LORD JOHN RUSSELL’S MOTION FOR A REFORM OF PARLIAMENT
24 April 1823
Lord John Russell moved ‘that the present state of the representation of the people in parliament requires the most serious consideration of this House.’
Mr. Ricardo said, that the arguments of the hon. gentleman who had just sat down had been too often repeated, and too often refuted, to have any weight with him on the present occasion. He would not admit that conclusions hostile to the cause of reform could be drawn from the practices of past ages; because he denied that the present generation ought to be bound down by all that had been done by their ancestors. He thought the present generation possessed not only as much wisdom as any of those which had preceded it, but a great deal more. The simple question for them to determine was, whether they would not purify the House, when it was notorious that it could not be considered, in the fair sense of the words, to represent the people? He perfectly agreed with all that his noble friend who made the present motion had said, with reference to the state and condition of the House. He concurred with him in every one of his representations; but he did not think the remedy he had prescribed was the most adviseable for the purposes they both wished to accomplish. The question of reform was naturally divided into three considerations. First, the extension of the suffrage; secondly, the mode of election; and thirdly, the duration of parliaments. As to extension of the suffrage, important as he felt that topic to be, and convinced as he was that it ought to be extended much beyond its present limits, still the other two points appeared to him to be of deeper interest. In the arrangement of the suffrages, the whole of the people might be represented, and yet the House might be composed of persons whose elections had been procured by improper means. It was for this reason that he was compelled to dissent from his noble friend’s proposal for transferring a portion of the representatives from close boroughs to extensive counties. He thought the whole system of election which prevailed at present was illegal. Of what use was it that the power of choosing its representatives should be given to the people, unless the free exercise of that right were also secured to them? He contended, that so long as the influence of the aristocracy possessed, as it did now, the means of biassing the votes of the people, this House could not be a fair representation of that people. Let it not be supposed, that he wished to deprive the aristocracy of that just influence which it derived from its wealth and respectability; but he thought that it became most pernicious, when it was exercised for the purpose of influencing elections. Of its practical evil, every person’s own knowledge would furnish many and ample proofs. How could it be expected, that a man whose means of procuring a livelihood depended mainly upon the patronage and support of those who were in a more elevated rank—how could it be expected, for instance, that the inferior class of tradesmen—should withstand the threats and terrors which might be put into execution, to prevent them from voting according to their conscience? To look for this would be to call upon small freeholders for a degree of severe virtue which had no corresponding example in the higher ranks of society. There was but one method of obviating these difficulties; which was by altering the mode of election, and adopting the ballot instead of open votes. If this were done, they would have a house of commons which would fairly represent the people.—The other point which he wished to mention to the House was the necessity of more frequent election. And this he thought was indisputable; because it was the ready means of ensuring the attention of the House uniformly to the interests of the people.—There was another point in which he must dissent from the opinion of his noble friend. His noble friend had argued that in the event of any parliamentary reform, the House ought to take into their consideration what were called the vested rights of individuals in boroughs. Now, this really appeared to him to be a most extraordinary proposition. Could those pretended rights be considered in the light of property? Could any thing be more contrary to justice than to propose any compensation for such assumed property? Had not the people a right to be well governed? And was it to be maintained, that, because a certain set of persons had, for corrupt purposes, enjoyed the privilege for many years of preventing the people from being well governed, they should, therefore, be compensated for the loss of a privilege so unjustifiable.—The right honourable secretary (Mr. Canning) had, upon a former occasion, stated, that if the House of Commons should fairly represent the people, it would become too powerful for the safety of the Crown and the House of Lords. This argument, he (Mr R.) contended, did not belong to the question; for it was impossible that a House of Commons fairly constituted should not consult their own interests. If, therefore, such a House should propose to dismiss the Crown and the House of Lords, it would be because they were unnecessary to the good government of the country. The right hon. gentleman must, therefore, abandon this argument, or confess, that a virtuous House of Commons would be driven to dismiss the Crown and the House of Lords.—It had also been contended, that if the general principle of his noble friend’s motion were acceded to, a hundred different plans of reform would start up, and that it would be impossible to secure any thing like unanimity on the subject. That was not his opinion. He, for one, was for no alteration in the constitution of the House of Commons, unless that alteration should render it fully and fairly a representation of the people; and he was convinced that that was the object which all the friends of parliamentary reform had in view. The only difference between his noble friend and himself was, that he did not think the plan proposed by his noble friend would accomplish that object. He believed that if that plan were adopted, the House would continue to be what it now was—the representative of the aristocracy of the country, and of the aristocracy only. County elections were, in his opinion, conducted on no better principles than borough elections; and he repeated his conviction, that unless the system of ballot were resorted to, it would be in vain to attempt any reform at all of parliament.—The right hon. secretary opposite had argued, when the question was last under consideration, that the House of Commons, as at present constituted, operated as a check upon the Crown, and a balance of the power of the other House of Parliament. That he denied. To make such a proposition good, it must be first shown that the House of Commons fairly represented the people; otherwise, it was a farce and a mockery to say, that it operated as a check upon the Crown and a balance of the power of the other House of Parliament. His opinion was, that at present the government of this country was a compromise between the aristocracy and the Crown. Instead of the House of Commons, as at present constituted, being a check upon the people, it was itself frequently checked by public opinion. But, was that a convenient operation? Was it convenient that county and other public meetings should perpetually be called, for the purpose of affording a check to the proceedings of the House of Commons? Would it not be much better that the House should really represent the people—that it should be the organ of public opinion?— The right hon. gentleman, on the occasion to which he had already alluded, had triumphantly asked, to what period of our history the reformers would refer as affording the best view of the state of the House of Commons? For himself, he would answer, to none. He believed the people never had been better represented. But, were we never to have a good House of Commons, because we never had had a good one? The people at large now possessed so much more information than they ever before possessed, that they were entitled to be better represented in parliament than they had ever before been.—The right hon. gentleman opposite had allowed, that the proposition might be a beneficial one, but that it was not the constitution under which we were born. The same argument might be used to perpetuate every abuse and every evil. It might be said with respect to Ireland, was the present state of things to be continued in Ireland, because it was the constitution under which the Irish were born? To hear the right hon. gentleman, it would be supposed that the friends of reform were proposing the establishment of a republic. But that was a gratuitous assumption: it was his conclusion, not theirs. The demands of the people might be easily satisfied. They asked only for that which was perfectly reasonable—that they might have a voice in the public councils, and the power of restraining the expenditure of their own money.—He by no means denied the assertion of the right hon. gentleman, that the aggregate of the House of Commons contained as much intellectual ability and moral integrity as ever existed in any similar assembly in the whole world. But then it must be recollected, that all men, in all situations, acted under the influence of motives. He was persuaded that the conduct of the very same gentlemen by whom he was then surrounded, if they were really chosen by the people, and were frequently returned to the people that their merits might be re-considered, would be extremely different from that which it was at present. Mr. Pitt, when he was the friend of parliamentary reform, had said, that it was impossible for an honest man to be minister of this country with such a House of Commons. He was also of that opinion. He did not say, that the ministers did not mean to act honestly; but they were obliged to consult men, and to pursue measures, opposed to the interests of the people. However they might be inclined, they could not do otherwise; feeling that, owing to the peculiar constitution of the House, they would be turned out in a week if they should venture to act honestly. That the people were competent to the task of electing their representatives, the experience of this and of every other country conclusively showed. The enlightened Montesquieu had said, “Could we doubt the natural capacity of the people to discern real merit, it would only be necessary to cast our eyes upon the continued series of surprising elections which were made by the Athenians and the Romans, which undoubtedly no one could attribute to hazard. It is well known that although at Rome the people possessed the right of electing the plebeians to public offices, they never chose to exercise that power; and that although at Athens, by the law of Aristides, they were allowed to select the magistrates from every rank of the state, yet the common people, says Xenophon, never petitioned for such employment as could possibly interfere with their safety or their glory.” These instances might serve to show, that instead of selecting demagogues and disturbers of the public peace, as was unjustly apprehended, the people, if left to the unrestricted exercise of their choice, would act wisely and prudently.
Mr. Martin, of Galway, opposing the motion said: ‘His honourable friend and countryman, the member for Portarlington—(Loud laughter and cries of “No”); he begged pardon, he was sorry he had called the honourable gentleman his countryman, for he was informed he had never set foot in Ireland. That honourable gentleman had talked gravely against the influence of the aristocracy, yet, notwithstanding, he did not believe he could himself mention one of his own constituents, although they did not amount to more than twelve in all; and it was equally certain, that the honourable gentleman was either returned by that very aristocracy, whose influence he so loudly deprecated, or by an interest quite equivalent, and not less cogent.’
The House divided on the motion: Ayes, 169; Noes, 280. Ricardo was one of the tellers for the minority.