TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE COMING REFORM BILL. THE Ministerial organs, the journals which raise party etiquette into a creed, and all speakers at public meet- ings connected with the Government are carolling in somewhat reedy voices to the same scrannel tune. A Reform Bill is inevitable, and the first duty of the Ministry therefore is to introduce a Bill which shall be acceptable to Parliament. We deny it. Even if we accept Mr. Milner Gibson's astounding assertion that the Government " will propose a measure which at the present time will confer benefits on the public, and, with regard to the future, will leave the future to take care of itself, and leave other statesmen, if they think fit to deal with the question, to decide what is best for their time,"—an asser- tion which denies to the Cabinet not only the possession of fore- sight, but even a sense of the duty of exercising it,—still the proposition is untrue. The duty of ministers is to introduce that Bill which shall seem to them calculated to do more good than any other likely to be accepted by the country at large. If they, believing universal suffrage to be the scheme best calculated to promote the interests of the Empire, still perceive that the country will not accept universal suffrage, they are morally at liberty to postpone it in favour of a smaller Reform. But they are not at liberty to abandon the scheme in which they themselves believe, simply because Mr. Brand thinks, after a careful count- ing of heads and calculation of the patronage at his disposal, that unless some presumably hostile section within the House can be secured, the Bill will in all proba- bility involve the defeat of the Ministry or a dissolution. This is what is meant by a Bill being " unacceptable to Par- liament," and it is by this consideration that the Cabinet appears to us to be at present guiding itself. A principle more unsound, both as to its morality and its statesmanship, was never openly extolled; as to its morality, because the first duty of political leaders is to do the hest they can for the country careless of consequences to themselves ; as to states- manship, because the ultimate appeal on such questions must and ought to lie to a body higher than Parliament. It must lie, because whether the Bill passes or not its introduction will be followed by a new election during which the country will pronounce an irresistible verdict ; and it ought to lie for a reason which we can make clear by an illustration. Sup- pose Parliament to pass a law allowing or ordering all existing members of the House of Commons to sit for life. Such a law is clearly within the legal compe- tence of Parliament just as much as a law that they shall sit for seven years is within its legal competence. But does any one pretend to say that such a law would be con- stitutional, or would involve a moral duty of obedience, or would be anything except a coup d'e'tat executed by arbitrary power? The reason is plain. Be the agent never so absolute in his agency, he can never possess the right to dismiss his employer, and Parliament with all its theoretic autocracy is, as regards the nation, and even as regards the enfranchised class of the nation, such an agent. As a rule no doubt it is far better that there should be no reference, that the silent adhesion of the country to the passed measure should be deemed sufficient, but when the question is one of the redistribution of power, of the virtual extinction of one set of employers in favour of another, the employers themselves have a right to be directly consulted. Even if a Bill like the Reform Bill could pass like an ordinary measure it would be highly inexpe- dient that it should so pass. We cannot imagine any change of feeling in the country more mischievous than the idea that the franchise is a matter of which Parliament has the absolute control, that it is open to the dominant party to modify it for its own convenience, or in order to secure its own permanent power without a reference back to the nation and the electors. We can conceive a dozen changes which the Houses might be induced to accept, which yet would in their result stereotype, and therefore in the end destroy, the Con- stitution.
It is, however, of little use to carry the argument back to the first principles either of justice or of constitutional law. The plain matter of fact is, that the Cabinet has on this question to look to the constituencies as the final arbiter. The non-electors are not enthusiastic enough to coerce their trustees. The members of the Lower House are not in earnest enough to resist the biddings, and warnings, and reprimands which will be contained in the shoal of constituents' letters which they will receive within a week of the publication of the Bill. The Peers are not frightened enough to allow a measure they disapprove to pass. Consequently the Ministry has to look outside the walls of the Palace at Westminster, and outside it we feel convinced their one-barrelled Bill, if they finally resolve to introduce it, will meet with no sufficient favour. We do not mean to say they cannot carry an 8/. suffrage if they choose with- out a dissolution, or one fixing the qualification at 9/. 9s. 9d., or any meaningless measure of that kind, which nobody would dream either of resisting, or approving, or considering, except with a languid contempt. But a real Bill, which shall in a perceptible degree reduce the franchise, say to a 61. qualification, and do that alone, will, we confidently believe, be under some form or another referred to the people. Whom among the electors is it to conciliate ? Not the Tories, for they have been carefully instructed that the Bill is only to be pre- liminary to a succession of Bills which, after two precedents have been set at an interval of a generation, must all advance in the same direction. Not the educated Liberals, for they, if they remain true to themselves, will reject any Bill which, by fixing a mere qualification by rental, leads the way directly to the rule of numbers. Above all, not the immense mass of Liberal electors, who see clearly that physical force is out- side the Constitution, who are heartily willing that it should be brought inside, but who are anxious while including it not to be ousted themselves, and are above all things desirous that the question should for this generation end. Such a Bill will please only the Radicals, who hope that with the Conservative voters reduced from one-half of the borough constituencies to less than one-third—this is Mr. Baines' own calculation—they shall be able to carry Bills the existing constituency would refuse seriously to consider. Are the Radicals sufficient to carry the Bill in the teeth of the secret dislike of all other classes We disbelieve it entirely, even had they the earnest support of the non-electors, and this they will not have. The English masses have never yet moved except under the inspiration of an idea, and what idea is to be obtained out of a 61. fran- chise The workmen will see that their representation is as. far off as ever, their special views—and if they have no views, why represent afresh what is represented?—being swamped in the overwhelming majority of the middle class, and no other non-electors, except the smallest shopkeepers, will be enfran- chised at all. The Reform Bill of 1832 involved a redistri- bution of power, and the cry of " The Bill, the whole Bill', and nothing but the Bill !" showed that the nation felt this, but who is going to be enthusiastic for 6/. instead of 101. ? A couple of dozen members perhaps like Mr. Baines himself, whose seats it will place beyond the possibility of attack. Universal suffrage is an idea, so is household suffrage, so is the representation of workmen, but a 61. franchise 1 what does that mean ? Will any one con- stituency in England, supposing Mr. Baines' figures correct, be able if it chooses to send up a workman as its representative,. or indeed do anything except return without a struggle the member whom it returns now with -one ? There will be no enthusiasm whatever, and without enthusiasm the secret con- sciousness of every constituency that on the whole it would rather keep power, and the open consciousness of the little boroughs that the new Parliament would execute them, will suffice to reject the Bill. Reform must then be dropped, and the middle class without reinforcements continue to creep along till some revolution in France, or surge of feeling at. home, or idea caught from America awakens the non-electors to the perception that " they are many, we are few."
In the face of such a result, which every politician who has. watched public feeling knows to be not only possible but pro- bable, what is the use of chattering about party etiquette, or- declaring, as the Daily News of Wednesday did, that those who agree with the Spectator are unconscious Tories? We are not. asking for less than the Ministerial measure, but for more, for a direct share of power within Parliament to be conceded to the working man. Our proposal, household suffrage in all towns with more than a fixed limit of population, will un- doubtedly secure them the power of returning from forty to fifty representatives, and will as undoubtedly prevent them' from swamping any other class. The 61.
suffrage, on the contrary, will secure only one of two results. It will either simply increase the Liberal section of the existing constituency, and thus make the return of the same men with the same ideas more certain, that is, will be almost null, or it will enable the workmen to hold the balance of power in every borough in the three kingdoms. It will either do nothing, which is Mr. Baines' view, or it will enable the workmen to carry any special idea—say the Permissive Bill—in the teeth of the rest of the country, which seems to be Mr. Bright's. Which of these two results is it which is so much desired by genuine Liberals ?—or it is because we wish for finality for one generation at least, for some work out of our new locomotive before it goes into the shed again, that we are Tories 8 If so, the infinite majority of the electors, the Daily News may rely on it, are Tories too, and we must accept an epithet which only means that we belong on one point to a party which includes the nation. On every other detail of the Reform Bill the country is irresolute, or rather half-convinced, anxious to wait for its leaders, willing to listen to any proposal they may have to make, doubtful of its own wants, fearful of its rivals' wishes, bulgy on this one its mind is made up. There shall not be a succession of Reform Bills to the exclusion of healthy action, one dissolution to extend the franchise, and another dissolution to get rid of small boroughs, and anon a dissolution to bring the franchise to a terminal point, and once more a dissolution to establish equal electoral 'districts. The Bill, to carry the country in the teeth of the 'Tories, the waverers, and the little boroughs must, whatever its other defects, at least relieve us from the subject for one generation, and this a franchise Bill, without a redis- tribution of seats, avowedly will not do. Is it the Daily News which quails before a measure it allows to be good, because if proposed Harwich and Ripon and Woodstock might muster up courage to resist ?