TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE NEW DANGER AHEAD.
TT is quite possible that the Government, which looks so strong, and which upon every other question is so strong, may be wrecked upon the Local Government Bill. Mr. Walter Long, Secretary to the Department, and Mr. Ritchie, its President, have both stated that this will be the great measure of the Session after the reforms of Procedure have been passed, and both have given some important hints as to the character of the Bill to be proposed. Mr. Ritchie, for example, intimates that the rural municipalities will be bound to exercise their licensing powers as the existing authorities do, the difficult question of local option being postponed to a future opportunity. That is wise. We do not want the first elections to new and most important governing bodies to be spoiled by battles about drink, nor is it expedient to heap duties upon those bodies before we see how they will work. There will be plenty of surprises before public opinion becomes settled as to their merits and defects, and the concentration of all local powers in their hands, how- ever ultimately expedient, may well be deferred until we have more light. On the other hand, Mr. Long tells us that the Bill will be a big Bill, that it will contain provisions for the readjustment of local taxation, that the Government has solved the allotment problem in a satisfactory way, and that an effort will be made to secure a just representation on the local Councils of all classes and interests. It is well, upon this point, to quote his exact words, for it is around the meaning they conceal that the great battle will rage :—" Much had been said about a system of representative local government, and that was what her Majesty's Govern- ment desired and hoped to be able in the coming Session to make the law of the land. The first difficulty which presented itself was what was the meaning of representative local government. The Government believed that it should be made representative to such an extent that those who adminis- tered local affairs should represent, in the fullest and highest and most complete sense of the word, all those classes and all those interests on whose behalf they would be called upon to legislate, and in connection with which they would hold such great responsibilities. They had devised a system which they believed would achieve that result. That system he was not at present empowered to describe, but it would be based upon this desire,—that whereas the interests of the people, of which so much had been spoken of late, should be fully and fairly represented upon those constituent bodies, so should the interests of all other classes." Those words are, of course, purposely made vague ; but they obviously imply that the rural Councils to be created will not be wholly elected on the simple democratic system, but will be composed in part of mem- bers intended to represent and to protect the interests of property. The method of such protection is, as we have said, purposely left vague ; but of the object there can be no doubt. The Government, which is, after all, Conservative, has decided— it is rumoured after a sharp internal contest—to modify its concession to a popular demand by retaining in some form or way the nominative principle.
It is a dangerous resolve. We do not, as Unionists, deny that some concession must be made to a Government which derives its main strength from Tory support, or shut our eyes to the inevitable pressure which such a Government must experience from its old, and especially its hereditary supporters. It must be very galling to the country gentry, the great landowners, the hereditary magistrates, to be levelled with all other men as regards the management of county business, and the bitter- ness is not the less because the unpalatable draught is pre- sented by their own friends. We can understand that influence has been exerted within the party of a most direct kind, and that Lord Salisbury has felt most unwilling to break with old connections and avow himself what he really is, the head of a new and combined Whig Party, possessed for the time of a large majority within the United Kingdom. And, we may add, we see perfectly, and do not underrate, the advantages of placing a moderating influence 'within the new Councils, until at least they have learned experience, and until over-sanguine hopes about their action in several directions have had time to die away. We do not want to see a property panic, still less a contest of classes, raised by the inconsiderate action of Councils, from which, at first, the less prosperous classes will expect a great deal too much. Never- theless, we deplore the decision. Simple representation has be- come the English system, and the plan of conceding it alike to the nation and to the towns, and refusing it to the rural districts, is logically too indefensible. The Radicals will vote against it to a man, and the country electors will, we fear, vote with the Radicals, the small farmers disliking the nominative principle —the interference of the 46 Fishys " as they call them—almost as much as the labourers. Even the Unionists cannot be depended on. Those who follow Lord Hartington may declare that the Irish Question is supreme—as it is—and therefore abstain from voting ; but Mr. Chamberlain can hardly do even that, or any Member whose seat depends upon the agricultural labourers' votes. Any scheme not purely representative will require most careful piloting, in which Lord Randolph's skill and audacity will, it must be remembered, be wholly wanting ; and there are some Conservative proposals for the new Councils which nothing, we are satisfied, could save. There must be no es-officio members ; if there are, the Government is lost. It is simply impossible for Liberals of any kind to accept Councils which may be swamped at any time by the entrance of nominee Magistrates in numbers limited only by the discretion of the Crown. That is not representative govern- ment at all. In principle, it is disliked by all classes in the country except the squires, and it has this radical defect in practice, that it deters the best candidates from coming for- ward. As long as there are ex-officio members of the County Councils, it will be a matter of social pride to be "an ex- officio," and not an elected member. It is of the first importance that the landlords should seek seats on the Councils, and not play the senseless and most injurious part which the commercial and manufacturing magnates have played in London and some other great towns. We want to see the Duke of Northumberland and the ablest artisan in Alnwick seated side by side as members of the governing body of that district of the county ; and the former never will be so seated if he can sit by right of his magisterial position. No such plan will be accepted, and the scheme of nominated members, though a little better because the number would be limited, is not good enough to pass. The idea at its base, sound or unsound, is too much opposed to democratic principle, and to the pledges which Liberals of every variety have given to their constituents. The great cities will rage at such a proposal, seeing danger, if it succeeded, to themselves, and the great cities are becoming bulwarks of Conservatism. It might be possible, we suppose, to pass a measure under which the freeholders by themselves seated a third of the Council by election ; but we doubt its conser- vative effect, and distrust all schemes which gut the lists of popular candidates of all the best names. The scheme, too, would not last. It would be abolished by the very next Radical Administration, and would only leave behind it distrust of the country gentry, who can enter the Councils in heaps if they will only take the trouble. They are popular enough in England and Scotland, they know how to do the work, and they have the incalculable advantage of time at their disposal. If a conservative guarantee is necessary at all, we would seek it in a totally different direction,—namely, in a nominated Chairman, paid if needful, who should be the adviser and moderator of the Council, and the representative of its executive authority. There would always be a moderate party who would stand by the Chairman, and if a capable man, he would acquile much of the authority of a Chairman of Quarter-Sessions among Magistrates. At all events, he would always be able to prevent positive illegality. We are quite aware that this plan would in no way meet the social feeling which lies at the bottom of all resistance to County Municipalities ; but what is the use of shattering parties by crying for the moon ? Arrangements to the taste of " society " are no longer possible in politics, and the object of true Conservatives should be first to make them as good as may be, and next to induce the men they trust to help to work them. What earthly harm can a County Council do to the gentry, if the county electors send them up as their best representatives ?