TOPICS OF THE DAY.
TT now seems certain that before many weeks have elapsed we shall be in the throes of a General Election. We regret it, but that cannot alter the fact. In these circumstances it is very greatly to be hoped that before the battle begins Mr. Balfour and the other leaders of opinion in the Unionist Party will place before the country a comprehensive statement of Unionist policy, and will not confine themselves to the problems and perils of Tariff Reform, to discussing the bad features of the Budget, or to denouncing the evil and Socialistic tendencies of a great part of the present Government's legislative and administrative work. In saying this we must by no means be counted among those who hold that a negative policy is no policy. It may often be that a political party cannot do better than ask for a little legislative peace and quiet, and thus confine themselves to criticising and opposing the mis- deeds of their rivals. In the present case, however, there are a very large number of reforms waiting to be passed which it is the business of the Unionist Pare), to take up,— reforms which are demanded not only by Unionists of light and leading throughout the country, but by the general mass of Unionist opinion. To neglect these matters in order to concentrate upon the misdeeds of the present Government, or, again, to let them be sunk in the cry for Tariff Reform, would be a capital error.
Without further apology, we will set forth in outline some of the things which it seems to us should be strongly insisted upon by Unionist candidates at the General Election as appropriate work for the new Parliament. These measures divide themselves naturally into matters of Constitutional and of administrative reform. We will take the Constitutional questions first. In our opinion, there is no matter which more imperatively calls for action on the part of the Unionist Party than the reduction of the over-representation of Ireland, or perhaps it would be fairer to say the under-representation. of England. Until justice has been done to England in this respect, the Unionist leaders cannot be said to have performed their duty to the electors. And remember that what is required is no half-hearted or tentative measure of the kind proposed by the last Unionist Government before they left office, but a bond fide effort to put the matter right once and for all, and on an automatic basis. To leave Ireland with some forty Members too many, and England with forty Members too few, is nothing short of treason to the cause of the Union. The next Constitutional measure which it is essential for the Unionists to recommend to the electors is the Referendum. The State is not safe unless some power cf veto exists over the vagaries of the elected representa- tives of the people. Under our present system, as has actually happened, and may easily happen again, a majority of the Members of the House of Commons may represent a minority of the electors. Thus the legislation imposed upon the country often represents the will, not of the majority, but of the minority. A power of veto upon legislation of this kind is needed in the true interests of democracy. But in whose hands can it be safer or more reasonable to place this right of veto than in those of the people themselves ? It is urged by the enemies of the Referendum, who, strangely enough, are to be found in the ranks of the party which claims to be in a special sense democratic, that the lodging of a right of veto in the handle of the people would prevent all reform. That this is true we cannot admit for a moment ; but even if it were, it is no argument against the Referendum. It would merely mean that the people were against change, and in our opinion, at any rate, here, as elsewhere, the will of the people must prevail. As a matter of fact, however, the Referendum would, as a rule, only prevent changes of a useless, doubtful, and expensive kind, and would not be inimical to true reform. In a pamphlet published by the British Weekly entitled " Against the Referendum " which we noticed some time ago, the author wrote as follows as regards the experience of America :- " Members of the Legislatures, they [the advocates of the Referendum) say, may be • lobbied, wheedled or bull-dozed,' but the citizens are too numerous to be threatened or befooled. In the words of Mr. Gold-win Smith, a staunch supporter of the Referendum, the people is- net in fear of its ye-election -if it throws out something supported by the Irish, the Prohibitionist, the Catholic, or the Methodist vote.' In America this partial or local Referendum has worked as a distinctly conservative force. It has been, as Mr. Bryce points ont, rather a bit and a bridle than a spur for the Legislature. Here is a fact which English Liberals should ponder. In America, as in Switzerland., Me _Referendum retards progress. Of America, as of Switzerland, Mr. Lecky's words are true. • The tendencies which it' (the popular vote) • most strongly shows are a dislike to large expenditure, a dislike to centralisation, a dislike to violent innovation.'" Again, under the headingReal Objections " we are told: " The Befe.rendum. would work steadily to the disad- vantage of the Liberal Party." Here are some other very candid statements :— "Now it must surely be obvious that there would never be a sufficient number of voters enthusiastic enough about any one reform to carry it in the teeth of the formidable opposition that would make itself felt through the Referendum. When the people vote at an election, they vote for a number of reforms, both social and political; the man who cares for one may be quite indifferent
"At the Referendum polls the people tighten the purse-strings, repent of generous enthusiasms, yield to the petty caprices and whims of democratic government. The second thoughts of voters are apt to be purely selfish thoughts. Advocates of the Referendum see in it a drag upon the wheels of social legislation."
" Are Liberals going to put another weapon in the bands of their deadliest enemies? Every reformer mourns over the slow and lingering processes of Parliamentary legislation. It is hard indeed to carry the very smallest Radical measure in the teeth of the vested interests. By adopting the Referendum wo should enormously strengthen all the forces of reaction."
In other words, the people are not to have the legislation they want, but the legislation desired by certain " " doctrinaires who have usurped the forms without the substance of democracy, and who indulge the license without the temper of Liberalism.
The truth of the statements made by the editor of the British. Weekly we do not doubt. In them are to be found the reason why Unionists should support the Referendum. In addition to the. Referendum, we should ourselves like to see the principle of proportional repre- sentation adopted. No doubt to some extent this would render recourse to the Referendum less essential. It would make Parliament a far truer mirror of public opinion. There are, however, certain important reasons why proportional representation should be used to supplement the Referendum. One of its area advantages is that it would bring into Parliament a considerable number of men who, though they would do excellent work in the House of Commons, cannot be elected in existing circumstances. They do not fit into the regular party system. To take one example. Under our present system it has proved -very difficult indeed to find a place for a man like Lord Hugh Cecil. Under pro- portional representation his return to the House of Commons would be a matter of little or no difficulty. Finally, it is the duty of the Unionist Party to pledge themselves to a reform of the House of, Lords. As a matter of fact, such reform would be by no means difficult. By adopting the principles of Lord Newton's Bill a House which would be strong, but not too strong, might be con- structed, and a House which would have the confidence and respect of the country. A House fined down to three hundred, or at the most three hundred and fifty, Peers, by giving admission to the House of Lords only to Peers who had won the right to sit by having proved their ability by some form of public work, or else by possessing the confidence of the Peers as a whole, would be a body which need not fear comparison with any Second House in any part of the world.
We must turn now to the question of administrative reforms. Here the first question which ought to be taken up by the new House of Commons is the problem of local taxation. Our system of local taxation requires funda- mental alteration. The ideal would be to abolish all rates and substitute a local Income-tax. If, however, this is thought too big a scheme, then probably the next best plan would be to relieve from rating everything but dwelling-houses, and thus convert the rates into a local Inhabited House Duty. Speaking generally, a man's house is a pretty good indication of his income. The richer a man, the better his house. Though a certain number of men may get poorer without moving into smaller and less expensive houses, very few people grow richer without enlarging and improving their homes. Again, people who occupy two or three houses are usually people who are proportionately richer than their single-house neighbours. No doubt this change, which would relieve agriculture from the monstrous special tax now placed upon its raw material, agricultural land, and would also relieve agriculture in common with all other forms of industry from the taxes placed on business premises, would., if nothing else were done, lay far too heavy a burden on inhabited houses. To meet this difficulty recourse must be had to what should, indeed, have been done long ago, the placing on the Imperial Exchequer of the charges for many services now provided locally. In our view, education should. become a national charge, and so should. the roads.
The next domestic question which should. be dealt with by the new Parliament, if, as we trust and believe, it is one in which the Unionist will be the predominant influence, is the question of Poor Law reform. Here the Majority Report of the Poor Law Commission should enable the Unionist Government to check the terrible waste and demoralisation which are caused. by the existing system of Poor Law administration. Sydney Smith at the end of his life declared that the old. Poor Law—i.e. before 1835— was eating out the vitals of the nation. Unless something of a drastic nature is done, and done soon, we shall find ourselves before long in precisely the same position. Next, we hold. that the time is ripe for the Unionist Party to take up the question of National Service. They ought to do their best to persuade the nation to give every young man after he has reached the age of seventeen four months' training in the duty of national defence, and then to make it obligatory for him to enter the Territorial Army for a period of not less than four years, supple- mented by four years' service in the Territorial Reserve. To secure the utmost popular sanction for such a measure, it should before coming into operation be submitted. to a poll of the people. We have said nothing as to the duty of the Unionists to provide for naval defence and for the maintenance of an efficient Regular Army, because we know that the Unionist Party generally regard. these matters as too essential for debate or discussion. As to the Navy, we should like to point out, however, that the safest plan—the plan most likely to be effective in the end in preventing undue expendi- ture owing to competition with naval rivals—is to err on the side of over-preparation during the next few years. We believe that if we show Germany that we regard the command of the sea as so essential to these islands that we are prepared to spend double what they spend, and therefore to provide double the force provided by any other Power, we shall do more than we can by any other plan to discourage competition for the command of the sea. If we only do just enough to keep ahead, the result may very well be not to check German rivalry but to stimulate it,— to lure Germany on by the hope that if she only makes a little more effort she will overtake, and finally outdistance us.
It may at first, and on a superficial view, seem strange that in this context we should express our strong desire that the Unionist Party should take up the matter of the reduction of expenditure, Imperial and local. We view with the utmost apprehension the want of prudence, not only in our annual expenditure, but in our borrowing, and especially in our local borrowing. We should like to introduce a drastic Treasury veto on local loans, and upon any local schemes which will prove a burden on the tax- payer. At the same time, we would call a halt upon all new proposals for increasing expenditure in the civil Departments of the central Government. Finally, and in spite of the fiscal difficulties caused by the profligate expenditure of the present Government, we would maintain in full vigour the existing Sinking Funds, old and new. The annual reduction of the National Debt is the beginning and the end of sound finance. Unless in times of peace and prosperity we reduce the National Debt, we can never properly maintain the national credit. But an un- impaired national credit, especially in times of danger and perplexity such as are only too likely to occur in the immediate future, is an asset of the first importance. ..As our readers know, we have never ceased to • urge the duty of national preparation for defence, and one -of the most effective forms of such preparation is the maintenance of a sound. system for providing the sinews of war. -