TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE DANGERS OF A " SAFE " REFORM BILL. LORD RUSSELL has declared officially that the Ministry intend to stand or fall by their Reform Bill. This is well, not only because it is well that the Government should mean what they do, but also because they will in all proba- bility mean what is better worth doing if they have made up their minds to stand the extreme test of sincerity, than if they mean only what they are prepared to advocate indeed, but also if necessary to abandon. The man who burns his ships behind him to render retreat impossible is at least likely to have organized his invasion with more complete and anxious consideration of the chances of success than he would have done if he had kept his rear open for the event of failure.
But now that Lord Russell has decided on either forcing his measure through or resigning, there will possibly be one kind of danger to which he would have been less ex- posed, had he taken weaker ground as to his ultimate course. He may be in danger of being too moderate,--that is, as all our readers will understand us, meaninglessly moderate ; mo- derate not upon principle, and with the moderation of far- sighted policy, but moderate for the moment ; moderate in intelligence, in order not to alarm those who have only a moderate amount of intelligence themselves ; moderate in the temporizing sense of staving off difficulties which all clear- sighted Liberals wish to see him meet ; so moderate in short as to solve no real problem at all, and to win no merit except that which blind caution may bestow on his measure of doing no harm. Now we wish to put clearly before the Government the disastrous result of introducing, after all this discussion, a mea- sure which has this merit, and this only, that in its immediate effects it will do no harm—and unless it is conspicuously much more than a harmless measure, it can only be in its im- mediate effects that it will be harmless. We believe, in spite of the paradox, that nothing that could pass at all could do so much harm as a harmless measure,—a measure which should leave all the constitutional questions so much discussed in recent years simply unsolved, while throwing a slight additional power into the loads of a certain sectarian school of politicians, by the help of which these politicians may ultimately be enabled to solve them in their own way.
Now, not to argue too much in the abstract, we may say at once that what we fear, what all the world fears, in the coming Reform Bill, is a small but blank reduction of the borough franchise in all sorts of boroughs alike,— say to a 61. rating (which would mean a 71. occupying franchise),—the postponement of any measure for redis- tributing seats till, as Mr. Bright says, the leverage ' of the new franchise had been gained, and a reduc- tion of the county franchise to a 101. occupying fran- chise. This would be, we suppose, regarded by people who never look beyond the moment as a moderate Bill, which could do no harm.' Even in great manufacturing towns like Preston it would add to the constituency a body not nearly twice as great as the present, and in the smaller boroughs its effect would probably be only to introduce a more ignorant and less independent class, likely, so far as it was honest, to follow the lead of rank, and, so far as it was not, to follow the lead of wealth. As to the county franchise, moderate people would say that no doubt a 201. franchise would have been better, but that as former Governments, including the Con- servative, have assented to a reduction to 101. it is hopeless to stop at any higher point, and not perhaps very important,— the poorest among the new voters being probably under Con- servative ' influence, and therefore likely to prove a Con- servative makeiVeight in the expected changes. It would be added by such unintelligent moderates as we have supposed, that it was very wise in the Government not to alarm any of its adherents by threatened disfranchisement of the small boroughs which they may chance to represent.
Now, we believe that such a ' moderate ' Bill as this will simply excite all conceivable elements of resistance without winning a single zealous and convinced adherent. First, it would be a confession of weakness, than which nothing excites more opposition where there are any real elements of oppo- sition at all. The cry of all parts of the country alike has been not for a mere amelioration of the present system, but for the solution of a large and much-vexed problem,—how to repre- sent the working class fully and fairly, without endangering the full representation of the class ideas and convictions now alone represented in the House. The supposed moderate Bill would mean,—" Such a solution is not to be found, but instead of attempting it, we will keep back from the working class as much as we dare for the present, and give it only when we are obliged,—we will not claim our right to keep back anything, but keep back as much as we can without claiming any right." Nothing can be weaker than this. If the Government propose such a plan, they deserve to fail in it. They will not satisfy the thinkers of the middle class, who claim a large share of repre- sentation in the House of Commons, not pro tempore, but as a permanent right, and wish to see that right boldly asserted in the face of the working class in the very act of asserting and practically granting the like right to that class. And if it would simply irritate the thinking middle class, it would irritate quite as much the thinking working class, who have never yet conceded any principle of representation except the principle of numbers, and who would cry out that a rule of thumb which fixed the line of exclusion at a 71. house was unmeaning and tantalizing. Nor could the Government, on their own supposed principles, justify such a rule. If the qualification is to be lowered bit by bit till all respectable persons of all classes exercise the same power at the poll,— though as a result thereof some get an enormous representa- tion in Parliament, and others none at all,—it will be difficult to justify drawing the line at a point which excludes at least as many thinking and intelligent working men as it admits.. The working class, who were to have had a 5/. rating (or 61. rental) suffrage by the Bill of 1852 introduced by Lord John. Russell himself, if now met by no assertion of new principle in the matter, will simply be irritated at the miserable smallness of the Government's concession. Without the respect which they would feel for an assertion by the Government of the absolute and permanent right of the middle class to keep a substantial share in the representation — as distinct from the voting — they will feel that they have been treated shabbily and distrustfully, and this on no intelligible ground at all. The supposed moderation would disgust, and pro- bably equally disgust, those on the one hand against whose influence in the representative assembly this measure would appear to be directed, as the mere first instalment of a plan of confiscation, and those, on the other, in favour of whom it. would seem to be granted, but, if judged by its own principle, granted as a niggardly and insufficient instalment. Without grounding itself on some permanent principle, it is quite im- possible that " moderation" in Reform can seem to either party anything but weakness, timidity, and evasion. So much as to the only part of the measure on which, in. some sense, we are all agreed—the part which aims at giving a real political influence to the artizans of manufacturing towns. The matter is still worse when we come to the light in which the supposed moderation' will appear in relation to other parts of the measure. It is taken for granted, namely, that whatever a moderate measure proposes for the suffrage qualification of the most populous towns it will propose for that of all boroughs whatever. It would not be moderate to be original. It would not be moderate' to draw a dis- tinction simply because a distinction exists. It would not be moderate' to introduce a new anomaly in the external system, even though the apparent anomaly were calculated to remove the most real of all anomalies in the effective opera- tion of it. But what will be the effect of this meaningless uniformity on the opponents of the Bill V Will they not ask whether the object of the lowering of the borough suffrage be not to give an unrepresented class,—the working class,—a real representation,—and what therefore is the meaningof loweringit not only where it will not answer thisobject, but where it will take away from an at present represented and very important class a great part of their representation? The object of the Bill, its opponents will say, is or should be to increase the total repre- sentative efficiency of Parliament; what, then, is the meaning of deliberately extending a machinery calculated for this purpose in certain places to certain other places where it is not only not calculated to effect this purpose, but calculated to defeat other useful purposes effected by the present system ? In the populous towns the mass of the politicians with ideas and wishes of their own are without votes and without represen- tation. In the smaller boroughs the mass of the politicians with ideas andwishes of their own have at present both votes and representation. The machinery which gives votes and repre- sentation to the one class, if universally extended, will deprive the other class of representation, though not of votes, by adding a large number of thoroughly dependent, ignorant, and corruptible persons to the electoral class, who have no ideas and wishes of their own. What can be more silly than to make the machinery uniform when the conditions to which it is adapted are so different You might almost as well extend a Church reform specially conceived and calculated for the Catholics of Ireland to the Presbyterians of Scotland, for whom it would be worse than useless, as extend a re- form of the representation, the only need of which is felt in very populous towns, to the small boroughs, where it is not only useless, but positively mischievous, where it brings no new and independent political opinion forward, and throws much existing and independent political opinion into shadow, thereby causing the loss of a valuable constituent element in Parliamentary thought. Moderation which merely means meaningless uniformity will assuredly not strengthen, but weaken, the chances of Government success.
The same may be said, with great though perhaps not quite equal force, of the proposal to postpone the disfran- chisement of the worst and least independent boroughs, in deference to a false feeling of moderation. All thinking men believe that the very worst part of our representative system is the borough where no public opinion is really represented, where the power either of the purse or of the resident landed proprietor is the only thing represented. If there were no franchise question at all, this question would demand attention. Some great Northern towns are without any representation, more of them are but half represented, while little boroughs that are notoriously bought ' at every election return one or two members to Parliament. The thing is monstrous, and yet `moderation' is supposed to counsel ignoring it, of which the only effect will be, first, to give the impression that the Government is either careless of a great evil, or weak and knows its weakness ; next, to excite all the uncomfortable feelings which centre in a scheme only half disclosed, and the last stage of which is expected to be worse than the first.
We hold, then, that there is a false moderation which will rob the Government of all hearty support, and add contempt to the violent opposition it must in any case expect to encounter. If Lord Russell knows his true policy, he will found his measure on a principle for which its adherents at least can feel real respect, and will not be so foolish, in the hope of diminishing the dislike to his proposed measure, as to pare away all its characteristic features, all its title to honest admiration and support. We feel no doubt that the rumoured measure,—a measure reducing the borough franchise to a uniform 61.-rating franchise in all sorts of boroughs alike, the county franchise to 101„ and evading every real issue,—would exactly succeed in exciting the largest amount of equally mingled disgust and scorn in its adversaries, and the smallest amount of earnest support in its advocates ; and we earnestly hope therefore that this is not what Lord Russell's Govern- ment mean by moderation.