TOPICS OF THE DAY.
MR. BRIGHT AS A REPRESENTATIVE OF THE PEOPLE.
THE oldest and most sagacious of popular historians has said in his pathetic way, "this is the worst suffer- ing among men, that one who has many insights should have no power," and it is difficult to listen to the matchless power of Mr. Bright's speeches, to see the many qualifications which they need, and to observe how completely they would lose their grand simplicity of effect if those qualifications were intro- duced, without keenly feeling "this worst suffering among men," and experiencing almost the same sense of impotence as if we were asked to persuade an equinoctial gale to steer its course by compass allowing strictly for the variation of the needle. In his great speech of Monday last there was not only immense force, but a large proportion of reason, and yet there was so much that he did not say, so much that it would have spoiled the massive vigour of his speech and ruined the very structure of its homely and weighty passion to have said at all, and which is yet absolutely true and germane to the question, that there is no choice left to his critics but to qualify painfully the blows of this political Ajax at the risk of seeming to perplexwhat Mr. Bright leaves simple, and to limit assertions urged in a style little capable, if not incapable, of limitation. There is this comfort, however, that great simplicity, artistic as it often is, is a certain test of divergence from the complexity of truth. In nature nothing is really simple ; the roughest sailor must allow for variations of the needle ; the rudest astronomer must admit that his seeming circles are really elliptical, and even his ellipses indefinitely disturbed. Mr. Bright is so grand and simple because, while, as we gladly confess, he holds fast by the truth he sees, there is so much which he neglects to see. And in this he is but the sign, the omen, of the political system which he wishes to inaugurate, which would no doubt achieve very great objects which we now leave unattempted, but which would, like himself, simply ignore any modifying influence from the finer shades of political discrimination. In a political as in an ordinary balance, we need both great susceptibility and still greater stability. The latter quality Mr. Bright's judgment, and the judgment of the unqualified popular majority for which he argues, would undoubtedly haie, and our popular judgment as at present organized has not. But intellectual susceptibility it would not have, which our present political opinion now in a very considerable degree has ; and there is no conceivable reason why, when we are contemplating a great political change, we should recklessly sacrifice the better qualities of our present very imperfect Con- stitution in order to secure those of a totally different kind, when, if we stick to the clear idea at the bottom of the word representation, we ought certainly to secure both.
Mr. Bright's three great points were all very powerfully put, and two of them at least perfectly true. First, he says that nothing can be more at variance with the real distribution of popular vitality, wealth, and numbers than the present distribution of representative power to the boroughs ; next, that the result of this maldistribution is Parliamentary indifference to the ignorance and misery of the lowest class of the people ; lastly, that as a result of this system, the past failures of statesmen, instead of diminishing, as in other professions, their chance of future success, rather rivet their hold on a certain small but influential class, which insists on bringing them back time after time into power. Now, we hold the first two of these propositions to be important and undeniable truths, though not fnllyadequate to Mr. Bright's inferences from them ; but the last is in this very important respect erroneous, that it ascribes the root of the frequent political popularityof blunder- ing statesmen to a wrong cause,—which is certainly not by any means the smallness of the class which confides in blunderers, for in the most democratic bodies we see the same phenomena on a far larger scale. On the contrary, we think we could easily show that Lord Derby's blunders as a statesman have had far greater results in keeping him out of power in England under the rule of a shrewd middle-class self-interest, than similar or even greater blunders would have had in estranging the masses of the people from a popular favourite under a democratic constitution. Surely Mr. Bright does not mean, with the financial articles of the New York Tribune and the Victorian Age before him, that popular favourites are dismissed for mistakes such as Lord Derby's in 1846. Whatever else government by democratic majorities may effect,—and un- doubtedly it may effect much,--it does not guarantee any vigilance in discerning the sort of political blunders which should deprive a statesman of the confidence of the people. Lord Derby has hardly had three years of power in twenty, in consequence of his errors. Can the free traders of America or Victoria say as much? Popular government means the right to blunder, and to confide in blunderers if you please. And the masses are probably more liable to both error and self-will on certain points than the middle class themselves.
On the other two heads Mr. Bright's powerful speeelt is, within certain limits, unanswerable, but then those limits materially modify the drift of that in it which is unanswerable, and suggest an inference different from Mr'.- Bright's. There can be no doubt at all that he is right- in asserting the enormous divergence between the distribution of popular numbers, wealth, and vitality in the boroughs, and the distribution of representative power. But the figures in which he expresses this, though graphic enough, are to some extent misleading. He tells us that
—which is true, but then it is also true that the 215 members of the small boroughs, we do not say do represent (we do not suppose they do), but might represent a population not merely of 1,350,000 inhabiting those particular boroughs, but the whole small borough population of England, which is. very much larger, and includes very much more of the average life and lot of ordinary Englishmen, than the great centres of commercial vigour and progress with which Mr. Bright compares them. No doubt energy, life, activity is entitled to more repre- sentation than languor, indolence, passivity, as being a more positive force altogether, and having more to say for itself. But it is also true that the energy of the great commercial cities is. somewhat special, that it is likely to indulge special instead of more widely diffused wishes about English national life, and that the more average life of the ordinary citizen should be fairly represented therefore, and allowed to put in its protests, when it wishes, against the special zeals of the go-ahead boroughs. The anomaly of which Mr. Bright complains will not be redressed by merely transferring members from the many small and quiescent places to the few big and active places, unless some pains is taken to get a fairer repre- sentation of the essential opinion of the many small quiescent places as well. That this is not done now, the Election Com- missions sufficiently show. That it will not be done by lowering the suffrage in such places as Lancaster and Reigate to 71. or to household suffrage, the Election Commissions show still more clearly. Mr. Bright's proposal to get rid of bribery by rendering it numerically difficult by added numbers, and mechanically difficult by means of secret voting, is, even if successful, only a proposal to admit, in such places as these, hosts of persons with no political principles, in order that the comparatively few who have none at present may lose their market. That, we, submit. is not a statesmanlike proposal. The only way in which, as it seems to us, it would be easy to get at the real wishes of the quiet average. citizens of small boroughs in such masses as to secure a good representation, is by throwing them into the counties by a county suffrage not under 20/. of annual rental. By that means you will get at the indepen- dent small borough citizens, in great numbers, and they will not be swamped by the class of labourers directly under the influ- ence of the farmer or ace 'landowner. If that were done, a. very considerable disfranchisement of the present small Par- liamentary boroughs would not really extinguish their proper influence in the country. Mr. Bright's plan of disfranchising the smallest boroughs, and rendering the second-rate boroughs still more politically meaningless than they now are by enfran- chising a large class of persons in the moral position of the Yarmouth bribees, and then finally throwing all the village population into the counties by a 10/. county suffrage, would politically extinguish, the best middle class of the ordinary country towns altogether.
Finally, no doubt Mr. Bright is absolutely right in saying that Parliament has neglected the most important interests of the greatest class, that it does not provide for their education, or for their building accommodation, or for their treatment in
"145 boroughs, with 79,000 electors, 1,350,000 population, paying 367,000/. income-tax, have 215 members ; while "109 boroughs, with 485,000 electors, 9,305,000 population, PaYmfi 5,240,000/. income-tax,. have 181 members,"
the workhouses, at all as it would if it were in a large degree elected by the working class itself. We have never ceased to reiterate this truth, and we accept Mr. Bright's statement of it in the fullest sense. But how shall we get even this needful working-class impulse to our legislation in the purest and strongest form ? Not surely by flooding the country with a new host of the class of voters who have disgraced Yar- mouth and Lancaster, but by going down as low as household suffrage in the places which, as Mr. Bright proudly says, -"know not bribery,"—those Manchesters and Birminghams of England which are ignorant of bribery not merely because the working people are too numerous for the briber, but because they are too proud and independent a class to furnish bribees. These are the voters who will give stability and energy to the political purposes of England, who know what they want, and who will not bring a mere dead weight of inert suffrages, which mean nothing but habit or hearsay, to the polls. Moreover, by thus limiting the downward extension of the suffrage to the places where it means really what it appears to mean, we may ensure what we have called the susceptibility of Parliament to the slighter shades of political thought, as well as its stability. This susceptibility depends chiefly on having sufficient variety in our representative system, in opening Parliament to political light from various quarters and different strata of social opinion. If you represent the working class alone in the boroughs,—and this is what uniform household suffrage would produce,—the working class in its best and worst form, the working class not only in its most intelligent and independent, but also in its most ignorant and servile form, you will get a borough representa- tion no doubt of great energy and full of a few great purposes, but on all the finer shades of political principle indifferent, insensible, obtuse. Look at the Lower House of Congress in the United States, which represents a far keener and more educated body than the working class of our country towns, and see how clearly and strongly it has grasped a few great objects, how stupidly inelastic it has been on all other subjects, and even in the mode of carrying these out ; and you see the result of choosing your representatives from a single great, nearlyhomogeneous class. The working class must give strength and stability to the aims of Parliament, the middle class flexi- bility and range. With a full representation of both classes, we may combine the best qualities we want with the best qualities we have. Mr. Bright's scheme, like his oratory, would give us the full volume of popular purpose which we need, bat at the cost of suppressing every trace of the play of thought and the variety of intelligence which we now have, but which is unfortunately now at the mercy of prosperous, and therefore supercilious, middle-class caprice.