TOPICS OF THE DAY.
• THE PARLIAMENTS OF 1841 AND 1847.
THE late Parliament began a career—not foreseen, not univer- sally understood at the time—which will be continued by its successor. The experiences of the last will help us to read the horoscope of the next.
The Parliament of 1841 did not do what it was appointed for ; it did many things which its makers had not set down for it. The reproach of " treachery " has been pretty freely cast upon it : the so-called treachery simply amounted to understanding, when they came to be present, political necessities which were not un- derstood before they were present. Ostensibly, on the most su- perficial of views, it betrayed the cause of " Protection "; but in reality it performed with tolerable correctness the duties which devolved upon it through the force of circumstances. • That task was not the maintenance of protection. If we can find any statement of the question submitted to " the country" at the time of the last general election, it must be in the mouths of those party leaders who made the usual reference to the coned- tuencies. The Whig Cabinet professed to make the appeal on their Budget. But their chief adversary refused to concur in the appeal on that ground : he declined to put the issue on abstract theories; he declined to be pledged for the maintenance of the Corn-law ; he declined to bind himself to details ; he insisted upon his right to consider any measures that might originate with himself or come before him, according to the time and the circumstances. What he did join issue upon was the expediency of the particular measures then before him the capacity of these authors, and most especially the amount Of authority possessed by them in the shape of public confidence. The " cries " at the election of 1841 were ' Free Trade" and " Protection " : the sequel proved that the decision was given not upon those mere distinguishing war-cries, but upon the substantial question of confidence in the men. Virtually the late Parliament was re- turned to determine which should be the Cabinet Ministers, and to do the best for the empire that the circumstances would allow. Had the Parliament limited its action to the specific and ob- structive duty imputed it, its existence would have been short : public opinion would have pronounced its doom before the first twelvemonth was out, and before the succeeding Parlietnent was appointed the political atmosphere would have been purified by a storm of agitation rather rougher than that of the Anti- Corn-law League. It is to the discreet course taken by the Par- liament that we owe the peacefulness brought by the last sit years. We do not., of course, mean to say that the Parliament proceeded deliberately, consciously, and avowedly, on a systematic course of operations, as if it were a unity, and capable of single thought or action : but it was swayed instinctively by the preva- lent feeling ; and it is to what was upon the whole an honest and intelligent reliance on its own conviction that we owe the peace which it has bequeathed. It is to that conscientious behaviour that we must ascribe the first act which drew upon the Parliament so many reproaches of " treachery " : in the very first session, that of 1842, the Parlia- ment, whom so many persisted to regard as appointed for the maintenance of the Corn-laws, changed those laws, revised the Import-duties with a sweeping alteration, and established the In- come-tax, as a locus stundi or scaffolding for the purpose of taking down and rebuilding the Tariff. There was of course a loud outcry ; but the anger was confined to the organized political coteries, whose fume and fury are apt to obtain a great deal too much attention. Standing in the front, they fill all our eyesight ; and moving with an • assumed or self. excited agitation they deceive us with a hubbub that exists only in show. Like the stage chorus, artfully crowding down to the foot-lights and running to and fro with feigned tumultuousness; they seem a multitude, and conceal from view the blank tran- quillity behind. It is soon known when the country is really roused : after the session of 1842, the country left matters to the Parliament and the Premier. The statesman at whose instance Parliament acted became the most popular and the most trusted. The next two sessions abated his popularity and influence. He was new to his work. The session of 1842 was a great begin- ning, and needed a respite to consolidate, at all events, his own trust in the new order of things. Accordingly, the session of 1843 was one of talk, not deeds—of negation rather than action, and was chiefly remarkable for its disruptions. The Irish Arms Bill was the ugly triumph of Ministers ; the yielding of Sir James Graham's Educational clauses was their no less ugly de- feat. O'Connell staid away, and began that agitation which waxed formidable, until it was shaken by his trial, and was finally crushed by the famine and his death. Scotland was torn by the secession in her Church. In England we became aware that party was broken up ; and amid the ruins was born "Young Engiand7 —like the little flower that rears its pleasing countenance unit the destruction of larger fabrics, protected by its minuteness awl its innocence. The cries about Peel's " deceiving " grew louder: the Minister's influence seemed to decline, because his strength was not felt—he was no longer in action. The session of 1844 was abundant in irritation, but more active. The Bank Charter Act and the conversion of the Three-and-a- half per Cents were contributions towards the Premier's corn er- cial and fiscal policy ; the Dissenters' Chapels Bill, the Charitable
Bequests Bill, and the removal of some Catholic disabilities, dis- played his liberal energy in a new direction ; and although the session was accounted unsatisfactory, the Minister had regained a large degree of the general confidence. This process was completed by the active session of 1845; which saw a further reform of the Tariff—the Maynooth endow- ment and new Colleges in Ireland—the new Poor-law, such as it was, in Scotland—the removal of Jewish disabilities, (except a modicum left for the benefit of Lord John Russell)—and an at- tempt to put the Health of Towns question in issue as a bill. In 1846 came the Irish scarcity ; and Parliament accomplished its duty of dealing with Free Trade according to its conclu- sions, by finally repealing the Corn-law. Sir Robert Peel re- linquished power with his celebrated and not fruitless declaration of equal rights for Ireland,—a vast concession, to be accepted as the final abandonment of Tory or Orange ascendancy ; and Lord John Russell came in to "open the ports," and continue the ad- ministration of affairs in 1847 as little differently as he could. In the course of its six years' existence, Parliament has had before it other questions of the utmost importance,—many branches of the labour question, such as protection of the help- less from the necessity to undergo degrading labour, and limita- tion of working hours ; and the immense railway legislation. Parliament found England in that condition which sought vent in the riots of 1842; it has seen Scotland distracted by a schism, and tranquilized ; has carried Ireland through a real famine, without anarchy or even breach of national peace. Parliament bas not always done the best that could have been done, or any- thing like it ; but upon the whole it has always tried to do the best of which it was capable. It has preferred the interests of its kind and country to the interests of class or party, in a degree unprecedented; it has converted that preference, once an orna- ment of oratory, into a rule of practical conduct ; and if it must be modest in comparison with earlier Parliaments illustrious for displays of eloquence or intellect, it has a right to say that it found out the true principle of wise legislation.
We discern no ground for assuming that in essential elements the next Parliament will materially differ from the last. The constituencies are the product of the country at large ; for them as well as others the last six years have not passed in vain : on the contrary, Peel and the Parliament have consolidated opinion, converted "theories" into statutes, disencumbered popular con- viction of debated questions and of doubts kept up by authority, enlarged the bounds of possibility, and have left our good coun- try far forward in a different stage of observation and activity. The constituencies are not so bad but what they have gone along with us ; we have really not left them in 1841: they read news- papers, like the rest of the world : we are all of a story. It is true that no great question is referred to them at this election, to pique their patriotism or their perversity ; that they will not have the pleasure of electing the next Parliament in the name of Pro- tection, to establish Free Trade. But it is not to be assumed that they will suffer the want of that zest to make them disap- point the world for sport. They will not, be assured, reinstate Protection for the mere love of change. They will not forswear the emancipation from party, and restore old Toryism, or Whig- gism, or Chartism, or any other stale "ism " that is not on the cards. They have, as they had before, to send up six hundred and fifty-eight gentlemen; and on the whole it is to be expected that the next supply will answer to the last. It may have taints which the other had not ; it may have excellences. The last Parliament was not so much specially elected as it was the direct product of the times; and it is probable that the next will be at least as much so.
As in the case of the last, other questions will come before the new Parliament that are not set down for it—some which we al- ready know of, others perhaps not yet disclosed to us even by name. We may not expect any wonderful increase in the legisla- tive capacity of the next Parliament, but we have no reason to presume that it will be less able or less willing to treat questions as they are matured on their merits; that it will be more tolerant of incapacity or inaction than the last Parliament, summoned by Lord John Russell, but not led by him in the flower of its exist- ence. Emancipated from some associations which hampered the last, pioneered by the last in a new career of action, enlight- ened by the experience of the last in the treatment and esti- mation of public men, the new Parliament will have helps to right conduct which that had not. It promises to be of the same breed, with freer opportunity. We do not place out of sight the difficulties of the time, the dangers that lurk in the future, the many weaknesses inherent in the constitution and practice of Parliament : these, now waived, we will on occasion discuss : but we are now comparing one Parliament with another, the past and the future, by the light of experience and analogy ; and we ray, there is no reason to anticipate for the period on which we are now entering a history less beneficial to the country than that of the period which has just closed.