Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 10 - The House of Commons and the Early-Closing Movement

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WHEN is common sense to reign over man? According to Dr. Cumming, in a few years we are to have the Millennium. Will it be then? I fear not. At any rate, I am certain it will not be before.
    Look, for instance, at the House of Commons: the Lords meet for debate a little after five, p.m., and separate generally a little before six, p.m., and it is perfectly astonishing what an immense amount of business they get through; but the Commons meet at four, p.m., and sit till one or two, a.m.; the consequence is, that very little business is done: that we have a great deal too much talking; that really conscientious members, who will not forsake their duties, but remain at their posts, are knocked up, and have to cut Parliament for a time; and that what business is done is often performed in the most slovenly and unsatisfactory manner. A few minutes' reflection will make this clear. A bill is introduced, or, rather, leave is given to a member to bring [-102-] it in. It is read a first time. To the first reading of a bill generally little opposition is made. The member who introduces it makes a long speech in its favour) and little discussion takes place. The real fight is when it is read a second time. There are many ways of throwing out a bill without the discourtesy of a positive rejection. The first of these means consists in giving a preference to other "orders ;" the second is, moving "the previous question." Another is, moving "that the second reading take place this day six months." If the bill get over the second reading, it then goes into committee, when objectionable clauses are struck out and fresh ones added, till the original proposer of the bill can hardly recognise his offspring. The bill is then read a third time, and afterwards sent up to the Lords. Possibly the Lords object to some parts of it; a conference with the Commons is then desired, which accordingly takes place, the deputation of the Commons standing with uncovered heads, while the Lords, with hats on, retain their seats. The matter being amicably arranged, and a disagreeable collision avoided, the bill is passed through the Lords, where it usually creates a far more orderly and less passionate debate than it has done in the Commons. The Lords being assembled in their own House, the Sovereign, or the Commissioners, seated, and the Commons at the bar, the titles of the several hills which have passed both Houses are read, and the King or Queen's answer is declared by the clerk of the Parliaments in Norman-[-103-] French. To a bill of supply the assent is given in the following words :-" Le roy (or, la reine) remercie ses loyal subjects, accepte leur bénévolence et ainsi le veut." To a private bill it is thus declared :-" Soit fail comme il est desire." And to public general bills it is given in these terms :-"Le roy (or, la reine) le veut. Should the Sovereign refuse his assent, it is in the gentle language of "Le roy (or, la reine) s'aviser." As acts of grace and amnesty originate with the Crown, the clerk, expressing the gratitude of the subject, addresses the throne as follows:- "Les prélats, seigneurs, el commons, en ce present Parliament assemblés, au nom de tout vous autres subjects, remercient très-humblement votre majesté et prieut a Dieu vous donner en santé bonne vie et longue." The moment the royal assent has been given, that which was a bill becomes an Act, and instantly has the force and effect of law, unless some time for the commencement of its operation should have been specially appointed. Occasionally a bill is introduced in the form of a motion, at other times as a resolution, but generally the bill is the favourite form. Any bill which the Lords can originate may be introduced and laid on the table by any individual peer, without the previous permission of the house; but in the Commons, no bill can be brought in unless a motion for leave be previously agreed to. Mr. Dodd tells us, "During the progress of a bill the House may divide on the following questions :-1. Leave to bring it in. 2. When brought in, whether it shall then be read a first time, and if not, when? 3. On [-104-] the first reading.. 4. On the second reading. 5. That it be committed. 6. On the question that the Speaker do leave the chair, for the house to resolve itself into such committee. 7. That the report of the committee be received. 8. That the bill here-committed. 9. That it be engrossed. 10. That it he read a third time. 11. That it do pass. 12. The title of the bill. These are quite exclusive of any divisions concerning the particular days to be appointed for proceeding with any stage of the measure, or of any proceedings in committee, or any amendments, or any clauses added to or expunged from the measure in or out of committee. Thus it is Acts of Parliament often made in one sense are ruled by the judges to have another, and we have Acts to amend Acts in endless succession. Tom Moore tells us of an Act of Parliament referring to a new prison, in which it was stated that the new one should be built with the materials of the old, and that the prisoners were to remain in the old prison till the new one was ready. This is au extreme case, but blunders equally absurd are made every day.
    What is the remedy? Why, none other than the panacea recommended by Mr. Lilwall as applicable to every earthly ill - the Early-closing Movement. Early closing in the House of Commons would shut up the lawyers, who want to make long speeches - the diners- out, who enter the House ofttimes in a state of hilarity more calculated to heighten confusion than to promote business - the young swells, to whom the House of Com-[105-]mons is a club, and nothing more. We should have a smaller house, but one more ready to do business; and if we should lose a few lawyers on promotion, and, consequently, very industrious, very active, and very eloquent, that loss would be compensated by the addition to the House of many men of great talent and political capacity, who cannot stand the late hours and the heated atmosphere, and the frightfully lengthy speeches, and the furious partisanship of the House as at present constituted.
    I have seen it suggested that a large board should be placed behind the Speaker's chair; and that when any member makes a point, or advances an argument, the point or argument, whether for or against the measure, should be noted down and numbered; that a speaker, instead of repeating the point or argument, as is now the case, should simply mention the No. 1, 2, or 3, as the case may be, and say, "I vote for the bill because of No. 1," and so on. We should then have no vain repetitions; business would be done better, and more speedily; members would not be confused; the reporters would not have so much trouble as now; and the patient public would be spared the infliction in their daily organs of column after column of parliamentary debate. The advantage of the Early-closing Movement in the House of Commons would be, that it would compel the House to adopt some measure of the kind. It is curious to trace the increase of late hours. In Clarendon's time "the House met always at eight o'clock and rose at [-106-] twelve, which were the old parliamentary hours, that the committees, upon whom the great burden of the business lay, might have the afternoon for their preparation and despatch. Sometimes the House seems to have met at cock-crowing. In the journals and old orders of the House we find such entries as the following :-" March 26, 1604. Having obtained permission of her Majesty to attend at eight, the Commons previously met at six to treat on what shall be delivered tending the reason of their proceedings." Again, "May 31, 1614. Ordered, that the House shall sit every day at seven o'clock in the morning, and to begin to read bills for the first time at ten." The journals record that on Sunday, August 8, 1641, at six o'clock a.m., the Commons go down to St. Margaret's, and hear prayers and a sermon, returning to the House at nine. This, however, was occasioned by the eagerness of the members to prevent the king's journey to Scotland, and a minute was made that it should not be considered as a precedent. The Long Parliament resolved, "that whosoever shall not be here at prayers every morning at eight o'clock shall pay one shilling to the poor." James I. mentioned as an especial grievance, that the Commons brought the protestation concerning their liberties into the House at six o'clock at night, by candle-light! "I move," said Serjeant Wylde, "against sitting in the afternoon. This council is a grave council and sober, and ought not to do things in the dark." Sir A. Haselrigge said he never knew good come of candles. Sir William Waddington [-107-] brought in two from the clerk against the direction of the House, and was committed to the Tower next morning. Having sat on the occasion till seven, Sir H. Vane complained. "We are not able to hold out sitting thus in the night." After the Revolution matters got worse. Bishop Burnet complains that the House did not meet till twelve; and in the next generation Speaker Onslow adds, "This is grown shamefully of late, even to two of the clock." In the time of Pitt and Fox the evil reached its climax. The motion for the Speaker leaving the chair on Fox's India Bill was put to the vote at half-past four in the morning. During the Westminster scrutiny the House sometimes sat till six a.m. Pitt, speaking on the slave-trade, introduced his beautiful quotation relative to the sun as it was then just bursting on his audience. Sir Samuel Romilly tells us that he would not unfrequently go to bed at his usual time, and rising next morning somewhat earlier than usual would go down to be present at the division. I think it was during the Reform debates that an hon. M.P., having been present at the discussion the previous night, and being desirous to secure a good place the next evening, went down to the House early in the morning for that special purpose, and found the debate, at the commencement of which he had been present, and which he thought had long been over, proceeding hotly and furiously. In the last session of parliament time house sinned greatly in this respect. I am told this state of things is for the advantage of the lawyers, who otherwise would not be [-108-] able to attend in the House at all; but it may be questioned whether this is such a benefit as some suppose, and certainly the midnight hour, especially after mind and body have alike been jaded by the strain of a long debate, is not the best for passing measures of a legislative character; and yet it is in the small hours, when members are weary, or, we fear, in some cases slightly vinous, or indifferent and apathetic, that most of the real business of the nation is performed. Now against this bad habit for many years Mr. Brotherton waged an incessant but unsuccessful war. As soon as ever midnight arrived the hon. gentleman was on his legs, warning honourable members of its arrival, and of the injury which hate hours must necessarily occasion to their own health, and to the satisfactory progress of public business. In his attempts Mr. Brotherton then was aiming as much at the good of the nation as well as the advantage of the members of the House. Many were the scenes occasioned by Mr. Brotherton's importunity. Mr. Grant says, "I have seen one look him most imploringly in the face, and heard him say, in tones and with a manner as coaxing as if the party had been wooing his mistress, 'Do not just yet, Mr. Brother- ton; wait one half hour until this business be disposed of.' I have seen a second seize him by the right arm, while a third grasped him by the left, with the view of causing him to resume his seat, and when his sense of duty overcame all these efforts to seduce or force him from its path, I have seen a fourth honourable gentle-[109-]man rush to the assistance of the others, and taking hold of the tail of his coat, literally press him to his seat. I have seen Mr. Brotherton, with a perseverance beyond all praise, in his righteous and most patriotic cause, suddenly start again to his feet in less than five minutes, and move a second time the adjournment of the House, and I have again had the misfortune to see physical force triumph over the best moral purposes. Five or six times have I witnessed time repetition of this in one night. On one occasion, I remember seeing an honourable member actually clap his hand on Mr. Brotherton's mouth, in order to prevent his moving the dreaded adjournment." Constant ill-success damped Mr. Brothertou's ardour. There was a time when his object seemed attained, but in the last session he attended the Commons were as bad as ever. Mr. Brother- ton having made a futile attempt when the session was young, in favour of the Early-closing Movement, abandoned his position in despair. The call for Brotherton ceased to be a watchword with our less hopeful senators, and Mr. Bouverie's view, that more business was got through after twelve o'clock at night than before, appeared to be generally acquiesced in, with a species of reluctant despair which was unanswerable. Still it is true that early to bed and early to rise will make the Commons more healthy and wise, though the general practice seems to be the other way.

source: J. Ewing Ritchie, Aboutf London, 1860