North Country Members and the CD Acts
W. T. Stead (The Northern Echo, July 18, 1876)
Tomorrow afternoon Sir Harcourt Johnstone will move the second reading for the Bill for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Of course the lateness of the session renders it impossible that his bill, even if it is supported by a majority of both Houses, can be passed into law.
None the less important, however, is the opportunity which the Liberal member for Scarborough offers to the House of Commons year after year. It is an opportunity afforded each honest, liberty-loving member of clearing his conscience of all part or lot in the maintenance of an utterly iniquitous system of immoral legislation, and it enables those who preserve unimpaired their sense of unity of the laws governing the universe, to protest periodically against the monstrous fallacy that body can be preserved in health by poisoning the soul. So long as the C.D Acts remain on the Statute Book the Constitution is violated, the liberties of half the human race are outraged by a legislative enactment of an English Parliament, and the sanction of the foremost Christian state is publicly given to a system based upon principles not merely Anti-Christian, but destructive of all faith in the possibility of virtue. Sir Harcourt Johnstone’s Bill expresses the indignant protest of an immense majority of the English people against the maintenance of this “negation of God”, and the reception which it meets on the annual appearance in the House of Commons enables us to form some idea of the progress which the case of liberty and morality is making in that official world, where men have almost ceased to believe, in principle, and base their action entirely on expediency.
The division for tomorrow afternoon will reject the Bill for Repeal. That, alas, is a foregone conclusion. Englishmen just now are suffering from an eclipse of faith. Of that eclipse the Conservative reaction was merely a significant indication, and although it has a reflex action in perpetuating the reign of doubt, it was a result of that eclipse, and not its cause. As to the subtle forces that have brought about the darkening of the heavens we cannot stay to inquire. Certain it is, however, that the principles which in former years shone like the stars of the firmament before the eyes of our countrymen seem for the time being to have gone out, and the skies, once flaming with celestial beacons, are now overshadowed with a thick darkness. Through the gloomy clouds here and there still gleams a ray of light, but it is regarded as of less account than the glimmer of the gas lamp seen dimly through the pervading mist. In the fog, stars are reduced to the level of gas lamps. Nay to those who live in the midst of perpetual fog, the gas lamp is much more important than the star. England is in such a fog. Her stars are either blotted out or struggle feebly through the mephitic exaltations of rankly luxurious civilisation. Temporary expedients are exalted to the rank of eternal principles. A shifty timeserver sits in the seat of Mr. Gladstone. Enthusiasm is at a discount. Men everywhere are bowing before unscrupulous finesse and dexterous management. The tricks of the tactician are deemed esteemed than the heroic earnestness of our greatest statesmen. We seem to be living in a world where the flunkys (sic) have grappled the sceptres of the heroes, and the valets occupy the chairs of the prophets. From those who assume in newspapers and elsewhere, to express the matured thought of England, all faith in things unseen and eternal seem to have disappeared. Things temporal, – the evanescent trifles of the moment, the fleeting combinations of the kaleidoscope of Time – these alone appear to them to have any reality. Truth, integrity, sincerity, purity, virtue in all its forms, these are out of fashion. To speak of principle in some quarters is to be unfashionable. To believe in anything firmly is to be a bigot, to act on your faith is certain proof of fanaticism. The spirit of the day is to be in earnest about nothing in the universe, unless it be about not being in earnest. References to the unvarying testimony of history are denounced as pedantic, and any appeal to pine authority is simply intolerable.
“‘Tis now the very witching hour of night,
When churchyards yawn,
and Hell itself breaths out
Contagion to this world.”
Almost every movement, social, political, or religious is tainted by this contagion. All vigorous heroic effort is blighted by the dank fog which pervades the atmosphere. Of all such efforts, the attempt to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts suffers the most from the prevailing spirit. Nothing can be more abominable to those who represent most fully the prevailing prejudices than an attempt to influence the Legislature by agitation from without, by agitation initiated, and in a great measure carried on, by women on behalf of the outcasts of their sex – the agitation consisting almost entirely of appeals addressed directly to the conscience, based upon the moral principles which it is the fashion to ignore. Such a monstrosity, so utterly opposed alike in its objects, it methods, and its principles to those at present in vogue naturally excites the utmost indignation among those who lead public opinion of the baser sort, and after trying in vain to burke it by a conspiracy of silence, they have done their best and their worst to damage the cause of the advocates for Repeal. Hence men whose central principle is to be earnest about nothing, are curiously earnest in defending the C.D. Acts, not because they care a straw about the Acts, but merely because they detest the principles upon which the agitation for repeal is based. It is a conflict between those who believe in morality and liberty and those who believe in nothing, and dub all men as sentimentalists and fanatics who exert themselves to maintain the one and defend the other.
In this manner the movement for the Repeal of these Acts has come to serve the useful purpose of a test of the sincerity of current Liberalism. Many of those who have never bestowed a thought on the subject may be disposed to question the accuracy of such a test, but a little reflection will convince any unprejudiced person that few questions go down so deeply to the roots of Liberalism as does this. It is a case, an extreme case we allow, but nevertheless a case to which Liberal doctrines fully apply. The system introduced by these Acts is virtually one of slavery, and this slavery is justified on principles and enforced by methods utterly inconsistent either with Liberalism or Christianity. Mazzini was accustomed to observe that although the upper classes thought the subject one of trifling importance, he regarded it as inseparably linked with the gravest problems that weigh upon society at the present day. We need hardly say that we look forward to the division list with particular interest. The movement for Repeal, if it did not altogether originate in the North Country, found here its most valuable supporters. It was the illustrious lady who has just died at Ambleside, whose letters signed “an Englishwoman”, first directed public attention to the operation of the Acts, and it is the noble daughter of John Grey, of Dilson, who, more than any other person, has kindled in the conscience of the Nineteenth Century some sense of it duty to fallen womanhood. We expect, and we have a right to expect, that North Country members as a body will follow Sir Harcourt Johnstone into the lobby. Even Sir W. P. Galiwey, the Conservative member for Thirsk, votes against them. Mr. George W. Elliot will not blush to vote against Sir Harcourt Johnstone; the member for Northallerton is not given to blushing, but, if his veto cost him his seat, he would be well served. There is some doubt about Mr. Bolckow. His apologists point to his German descent as condoning such an offence against English womanhood as a vote in favour of the Acts; but we hope that this year there will be no need for apology, and that if the member for Middlesbrough cannot vote in favour of restoring their constitutional rights to the women of our garrison towns, he will at least refrain from swelling the majority certain to be recorded in favour of what Mr. Jules Favre well calls “a legal sanction to the licentiousness of one sex and the enslavement of the other”. Of the rest of our members we need not speak. They will be found in the right place at the right time, and the voice of Durham, we hope, will be given as unanimously in favour of the abolition of the legalized slavery of women as it was in demanding of the Slave Circulars.