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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 82

The Rights of Constituencies

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The Rights of Constituencies.

Mr. Bradlaugh: Mr. Speaker, with the indulgence of the House I desire to submit a very few words in support of my right to take the oath and my seat pursuant to my return. I was elected on the 4th of March of last year, and since that election I have not presented myself for the purpose of taking my seat. The House, after my election, expressed its pleasure that I should not be permitted to obey the law that Session, and this Session the House has been engaged in considering a measure which if it had passed would have been a measure which would have rendered it possible, supposing my constituents to have re-elected me, for me to have taken my seat on affirmation. Last night the House felt it right to reject that measure, and now it is my duty to do what the law requires of me, and I ask the indulgence of the members who are hostile to me in the few words which it is my unpleasant duty to address to them. I ask that indulgence because my position for some time has been one of considerable pain. By the privilege of an unsworn member, I have been within hearing of everything that has taken place in this House, but by the practice of the House I have been precluded from offering the smallest dissent to any phrase, however severe to any insinuation, however harsh; to any charge, however much I think it false. My constituents have a right to the voice and speech of two representatives in this House. (Cheers.) That is their unquestionable right. They have chosen me three times in this Parliament to be one of their burgesses; and if I were as vile as some of the members have chosen to describe me, if that vileness imposes no legal disqualification, no one within these walls has a right to challenge the return of my constituents. (Ministerial cheers.) The law requires me to take my seat; it imposes a penalty upon me if I do not take my seat; it gives me privileges which I ought to enjoy while I hold unchallenged this certificate of return and here I ask whether there ought to be any hindrance between the returned of a constituency, the duty which the law imposes upon him to perform, and the services which his constituents have a right to demand; and I submit that any hindrance which is not justified by law is an act which in itself is flagrantly wrong, whoever may commit it, and that the mere fact that a majority of voices in one Chamber may prevent a citizen from appealing to the law in no sense lessens the iniquity of the illegal act, and that history will so judge it whatever to-day you may think it your right and your duty to do (Hear, hear.) I listened, Sir, with pain to one dangerous doctrine that was put forward against my admission—viz., that Parliament recognised no rights but its own, and that it never treated those claims—that is, those of the electors of Northampton—for electoral or representative concessions as rights; and that it had always regarded them as high and valuable privileges which it was in its power to withhold or bestow, and that it had never been guided by any other principle than expediency or policy. I submit that that doctrine is treason to the Constitution of England. (Cheers from the Ministerialists.) I submit that the suffrage is a right, and in the famous case of Ashby v. White it was decided by the highest courts of judicature in the realm that the suffrage is not a privilege, but a right. And I submit that, while it is true that Parliament has a right to take away, negate, or destroy the right of any citizen in this country, yet that one Chamber is not Parliament, and that neither House, by its mere resolution, may override, negate, or page 2 suspend a law; and although you may have the right of force, that is [unclear: a] bad right to put against the right of the law. (Cheers. Some [unclear: dissent] being expressed by Irish members, Mr. 'Bradlaugh turned to them [unclear: and] said :) I can only thank the courtesy of the members who interrupt me [unclear: on] my right—(several voices: "Left")—for their consideration for me it the difficult position in which I am placed, and I will ask the indulgence of the House while I put one or two words of explanation as to matter which have been prominently urged as reasons why I should not sit. It is said, first, that I am a candidate of the Government, put forward by the Government. Surely, if that were true, it would be no great objection in the way of my return; but there is not a particle of truth in it. I stood in 1868 for Northampton to fight the seat of Lord Henley: The present Prime Minister on that occasion thought it his duty to oppose my election, and wrote a letter, against which I then thought I had fair ground of complaint, advising the people of Northampton to return the two sitting members, Lord Henley and Mr. Charles Gilpin. I have never had, directly or indirectly, the smallest aid or assistance from either the present Prime Minister or from any member of the Government, or, to my knowledge, from any member of the Liberal party in any of the elections I have fought in that borough—(hear, hear)—and when the hon. member who has thought it his duty to come into unfortunate Collision with me elsewhere (Mr. Newdegate, who expressed dissent) chooses to contradict that, he contradicts it without the smallest knowledge of the facts. With reference to the allegation made by the right hon. baronet the member for South-West Lancashire (Sir R. Cross), that the late Mr. Adam had in some fashion recommended me to the electors of Northampton, there is not the faintest shadow of foundation for that. I never hold the smallest communication, direct or indirect, of any character whatever with Mr, Adam, or with anyone on his behalf, until in this House, in his official position as Commissioner of Works, it was my duty to address questions to him on behalf of my constituents. With Chat exception, I never had the smallest connexion, direct or indirect, with Mr. Adam or with any member of the Government; and to my belief—perhaps it may be incorrect—I have always regarded the Liberal party as standing in the way of my election, rather than as in any way helping my return. (Cheers.) This, however, I submit, was matter unworthy of this House. No such consideration has ever entered at any time into the discussion of any other candidature. (Hear, hear.) I submit that a great House, which claims the powers of one of the highest courts of these realms, should try to be judicial. (Cheers.) Then it is said that all that has happened I have brought on myself, that it is not the opinions which were alleged against me, but, to use the words of more than one right hon. and hon. member, the offensive way in which, at the table of the House, I paraded my views, and threw down the gauntlet in the face of the House. There is not a shadow of foundation for that allegation. (Cheers.) The only way in which it is attempted to support the allegation is by saying that when at the table of the House, and when in writing I claimed to affirm, giving no reasons whatever in support of that, and when thereupon asked under what law I claimed to affirm, I named the statutes; then it is said that that was a declaration of Atheism. But it is not true, and no person with the smallest acquaintance with the law should make such a declaration, though I think that I heard a right hon. and learned gentleman commit himself to the statement that none but Atheists could affirm under the Evidence Amendment Acts, 1869 and 1870. That is not so. By the law prior to the passing of those Acts, any Theist who did not believe in future rewards or punishments was one of those who was not competent to give evidence on oath, who might have been objected to as incompetent, and who became competent to affirm page 3 under those statutes. Therefore there was no declaration of Atheism involved in what was said at the table, and no member has a right to examine my opinions. (Cheers.) I have never uttered them in this House. Under great temptation, I have refrained from saying a word which, could wound the feelings of the most religious, although I have heard within these walls within but a few hours language used by one who had declared his religion which I should have felt ashamed to use in any decent assembly.1 (Cheers.) Nothing of my opinions was communicated to this House until the committee which examined me before it asked whether I had written a certain letter to the Times—and it has been stated over and over again on both sides of the House that any declaration in the Times, or any declaration outside these walls, is a matter with which Parliament has no concern; but when the committee insisted I gave way, for I had no desire to be a hypocrite or to conceal my real convictions. I had put, I hope as respectfully as man could put, what I thought a fair reason for the line I took, and although I believe that it was a matter which the House had no right to deal with—entirely without its province—yet when the committee pressed me upon it I believed that I was dealing with generous English gentlemen, who would not distort what they had asked for into a declaration that I had paraded it at the table of the House. (Hear, hear.) I had to sit with pain while reckless charges, probably supplied to members by persons not having the responsibility of a seat in this House, have sounded in my ears; and I heard two right hon. members and several hon. members' quote against me during this week letters as of "An Avowed Atheist" as expressing my opinions on religion and on family life. They were quoted against me on the 1st and the 3rd of May, although on the 26th of April, in the paper in which these letters were printed, there appeared a declaration that they were not written by an avowed Atheist at all, but by a professing Christian, for the purpose of injuring me and preventing my candidature; and I ask the House whether this is a loyal and brave way to deal with a man who has no right of speech until too late to remedy the wrong done. (Hear, hear.) Members have been industrious in reading all the things I have ever written and many I have not written. One hon. member, the hon. member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ritchie), read to this House phrases which when he read them I could not remember, but which I knew it was impossible that I could have used in the way they were put, because they would have been fatal to the candidature I desired to preserve in Northampton. What do I find? I find that instead of it being in any matter, or happening in any fashion in connexion with these contests, a portion of a speech attributed to me in a report fifteen years ago has been taken, although at the top of the very paragraph from which the hon. member quoted I find that there is a declaration that I am in no way responsible for what appears in the report. Surely it would have been generous to have said that; it would have been fair to have said that; it would have been just to have said that. (Cheers.) I do not pretend that in everything I have said I have never deserved the blame or this House; but there is a great difference between things deserving blame, and twisting and distorting every phrase to make groundwork for the heaviest punishment that can fall upon a man who desires to serve the constituency which elected him to represent it in this House. (Hear, hear.) Then I heard that I had been convicted of circulating a filthy book, and had escaped only by a legal quibble the punishment it was said I deserved. The hon. member who thought it right to say that in this House, might have said that the learned judge who tried me— page 4 whose grave-stone will perhaps protect him from the charges and insinustions which have been heaped upon the other judges who have had the misfortune to do me justice (Cheers)—the late Lord Chief Justice Cockburn said : "That the defendants honestly believe that the evils that this work would remedy, arising from over-population and poverty, are so great that these checks may be resorted to as a remedy for the evils, and as bettering the condition of humanity, although there might be things to be avoided, if it were possible to avoid them, and yet remedy the evils which they are to prevent—that such is the honest opinion of the defendants, we, who have read the book, and who have heard what they have said, must do them the justice of believing." Is that the language which one of England's greatest judges would use if he had before him a man charged with circulating a filthy book? And the jury who found me guilty in their verdict said; "We entirely exonerate the defendants from any corrupt motive in publishing it." (Hear, hear.) Surely when foul words of condemnation come, a generous and strong opponent would have at least said this on the other side, so that the House might know how far the condemnation was warranted. I will say no more personally save this: Members who have said that I attacked marriage, that I attacked the family cannot have read what I have said on either subject. I have never in my life attacked either. Members who charge me with Socialism and Communism are ignorant of the whole history of my life, and of the whole political strife in which I have been engaged. (Hear, hear.) But all these, although they were as true as they are false, give you no right to stand between me and my seat. (Ministerial cheers.) For I ask the House to be logical—(laughter)—I ask the House with all respect to be logical—though I do not doubt that it would be difficult for some members to get into that frame of mind which would enable them to be so. 1 would ask the House either to declare my seat vacant at once, or introduce a Bill rendering me incapable of sitting for any constituency. (Ministerial cheers.) Deprive me of all civil rights by law, and then I must submit, as better men before me had to submit, whom the Parliament of England attainted and outlawed, but while I have civil rights I will claim them. (Ministerial cheers.) If the law cannot give them to me—and perhaps it is better this House should be above the law—if the law cannot give them to me, then I can only try, wherever voice may go, to show that you, the High Court of Parliament, greater than the law, have trampled on the law—(Ministerial cheers and counter cheers)—and at least try at the hustings and in the ballot-box, when the time comes, that the people whom you say are on your side shall decide, as it is their lawful right to do. (Ministerial cheers.) I heard a strange phrase from a noble lord, that both sides had gone too far to recede. The House honors me too much in putting me on one side and itself on the other. The House, being strong, should be generous. The strong can recede, the generous can give; but the constituents have a right to more than generosity—they have a right to justice. (Ministerial cheers.) The law gives me my seat. In the name of the law I ask for it. (Ministerial cheers.) I regret that my personality overshadows the principles involved in this great struggle, but I would ask those who have touched my life, not knowing it, who have found for me vices which I do not remember in the memory of my life, I would ask them whether all can afford to cast the first stone—(Ministerial cheers)—whether, condemning me for my unworthiness, then that, as just judges, they will vacate their own seats, having deprived my constituents of their right here to mine. (Loud Ministerial cheers.)

Price One Halfpenny.

London: Printed by Annie Besant and Chas. Bradlaugh, 63, Fleet St., E.C

1 This referred to some exceedingly filthy and blasphemous language used by Philip Callan, M.P., in the presence and hearing of the Eight Hon. Lord R. Grosvenor and other members.