The rate-payers amounted to 3,337, the houses compounded for to 436; which, with the other persons entitled to vote, according to the paper which he held in his hand, would give no less than 4,280 voters. In the next parish there was a confirmation of the extent to which the suffrage would be extended by this bill. Indeed this suffrage was greater than if universal suffrage were given to all householders. St. Andrew's, Holborn, and St. George the Martyr, contained 300 houses, of which there were not fifty under the value of £10. Paddington contained 1,126 houses, while the number of persons rated as occupiers were no less than 1,329, being no less than 200 more than there were houses in the parish. It was said, that this was a mistake, and that the papers were wrong. If so, he would reply that ministers had no right to call upon them to legislate upon papers confessedly erroneous. St. Pancras exhibited the same result. It contained, by the return, 8,424 houses. The houses rated below £10, but which, being worth more, conferred a right of voting, amounted to 504, while the actual rate-payers amounted to 7,998; thus giving to 8,424 houses no less than 8,502 voters. Did not [481] this prove that they were giving a more extensive right of voting than if they had at once extended the franchise to every householder? He would ask the supporters of the bill, if they were sure that they could, by means of it, rally round them the middle classes of the metropolis, and not the numbers, as he would call them, in contradistinction to its wealth and respectability? He thought it was wrong to give so many as twenty-two members to the metropolis; but, if they had made up their minds to do so, he still called upon them to consider well before they determined upon the class of persons they should select as a constituency. He called upon them not to select persons for the exercise of the elective franchise, whose landlords they compelled to compound fur the rates of the houses, occupied by such persons, on account of their property. These were matters of great importance; for, if the House should come to an unwise decision upon them, the step would be irrevocable. Should this measure pass, there would come hereafter such a pressure upon their doors as no internal strength could resist. Should they on this occasion act unwisely in their decision, did they imagine that they could retrace their steps? The difficulty of retreating would be tenfold greater than that of pausing, and anxiously considering before they granted such a franchise; a franchise, in his opinion, little qualified to ensure the representation of that which ought to be represented — the property, the intelligence, the commerce, the honour, and the character, of this great city.

Mr. Charles Grant, in explanation, said, that he had contended that it was usual for the metropolis to have greater influence than other placed; but he considered that the metropolitan districts would be in the condition of so many separate towns sending representatives to parliament. The argument which his right hon. friend had answered, was his own, and not one that he (Mr. Grant) had used.

On a division the numbers were; Ayes, 316; Noes, 236; majority, 80. The district of the Tower Hamlets was accordingly placed in schedule C.


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