TOPICS OF THE DAY.
SHALL THERE BE A REFORM BILL IN 1884
THE discussion which is raging among the country papers as to the expediency of devoting the next Session to the reform of the County Franchise is, we think, a little prema- ture. The Government certainly has not made up its mind. The nature of th'e Reform Bill may be settled, and from Mr. Chamberlain's letter we think it is, because upon that point the conditions are unalterable ; but responsible statesmen dis- like prophetic decisions, and neither the Ministry nor the con- stituency can say what the position of affairs in February may be. Not to mention the usual risks of change, change arising from deaths, accidents, or sudden bursts of popular emotion, Asia may be ringing with a great war, amidst which it would be most inexpedient for Parliament to disperse, or the situation in Egypt may have again become serious, or Ireland may once more have slipped out of hand. Sensible men postpone such resolutions as long as they may, and, unless coerced by irre- sistible arguments, keep even their inner minds free to decide when the necessity for decision has arrived, according to circumstances and opportunities. Where are these irresistible arguments ? So far as we see, there is no principle involved in the debate, and the reasons of expediency are about as strong on one side as the other. We will endeavour to state them as fairly. as may be, first premising that we look upon the introduction of the Bill as the signal of a coming dissolu- tion. We do not believe, when it comes to the point, that the Conservatives will accept the proposal of household suffrage in the Counties. They will not dare to run the risk of so alienating the farmers. They may not, it is true, resist directly, for many of them are pledged to the principle of the measure ; but they will resist indirectly, either on the ground of opportuneness, or under cover of a demand for Redis- tribution, but with the secret hope that the farmers will replace the counties in their hands. They can morally compel the Peers to throw out the Bill and so force a dissolu- tion, and we are by no means sure that their hope is altogether ill-founded. The farmers do not like the admission of the labourers to the suffrage, and the clergy are well aware that the new franchise will greatly increase the apparent, if not the real power, of the village Dissenters, a class little understood in towns. It is known that these ideas greatly affected the recent election for Rutland, and there are close observers who believe that had not Mr. Lowther made resistance to the labourers' suffrage his cheval de bataille, the abstainers would have been fewer by many hundreds, and the result of the election far less disheartening to the defeated side.
The reasons for bringing in the Franchise Bill next year are on the surface. One, and an exceedingly strong one, is that, supposing no accident to intervene, we can bring it in. It is never wise to delay a good and necessary work which it is not imperative to delay, and which if delayed may by possibility be delayed for a long period. No one knows what may happen before 1885 to bring in the Conservatives, and if they came in they would undoubtedly wait six years, and might wait twelve, before they would allow that the opportunity for a change they all dislike had certainly arrived. Mean- while, the rural population would be every year grow- ing more impatient with their exclusion, and every year, as the exclusion attracted more and more attention, the prestige of the House of Commons as a truly representa- tive body would perforce decline. No one wishes that to be diminished further. So long as the non-electors are unnoticed or deliberately excluded, their absence matters little ; but the moment the duty of admitting any great body of the people is recognised, their absence paralyses the moral influence of the representatives. Other men, with other ideas and other in- structions, ought to be sitting where the County Members sit. The unfairness of settling questions in which labourers are in- terested without taking the labourers' vote, now scarcely noticed, will then be painfully felt, with the resulting irritation that always springs up under a Government which is visibly that of a class. This is a strong argument, as.is also one more fre- quently pressed, that Parliament visibly needs reinvigoration, which can only come from a wider and more universal suffrage. We should be sorry to believe this quite true, for there must be an end to reductions of the franchise one day ; and if every constituency wears out, the House of Commons must in the long-last wear out too. There is nothing below earth for Antanis to renew his force from. Still, the argument is true,
as far as it goes, and with the majority in the country,. weary as they are of the powerlessness of Parliament,. and doubtful as they are if new procedure will remove it, this belief tells, perhaps, more than any other. And finally, there is the argument that this particular Parlia- ment lacks "go,"—that it has, from some cause not clearly defined, but special to itself, grown old before its, time ; and that not only a change of suffrage, but even a dis- solution would be an advantage in itself. The country would be rid of a weak House, which can hardly get through work, and except when shocked into energy by an occurrence like the Phcenix Park murders cannot, or will not, act either with sense, or speed, or decision. The Members have grown flaccid, and require to be re-toned by contact with the Constituencies,. and by fresh information as to what they must do and avoid. This argument is very wide-spread, and we believe, much more- effective than it appears. A good deal of the supposed decay of interest in Parliament arises from decay of interest in this Parliament, which, though unusually full of intelligence, has, no doubt, bored mankind, and allowed mankind to be worried by bores, to an extent beyond all precedent. It has been the Tiresome Parliament, par excellence. There never was a House of Commons in which inferior men were so pain- fully visible, or in which, though some debates have been fine, the general current of debate was so innutritious to the national mind. We have descended from Mr. Darby Griffiths. to Mr. Ashmead-Bartlett.
These arguments are strong, but those on the other side are strong also. In the first place, little is lost by delay, and no particular injustice will be done. The disposition to grant the reduced suffrage to the counties will not die away, but rather increase with time ; and no question of the last importance to villagers, like the Disestablishment of the Church, for instance, is likely to be brought to the front. The argument from the possibility of the chapter of accidents being unfavour- able, though it weighs with the public, will hardly weigh with statesmen, who know that the incalculable is the incalculable because it cannot be calculated, and that if they once began. speculating on the unforeseen, they would never act. The reinvigoration of Parliament may be effected before the suffrage is changed by commands from the existing constituency, and as to the defects of this particular House, the next one may be no better. It may possibly be worse, if Ireland has had no time to cool down, to realise to itself that the tenantry who make up so large a proportion of its people have obtained perpetuity of tenure, subject to the payment of comparatively moderate rent, and to comprehend that obstruction can no more produce prosperity than ruts can help on a coach. The lassitude of the House will hardly increase, for much of it springs from the fact that Members desire changes less than their constituents do, and the allusion of time brings home to the former the necessity of conciliating their masters. They will not want to be treated as faineants on the hustings, but will rather be disposed to work ; and there is so much work to be done. This Parliament, before it disperses, ought to keep more of its promises. It has not done anything at all to make land as saleable as Consols, to restrict settlement, to create rural municipalities, or to give London a government, and very little to reform its own procedure. The country has in part acquiesced in its failure, but in part it has not, as Members will find when they come to ask for re-election. In one more Sesssion of work, with Members aware of a fresh responsibility, much of the unfulfilled might get itself fulfilled, no doubt with too much labour and needless friction, and harassing wear-and-tear, but still to the decided benefit of the country. The House is one of relaxed fibre, but still it is one which might be induced to vitalise London, and pass a solid Land Enfranchisement Act, and carry further the experiment, in some respects so successful, of " devolution ;" and it is a pity that more of such useful work should not be done before the constituencies are asked to send up a Parliament which, as it must be speedily dissolved again to try the new suffrage, may possibly do very little. Another weary and tedious but work- ing Session might give time to the public mind to ripen, both in England and Ireland, and perhaps deepen the inclination to send up more vigorous men.
Upon the whole, we should be disposed to say that the dis- pute is one upon which the judgment of the Ministers, who will know exactly what presses and does not press, will be the safest guide, and which may be wisely left in their hands, without much guidance from a half-instructed, outside opinion.