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majority unbroken through so many trials, would be wrecked at last upon the Water Bill, and the circumstance offered irresistible opportunities for punsters.
Before it was known that the Parliament was to come to an end without any such catastrophe, there were two standard subjects of debate, the Game Laws and the Temperance question, which received more than ordinary attention, it being understood that the utterances of leading men upon these questions might powerfully affect the General Election, which could not be far off, though it was nearer at hand than was generally supposed. On March 2, Mr. P. A. Taylor moved the abolition of the existing Game Law Code, as being “unjust to the farmer, demoralising to the labourer, and injurious to the whole community.” Sir W. Barttelot moved as an amendment, that “it is not now expedient to deal with the question of the Game Laws," and Sir William Harcourt, as an amendment to this amendment, that the word “not” be left out of it. Sir W. Harcourt explained that he proposed this omission to afford hon. gentlemen opposite an opportunity of expressing their opinion as to whether it was or was not expedient to amend the Game Laws, and urged that their vote would be a criterion of the genuineness of their
protestations of friendship to the farmer. The opponents of Mr. Taylor's resolution, which was rejected by a majority of 73, were chary of committing themselves to Sir W. Barttelot's amendment, and the curious result followed that, first, Sir W. Harcourt's amendment, equivalent to a motion that it was expedient to deal with the question of the Game Laws, was rejected by a majority of 16; and thereafter Sir W. Barttelot's amendment, that it was not now expedient to deal with the question of the Game Laws, negatived without a division. Sir Stafford Northcote complained that the effect of Sir W. Harcourt's amendment was “ to turn the whole thing into ridicule.”
Sir Wilfrid Lawson's Local Option Resolution was moved on March 5. One of the incidents of the debate was the maiden speech of Mr. Clarke, the newly elected member for Southwark, who was highly applauded for the vigour with which he defended the existing licensing authority, argued the inexpediency of proceeding in such a matter by abstract resolution, and ridiculed the injustice of such restraint as was aimed at by the Permissive Bill. A good deal was said by Sir Wilfrid Lawson's opponents about the mystifying character of his Resolution, which was identical in language with that of the previous year. The word “ mystifying was caught up and repeated by speaker after speaker, but there was no mystification whatever in Sir Wilfrid Lawson's introductory speech. He made no secret of the fact that his plan for dealing with the drink evil was the plan drawn up in the Permissive Bilī. He had seen no reason, he frankly said, to alter bis opinion that that was the best mode of regulating the traffic, but when he brought the scheme in all its details before them, all sorts of objections were made to details, and he could
not get the sense of the House upon the question of principle. His object was to unite the votes of all who thought that something ought to be done, and that that something should lie in the direction of giving the inhabitants of districts power to restrain the number of public houses. Sir Wilfrid Lawson's seconder, Mr. Burt, invited the support of the House to the declaration, as a recognition of the principle that the time had come for putting restrictions on the sale of intoxicating liquors.
Mr. Bright gave the weight of his eloquent support to the Resolution on the same grounds, deriding the idea that any member need be afraid of supporting it, lest by his vote he should commit himself to the Permissive Bill. The Permissive Bill had disappeared, he said; the advocates of a change in the law relating to the sale of drink were in no way tied to its provisions. He calculated that not more than five members believed in it. The Resolution pledged them only to disapproval of the present system, and that it was bad he held to be conclusively demonstrated. As a proof of the growing desire on the part of the public to see the evil dealt with, Mr. Bright cited the fact that a memorial in favour of the Resolution had been signed by 13,600 clergymen of the Church of England, including 15
bishops and other dignitaries. “ The facts of the case,” Mr. Bright concluded, “were overpowering; they were uncontested ; everyone spoke in the strongest terms about the deplorable consequences of drunkenness. In addition, we knew that science, education, morality, and religionall the great forces which moved good and wise men to actionwere gathering about this conflict. The cries from our workhouses, the moans from the sufferers in our prisons—these all joined in one voice asking them to deal with this question.”
The chief objection to the Resolution, made by those who would not have contested Mr. Bright's arguments, was that it was not the way of the House to pass abstract Resolutions condemning a system until there was a larger body of agreement as to the means to be adopted for its cure. The Government could not fairly be called upon to introduce a Bill while there was such diversity of opinion concerning the details of change. On this ground Lord Hartington announced that he would vote against the Resolution, although he found in it something to approve. Mr. Gladstone took up a neutral position. He could not vote against the resolution, because by so doing he would commit himself to the maintenance of the law as it stood. He could not vote for it, because, although he saw nothing to object to in the principle of local option, he had not yet heard of any plan for giving effect to that principle which it would not be premature to adopt. Mr. Gladstone objected also that the Resolution made no reference to existing interests. Publicans had the same right to fair consideration of their vested rights as those following any other trade or calling had when that trade or calling was interfered with by Act of Parliament, and the Resolution ought to have taken cognisance of their claims. Both
Mr. Gladstone and Lord Hartington appealed to the Government to declare their intentions on the subject, and complained that they had not sooner done so after the report of the Lords Committee on Intemperance.
When this report was first published, members of the Government had referred to it as marking an epoch in the history of the question. But Mr. Cross, speaking now for the Government, in answer to the appeal from the leader of the Opposition, declared that to his mind the twenty recommendations of the Committee presented no clear lines of action against excessive drunkenness. The only thing to be done, it seemed to him, was to make the best of the present system by regulation and supervision, trusting to the beneficial effects of education, improved dwellings, and such general influences in building up habits of sobriety. He denied that the present licensing authorities showed any tendency to laxity in the issuing of new licenses. Their tendency was all the other way, and everywhere there had been a steady disinclination to grant new licenses except for special reasons. It was indispensable that the licensing authority should have something of a judicial character, otherwise its decisions would give rise to much dissatisfaction. The tribunal should not be a tribunal appointed ad hoc, and it ought not to be appointed by a popular vote.
The falling off in Sir W. Lawson's support, as compared with the division of the previous year, was perhaps partly attributable to the scare produced by the activity of the publicans, and the revelations of the electoral strength commanded by them in the recent elections for Sheffield, Liverpool, and Southwark. But considerable effect was doubtless also produced by the speeches against the Resolution from members who fully recognised the evils of the existing system, although they were not convinced of the feasibility of any proposed alternative. “We believe," the Times said, commenting on the debate, “that Mr. Gladstone yesterday expressed the opinion of the centre of the House of Commons. The best men on both sides agreed with him. The present system of licensing houses for the sale of intoxicating liquors is far from perfect. It is not merely imperfect as all human laws must be; it has imperfections that might be removed, shortcomings that could be made good.”
The announcement of the dissolution was made in both Houses on Monday, March 8. The secret was well kept till the moment of its revelation, and everybody was taken by surprise, although everybody, once the announcement was made, could see how steadily the Government had been getting ready for the momentous step.
Lord Beaconsfield in the House of Lords contented himself with a simple intimation that Parliament would be dissolved as soon as the Chancellor of the Exchequer had made his financial statement for the year, “which he hoped to do almost immediately." Sir Stafford Northcote spoke on the subject at greater length, explaining the reasons for dissolving Parliament at the proposed time, and for not liaving made the intimation sooner. “ It was not within our power," he said, “to come to a decision upon this subject earlier than the present time. In the course of the autumn the state of Ireland caused no inconsiderable amount of anxiety. We perceived from an early period that we should have to, and as time went on we saw that it was necessary for us to, take measures upon our own responsibility as a Government to prevent distress, or to alleviate distress, in that country. Those measures we took without the authority or sanction of Parliament, and it was necessary that Parliament should be called together in order to consider and give its sanction to what we had done, and also to consider wbat further measures should be taken.” The Irish business, which had rendered necessary the reassembling of the House, baving been disposed of, the Government had next to consider what would be the most convenient time for a dissolution. A Spring dissolution was on many grounds preferable to an autumn dissolution, and it was better to dissolve at Easter than at Whitsuntide, because there would still be time for a Session of the new Parliament in which important business might be got through. “ There are various measures," Sir S. Northcote said, “ which have been introduced, with which it is desirable that Parliament should proceed, but which we should not expect to finish by Whitsuntide, and wbich, if we were to dissolve at Whitsuntide, it would be quite too late to take up when Parliament reassembled.” The effect of dissolving at Easter would be that Parliament could meet again by the beginning of May, and three months would be tolerably clear for the consideration of any measures that Parliament might take in hand.
With regard to the business of the House during its remaining fortnight of existence, Sir S. Northcote proposed to take votes on account of the Navy and the Civil Service Estimates, so that the Government might be able to put themselves in funds to carry them over the time of the dissolution. The Budget would be introduced without delay. The Metropolitan Water Bill had, of course, to be dropped, and Sir Stafford did not anticipate that there would be time to pass the Bill for the redistribution of the vacant seats, but the Government were anxious to proceed with the Parliamentary Elections Bill, and more particularly to deal with the vexed question of the conveyance of voters to the poll, which they thought ought not to be left in its present uncertain state.
The newspapers were filled next morning with accounts of the excitement produced in the constituencies by the announcement of
the dissolution. Sir Stafford Northcote made his statement about five o'clock in the afternoon, and the word dissolution was hardly out of his mouth when members rushed off to the telegraph office with the momentous news. The office in the lobby of the House was besieged, from that centre the news was spread in a few hours all over the country, and in a few hours more the busy wires, the conducting nerves of the body politic, brought back accounts of the effect produced and the preliminary steps taken for action.
The newspapers of the 9th contained graphic descriptions of the stirring of the political hive by the news of the dissolution, and they contained also a very remarkable document—the manifesto of the Prime Minister, couched in the form of a letter to the Duke of Marlborough, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. It began by referring to the measures taken for the relief of the impending distress, and then, after an allusion to the care which the administration had shown for six years for the improvement of Ireland and their success in solving its difficult educational problems, proceeded as follows:
“ Nevertheless, a danger, in its ultimate results scarcely less disastrous than pestilence and famine, and which now engages your Excellency's anxious attention, distracts that country. A portion of its population is attempting to sever the Constitutional tie which unites it to Great Britain in that bond which has favoured the power and prosperity of both.
“It is to be hoped that all men of light and leading will resist this destructive doctrine. The strength of this nation depends on the unity of feeling which should pervade the United Kingdom and its wide-spread Dependencies. The first duty of an English Minister should be to consolidate that co-operation which renders irresistible a community educated, as our own, in an equal love of liberty and law.
“ And yet there are some who challenge the expediency of the Imperial character of this realm. Having attempted, and failed, to enfeeble our Colonies by their policy of decomposition, they may perhaps now recognise in the disintegration of the United Kingdom a mode which will not only accomplish, but precipitate
66 The immediate Dissolution of Parliament will afford an opportunity to the nation to decide upon a course which will materially influence its future fortunes and shape its destiny.
“Rarely in this century has there been an occasion more critical. The power of England and the peace of Europe will largely depend on the verdict of the country. Her Majesty's present Ministers have hitherto been enabled to secure that peace, so necessary to the welfare of all civilised countries, and so peculiarly the interest of our own. But this ineffable blessing cannot be obtained by the passive principle of non-interference. Peace rests on the presence, not to say the ascendency, of England in the Councils of Europe. Even at this moment, the doubt, supposed to