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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 39

Mr. Bradlaugh's Third Speech at the Bar of the House of Commons, delivered February 7th, 1882

page 90

Mr. Bradlaugh's Third Speech at the Bar of the House of Commons, delivered February 7th, 1882.

Sir,—In addressing the House for the third time from this position, I feel the exceeding difficulty of dealing fairly with myself without dealing unfairly with the House. If I were to follow the hon. member who has just sat down into his errors of law, of history, and of memory, into his reckless misconceptions as to what are the views I hold and write about, I should only be giving pain to numbers of members hero, and departing from that mandate with which my constituents have trusted me. It is—I say it with all respect—not true that I done anything more with reference to the succession than maintain the light of Parliament, meaning by Parliament both Houses, to control it; and any member who pretends that I done anything else, either does it, not having read what I have written, or heard what I have said, or having forgotten entirely what I have written or said, and being extremely careless in representing my views to the House. I regret that the hon. member should have imported into the discussion some fact supposed to have occurred in a police-court since I stood here before. I can only give the House my positive assurance that the hon. member is perfectly inaccurate in his representation of what took place. It is exceedingly painful to bandy words in this way. The hon. member was good enough to say he did not hear—he could not well have heard, for the magistrate did not refuse my affirmation at all. I happened to have been before Sir J. Ingham before, and he knew me, and knew the particular form of affirmation, and when the clerk read it to me no discussion took place on the subject. I hope the House will forgive me for contradicting such a small thing, but small things are sometimes much used. They have been used to work my ruin since I stood here before, and I regret that the shame of reticence did not at least keep it from this House, that the hon. member thought it his duty, by a common informer, to attempt to drive me into the Bankruptcy Court, and outside this House has boasted that the question would be solved in that way. It may be a brave boast, it may be consonant with piety from the hon. member's point of view, but I believe that every other gentleman's sense of piety would revolt against the notion of driving a single man into page 91 bankruptcy, and then canvassing for subscriptions—(hear, hear)—for the bold and vigorous, and patriotic and noble conduct," as the advertisement said, which consisted in hurrying in a cab to find the common informer to issue a writ against me. I dismiss that, however. I ask the House to pardon me for having wasted its time on this poor thing. I do not hope, I dare not think, that any word I may say here will win one vote; and I would have let this go silently against me, were it not that I owe a duty to the constituency that has twice entrusted me with its suffrages, a duty to every constituency right through the land in time to come—(hear, hear)—whose representative may be challenged as Northampton's has been. (Hear, hear, and No.) Some gentlemen say "No," but where is the challenge to stop? (Hear.) It is not simply theology, it is politics too (hear, hear). It is not simply theology that is brought before the House, but the wild imaginings of some member who, with the nightmare of panic upon him, and a wild imagining of the French Revolution clothed in terrors of which I know nothing, comes here to tell you of mighty Russia successful, and of the unfortunate United States with its Presidents assassinated because of religious and political opinions. Panic of that kind is not evidence as to my opinions. If this House intends to try me for my opinions, let it do it reasonably, and at least have the evidence before It. I would show you how unfair it is to trust to memory of words. The hon. member was good enough to tell the House that I had declared to a Committee of the House that certain words were meaningless. I hold in my hand the report of the Committee and the minutes of evidence, and no such words exist in any declaration of mine. (Hear, hear. Mr. Newdegate shook his head.) The hon. member does not believe me. I cannot make more than facts. I cannot make the comprehension which should distinguish when prejudice has determined that nothing shall be right that is put. The only way in which it can be pretended that anything of the kind in reference to the oath can be brought in is by taking my letter of the 20th of May, written outside the House, which does not contain a specific declaration the hon. member has put into it, which letter I protested ought not to be brought before the Committee at all, which I never page 92 volunteered to the Committee—(Opposition laughter)—which I objected to the Committee having before them. (Oh, and laughter from the Opposition.) The gentlemen who laugh, laugh because the laugh is the only answer that could be given. No reason can be given in reply, no facts can be quoted; and I ask hon. members who laugh to remember that I am pleading as though a quasi-criminal at this bar, and that I have a right to an audience from them, and I appeal to the House at least to give me a silent hearing. Judges do that. If you are unfit to be judges, then do not judge (hear, hear). It shows, at least, the difficulty of dealing with a question like this, when those who are to judge have come to a judgment already, not upon any facts, but upon what they think ought to be the facts. I ask the House to deal legally and fairly with me. Legally you are bound to deal; fairly, as an assembly of English gentlemen, you ought to deal with me, even if you have differences with me, even if you think my opinions so obnoxious, even if you think that the politics with which you identify me in your minds are dangerous to you (oh, oh). If I am not dangerous, why not let me speak there? (pointing to the seat he occupied last Session.) If there is no danger, why strain the law? If there is no danger, why disobey the law? It is put by the hon. gentleman who spoke last that there are certain words of the oath which the courts of law have declared essential, The courts of law have declared the exact opposite. So far as a decision has been given, the very report of the Committee shows that the highest court of judicature in this realm has decided the words are not essential to the oath at all. I ask the House to deal with me with some semblance and show of legality and fairness, and first I say that they ought not to go behind my election of the 9th of April, 1881, and that the House ought to reject the resolution moved by the right hon. gentleman, because it deals with matters which antedate my election, and because the House has nothing to do with me before the 9th of April, 1881. That is the return of which the Clerk at the table has the certificate. That is my only authority for being here. If I did aught before that rendered me unworthy to sit here, why did the House let me sit here from the 2nd of July to the 29th of March? If what I did entitles the House not to receive me, why has page 93 not the House had the courage of its opinions and vacated the seat? Either the seat is mine in law, and in law I claim it from you, or I am unworthy to hold it, and then why not vacate the seat and let the constituency express its opinion again? But my return is unimpeached, it is unimpeachable, and there has been no petition against me. The hon, member who went into back alleys for common informers could not find a petitioner to present a petition against it. If I speak with temper—(Opposition laughter)—the House, I trust, will pardon me. I have read within the last few days words spoken, not by members of no con-sequence, but by members occupying high position in this House, which make me wonder if this is the House of Commons to which I aspired so much. I have read that one right hon. member, the member for Whitehaven—(laughter from the Ministerial side)—was prompted to say to his constituents that I was kicked down stairs last Session, and that he hoped I should be again. If it were true that I was kicked downstairs I would ask members of the House of Commons on whom the shame, on whom the disgrace, on whom the stigma? I dare not apply this, but history will when I have mouldered, and you too, and our passions are quite gone. But it is not quite true that I was kicked downstairs, and it is a dangerous thing to say that I was, for it means that hon. members who should rely on law rely on force. It is a dangerous provocation to conflict to throw to the people. If I had been as wicked in my thought as some members are reported to have been in their speech, this quarrel, not of my provoking, would assume a future to make us all ashamed. I beg this House to believe, and I trust, Sir, that you at least will believe me, that I have tried as much as man might to keep the dignity of this House. I submitted last Session, and the Session before, to have had things said against me without one word of reply, because having had your good counsel, I felt it might provoke discussion upon matters which this House would willingly not have speech upon, and that I had far better rest under some slight stigma than occupy the House with my personality. I appeal to the recollection of every member of the House whether from the moment of my entering into it I did not utterly disregard everything that took place prior to my coming into it, and direct myself to the business for which page 94 my constituents sent me here. The most extraordinary statements are made as to my views, statements as inaccurate as those which have fallen, no doubt unconsciously, from the hon. member who has last addressed the House. One noble lord in a great London gathering convoked against me, a gathering which was not as successful as some that have taken place in my favor, denounced me as a Socialist. I do not happen to be one. I happen to think that Socialists are the most unwise and illogical people you can happen to meet. But the noble lord knew that I ought to be something (laughter). I am a red rag to a wild Conservative bull, and it must rush at me and call me Socialist. I ask this House to be more fair and just. If I am to be tried, at least let me be tried for the opinions I hold and the views I express. Why, there are members who have soiled their tongues with words about social relations and marriage for which I have no proper reply in this House, as unfortunately the forms of the House do not permit me to use the only fitting answer, and perhaps it is as well. But I ask the House, Do not let this be the kind of weapon with which a return is met. Deal with me as the law directs, and in no other way. It is said "You have brought this upon yourself" (hear, hear). One baronet who has spoken of me with a kindness more than I deserve, in the very borough which I represent said I had brought it upon myself, because when I originally came to the House I flaunted and most ostentatiously put my opinion upon the House (hear, hear). Well, not one word of that is true. Not a shadow of it is true. I hold in my hand the sworn evidence of Sir Erskine May. I do not ask gentlemen to take my word, for it is clear they will not, but that of their own officer. And when the right hon. baronet said I claimed under the statute, and drew an inference from it, he knows that my claim contained no such words until the clerk at the table of the House challenged me as to the law under which I claimed. I do not quarrel with him, but I submit that the Clerk of the House had no right to put that question to me. I submit that the House had nothing whatever to do with it—that it certainly is no ostentatious flaunting by me. I submit, that at any rate, that it is prior to the 9th of April, 1881, and the House had no right to revive it against me. I ask the House to try and deal with me with some show page 95 of fairness. They will find when I was before the Committee, instead of obtruding my opinions, I said I had never directly or indirectly obtruded upon the House any of my utterances or publications upon any subject whatever, and when pressed by one of the members sitting on that (the Opposition) side of the House as to certain opinions I was supposed to hold, by asking me particular words I was supposed to have used in a judicial proceeding, I said that if the Committee wished I would answer, but that I objected to answer, because I had carefully refrained from saying any word which would bring my opinions before the House. I ask, therefore, the House whether it is not monstrously unfair to say that I have obtruded any opinions here when I have expressly, carefully, and thoroughly kept them from the House? But it is said by the right hon. baronet that it would be a profanation to allow me to take the oath, and that the House would be no party to such a profanation (Opposition cheers). Does the House mean that it is a party to each oath taken? (hear.) There was a time when most clearly it was not so a party. There was a time when the oath was not even taken in the presence of members at all. But does the House mean it is a party now? Was it a party the Session before last? Was it a party when Mr. Hall walked up to that table, cheered by members on the other side who knew his seat was won by deliberate bribery? (loud Opposition cries of Order.) Bribery sought to be concealed by the most corrupt perjury. Did the House join in it? (renewed cries of Order.) If the House did not join in it, why did you cheer so that the words of the oath were drowned? But was the House a party when John Stuart Mill sat in this House? (hear, no.) A member who is, I think, now within the walls of the House—the hon. member for Greenwich—in addressing his constituents, said that Mr. Bradlaugh's opinions were hardly more objectionable than those of some other members of the House. If the hon. member knew that, then he was a party to the profanation of the oath: but perhaps they were on his own side, and he did not feel the profanation so acutely (hear, hear, and laughter). But it is said, "Our real objection is that you have declared that the oath is not binding upon you" (hear, hear, from Mr. Alderman Fowler). That is exactly the opposite page 96 of what I did declare. The hon. member whose voice I hear now, I unfortunately heard on the 3rd of August; and heard so that I shall never forget it. (Mr. Bradlaugh here looked towards Alderman Fowler and paused.) The hon. member admits that is the point—that I have declared the oath is not binding upon my conscience; but, unfortunately, all the print goes the other way. I am asked by the Committee who sat as to whether the oath is binding, and on page 15 I reply : "Any form that I went through, any oath that I took, I shall regard as binding upon my conscience in the fullest degree, and I would go through no form and take no oath unless I meant it to be so binding." Again, I am asked as to the word "swear." I say : "I consider when I take an oath it is binding upon my honor and upon my conscience"; and with reference to the words of asseveration to which the hon. member for North Warwickshire referred, he would at least have been more generous towards myself, if generosity be possible with him, if he had said: "I desire to add—and I do this most solemnly and unreservedly—that the taking, and sub-scribing, and repeating these words of asseveration will in no degree weaken the binding effect of the oath upon my conscience." I say here, Sir, before you, with all the solemnity man can command, that I know the words of the oath the statute requires me to take, that I am ready to take that oath according to law, and that I will not take an oath without intending it to be binding upon me, and that if I do take the oath it will be binding upon my honor and conscience. (Conservative cries of "Oh! oh!") Members of the House who are ignorant of what is honor and conscience——(Loud cries of "Order," "Oh, oh," and "Withdraw," from the Opposition.) If members will allow me to finish my sentence——(Cries of "Withdraw.") Members of this House who are ignorant of what is——(Renewed cries from the Opposition of "Withdraw.") These (Mr. Bradlaugh pointing to the Opposition benches) are my judges. Members of this House who are ignorant of what is the honor and conscience of the man who stands before them—(Oh," and laughter from the Opposition)—have a right to shout "Withdraw;" but they must beware lest a greater voice outside—("Oh, oh," and laughter from the Opposition)—at the ballot-box, where it has a right to express it, page 97 may not only say "withdraw," but make withdraw all those who infringe the constitutional rights of the nation, as they seek to infringe them now. If I knew any kind of word which might convince members whom I desire to convince that I would take no pledge that I did not mean to be binding, I would use that form of words. But I have found myself so harshly judged, so unfairly dealt with, that one feels a difficulty in understanding whether any form of words, however often repeated, would convey any kind of conviction to some minds. I presume that this House will repeat its vote of April 26th. What then? Will it have the courage of its opinions, and vacate my seat? (Hear, hear.) If it does not, this House leaves me in an unfair position before the law. I am bound to come to this table, and will come to this table, as long as the mandate of my constituents sends me here, unless the House vacates the seat. If my seat be vacated, it is my duty to bow to the House, and appeal to my constituents again; and then the verdict rests with them. But to take away part of the right, and deal with it in this fashion, leaving me with the full legal responsibility and no kind of legal authority, I submit is not generous. Well, will this House repeat its vote of 9th May? Will it substitute force for law? At present the law is on my side (No, no, and hear, hear). If not, let me sit and sue me (hear, hear). If not, try by petition. If not, bring an action. But shouting "No" won't decide the law, even with the united wisdom of the members of this House who shout it. I know that no man is a good advocate for a great principle unless he himself be worthy of the principle he advocates, and I have felt acutely the judgment properly passed upon me by many members of this House, who, knowing their superiority to me, say how unworthy I am that this question should be fought in my person. I admit I am unworthy, but it is not my fault that I have this fight to make. I remind you of the words of one of the greatest statesmen who sat in this House more than a hundred years ago, that whenever an infringement of the constitutional right was attempted, it was always attempted in the person of some obnoxious man (hear, hear). I ask the House for a moment to carry its mind to the 3rd of August last. I do that because cither I do not understand what took place then, or my memory page 98 has failed me, as the memory of oilier hon. members sometimes does, or things happened without my consciousness. I thought I had stood aside until Parliament had dealt with the pressing business of the nation. I thought that had been recognised by this House. I thought I only came saying at the very door of the House that I was ready to obey its lawful orders, and I thought I was then seized by force while saying it. My memory may not serve me well on that, but I think it does. There were plenty of witnesses to the scene. I saw one hon. member climb on to a pedestal to see how fourteen men could struggle with one. It was hardly generous, hardly brave, hardly worthy of the great House of Commons, that those sending out to the whole world lessons of freedom, liberty, and law, should so infringe and so stamp them under foot. I had no remedy in any court, or I would have taken it. With all respect to you, Sir, and the officers of this House, if there had been any possibility of trying at law against the mighty privilege of this House, I would have appealed to that possibility. Let me now, before I finish, ask the ear of the House for one moment. It is said it is the oath an I not the man; but others, more frank, say it is the man and not the oath. Is it the oath and not the man? I am ready to stand aside, say for four or five weeks, without coming to that table, if the House within that time, or within such time as its great needs might demand, would discuss whether an Affirmation Bill should pass or not. I want to obey the law, and I tell you how I might meet the House still further, if the House will pardon me for seeming to advise it. Hon. members have said that would be a Bradlaugh Relief Bill (hear, hear). Bradlaugh is more proud than you are (hear, hear). Let the Bill pass without applying to elections that have taken place previously, and I will undertake not to claim my seat, and when the Bill has passed I will apply for the Chiltern Hundreds (cheers.) I have no fear. If I am not fit for my constituents, they shall dismiss me, but you never shall. The grave alone shall make me yield (hear, hear, and "Oh").