NET RESULT OF THE REFORM DEBATE.
BEFORE what we write can meet our readers' eyes, the result of the division on the second reading of the Reform Bill will be known, and will probably show an in- finitesimal majority quite too small to carry the Bill through its later stages. And if we evaporate the enormous amount of watery diluents- by which the true issue has been disguised and sometimes almost drowned, we think there will be found a ..residuum of sound reason fullyjustifying this dwindling away of a splendid Liberal, majority, though we are also forced in candour to admit that much of the opposition which the Bill has received at the hands of Liberals has been based upon radically illiberal views. Let us sum up shortly what seem to us the valid and still absolutely unanswered argu- ments which a true Liberal may properly urge against the present Reform Bill.
There is, first, Lord Stanley's argument, which no one has supported with more unconscious emphasis than Mr. Bright, that Reform means a redistribution of power between different constituent elements of the population, and that that redistri- bution of power depends quite as much on the new boundaries of boroughs and the new allotment of seats as on the new franchises,—that these changes are therefore indissoluble parts of a great whole ; and that the Legislature cannot with-either sense or self-respect deliberate on the Ministerial proposals for one change without having before it their pro- posals for those other co-ordinate changes, the effect of which might be either greatly to exaggerate, or on the other hand to cancel altogether, what is effected by the change in the Franchise Bill. Mr. Bright put this in a far stronger light 'than any other speaker. He said, " I will undertake to devise a scheme,—the noble Lord (Lord Stanley) and the right honourable member for Buckinghamshire would do it easily, that would give the suffrage to every man in the kingdom, and yet so arrange the seats that the representation of the people would be infinitely worse and less complete than it is at the present moment." That is the strongest thing yet said in favour of the amendment,—the thing that puts most com- pletely before the House the organic unity of design that should belong to any Reform scheme as a whole. If you can undo by the Redistribution Bill all that you do by your Fran-
• ehise Bill, and of course therefore can, if you please, double ilty your Redistribution Bill the effect of what you do by your Franchise Bill, how can it be right to consider the two sepa- rately ? Mr. Bright may say that this proves that the House parts with no power by assenting to the one, since it can, by modifying the other, make the joint effect what it pleases. But the truth is that it does part with the power of doing the right thing by the right method. Suppose the borough franchise is iiniformly enlarged, as the Government propose, and thereby the corruption in a number of small boroughs artificially increased, the true working class,—the artisan class that is fit and eager for representation,—gaining thereby only about as much actual representation as the untrue working class,—the class of mechanics willing to accept bribes because they have no political ideas. To rectify this false distribution of power, you must in the Redistribution Bill take away much representation from the constituencies you have thus spoiled, and transfer it to the constituencies you have improved. But that will be a wrong method, and also a much more difficult method, of giving the true working class their proper share of influence. It will be wrong because it involves spoiling what are at present good middle-class constituencies, and then disfranchis- ing them because you have made them bad working-class con- stituencies. It will be much more difficult, because it is much harder to take away power than not to give it. If the Bill did not propose to make bad as well as good working-class constitu- encies, the working class would onlyhave credit for power really given to them, and it would have been much more easy to increase that power by the redistribution of seats. But now Lord Cranborne and all the Tories give them credit for the power they nominally gain in such places as Bridgewater, Marlborough, Guildford, or St. Ives, and will refuse to give them fresh seats in the manufacturing North, on the strength of those which they have not really gained in the rural South. And still more will the Conservatives obstruct the withdrawal of seats from this class of pseudo-working-class boroughs alto- gether. Well, then, Lord Stanley's great constitutional objec- tion to separating Reform into two parts is amply sustained, and is sustained on the strength of Mr. Bright's own emphatic evidence.
Again, the debate has sustained beyond all doubt the
objection that, even as regards the franchise, the Bill contains no settlement of the question. Both the county limit and the borough limit fixed are absolutely arbitrary, limits resting on no kind of principle, limits drawn confessedly because they contain a settlement that is safe just now, and make the transfer of power, as Mr. Gladstone says, only " gradual." None of the most eminent supporters of the Bill have denied that it is a mere downward step. The Chancellor of the Ex- chequer piques himself on its being a moderate step, a very gradual descent, and on the very much larger step, the abrupt descent which remains for future reformers to take. The very principle of his great speech at Liverpool, in praise of the impulse given to American patriotism by the equal share accorded to all citizens in the government, was that sooner or later all classes of Englishmen should vote ; and the principle of this Bill is that of their uniform admission, in gradually enlarging slices as it were, to the franchise. Put the two together, and we are justified in saying that this Bill not only effects no permanent settlement, but boasts that it effects none, and holds out to the next generation of reformers the pro- mise of another downward slide. Now even the most sincere re- formers, who heartily agree with Mr. Gladstone that we should aim at preventing the exclusion of any considerable section of society from fair and full representation, hold, and hold by virtue of that very principle, that we should so provide for the future as to assert the permanent right of the middle and smaller classes of society to a substantial representation. And they cannot therefore agree to see a couple of purely arbitrary lines, based on a calculation which will be even proximately true only for a year or two, drawn to define who shall vote for the present, and who shall not, without even an attempt or a wish to secure on any solid ground of principle a fair representation of all the various communities and interests for times to come,—without an attempt even to register as a pre- cedent for the future our conception of what is demanded by political justice.
Lastly, no one has answered the objection that, even for the moment, even for the immediate future, we do not know what we are doing, whether we are really going to give a substan- tial share of power to the working class at all after all this agitation and all this laborious failure to lay down principles for the future. Mr. Bright says that only 180,000 working men will be enfranchised in all, and these of course in a very irregular way, many more in the great Lancashire towns than in the great Yorkshire towns,—many more than enough to give the working men a seat in one place, many less than enough to give them a seat in a good many other places. If this calculation of Mr. Bright's be true, we believe it would be found that the Bill, besides attempting to do a thing by halves that it should plan as a whole,—besides laying down no principle for the future while it unsettles everything in the past,—does not accomplish even its temporary purpose in any appreciable degree. We should not give probably ten new seats to the working class proper, if Mr. Bright be right. And yet we should have opened the whole of a great question without attempting any permanent solution, have greatly diminished the hope of ever arriving at a sound principle on the question at all, have rushed precipitately into one-half of a legislative change which cannot be settled without reference to the other half, and all for the sake of effecting nothing. Whatever the fate of the division, we are quite sure that Par- liament will not stultify itself by a piece of blind, incompe- tent, and, for its purpose probably, quite ineffectual legislation, which will, however, have one very considerable effect,—to reduce to despair all politicians who believe that the object of a representative system is to give a true mirror of the national wants and yet a no less true mirror also of the national faculty and intelligence by which those wants must be supplied.