TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE BLOTS IN THE REFORM BILL.
THE Ministerial Reform Bill is a double disappointment. It disappoints us as a practical proposition. It disappoints us still more in the measure it affords us both of the kind and the amount of deliberation which it has received in the Cabinet. It could scarcely have been proposed as it was by the Chan- cellor of the Exchequer in a speech of which not a word was devoted to the discussion of the true principle of Reform or of the principle of the particular measure or of any question of principle at all in connection with the subject,—a speech consisting of pure exposition of detail,—a speech which would have been appropriate only if resolutions laying down the true principles had been already fully discussed and agreed upon by resolutions of the House, and it had been left to the Government to embody them in the form of a particular Bill, it could scarcely have been proposed, we say, in such a speech by such a statesman as Mr. Gladstone, if the Cabinet had previously devoted any reasonable proportion of its time to the most important matter of all—the true mark to be aimed at, and the intellectual ground to be taken up in order to show that their proposal had neither missed nor overshot that mark. The Ministerial Reform Bill seems tom neither a wisemeasure in itself nor,—what is almost, if not quite, as important—ameasure that bears the traces of wise counsel. Some men, though with insignificant and expressionless features, carry about with them all the signs of the worthier bearing and expression of their ancestry ; they have the marks of high descent, though they stand on the lower ground themselves. We had at least hoped that the exposition of any measure of this kind by Mr. Gladstone would have borne traces of the catholicity and depth of Mr. Gladstone's political character ; that even if he had rejected what we think wise principles, he would have given acute and plausible reasons for rejecting them ; that he would have paid the many sagacious politicians who have discussed this great question through the last ten years, the respect of showing them that he had pondered their ideas and canvassed them with his colleagues ; that he would have laid down the exact place of this Bill on a chart of political prin- ciples as clearly as he did its position on the map of adminis- trative official practice ; that he would have made the House see the course of thought taken in the Cabinet, no less than the precise resolve taken. But of all this there was absolutely no sign. His speech seems to us to prove either that the Cabinet could not agree on any principle, or that it had never occurred to them that such a measure needed a principle to agree upon. There was absolutely no intellectual definition of its aim at all. No standard of representative equity, if we may so say, was set up, or even hinted at ; no false standard was exposed ; no intellectual bearings taken. Whether Mr. Glad- stone thought that every great class-interest as such ought to have a voice in the Legislature or not, —whether he thought that, if so, some may be only indirectly while some are directly represented there,—whether he considered the whole idea of re- presenting interests false or not, —how far he conceived that a greater political capacityshould secure additional political power to any section of society in the representative assembly,— whether he held that the House of Commons should be chosen solely with a view to get the highest deliberative ability, or also with a view to present the truest picture of the state of the nation,—on each and all of these rather pertinent issues Mr. Gladstone not only said nothing, but implied nothing. He plunged into the thick of his statistics, without leading up to them by the faintest indication of a clue by which to regulate our judgment. That is the first disappointment, and it cannot but do much to weaken the chance of the Government measure, for it would seem, whether falsely or truly, to convey an impres- sion that the Cabinet have been discussing a measure without a bottom,—indeed agreeing to ignore the necessity of having a foundation of political principle of any kind for the little group of floating islands of detail on which they have, as it were by chance, alighted. And the disappointment caused by the measure itself is the natural consequence of the disappointment caused by the 'conspicuous absence' of principles. First, it is ostentatiously imperfect even in what it deals with, and what it does deal with it does not settle. Mr. Gladstone tells us that if we pass this Bill there are four others of almost equal importance, one at least of greater importance, standing over, and we shall have only begun the repairs which it will take at least a septennial Parliament of full duration to finish. But Mr. Glad- stone does not tell ts,—what, however, everybody sees,—that the solutions arrived at in this Bill are drawn like lottery prizes,. the Government giving no reason beyond their own arbitrary choice for selecting them. It may be said certainly of the- 71. borough franchise, for instance, what the irreverent church- goer said of the two-hours' sermon in answer to some one's complaint of its length,—" Yes, but it was very good of him to stop at all, for there was no reason why he should." No one can say why they stopped at 71. Mr. Gladstone indeed asserted that it had a negative merit,—namely, that it would not "suddenly invest the working class with preponderating. power,"—from which most persons may be inclined to infer that if only they gain preponderating power, not suddenly,. but slowly and surely, Mr. Gladstone at least would approve. When we are told to pause on a particular step lest we should come down too " suddenly," the implied suggestion certainly is that the step so reached is a point of fresh departure for some lower point. And this was the great and fatal impres- sion produced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer's speech, —that the point chosen for a pause, and selected on the mere- ipse dinit of the Cabinet without a vestige of reason for it, is not one at which it is even possible to do more than pause,— is at most a mere landing in the flight of descending stairs ; and worse still, the Government which has chosen it see this clearly, and so regard it, —only objecting to "investing the working class with preponderating power " suddenly.
That is the first great blot in the Government measure,—that it professes, even temporarily, only to deal with one out of at the very least three great questions all closely bound up toge- ther, leaving the others for prolonged agitation ; and that the one it does propose to deal with, it does not propose to settle, but encourages the notion of indefinite extension in the direc- tion of numerical representation at some future day. But the next great blot in the Government measure, though it has been less insisted on, seems to us quite as great, —namely, that it does as much harm in the smaller constituencies as it does good in the larger. We are anxious to admit that what it effects in the great manufacturing towns of the North is all, so far as it goes, in a right direction. But what does it propose to effect elsewhere?. There are two classes of boroughs in which the influence of the working classes is already large, and where, by this Bill, it would be made preponderant,—boroughs of which. Manchester and Birmingham are the type, and boroughs of which Beverley- and Maldon are the type. • There are also probably a few not inconsiderable boroughs neither notoriously corrupt, nor, on the other hand, connected with any energetic manufacture whose journeymen and handicraftsmen will, under the new Bill, be in the majority. Thus Greenwich, Southwark, Bolton, Bury, Preston, Warrington, Wigan, Salford, Newcastle-on- Tyne, and others of that class, will most likely, should the Bill pass, be absolutely in the hands of working-class constituencies ; as also will be Bridgewater, Guildford, Marlborough, Great Marlow, Peterborough, Westbury, Stafford, St. Ives, Reigate, and others of the same type. Nor is it very easy to say, whether the Bill will do most to throw power into the hands of the respectable working class or the venal working class ; as far as we can see, the number of seats handed over to the independent artizans by this measure and the number of seats handed over to the venal class will be about equal. The new statistics, no doubt, give us far better means of calcu- lating the effect on the small boroughs than the effect on the large. The abolition of the compound Act and of the rate- paying classes in the large boroughs may be anything what- ever,—is, indeed, an unknown quantity. But, so far as we can judge at all, let us take a few instances of the effect of the Bill on boroughs of each class taken at random from the detailed borough statistics of the new Blue-book :— Birmingham will probablyhave under the Bill about 60 per cent. of its constituency working men; Bury, 52 per cent.; Bradford, 41 per cent. ; Halifax, 38 per cent. ; Leeds, 35 per cent. On the other hand, Maldon, one of the most corrupt of corrupt places, will have 63 per cent. of its constituency working men ; Beverley, 60 per cent. ; Taunton, 45 per cent. ; Harwich, 42 per cent. ; and Ipswich, 39 per cent. Thus Maldon will be able to sell itself so as to neutralize Birmingham, Beverley so as to doubly outweigh the influence of Bury, which has but one member, while Beverley has two ; Taunton so as to balance Bradford, Harwich Halifax, and Ipswich Leeds. And we repeat that, so far as we see, for every borough given up to a powerful and intelligent working class there will be another given up to an ignorant and corrupt working class. Now what a monstrous and discreditable act of cowardice on the part of the Government is this I They know as well as we do that the equal lowering of the franchise in different -sorts of boroughs will have, not the same, but opposite effects, and that there is. no constitutional pretence for treating all -alike, where all the circumstances which determine the results of their elections are different. You might just as well confer titles on all the poor younger sons because you give one to the rich elder son, as lower the franchise in poor and sleepy boroughs, where it will do only harm, because there is a good _reason for doing so in rich and energetic boroughs, where it will do only good. There is something peculiarly sad about the feebleness and abject fear of precedent which obliges the Government to distribute their political rewards equally to the industrious and intelligent, who will put them out to interest, and to the spendthrift and the drunkard, who will sell what they can of their right in them next day for a five- pound note and a day's drinking. We could understand a Conservative Government doing this, on the cynical plea that the corrupt working class will thus help to neutralize the Radicalism of the independent working class,—but that it should be deliberately done by a Liberal Government from sheer fear of the taunt that they would be creating -anomalies, when they would be really removing them, is one of the most deplorable signs of the growing disposition of governments to cringe to the weakest of public prejudices (not opinions), and even to a prejudice which has never yet been called upon to justify itself to the public reason. If only the Government had lowered the franchise to 71. in all the larger boroughs, say the boroughs containing 75,000 population and upwards, and had left the franchise elsewhere untouched, some- thing might have been said for the Bill. The great variety of circumstances in the Yorkshire and Lancashire boroughs would have thrown the power in some of them into the hands of the working class, and left it in others in the hands of the capi- talists. Thus Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, &c., would still have -chiefly represented capital, while Manchester, Bury, Birming- ham, &c., would chiefly have represented labour. A variety in .the centre of representative power would have been produced in different places, without any variety of qualification. But to extend wantonly the corruptible class of the country towns in order to render the necessity of the Corrupt Practices legisla- tion mentioned by Mr. Gladstone still more inevitable, under the plea of giving power to the working class, seems to us the very -climax of mischievous caprice.
The last great blot in the Bill, only less, as it seems to us, than the one we have just named, is the attempt to separate .two questions so absolutely bound up together as the redis- tribution of seats and the enfranchisement of a new class. We are not now speaking of the general evil of an indefinite prospect of unsettlement and agitation. The mischief of sepa- rating the question of how much power you shall give to the working class in any given constituency, from the question of .how many members that constituency is to have, is entirely distinct and sui generic. In fact the two questions run into each other everywhere, and you cannot pretend to give a just decision of the one without attempting a just decision of the other. The object of the Bill is to secure a fair Parliamentary :representation for the working class of the kingdom in general in its most intelligent and characteristic form, not for the working class of any one particular locality. Lord Cranbourne calculates that 133 seats will be handed over to the workingclass, if this Bill should pass. It is quite certain, however, that not the _half of those will be really handed over to true working-class constituencies at all, —that half at least will belong to a class less independent, more corrupt, more at the mercy of mere -wealth than they now are. When therefore the next ques- tion comes up of the redistribution of seats, it will be the cue -of the Conservatives to count all these as working-class boroughs, as Lord Cranbourne did on Tuesday night, and to -clamour for some equivalent transfer of seats to the counties by way of compensation for the landed interest. Nor will it be very easy for the Government to cry down the constituen- cies they have themselves made, and assure the House that half, or much more than half, of these working-class constituen- cies are really certain to be a prey to the highest bidder. If .the Government are weak, such a concession to the landed in- lerest,—alieady in a clear majority in the House (if you reckon boroughs -virtually governed by it), as the cattle-plague dis- cussion sufficiently showed,—such a concession as the Aber- deen Government really contemplated,—would only be too likely, And the effect would be that while the working class might really gain something like fifty seats, the landowners would come out of the struggle practically stronger than ever, and the manufacturing capitalists indefinitely weaker than ever,—for all the gain of the working class would then be entirely at their expense. It, is impossible even to dis- cuss what is or what is not a fair transfer of power to the working class, without knowing who are ultimately to lose the power so transferred, and this cannot be decided without settling the question of redistribution. If the working class are to have all their real gain at the expense of the manufacturers, the representative efficiency of Parliament will not be increased, but diminished. The fifty or sixty seats which we hope to see given to them must not be taken from the most energetic and enterprising element of our English commerce. Unless the North is to gain as many new Northern seats as will pass from the present constituencies there to the new constituencies, the Bill may prove to be a mere aggravation of the present undue preponderance of the landed gentlemen. On the whole, the Government Bill, so far as it affects the borough franchise, seems to us to lack three important essen- tials,—first, a principle,—next, an excuse for the purposeless in- crease of the corrupt and dependent class of electors in the smaller boroughs pari passu with that of the honest and independent class in the larger boroughs,—lastly, a guarantee that it is not going to rob a very ill-represented class, the manufacturing capi- talists, of almost all their influence in Parliament, in order to find room for a totally unrepresented class, instead of taking from the superfluous and excessive political influence of land one of the talents which it has abused, and handing it over to labour, for more fruitful and worthy use.