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The constitution, now healthy and fourishing, might be alarmingly attacked, and thence fall to cureless ruin.
Mr. Pitt coincided with Mr. WINDHAM in most of his arguments, and declared, “ that were the motion before them the precise proposition he himself had formerly offered, he should now vote against it, from a conviction of its actual impropriety."
Mr. Fox saw no reason why we should be struck with a panic on account of the situation of affairs in France; and in allusion to Mr. WINDHAM's metaphorical argument, he affirmed, “ that no season could be more proper to begin a repair, than when a hurricane was near, and ready to burst forth."
After some farther debate, Mr. Flood consented to withdraw his proposition.
In the beginning of the year 1793 several petitions were presented to the house of commons, pointing out abuses or defects in the parliamentary system of representation, and praying for some effectual mode of reform. But the most masterly of those petitions came from an association which had been lately instituted under the title of “ the Friends of the People,” and was presented by Mr. Grey. It stated with great propriety and distinctness, the defects which at present exist in the representation of the people in Parliament. It took notice of the division of the representation, or the proportions in which the different counties contribute to the total number of the representatives, shewing, under that head, the absurd disproportion which takes place in a variety of instances, in so much that the county of Cornwall alone sends more members to Parliament, than the counties of York, Rutland, and Middlesex, put together, &c. It proceeded to take notice of the distribution of the elective franchise, or the proportional number, by which the different representatives are elected ; stating under that head, that a majority of the whole house of commons is elected by less than 15,000 persons, or in other words, by the two hundredth part of the people to be represented, supposing that they consist only of three millions of adults, &c. It went on to take notice of the right of voting, or the various restrictions and limitations, under which the privilege of a vote for the choice of a representative is bestowed, stating the great evils and inequalities that prevail in that respect. It afterwards took notice of the qualifications to be possessed by candidates, and those elected ; and then considered the evils arising from the length of the duration of Parliaments. It went on then to detail the model in which elections are conducted and decided; and under that head, shewing the evils arising from the length of time, to which polls are protracted; from the influence of corporations by the powers entrusted to returning officers ; and from the appeal to the house of commons under the operations of the acts 10th, 11th, 25th, and 28th of GEORGE III., as far as the same relate to the expense and delay. The petition proceeded to take notice of the mischief resulting from the defects and abuses which it had previously pointed out, particularly by the system of private patronage, and the influence possessed by peers and wealthy commoners in the nomination of what are called the representatives of the people, shewing, under this head, that, by the patronage and influence of seventy-one Peers and ninety-one Commoners, the return of no fewer than three hundred and six members of that house was procured, which considerably exceeded a majority of the house. The petition dwelt at considerable length upon all the points already mentioned, and detailed a variety of other abuses, all which the petitioners offered to substantiate by proof, and it concluded by stating the great necessity there was for the application of an immediate remedy, and the high importance of such a measure ; and prayed the house to take the matter into their serious considera
tion, and to apply such remedy and redress to the evils complained of as should appear proper.
After the petition had been read, Mr. Burke expressed his wish to know from whence the petition came which had just been read, as the place of residence of the petitioners was not mentioned. The names of the petitioners was then read by the clerk: after which
Mr. GREY rose and said, “ It was certainly not uncommon that petitions should be presented to that house from persons not describing their place of abode, or assuming any other description than that of the persons whose names were subscribed to the petition : if however it would afford any satisfaction to the Right Honorable Gentleman (Mr. BURKE] he had no objection whatever to state, that all the subscribers reside, either in London, or near it, and that the petition had been drawn up and signed there. On the very important subject which it respected, he was apt to believe, that whatever opinions gentlemen might entertain, either with respect to a reform in the representation of the people, or as to the time which might be thought proper for bringing it about, it must be considered by all parties as a matter of much importance to have laid before them such an accurate, full, and precise detail of all the facts connected with the subject, by those who are ready and able to prove the facts which they have asserted in their petition: it would also have the effect to shorten very much what he would have to say, and to render it unnecessary for him to trouble the house at any great length. He was aware of the difficulties he had to encounter: in bringing forward this business he was aware how ungracious it would be for that house to shew, that they are not the real representations of the people: he was aware that the question had been formerly agitated on different occasions by great and able characters who have deserted the cause from despair of success; and he was aware that he must neces
sarily go into what may perhaps be supposed trite and worn out arguments. From recent circumstances, which had occurred since he last brought the subject before the house, he had an additional claim to candor from the extent to which the prejudices against all reform and innovation had been thereby encreased. It was by no means his intention to go into any of the transactions of the period when he made his original motion on the subject, or to carry any idea along with him of what might possibly lead to personal resentment. He came forward on the present occasion, actuated solely by a sense of duty, to make a serious and important motion, which he was ready fairly to admit involved no less a consideration than a fundamental change in the government. He felt in the strongest manner how very formidable an adversary he had to encounter in the Right Honorable Gentleman opposite to him [Mr. Pitt)—formidable from his talents; formidable
; from the influence of his situation ; but still more formidable from having been once friendly to the cause of reform, and becoming its determined opponent, drawing off others from its standard. With that Right Honorable Gentleman he would never condescend to bargain, nor should he endeavour to conciliate his favor by any mode of compliment: he had never disguised the objections he had to the way in which he had come into power, and to the whole system of his government since. In the course of the last discussion on the present subject, the Right Honorable Gentleman seemed to knit something of general objections to reform ; but he well knew that the chief difficulty to be encountered would be the argument as to the danger of the times. This indeed is a never-failing argument, equally in times of prosperity and adversity, in times of war and of peace. If our situation happens to be prosperous, it is then asked, whether we can be more than happy, or more than free? In the season of adversity, on the other hand, all reform or innovation is deprecated from the pretended risk of encreasing the evil and pressure of our situation. From all this it would appear that the time for reform never yet had come, and never would come. By arguments such as these had reform been hitherto combated; and by the like he believed it ever would be attacked, until some dreadful convulsion should take place, which might threaten even the constitution itself with annihilation. Many had been the unsuccessful attempts to bring about a reform. At different times the great question of reform has been brought forward, but a proper time has never yet been found for it.
In 1733, a motion was made in that house by Mr. BROMLEY for a repeal of the septennial act, and that motion was seconded in a very able speech by Sir William WYNDHAM. At that time the proposition was met, and successfully resisted, upon the pretence of danger arising from Papists and Jacobites plotting against the state and the constitution. In 1745, another attempt was made; and that was the only occasion on which the pretence of danger was not made use of, although the country was then in a state of war, and disturbance; but the success of the attempt was just the same as of the former one. Again, he said, the business came to be agitated in the year 1758: then also the motion was rejected. The Right Honorable Gentleman [Mr. Pitt]had himself brought forward the subject three different times in 1782, in 1783, and lastly in 1785, when he was minister. The same objection with respect to the time was then made, and combated by the Right - Honorable Gentleman strongly and powerfully in argument, but without effect; and he had no doubt it would continue to be made successfully till the people resolve for themselves that there shall be a proper time. But while we are for ever met by this argument against any enlargement of popular rights, the encroachments of prerogative are overlooked, and no danger is apprehended from the passing an alien bill, a traitorous correspondence bill, &c. .