« PreviousContinue »
circumstances : for governing classes are not easily persuaded into suicide. The elections of 1865 seemed to offer a most unexpected opportunity. The popularity of a Minister, nominally Liberal, but really Conservative, had created a heavy majority in favour of the Liberals. The popular Minister died before he could make use of the weapon his nam
me had forged; and it fell .by seniority' into the hands of a fanatical Reformer. Such a piece of good fortune as a large Reforming majority elected upon Conservative pretences seemed to be a chance not to be neglected. Whether such reflections actually passed through Mr. Gladstone's mind of course it is impossible confidently to affirm. He may have acted under their implicit guidance, in that condition of complete unconsciousness as to the real nature of his own motives, which distinguishes him so peculiarly among the prominent men of his time. Or such calculations may have been reserved for the less exalted schemers to whom he has in the last few years given so much of his confidence, and whose venomous hostility to the land disdains even the pretence of moderation. We cannot decide between these alternatives : we can only judge of the result. The measure which was produced was unquestionably the work of a very ingenious and very zealous enemy of the influence of property in general, and of landed property in particular. It was made to pass,' as Mr. Goschen somewhat cynically informed the House : and to that extent it was a moderate measure. Only just enough was asked to make it certain that the artisans of the large towns could have more whenever they chose to demand it. The balance was just upset, and no more. Enough was taken for complete mastery ; but beyond that point everything that could obstruct the passage of the bill was left for a more convenient season. What was done, however, was done effectually. The working men were placed in secure possession of the boroughs. The supremacy of the large towns over the country districts was carefully preserved. The redistribution of seats was so arranged as to extinguish members of small boroughs which were essentially rural in their character, and to increase the representation partly of large towns, partly of those counties, which, owing to the unjust state of the law, were little else for electoral purposes than groups of large towns. With a good boundary bill, and with the admission of unrepresented towns to the right of separate representation, additional seats to the most populous counties would be a real boon, and an act of justice to the ill-represented land. But until those measures of relief are in some degree granted, the bestowal of new seats upon the divisions of Yorkshire, or Cheshire, or Lancashire, or Durham is merely another device for increasing the already extravagant influence of the great towns. Even the boons, therefore, that the bill seemed to contain were injuries in disguise. If it had passed, no financial caprice or injustice of Mr. Gladstone's would ever again have met with any obstacle from the resistance of the landed interest. Probably the Conservative party would have lost at the first ensuing election about a hundred seats. The attack was well planned: if it had been successful it would have struck a deadly blow. It was worth while to risk a good deal both in reputation and in influence, in order to succeed. It is easy to understand why Mr. Gladstone drove on his reluctant and frightened colleagues, strained every tie by which his party was held together, exhausted every resource of argument, of declamation, of menace, upon the House of Commons, in order to attain a victory which would relieve him for ever from the necessity of such efforts in the future. It was a great opportunity of crushing his adversaries, never likely to recur: and their narrow escape justifies the boldness and the dexterity of the attempt.
It failed because Mr. Gladstone, in spite of his boast to the contrary, did not know with whom he had to deal. The ties of party will in the end prove too weak to induce Englishmen to use their political power for the purpose of destroying it.
From the very first the House of Commons was thoroughly averse to the billo: and if any fairy could have revealed to Mr. Gladstone what was passing in the hearts of his own supporters, he would have known that it never could pass. Indeed, it is more than probable that Mr. Brand to an imperfect extent performed the part of that fairy for him. But Mr. Gladstone chose rather to trust in the apparent acquiescence, than to believe in the concealed hostility. To some of the members on the Liberal side of the House there was great temptation to get rid of the Bill if possible, without any precise declaration of their opinions upon its principle. Any such declaration would involve them in a gratuitous conflict of opinion with a portion of the electors who supported them. It would either force them to look for support to some who had hitherto opposed them; or it would put their seats in hazard. So long, therefore, as there was any ground for hoping that Lord Russell's Reform Bill would be, like Lord Palmerston's a mere demonstration, the hostility shown to it from the Liberal side was not sufficient for its overthrow. Mr. Gladstone appears to have imagined that when once he had complied with the proposition contained in Lord Grosvenor's resolution, the main danger of his bill was passed. But as it advanced its path became more and more encumbered. Hostile amendments, friendly additions, dilatory motions, criticisms of a most exhaustive character met it
at every turn. The numbers of the divisions varied every evening; but every one of them showed that discontent was eating more and more deeply into the Ministerial ranks. The supporters of the Government were clinging to the belief, which rumour avers to have been conveyed to them upon no mean authority, that the bill would not ultimately be pressed. As the increasing vigour and vehemence of Mr. Gladstone's language dissipated this bope, the support of the bill became more and more wavering, and Mr. Brand's labours more and more unavailing. Towards the end Mr. Gladstone's object appears to have been to pledge the House to the borough franchise which he had selected, so as to leave a basis for operations next year in case he was obliged, by stress of time, to abandon his bill for the present. He vaguely intimated that he had this end in view, and the newspapers in his interest urged it openly. But to the demand for this pledge members of the House had an insuperable objection. If taken it would have committed them to what was in effect an abstract resolution, which might have been mischievous at a future time : if refused, it would have given needless offence to a considerable number of persons. The conflict between the House and the Government as to whether an abstract vote should or should not be taken on this particular point was an animated one for some time ; but it needed no prophet to predict how it would end. The Government forced the House to the very brink of the pledge they wanted; but on the words just preceding the fatal words 'seven pounds,' the critical division was taken, and the bill was destroyed. In their desperate efforts to save it the Ministry had entangled themselves in unnecessary pledges, from which they could not afterwards escape : and, in consequence, though possessing on a question of mere confidence an undoubted majority, they were compelled to resign,
Peace to their memory! Mr. Gladstone has told us that an “ultor' will arise out of their remains. It may very possibly be so. No one can foresee the freaks of fortune. It may be our destiny to live under a Government in which Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Bright shall lead a willing majority to the revenge,' to which he looks forward. Even if that should be the result of the struggle of this spring, we shall see no cause to regret what has been done. The Government whose existence has been terminated was more perilous to the Constitution than a Government professedly far more violent would have been. It combined with names that seemed to be a guarantee for moderation, a measure pregnant with revolution ; and, therefore, it beguiled many into the support of its measures to whom the measures themselves were repulsive. Such a phenomenon is happily rare, because it is transitional. It can only happen during the troubled period which marks the development of differences that have been long
germ and the final rupture of old-standing ties. There is a time during which men, who have been reluctantly convinced of the danger of tendencies which they formerly thought innocent, are waiting for some chance to set them free of their old engagements, and in the mean time refuse to proclaim by any decided step their real belief that those engagements are practically at an end. Such a confusion of forces will not repeat itself at any future period of the conflict. Men who take office under Mr. Gladstone for the future, with a Reform programme, will do so with a full knowledge of what they are undertaking ; especially as it is probable that, pushed by his Reforming allies, he will propose a more violent bill next time. They will know exactly what agitation they are supporting, what rule they are beginning to set up. The line between the opponents of democracy and its adherents will be sharply drawn. This service at least will have been performed by those who have pressed the late Ministry to the ground. There is no such dangerous decoy as the reputation of a moderate man who has abandoned his moderation. This session will have extirpated a whole brood of such deceptive reputations, and that alone will be a larger good service than any single session is generally privileged to perform.
It will also have accomplished the task of making out the conditions under which alone in the future any Reform Bill is possible. The most important characteristic of any measure really made to pass,' must be, that it shall not involve the abdication of a class. The day is gone by when it was practicable to urge upon Parliament the deposition either of the middle and upper classes generally, or in particular of that portion of them which is dependent upon the land. If any Reform Bill can be devised which shall not involve such a result, it may have a good chance of passing. It is in itself an advantage of no contemptible dimensions to gratify the susceptibilities which a considerable number of the artizan class have betrayed upon the question of the suffrage. If there were only a thousand persons who felt themselves slighted because until they got richer there was no chance of their possessing, even in the most indirect and limited degree, any formal share in the government of their country, it would be profitable, so far as it could be done safely, to remove that cause of discontent. It is obvious that the feeling extends to a very much larger number, though it is by no means general even within the limits of that class; and therefore, still subject rigorously to the same reservation, it would be in the same proportion more desirable that their wishes should be gratified. But the number of persons whom it would be necessary to admit, in order to cover these aspirants by a simple reduction of the franchise, would leave the classes at present in power in a condition of hopeless inferiority. If such an end, therefore, is to be attained it must be done by some other means than a simple reduction of the franchise. This is the test which will decide the sincerity of those who clamour for Reform. If they really mean what they continually say; if they are only asking on behalf of the working class for a share, and not for a monopoly of power; if they are willing to recognize that in our social state, where a dense population and the accumulation of a long history have produced a vast contrast of conditions, precautions must be taken that poverty shall not become supreme-they will consent to the provisions which are necessary for carrying such an object into effect. They will not shrink from such provisions because they are new in principle or complicated in detail ; for they weil know that great changes cannot be wrought in one portion of a well-balanced machine, without requiring corresponding changes throughout the whole. But if they are insincere; if their clamour for a share covers a design upon the whole; if they intend to ignore property in the distribution of power; if, under pretence of breaking down exclusive barriers, they contemplate setting up the rule of numbers—then we must be prepared for every objection that ingenuity can suggest against any plan for so extending the franchise as not to disfranchise those who hold it now. They will, in that case, insist without compromise or modification upon a blank reduction of the suffrage. If any balancing provision is proposed, by which the value of the vote so conferred shall be sufficiently modified to prevent it from enthroning the multitudes, whom it admits, as masters of the whole community, we may expect our Reformers to cast out such a plan with scorn as something which does not coincide with the ancient lines of the Constitution. But the events of this session have sufficiently established that to Reform understood as they understand it, the present depositaries of power will not consent. To say that this Parliament, or any party in it, is opposed to the admission of the working-man to the polling-booth, is studiously to falsify the facts. But it is as little consistent with facts to dream that in this or in any other Parliament, the present depositaries of power will put his heel upon their necks. They are not yet reduced so low as to dream of abdication. When the working-man and his advocates have become so practical and sincere in their demand for Reform that they will accept participation without predomi