'THE FUNCTION OF MR. BRIGHT ON THE REFORM QUESTION.
OUR Tory contemporaries profess extreme indignation with Mr. Bright in his Glasgow and other speeches for refusing to recognize that "all parties alike are not only willing to consider fully and fairly the question of Reform, but that all parties alike are convinced of the desirableness of having a Reform Bill." Now, so far from this being any fresh ground of accusation against Mr. Bright for the certainly unwarrantable strength of his language concerning the moral decrepitude of Parliament, it strikes us as precisely the most elling excuse that can be offered for him. The hesitation and mental paralysis which afflicts Parliament year after year, and which it professes to ascribe to indecision of mind as to the how, is not really a mental disease to be cured by argument and moral logic at all. The overwhelming difficulty as to the how,' is a mere symptom of the disease, not its root. It is like the intellectual difficulty that a man discovers, while in bed of a morning, as to the mode in which he shall do the urgent duties that await him when he gets up. He suddenly finds out that there is a wide field of most difficult consideration which must be travelled over before anything can be absolutely done, and he naturally enough holds that this wide field may just as well be travelled over in the warm tranquillity of bed as in any other bodily condition,—in the process of carrying out which comfortable intellectual decision the subject of it very naturally relapses into still more comfortable sleep. Now, the remedy for this access of intellectual difficulty to which we are liable at the time of rising, is well understood by the ordinary guardians of the young. In our years of humiliation and subjection, while we were still undergoing that depressing and snubbing process which is supposed to form and strengthen the youthful character, one or two effective remedies to intellectual -defects used to be really applied, and of these one was the cure by cold water, or other rude shocks to the nervous system, for those imaginative perplexities which are apt to delay afresh
• every morning the journey over "the difficult pass that leads from thought into action." Now, the very same thing may certainly be said of the Parliamentary scrupulosity with which the question of Reform is treated. Everybody is agreed on the
necessity of Reform, but so many difficulties arise in deciding on the true process, that Parliament habitually dozes off again between every attempt to solve the question. Naturally enough, those who, like Mr. Bright, are earnest in their views, feel that Parliament wants something more than new intellectual light upon this question, that a rudish shock from without, some- thing that will make it a little more nervous about longer inaction and a little less nervous as to the danger of acting without "mature deliberation," might have a tonic effect even upon its intellect. And it is the function of Mr. Bright, in the political world, to supply this nervous stimulus to the indecision of Parliament, which is evidently but too well disposed to find intellectual excuses for not doing what it is not willing to do. If there were not this universal theoretic consent in favour of Reform, this almost universal reluctance to act would be far more capable of justification. It is when everybody agrees on the general course, but is overwhelmed with the difficulties of detail that pressure—even rather unpleasant pressure—from outside becomes what is called "a blessing in disguise." Mr. Bright says unjust things and holds out unpleasant prospects, no doubt, but then his excuse is that Parliament shows a lymphatic temperament and an indolent habit of body. Where the representatives are soporific it is not, in the large view of things, a misfortune that the people should be angry and unjust. Were they per- fectly calm and just, they would scarcely supply the momentum needed by the very inert mass of political thought in the Legis- lature. In truth those who find it difficult to exaggerate the truth, have great reason to be thankful that there are men like Mr. Bright who find it nearly impossible not to do so. The error on one side neutralizes the error on the other, while a thoroughly temperate and just view of the subject would only be effective if there were none but intellectually active and willing minds to influence. So long as there is a Tory and Adullamite prejudice which dislikes Reform, while admitting its principle, it may be well that there is also an effective Radical pressure which is unreasonable in its de- nunciations of the present and imaginative in its menaces for the future. The party of inertia who so passionately blame Mr. Bright are really his." final cause."
Take the speech at Glasgow, with all its excesses of political accusation and the splendid peroration of its religious enthu- siasm, and we shall not find in it a single overbalance of thought or passion in one direction that is not in direct and natural reaction from some prevalent opposite defect. There is the extravagance of saying that the first 658 men well washed and respectable in appearance whom the Clerk of the House of Commons might tap on the shoulder at Temple Bar would make a juster and wiser Parliament than that which we have at the present moment,—one more willing to act as an impartial jury on the facts and arguments laid before it. Well, looking first to what juries, even of twelve men where each man feels himself in some degree marked and liable to personal criticism, actually are, and how very often they fail grossly in impartiality, no doubt, this is 'a very absurd assertion with respect to a mob jury of 658 men in which none of the less conspicuous would feel them- selves under the constraints of any sort of close per- sonal scrutiny. The sense of responsibility even to the electors or elector of Caine, is something. No man in an elected Parliament can doubt that there are plenty of people whose interest it is to look after him, and who will draw public attention to his proceedings if they are either foolish or disgraceful. Mr. Bright's supposed Parliament would feel no such constraint, and being without it, would be protected by its numbers from any other sort of criticism. But Mr. Bright's paradoxical assertion, though it breaks down entirely under the slightest examination, does indicate very effectively, though with an obvious element of caricature, the narrow- ing and distorting influences which, in so many cases at present, members' responsibilities to their constituencies im- pose upon them. There really are many special liabilities to error and very many motives for obstruction to which our present Parliament is subjected, from which Mr. Bright's stray mob of clean individuals would be exempt. The present Parliament, says Mr. Bright, does not represent "the intelli- gence of the nation, but the prejudices, the privilege, and the selfishness of a class." If he had said that it represents not only "the prejudices, the privilege, and the selfishness of a class," but also the intelligence, the education, and the experi- ence of the same class, or rather classes, he would have been right enough. Parliament is hampered by "the prejudices, the privileges, and the selfishness," that is, the class-vices of more than one class. But it is also greatly assisted fought in a spirit rising above that of ordinary agitation. by their sagacity, knowledge, and class-virtues. If we could avail ourselves of the one without being so heavily embarrassed by the other, we should ensure a pure gain. Mr. Bright suggests the tendency of the Reform which we really need, when he summons up in imagination an assembly tied down as a whole by no overwhelming class-interests, and, therefore, influenced like a really impartial jury by the facts and the arguments alone. He only forgets that in such an assembly as he has. supposed private selfishness and private interest would take the place of class-selfishness and class-interest, and would be far the more dangerous distorting influence of the two. We must gain the freedom he has a right to deraand by greatly enlarging the number and range of our class-interests, not by annihilating them.
Again, when Mr. Bright states, apparently with some exaggeration, that 150 men possess above half the soil of England and 12 men above half the soil of Scotland as a reason for Reform, the Tories cry out that he is putting on "the- bonnet rouge of Socialism," as if he proposed to confiscate or divide the property of the rich. We suppose they excuse this accusation by saying to themselves that a Government, however democratic, would not necessarily lead to an equal or nearly equal distribution of wealth throughout the community without a special and violent legislation- having this end in view. And of course they are right— that neither democracy nor any other political recast of our, Constitution is necessarily inconsistent with the largest possible accumulation of both landed and other property. Still it is quite certain that the present indifference of the law to the ignorance and pauperism of the masses, is really the cause of Mr. Bright's apparent, and only apparent, Socialism. The rights of private property might remain absolutely un- touched, and yet, if every person in the kingdom were fairly started in the race of life with a decent education and a proper amount of care for his physical well-being, it is quite certain that wealth must soon be more equally distributed. It is the artificial ignorance and helplessness of such great masses of people, which prevents them from competing on equal terms for their fair share of the property of the coun- try. It is mathematically certain that if men were more nearly equal in faculty at the start, they'would he more nearly equal in their acquisitions at the close of life. Remove the unfair weighting on the majority of the runners, and the race must be more equal. The present state of the-law, not of property, bnt of education, of sanitary provisions, and in some degree of tax- ation, is favourable to the undue concentration of wealth. And Mr. Bright's exaggerated picture of the selfishness of which he complains, is but the natural reaction on one side from the Tory exaggeration of the value of accumulated masses of wealth, and the 'providential' character of the terrible variations in the happiness of human lots on the other.
The true function of 'Mr. Bright is to act as the people's bat- tering-ram against the inertia and morbid intellectual hesita- tions of Parliament, and never has he fulfilled that function more nobly than in the pathetic and magnificent conclusion of his Glasgow speech. It is indeed, as he asserts, not too much to say that if the miseries of the Tnillions were permanent and irremediable,—were not chiefly the growth of our own selfishness and sin,—it would be impossible to believe in the God whom Christ revealed. And it is still more certain that we cannot spread this faith through the misery and the squalor of the most numerous and poorest class, except by multiplying the moral revelation of His love in works of mercy for the wretched. No doubt many may recognize how trite this is who do not see in Mr. Bright's great specific, —a wide extension of the suffrage,—the natural means to this end. The late Archbishop Whately used to say that he feared democracy chiefly for its warlike disposition, and one of Mr. Bright's main hopes in Reform appears to be the final cessation of a warlike policy. But as all parties agree that seine generous representation of the largest class in the community is at least common justice to them, even if not a great instrument of regeneration, and many look upon it, especially having regard to the need of popular education, as also the latter, it is at least impossible to appeal to religious feeling on the Conservative side, and natural to appeal to it on the Radical. We wish only that the people, —that Mr. Bright himself—would habitually look at the great effort before them in that solemn light. It would save us many a
That is, we fear, namely to be hoped for ; but at least the Tories may afford to relax their habitually scolding mien towards Mr. Bright when at rare intervals he brings up the force which is needed to prick on Parliament into something like earnestness under a standard that will rather control than
fine the passion of his followers, and make them feel that they• fighting a great fight on behalf of the most helpless portion
of the nation, and not merely scrambling vulgarly for their own share in the loaves and fishes of material wealth.