15 MAY 1880, Page 7

THE BRADLAUGH CASE. T HE division of the Committee on Mr.

Bradlaugh's case takes the public to some extent by surprise. If we are not misinformed, the division was a strictly party division, except that one Member, a strong Liberal,—voted against the- right of Mr. Bradlaugh to make an affirmation, on purely legal grounds. The difficulty we suppose to be this. Quakers and others are permitted to dispense with the oath in favour- of an affirmation, on the ground that they feel a genuine religious, or conscientious scruple to taking an oath. Mr. Bradlaugh,. whatever his scruple may be, can hardly call it religious or conscientious. To him, we suppose, the form of an oath means nothing but idle words, and it is therefore held by some lawyers that it is hardly competent to him to avail himself of an exemption provided only for those who have a -conscientious scruple against oaths. Nevertheless, the very fact that Mr. Bradlaugh regards the oath as an idle' form, wholly without meaning in his eyes, is undoubtedly a strong reason why, if possible' he should be absolved from taking it. If the oath is to be taken by those who attach no solemnity to it whatever, it will soon lose all the title to respect which it still has. And if it loses all title to respect, it would be much better to dispense with it alto- gether. On the whole, no sincere man can help regarding it as a desirable thing to allow all persons who really attach leas meaning to an oath than to a solemn affirmation, to sub- stitute the solemn affirmation for the oath, for if to some peopie the oath is objectionable because it means too much, it ought to seem objectionable to us all in cases where the utterance of it would make it mean too little, or rather, make it meaning- less altogether. It will be seen, therefore, that we earnestly desire to see Mr. Bradlaugh exempted from the oath, either,— if this can be properly and legally effected,—by the decision of the House of Commons itself ; or, if either legally or in propriety there be a serious difficulty, by the passing of a short enabling statute, which would bring Mr. Bradlaugh's case within the exemption already extended to those who entertain religions scruples concerning the oath. But though we earnestly hope that either in the one way or in the other Mr. Bradlaugh will be exempted from the oath, we are entirely opposed to the course of making the decision of the legal issue now raised, in any way a matter for party debate or party division. If it be true that one very strong Liberal on the Committee voted against admitting Mr. Brad- laugh to an affirmation, solely on the ground that he did not believe Mr. Bradlaugh's admission to be fairly within the legal scope of either the Act allowing Quakers to substitute an affirma- tion for an oath, or the Act substituting an affirmation for an oath in the case of a witness who objects to the oath in the ordinary Courts of law, he did himself credit by entirely subordinating his view as a politician to his view as a lawyer. This, clearly, is not in any way a case for political controversy. So long as there is a real legal doubt in the matter, there should be no attempt to use a party majority to resolve it. Nor do we think that the difficulty of Mr. Bradlaugh's case ought to be resolved by the House of Commons without an Act of Parliament, unless the decided opinion of the Conservative no less than of the Liberal lawyers in the House, inclines to the view that such a course is strictly legal. Nothing can be less justifiable than to strain constitutional law or Parliamentary precedent in the interest of any party. Nor, indeed, to tell the truth, can we see any party which has an interest in one decision of the difficulty more than another. The whole House of Commons has an interest in saving time. The whole House also has an interest in preserving the respect in which its forma are held. The whole House, too, has an interest in preventing the most solemn forms of speech from losing their authority and their binding power. But no party in the House has more interest in any one of these objects than any other party. If the Conservatives have seemed to be more inclined to put diffi- culties in the way of Mr. Bradlaugh's formal admission to the House of Commons than the Liberals, the reason of that is obvious. Mr. Bradlaugh is a Liberal, and the Conservatives think that his fortunately very peculiar views may bring dis- credit on the Liberals, if they can only manage to identify Mr.

Bradlaugh prominently in the public mind with the Liberal cause. But the Conservatives are not so silly as to wish to keep Mr. Bradlaugh, by any legal pretext, out of the seat to which Northampton has elected him. They know perfectly well, in the first place, that such a policy would not be popular, and in the next, that it would make Mr. Bradlaugh himself more popular than he need be, at their expense. Their object, therefore, would not be gained in the least by barring the way against Mr. Bradlaugh, though it would be gained by eliciting from Liberal Members a party defence of Mr. Bradlaugh. If the Liberals are wise, they will avoid that snare. For the sake of Parliament, for the sake of Liberalism, for the sake still more of Conservatism, they will endeavour to prevent the misfortune of any needless mockery of the solemnity of an oath ; and therefore they will, either under the present law, if they fairly can, or under the authority of a new statute, if that is needful, remove the temptation now offered to Mr. Bradlaugh to take unreal and unmeaning words into his mouth, which will have a tendency to lower the authority of the most solemn declarations, yet they will not be so unwise as to attempt to get over a legal difficulty by the use of any but the most appropriate legal means. If a majority of the Conserva- tive lawyers and a majority of the Conservative authorities on questions of precedent and form agree, in the end, with a majority of the Liberal lawyers, and a majority of the Liberal authorities on questions of form, then, no doubt, the difficulty may well be settled without a new statute. But if this be not so, there should be no attempt to "use the majority "in determining what the present law really is. It would be quite fair to use it, —if that were needful, which we do not really believe, for Con- servatives and Liberals will heartily agree in their policy,—to alter a law likely to bring Parliamentary oaths into contempt. But it would not be fair to use it in the sense of determining by a vote what the present law really is. If there be any prevalence of serious doubt on that point, on either side of the House, the right thing to do is to legislate, not to resolve by a party majority what interpretation shall be put on existing statutes and standing orders.

We have seen without surprise, though with some re- gret, the malicious pleasure of the Conservative party in identifying the Liberals of the House of Commons with Mr. Bradlaugh's too notorious opinions. There is, of course, no natural connection between Mr. Bradlaugh's Liberalism and those opinions. There have been as many philosophical Atheists, and quite as many apologists for what we regard as highly immoral remedies for physical evils, among Tories, as among Liberals. But the Liberals will best avoid the mud which the Tories seem so anxious to fling at them by sincerely doing their best, first, to entire fair-play in the House of Commons for all men, whatever their opinions, who are duly elected ; and next, by refusing to avail themselves of their party strength in the interpretation of statutes and rules which ought to signify the same thing, to all clear in- tellects, or if they do not, which evidently want mending till they do.