TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE GOVERNMENT REFORM BILL.
Tin great fact outside the Reform Bill of Lord John Russell is that beyond certain circles which have a sort of professional lien upon the question, it has excited no appreciable interest whatever. Nobody praises, some, of the class referred to, abuse it, not for sins of omission, but for sins of commission. It does not disfran- chise enough, ihat is no small boroughs whatever are swept away ; it does not provide for the enfranchisement of persons living in lodgings ; it does not provide that votes shall be taken by ballot ; there are no " fancy franchises" whatever within its four corners ; it does not propose a representation of minorities ; it does not extinguish the rate paying clauses of the Reform Act ; it does not apportion representation on the basis of population and property—in short, it does not do a great many things • all the objections are negative. The great fact inside the bill is that it is extremely neat, mo- derate and compact. What it does propose to do is very simple and easily understood. The active provisions of the measure can be shortly summed up.1
The franchise. In counties it confers a ten-pound occupancy franchise in addition to the existing qualifications.
In boroughs, it reduces the ten-pounder to a six-pounder ; altering little besides. Provision is made to prevent the manu- facture of faggot-votes in boroughs and counties. The payment of assessed taxes is no longer to be a condition of registration, but poor-rates must be paid as heretofore :- Borough* partially disfranchised. Schedule A ; as follows :— Boroughs now returning two Members which are to return in fu- ture Parliaments one Member each—Guildford, Hertford, Devizes, Marlow, Dorchester, Bodmin, Chippenham, Huntingdon, Ciren- cester, Ripon 3Ialdon, Tewkesbury, Knaresborough, Andover, Lud- low, Lymington, Leominster, Marlborough, Richmond, Wells, Evesham, Harwich, Totnes, Thetford, Honiton.
Boroughs enfranchised. Schedule B ; as follows :—Birkenhead, Burn- ley, Staleybridge to return one Member each ; Kensington and Chelsea as one Borough, to return two Members.
Counties or parts of Counties to return three Members. Schedule C; as follows :—Lancashire, S. Division. Lancashire, N. Division. Middlesex. Kent, Western Division. Devonshire, S. Division. Staffordshire, S. Division. Yorkshire, North Riding. Lincoln- shire, Parts of Lindsey. Essex, Southern Division. Somersetshire, E. Division. Norfolk, Western Division. Cornwall, Western Division. Essex, Northern Division.
Boroughs to return three Members. Schedule D; as follows :—Man- cheater, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, [Glasgow, Dublin.]
Other new Constituencies. The University of London, to return one Member. The Universities of Scotland, to return one Member. Such are the main provisions of the Reform Bill. The re- mainder of the clauses, with one exception, provide for giving effect to the new extensions. The one exception is of some im- portanee—it is the abolition of the disability imposed on Irish Peers in their own country. The Irish Bill provides that Irish Peers, who can now represent constituencies in Great Britain, may in future represent constituencies in Ireland. This provision has created a strong opposition in Ireland itself, where all parties and persuasions are represented as hostile to the enfranchisement of Irish Peers. The objection to it is certainly an objection of weight ; it is that, if the disability. be removed, the Irish Peers will exert a still more oppressive influence over constituencies than they do now. But that is a proposition difficult to conceive. In these days, a man who returned himself would exercise no influence, andwould be the butt of public opinion. Besides, the remedy in such a case of admitted intimidation, would be the ballot.
Now, so far as the bill goes, it looks like what it was probably designed to be—a passable measure; and that, in these days, is no small merit. Yet, offered as a settlement, it runs the risk from its very limited character of being deemed only what is called an instalment. Moreover, in a purely Conservative and partially Radical point of view, • it is far less satisfactory than the bill suggested by Sir Eardley Wilmot, and printed in this journal last year.• The extension of the franchise to occupiers of houses rented at from 61. to 101. meets a popular demand of long con- tinuance. It certainly brings within the represented classes a number of well-to-do and intelligent artisans not now possessing votes. As a part of a great measure of Reform it is inevitable and on constitutional principles quite consistent. The English Constitution is based on property and householding, simply be- cause in the olden time all men of intelligence and standing pos- sessed property or were householders. But the habits of urban life have extended so that many men of high standing and intelli- gence are not men of realized property or householders. .Lord Macaulay, for instance, was many years a bachelor of the Albany. The extension of the franchise to occupiers of houses who pay 61. a year rental, is fair, seeing that education has spread amongst the artisan class. But a Reform Bill is imperfect which 'does not do something for the class above the occupiers of 61. houses—the class above them in rank and intelligence but neither owners of real property nor " holders " of houses. Extension of the franchise has come to mean in common talk a lowering of the rental qualification, and this would be quite right were not the manners and customs of the city population so changed, that in many cases some of the best men of urban society are not householders ; and, therefore, when we extend the franchise
• Bpectator, January 29, 1839. we should take care to extend it upwards as well as downwards. We do not, however, share the fears of those who think that the lowering of the rental qualification will add to the constitu- encies a class little above paupers in the social scale. People who think thus take their Idea of a 61. house for the rents of houses in London and large towns. They see very poor homes for 10/. and 151. a year, and rarely see any of a lower rent, and they think, " What wretched hovels must be houses under 1W. a London ? " The truth is t,hat"where there are such houses in or near London they are very poor houses, but such dwellings are almost unknown in the metropolis. For instance, the present constitu- ency of Marylebone is over 20,000 ; and how many houses are there under 101. a year and over 6/. ? Merely all ! And to find the probable addition to the constituency under the new bill we must deduct even from this number 20 per cent for female seen- piers and unoccupied tenements. Whether the new 400 eleotors will revolutionize Marylebone is indeed very doubtful. Take the Tower Hamlets as another illustration—and a very extreme il- lustration, as it contains a large proportion of poor houses. There are at present 28,000 electors, and the male occupiers of houses with rents ranging from 61. to 101. number a little over 6000. But as the proportion of present electors to persons who could (as occupiers of houses over 101, a year) claim votes, is as 1 to 24, it would follow that about 2400 electors would be added. to the 28,000 electors of Tower Hamlets—no very alarming in- crease. We must consider that the less thoroughly urban is any city or borough, the better is the class of persons inhabiting houses of equal rents. Few professional men can live in London. in a house under 701. a year, rent and taxes, and the great ma- jority are not so fortunate as to get houses so cheap ; but in country towns professional men get houses for 3W. and 201. a year, and country villas, where the house rent is a very small item in the general rent of house and grounds. A decent artisan in Sunderland or Southampton, can get a house under 101. a year as good as his fellow-craftsman in London for 201. a year. This tells for lowering the rental qualification, but it eats the other way when we remember that the London craftsman, equal in in- telligence to his brother in the country, has no vote because he cannot take upon himself the whole of a large house in the large towns. This is the argument for a lodger franchise, based on the supposition that it would be desirable to include within the con- stituency some of the best men of cities and large towns, now ex- cluded.
In opposition to a lodger franchise, it is said that the house- holder takes upon himself rate-paying responsibilities and muni- cipal and judicial diities (jurorship for instance), for which the lodger is exempt, and that therefore the lodger is not entitled to the " privilege ' of the franchise. This word "privilege," fre- quently used, opens up the proper question what the franchise really is. If you call the franchise merely a personal privilege (like franking in the olden time, or like the right to a presenta- tion to a living), you raise a question whether a man may not do what he likes with his own. If the franchise be merely a trust, and the voter a trustee, it seems absurd that there are no means of making him faithfully fulfil his trust. If it be a simple duty we should take means to make voters do their duty. The whole truth probably lies in regarding the franchise as at once a privi- lege, a trust, and a duty. At present you surround the obtaining and the exercise of the franchise with many difficulties. The registration takes time and trouble : the recording the vote is troublesome and takes time that many not wish to give. It will be said, " If people do not wish to take trouble they shall not have the privilege." But it is for our interest that the class of men most busied in their own avocations, (professional men, in- dustrious workmen, and men of studious habits) should record their vote, and we should induce them to record their votes by making it as easy for them to do so as it would be to write a lgt- ter. The majority of the men who now face most readily the mud and muddle of the hustings and the polling booths are the most idle and the most worthless class of the community. There are of course many men of earnest politics, who, for a principle, go through all the coarse work of canvassing and electioneering, but to counterbalance the lower class of the electors who are too often ready to sell their votes, or to follow, unthinkingly, the lead of some demagogue, we should constitute an upper class of electors, for those who now from habit, or a sense of being a minority, re- frain from recording their votes. A lodger franchise with a sys- tem of voting papers, would secure an extension of the franchise amongst the very best class of the community. But a system of voting by signed papers would have to be hedged about by very stringent precautions, or it would become an engine of the gros- sest frauds. Liability to fraud is, indeed, a very serious objec- tion to the scheme.
But the coming conflict will not turn on the franchise or the voting paper ; the main strife will be about the confiscated seats, and the redistribution of political power. Setting aside the fact that we prefer, on the whole, the schedules of Sir Eardley Wilmot
to those of Lord John Russell, we must confess that, granting him his limit of population, we cannot conceive a more reasonable
apportionment of seats. Sweeping measures on this subject would
never pass, even if it were desirable they should. Lord John takes twenty-five seats from boroughs that can well spare them, and he takes them on a principle, arbitrary it is true, but still a principle, and he does not pick out a little borough here and another there as convenience or interest might dictate. The re- distribution also seems fair enough. The counties and boroughs
which receive a new Member, the two universities, and newly created boroughs are fully entitled to what it is proposed to give them. Although this part of the scheme will probably cause the greatest amount of wrangling, it is not the least reasonable sec- tion of the whole.