Readings in Modern European History, Vol. 2

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Author: Lord John Russell

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MOLESWORTH, The History of England from 1830 (London, 1871), I, 77 sqq. World History

CHAPTER XXV

Political Reforms in England

Section 80.

Parlianientary Reforms

290.

Lord John Russell’s speech on parliamentary reforms

The ancient constitution of our country declares that no man should be taxed for the support of the State who has not consented, by himself or his representative, to the imposition of these taxes. The well-known statute, de tallagio nan comedendo,1 repeats the same language; and, although some historical doubts have been thrown upon it, its legal meaning has never been disputed. It included "all the freemen of the land," and provided that each county should send to the Commons of the realm two knights, each city two burgesses, and each borough two members. Thus about a hundred places sent representatives, and some thirty or forty others occasionally enjoyed the privilege, but it was discontinued or revived as they rose or fell in the scale of wealth and importance. Thus, no doubt, at that early period the House of Commons did represent the people of England; there is no doubt, likewise, that the House of Commons as it now subsists, does not represent the people of England. Therefore, if we look at the question of right, the reformers have right in their favor. Then, if we consider what is reasonable, we shall arrive at a similar result.

The inequality of representation

A stranger who was told that this country is unparalleled in wealth and industry and more civilized and more enlightened than any country was before it, that it is a country which prides itself on its freedom, and that once in every seven years it elects representatives from its population to act as the guardians and preservers of that freedom, would be anxious and curious to see how that representation is formed, and how the people choose those representatives, to whose faith and guardianship they entrust their free and liberal institutions. Such a person would be very much astonished if he were taken to a ruined mound and told that that mound sent two representatives to Parliament; if he were taken to a stone wall, and told that three niches in it sent two representatives to Parliament; if he were taken to a park, where no houses were to Be seen, and told that that park sent two representatives to Parliament; but if he were told all this, and were astonished at hearing it, he would be still more astonished if he were to see large and opulent towns, full of enterprise and industry and intelligence, containing vast magazines of every species of manufactures, and were then told that these towns sent no representatives to Parliament.

Corrupt practices

Such a person would be still more astonished if he were taken to Liverpool, where there is a large constituency, and told, "Here you will have a fine specimen of a popular election." He would see bribery employed to the greatest extent and in the most unblushing manner; he would see every voter receiving a number of guineas in a box, as the price of his corruption; and after such a spectacle he would no doubt be much astonished that a nation whose representatives are thus chosen could perform the functions of legislation at all, or enjoy respect in any degree. I say, then, that if the question before the House is a question of reason, the present state of representation is against reason.

Popular confidence in the House of Commons is gone

The confidence of the country in the construction and constitution of the House of Commons is gone. It would be easier to transfer the flourishing manufactures of Leeds and Manchester to Gatton and Old Sarum than to reëstablish confidence and sympathy between this House and those whom it calls its constituents. If, therefore, the question is one of right, right is in favor of Reform; if it be a question of reason, reason is in favor of Reform; if it be a question of policy and expediency, policy and expediency are in favor of Reform.

I come now to the explanation of the measure which, representing the ministers of the king, I am about to propose to the House. Those ministers have thought, and in my opinion justly thought, that no half measures would be sufficient; that no trifling or paltering with Reform could give stability to the crown, strength to Parliament, or satisfaction to the country. The chief grievances of which the people complain are these: first, the nomination of members by individuals; second, the election by close corporations; third, the expense of elections.

Certain boroughs to be deprived of representation in Parliament

With regard to the first, it may be exercised in two ways, either over a place containing scarcely any inhabitants, and with a very extensive right of election; or over a place of wide extent and numerous population, but where the franchise is confined to very few persons. Gatton is an example of the first, and Bath of the second. At Gatton, where the right of voting is by scot and lot, all householders have a vote, but there are only five persons to exercise the right. At Bath the inhabitants are numerous, but very few of them have any concern in the election. In the former case we propose to deprive the borough of the franchise altogether. In doing so we have taken for our guide the population returns of 1821; and wepropose that every borough which in that year had less than 2000 inhabitants should altogether lose the right of sending members to Parliament, the effect of which will be to disfranchise sixty-two boroughs.

Other boy oughs to lose one member each

But we do not stop here. As the honorable member for Boroughbridge would say, we go plus ultra; we find that there are forty-seven boroughs of only 4000 inhabitants, and these we shall deprive of the right of sending more than one member to Parliament. We likewise intend that Weymouth, which at present sends four members to Parliament, should in future send only two. The total reduction thus effected in the number of the members of this House will be 168. This is the whole extent to which we are prepared to go in the way of disfranchisement. . . .

1 A so-called statute of Edward I’s reign, long supposed to have forbidden taxation without the consent of Parliament.

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Chicago: John Russell, "Parlianientary Reforms," Readings in Modern European History, Vol. 2 in Readings in Modern European History: A Collection of Extracts from the Sources Chosen With the Purpose of Illustrating Some of the Chief Phases of the Development of Europe During the Last Two Hundred Years, ed. James Harvey Robinson (1863-1936) and Charles A. Beard (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1908), 239–242. Original Sources, accessed February 4, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8PEWZIWBEHHH31H.

MLA: Russell, John. "Parlianientary Reforms." Readings in Modern European History, Vol. 2, in Readings in Modern European History: A Collection of Extracts from the Sources Chosen With the Purpose of Illustrating Some of the Chief Phases of the Development of Europe During the Last Two Hundred Years, edited by James Harvey Robinson (1863-1936) and Charles A. Beard, Vol. 2, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1908, pp. 239–242. Original Sources. 4 Feb. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8PEWZIWBEHHH31H.

Harvard: Russell, J, 'Parlianientary Reforms' in Readings in Modern European History, Vol. 2. cited in 1908, Readings in Modern European History: A Collection of Extracts from the Sources Chosen With the Purpose of Illustrating Some of the Chief Phases of the Development of Europe During the Last Two Hundred Years, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.239–242. Original Sources, retrieved 4 February 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8PEWZIWBEHHH31H.