Bust of John Passmore Edwards

The Autobiography of John Passmore Edwards

In Parliament


I made no other attempt to enter Parliament until 1880, when I was invited to contest Salisbury, and where, after a vigorous fight, I conquered, in company with Mr. W. H. Grenfell, of Taplow Court; and so another cherished aspiration got realised. I found stimulation in the thought that the poor Cornish boy, after many buffetings with fortune, should represent a cathedral city in Parliament
  The satisfaction, however, which accompanied success was tempered by the knowledge that I was selected as candidate in preference to Mr. Thomas Hughes, the author of Tom Brown's Schooldays, who had for some time been before the constituency. Hughes, having served in Parliament for several years, would doubtless have made a more useful member than I could be. One reason I was chosen to contest the seat was that he alienated several shopkeepers by championing, with Maurice, Kingsley, Holyoake, and others, the Co-operative movement, which has since made solid progress, and which, I believe, is destined to improve the character, structure, and aspect of civilisation.
The unique satisfaction derived from success at the polling booth was soon marred by a petition lodged by one of the defeated candidates, in which we, the elected members, were accused of bribery, corruption, and other political crimes. We had, in fact, no sooner tasted the joy of triumph fairly won when the cup was threatened to be dashed from our lips. Knowing that every accusation levelled against us was baseless, we prepared for our defence, and in due time the day of hearing came, with Mr. Justice Hawkins and Mr. Justice Pollock as presiding judges. The petitioners' case was opened with a formidable speech by Mr. Digby Seymour. It soon became evident that the charges against us could not, in a single instance, be sustained. On the second day of hearing Mr. Justice Hawkins asked Mr. Seymour "How many more of such miserable rags of evidence he intended to submit." Mr. Seymour pointed to his big brief and pursued the even tenour of his way. But the court got tired of the business, and on the third day Mr. Justice Hawkins said: "Mr. Seymour, would you like to know what I am thinking?" "Yes, my lord," was the reply. "I was thinking," said the judge, "that this trial is costing more than a guinea a minute, which somebody will have to pay." The word "somebody" was particularly emphasised.
Mr. Seymour, however, declined to accept and act on the significant hint, and the hearing, "like a wounded snake, dragged its slow length along" until the morning of the fourth day, when the petition was dismissed and the petitioner adjudicated to pay all costs on both sides. The hearing might easily have been completed in a third of the time, but, in the interests of counsel, it was irksomely prolonged. Though we, the sitting members, passed unscathed through the ordeal imposed upon us, we had to pay our lawyer's costs to the tune of £500 in addition to the taxed costs paid by our opponent! Lawyers generaly manage to get the best end of the stick, whoever may be hurt by its use.
I did not find the House of Commons such a fruitful field for usefulness as I expected. It appeared to me that as soon as a majority of members got into Parliament they lost much of the zeal they displayed, in the public interest, on the hustings. However inspired and patriotic they may have been when mingling with their constituents, they took things easy in the House and swam serenely with party streams. Here were gathered together hundreds of men-many, if not most, of whom were well informed on some commercial, legal, social, scientific, colonial, or political question-whose chief duty was to wait about to answer the division-bell and record their votes. It mattered little what was said in debate; in nineteen cases out of twenty members voted on party lines in obedience to party discipline. It appeared as if a goodly number were more inclined to use the House for their own advantage or satisfaction than for the public benefit. There were members who would vote away millions of public money, as if it cost no more to produce than Thames water; members who would defiantly waste the precious time of the House by profitless talk; company-promoters on the look-out for opportunities to extend their City connections; lawyers with an eager eye for professional advancement; scions of the hereditary aristocracy more intent on propping up and perpetuating privilege than benefiting mankind; members who fought for their seats, to use them as stepping-stones to get into "society," or to secure recognition or titles of one kind or another. When a member on one occasion was entering the House, I heard another member say: "Here comes one who is crawling to a peerage." Whether he crawled or not I cannot say, but a few years after he was made "a peer of the realm." The House of Commons is a rich hunting-ground for title-hunters. If the curtain could be lifted so that light might be thrown on the motives and the means used by many to get titles, both the wearers and the things worn would command only insignificant respect. Nevertheless, the House of Commons always contains many able and high-minded men, and might be made the mightiest instrument of general good in the land, if not in the world. It carries with it a measureless capacity for useful-ness, and when all are equally represented by "fit and proper persons," that influence will be greatly increased. As a rule, rich and titled men can no more fitly represent working men than working men can fitly represent the rich and titled. There were only two working-men representatives in the Parliament of 1880-85. What were two among so many? There ought, at least, to have been two hundred such representatives; and, if so, the nation, I believe, would soon be more contented, stronger, and happier
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April 18, 2005
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© Dean Evans 2003