TOPICS OF THE DAY.
PRELIMINARIES OF THE REFORM DEBATES.
Mn. Buxom has given us the first essay towards the solution of the Reform Bill question for the ensuing session, and the publi- cation of his project throws us into the midst of the discussion which will terminate in the passing of an Act, or in a public dis- appointment. We cannot regard Mr. Bright, however, as having supplied us with the draft of the Bill that will be adopted, and in that view we are unable to welcome his scheme with any very hearty acceptance. Let us endeavour to see what
is its place in the series of measures already offered to the coun- try without success' and about to be still further extended with additional essays "by various hands."
The labour of improving the representation of the country might be undertaken in divers modes, but especially in one of three. First, it might be treated as a tabula rasa, considering, the re- presentation as it now stands and as it should be in order to bring us nearer to the intent of the British Constitution and the actual circumstances of the day. Secondly, we might hold that a prize
had been offered for competitive essays suggesting not a perfect, but a better plan of representation. And thirdly, the work might
be initiated by an energetic inquiry into those practices which most deviate from the intent of the British Constitution, or the spirit of the day, and so we might derive the practical provisions of the Bill from the answer to that inquiry. Perhaps the first mode would be the best, but also, we suspect, it must in practice be the last. If any statesman of original mud, with sufficient knowledge of the different classes of the country,
and sufficient confidence in his own honesty, powers, and influ- ence' could study the question for himself, he might discover cer-
tain broad facts which would dictate an exceedingly simple plan of proeeeding ; but any such plan, so derived, would carry him "so far" that he would have to depart from his own supporters. The theory of our constitution is, that every man who pays taxes has a control, by his representative, on the expenditure of the State. The theory is, as we wrote on the 19th of December 1857, that every man who is sufficiently intelligent to be really free, and who has some stake in the welfare of the community, should have a voice in the election of his representative, not to manage the affairs of the country, but to assist the Crown and Barons in managing them. Our public men, as we then said, continually profess that the House of Commons represents the country; but the Member who seconded the Address on the opening of the ses- sion in that month, not only admitted that whole classes are ex- cluded from the franchise, but that some of the excluded are more intelligent than those who are included. " Rightly viewed,
therefore our system proceeds in the main upon the assumption Of general representation modified by exclusions. Perhaps,' we
remarked, we shall arrive at a more correct judgment upon the measure of Reform, if we start with the idea that it would be best to oiled the suffrages of the whole body of the people, but that the representative system would be all the better for maintaining some exelusions,—of those, say, who are insane, who are incapable of maintaining an independent character, or who are criminal in their conduct; but in such cases the onus probandi would lie on those proposing the exclusions." This is the more certain since come exclusions appear to be modern encroachments unjustified by the actual history of the constitution. In this view, a strictly
conservative course of action would also be identical with a com- prehensive restoration of the franchise. We need not again refer
to Mr. Pitt's proposal for a franchise to be conferred on house- holders paying rates and taxes ; to Charles James Fox's, Mr. Brougham's, and Lord John Russell's proposal of a household franchise : we are dealing with the constitution as it is under-
stood to have existed at common law. Coke, in his Institutes, says, that if the right of representation be conferred upon an ancient borough, "the charter cannot take away the right of all burgesses to participate hi the election." In his Constitutional History, Mr. Hallam says that the original right in boroughs resided with "all inhabitant householders resident in the borough,
and paying scot and lot, words including local rates and probably general taxes." "The admission of householders to the borough franchise," says Sir Eardley Wilmot in his first letter to Richard Freedom, Esq.,t "was termed by the Committee over which Ser- geant Glanville presided in 1623, and of which Lord Coke, Bel- den, Finch, Noy, men of known monarchical principles, were members an inherent common law right." And in the debate on the first Reform Bill, July 1831, Mr. Campbell, now Lord Chief Justice, gave to this ancient right its most emphatic modern as- sertion.
"Ass lawyer I maintain without fear of being contradicted that when boroughs were first summoned to send Members to Parliament, the term of burgess and householder were synonymous ; and all the inhabitants of a town being free, who were sworn at -the leet, had a right to share in the elections of Members. It is by a comparatively modern usurpation that the inhabitants at large of such boroughs have been deprived of the right of voting."
In this view an adherence to the Constitution would effectuate the franchise for all residents of the borough, all responsible men. At the present day of course that right could not be recognized in towns without recognizing also a very similar right for the rural districts. The mere proposition' however, of such a scheme would undoubtedly occasion great alarm. An idea prevails
• Spectator, December 19, 1851. + Published by Mr. Ridgway.
amongst the upper classes, and even amongst the commercial classes, that the working men are so separated from their em- ployers in interest, that if they possessed the power they would desire to subvent the institutions of the country ; that the working men are so ignorant as not to understand the consequences even. to themselves of such destructive courses ; and that they would return as their representatives, to swamp the gentry, nobility, and Crown, none but turbulent demagogues. We extremely doubt any such description of the working classes, express or im- plied. We incline to believe that birth, wealth, intellect, and the other qualities which bring success and distinction in life do actually possess even a greater hold over the working. classes than they do over the shop-keeping class, such qualities in fact being generally appreciated in proportion to the freedom and strong sense of life, residing in any order of men. But there is no statesman — at the present day who enjoys a position which would enable him to handle the question in this a priori manner ; and we may therefore set it aside as not coming practically within the purview of the subject. The second plan at which we have glanced consists in in- viting competitive designs for a Reform Bill, as the Society of Arts invites essays upon desiderata in commerce, or as the Board of Public Works invited drawings for public buildings ; and we have already had a certain degree of competition in this branch of construction. Lord John Russell has furnished two bills, one of them, that of 1854, very comprehensive and finished in its plan, and certainly moderate. Lord Palmerston must have had a pro- ject in a considerable state of advancement, since he had promised to bring forward a bill last session, and he could not have entirely neglected that preliminary work. A number of very distinguished gentlemen, including two late Speakers, placed before the country the most general heads of a franchise extension based upon edu- cational tests. Ministers are supposed to have their bill ready, or nearly so, though subject, of course, to revision and editing. And Mr. Bright's plan is before the country. It is impossible to speak of those schemes which we have not seen and on the prin- ciple of " omne ignotum " we might assume ford Palmerston's and Lord Derby's two projects to be better than any that we have been allowed to see. Of the published plans' on the whole we adhere to the preference which we expressed at the time for Lord John's of 1854, though subsequent events have shown that, as a bill to pass in Parliament, it would have been better if it had been more simple, and evidently Lord John thinks so himself. But all of these plans, so far as they have been published, partake too much the character of notions. They are too like the prescrip- tions of doctors in difficult cases —expedients put together for the purpose of evading the real difficulties, or palliating grievances, rather than going to the root of the matter. Mr. Bright's plan, which is expressedly a compromise, is as open as any to this ob- jection. It does not restore the representation of the whole people ; on the contrary, it does but substitute a one-sided representation for a system which, however imperfect, is not altogether one-sided. If the votes of the entire population were taken by direct suffrage, you might get at the sentiments of the seven millions of men ; but if you group those votes in particular districts and particular proportions, you will of course extremely modify the result, and Mr. Bright has done so. Looking at the broad masses of his project what he would do is this. He would extend the franchise in towns to ratepayers, which we are told would actually give a less suffrage in Manchester than exists already. In counties he would fix the limit at 101.; why, it would be difficult to say ; but Mr. Bright appears to assume at once indifference and stolidity in the rustic population. He would add slightly to the representation of twelve counties greatly to the representation of two. He would augment the representation of the most populous towns, disfranchise the less populous of those which are represented al- ready. In thus graduating a representation by numerical popu- lation, he may be said to leave the counties and trading towns nearly as they are, vastly to increase the representation of manu- factures or the cognate branches of commerce, the two specially favoured counties being immense manufacturing districts : and he would scatter to the winds the representation of country towns. In this plan the manufacturing interest is placed above even the great political centres of Westminster Edinburgh, and Dublin. There has been a complaint that the therm Bill of 1832 extended political power to the trading classes and stopped there : Mr. Bright's bill would concentrate political power in the trading classes excluding as a body half the population, with the work- ing and labouring classes and abolishing the representation of the country towns. Certainly this is not a national scheme. And as certainly it is not the bill which will pass into an act.
Mr. Bright's failure proves the difficulty of the task that he has undertaken. We do not underrate the degree of support that he has received, nor do we wonder at it. At the present day, Mr. Bright is without exception the finest orator that the country possesses. He is independent, it is impossible to doubt the sin- cerity with which he says at the close of his speech, "I am in earnest, and I speak because I believe." Mr. Bright can impart to a purely middle-class policy the aspect of broad statesman- ship and the dignity of power. And if in his very person he ap- pears to realize the aspirations of his class he is not the less ac- ceptable because he shares very emphatically not a few of their prejudices. But he has made a mistake in political strategy : he has developed all his backing at once, and has allowed all the world to see that it is not unanimous.
From the difficulties which are brought into prominent view by Leaexperiments, many have now jumped to the conclusion that whole agitation must end in nullity, and that there neither will be, nor should be, any Reform Bill. It appears to us that this is an exceedingly mistaken, not to say hazardous, view of the subject. Four Premiers with their cabinets, a great number of independent, influential, active and experienced statesmen, poli- ticians, lawyers, and thinkers and the middle-class, have affirmed the "previous question," that we ought to have a Reform Bill ; and, although the working class has awaited with a certain scep- tical quietism, it would learn new disappointment, new rancours, and new contempt, if the whole order of Premiers, and Cabinet Ministers, of thinking statesmen, and the entire middle class, were to break down in the voluntary endeavour. It would in- deed be a national fiasco, the more lamentable because lu- dicrous.
But there is the third alternative ; should it turn out, as it well might, that no separate section of class or of party possesses with- in itself the means of framing a suitable and satisfactory measure, there remains the recourse of a well-arranged, direct, and practi- cal inquiry into the state of the representation, the nature of its abuses, the appropriate remedies, and the wish of all classes within the country. This might be made the natural preliminary to a final attempt at closing a question, which, once opened with such sanctions, must not be dropped, but settled.