« PreviousContinue »
nance, the settlement of the question’ will have been attained : but not till then. There are two fallacies that must be cast aside, before any
real progress can be made. The first is that the mere passing of any measure, great or small, will of itself secure the settlement of the question.' It is not very easy to get at the exact meaning of that familiar phrase. To some minds it seems to indicate a future state of absolute repose, in which Reformers shall cease from troubling, and all struggles for political power between classes shall disappear. We might as well hope for the termination of the struggle for existence by which, some philosophers tell us, the existence or the modification of the various species of organized beings upon our planet are determined. The battle for political power is merely an effort, well or ill-judged, on the part of the classes who wage it to better or to secure their own position. Unless our social activity shall have become paralyzed, and the nation shall have lost its vitality, this battle must continue to rage. In this sense the question of Reform, that is to say, the question of relative class power, can never be settled. But those who take the trouble to define the words they use, generally apply the phrase to an object more limited and transient. They merely mean by it a respite from agitation for twenty or thirty years. This is an object, no doubt, capable of attainment. There have been much longer periods in our history during which a truce in the struggle of classes has been observed. But it has been due to causes more potent than the passage of a satisfactory measure,'
with a view to the settlement of the question. An absence of pressure among the more numerous classes, or a consciousness on their part of inability to extort any advantage from the propertied class has often indisposed them for the attack, and made them deaf to the ever ready exhortations of agitators. But it is in their own state of mind, and in that alone that any hope of such a truce is to be looked for. The condition of things which will induce them to abstain from aggression is one that it is impossible to command and not very easy to foresee. It is due, when it happens, to a combination of causes, whose working is obscure. It certainly cannot be made the subject of a Parliamentary arrangement. Mr. Bright and half-a-dozen of his followers may undertake that if such and such a measure is passed, all movement upon the question shall cease for thirty years; but they are making a covenant whose performance they have no power to secure. They may close their own mouths; but what power have they to silence hundreds of others who may be eager upon this question, and who, if there is any widespread feeling in respect to it, will infallibly be pushed to the front to occupy the places of those who may think themselves bound in honour not to agitate. Nothing Vol. 120.—No. 239.
can be more futile than the attempt of temporary leaders to impose permanent pledges upon a class. A glance at the history of the last Reform Bill will dispose of the delusion that in a downward movement the leaders of one agitation can bind the leaders of that which comes next after it. In passing the Reform Bill, Lord Althorp, the recognised leader in the Commons of the movement by which it was carried, announced that it was to be ' a final measure.' How was his pledge respected by those that came after him? Scarcely three years had elapsed before the Chartist agitation was commenced by O'Connell's celebrated campaign in the North, and culminated in the insurrection of Frost. So far, therefore, from a period of repose having been produced by the concessions of the first Reform Bill, in spite of the pledges of its authors, its concession was immediately followed by an organized and dangerous agitation for far more sweeping changes. In 1839, however, the question was settled in a different manner. The failure of the insurrection, and the punishments that were inflicted, convinced the authors of it that their cause for the time was hopeless; and for nine years the land had peace.
It was not till the outbreak of 1848 raised the drooping spirits of the party of action that the question of Reform was revived in England. Even this revival taken by itself shows how little value can be attached to the promises of the leaders of Reform agitations. It was but sixteen years since Lord Althorp's pledge, yet the question was mooted again by one of those who had sat in the Parliament to which he made that pledge: and in four years more it was taken up by Lord John Russell, who had been Lord Althorp's colleague at the time. Since that time further democratic change has been kept off, not by the tenacity of Reformers' pledges, but by the vigour of the Conservative resistance. It is an argument commonly used, that the Reform Act has lasted for five and thirty years, and that, therefore, if another were passed now the question would be settled for an equal space of time. But it is forgotten that the question was not settled, in the sense of procuring a respite from agitation, even for four years after the passage of the Reform Bill. It is only for the purpose of staying agitation upon the subject that the settlement of the question is to be desired. If that welcome armistice could not be procured for more than three years even by the great changes contained in the first Reform Bill, how is it possible to expect that a less sweeping measure will secure it now?
The other delusion is that the danger of insurrection enters in any degree as an element in the consideration of the question of Reform. Of course the Radical orators threaten it freely. In 1858 Mr. Bright told us that a reduction of the franchise would soon be demanded in rougher tones than his; and in 1866 he has told us that unless we granted it, an 'accident’ would happen to our institutions, such as drove Charles X. from his throne. Orators of less distinction than Mr. Bright, and the writers in his daily organs, follow in the same strain more boldly, and tell us a great deal about the people rising in their might.' This form of political reasoning for the guidance of doubting legislatures has during the last two generations become a favourite commonplace in political argument upon the rabid side. Discussions upon questions of organic change are carried on as it were under the shadow of revolution, and the possibility of an appeal to physical force is referred to with a frankness which would never have been dreamed of a century ago. Issues between the legisJature of a country and the lower classes in the great towns are quietly assumed by Radicals and believed by timid Conservatives to be mere questions of the patience of the latter. The resistance of a government to any ill-advised project alleged to be popular among those classes is merely a resistance upon sufferance. When once they are piqued by their enemies, or persuaded by their friends,' to “rise'--cadit quæstio—the ultimate tribunal of the nineteenth century has spoken. No one who has watched the recent tendency of political discussion can have failed to observe how deeply this theory has tinged our political philosophy, and to a certain extent modified our political action. let curious doctrine to have lifted itself so high, especially in this country. No one can say that our history gives the slightest countenance to it. Its whole course is a chronicle of constant concessions to enlightened public opinion; but it does not record a single instance of concession to mob violence. The case most nearly in point in recent times is the agitation under which the Reform Act of 1832 was carried. There is no doubt that the circumstances were remarkably favourable to mob dominion. A feeble and fanciful King, a Home Secretary who certainly was not prejudiced against disturbances by any strong political interest in repressing them, and the powers of legislation practically consigned to the hands of a narrow class, bitterly divided against each other by polemical hostility, were eminently conditions under which popular license ought to thrive. Yet, as a matter of fact, the movement derived its strength from something much stronger than the lower class, and it was not to insurrectionary violence that the Legislature yielded. The movement proceeded mainly from the middle class. Is fecit cui prodest. The middle class, before the Reform Bill, possessed little, if any, direct political power: after the Reform Bill it enjoyed the largest share. The middle class, reinforced by the discontent which intense distress had produced
among the lower, presented a formidable combination, which any Government might well fear to encounter. The House of Lords actually yielded to the extraordinary pressure put on them by the King; but it is more than probable that had they been able to surmount his opposition, they must have given way to the resolute demands of the middle class. They were fighting a battle in which almost every element of social power was ranged on the other side. Those who compare those times with these, and threaten the opponents of this Reform Bill with the rout that befell the antagonists of its greater prototype, forget the material fact that the middle classes were on the wrong side of the “pale then, and that they are on the right side now.
It is not, however, from any English experience that the popular notion of the invincibility of the lower urban classes, if roused, has arisen. The political history of our neighbours across the channel has always produced a strong effect on the imaginations of all classes here ; a stronger effect, perhaps, from the slight distance and the strangeness of the surrounding circumstances, than would have been produced by similar events if they had happened at home. And it would be worth while, did time permit, to examine the real bearing of the French revolutions upon the question of insurrectionary power, because they have tended to instil into the minds of the present, and the last generation, a belief in the irresistibility of the lowest class, which new in the political history of this country. But these cases are precedents for us in no other sense; and they are only worth referring to because they have been perverted. It is well known that the artisans of the large towns—the people,' as they are called by a strange perversion of words—have a factitious importance in France on account of the power which an extreme centralization has given to the artisans who live in the capital. Those who master Paris master France; and, therefore, in the presence of an irresolute executive, the barricades are, or at least have hitherto been, a tremendous power. Neither London, nor any other great town possesses such an ascendancy. But in a country ruled as England happily is, by public opinion, and by the general pervading sense of what is best for the whole community, we can never arrive at such extremities as France has so often and so lamentably witnessed. No doubt if the real people of England —the large masses of the population in country as well as town, whom our experience entitles us to regard as the friends of law and order--if they were to rise in favour of Reform, or of any other measure, their action must be successful ; but long before any such unanimity could come to pass, the change of public opinion it implies would have told upon the Legislature, and made any
rising unnecessary. But it is a inere dream of timidity that the town artisan class, the only class whose alleged discontent is in question now, can ever be so formidable, that the Legislature, in discussing their demands, should have need to take counsel of fear, and be debarred from considering calmly what is best for all classes.
The most difficult question which the new Government will have to decide, will be whether they ought or ought not to introduce a Reform Bill. Its course will have been simplified to no inconsiderable extent by the events of the past session. No future Government can venture to present any such measure which shall involve a large transfer of power, or which shall be constructed under fear of the artisan classes, in order to satisfy the agitation their advocates have made. The most liberal Parliament ever assembled during the reign of the present sovereign has declined to pass a Reform Bill of this type. This fact, however, by no means necessarily disposes of the question. There are other types of Reform still possible. There are numberless irregularities and inconveniences in the presentarrangement that may well be corrected. Few impartial persons will be disposed to deny that, considering the large transfer of wealth and population that has been made to the north by the progress of mechanical discovery, the balance of legislative power inclines too heavily toward the south-west of England; although a good deal is to be said, too, for Cornwall, which is teeming with wealth, and in a high state of progress. No one, again, can deny the advantages of what has been well called the lateral' extension of the franchise. Whether the vexed question of vertical extension ought to be entertained at the same time, to any material extent, must depend, as we have said, on the tone in which it is claimed by those who are to benefit by it. They will never induce the present depositaries of power to agree to it unless they accept the guarantees that are necessary to prevent the preponderance of mere numbers. There are, moreover, many points of minor moment in which our electoral system might be advantageously improved. The principle affirined by Lord Dunkellin's motion is in itself of inestimable value. A self-adjusting machinery, which shall dispense with the intolerable expense of voluntary registration, and shall get rid of the costly and sometimes partisan tribunal of the Revising Barrister, will be a great boon. Some remedy is also required for the costliness of elections, especially county elections. It is an evil that is growing every day. It threatens, if its development is to continue at the present pace, to confine the choice of candidates to the relatives of wealthy landowners, or else to mercantile or manufacturing men of the class that find it useful to them in their vocation to have a seat in Parliament. A Parliament so