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Benjamin Disraeli: Hansard, XLIX [3d Ser.], 246-52)

Thomas Attwood, M.P. for Birmingham, moved on July 12, 1839, that "the House do resolve itself into a Committee of the whole House, for the purpose of taking into consideration the petition called the National Petition." Disraeli spoke upon the conclusion of Lord John Russell's speech.

Mr. D'Israeli [1] entirely agreed with the noble Lord as to the fallacy he had pointed out, as pervading this petition - that political rights necessarily ensured social happiness. But although they did not approve of the remedy suggested by the Chartists, it did not follow they should not attempt to cure the disease complained of. He did not think they had, up to the present moment, clearly seen what the disease really was. He could not believe, that a movement which, if not national was yet most popular, could have been produced by those common means of sedition to which the noble Lord had referred. Unquestionably, there was more or less of a leaven of sedition mixing itself up with all popular commotions; but he could not believe, that a petition signed by considerably upwards of 1,000,000 of our fellow-subjects could have been brought about by those ordinary means which were always in existence and which, five, ten, or fifteen years ago, were equally powerful in themselves, without producing any equal results.

It has been supposed, that the basis of this movement was strictly economical. He had great doubts of that, because he found, that where there were economical causes for national movements they led to tumult, but seldom to organization. He admitted also, on the other hand, that this movement was not occasioned by any desire of political rights. Political rights had so much of an abstract character, their consequences acted so slightly on the multitude, that he did not believe they could ever be the origin of any great popular movement. But there was something between an economical and a political cause, which might be the spring of this great movement, as the noble Lord must himself admit it to be. It might be mistaken, but all must confess, that it was considerable. The real cause of this, as all real popular movements, not stimulated by the aristocracy, and which, if not permanent, were still of material importance, was an apprehension on the part of the people, that their civil rights were invaded. Civil rights partook in some degree of an economical, and in some degree certainly of a political character. They conduced to the comfort, the security, and the happiness of the subject, and at the same time were invested with a degree of sentiment, which mere economical considerations did not involve. Now, he maintained, that the civil rights of the people of England had been invaded. There had been, undoubtedly, perhaps with no evil intention, perhaps from a foolish desire of following a false philosophy, and applying a system of government not suited to the character of this country, and borrowed from the experience of another - there had been, from whatever motive, an invasion of the civil rights of the English people of late years; and he believed the real cause of this movement was a sentiment on the part of the people of England, that their civil rights had been invaded. That sentiment had doubtless been taken advantage of by trading agitators, but it was participated by much more than agitators, and that discontented minority which must ever exist in all countries.

He was not one of those who ascribed the people's Charter, as it was called, to the New Poor Law; but, at the same time, he believed there was an intimate connexion between the two. He ascribed the Charter and the New Poor Law to the same origin to which they owed many evils they now experienced, and many more with which they were menaced, the consequences of which, if he were not much mistaken, might yet be severely felt by persons superior to those who had signed this petition. The origin of this movement in favour of the Charter dated about the same time they had passed their Reform Bill. He was not going to entrap the House into any discussion on the merits of the constitution they had destroyed, and that which had replaced it. He had always said, that he believed its character was not understood by those who assailed it, and perhaps not fully by those who defended it. All would admit this - the old constitution had an intelligible principle, which the present had not. The former invested a small portion of the nation with political rights. Those rights were intrusted to that small class on certain conditions - that they should guard the civil rights of the great multitude. It was not even left to them as a matter of honour; society was so constituted, that they were intrusted with duties which they were obliged to fulfill. They had transferred a great part of that political power to a new class, whom they had not invested with those great public duties. Great duties could alone confer great station, and the new class which had been invested with political station had not been bound up with the great mass of the people by the exercise of social duties. For instance, the administration of justice, the regulation of parishes, the building of roads and bridges, the command of the militia and police, the employment of labour, the distribution of relief to the destitute - these were great duties which, ordinarily, had been confined to that body in the nation which enjoyed and exercised political power.

But now they had a class which had attained that great object which all the opulent desired - political power without the conditions annexed to its possession, and without fulfilling the duties which it should impose. What was the consequence? Those who thus possessed power without discharging its conditions and duties were naturally anxious to put themselves to the least possible expense and trouble. Having gained that object, for which others were content to sacrifice trouble and expense, they were anxious to keep it without any appeal to their pocket, and without any cost of their time. To gain their objects, they raised the cry of cheap government - that served the first: to attain the second, they called for the constant interference of the Government. But he contended, they could not have a cheap and centralized Government, and maintain at the same time the civil rights of the people of England. He believed this was the real cause of the Charter; a large body of the people found out that their civil rights had been invaded. They had invaded their civil rights. The New Poor Law Act was an invasion of their civil rights. They could not deny, that they had based that New Poor Law upon a principle that outraged the whole social duties of the State - the mainstay, the living source of the robustness of the commonwealth. They taught the destitute not to look for relief to those who were their neighbours, but to a distant Government stipendiary. They taught the unfortunate labourer, that he had no legal claim to relief - that the relief he should receive must be an affair of charity; and he believed, that the discontent such alterations had occasioned was really the vis inertiae of which the active sedition of the country had availed itself - this movement for the Charter.

He knew it would be said, that Gentlemen on that [the Opposition] side of the House, were answerable for the New Poor Law as well as others. He admitted it; but the people of the country did not visit its enactment with the same acrimony upon those who assisted as upon those who originated it; and for this reason, they could not forget that they assisted the party opposite to obtain power, and the feeling of disappointment, the vindictive sentiment was excited only by the Government and its supporters, not by those who were opposed to them, although joining in passing that bill. He thought their consenting to such a bill was a very great blunder. The fact was, when the Tory party, shattered, and apparently destroyed, rose from the stupor in which they found themselves, they began to think they should have a slice of the cake and fruits of reform - that they should have some of the advantages of the cheap government system - and he believed they would yet rue the day they did so, for they had acted contrary to principle - the principle of opposing everything like central government, and favouring in every possible degree the distribution of power.

He admitted, that the prayer of the National Petition involved the great fallacy of supposing that social evils would be cured by political rights; but the fallacy was not confined to these poor Chartists. He had never passed an evening in that House that he did not hear some honourable Gentlemen say, that the people were starving, and that the only remedy was household suffrage. Was that proposition less absurd than the prayer of this petition which had been so severely criticized by the noble Lord? The petitioners demanded annual Parliaments; but whether a man called for annual or triennial Parliaments, undoubtedly the change applied for was great in either case, and be did not think the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) was justified in speaking in terms of derision. At least, it was futile to attempt drawing the line between the requirements of the petition and the suggestions of some of his own supporters. The fact, however, was, although the opinions of some of the supporters of the noble Lord's Government might be somewhat in advance of his own, they were still supposed to be perfectly compatible with the exercise of political powers by that class he had created, by whose influence he had obtained place, and with whose assistance he still hoped to retain power. But if the noble Lord supposed, that in this country he could establish a permanent Government on what was styled nowadays, a monarchy of the middle classes, he would be indulging a great delusion, which, if persisted in, must shake our institutions and endanger the Throne. He believed, such a system was actually foreign to the character of the people of England. He believed, that in this country, the exercise of political power must be associated with great public duties. The English nation would concede any degree of political power to a class making simultaneous advances in the exercise of the great social duties. That was the true principle to adhere to; in proportion as they departed from it, they were wrong; as they kept by it, they would approximate to that happy state of things which had been described as so desirable by the honourable Member for Birmingham [Thomas Attwood]. The noble Lord had answered the speech of the honourable Member for Birmingham, but he had not answered the Chartists. The honourable Member for Birmingham had made a very dexterous speech, a skillful evolution in favour of the middle classes. But although he had attempted to dovetail the Charter on the Birmingham Union, all that had recently taken place on the appearance of the Chartists before the leaders of the union newly-created magistrates, and the speeches by members of the Convention within the last few days, led to a very different conclusion. There he found the greatest hostility to the middle classes. They complained only of the government by the middle classes. They made no attack on the aristocracy - none on the Corn laws - but upon the newly-enfranchised constituency, not on the old - upon that peculiar constituency which was the basis of the noble Lord's Government. He was aware this subject was distasteful to both of the parties in that House. He regretted it.

He was not ashamed to say, however much he disapproved of the Charter, he sympathised with the Chartists. They formed a great body of his countrymen; nobody could doubt they laboured under great grievances, and it would indeed have been a matter of surprise and little to the credit of that House, if Parliament had been prorogued without any notice being taken of what must always be considered a very remarkable social movement. They had now sat five months; their time had not been particularly well occupied, and he would just call to the attention of the House some of the circumstances which had occurred with reference to this subject. Early in the Session they had heard of lords-lieutenant of counties, noblemen and gentlemen of great influence, leaving the metropolis, travelling by railroads, putting themselves at the head of the yeomanry, capturing and relieving towns, and returning just in time to vote on some important division; and certainly he should have expected that some notice, at least, would have been taken of the occurrence by the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Lord John Russell). A short time afterwards, the petition called the "National Petition," was brought forward by the honourable Gentleman. He called it the National Petition by courtesy. The noble Lord had been critical upon it - he said, it was not national; the noble Lord also said, he was at the head of the reform Government, which some ventured to think was not a reform Government. They should take titles as they found them; but it had a very good tide to be called "national" when it was signed by a large portion of the nation. By a sort of chilling courtesy, the honourable Member was allowed to state the contents of the petition, but the noble Lord said nothing - he gave no sign, and it was only by an accident, he believed, they had been favoured with his remarks that evening - remarks which showed great confidence in the state of the country, in the temper and virtue of the labouring classes - great confidence in himself and in his Government. He hoped the noble Lord had good and efficient reasons for the tone of confidence which he had assumed, and the air, he would not say of contumely, but of captiousness with which he had met this motion. The observations of the noble Lord would go forth to the world, and if the inference he drew from them were wrong, prompt justice would, no doubt, be done him. The noble Lord might despise the Chartists; he might despise 1,280,000 of his fellow-subjects because they were discontented; but if he were a Minister of the Crown, he should not so treat them, even if he thought them unreasonable. The noble Lord had his colonies in a condition so satisfactory - the war in the East [the Opium Wars] seemed drawing to a close - his monetary system was in so healthy a state - that he could afford to treat with such nonchalance a social insurrection at his very threshold. Perhaps it was in vain to expect, whatever might be the state of the country, much attention from her Majesty's Government. Their time was so absorbed, so monopolized in trying to make Peers, and promising to make Baronets, that but little time could now be given by them to such a subject as this; but probably in the recess, when cabinet councils would be held more frequently, they would give it some consideration. He believed that if they did not, and that if they treated it as a mere temporary ebullition, which was rather the result of a plethoric vein than of any other cause, they would be grievously mistaken; for the seeds were sown, which would grow up to the trouble and dishonour of the realm. He was convinced that if they persisted in their present system of cheap and centralized government, they would endanger not only the national character but also the national throne.


[1] An old spelling. The use of the third person for this report may properly lead to the observation that Disraeli wrote on July 2, 1876: "The Parliamentary reporters, who are mere machines, never discovered till too late that a considerable Parliamentary event was occurring."[back]

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