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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 48

Extract from the Graphic, May 29th 1880 [Preface by Thomas Chambers]

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The following "Extract," though strictly accurate, scarcely expresses—for no statement could fully express—the audacity with which the House of Commons, as a deliberative assembly, can be obstructed and defeated by a mere handful of its members, when it proposes to discuss a question of great public interest, on which an overwhelming majority of its members are known to have formed a decided opinion, by a flagrant abuse of that liberty of speech—hitherto the glory of the House, but now threatening to become its shame—which for five years past has defeated, and may for fifty years to come continue to defeat, the discussion and progress of a question which has been already seven times emphatically approved by the House. Driven from the field of argument, the opponents of the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill have taken refuge in the tactics of obstruction, and the friends of the measure are entitled to appeal, and do now appeal, even to its opponents, for that fairness and justice to which in the House of Commons the promoters of any measure are entitled, and which, if denied, is denied at the sacrifice of the character of that assembly in the midst of which every proposal is assumed to be subject to the chances of debate—not wilfully excluded altogether from discussion.

Thomas Chambers.

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Extract From "The Graphic."

Now Members, whose presence in the House is so demonstrative, and in respect to whose welfare so much solicitude is expressed, had an opportunity on Tuesday night of studying one of the more elaborate forms of Parliamentary procedure. There were not many Bills on the Orders; but to some two or three hundred gentlemen the interest of the evening was centred on the fact that the first place in the Orders was obtained for the Bill Legalizing Marriage with a Deceased Wife's Sister.

The engagement of Tuesday commenced very quietly, and for some hours the unsophisticated New Member would have no suspicion of what was in the wind. There had been an important speech made by Mr. Gladstone on the question of policy in South Africa, and then Mr. Gregory had introduced the question of Land Reform, moving the Government to give effect by legislation to the recommendation of the Committee on Land Tithes and Transfers.

Here, it is true, the well-informed student of Parliamentary affairs must suspect that in the curious anxiety for debate there was something more than met the eye. Two days earlier Mr. Gladstone, replying to a question, had shown how impossible it was to deal with the Land Question in what was left of the Session. But he undertook that the attention of the Cabinet should be devoted to it during the Recess, and that a comprehensive Bill should be introduced at the earliest possible date. was manifestly a waste of time to discuss the question in these circumstances.

Mr. Gregory in a very thin house, and in a drowsy undertone, was understood for the space of nearly an hour to be discoursing on the subject. Nobody listened for several reasons, the first being that there was hardly anybody present to hear. If there had been, neither the subject nor the orator was calculated to attract the giddy mind, or enchain the sober imagination.

When Mr. Gregory sat down, two or three Members made speeches, and then Mr. Osborne Morgan, the Judge Advocate-General, who in an especial manner has made this question his own, offered a few observations, chiefly directed to showing what everybody felt, that to make speeches on this matter now was sheer waste of time. It did not come within the practical purview page 3 of the Session., and might well be left over until the floodgates of talk were formally and legally opened by the introduction of a Bill. Mr. Gregory (having made his own speech) cordially assented to this view, and proposed to withdraw his resolution. It was scarcely eight o'clock, and had this course been adopted, sufficient time was left for disposing of the whole business on the paper including the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill. Just as the Speaker was putting the question, Colonel Makins rose and proposed to offer a few observations. The gallant Colonel is well known to the supporters of the Marriage Bill as an ally of Mr. Beresford Hope in the assaults upon the measure, and the curious coincidence of his interposition on the land question at a time when the debate had naturally exhausted itself and the audience, caused them to regard him with suspicion.

Before he bad been on his legs a quarter of an hour suspicion became a certainty, and certainly found expression in indignant murmurs from Mr. Hopwood, Mr. Macdonald, and other champions of the purity of Parliamentary tactics. Like Mr. Gregory, Colonel Makins is not an orator, though he has had one immemorable success, and enjoys the rare distinction of adding a phrase to the popular vocabulary. It was to him that was addressed that famous petition, praying for the release of "that unhappy nobleman now languishing in Her Majesty's prison at Dartmoor." Colonel Makins introduced that petition with a dry humour that added greatly to its point, and secured for him a distinct success.

His speech on Tuesday night was not lacking in manifestations of this same humour, though to those compelled to sit and listen for upwards of an hour, the final impression was somewhat depressing. It being the gallant Colonel's scarcely concealed intention to occupy the time of the House with the object of preventing its reaching another Bill, he could not afford to keep himself very closely to his text.

In similar circumstances Mr. Biggar had produced a Blue Book, out of which he culled choice passages, and read them for the space of four hours. Colonel Makins disdained this example, and preferred rather to consider the question of land tenure in a survey extending from China to Peru. When he had got as far as Algeria.—as nearly as possible midway on the journey—Mr. Macdonald interposed, and asked the Speaker whether he was in order in alluding to the affairs in Algeria?

The Speaker ruled that reference to the land system in Algeria was not strictly irrelevant to the question. "That being your page 4 ruling, Sir," said Colonel Makins on rising again; "let us now return to Algeria." And back be went, keeping hon, members under its arid sky, fuming and fretting, for an additional quarter of an hour.

When Colonel Makins sat down, Mr. Beresford Hope, the great leader of the Opposition to the Marriage Bill, rose, and was greeted with a despairing groan. Mr. Hope, like Colonel Makins, affected foreign parts, and in the course of his essay on the system of Land Titles Transfers throughout the civilized world, interposed a graphic and amusing description of the notaire as presented on the English stage in opera comique. This, like Algoria, proved the last straw to break the back of the friends of the Bill. Mr. Hopwood rose, and in a solemn manner appealed to the Speaker whether the notaire was relevant to the matter. This time the Speaker ruled Mr. Hope out of order. "Then," said the right hon, gentleman, rising again, and waving his hand with Batavian grace in the direction of the discomfited party, "I will leave hon, gentlemen to find out for themselves what is the meaning of the word notaire."

All things must come to an end, and after many hours this episode closed. Then came Earl Percy with a motion for a Select Committee on the subject of Ancient Monuments. This being a new question it was open to the opponents of the Marriage Bill to commence de novo, and they did. Mr Beresford Hope gallantly made another reconnaissance, and several new battalions were brought into action.

The excitement grew in force as Mr. Mark Stewart smilingly discussing Ancient Monuments with one eye on that already antique monument of Parliamentary perseverance, the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill. All reserve was now broken down, and the triumphantly elected Member for Wigtown spoke amid an incessant roar. But he smiled his way through the hubbub, even thankful for it as assisting him to fill up the time. Then the adjournment of the debate was moved, whereupon, with some such whoop as Red Indians were accustomed to emit on the unexpected discovery of an enemy, Mr. Beresford Hope rose for the third time. Other speeches and the division took up some time, then there was a conversation on the appointment of the Committee on the Members' Refreshment Rooms. Finally half-past twelve chimed and in accordance with the Rule that prohibits opposed business being taken after that hour the Marriage with a Deceased Wife's Sister Bill was shelved.