"Our London Letter" The Norfolk News, April 13, 1872.
The retirement of Mr. Dodson from the Chairmanship of Committees is an event not to be passed over lightly by those whose business compel their attendance at the House. In your correspondent's time there have been many chairmen - Mr. Green, Mr. Bouverie, Mr. Massey, and one or two others whose names at the moment are forgotten - but not one has ever excelled, or equalled, or even approached Mr. Dodson, and it is not too much to say that his ability has saved the country many and many a day of weary delay. He had a peculiar faculty for keeping things straight, and for rapidly untwisting entanglements. In committee especially, when the House gets excited, it loses all sight very often of the original clause, and amendments come tumbling in on the top of amendments, amendments to amendments two or sometimes three deep, so that the clearest heads are apt to be muddled. In my own case, times without number, I frankly confess, I should have collapsed in utter helplessness, and have begged permission to go home. But Mr. Dodson has never failed, and so far as my memory serves me, has never been wrong. After the most troubled and complicated debate, he always knew exactly where he was, and with a cry of "Order, order," he would explain to the House precisely upon what question it had to vote so that everybody could comprehend. He had also what in a president of a popular assembly is absolutely invaluable - the power of prompt decision. Many men, no doubt, in the House could decide as correctly as he, but then they would take half-an-hour to do so after much self-questioning. But Mr. Dodson was able to compose his mental processes into such a short space that when appeal was made to him upon a point of order, he could in a moment see every fact in its proper position, and pronounce upon them as swiftly as a child asked to choose between a tart and a dose of medicine. At last, I came half to believe Mr. Dodson had a sort of conscience for points of order which enabled him to settle them with the instinctive readiness of a moral faculty. It is understood that he has been forced to resign through ill-health. Last session did the business. It was no uncommon thing for him during the debates on the Army Regulation Bill to be in the chair from from five o'clock to till half-past one or two, and he was never able to suffer his attention to flag for a moment. The Opposition, too, in their anxiety to defeat the Bill, did not allow the Chairman to stand in their way, and frequently attempts were made to confuse solely for the sake of breeding confusion. But he overcame all difficulties, and perhaps if it had not been for him the Bill would not have passed. Of Mr. Bonham-Carter, Mr. Dodson's successor, it is as yet too soon to speak. Naturally enough at present we feel Mr. Dodson's loss.
The reason why the House cannot get through its business, was never more clearly manifested than on Monday last in committee on the Ballot Bill. The Government originally proposed that the poll should close at four o'clock in the afternoon. Sir Charles Dilke moved that it should be left open till eight. For hours did the House debate this question, and in the course of the discussion, every conceivable substitute for four and eight was suggested. Striving to refresh my memory the next morning by the newspapers, I found, of course, that not above half or a third of what was really said was reported ; but I will endeavor, [sic] without the least exaggeration, to give my readers some faint conception of what took place, premising that I really cannot pretend to recollect the whole of the scene, and that if they demand heavy contributions from their imaginations, the picture which they will form to themselves will certainly not be oven-colored [sic]. Mr. Forster objected to Sir Charles Dilke's motion on the old ground that it would be dangerous to vote in the dark. Thereupon, half-a-dozen members attempted to catch the Chairman's eye, but he decided in favor of Sir James Elphinstone, thereby giving most emphatic evidence of his impartiality. Sir James, at some length, argued in favor of six to four. Again there was competition for the opportunity of oratorial distinction, and Mr. R. N. Fowler was selected. He thought five to four an improvement. Mr. Forster opined that this could not be meant seriously, nor was it, as anybody could have seen from Mr. Fowler's manner. Then Mr. Dixon solemnly, "with Birmingham at his back," besought the Government to consider where they were and what they were. We have now, I think, got to the fifth stage of the debate, and I had better denote each successive stage by figures. Sixthly, Mr. Powell, the new member for that vast constituency, the Northern Division of the West Riding, desired the House to remember that there were counties in England, and that the polling in the counties ended at five. He thought that the peculiarity of Mr. Dixon was that he was afraid of nothing. That seven or eight thousand human beings - I may observe by way of parenthesis, as a sort of ejaculation where-with to relieve myself - should consent to be represented by Mr. Powell, is evidence as damaging against the race as spiritualism. Seventhly, Mr. Goldsmid retorted that if Mr. Dixon was afraid of nothing, Mr. Powell was afraid of everything. what happened next is at the present moment an utter blank to me, I remember nothing till Mr. Torrens tried to make a joke, which we will call eighthly. He rebuked the Government for being afraid of the darkness, because he said the Ballot was darkness. Ninthly, I believe, Mr. Forster. Tenthly, Mr. Cavendish Bentinck, who was unwilling (!) to occupy the time of the House, but who had to inform the House that there were mining districts and that therein the voters could not vote between ten and four. Eleventhly, Mr. M'Laren, who made a speech which nobody could hear. He was understood, however, to criticise the amendment from a Scotch point of view. Twelfthly, Mr. Whitbread. This gentleman occupies a somewhat peculiar position in the House. He has a reputation for sagacity which is very well deserved, and very frequently interferes to rescue the Government from awkward positions into which it may have blundered. He said that what the Government wanted was a bridge extended to them along which they might retreat, and he therefore suggested that the poll should be open from eight a.m. till sunset. This proposal was welcomed by Mr. Forster; but there straightway ensued an astronomical dispute about the time of sunset in different parts of the world. At what precise spot Lord Elcho struck in I am unable to call to mind, but I know that he at some point or other considered it incumbent on him to communicate to the House the fact that in Sutherlandshire the sun sets sometimes at ten o'clock at night, and that Mr. Forster thereupon retorted that no attention could have been paid to what he said, because he had already told the House that in no case could the hours of polling be extended beyond eight o'clock. I am now, I see, all abroad with my denotatory figures, and must stop, not because I did not hear, but because the remainder of the evening has passed on from me. Of one thing I am certain, that at least a dozen more members horologically addressed the house, and that there were two or three divisions.
From the tone of Sir J. Trelawny's extremely caustic remarks upon the conduct of the Government in the matter of the Contagious Diseases Bill, it may be infered [sic] that the bitterest struggle of the session will be over this Bill. Whatever opinions may be entertained about the Bill, Sir John was perfectly justified in declaring the conduct of the Government to be most lamentably weak. They are going to bring in a Bill in which they avowedly disbelieve as solely as they admit because they are forced thereto by outside pressure. Sir John insists on a "call of the house." Whenever the House is "called", every member must be in his place when the question is put unless reasonable excuse be given. The object is to force an expression of opinion. The weapon, though, has not been used of late and is rather rusty. It is understood that Sir John has no chance of success, but he may succeed in defeating the Bill. He has published an analysis of the evidence taken before the Commission. I have been furnished with a copy, and, as in duty bound, looked into it. The most damaging evidence given in favor [sic] of the Acts as they now stand is the evidence of the witnesses against them. Their screaming hysteria and utter contempt for facts are enough to breed scepticism in their most determined friends.
Mr. Bright returned to the House last night. He came in before there were many members there so that he might avoid a demonstration. He was very cordial in his greetings with the few members who were present, and I need hardly say that everybody was delighted to see him. Several gentlemen on the Conservative side of the House crossed over and shook hands with him. He looks strong and well as ever. After staying in the House a short time he retired.
The House was occupied during the first part of the evening with a fight over a private Bill which was strenuously opposed by Birmingham and its representatives. It had passed the second reading and the committee, but it was sought to reject it on the report because the inhabitants of some district which the line was to traverse had not obtained a locus standi before the Committee. The House was very full, and a close division was expected, but when Mr. Bouverie pointed out that Mr. Dixon's clients would obtain a locus standi before the House of Lords Mr. Dixon gave way, but not till he had exposed himself to some little pleasantry from Mr. Bentinck to the effect that after all the House of Lords had some real use.
The House was then depleted, and after a notice from Mr. Disraeli that a question would be asked on Friday about the conduct of the American negociations [sic], the Ballot Bill was resumed, Mr. Cavendish Bentinck being of course the first to propose an amendment. Presently his namesake, better known to Norfolk people, interfered and presented a mare's nest to the House which he had discovered in a speech of Mr. Gladstone's at Wakefield. Mr. Gladstone had told a party of private friends at Wakefield that their votes under the Ballot would probably be as well known as before. How then could the Government compel secret voting under the Bill? Mr. Gladstone explained as politely as his opinion of Mr. Bentinck's denseness would allow him to do but Mr. Bentinck was not to be enlightened. He replied that "he could not see." This was perfectly true, and the House laughed a good deal at his unconscious characterisation of himself.
A SILENT MEMBER