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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 82

To the Electors who may Vote on 1st January, 1886

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To the Electors who may Vote on 1st January, 1886.

The House of Commons by mere force prevents me, an admittedly duly elected member, from speaking and voting. The Attorney-General of England pleading before the High Court of Judicature asserts for the House of Commons the right to so exclude any of its members for any reason or whim, say, for instance, "if he happened to have red hair." If this most monstrous claim be submitted to your whole electoral vitality may be subject to the lawless whim of a majority of the House of Commons. Against the House itself I have no legal remedy. To use the words of Mr. Justice Stephens, my only appeal is to the constituencies; and to you I appeal.

For five years now—except during five months and two weeks when I sat, spoke, and voted as a member on affirmation of allegiance—I have been persistently fighting this battle. Four times in this Parliament has Northampton honored me by electing me, and on the last occasion by a larger vote than had ever before been given to me. Mr. Gladstone says that I ought to sit, but though he has always spoken and voted in favor of my constitutional right he has been unable to enforce what he has declared to be the law in my case, and has been unwilling to make the rights of the electors a Cabinet question. During five years I have had to resist the most desperate attempts to ruin me at law, conducted by Sir Hardinge Giffard, Q.C., M.P., on behalf of Mr. Newdegate and Sir H. Tyler. To secure my ruin very large sums of money have been openly subscribed by Lord Salisbury, Sir Stafford Northcote, and other prominent members of the Conservative party. I have had to fight only with such help as poor folk have voluntarily sent me. Four elections and never-ceasing litigation during five years, and during this five years, too, I have attended and spoken at at least 200 meetings in different parts of England, some of them enormously attended, at which resolutions of indignant protest against the wrong done to Northampton specially, and in violation of the rights of electors generally, have been carried unanimously or by overwhelming majorities.

The struggle is a serious and wearying one, and the strain is not easy to bear. I turn to you, the final and highest court of appeal, and I ask your help.

The sole question for you to decide is this : Ought the House of Commons at its mere whim to be able to prevent a member admittedly lawfully returned and ready and willing to do all things the law requires, from taking his seat, and serving his constituents pursuant to the return? The Conservatives say that they were obliged to do this to prevent me from profaning the oath. They know that this is not true, for I at first claimed to affirm, and sat on affirmation, and then they sought to make me bankrupt for penalties because I had tried to avoid taking the oath. Nay, more; they defeated an Affirmation Bill supported by the Government because they said it would relieve me from the necessity of taking the oath. Then to you they pretend that I had refused to take the oath of allegiance, and that I had said it would not be binding upon me if I took it. These things they know to be untrue. I have never refused to take the oath of allegiance; I have not only never said it would not be binding upon me, but on the contrary, as Hansard shows, I have repeatedly solemnly and expressly declared that the oath, if I took it, would be binding upon my honor and conscience.

Then it is urged that the Conservatives are bound to keep me out because I am an avowed Atheist Geonge Grote and John Stuart Mill sat and voted for years, yet both of them have printed the most outspoken Atheistic declarations. Ashton Dilke sat and voted in this very Parliament, though in its presence he page break made declarations of his want of religious belief. John Morley still sits and votes, though in his volumes on Voltaire and Diderot are the very strongest avowals of anti-religious opinion. But it is said that none of these gentlemen ever thrust his views on the House of Commons Neither have I. In none of my speeches, either at the bar or made from my seat whilst my tongue was free, is there the slightest indication as to any opinion held by me on any theological question The electors of Northampton chose me to make laws, not to frame creeds; to sit in Parliament, not in Convocation. If heresy in religion is to be disqualification let it be enacted by law, and applied to all. Do not permit it to be the excuse for the exclusion of a man who has made many aristocratic enemies by the boldness of his speech and the bitterness of his pen.

I appeal to Liberals as well as Radicals. Some Moderate Liberals say that I am unpopular and that to fight Northampton's battle will divide the Liberal party. But Liberalism should stand for right whether popular or unpopular. It so stood unflinchingly for John Wilkes and Middlesex a century since. And I am not unpopular. I have made many enemies and trust to live to make many more; but hundreds of thousands of the people love and trust me. I am not unpopular. There is no town, no city, no wide park or moor, where thousands can be freely gathered in mass meeting and I not find at least as hearty a greeting as the best-welcomed there. The people who know me know that I have never mixed my anti-theological views with my political work; they know that while I have never been hypocrite, I have acted the civil liberty I have asked, and have on political and social questions worked with men of all creeds without affronting any. As for dividing the Liberal party, the bulk of the Liberal party are true on this Northampton constitutional question; it is only a comparatively very small handful who, deserting Mr. Gladstone and the Liberal party, joined themselves by actual vote with Sir Stafford Northcote, Lord Randolph Churchill, and Cardinal Manning, and thus gave the Tories and Irish Members an abnormal and unnatural majority. Some Liberals say that Northampton is right, but it is not the time to raise this question Northampton has waited five years; I have fought five years. It has been the right time to do right from the very first moment of the struggle's commencement.

To Radicals I appeal with confidence : to the men of London amongst whom I have lived; to the miners of Cleveland, Northumberland, Durham, Staffordshire, South Yorkshire, Derbyshire; to the cotton-weavers of Lancashire and the mill hands of Yorkshire and the Midlands. You know me and my life. If I ask for place in the House, I believe I can serve you there. If I ask your help for my right, I feel that I can do battle for yours. Let this Northampton question be raised during 1885 in every public meeting, in every political gathering, in every club and association assembly. Assert the right of the elector to choose his own representative; the right of every qualified candidate to be duly returned; the right of every lawfully and regularly returned member to take his scat without let or hindrance. Without these rights, all respected and enforced, the franchise is a sham, and each election is a farce. And if I might I would appeal to the more thoughtful and generous amongst Conservatives. A great party against one man—what honor if you win? You can only win if life and health fail me before the struggle finishes. And what a victory if you win it ! You declare that a majority in one House alone may override the law. And yet with the new electoral roll, and the fresh distribution of political power, is not this a very dangerous principle for you to affirm in English politics? I have hitherto always taught the people to be law-abiding and law-respecting. Until now, for quite two hundred years, law has had the final word in England, and all parties have bowed to the law's majesty. In my person you have trampled the law under foot; you have insulted a free constituency; and you have written a lesson that perhaps you may read in sorrow before the century closes.

Charles Bradlaugh.