NEWS OF THE WEEK.
THE quiet explanation of a Reform Bill, which Lord John Russell made to a quiet House of Commons on the 13th of February THE quiet explanation of a Reform Bill, which Lord John Russell made to a quiet House of Commons on the 13th of February 1854, contrasts with the tumultuous excitement on the 31st of
March 1831, when he introduced a measure almost revolutionary in its intent and scope. The contrast brings home to us the cheering contemplation of happier times—of an improved condi- tion of the people with more defined objects, and in the Legisla- tare a more liberal, temperate, and judicious spirit in the discus- sion of popular claims.
It is on account of this difference between the circumstances and temper of the times that the measure which was now sponta- neously proposed by Ministers to an attentive but not excited assemblage, partook so much more of the constructive character, and so little of the subversive. The bill may be considered as divided into four parts,—one, depriving the smallest boroughs of their single Members, and many small towns of one Member out of two ; a second, redistributing the sixty-two seats thus vacated, with the four that belonged to Sudbury and St. Albans, by addi- tions to important towns or counties, and enfranchisement of newly-grown boroughs ; a third, extending borough and county franchise, with a six-pound rating test for the former and a ten- pound occupancy for the latter, or establishing new franchises of an educational or industrial kind; and a fourth, repealing the ratepaying clauses rendering the register absolute, and thus free- ing the actual constituency from practical diminution by theworking of oblique checks. It has been estimated that the bill will augment the present constituency by about one-third. It may be said of the measure that it extends without extinguishing ; for even in the case of those constituencies which lose the separate Member which their numbers do not justify, it is not disfranchisement, since their votes are merged in the county, and they have as large a share of representation as in abetter-arranged system they duly merit. In other respects the changes proposed by the bill are simply additions or extensions of what exists already. Nor is it innovating. It may be described as carrying into effect claims long recognized as rea- sonable, and principles admitted by very considerable numbers, or as extending privileges now enjoyed by one class to others who do not less merit them. In a000rdance with general opinion, numbers are recognized in the distribution of the sixty-two seats hitherto appropriated to imperfect constituencies, but now allotted so as to place the distribution of Members in accordance with the actual distribution of the community at large. Where the people have spontaneously gathered round convenient centres, these new centres are fixed for the representation. Where they have gathered round older centres in increasing numbers, there the re- Presentation is increased ; and where the people have dispersed, merging old towns in rustic districts, there the separate repre- sentation, which belongs to the people rather than to the land, dis- aPpears, or is merged in the county representation. A new Par- liamentary borough is added to the Metropolis, not without long • °-11-ing. Property is recognized as truly as any Conservative could demand, only it is no longer exclusively the property of the wealthy or the lordly but it is now also the small property of the industrious and thrifty which conveys the qualification for a vote. Education is recognized, as the most reflecting politicians have bag desired it to be ; and while representation is given to the learned bodies who have not yet been admitted to that privilege— the modern Universities or the Inns of Court—the pos- session of learning in the individual, attested by an academical.' degree, be,utes in itself the qualification for a vote. The claim of the Working olasies is recognized, not by universal suffrage;' '
which it would be impracticable to force upon any probable Go- vernment or Parliament at present, but by that extension of the borough franchise to a lower rental of occupation, which will give to numbers of the working classes a vote for their representa- tives, and in some towns will undoubtedly place the majority in working-class hands, and will thus introduce for the first time direct representation of the working man in the House of Com- mons. It has been calculated that this part of the bill will pro- bably add 150,000 of that class to the constituency. By the ex- tension of the ten-pound franchise to counties, the measure for which Mr. Locke King got so much support is incorporated in the bill, and the general character of the county constituency is placed more in harmonywith the borough constituency,—a provision which will aid other parts of the bill in harmonizing and uniting the action of the whole electoral body. By the new plan of allow- ing to each elector two votes for a town or county district where there are three Members, three votes where there are four Mem- bers, an opening is left for large minorities to have some voice, in lieu of absolute exclusion,by returning one out of the three or four. Indeed, the general tendency of the measure is to admit the represent- ation of many classes at present excluded or imperfectly repre- sented; not in order to impress a greater character of class legis- lation upon Parliament, but rather, by placing all classes more upon an equality, to fuse the action of the whole into a more har- monious unity.
The proposal that Members should retain their seats notwith- standing their acceptance of office under the Crown, will obviate the inconvenience often felt in the exclusion of a Minister from the business of Parliament. The objection that the provision will remove a check on the improper selection of Ministers appears to us to be fallacious ; since Members cannot be Ministers save by the concurrence of the majority in the House of Commons, and thus the country by its representatives at large affords that check which no single constituency can possibly secure under the pre- sent system. On the whole, though less dramatically striking than the old Re- form Bill, which was intended to subvert the previous regime, the Bill of 1854 is calculated greatly to improve the working of our re- presentative system. It is so carefully framed, that its parts must work together; and if it newly introduces important principles,— as in the representation of the working class, and the recognition of property in humbler proportions,—the change is introduced so gently and modestly that it can have no disturbing effect, but may soften disturbing movements hereafter. Of course adverse interests will be arrayed against it. Lancashire Members will say that Lancashire pretensions have not been sufficiently re- cognized. Members with a majority of freemen in their constituen- cies will still conciliate the votes of existing freemen, by protesting even against the prospective abolition of the order. Party men will object to a provision which admits the smallest chance for party opponents ; for Free-trade Manchester would be pleased totally and eternally to crash and silence Conservative Manchester. Thus, even on the Liberal side, there will not be wanting those who cannot take Mr. Thomas Duncombe's manly and sensible view of the matter, and accept a really great correction of the old Reform Bill for what will be its practioal effect, rather than its dramatic aspect for the moment. Bat the public at large ought to neutralize these smaller motives, and to sustain the Government which is spontaneously- offering a really beneficial measure. Or, should the public fail in that duty now, it will only have its deserts if no other opportunity be offered to it in this generation.