From the Archives: November 14th, 1873

The solicitor-general of England, Henry James, entertained his Liberal Party colleagues at a dinner in London by comparing the election promises of their Conservative Party opponents with the breach-of-promise cases common at the time

It seemed to him that of late a little change had come over the manner in which Parliamentary struggles were conducted. It was useless for them to say of the Liberal party that they were without error and that they had committed no mistakes; but he thought they were entitled to criticise the manner in which the obligations of party warfare was carried on by their political opponents (Applause).

He thought their position at this moment could be called by what they knew existed in social and domestic life, and protesting as he did that he had no personal experience of such matters – (hear, hear) – yet he believed that in this country there were to be found not one but many gentlemen rather up in years who, without much consideration, were ever prone to whisper into the ears that were willing to receive their promises and pledges of things that existed in the future.

He knew not whether the twilight of the October evening, as had been referred to by the proposer of the toast, was the best time or the most approved. (Laughter.) He thought it might rather approach the midnight. (Renewed laughter.) But he thought there were sometimes young gentlemen who were willing to make promises that were not so lightly received as given. (Laughter and cheers.)

Well, if those young gentlemen succeeded in life, somebody was certain to knock at their door. Either this young lady to whom the young gentleman had uttered these pleasant sayings, or some one on her behalf, would call and ask for the fulfilment of the promise that had been made. (Applause and laughter.)


He was speaking to them in the greatest confidence. The Tory party had been flirting a great deal of late. It had been making a great deal of love to a great many interests. (Laughter.) It had been making a great many specious promises, for instance, to the Licensed Victuallers. (Hear, hear.) It had been seen walking arm in arm – he trusted it had been doing nothing worse – with those young ladies who supported female suffrage. (Hear.)

He believed it had ever been whispering words of encouragement to those Catholics who demanded denominational teaching. It had somewhat encouraged the hopes of discontented officers of the army. It had told economists that the present Government had been engaged in a course of reckless expenditure, and at the same time it had been telling every interest that they had suffered from the economy of this Administration. (Hear, hear, and cheers.)

Now, let them suppose, though he did not see it was very probable, that this young gentleman he had mentioned should become comfortably settled in life, and that at No 10 Downing street they should read his address in a very short time – (laughter) – what did they suppose would happen when the representatives of these numerous flirtations should be found knocking at the door, and that when they were asked to fulfil the promises they so lightly made, what answer would they give? (Applause.)

He wondered what those Tory gentlemen who framed the clauses of the Licensing Bill would say to the Licensed Victuallers when they demanded the repeal of the clauses they themselves enacted? (Hear, hear.) He wondered what those old Tory squires who enjoyed the domestic life of England in their happy country houses would say when those somewhat radical young ladies asked them to fulfil their promise, and give them the suffrage? (Hear and applause.)

What would these earnest politicians, the Low Church clergymen, say of the Roman Catholic priest when he offered his hand to the party who was in power? What would they say even to the officers who asked for restoration of the Purchase System in the army? What would they say to the economist when they endeavoured to fulfil their promise of raising the salaries and pensions of everyone in the country? (Applause)

Speaking seriously, they would meet the fate of men who had not been guided by principle, but who had sought to live by the exigency of the moment. (Hear, hear).

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Selected by Joe Joyce; email