MR. FORSTER ON REFORM.
IVIR. FORSTER seldom makes a speech of any length with- out impressing us afresh with that peculiar combination of popular power and statesman-like pliancy in his intellect which seems to us to promise for him a great political career in future. He never loses sight for a moment, as Mr. Bright too often,—almost always, except in his short, deliberative ad- dresses to his colleagues in agitation,—does, of the immediate political conditions of the day. He never attempts to throw off those political conditions. Indeed his mind prefers to move in them. There is enough of the statesman in him to give him a certain horror of those mere vague speeches in the air " without a base " which furnish the common oratory of public meetings. At the same time there is absolutely nothing of the cant of statesmanship about him. He never forgets the popular origin and the popular end of English institutions, and he feels with the people as warmly, perhaps more deeply, than Mr. Bright. If there is a clear fault in his political mind, it is a tendency to ignore, to be impatient of, all real practical difficulties for which he sees no remedy that would be likely to command popular adhesion. There are certain real dangers, which Mr. Forster evidently sees, but sees only uneasily with half an eye, and has not, either as a statesman or as a representative of the people, the courage to look steadily in the face, his inadequate treatment of which probably arises from the thorough dislike which he feels as a statesman to remedies which have little chance, and from the real difficulty which there undoubtedly is in finding popular candour enough to recognize certain broad and glaring distinc- tions which the people are indisposed to see. Of this dis- position to evade certain real difficulties on the Reform ques- tion there are traces in Mr. Forster's masterly Bradford speech. But on the whole, it appears by far the ablest speech on Reform, —in the statesman-like sense,—which has been made since the close of the Reform debate, and a far more masterly con- tribution to the rationale of the problem than most of the Liberal speeches during that debate,—speeches which cer- tainly, on the whole, did not come up to the level of their speakers' reputations, and left the intellectual, though not the moral, advantage in the hands of their opponents.
The chief point which Mr. Forster makes with such con- vincing force, is the additional strength which the inclusion of the working class in our political system, and their identification in feeling and pride with the acts of the Govern- ment, would give to it both at home and abroad. At present there cannot be a doubt that the working class have, or had till Mr. Gladstone touched the chord which drew them to his side, a sort of half cynical pleasure in seeing the blunders and helplessness of the Government, at least in home affairs. They talk of the Government not as the middle class talk of it, as something in which they are personally interested, for whose blunders they feel ashamed, and in whose successes they have no small pride, but almost as a scornful foreigner might criticize it, and transfer all their own political sentiment to the Government of the United States. We do not say, and do not think, that this would have extended to the case of a positive quarrel with France, or any other great power in
Europe. But even in foreign affairs,—except, perhaps, in Italy and Poland,—the feeling of the working class has been no strength to the Government, has been languid, and uninter- ested ; and in case of a war with America it would have been a source of positive weakness. Mr. Forster said, with great truth and some originality, that " While in dealing with all foreign questions, the Emperor of the French, by his electoral ma- chinery, has the whole of his subjects behind him, the Prime Vicister of England has but a small section of the subjects of the Queen. I know what will be said to me,—that Continental universal suffrage is a mockery and a sham It is a mockery for one of the two functions,—and that the most important function,—of a representative government ; it is powerless to preserve personal freedom, and to secure individuals against the tyranny or caprice of the government. But for the other function of a representative government,—for the power to enable a nation to act against or towards any other govern- ment or nation, to feel that it is so acting, and to enable its government to act with the conscious force of its inhabit- ants,—the Continental system is not powerless, but power- ful." That is both true and important, as the war in the United States shows. For what conceivable war could we obtain such volunteering, as filled the armies of the United States, from our lowest class ? For a war of existence, we believe that the volunteering would at -present flow fal- more readily from our middle class, great as are their temptations to keep to other work on which the welfare of their families usually depends, than from our working class. It cannot be denied that this state of things is an exceedingly threatening and mischievous one for England.
And the case is far more pressing, if not stronger, as regards the home questions on which Parliament has shown so much weakness, wavering, and general imbecility. When Mr. Forster says that we need a stronger Parliament than we have as yet got to deal with the Irish tenure question, the Eng- lish education question, the helplessness of our Admiralty, and he might have added with still more force, the wretched sani- tary and poor-law system of our great towns, an able contem- porary replies, "How do you know that?" " Mr. Forster neither attempted to show that his Reform Bill of last session would have given us/ a House of Commons able and determined to overpower sectarian bigotry and landlord selfishness, national apathy, and administrative incompetency, nor to prove that a measure of Reform based on sounder principles and inspired by a wiser statesmanship might have contrived a measure which would effect all these things." Of course, no one can show more than a very strong presumption for anything in the future. But is it not reasonable to suppose that just as the admission of the middle class immediately produced a Parliament able and eager to deal with the chief grievances,—we will not only say that pressed upon themselves, for, looking to the abolition of slavery and the reform of the criminal law, we must admit that the Reformed Parliament applied themselves vigorously to all evils that had clearly impressed their imagination, whether grievous to themselves or not,—so the admission of the working class will produce a Parliament able and eager to deal with a class of evils which, partly from self-occupation, partly from deficient imagination, the present constituen- cies do not feel, and will not press upon their representa- tives. Common sense tells us that a working class strong in legislative power will immediately demand, as all working classes strong in legislative power have always in other coun- tries demanded, a comprehensive treatment of the educa- tion question, and will put contemptuously aside the sec- tarian difficulties raised for the most part by clerical jealousy. Nor is there any doubt that, by the magic effect of that sympathy which unites the working classes of all lands even more closely in political sympathy than they seem to be united when individuals are engaged together in actual co-operative labour, the working class of Ireland will gain at the hands of a Parliament in which the working classes of England and Ireland are both fairly represented, a far speedier and more willing measure of justice than, as a rule, Irish workmen ever receive individually from English work- men. And if- it be true that a new infusion of popular strength will add to the force with which Irish tenure and educe.- tion, in both England and Ireland, are treated, it is still more obvious that it will add to the strength with which the obvious sanitary evils of our great towns and the abuses of our poor laws are dealt with. The only doubtful point is perhaps the administrative waste in the Admiralty and elsewhere. We sincerely doubt whether the infusion of a stronger popular ele- ment intoiouiParliaanents may not exaggerate that evil. We must note before we conclude the one point on which
Mr. Forster seems to us to evade somewhat unfairly a diffi- culty which he did not see his way to solve. In dealing with
what he calls " the swamping difficulty,"—the argument that household suffrage indefinitely extended will yield a repre- sentation of one class only,—he treats it as a theoretical and illusory, rather than a real and practical difficulty. Now, does he not know very well that this is the effect in America,— that the most educated classes don't vote, for the same reason that they don't usually vote in Marylebone, — just
because it is of no manner of use? They can't get any can- didate in whom they feel any interest, and therefore they
don't feel any interest in the elections. This is, at all events, the normal effect in quiet times. In times of great enthusiasm, no doubt, like the recent war in the United States, the cultivated classes reacquire some of their influ- ence. But in ordinary times the interests of the great mass- of the electors determine the election, and those interests, not being usually the same as the interests of the class sonially above them, the latter are virtually excluded altogether. Mr. Forster admits that it is no privilege to vote in a minority of ten per cent., and only tries to deny that the case will occur. Class interests, he says, will cease when classes are no longer- excluded. They won't, they can't, but if they did, class- tastes and class-education would be quite enough to keep up a certain real chasm between the favourite members of one class and the favourite members of another. Con- gress shows how much lower a type of member,—lower, we mean, in education and culture,—is elected by universal suffrage than what America could easily produce. Mr. Forster says that to assert that the admission of any great class to the franchise would prevent the representation of other fit men, means that it is the interest of the fit to keep that great class unfit. This really seems to us scarcely serious argument. No one- proposes to keep out the great class in question. The pro- posal is, by variety of suffrage in different places, and by ex- pedients for representing, if possible, two different strata of opinion even in the same place, to represent fairly all fit- classes, not only-the working class, but also the middle class. That is the proposition Mr. Forster has to deal with, not the proposal to exclude the most numerous class for the sake of a. less numerous class. Is it quite fair in him, while honestly admitting, as he does, that the workmen of the great towns are really the class who now most need representation, and, of all unenfranchised classes, are the most fit for it, to argue in favour of a measure which will include almost as many new unfit men in the middle-sized and smaller boroughs, like Yarmouth, Lancaster, &c., as it will, fit men in the great manufacturing cities ? Cannot the statesmen of the Reform movement condescend to notice the objection that it is simply folly to extend new power to the great depots of bribery and corruption, only because we extend it to a class as little likely to be influenced by bribery as any, in England ? It is this horrible nightmare of " uniformity " alone which now keeps Mr. Forster 's large and statesman-like mind from advocating a practicable as well as a thoroughly popular Reform measure. We wish he would devote a separate- speech to the explanation of his reasons for thinking that we ought to give the franchise liberally to a class demonstrably unfit, simply because they live, though in different places, in houses of the same rental as another more important class- demonstrably fit for the suffrage.