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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 39

Mr. Bradlaugh's First Speech at the Bar of the House of Commons, delivered June 23rd, 1880

Mr. Bradlaugh's First Speech at the Bar of the House of Commons, delivered June 23rd, 1880.

Sir,—I have to ask the indulgence of every member of this House while, in a position unexampled in the history of this House, I try to give one or two reasons why the resolution which you have read to me should not be enforced. If it were not unbecoming I should appeal to the traditions of the House against the House itself, and I should point out that in none of its records, so far as my poor reading goes, is there any case in which this House has judged one of its members in his absence, and taken away from that member the constitutional right he has (hear, hear). There have been members against whom absolute legal disqualification has been urged. No such legal disqualification is ventured to be urged by any member of this House against myself. But even those members have been heard in their places; those members have been listened to before the decision was taken against them; and I ask that this House to myself shall not be less just than it has always been to every one of its members (hear, hear). Do you tell me I am unfit to sit amongst you? (hear, hear, and Order, order.) The more reason, then, that this House should show the generosity which judges show to a criminal, and allow every word he has to say to be heard. But I stand here, Sir, as no page 79 criminal. I stand here as the chosen of a constituency of this country, with my duty to that constituency to do. I stand here, Sir—if it will not be considered impertinent to put it so—with the most profound respect for this House, of which I yet hope and mean to form a part, and on whose traditions I should not wish to cast one shadow of reproach. I stand here returned duly; no petition against my return; no impeachment of that return. I stand here returned duly, ready to fulfil every form that this House requires, ready to fulfil every form that the law permits this House to require, ready to do every duty that the law makes incumbent upon me. I will not in this presence argue whether this House has or has not the right to set its decision against the law, because I should imagine that even the rashest of those who spoke against me would hardly be prepared to put in the mouth of one whom they consider too advanced in politics an arguments so dangerous as that might become. I speak within the limits of the law, asking for no favor from this House for myself or for my constituents, but asking the merest justice which has always been accorded to a member of the House (hear, hear, and Order.) I have to ask indulgence lest the memory of some hard words which have been spoken in my absence should seem to give to what I say a tone of defiance, which it is far from my wish should be there at all; and I am the more eased because although there were words spoken which I had always been taught English gentlemen never said in the absence of an antagonist without notice to him, yet there were also generous and brave words said for one who is at present, I am afraid, a source of trouble and discomfort and hindrance to business. I measure the generous words against the others, and I will only make one appeal through you, Sir, which is, that if the reports be correct that the introduction of other names came with mine in the heat of passion and the warmth of debate, the gentleman who used those words, if such there were, will remember that he was wanting in chivalry, because, while I can answer for myself, and am able to answer for myself, nothing justified the introduction of any other name beside my own to make a prejudice against me (cheers and cries of Question and Order.) I fear lest the page 80 strength of this House, judicially exercised as I understand it to be—with infrequency of judicial exercise—that the strength of this House makes it forget our relative positions. At present I am pleading at its bar for justice. By right it is there I should plead. [The hon. member pointed to the seats.] It is that right I claim in the name of those who sent me here. No legal disqualification before my election, or it might have been made the ground of petition. No legal disqualification since my election—not even pretended. It is said : "You might have taken the oath as other members did." I could not help when I read that, Sir, trying to put myself in the place of each member who said it. I imagined a member of some form of faith who found in the oath words which seemed to him to clash with his faith, but still words which he thought he might utter, but which he would prefer not to utter if there were any other form which the law provided him, and I asked myself whether each of those members would not then have taken the form which was most consonant with his honor and his conscience. If I have not misread, some hon. members seem to think that I have neither honor nor conscience. Is there not some proof to the contrary in the fact that I did not go through the form, believing that there was another right open to me? (hear, hear, and Order.) Is that not some proof that I have honor and conscience? Of the gentlemen who are now about to measure themselves against the rights of the constituencies of England I ask what justification had they for that measurement? They have said that I thrust my opinions on the House. I hold here, Sir, the evidence of Sir Thomas Erskine May, and I can find no word of any opinion of mine thrust upon the House at all. I have read—it may be that the reports misrepresent—that the cry of "Atheist" has been raised from that side. [The hon. member pointed to the Opposition side.] No word of all mine before the committee put in any terms those theological or anti-theological opinions in evidence before the House. I am no more ashamed of my own opinions, which I did not choose, opinions into which I have grown, than any member of this House is ashamed of his; and much as I value the right to sit here, and much as I believe that the justice of this House will accord it to me before the struggle is finished, I would page 81 rather relinquish it for ever than it should be thought that by any shadow of hypocrisy I had tried to gain a feigned entrance here by pretending to be what I am not (cheers, and cries of Order.) On the report of the committee as it stands, on the evidence before the House, what is the objection to either my affirming or taking the oath? It is said I have no legal right to affirm. I will suppose that, to be so. It is the first time that the House has made itself a court of law from which there may be no appeal, and deprived a citizen of his constitutional right of appeal to a court of law to make out what the statute means in dealing with him. There is no case in which this House has overridden everything, and put one of its members where he had no chance of battling for his right at all. Take the oath. It is possible that some of the lawyers, who have disagreed among themselves even upon that (the Opposition) side of the House, may be right, and that I may be wrong in the construction I have put upon the oath, but no such objection can come. There is no precedent—there is, I submit respectfully, no right—in this House to stand between me and the oath which the law provides for me to take, which the statute, under penalty even upon members of this House themselves if they put me out from my just return, gives me the right to take. What kind of a conflict is provoked here if this resolution be enforced? Not a grave conflict in a court of law, where the judges exclude passion, where they only deal with facts and evidence. I do not mean that these gentlemen do not deal with facts; but, if I am any judge of my own life's story, there have been many things which I can hardly reckon in the category of facts put against myself. I don't mean that they are not right, for hon. members may know more of myself than I do myself; but, judging myself as I know myself, some of the members who have attacked me so glibly during the last few days must have been extraordinarily misinformed, or must have exceedingly misapprehended the matters they alleged. It has been said that I have paraded and flaunted some obnoxious opinions. I appeal to your justice, sir, and to that of the members of this House, to say whether my manner has not been as respectful as that of man could be—whether in each case I have not withdrawn when you told me. If I now come here with even the appearance of self-assertion, page 82 it is because I would not be a recreant and a coward to the constituency that sent me to represent them; and I mean to be as members have been in the best history of this assembly. I ask the House, in dealing with my rights, to remember how they are acting. It is perfectly true that by a majority they may decide against me now. What are you to do then? Are you going to declare the seat vacant? First, I tell you that you have not the right. The moment I am there—[the hon. member pointed inside the House]—I admit the right of the House, of its own good will and pleasure, to expel me. As yet I am not under your jurisdiction. As yet I am under the protection of the law. A return sent me to this House, and I ask you, sir, as the guardian of the liberties of this House, to give effect to that return. The law says you should, and that this House should. And naturally so; because, if it were not so, any time a majority of members might exclude anyone they pleased. What has been alleged against me? Politics? Are views on politics urged as a reason why a member should not sit here? Pamphlets have been read—I won't say with accuracy, because I will not libel any of the hon. members who read them; but, surely, if they are grounds for disqualification they are grounds for indictment to be proved against me in a proper fashion. There is no case in all the records of this House in which you have ransacked what a man has written and said in his past life and then challenged him with it here. My theology? It would be impertinent in me, after the utterances of men so widely disagreeing from me that have been made on the side of religious liberty during the past two nights—it would be impertinent in me to add one word save this. It is said that you may deal with me because I am isolated. I could not help hearing the ring of that word in the lobby as I sat outside last night. But is that a reason, that, because I stand alone the House are to do against me what they would not do if I had 100,000 men at my back? (cries of Oh). That is a bad argument which provokes a reply inconsistent with the dignity of this House and which I should be sorry to give. I have not yet used—I hope no passion may tempt me to be using—any words that would seem to savor of even a desire to enter into conflict with this page 83 House. I have always taught, preached, and believed the supremacy of Parliament, and it is not because for a moment the judgment of one Chamber of Parliament should be hostile to me that I am going to deny the ideas I have always held; but I submit that one Chamber of Parliament—even its grandest Chamber, as I have always held this to be—had no right to override the law. The law gives me the right to sign that roll, to take and subscribe the oath, and to take my seat there [pointing to the benches]. I admit that the moment I am in the House, without any reason but your own good will, you can send me away. That is your right. You have full control over your members, but you cannot send me away until I have been heard in my place, not a suppliant as I am now, but with the rightful audience that each member has always had. There is one phase of my appeal which I am loth indeed to make. I presume you will declare the seat vacant. What do you send me back to Northampton to say? I said before, and I trust I may say again, that this aseembly was one in which any man might well be proud to sit—prouder I that I have not some of your traditions and am not of your families, but am of the people, the people that sent me here to speak for them. Do you mean that I am to go back to Northampton as to a court, to appeal against you? that I am to ask the constituency to array themselves against this House? I hope not. If it is to be, it must be. If this House arrays itself against an isolated man—its huge power against one citizen—if it must be, then the battle must be too. But it is not with the constituency of Northampton alone—hon, members need not mistake—that you will come into conflict if this appeal is to go forward, if the House of Commons is to override the statute law to get rid of even the vilest of members. Had you alleged against me even more than against one man whose name was mentioned in this House last night, I should still have held that the House cannot supersede the rights of the people. But not as much is alleged against me as was alleged against that man, in whose case the House itself said that its conduct had been subversive of the rights of the people. I beg you, for your own sakes, don't put yourselves in that position. I have no desire to wrestle with you for justice. I admit that I have page 84 used hard words in my short life, giving men the right in return to say hard things of me; but is it not better that I should have the right to say them to your faces? If they are within the law, let the law deal with me fairly and properly; but if they are without the law, not unfairly, as I submit you are doing now. You have the power to send me back, but in appealing to Northampton I must appeal to a tribunal higher than yours—not to courts of law, for I hope the days of conflict between the assembly which makes the law and the tribunals which administer it are passed. It must be a bad day for England and for Great Britain, if we are to be brought again to the time when the judges and those who make the law for the judges are in rash strife as to what they mean. But there is a court to which I shall appeal—the court of public opinion, which will have to express itself. You say it is against me. Possibly; but if it be so, is it against me rightly or wrongly? I am ready to admit, if you please, for the sake of argument, that every opinion I hold is wrong and deserves punishment. Let the law punish it. If you say the law cannot, then you admit that you have no right, and I appeal to public Opinion against the iniquity of a decision which overrides the law and denies me justice. I beg your pardon, Sir, and that of the House too, if in this warmth there seems to lack respect for its dignity; and as I shall have, if your decision be against me, to come to that table when your decision is given, I beg you, before the step is taken in which we may both lose our dignity—mine is not much, but yours is that of the Commons of England—I beg you, before the gauntlet is fatally thrown—I beg you, not in any sort of menace, not in any sort of boast, but as one man against six hundred, to give me that justice which on the other side of this hall the judges would give me were I pleading there before them (loud cheers and cries of Order, amid which Mr. Bradlaugh again bowed and retired).