John Stuart Mill MP's speeches on Parliamentary Reform.

Note: These parliamentary speeches by Mill are edited from original Hansard reports on-line:

Mill's speech for greater enfranchisement of the working classes.

HC Deb 13 April 1866 vol 182 cc1227-321 1227

Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Amendment proposed to Question [12th April], "That the Bill be now read a second time;" and which Amendment was:

To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "this House, while ready to consider, with a view to its settlement, the question of Parliamentary Reform, is of opinion that it is inexpedient to discuss a Bill for the reduction of the Franchise in England and Wales, until the House has before it the entire scheme contemplated by the Government, for the amendment of the Representation of the People," (Earl Grosvenor,) instead thereof.

Question again proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

Debate resumed...

J. STUART MILL Although the question which will be put from the Chair relates ostensibly to the mere order of proceeding, it will hardly be denied, and least of all after the speech of the right hon. Baronet, that the question we are really discussing is, whether the Bill ought to pass. Indeed, the noble Lord the Member for King's Lynn is the only speaker on the Opposition side who has argued the nominal issue as if he thought that it was the real one, or has even laid any great stress upon it. That noble Lord, in a speech marked by all the fairness and candour which were known to be his characteristics, and by even more than the ability - at least, by more varied and sustained ability - has said, I think, the very most and the very best that can be said in favour of the Amendment, considered as a substantive Motion.

He has brought forward considerations well calculated to make an impression, but only on one part of his audience - on those who, though they may be willing to consent to some Reform, look with extreme jealousy on the most important part of it, the enfranchisement of a portion of the working classes - who regard this less as a good to be desired, than as a doubtful, perhaps a dangerous, experiment, and, tremble lest they should eventually find themselves committed to giving those classes a trifle more representation than they were duly warned of beforehand.

What is the very worst extremity of evil with which the noble Lord threatens the House in case it should be so unguarded as to pass this Bill without the other measures of Parliamentary Reform by which it is to be succeeded?
Why, it is this: that if something happens which it requires the most improbable concurrence of chances to bring about, something against which neither the personal honour of the Government, nor the inexorable dates fixed by the Registration Acts, nor even the expressed will of Parliament, if Parliament should think fit to express its will, can guarantee us; in this all but impossible case there may happen - what? That the redistribution of seats may, in spite of all that can be done, possibly devolve upon a House of Commons elected under the enlarged franchise.

Now, I put it to the noble Lord's clear intellect - and impartial because clear - is this an argument which can have any weight with anybody who thinks the enlarged franchise an improvement - who thinks it calculated to give us a better Legislature? If the Legislature it gives us is a better one for all other purposes, will it not be a better one for this purpose? If it can be trusted to govern us, if it can be trusted to tax us, if it can be trusted to legislate for us, can it not be trusted to revise its own Constitution? Does experience teach us to expect that this of all things is a work in which legislative bodies in general, and British Parliaments in particular, are likely to be rash, headstrong, precipitate, subversive, revolutionary?

I think, Sir, that a Parliament which was cautious in nothing else might be depended on for caution in meddling with the conditions of its own power. Sir, this formidable one chance in a thousand with which the noble Lord threatens us, is only terrific to those in whose eyes the Bill is a rash and portentous transfer of power to the working classes. To those who think that the enfranchising provisions are good in themselves, even if there were no redistribution of seats, and still better if there is, this phantom of evil has no terrors.

And that I believe to be the opinion of the great body of Reformers, both in and out of the House. We are, I dare say, as sincerely desirous as the noble Mover of the Amendment, that family and pocket boroughs should be extinguished, and the inordinate political influence of a few noble and opulent families abridged. We are, I believe, as anxious to curtail the power which wealth possesses, of buying its way into the House of Commons, and shutting the door upon other people, as the wealthiest gentleman present. But though we are quite orthodox on these great points of Conservative Parliamentary Reform - and look forward with delight to our expected co-operation with gentlemen on the opposite benches in the congenial occupation of converting them from theories into facts - we yet think that a measure of enfranchisement like this Bill - moderate, indeed, far more moderate than is desired by the majority of Reformers, but which does make the working classes a substantial power in this House - is not only a valuable part of a scheme of Parliamentary Reform, but highly valuable even if nothing else were to follow.

And as this is the only question among those raised on the present occasion which seems to me in the smallest degree worth discussing, I shall make no further apology for confining myself to it.
Sir, measures may be recommended either by their principle, or by their practical consequences; and if they have either of these recommendations, they usually have both. As far as regards the principle of this measure, there is but little to disagree about; for a measure which goes no farther than this, does not raise any of the questions of principle on which the House is divided; and I cannot but think that the right hon. Baronet, in introducing those questions, has caused the debate to deviate somewhat from its proper course.

If it were necessary to take into consideration even all the reasonable things which can be said pro and con about democracy, the House would have a very different task before it. But this is not a democratic measure. It neither deserves that praise, nor, if hon. Members will have it so, that reproach. It is not a corollary from what may be called the numerical theory of representation. It is required by the class theory, which we all know is the Conservative view of the Constitution - the favourite doctrine, not only of what are called Conservative Reformers, but of Conservative non-Reformers as well. The opponents of Reform are accustomed to say that the Constitution knows nothing of individuals, but only of classes. Individuals, they tell us, cannot complain of not being represented, so long as the class they belong to is represented. But if any class is unrepresented, or has not its proper share of representation relatively to others, that is a grievance.

Now, all that need be asked at present is that this theory be applied to practice. There is a class which has not yet had the benefit of the theory. While so many classes, comparatively insignificant in numbers, and not supposed to be freer from class partialities or interests than their neighbours, are represented, some of them, I venture to say, greatly over-represented in this House, there is a class, more numerous than all the others, and therefore, as a mere matter of human feeling, entitled to more consideration - weak as yet, and therefore needing representation the more, but daily becoming stronger, and more capable of making its claims good - and this class is not represented. We claim, then, a large and liberal representation of the working classes, on the Conservative theory of the Constitution. We demand that they be represented as a class, if represented they cannot be as human beings; and we call on hon. Gentlemen to prove the sincerity of their convictions by extending the benefit of them to the great majority of their countrymen.

But hon. Gentlemen say, the working classes are already represented. It has just come to light, to the astonishment of everybody, that these classes actually form 26 per cent of the borough constituencies. They kept the secret so well - it required so much research to detect their presence on the register, their votes were so devoid of any traceable consequences; they had all this power of shaking the foundations of our institutions, and so obstinately persisted in not doing it - that hon. Gentlemen are quite alarmed, and recoil in terror from the abyss into which they have not fallen.

Well, Sir, it certainly seems that this amount of enfranchisement of the working classes has done no harm. But if it has not done harm, perhaps it has not done much good either; at least, not the kind of good which we are talking about. A class may have a great number of votes in every constituency in the kingdom, and not obtain a single representative in this House. Their right of voting may be only the right of being everywhere outvoted. If, indeed, the mechanism of our electoral system admitted representation of minorities; if those who are outvoted in one place could join their votes with those who are outvoted in another; then, indeed, a fourth part, even if only of the borough electors, would be a substantial power, for it would mean a fourth of the borough representatives. 26 per cent concentrated would be a considerable representation; but 26 per cent diffused may be almost the same as none at all.

The right hon. Baronet has said that a class, though but a minority, may, by cleverly managing its votes, be master of the situation, and that the tenant-farmers in Hertfordshire can carry an election. They may be able to decide whether a Tory or a Whig shall be elected; they may be masters of so small a situation as that. But what you are afraid of is, lest they should carry points on which their interest as a class is opposed to that of all other classes, on which if they were only a third of the constituency, the other two-thirds would be against them.
Do you think they would be masters of such a situation as that?

Sir, there is no known contrivance by which in the long run a minority can outnumber a majority; by which one-third of the electors can out-vote the other two-thirds. The real share of the working classes in the representation is measured by the number of Members they can return - in other words, the number of constituencies in which they are the majority: and even that only marks the extreme limit of the influence which they can exercise, but by no means that which they will.

Why, Sir, among the recent discoveries, one is, that there are some half-dozen constituencies in which working men are even now a majority; and I put it to hon. Gentlemen, would anybody over have suspected it? At the head of these constituencies is Coventry. Are the Members for Coventry generally great sticklers for working-class notions? It has, I believe, been observed that these Gentlemen usually vote quite correctly on the subject of French ribbons; and as that kind of virtue comes most natural to Conservatives, the Members for Coventry often are Conservative.

But probably that would happen much the same if the master manufacturers had all the votes. If, indeed, a tax on power-looms were proposed, and the Members for Coventry voted for it, that might be some indication of working class influences; though I believe that the working men, even at Coventry, have far outgrown that kind of absurdities. Even if the franchise were so much enlarged that the working men, by polling their whole strength, could return by small majorities 200 of the 658 Members of this House, there would not be fifty of that number who would represent the distinctive feelings and opinions of working men, or would be, in any class sense, their representatives.

And what if they had the whole 200? Even then, on any subject in which they were concerned as a class, there would be more than two to one against them when they were in the wrong. They could not succeed in anything, even when unanimous, unless they carried with them nearly a third of the representatives of the other classes; and if they did that, there would he, I think, a very strong presumption of their being in the right.

As a matter of principle, then, and not only on liberal principles, but on those of the Conservative party, the case in favour of the Bill seems irresistible. But it is asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Calne, what practical good do we expect? What particular measures do we hope to see carried in a reformed House which cannot be carried in the present? If I understand my right hon. Friend correctly, he thinks we ought to come to the House with a Bill of indictment against itself - an inventory of wrong things which the House does, and right things which it cannot be induced to do - and when, convinced by our arguments, the House pleads guilty, and cries "Peccavi," we have his permission to bring in a Reform Bill.

Sir, my right hon. Friend says we should not proceed on a priori reasoning, but should be practical. I want to know whether this is his idea of being practical. For my part, I am only sorry it is not possible that in the discussion of this question special applications should be kept entirely out of view: for if we descend to particulars, and point out this and that in the conduct of the House which we should like to see altered, but which the House, by the very fact that it does not alter them, does not think require alteration, how can we expect the House to take this as a proof that its Constitution needs Reform?

We should not at all advance our cause, while we should stir up all the most irritating topics in the domain of politics. Suppose, now - and I purposely choose a small instance to give the less offence - suppose we were to say that if the working classes had been represented it would not have been found so easy for hon. Gentlemen whose cattle were slaughtered by Act of Parliament, to get compensated twice over: once by a rate, and again by a rise of price. I use the case only for illustration; I lay no stress on it; but I ask, ought the debate on a Reform Bill to consist of a series of discussions on points similar to this, and a hundred times more irritating than this? Is it desirable to drag into this discussion all the points in which any one may think that the rights or interests of labour are not sufficiently regarded by the House?

I will ask another question. If the authors of the Reform Bill of 1832 had foretold (which they scarcely could have done, since they did not themselves know it), if they had predicted that through it we should abolish the Corn Laws; that we should abolish the Navigation Laws; that we should grant free trade to all foreigners without reciprocity; that we should reduce inland postage to a penny; that we should renounce the exercise of any authority over our colonies - all which things have really happened - does the House think that these announcements would have greatly inclined the Parliament of that day towards passing the Bill?

Whether the practical improvements that will follow a further Parliamentary Reform will be equal to these, the future must disclose; but whatever they may be, it is already certain that they are not at the present time regarded as improvements by the House, for if the House thought so, there is nothing to hinder it from adopting them.
Sir, there is a better way of persuading possessors of power to give up a part of it; not by telling them that they make a bad use of their power - which, if it were true, they could not be expected to be aware of - but by reminding them of what they are aware of: their own fallibility.
Sir, we all of us know that we hold many erroneous opinions, but we do not know which of our opinions these are, for if we did they would not be our opinions. Therefore, reflecting men take precautions beforehand against their own errors, without waiting till they and all other people are agreed about the particular instances; and if there are things which, from their mental habits or their position in life, are in danger of escaping their notice, they are glad to associate themselves with others of different habits and positions, which very fact peculiarly qualifies them to see the precise things which they themselves do not see.
Believing the House to be composed of reasonable men, this is what we ask them to do.

Every class knows some things not so well known to other people, and every class, has interests which are more or less special to itself, and for which no protection is so effectual as its own. These may be priori doctrines - but so is the doctrine that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points; they are as much truths of common sense and common observation as that is, and persons of common sense act upon them with the same perfect confidence. I claim the benefit of these principles for the working classes. They require it more than any other class.

The class of lawyers, or the class of merchants, is amply represented, though there are no constituencies in which lawyers or merchants form the majority. But a successful lawyer or merchant easily gets into Parliament by his wealth or social position, and once there, is as good a representative of lawyers or merchants as if he had been elected on purpose; but no constituency elects a working man, or a man who looks at questions with working men's eyes. Is there, I wonder, a single Member of this House who thoroughly knows the working men's view of trades unions, or of strikes, and could bring it before the House in a manner satisfactory to working men? My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, if any one; perhaps not even he.

Are there many of us who so perfectly understand the subject of apprenticeships, let us say, or of the hours of labour, as to have nothing to learn on the subject from intelligent operatives? I grant that, along with many just ideas and much valuable knowledge, you would sometimes find pressed upon you erroneous opinions, mistaken views of what is for the interest of labour; and I am not prepared to say that if the labouring classes were predominant in the House, attempts might not be made to carry some of these wrong notions into practice.

But there is no question at present about making the working classes predominant. What is asked is a sufficient representation to ensure that their opinions are fairly placed before the House, and are met by real arguments, addressed to their own reason, by people who can enter into their way of looking at the subjects in which they are concerned. In general, those who attempt to correct the errors of the working classes do it as if they were talking to babies. They think any trivialities sufficient; if they condescend to argue, it is from premises which hardly any working man would admit; they expect that the things which appear self-evident to them will appear self-evident to the working classes: their arguments never reach the mark, never come near what a working man has in his mind, because they do not know what is in his mind. Consequently, when the questions which are near the hearts of the working men are talked about in this House, there is no want of good will to them, that I cheerfully admit; but everything which is most necessary to prove to them is taken for granted.

Do not suppose that working men would always be unconvincible by such arguments as ought to satisfy them. It is not one of the faults of democracy to be obstinate in error. An Englishman who had lived some years in the United States lately summed up his opinion of the Americans by saying, "they are the most teachable people on the face of the earth," Old countries are not as teachable as young countries, but I believe it will be found that the educated artizans, those especially who take interest in politics, are the most teachable of all our classes. They have much to make them so; they are, as a rule, more in earnest than any other class; their opinions are more genuine, less influenced by what so greatly influences some of the other classes. The desire of getting on, and their social position is not such as to breed self conceit. Above all, there is one thing to which, I believe, almost every one will testify who has had much to do with them, and of which even my own limited experience supplies striking examples, there is no class which so well bears to be told of its faults; to be told of them even in harsh terms, if they believe that the person so speaking to them says what he thinks, and has no ends of his own to serve by saying it.

I can hardly conceive a nobler course of national education than the debates of this House would become, if the notions, right and wrong, which are fermenting in the minds of the working classes, many of which go down very deep into the foundations of society and government, were fairly stated and genuinely discussed within these walls. It has often been noticed how readily in a free country people resign themselves even to the refusal of what they ask, when everything which they could have said for themselves has been said by somebody in the course of the discussion.
The working classes have never yet had this tranquillising assurance. They have always felt that not they themselves, perhaps, but their opinions, were prejudged; were condemned without being listened to. But let them have the same equal opportunities which others have of pleading their own cause; let them feel that the contest is one of reason and not of power. and if they do not obtain what they desire, they will as readily acquiesce in defeat, or trust to the mere progress of reason for reversing the verdict, as any other portion of the community. And they will, much often than at present, obtain what they desire.

Let me refer hon. Gentlemen to Tocqueville, who is so continually quoted when he says anything uncomplimentary to democracy, that those who have not read him might mistake him for an enemy of it, instead of its discriminating but sincere friend, Tocqueville says that, though the various American Legislatures are perpetually making mistakes, they are perpetually correcting them too; and that the evil, such as it; is, is far outweighed by the salutary effects of the general tendency of their legislation, which is maintained, in a degree unknown elsewhere, in the direction of the interest of the people. Not that vague abstraction, the good of the country, but the actual, positive well-being of the living human creatures who compose the population.

But we are told that our own legislation has made great progress in this direction; that the House has repealed the Corn Laws, removed religious disabilities, and got rid of I know not how many more abominations.
Sir, it has; and I am far from disparaging these great reforms, which have probably saved the country from a violent convulsion. As little would I undervalue the good sense and good feeling which have made the governing classes of this country capable of thus far advancing with the times. But they have their recompense: habes pretium, cruet noa figeris. Their reward is that they are not hated, as other privileged classes have been. And that is the fitting reward for ceasing to do harm; for merely repealing bad laws which Parliament itself had made.

But is this all that the Legislature of a country like ours can offer to its people? Is there nothing for us to do, but only to undo the mischief that we or our predecessors have done? Are there not all the miseries of an old and crowded society waiting to be dealt with? the curse of ignorance, the curse of pauperism, the curse of disease, the curse of a whole population born and nurtured in crime? All these things we are just beginning to look at; just touching with the tips of our fingers: and by the time two or three more generations are dead and gone, we may perhaps have discovered how to keep them alive, and how to make their lives worth having.

I must needs think that we should get on much faster with all this, the most important part of the business of Government in our days, if those who are the chief sufferers by the great chronic evils of our civilization had representatives among us to stimulate our zeal, as well as to inform us by their experience. Of all great public objects, the one which would be most forwarded by the presence of working people's representatives in this House is the one in which we flatter ourselves we have done most: popular education.

And let me here offer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Calne, who demands practical arguments, a practical argument which I think ought to come home to him.
If those whose children we vote money to instruct had been properly represented in this House, he would not have lost office on the Revised Code. The working classes would have seen in him an administrator of a public fund, honestly determined that the work for which the public paid should be good, honest work. They are not the people to prefer a greater quantity of sham teaching to a smaller quantity of real teaching at a less expense. Real education is the thing they want, and as it is what he wanted, they would have understood him and upheld him.
I have myself seen these services remembered to his honour, even at this moment of exasperation, by one of the leaders of the working classes. And, unless I am mistaken - it is not my opinion alone - very few years of a real working class representation would have passed over our heads before there would be in every parish a school rate, and the school doors freely open to all the world; and in one generation from that time England would he an educated nation.
Will it ever become so by your present plan, which gives to him that hath, and only to him that hath? Never.

If there were no reason for extending the franchise to the working classes except the stimulus it would give to this one alone of the Imperial works which the present state of society urgently demands from Parliament, the reason would be more than sufficient. These, Sir, are a few of the benefits which I expect from a further Parliamentary Reform; and as they depend altogether upon one feature of it, the effective representation of the working classes, their whole weight is in favour of passing the present Bill, without regard to any Bills that may follow. I look upon a liberal enfranchisement of the working classes as incomparably the greatest improvement in our representative institutions which we at present have it in our power to make; and as I should be glad to receive this greatest improvement along with others, so I am perfectly willing to accept it by itself.

Such others as we need, we shall, no doubt, end by obtaining, and a person must be very simple who imagines that we should have obtained them a day sooner if Ministers had incumbered the subject by binding up any of them with the present Bill.



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HC Deb 27 June 1867 vol 188 cc609-48 609

J. STUART MILL The right hon. Gentleman who has just addressed the House appears to me to have raised a difficulty which is, in fact, no difficulty at all, and which he himself pointed out the means of removing. The obvious remedy against relieving the sham candidate, who might have the show of hands, at the cost of the bon fide candidate, with a chance of election, was to require deposits from all. But I cannot help thinking that a great deal too much is said of the danger of sham candidates. The expense of the hustings, or the returning officer's expenses, are not only a very small part of the expense of elections as they now are; but I am afraid bear a very small proportion to the expense which it is impossible to prevent. Though a great amount of expense, which, though not corrupt, is very noxious, ought to be, and can be, prevented, it is impossible to prevent, or defray out of a public fund, such expenses as those of advertisements, printing, public meetings to address the electors.

The candidates of whom all seem so much afraid, and who have no chance of being elected, cannot present themselves to the electors without incurring a certain amount of these expenses, and if they cannot pay these it is obvious nobody need care for their candidature. The hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton) has said that if this sham candidature is kept up, the counties or the other candidates may be put to expense. But I have no doubt the general opinion would so strongly condemn this, that it would be hardly possible for anyone who cares for the opinion of the constituency, and wishes to make himself favourably known to them, to present himself in this capacity.

It may happen, perhaps, or the public may be led to think, that under this horror of sham candidates there is concealed a greater fear of real candidates. This is, as was well observed by the hon. Member for Stoke-upon-Trent (Mr. Beresford Hope), part of a much greater question, that of election expenses generally, with which, in all its parts, this House must necessarily have to deal; and I hope it will see the necessity of dealing with it soon. But this particular expense, though, a small part of the total cost of elections, is a part which it is really in the power of the House to control. It is a necessary part of the expenditure of the country, like any other portion of the public charges.

If a foreigner asked how this country provided for that part of its expenditure which attends the election of its representatives, would he not be astonished to hear that it was done by a tax on candidates? Of all sorts of taxation, was there ever such a partial and unjust specimen as that would be? But it is really a great deal worse. I can compare it to nothing short of requiring a Judge to pay large sums towards the cost of the administration of justice. It is true that you make men pay for commissions in the army, but you do not apply the price of these commissions towards defraying the expense of the army. Does this House, in any other case, arrange to defray any part of the necessary expenses of the country by a special tax on the individuals who carry on its service?

The hon. Member for Stoke-upon-Trent (Mr. Beresford Hope), though he has fears of the consequences of the constitutional change we are making, which I by no means share, has expressed an anxiety in which, I think, we must all participate: a sense of the duty under which this House and the country now lie, to provide for educating, in the morality of polities, that large class who are now for the first time to be admitted to the electoral suffrage. What sort of a lesson are we giving them; what sort of instructions do we offer, when we lead them to believe that the great trust of legislating for this country is a thing to be paid for, that it is worth while paying for it, and that men can be made to pay for it? What more natural than that they should think it might as well be paid for directly to those who confer it?

The noble Lord who spoke earlier in the debate (Lord Hotham) seems to consider that the law of demand and supply should be left to regulate these matters, so that, in fact, those who are willing to pay money should have a clear field, and that the representation should be knocked down to the highest bidder. That is, perhaps, to a certain extent, done already; but the House ought not to extend and perpetuate the practice.
There is in this country a large and growing class of persons who have suddenly and rapidly acquired wealth, and to whom it is worth any sacrifice of money to obtain social position. The less they have to recommend them in any other respect, the less chance they have of obtaining a place in what is called good society, esteem, either by qualities useful and ornamental, the more sure they are to resort, if they can, to the only infallible and ready means of gaining their end, the obtaining a seat in this House. This is a growing evil which ought to be guarded against.

I hope the Government will deal with this subject in all its parts, as it is certainly highly needful to do; but we have now an opportunity of dealing with one part which is entirely in our control, and which forms an element of the question we are now discussing. We can deal with that small part of election expenses which is an unavoidable part of the expense of governing the country, and which, though the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Oxfordshire (Mr. Henley) said it would be extremely shabby to throw on the constituencies, I think it would be a monstrous deal more shabby to throw on the candidates.

When a man has no personal object of his own to gain by obtaining a seat in this House, it is not for the House to require that he should pay the expense which the country and the electors incur by his election: if he has any such object, we ought to do everything in our power, and to throw every obstacle in his way, to prevent him from obtaining it by money. Above all, it is our duty to show to the new electors, and that large portion of the old who, I am sorry to say, still need the lesson, that the business of election is a thing far removed from aught of buying and selling; that the business of a Member of this House is a laborious and onerous task, and when not sought from personal motives, one which it requires a high sense of public duty to undertake, and that the burthen, therefore, ought not to be increased by throwing any part of the expense on the candidate. We ought, above all things, to show the electors that they are doing what we and the world consider disgraceful, if they put the candidate to any expense, and thus tempt him to use his seat for his personal advantage.

Proportional Representation of minorities ensures majorities prevail but not unduly.

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5 July 1867. Commons Sitting. PARLIAMENTARY REFORM.
[PROGRESS JULY 4.] Page retrieved:
committee-progress-july-4HC Deb 05 July 1867 vol 188 cc1068-124 1068

Bill considered in Committee. (In the Committee.) New Clause (Power to distribute votes.) At any contested Election for a County or Borough represented by more than two Members, and having more than one seat vacant, every voter shall be entitled to a number of votes equal to the number of vacant seats, and may give all such votes to one candidate, or may distribute them among the candidates as he think fit.(Mr. Lowe.)

Question again proposed, "That the Clause be read a second time."

MR. J. STUART MILL I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham will forgive me if the highly Conservative speech which he has delivered, almost the first which I ever heard him deliver with which I could not sympathize, has not converted me from the eminently democratic opinions which I have held for a great number of years. I am very glad that my hon. Friend stated so candidly the extremely Conservative vein of thought and tone of feeling which is the foundation of his political feelings. It is true that it is almost as opposite a frame of mind from my own as it is possible to conceive; but, fortunately, in the case of most of the practical questions that we have to decide we draw nearly the same conclusions from our so different premises.

Nevertheless, I am extremely glad that my hon. Friend has shown that it is upon the principle of standing by old things, and resisting newfangled notions, that his antipathy to the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for Calne, which I most strongly support, has been derived. It is the less necessary that I should address the House at any length upon this question, because on a previous occasion I expressed myself strongly in favour of the principles upon some of which this Motion rests, and expressed my strong sense of the necessity for a change in our mode of election, directed in some degree to the same ends as those pointed out by this almost insignificant makeshift - a makeshift not, however, without considerable real efficacy, and resting in part upon the same principles upon which Mr. Hare's system of personal representation is founded.

There are two principles which we must mainly regard. In the first place, it appears to me that any body of persons who are united by any ties, either of interest or of opinion, should have, or should be able to have, if they desire it, influence and power in this House proportionate to that which they exercise out of it. This, of course, excludes the idea of applying such a system as this to constituencies having only two Members, because in that case its application would render a minority of one-third equal to a majority.

The other principle upon which I support the representation of minorities is because I wish - although this may surprise some hon. Members - that the majority should govern. We heard a great deal formerly about the tyranny of the majority, but it appears to me that many hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House are now reconciled to that tyranny, and are disposed to defend and maintain it against us democrats. My own opinion is, that any plan for the representation of minorities must operate in a very great degree to diminish and counteract the tyranny of majorities. I wish to maintain the just ascendancy of majorities, but this cannot be done unless minorities are represented.

The majority in this House is got at by the elimination of two minorities. You first eliminate at the election the minority out of the House, and then upon a division you eliminate the minority in the House. Now, it may very well happen that those combined minorities would greatly out-number the majority which prevails in this House, and consequently that the majority does not now govern. The true majority can only be maintained if all minorities are counted; if they are counted there is only one process of elimination, and only one minority left out.

Perhaps I may be allowed to answer one or two objections which have been made to the proposal of my right hon. Friend, The right hon. Gentleman the Under Secretary for the Colonies urged that, according to our constitution, representation should be by communities, and upon that subject he said several things with which it is impossible not to agree. But it seems to me that this is one of many remarkable proofs now offering themselves, that hon. Gentlemen opposite, not content with coming to our opinions, are now adopting our arguments.

For instance, the right hon. Gentleman insisted upon the greatness of the mistake of supposing that the country was divided into a majority and a minority, instead of into majorities and minorities. I have said that myself I should think at least 500 times. The right hon. Gentleman said one thing that perfectly amazed me. He said, as we all admit, that it was wrong that the representative of any community should represent it only in a single aspect, should represent only one interest, only its Tory or its Liberal opinions; and he added that, at present, this was not the case, but that such a state of things would be produced by the adoption of this proposal.
I apprehend that then, even more than now, each party would desire to be represented, and would feel the importance of getting itself represented by those men who would be most acceptable to the general body of the constituency; and therefore on all other points, except that of being Liberals or Tories, those Members would represent the constituencies fully as much, if not more, than they do now.

The right hon. Gentleman thinks that the local communities ought to be represented as units, but that is not my opinion. For example, the right hon. Gentleman would contend that if a Member were elected by two-thirds of a constituency he ought to sit in that House as representing the whole. If that were the case they would evidently pass for what they are not. I have no idea of Members sitting in this House as the representatives of mere names of places, or bricks and mortar, or some particular part of the terrestrial globe, in different localities. What we want is the representation of the inhabitants of those places. If there should be a place in which two-thirds of the constituency are Conservative, and one-third Liberal, it is a falsehood to contend that the Conservative Member represents the Liberals of that place.
On the other hand, if there were three Members for such a place, two of whom represented the majority, and the third the minority, there would be a full representation of the constituency, and certainly a far more accurate representation than if a man returned by a simple majority assumed to represent the whole constituency.

Another objection made and insisted upon by my hon. Friend below me, in one of the most eloquent parts of his speech, and in the spirit of which I quite agree, is that the effect of this system will be to put an end to contests at elections, and to all the instruction they afford, and all the public spirit and interest in public affairs which they excite. This appears to me to be an opinion, which only the extreme dislike that my hon. Friend professes for everything new in politics prevents him from seeing to be an entire mistake.
The fault which my hon. Friend and others find with the proposed mode of election is one that is in an eminent degree attributable to the existing system; because under that system wherever it is known from the state of the registration that one side is able to return all the Members, the other side now take little or no interest in the election, and therefore it will be evident that if those persons who cannot be represented in their own locality cannot obtain a representation elsewhere, representation, so far as they are concerned, will be a perfectly effete institution.

What is it that induces people when they are once beaten at an election to try again? Is it not the belief that possibly a change has taken place in the opinions of at least some of the electors, or that, at all events, there has been such a change in the general feeling of the constituency that there is some chance of their being returned, and therefore there is a sufficient motive to induce them to try again? But that motive never can exist under the present system where there is so great a discrepancy between the parties as two-thirds and one-third, because in no case can one-third of the constituency ever hope to convert itself into a majority. What motive, then, is there for trying?

But under the new system, suppose the minority obtains one Member out of three, the minority can always try for the second seat, and precisely the same motive will exist if the parties should be nearly equal. Indeed, in such a case, the motive would be all the stronger, because then the majority will try to get all the members. What will be the case where there are three Members to be returned? The majority of two-thirds will only have two of the Members, and if any change in opinion takes place favourable to the minority they will always be in a position to bid for the third seat; so that I apprehend the healthy excitement of contest in an election, which follows from the existence of the motives which will induce persons to embark in the struggle, will be more certainly guaranteed by the more perfect represention of the constituency.

It has been argued by my hon. Friend below me, and it has been several times insisted on by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the Executive will be rendered very weak by the adoption of this principle, and I must own that there is some truth and justice in that argument. But the House cannot fail to perceive that so long as you give to the minority the same power as is possessed by the majority, it is perfectly clear that there may be a large majority of the constituency in favour of the Government, while there may be no majority in the House. At the present moment we do not care what majority the Government may have in the country; all that we want is to prevent it having a large majority in the House.

No one is more opposed to such a state of things than I am; but the practical application is, that we wish to prevent the Government having a large majority in the House, with a small majority in the country. That is the case in Australia, as was very strongly exemplified on the question of Free Trade and protection, and also in the United States, where there is a moderate difference in the constituencies between one party, and the other, but a very much greater difference in the House of Representatives.

When the right hon. Gentleman says that this system will make a weak Government, my answer is that it is not desirable that a Government should be a strong one, if it rests on a small majority of the constituencies; nor is it desirable that a Government should be lured on and deceived by a great majority in the House; because a very small change in the constituencies would be sufficient to deprive them of that majority, and it is not desirable that the policy of the Government should be tumbled about from one extreme to the other when the opinion of the constituency is almost equally divided between the two parties.

I quite agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, that in revolutionary times it is necessary that a party should be as strong as possible while the fight lasts, since the sooner the fighting is over the better. But although in such a case there should be a decisive predominance, such times are exceptional, and circumstances do not apply which apply in ordinary and peaceful times. They are times for which we cannot legislate or adapt our ordinary institutions. Under such circumstances men may be obliged to dispense with all law, and, if necessary, to have a dictatorship in the hands of one man, but that is altogether an exceptional case,

I am extremely anxious that the feeling should not get abroad, from the circumstance of the right hon. Member for Calne having brought forward this proposal, and from its being so largely supported by Gentlemen on the other side of the House, that this is essentially a Conservative "move," and is intended solely for the purpose of doing away, as far as possible with the effect of the Reform Bill now before us. I have always entertained these opinions, long before the introduction of this Reform Bill, and although I never supposed that I should see such a Reform as this adopted in my life, I have protested and reprobated oppression of this kind, on whichever side it has been practised.

The only reason why it can be said that it is brought forward as a Conservative measure, and in aid of Conservatives, is that it really operates in favour of those who are likely to be weakest; it is those who are in danger of being outnumbered and subjected to the tyranny of a majority who are protected. I have always been afraid that the Conservative party would not see the necessity of these things until they actually saw that it is their interest, and that they would not see it until the power has passed away to the other side. Had they taken up the question four or five years ago they might by this time have made it the general opinion of the country, and have led the masses of the people to be more just when their time came than they have been to them. Their eyes are not so soon opened to those things which appear to be against them as they are to those that are in their favour; but there are minds on the other side of the House quite capable of seeing the value and importance of the principle, and of representing it with such effect that ultimately the principle of the representation of minorities will be generally adopted.

Mill answers questions about his views on Representative Government.

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HC Deb 28 May 1868 vol 192 cc956-1010 956

MR. J. STUART MILL Hon. Gentlemen opposite in considerable numbers have shown a very great desire to inform the House, not so much as to their views on the question before us, as with regard to what I have said or written upon the subject, and they have also shown a great desire to know the reasons I have for the course which they suppose I am going to take upon the question.
I should be sorry to refuse any hon. Gentleman so very small a request, but I must first of all correct a mistake made by the right hon. Baronet (Sir John Pakington) who has just sat down. I did not allow myself to be persuaded not to speak upon the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Hull (Mr. Clay). I had various reasons for the silence which I observed on that occasion. One of these I have the less hesitation in stating, because I think it is one with which the House will fully sympathize: a decided disinclination for being made a catspaw of. What other reasons I had may possibly appear in the very few observations that I am now about to make, for the gratification of those hon. Gentlemen who show so much friendly concern for my consistency.

No doubt it is a very flattering thing to find one's writings so much referred to and quoted; but any vanity I might have felt in consequence has been considerably dashed, by observing that hon. Gentlemen's knowledge of my writings is strictly limited to the particular passages which they quote. I suppose they found the books too dull to read any further. But if they had done me the honour to read on, they would have learnt a little more about my opinions than they seem to know. It may be that I have suggested plurality of votes and various other checks as proper parts of a general system of representation; but I should very much like to know where any Gentleman finds I have stated that checks and safeguards are required against a 7 franchise?
The proposals I made had reference to universal suffrage, of which I am a strenuous advocate. It appeared to me that certain things were necessary in order to prevent universal suffrage from degenerating into the mere ascendancy of a particular class. Is there any danger that the working class will acquire a numerical ascendancy by the reduction of the franchise qualification to 7? It is ridiculous to suppose such a thing.

The effect of the present Bill will not be to create the ascendancy of a class, but to weaken and mitigate the ascendancy of a class; and there is no need for the particular checks which I suggested. I must, however, except one of them, which is equally desirable in any representative constitution: the representation of minorities; and I heartily congratulate the right hon. Baronet on the qualified adhesion which he has given to that principle.
It is not intended specially as a check on democracy: it is a check upon whatever portion of the community is strongest; on any abuse of power by the class that may chance to be uppermost. Instead of being opposed to democracy, it is actually a corollary from the democratic principle, for on that principle every one would have a vote, and all votes would be of equal value; but without the representation of minorities all votes have not an equal value, for practically nearly one-half of the constituency is disfranchised, for the benefit, it may happen, not even of the majority, but of another minority.

Suppose that a House of Commons is elected by a bare majority of the people, and that it afterwards passes laws by a bare majority of itself. The outvoted minority out of doors, and the outvoted minority of the Members of this House who were elected by the majority out of doors, might possibly agree; and thus a little more than one-fourth of the community would actually have defeated the remaining three-fourths.
On the principle of justice, therefore, and on the principle of democracy above all, the representation of minorities appears to me an absolutely necessary part of any representative constitution which it is intended should permanently work well.

If the right hon. Gentleman who has declared in favour of the representation of minorities (Sir John Pakington) will bring forward a Motion, in any form which can possibly pass, with a view to engraft that principle upon any Bill, I shall have the greatest pleasure in seconding him.

I desire to make a brief explanation in reference to a passage which the right hon. Gentleman has quoted from a portion of my writings, and which has some appearance of being less polite than I should wish always to be in speaking of a great party. What I stated was, that the Conservative party was, by the law of its constitution, necessarily the stupidest party. Now, I do not retract this assertion; but I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any hon. Gentleman will question it. Now, if any party, in addition to whatever share it may possess of the ability of the community, has nearly the whole of its stupidity, that party, I apprehend, must by the law of its constitution be the stupidest party.

And I do not see why hon. Gentlemen should feel that position at all offensive to them; for it ensures their being always an extremely powerful party. I know I am liable to a retort, an obvious one enough, and as I do not intend any hon. Gentleman to have the credit of making it, I make it myself. It may be said that if stupidity has a tendency to Conservatism, sciolism and half-knowledge have a tendency to Liberalism.

Well, Sir, something might be said for that, but it is not at all so clear as the other. There is an uncertainty about half-informed people. You cannot count upon them. You cannot tell what their way of thinking may be. It varies from day to day, perhaps with the last book they have read. They are a less numerous class, and also an uncertain class. But there is a dense solid force in sheer stupidity - such, that a few able men, with that force pressing behind them, are assured of victory in many a struggle; and many a victory the Conservative party have owed to that force.

I only rose for the purpose of making this personal explanation, and I do not intend to enter into the merits of the Amendment, especially as I concur in all that has been said in the admirable speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for London (Mr. Goschen).

J. STUART MILL said, the hon. Member for Nottingham (Mr. Osborne) had called on Gentlemen on that side to support the Motion of the hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Graham), holding out to them the inducement of getting rid of the principle of the representation of minorities. That was the strongest possible reason why those who were in favour of the representation of minorities - not as being a Conservative measure, but as a measure of justice - should vote against the present Motion. Nothing could be more unfair than to speak of the representation of those persons who happen to be in a minority, whatever might be their political opinions, in any constituency, as being in any exclusive sense a Conservative principle. On the contrary, it was not only the most democratic of all principles, but it was the only true democratic principle of representation, and they could not have a complete system of representation without if, Man for man, those who happened to be in a minority had just as much claim to be represented as the majority.

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