Page images
PDF
EPUB

2

ment, while those who refused the arrangement were to be paid off by a loan raised at 3 The offer does not appear cent. per very tempting, but the normal rate of interest was then so low, commercial investments were so few, and the attraction of the Government security was so great, that the majority of holders accepted it, and when February arrived only eighteen or nineteen millions had not been brought under the arrangement. The success, of course, increased its popularity, and Pelham accordingly renewed the offer, though on less favourable conditions, for in the case of these second subscribers the 3 per cent. interest was to be exchanged for 3 per cent. interest in December 1755. The result of this prolongation was, that not much more than 3 millions remained excluded, For and the holders of this stock were paid off in 1751. seven years after 1750 an annual saving was thus made of 288,517., and after 1757 it amounted in the whole to 577,034l., which was to be applied to the reduction of the national debt. The success of this measure reflected great credit on the Government, and it furnished an extremely remarkable proof of how prosperous and wealthy the country remained at the close of a long and exhausting war. In 1752 Pelham completed his financial reforms by a measure simplifying and consolidating the different branches of the national debt, and thus removing a cause of much perplexity and some expense both to the public and to individuals.1

It was in this department of legislation that the Governments of the Walpole and Pelham period were most successful. In very few periods in English political history was the commercial element more conspicuous in administration. The prevailing spirit of the debates was of a kind we should rather have expected in a middle-class Parliament than in a Parliament consisting in a very large measure of the nominees of great families. A competition of economy reigned in all parties. The questions which excited most interest were chiefly financial

1 Coxe's Pelham. Sinclair's Hist. of the Revenue. Macpherson's Annals of Commerce.

and commercial ones. The increase of the national debt, the possibility and propriety of reducing its interest, the advantages of a sinking fund, the policy of encouraging trade by bounties and protective duties, the evils of excise, the reduction of the land-tax, the burden of Continental subsidies, were among the topics which produced the most vehement and the most powerful debates. Burke, in a letter which he wrote in 1752 describing the House of Commons during the Pelham administration, summed up the requirements of a Member of Parliament in one pregnant sentence, which would hardly have been true of the next generation: A man, after all, would do more by figures of arithmetic than by figures of rhetoric.' Even the religious questions which produced most excitement throughout the country, the naturalisation of Jews and the naturalisation of foreign Protestants, were argued chiefly in Parliament upon commercial grounds. The question in home politics, however, which excited most interest in the nation was of a different kind, and it was one which, for very obvious reasons, Parliament desired as much as possible to avoid. It was the extreme corruption of Parliament itself, its subserviency to the influence of the Executive, and the danger of its becoming in time rather the oppressor than the representative of the people.

1

This danger had been steadily growing since the Revolution, and it had reached such a point that there were many who imagined that the country had gained little by exchanging an arbitrary King for a corrupt and often a tyrannical Parliament. The extraordinary inequalities of the constituencies had long attracted attention. Cromwell had for a time remedied the evil by a bold measure, sweeping away the rotten boroughs, granting members to the greatest unrepresented towns, strengthening the county representation, and at the same time summoning Irish and Scotch Members to the Parliament in London; but although Clarendon described this as 'a warrantable alteration, and fit to be made in better times,' the old state of things returned with the Restoration. The 'Prior's Life of Burke, i. 38.

[ocr errors]

Revolution had been mainly a conflict between the Crown and the Parliament, and its effect had been greatly to increase the authority of the latter; but, with the exception of the Triennial Bill, nothing of much real value had been done to make it a more faithful representation of the people. Locke, in a memorable passage, complained that the bare name of a town, of which there remains not so much as the ruins, where scarce so much housing as a sheepcot or more inhabitants than a shepherd is to be found, sends as many representatives to the grand Assembly of lawmakers, as a whole county, numerous in people and powerful in riches'; but he could discover no safe remedy for the evil. Defoe and the Speaker Onslow 3 both desired an excision of the rotten boroughs, but there was no general movement in this direction, and the party which was naturally most inclined to change shrank from a reform which might have been fatal to the Government of the Revolution. The Scotch union aggravated the evil by increasing the number of sham boroughs and of subservient Members. If the anomalies were not quite so great as they became after the sudden growth of the manufacturing towns in the closing years of the eighteenth century, and in the early years of the nineteenth century, the Parliament was at least much more arbitrary and corrupt. Only a fraction of its Members were elected by considerable and independent constituencies. The enormous expense of the county elections, where the poll might be kept open for forty days, kept these seats almost exclusively in the hands of a few families, while many small boroughs were in the possession of rich noblemen, or were notoriously offered for sale. The Government, by the proprietary rights of the Crown over the Cornish boroughs, by the votes of its numerous excise or revenue officers, by direct purchase, or by bestowing places or peerages on the proprietors, exercised an absolute authority over many seats, and

458

1 On Civil Government, bk.ii.ch.xiii. 2 Tour in England.

Note to Burnet's Own Times, ii.

+ Thus in a debate in 1743,

Chesterfield said: 'Many of our boroughs are now So much the creatures of the Crown that they are generally called Court boroughs, and very properly they are called so.

its means of influencing the assembled Parliament were so great that it is difficult to understand how, in the corrupt moral atmosphere that was prevalent, it was possible to resist it. The legal and ecclesiastical patronage of the Crown was mainly employed in supporting a parliamentary influence. Great sums of secret service money were usually expended in direct bribery, and places and pensions were multiplied to such an extent that it is on record that out of 550 Members there were in the first Parliament of George I. no less than 271, in the first Parliament of George II. no less than 257, holding offices, pensions, or sinecures.1 And the body which was thus constituted was rapidly becoming supreme in the State. The control of the purse was a prerogative which naturally would make it but during the triennial period the frequency of elections made the Members to a great extent subservient to the people who elected, or to the noblemen who nominated them, and gave each Parliament scarcely time to acquire much self-confidence, fixity of purpose, or consistency of organisation. The Septennial Act and the presence of Walpole in the House of Commons during the whole of his long ministry, gradually made that body the undoubted centre of authority. In the reign of Anne it was thought quite natural that Harley and St. John should accept peerages in the very zenith of their careers. In the reign of George II., Walpole only accepted a title in the hour of defeat, and Pulteney, by taking a similar step, gave a death-blow to his political influence.

so;

It is obvious that a body such as this might become in the highest degree dangerous to the liberties it was supposed to protect, and it showed itself in many respects eminently arbi

For our ministers for the time being have always the nomination of their representatives, and make such an arbitrary use of it that they often order them to choose gentlemen whom they never saw, nor heard of, perhaps, till they saw their names on the minister's order for choosing them. This order they always punctually obey, and would, I believe, obey it, were the

person named in it the minister's footman.'-Parl. Hist. xiii. 90.

Sir E. May's Const. Hist. i. 317.

2 Onslow has left on record his opinion that the Septennial Act formed the era of the emancipation of the Commons from its former dependence on the Crown and on the House of Lords.'-Coxe's Life of Walpole, i. 75.

trary and encroaching. The cases of Fenwick and Bernardi were sufficiently alarming instances of the assumption by the Legislature of judicial functions, but in these cases at least all the three branches had concurred. In other cases, however, the lower House acted alone. One of the rights of the subject specially guaranteed by the Bill of Rights was that of petition, but it was not then foreseen that the House of Commons might prove as hostile to it as the King. The case of the Kentish petitioners, however, clearly showed the reality of this danger. In 1701, when a Tory House of Commons, in bitter opposition to the King and to the House of Lords, had impeached Somers, delayed the supplies, and thwarted every attempt to put the country in a state of security, a firm, but perfectly temperate and respectful petition to the House was signed by the grand jury and other freeholders of Kent recalling the great services of William, and imploring the House to turn its loyal addresses into Bills of supply, and to enable the King to assist his allies before it was too late. A more strictly constitutional proceeding could hardly be imagined, but because this petition. reflected on the policy of the majority, the House voted it scandalous, insolent, and seditious, ordered the five gentlemen who presented it into custody, and kept them imprisoned for two months, till they were released by the prorogation. Nor was this all. At the ensuing dissolution Mr. Thomas Colepepper, who had been one of the five, stood for Maidstone, but was defeated by two votes. He petitioned the new House of Commons for the seat, but it at once condemned him as guilty of corruption, and proceeded to show the spirit in which it had tried the case by reviving the question of the Kentish petition, passing a new resolution to the effect that the petitioner had been guilty of scandalous, villanous, and groundless reflections upon the late House of Commons,' directing the Attorney-General to prosecute him for that offence, and commiting him to Newgate, where he remained until he had made a formal apology.1

1 Parl. Hist. vol. v.; Somers, Tracts, xi. 242. Hallam's Const. Hist. vol. iii.

« PreviousContinue »