TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE. CONSERVATivE TENDENCIES OF THE REFOBM BILL.
WE have now the whole of the Government scheme of Reform before us, and we propose to discuss it in rela- tion not to its principle,—which we have never been able to discover, and on its glaring deficiency in which we have already said perhaps more than enough,—but in relation solely to its consequences, to its tendency to move the centre of political gravity upwards or downwards in the State. We believe it to be,—looking at it in this light alone,—and even without regard to the alterations which it is supposed may be attempted in Committee, far more a middle-class than a working-class measure, a measure which -will increase the power and the influence of wealth more than any other influence whatever in elections, which will vastly raise the cost of a seat, whether a county or borough seat, everywhere,— which will materially increase the relative power of the counties while diluting the landed interest there with a variety of small middle-class interests,—which will render bribery not more difficult, but much more expensive, in the grouped boroughs, —and which will only give even a substantially increased influence to the true artisan class if the 71. borough fran- chise is jealously adhered to, at all events in the great towns, and the attempt to raise it to 8/. defeated.
The present distribution of power between counties, boroughs, is as follows :-
ENGLAND & WALES. SCOTLAND. IRELAND. TOTAL.
County Seats 160 30 64 254 Cities and Boroughs 334 23 39 396 Universities
498 53 105 656
If the Government scheme passes, this will be altered thus :- ENGLAND & WALES. SOOTTAND.
County Seats 186 33 65 284 Cities and Boroughs ... 300 26 37 363 Universities 5 1 3 9
491 60 105 656
Now the first thing that strikes us here is a very considerable increase of the county influence in relation to the borough influence. The counties gain thirty seats, the boroughs lose thirty-three seats, so that if the landed interest were left otherwise as strong as before, we should say that its Parlia- mentary influence would be very much stronger indeed under the new scheme than it was under the old. That certainly is not a thing that is at all desirable. The boroughs represent a lot of miscellaneous and disunited interests, the counties for many purposes one of the most firm, close, and united. Moreover, many of the boroughs are, as Mr. Gladstone truly said on Monday night, mere " head-quarters " of the county gentlemen, and of such the representatives are quite as certain to vote with the landed interest on an emer- gency as the county members themselves. Taken as a whole, therefore, there is no power in the House of Commons half so close and compact as the landed interest. They are on all but a very few questions affecting land a phalanx of spears and shields, not divided into Liberal and Conservative at all, and 284 county seats out of 656 would represent, when the number of boroughs subject to the landed interest is taken into account, a very large working majority of the House of Commons. The large addition, then, thus made to the county influence is unquestionably a great addition to the conservative influence; we do not mean in the party sense,—for many of the county divisions which get an additional member already return Liberals,—but certainly to the social conservatism of the country, to the power of constituencies which are not very much inclined to entertain fresh ideas of any sort, and which, whether they prefer the great Liberal magnate of the county to the great Tory magnate of the county or not, expect pretty much the same line of conduct from either, if any ques- tion is introduced that affects immemorial usages or proposes in any way to startle the nerves of county feeling.
But then there is the great change in the county suffrage to set against this apparent increase in the Parliamentary influ- ence of the counties, and no doubt its effect, whether the new county suffrage be put at 14/. or 201., will be, as we said, to dilute the pure landed interest with that of a rural mid- dle class, the precise political shade of which it is not very easy to determine. But whatever it be, whether Liberal or Tory in a party sense, it certainly will not be in any sense whatever, except where it includes the suburban population of some great city, an eager, or alert, or flexible-minded class.. There is in general no duller stratum of political feeling than that of rural communities which depend on the landowners of the neighbourhood and the peasantry of the neighbourhood for their means of living. You may, indeed, find a good num- ber of people driven by mere dislike of the exclusiveness of the squires into a sort of abstract Radicalism, and more still who are disposed to emulate that exclusiveness as far as is in their power. But the Radicalism or Toryism in either case is usually a smouldering class feeling, which does not necessarily involve any disinterested political belief ; and no- constituencies are probably less open to new political ideas than rural middle class. If, then, the Reform Bill of the Govern- ment diminishes on the whole the direct influence of the land- owners in the counties, the new county power will probably be less of an aristocratic landowners' power, more of a stationary rural middle-class power, than before. Add to this that the expense of contesting the empties will be greatly increased by the increased constituencies, and it will be clear that the ten- dency of the change, as far as it affects the counties, will probably be plutocratic. The newly enfranchised class may frequently feel some jealousy of the county families, less for their views than for their exclusiveness, but if they do, and so far as they do, they will be inclined to prefer not so much wider views, as a rival social influence ; and the only social influence that could rival that of the county families would be- that of newly immigrant wealth. The various suburban popu- lations which congregate round great cities will indeed probably be Liberal in a higher sense ; but these the new boundaries measure will, to some extent, absorb back into the boroughs.. On the whole we fear that the power of the counties will be enlarged, and will be somewhat assimilated tothat which has long controlled the minor boroughs,—the power of great fortunes.
The grouping of boroughs proposed by the Government will probably tend in the same direction,—the more so that there is no proposal to group the larger unparliamentary boroughs with the corrupt Parliamentary boroughs thus treated. The Daily News, in an admirable article, has pointed out how many cases there are in which this plan might have been adopted with advantage. Why, it asks, to take but a single instance, was not Trowbridge, which is close to Westbury, and equal in population to Westbury and Wells taken together, grouped. with the Westbury boroughs? It may be said that by weed- ing the counties of all the larger unparliamentary boroughs the landed interest would have been left too powerful. But it is certain that Trowbridge, with its 10,000 inhabitants, or, if we include the parish (as did the borough group proposed in 1854), its 20,000 inhabitants, would have far more effect in rendering Westbury and Wells, with their combined popula- tion of 10,000, independent of either proprietary or money influences, than in rendering a county division of Wiltshire, with_ its population of about 70,000 (exclusive of Parliamentary boroughs), independent of the landed interest. The same might be said in every other case, where • a thriving un- parliamentary borough has been left out in the county which might have been included in a Parliamentary group, and we cannot but think that it would have been wiser to aim less at diluting the landed interest of the county con- stituencies, and more at effectually purifying the corrupt boroughs. As it is, the effect of merely grouping together two or three boroughs formerly corrupt or dependent, and with a newly increased constituency of needy and ignorant people apt for corruption or intimidation in each, will be to raise the expense of the political investment. The notion of preventing corrupt practices by extending the area over which they have to be performed is radically false. All that this can effect is to raise the price of the seat. If it answers in Scot- land, the reason may be that the Scotch have fewer millionaires, and much fewer persons willing to lavish money on this sort of investment. We have no belief whatever that it can answer, in a moral point of view, in a country of great wealth, where the wealthy will lavish anything to obtain political power, merely to increase the area over which such wealth must be distributed. And even in the corrupt boroughs which are not small enough either to be grouped, or to be mulcted of a mem- ber, like Ipswich, no doubt the reduction to a 71. franchise will increase vastly the area of corruptibility, and therefore of corruption. The unwise uniformity of the franchise change will therefore increase this tendency to concentrate political power in the wealth, and for the most part the loose wealth, the uninvested wealth, rather than the landed wealth, of the country.
• The only set-off against these plutocratic tendencies of the Reform Bill is the concession of a real and substantial influ- ence to the artisan class in the great cities. Their ideas, whatever their other faults, are in no degree infected with the heavy plutocratic inertia that Mr. Lowe so much admires. 'The member for Lambeth described them as dangerously free from all such prejudices, as almost wildly original in their conception of the social obligations of labour. Their policy on foreign affairs may, as Mr. Lowe fears, be rash and impulsive, and their financial ideas in domestic affairs somewhat extrava- gant, but then what we are now doing is in the direction of giving much more influence to sheer wealth, and in counties much more electoral power to the middle class, which fears no ideas so much as these ; and the only off-set will be the few large constituencies where intelligent operatives will probably be in the majority if the 71. suffrage remains. Of the 95 members whom it is calculated that this Bill puts at the disposal of the working class, certainly not 40 will really
be representatives of this class of artisans. The other fifty-five may be elected by constituencies in which work- ing men are in the majority ; but so they are already at Maldon, and within half-a-dozen of a majority at St. Ives, and we never heard that the respectable Conservatives who represent these boroughs were considered in any degree whatever representatives of the artisan class. Even if this Bill pass, the working class' will be in a minority of only 30 to 35 per cent. in very many of the places where it is strongest, and where it is seen in its most characteristic form, like Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, and Huddersfield. If the 71. franchise is changed into 81., we do not believe that twenty seats would really be given to the class of which we are speaking. In that ease, while the power and influence of mere wealth would have been enormously increased by the provisions of this Bill, there would be no set-off against those influences, that Liberals could regard as sufficient to give any value to it. We believe that the Government will not be guilty of so disgrace- ful an indifference to the only serious evil which really induced the public to demand Reform, as to abandon the 71. suffrage in the great manufacturing boroughs. No issue of principle can be involved as between 71. and 8/. The only question will be which of these two figures really answers best the temporary purpose of giving a substantial representation to working men. And on that there can be no manner of doubt. With an 8/. suffrage, we should consider that the main, the principal effect would be to swell the already too powerful influence of the moneyed classes, as against all other classes in the community. With a 71. suffrage, whatever we may think of the principle of the Bill, no one can deny that Ione of its consequences will be to secure a substantial though not a very large representation to the working class. But without it the Reform would be felt to be no Reform ; the -Government, if it accepted 8/., would be regarded very justly as having betrayed the true Liberals of its own party ; the working class would feel that it had been mocked with a shadow ; the Reform agitation would begin again with more energy than ever ; while some revengeful combination between the Tories and Radicals would in the meantime throw power into Conservative hands, in order to brace up the Liberals anew to the assault.