11 JULY 1863, Page 10


NGLAND is governed in times of excitement by its paoplc; 1.1.4 in quiet times by its property. That is, we believe, a true as well as a brief description of that " aristocratic " element in the constitution which alike in its habitual force and in its occasional failures so often perplexes the critics of the Continent. The ulti- mate sovereignty rests, and under more or less cumbrous forms always has rested, with the tax-paying bo1y, and, whenever fairly aroused by a great danger, a wide-spread desire, or a novel con- viction, they have exercised their authority with a force before which class resistance has become almost imperceptible. That resistance has regulated the tide, but from the Reformation to the Crimean war it has never succeeded in arresting or seriously retarding its flow. In quiet times, however, when the people has no angry grievance or immediate want, is unstirred by any strong current of emotion and not impelled by any appeal to its imagina- tion, this country has always been governed by a limited class whom, with our usual adherence to words after their meaning has passed away, we continue to term the aristocracy. Their organized. power, it is true, is in appearance a thing of the past. The coun- try is not, as it was under the Conqueror's sons and the Plan- tagenets, ruled by a small number of families, combining all poli - tical privileges with all the rights of ownership. The Landholders are not as they were under the Tudors,—when their individual power had become illegal and their collective sway was impaired by the reverence paid to the reigning house—the effective deposi- taries of all military strength. Nor can they now, as they could in all quiet times from the Great Rebellion to 1831, nominate a clear working majority of apparently independent legislators, with rights greater than those ever yet legally exercised by a European sovereign. But their influence on ordinary occasions, and within the limits specified, is still almost irresistible, and, could they ever agree to unite, to use their strength as a body—as they very- nearly do, for example, in defence of the Established Church— might be dangerously strong. It is difficult to over-estimate, for example, the direct power of the two or three hundred individuals whose names are recorded upon the map circulated with this impres- sion. They could not, it is admitted on all sides, arrest a popular religious reform—though they have done it in Scotland--or refuse to commence an ardently longed-for war, or drive the country into a course of policy to which the commercial and working classes were, either from instinct or conviction, definitively opposed. They could not, for example, send an. army to reseat the Pope, or abolish trial by jury, or drive the nation back into a protective tariff. But they could, without doubt, so completely control provincial opinion, as, with the aid of the classes who habitually follow them, to select a majority of the Legislature. They could, if united, render the existence of any Cabinet of which they did not approve impossible for long periods, and they could and do impose on every political administration, every political party, and most political manifestations, certain. strict traditionary rules of action, certain limits within which the- whole play of the forces created by the constitution must be carried on or be arrested. It is their influence, partly direct and used through their property, partly and chiefly indirect and exerted through social position, which keeps the popular force from spending itself on ideals, as in France, or in vague and purposeless efforts equally marvellous for strength and sterility, as for the hour in. America.

The direct power of this class, best defined as that of the larger Landowners, through their property, is, we conceive, habitually under-estimated. Unlike the Prussian nobility or the Austrian, they are, fortunately for the State, so disunited that their immense legal authority is, though not unfelt, still unresented. If the nation ever believes itself to be fighting a caste, as it believed in the matter- of the Reform Bill, it still fights it with members of the same caste, using the same means and wielding the same powers, marching at its head. Had all the Landowners overtly resisted that measure,. the first step of the nation after its inevitable success would have been to abolish primogeniture—the key to modern English society —and so render the existence of a landlord power in the State- in a few years impossible. This is what the Dutch, who live in a great measure under social conditions identical with our own, have actually done, and the measure is just beginning to pulverize their aristocracy. It is only when united by some attack on a vital privilege like this that the direct power would be painfully visi-

ble, or that we should fully realize that the landlords could, by simply threatening to use the property-right of changing tenants without

reason assigned, nominate, at least, one clear half of the reformed House of Commons, viz., most of the county members, many of

the medium borough members, and all the members for those boroughs which, like East Retford, though nominally towns, are really strips carved out of the surrounding county. We simply mention the fact, however, to show that "aristocracy," or, in other words, landlord influence, has in England a legal basis, for the postulate assumed is the most extreme expression of the truth. No union is possible, nor is any occasion conceivable on which it would be worth many landlords' while to call up from the soil an entirely new body of tenantry. The power, however, exists, and, as applied to individual elections, has been repeatedly and effectively employed, and only seems endurable or natural because if Blenheim seats a Tory for Woodstock, Woburn Abbey can ant an extreme Liberal for Tavistock. The extent of the direct sway may be illustrated, to quote only one example, from the Act of last session for strengthening the Game Laws. The towns had no manner of wish to increase the stringency of those laws, rather, if anything, disliked the measure, as at once unjust and superfluous. The tenant farmers felt the innovation as one more attack on their rights, and the agri- cultural labourers viewed the enlarged powers conceded by it to the police as undisguised oppression. Still the law was swept through by a majority far greater than any which usually secures the gravest measures when proposed by the most popular adminis- tration.

It is, however, through indirect means that the landlords usually exercise their power. The million of voters who are in England the legal trustees of the people, partly from traditionary respect, partly in the counties from fear of consequences, and partly from habitual and rooted self-distrust, turn on the occurrence of any event to the educated few for guidance. Those few intheir turn areswayed—naturally, as Englishmen think, though the fact is almost peculiar to Great Britain—by the men whose property has for generations enabled them to stand close to the political centre, and whom, therefore, they think, on the whole, the best informed. Why they should be so swayed is a. point which an entire history of England might be written to explain. Nobody dreams of such a reference in Germany, or Sweden, or any of the many countries of Europe which still recognize a privileged class. Mr. Disraeli explains the practice as growing out of the imagi- native influence secured by "the sustained splendour of their stately lives," but we conceive, though that has its effect, its root is to be sought in the confidence that the great landlords will care first of all for the interests and honour of England, that the great families may be relied on for freedom from personal motive, that, in short, the "stake in the country" idea is a reality. History certainly does not suggest that that confidence is misplaced. A house, for example—it is not strictly speaking a family—which, hlre that of Percy, has six times staked its grand position and the heads of its members upon political objects having no personal bearing, has earned its claim to be heard when the public weal is in question. The majority of those it advises do not, perhaps, know its history ; but they do know that it has been their habit to take that advice, and till full cause has been shown Englishmen do not abandon habits. The advice so given spreads from castle to grange, grange to mansion, thence through the limited but powerful society which lives in habitual contact with the great, and in a few weeks three or four hundred individuals have laid down the ideas on which Parliament and the Cabinet alike will act. The Upper House feels them at once, and the Lower stands directly en rapport with the great proprietors. They, as we have said, return an enormous proportion of county members. Their social weight brings the class which has wealth but not distinction to their feet, and they have besides all these a link to the House of Commons known elsewhere in Italy alone. Whether from innate flunkeyism, as Mr. Bright would assert, or from the effect of historical associations, as the compilers of peerages would affirm, or from the influence of property supported by both these feelings, as we should be apt to believe,, the fact is certain. In the most radical borough, in the most radical county of England, the chance of the eldest son of a great landed proprietor is cxteris paribus better than that of any conceivable opponent, except a recognized statesman or orator of the very first stamp. Earl Grosvenor unknown will, unless a very outrageous Tory, beat any local notability in a place like Maulebone, and, if an out- rageous Tory, will have a thousand or two more votes than any merchant or banker who might for party purposes venture to stand a contest on the same side. The sons of the landlords do habitu- ally so come forward, and the consequence of this feeling, com- bined with their direct power, is that there are this session of 1 Parliament, 1 Marquis, 5 Earls, 15 Viscounts, 34 Lords, 72 Baro- nets, ',58 Honourables, and 100 palpably belonging to the historic

names of the land seated in the House of Commons. In other words, the members in direct and constant communication with the great landlords, who habitually defer to them, and who,

above all, take from them their political tone, control *the whole of the Upper House, and, with their allies among the nouveaux riches, a clear majority in the Lower. As we have before said, this influence seems less, because it is so divided, but it is clearly apparent in matters of Church govern-

ment, and the present position of ecclesiastical questions exactly indicates both its extent and its limits. The aristocracy are, on the whole, more liberal in theological opinion than the middle class, and probably would, if the matter were left to them, completely remodel the whole arrangement of subscriptions, tests, and articles of belief. They are utterly powerless to do anything of the kind, afraid almost to open their lips lest their liberality should be mis- taken by the ignorant for infidelity. Here they are in conflict with the nation, and, therefore, without even the semblance of active leadership. But they can, and do, marshal an almost im- pregnable array in defence of an abuse at which the nation looks askance, but which it is not yet prepared vehemently to assail, viz.,

the territorial status of the Irish Church. Who doubts that but for their shield that Church would at once go down, or that they could, if united, protract its existence, perhaps for centuries more, or that were the nation resolved—as resolved as on the Corn Laws—the irresistible opposition would silently melt away till men wondered how they ever believed reform so hopeless or so distant ?

The existence of a real and permanent aristocratic power in English politics, wielded by men whose numbers are by no means very great, is, we conceive, as certain as that of the people or the throne. With its merits or demerits we have at present nothing whatever to do.- Our own belief is that its habitual action, if limited by severe restraints and co-existent with the essentially democratic influence of a free press, is decidedly beneficial. The pressure from above anneals the governing class below, hardens all "ideas" till they become plans, narrows all floods of emotion till they can work as regulated motive powers. Above all, the class serves, as it were, to strain the popular sentiment, relieving the tor- rent of its impurities, eliminating that element of vulgarity which, in politics, as in social life, has its root in a contempt for the feel- ings and rights of others. Our present purpose is analysis, and not argument, to point out that even now, whatever a few thinkers may assert, the power of the aristocracy is still the most direct and constant of the five influences—the landlords, commerce, the priest- hood, the press, and the population—which in quiet times direct the internal and external policy of Great Britain. It is then, perhaps, worth while to define what the English "aristocracy" really means. It is, we conceive, only another word for the greater owners of land. It has little to do with office, though that in England has been, and is, rarely held by very poor men. Still less has it to do with pedigree, though ancient birth may increase the influence which primarily belongs to property. The posses- sion of estates by one house through a long series of years indefinitely increases the authority of that house, but it is from the influence of habit, not from any reverence paid to blood. No one cares as a political point whether the Stauleys are Smiths or no ; but the loss of their estates would at once destroy their local power. The Percies have from the Conquest always held their present position, though the family has been absorbed once in the Lovaines, then in the Dudleys, then in the Seymours, and finally in the Smithsons, a race comparatively without a pedigree, but, nevertheless, exercising the hereditary influence as fully and with as little resistance as if they had descended unbroken from the first man who robbed the Saxons. There is no pedigree in England, and very few in Europe, which can vie with that of the Earls of Devon—and, unlike most, it is not of heralds' manu- facture—but an additional five thousand acres would represent five times the political influence derived from that descent. It is doubtful whether the pedigree of the Sovereign in the least exalts her rank in the eyes of her people, for the infinite majority of the middle class trace it back to the Electress Sophia, and there stop. It is true that in the centre of the group of landlords occur some great historic names, and that the most prominent—Percies and Stanleys, Russells and Howards, Lowthers and Grenvilles—are intertwined with the whole history of Great Britain, but a family now of vast influence—the Gowers—is but faintly linked into the national annals, and of those we have mentioned not one can show what Continental heralds call unbroken descent. Historic associa- tions convey influence, but they cling to the property rather than the race, and the "aristocratic element" of the English Constitu- tion is, in fact, simply the class which owns the soil.