THE GREENWICH SEAT.
[To THE EDITOR OP THE "SPECTATOR.']
SIR,—Will you allow me a word on this question, on which, with much respect, I cannot assent to your views ?
It rests entirely with Mr. Gladstone—alta mute repostum —to decide if there shall be a new election or not for Greenwich before Parliament assembles. Till then he has the power, if he chooses to exercise it, of occupying the newspapers with the question, and keeping Greenwich in a fever of uncertainty. The Act of Parlia- ment 21 and 22 Vic., c. 119 (1858), which empowers the Speaker to issue a new writ during the recess of Parliament for a seat vacated by acceptance of office, imposes on him the condition of first receiving a certificate of acceptance of the office from the member. Mr. Gladstone, advised, it is to be hoped, by better authority than the law advisers of the Telegraph (but exception may be taken on the ground of official bias to the law officers of the Crown), will probably continue not to send in the certificate. What will happen, then, when Parliament meets ? A strange idea has got abroad, and has been sanctioned by the high authority of the Spectator, that the Speaker, as interpreter of the privileges of the House of Commons in matters of election, will decide the question. I know of no Act which has conferred this power on the Speaker, and of no precedent for his exercise of such a function. There exists a Committee of Privileges, annually appointed, composed of all the gentlemen of the Long Robe in the House of Commons ; but this machine is virtually obsolete, and the fact of its including every lawyer in the House impairs its re- sponsibility and authority, and makes it easy of manipulation by a crafty and determined Government. A Select Committee has been the usual medium of decision. In the long vacation of 1838, Mr. Whittle Harvey, Member for Southwark, was appointed by Lord John Russell, Secretary of State for the Home Department, to the newly created office of Registrar of Hackney Carriages. There was then no power in the Speaker to issue a new writ during the vacation. But the accepting member misled him- self into a notion that his seat was not vacated, because he received his appointment, not from the Crown, but from a Secretary of State, and he proclaimed that he would not give up his seat. A Select Committee was appointed when Parliament assembled in 1839, and decided that the seat was vacated. Soon after Mr. Whittle Harvey's question, another was raised as to whether Mr. Charles Williams Wynn had or had not accepted the office of Steward of Denbigh before the general election of 1837 ; if not
before, he would require to seek re - election. A Select Committee was appointed, and decided that Mr. Wynn had accepted before the general election. When a Prime Minister, advised, as must be, by his law officers, proclaims a doubt as to the obligation of re-election, it may seem presumptuous to represent the matter as indubitable. But our Prime Minister has a mind somewhat over-given to sublety and refinement, and his con- scientiousness is saved by his wonderful power of convincing his conscience. Law officers' opinions depend on the cases put before them. The taking no salary as Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was probably once thought of, would not have availed to prevent a new election, for in Mr. Whittle Harvey's case, when he found that the question of his seat was to be raised against him, be bethought himself of taking no salary and declaring he would never take any ; but hoc non obstante, the Committee decided that his seat was vacated by the acceptance of an office of profit under the Crown. Money, it is to be believed, is not Mr. Gladstone's object, and he would doubtless have preferred to ride off in safety from defeat with the plea of unprofitable office. Bat if to decline additional salary was not to serve him in good stead, what better precedent for an additional salary than Sir Robert Peel's proceeding in 1834, on the recommendation of a Parliamentary Committee ? Excellent precedent for the propriety of two salaries, but none for evading the judgment of constituents. Sir Robert Peel went to Tamworth for re-election after having accepted the two offices of Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer with £7,500 a year. Mr. Gladstone was re-elected on the opening of -this Parliament, holding only one office, with £5,000 a year. But then it is said that the spirit of an Act of Parliament which, with great precision of language, makes re-election unnecessary when one of a number of specified offices is substituted for another, permits the addition of any one of these to any other without necessity of re-election. But if one may be added, why not a second and a
third ; why may not the Prime Minister, unable to satisfy himself as to any one else's management, absorb every department of the Government? There may surely be reason and intention in the words of a statute, singularly clear and precise, which makes an obstacle to accumulation of offices of profit. Intention can only be judged by words, and what more clear than the words, "acceptance in lieu of, and in immediate succession, the one to the other " ?
It may be said that no inconvenience can follow from Mr. Gladstone's deferring a decision of the question till Parliament meets. But should the decision be against him, as ought to be inevitable, there will be this inconvenience, which constitutionally is important, that the Prime Minister must be absent from the House of Commons and public business be impeded for several days after Parliament has met for business. There will further be the unseemly spectacle, which should be avoided, of a Prime Minister trying apparently to quibble away an act of Parliament, and shirk an appeal to his constituents.—I am, Sir, &c., LEx.
[Our correspondent is mistaken as to the function of the Speaker in this matter. It does lie with him, under the Act 21 and 22 Victoria, c. 110 (not 119), provisionally to decide whether the acceptance of any particular office by a Member of the House of Commons vacates the seat or not ; and if he is doubtful, he is compelled to reserve it for the judgment of the House, (see Clause III.) We made a mistake undoubtedly in speaking of the Speaker as "the only authoritative interpreter, unless the House overrules his decision, of the meaning of an Act of Parlia- ment relating to its own privileges," because that gives the Speaker (provisionally) a final authority,—which he has not, unless he is confident that the acceptance of the office does vacate the seat,—and it also puts the matter too generally. If the Speaker is doubtful, the House must decide. But it is perfectly true in this case that the Speaker decides whether or not he ought to reserve the question for the House, and that the House decides the matter only if he does.—En. Spectator.]