TOPICS OF THE DAY.
BIRMINGHAM AND THE WICK BURGHS.
"There he stood, And shouted loudly. Pallas joined her voice, And filled with terror all the Trojan host. Clear as the trumpet's voice which calls to arms Some town encompassed round with hostile bands, Bang out the voice of great Macides.
But when Achilles' voice of brass they heard They quailed in spirit."
Mr. Bright has always spoken on Reform as if innumerable voices were uttering themselves through him, even when he found the faintest following and the feeblest support ; and now at length his faith appears to be justified. Many voices cheer on the many-voiced. The man who spoke like a multitude has got the multitude to testify that he speaks for them. The sound of that pacific army's voice must fall ominously enough upon the ears of the enemies of Reform, and especially of the Conservative Administration. Hitherto, six times at least the trumpets have blown and the walls have not fallen, for the people have not shouted. But " the seventh time when the priests blew with the trumpets Joshua said to the people, '
Shout !' So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets ; and it came to pass when the people heard the trumpets, the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, so that the people took the city." And the omen is no doubt true enough, if we put aside the question of how the Constitution is to be enlarged, and look solely at the main issue, whether or not the wall of partition which still keeps the mass of the people absolutely without the citadel is or is not to be broken down. On a question of this kind such a stirring of the depths of popular emotion as took place last Monday at Birmingham is absolutely decisive. No English Legislature has ever yet ventured to shelve a question on obtaining a solution to which the mass of the people had set its heart. Mr. Bright, or it may be Mr. Gladstone,—who has been the true Joshua of this campaign, and without whose ad- monition to shout the working classes would even now scarce have raised up their voice,—has at last identified the pride and self-respect of the working classes with a victory over the exclusives and obstructionists, and changed their mood from a sort of contemptuous indifference to political squabbles to an enthusiastic determination to establish the claims made by the Liberal leaders in their name.
But while, or rather because, we gladly recognize and heartily welcome this striking demonstration of the unanimity and resolution of the working classes, we esteem it so much the more important that they should be met with that frankness and complete sincerity in which as yet both their friends and their opponents have been somewhat deficient,—a disastrous deficiency far more likely to lead them into political unfair- ness and rapacity than any temper of which we have as yet seen the slightest trace in the working classes themselves. We say that both the political enemies and political friends of the working classes have been hitherto guilty of dangerous though different kinds of insincerity, tending to provoke them to violence and a selfish assertion of their physical power, and we cannot better illustrate these double provocations to a false and exaggerated tone of political feeling than in the two recent speeches of Mr. Laing to some of his constituents of the Wick Burghs, and of Mr. Bright at Birmingham. There are two well marked kinds of political insincerity,—first, the feeble and restless groping after insincere compromise, which results from a collision between the thoughts, wishes, or moods of politicians, and the external necessities imposed by a popular constituency, of which Mr. Laing's speeches at Kirkwall and Wick are a. striking example ; and on the other hand, the strong and passionate uncandidness which, finding its own inner wishes exactly in accordance with the popular cry, resolutely shuts the door in the face of every intellectual consideration which intrudes itself upon the scene with any look of tending to modify or restrain the desired policy, and which while true is the most courageous and even audacious sense to the politi- cian's private wishes and passions, is of set purpose untrue and uncandid to the thoughts and arguments of opponents, excluding them, even when they almost force themselves on his train of reflection, by mere volition ; and of this last kind of political insincerity, which is not only con- sistent with, but implies, the fullest outpouring of the whole animus of character, and shrinking only from inconvenient thoughts running counter to that animus, Mr. Bright's speech to the people of Birmingham seems to us a very striking example.
To take Mr. Laing and his dim little meetings in the Kirkwall Grammar School and the Wick Temperance Hall first. What could be more politically insincere than his pendulous statements on the subject of Reform I First he said that he had supported the Ministry by his vote in every division after they consented to treat Reform as a whole, which was true, though he did not add, as the Scotsman in an excellent article well reminds him, that his speeches had been all hailed by the Tory Opposition with en- thusiastic cheers. His object, he said, had all along been " not to defeat Reform, but to enlarge it," a statement which he may try to reconcile as he best can with that other statement at the opposite extremity of the orator's mental Oscillation, that " when the present system of things worked so well, it was dangerous to interfere with it, and the best plan practically was to let well alone." We do not charge Mr. Laing with any conscious insincerity, but only with a very strong prepos- session in favour of the Conservative policy, and an almost equally strong and very uncomfortable certainty that pure Conservatism on this subject will not go down either with the Wick Burghs, or any other popular constituency. Hence the unfortunate man's mind is like a shuttlecock between two battledores ;—his convictions send him one way, and when he wakes up with a start to see that he is getting hopelessly out of sympathy with not only his own but all probable con- stituents, his interests make him modify and indeed half retract his private convictions. While he soliloquizes, he talks of " letting well alone ;" when the dim lights of the Kirkwall Grammar School or the Wick Temperance Hall show him the canny Scotch audience perpending who shall be their next member, he rushes into the idea that his object has been " not to defeat Reform, but to enlarge it." When he muses freely he objects to all reduction of the occupiers' franchise,—but as he catches some weather-beaten fisherman's eyes fixed smilingly upon him, as if he thought Mr.. Laing would be a very unsuccessful ' fisher of men' in future, he compounds with himself so far as to suggest that 401. worth of realized property in anything—lands, houses, boats, nets,— yielding, or supposed to yield, a net income of 40s. a year, on the model of the 40s. freehold,—should give the right to a vote. No doubt this quaint and rather local suggestion could be very eloquently supported by Mr. Laing if occa- sion offers. He might call it the apostolic franchise, point out that a boat-and-net franchise would probably have enfran- chised St. Peter and St. Andrew, and the sons of thunder, James and John, and get a Presbytery or two to memorialize in its favour. Still, on the whole, it is not,-we take it, very likely that Parliament will consent to have all the tools and furni- ture of every humble household in the United Kingdom appraised once a year; and probably that consolatory reflection was whispering comfort to Mr. Laing even when he gave in his own private adhesion to this revolutionary reform. We need not wonder if the working classes grow loud and extortionate in their demands, when they are opposed by men who, speaking their real mind, talk blank Conservatism, but recoil into absurd offers, the only merit of which is that they could never be carried, by way of concession to the Liberal prejudices of their audience.
We are not sure which is the worst kind of political insin- cerity ; that, like Mr. Laing's, which speaks two different voices in the same breath, quavering from the voice of conviction to the voice of concession ; or the want of candour—which is itself a kind of insincerity—which in Mr. Bright, so far from
wavering between two courses fortifies itself artificially in one, refuses to open its eyes to a class of considerations and argu- ments which sometimes place themselves so directly before his eyes that he cannot help glancing at them, only to avert his gaze as speedily as possible, and the uncandidness of which there- fore consists in the wilful singleness and obstinate simplicity of the policy advocated. What, for instance, did Mr. Bright, on his avowed theory of representation, mean by his complaint that the Bill of the late Government would not really have enfranchised much more than half the number of the opera-
tive class which it proposed to enfranchise Is he not per- petually telling us that class representation is a monstrous fallacy and mistake, and that any one man, if fit to vote at all, whatever the numbers of the class he may happen to belong to, ought to have precisely equal voting power with every other voter ; in other words, that the excellence of a Reform Bill is tested solely by the additional number of fit voters whom it enfranchises, without any relation at all to the class to which they may belong. What can it matter to him on this view whether, as he believes, 116,000 working men plus 68,000 small shopkeepers would have been added to the register by the recent Bill, or, as Mr. Gladstone believed, 204,000, all working men ? Why should one proposal have been in Mr. Bright's eyes better or worse than the other ? He is always assuring us that there is no possibility of onesided class representation, even if all the householders in Great Britain and Ireland were added to the register ; that the class to which a man belongs has nothing to do with the views he will direct his representative to enforce ; that the merit of a Reform Bill lies in the numerical addition of electors it makes to, the register, and in no degree whatever in the social class from which it takes them. He professes to be indignant at the present state of things not because the middle class is preponderant, but because so many honest voters are excluded. He wishes for household suffrage, not, he says, because it would give overwhelming influence to the working class, for at times he will tell us that he does not believe there is a working-class With any special political ideas of its own, but because it would give so many more subjects of Her Majesty that privilege which he oddly describes as "making, the world over, the only difference between despotism and freedom." And yet, while he ridicules thus obstinately the notion that the ideas of all classes need a distinct political representation, he makes it a great point that the late Bill was so much more moderate than it seemed, because 88,000 of those whom it counted as working men were really small shopkeepers. Is it not clear that Mr. Bright cannot absolutely shut out the light which he would so willingly exclude from his own retina ? If the Bill was specially moderate because it gave the working class as a class—less chance of absorbing political power in the boroughs into their own hands than it seemed to give, does it mot follow that a Bill would be immoderate which should give them absolute power to absorb political power in the boroughs if they pleased ? If it were a defect in the Bill, not that so few were enfranchised, but that so few of those enfranchised belonged to the working class, Mr. fright admits that unenfranchised members of the work- ing class have a greater claim to political power than equally fit unenfranchised members of other classes. Why so ? Because their characteristic ideas and interests are still suppressed,—as the artisan who wrote to Wednesday's Times very frankly admitted. Then how can Mr. Bright deny that the characteristic ideas and interests of other classes may suffer an equal extinction, may be numerically drowned, as easily as working-class ideas and interests are now excluded ? He cannot deny it. Mr. Bright is politically insincere in the opposite way to Mr. Laing. He hates the class in power, and will not hear of any guarantee for its political representation, even when he is compelled to talk the language of class representation. He shuts his eyes that he may speak oat his own wishes and the popular cry more freely, just as Mr. Laing shuts his eyes that he may give his Tory ideas an illusory colouring of popular feeling. Neither of these tell the working men honestly how much they ought to insist upon, and where in justice to others they ought to stop,—and therefore we regard them both as dangerous and uncandid councillors, who either by masking Tory views in a thin disguise of Liberalism, or suppressing considerations which would moderate their class demands and keep them within the bounds of justice, are doing their best to hurry on an agitation which will endanger the representative idea at the base of English freedom.