The 1832 Act had extended the franchise some distance into the middle classes, and the legislation before the House represented the first attempt to confer the vote on the more "respectable" elements of the working class. The 1866 Bill was destined to fail, but another Reform Bill would be enacted the following year under the Conservatives, becoming the 1867 Reform Act.
The Bill's opponents alleged that it was the brainchild of John Bright, the radical MP for Birmingham, and that it would turn Britain into an American-style democracy. Gladstone didn't buy this. The reform was a moderate one, and in some respects a restoration of an older order, since a certain number of working men had had the vote under the eccentric pre-1832 system:
[W]e now know that a Bill which in a country with five millions of adult males proposes to add to its present limited constituency 200,000 of the middle class, and 200,000 of the working class is, in the judgment of the leader of the Tory party, a Bill to re-construct the Constitution on American principles....
But now I have to grapple with the principal argument, if such it be, of my right hon. Friend the Member for Calne, and to confront all the dismal pictures he draws of the destruction of the British Constitution. My answer is, that it is not going to be destroyed. We are not going to import American principles. It is not an American principle to reduce the borough franchise. It is a return to old English principles—it is a restoration of the state and course of things that subsisted before, and ought to subsist again, What has happened since 1832?... The working people have been having a less and less share in the representation. They had a considerable representation before 1832, through the scot-and-lot voters and the freemen. I am not going to say anything either for or against the freemen; but through them the working class had their voice in the representation. They are gradually dying out.Gladstone was not advocating universal suffrage, but rather "[t]he extension of the franchise within safe and proper limits". This, he said, would "array more persons in support of the institutions of the country". He believed that the burden of proof was on the anti-reformers to prove that working men were not entitled to the vote. After all, the people whom it was proposed to enfranchise were not dangerous subversives but rather fellow citizens:
When I heard it stated by a Gentleman of ability that to touch the question of enfranchising any portion of the working class was domestic revolution, I thought it time to remind him that the performance of the duties of citizenship does give some presumption of the capacity for civil rights, and that the burden of proof, that exclusion from such rights is warrantable or wise or (as it may be) necessary, lies upon those who exclude.... On the same grounds, when I heard my right hon. Friend describing these working men... as an invading army, and as something more, as an invading ambush, as a band of enemies, which was to bring ruin and conflagration as the purpose of its mission, into a city all fore-doomed... I thought it was time to fall back upon elementary truths... and to say, these men whom you are denouncing, not by argument and reason, but beyond the bounds of all argument and reason, are your own flesh and blood.Gladstone didn't buy the claim that working men were unfit for the franchise:
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Calne... said that we know nothing of those 204,000 persons, whom it is proposed to enfranchise in boroughs.... What, Sir, do we know nothing of those 204,000? Does my right hon. Friend know nothing of them? We were taught to think he knew a good deal about them. We have not yet wholly forgotten his own significant words so loudly cheered: "we know what sort of men live in these houses."... Nor was this all. Who were those Hyperboreans of the speech of my right hon. Friend? And what was the wind that got colder as the traveller went further north? Was not the comparison this — that as on the earth's surface the cold increases as we move in that direction, so in the downward figures of the franchise the voters became progressively more drunken, or more venal, or, to refrain from recalling those words, I would say simply more and more unfit? Now, Sir, we too know something of those men, but what we know is very different from the supposed knowledge of my right hon. Friend.The electorate in the borough constituencies, Gladstone argued, had been growing more slowly than the general population, and the working classes were not adequately represented in the House. As a result, MPs tended to favour upper- and middle-class interests rather than the interests of the country as a whole. This was not to say that working men should be represented in proportion to their numbers, but the current disproportion was too great, and in any event "they are not represented in proportion to their intelligence, their virtue, or their loyalty". Gladstone had been particularly impressed at the conduct of the Lancashire workers. Their economic interests had been imperilled by the recent American Civil War (1861-1865) and the victorious Union cause, but they had laid aside their self-interest to support the North:
My hon. Friend says we know nothing about the labouring classes. Is not one single word a sufficient reply? That word is Lancashire; Lancashire, associated with the sufferings of the last four years, so painful and bitter in themselves to contemplate, but so nobly and gloriously borne? The qualities then exhibited were the qualities not of select men here and there among a depraved multitude, but of the mass of a working community. The sufferings were sufferings of the mass. The heroism was heroism of the mass. For my own part, I cannot believe that the men who exhibited those qualities were only a sample of the people of England, and that the rest would have wholly failed in exhibiting the same great qualities had occasion arisen. I cannot see what argument could be found for some wise and temperate experiment of the extension of civil rights among such people, if the experience of the past few years does not sufficiently afford it.In more general terms, the working classes were becoming steadily more respectable and reliable:
[L]et us for a moment consider the enormous and silent changes which have been going forward among the labouring population.... Let us try and raise our views above the fears, the suspicions, the jealousies, the reproaches, and the recriminations of this place and this occasion. Let us look onward to the time of our children and of our children's children. Let us know what preparation it behoves us should be made for that coming time. Is there or is there not, I ask, a steady movement of the labouring classes, and is or is not that movement a movement onwards, and upwards? I do not say that it falls beneath the eye, for, like all great processes, it is unobservable in detail, but as solid and undeniable as it is resistless in its essential character. It is like those movements of the crust of the earth which science tells us are even now going on in certain portions of the globe. The sailor courses over them in his vessel, and the traveller by land treads them without being conscious of these changes; but from day to day, from hour to hour, the heaving forces are at work, and after a season we discern from actual experience that things are not as they were.Gladstone also spoke a little about his personal political history, characteristically interjecting Latin tags as he did so. He referred to the fact that he had started his career as a Tory:
My position then, Sir, in regard to the Liberal party is in all points the opposite of Earl Russell's.... I am too well aware of the relations which subsist between the party and myself. I have none of the claims he possesses. I came among you an outcast from those with whom I associated, driven from them, I admit, by no arbitrary act, but by the slow and resistless forces of conviction. I came among you, to make use of the legal phraseology, in pauperis formâ. I had nothing to offer you but faithful and honourable service. You received me, as Dido received the shipwrecked Aeneas— Ejectum litore egentem Excepi — And I only trust you may not hereafter at any time have to complete the sentence in regard to me— Et regni demens in parte locavi. You received me with kindness, indulgence, generosity, and I may even say with some measure of confidence. And the relation between us has assumed such a form that you never can be my debtors, but that I must for ever be in your debt.Gladstone had no time for the prophecies of ruin that were being put forward by the anti-reformers:
My right hon. Friend the Member for Calne has prophesied to us, in the most emphatic terms, the ruin of the British Constitution. His prophecies were beautiful so far as his masterly use of the English language is concerned. But many prophecies quite as good may be found in the pages of Mr. Burke and Mr. Canning, and other almost equally distinguished men. What has been the fate of those prophecies? What use do they now serve? They form admirable material of declamations for schoolboys, and capital exercises to be translated into Greek. The prophecies of my right hon. Friend, like those of even greater men than he, may some thirty years hence serve a similar purpose. They may, for the beauty and force of their language, be selected by teachers at colleges and schools as exercises for their pupils, and my right hon. Friend will have his reward, as others have had theirs, Ut pueris placeas et declamatio fias.In his peroration, he argued, like the reformers of 1832, that reform was not merely desirable - it was inevitable. The Tories were fighting against the tide of history.
I would ask [the Opposition], "Will you not consider, before you embark in this new crusade, whether the results of those other crusades in which you have heretofore engaged have been so satisfactory to you as to encourage you to repeat the operation?" Great battles you have fought, and fought them manfully. The battle of maintaining civil disabilities on account of religious belief, the battle of resisting the first Reform Act, the obstinate and long-continued battle of Protection, all these great battles have been fought by the great party that I see opposite....
But I ask, again, have their results — have their results towards yourselves — been such as that you should be disposed to renew struggles such as these? Certainly those who compose the Liberal party here, at least in that capacity have no reason or title to find fault. The effect of your course has been to give them for five out of every six, or for six out of every seven years since the epoch of the Reform Act the conduct and management of public affairs. The effect has been to lower, to reduce, and contract your just influence in the country, and to abridge your legitimate share in the administration of the Government. It is good for the public interest that you should be strong; but if you are to be strong, you can only be so by showing, in addition to the kindness and the personal generosity which I am sure you feel towards the people, a public, a political trust and confidence in them....
Perhaps the great division of to-night is not the last that must take place in the struggle. At some point of the contest you may possibly succeed. You may drive us from our seats. You may bury the Bill that we have introduced, but we will write upon its gravestone for an epitaph this line, with certain confidence in its fulfilment — Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor. You cannot fight against the future. Time is on our side. The great social forces which move onwards in their might and majesty, and which the tumult of our debates does not for a moment impede or disturb — those great social forces are against you; they are marshalled on our side; and the banner which we now carry in this fight, though perhaps at some moment it may droop over our sinking heads, yet it soon again will float in the eye of heaven, and it will be borne by the firm hands of the united people of the three kingdoms, perhaps not to an easy, but to a certain and to a not distant victory.