Charles Bradlaugh


Charles Bradlaugh : biography

26 September 1833 – 30 January 1891

First Select Committee

This Select Committee held only one brief meeting on 12 May 1880. The Attorney General, Sir Henry James, moved that anyone entitled to affirm in order to give evidence in court was also entitled to affirm instead of taking the Oath in Parliament. Sir John Holker, Conservative MP for Preston, moved an amendment to reverse this finding, and the committee split down the middle with eight members (seven Conservatives and Charles Henry Hopwood, Liberal MP for Stockport) supporting the amendment and eight (all Liberals) opposing it; on the casting vote of the Chairman Spencer Horatio Walpole the amendment was carried.Arnstein, p. 38; "Report from the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Oath" HCP 159 (1880). Bradlaugh was not surprised that the Committee had gone against him, and notified the Speaker that he would attend to take the Oath on 21 May.

Attempts to take the Oath

In order to explain his actions, Bradlaugh wrote an open letter to The Times which was published on the morning of 21 May. He said it would have been hypocritical to voluntarily take the oath "including words of idle and meaningless character" without protest when another form of words was available, but now that the Select Committee had ruled he must, he would do so and "regard myself as bound not by the letter of its words, but by the spirit which the affirmation would have conveyed had I been permitted to use it". Bradlaugh’s letter was regarded as a direct provocation by his opponents, and when he came to the table, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff rose to object to the administration of the Oath to Bradlaugh. Speaker Brand allowed him to object, and Wolff argued that the Evidence Amendment Acts referred to by Bradlaugh only allowed an affirmation to one who regarded the oath as meaningless, so the House should not allow Bradlaugh to take it. Prime Minister William Gladstone, alerted to the fact that a protest was possible, moved to set up a second Select Committee to examine whether it was possible to interfere with a Member wishing to take the oath. Gladstone’s amendment was carried by 289 to 214.Arnstein, p. 40-51; 3ser vol 252 cols 187-221, .

Second Select Committee

The Select Committee began deliberating on 1 June 1880, when it considered a paper put in by Sir Thomas Erskine May, the Clerk of the House. Sir Thomas found several precedents for Members disabled to sit for refusing to take the Oath, together with Quaker MP Joseph Pease who was permitted to affirm, and Jewish MPs Baron Lionel de Rothschild and David Salomons who were eventually allowed to take the Oath while omitting the words "on the true faith of a Christian"."Report from the Select Committee on Parliamentary Oath (Mr. Bradlaugh)", HCP 226 (1880), Appendix No. 1 (pp. 25-33). On the following day, Erskine May and Bradlaugh himself were questioned by the Committee, with Bradlaugh arguing that, should the Committee decide he had no right to affirm, he would take the oath and regard it as binding on his conscience.Evidence, Q 85. When the Committee decided its report, it agreed by one vote an amendment declaring that the House could "and, in the opinion of your Committee, ought to" prevent Bradlaugh taking the Oath.Proceedings of the Select Committee, p. xv-xvi. It also added (by 12 votes to 9) that it would be possible for an action in the High Court of Justice to test whether an affirmation was genuinely legal, and therefore recommended that if Bradlaugh sought to affirm, he should be allowed to do so in order that such an action be brought to clarify the law.Proceedings of the Select Committee, p. xvii-xviii. The second Select Committee had effectively reversed the outcome of the first.Arnstein, p. 70.

When it was known that this was the likely outcome of the Select Committee, Bradlaugh’s fellow Northampton MP Henry Labouchère initiated a debate on a motion to allow Bradlaugh to affirm. Sir Hardinge Giffard moved an amendment that Bradlaugh be not permitted to take either the Oath or make an affirmation. After two days of debate,, 3ser, vol 253 cols 443-513, . Giffard’s amendment was carried by 275 to 230, a defeat which surprised Gladstone. The majority comprised 210 Conservatives, 34 Liberals and 31 Irish Home Rulers; supporting Bradlaugh were 218 Liberals, 10 Home Rulers and 2 Conservatives.Arnstein, p. 73-4. On the next day, Bradlaugh came to the Table claiming to take the Oath; in consequence of the previous night’s vote the Speaker ordered him to withdraw. Bradlaugh was permitted to address the House from behind the Bar (which was technically outside the Chamber), and treated the occasion as his maiden speech. He based his argument on law, contending that he was not legally disqualified, and asking "as one man against six hundred" for the same justice he would receive in the Courts. Although well received, the speech was too late to reverse the decision, and Henry Labouchère was forced to withdraw a motion to rescind it.Arnstein, p. 75-76.