TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE FOLLY OF THE LORDS.
THE country will hear with something of impatient dis- gust that the House of Lords is bent on forcing the subject of its own reform on the country as part and parcel of the necessity for a reform of the House of Commons. There never was a more elaborate attempt made to convince the country,—which hardly needs convincing,—that if the House of Commons needs reform much, the House of Peers needs it much more, than this notice of Lord Cairns's, which the Duke of Richmond and Gordon is, it is said, to second, to reject the Franchise Bill, because a Redistribution Bill is not appended. What does it really imply ? The Conservative Party do not, as a party, dispute the right of the county householders to a vote. Sir Stafford Northcote has never denied it. Many of his followers assert it. Lord Cairns expressly concedes it. Even the Conservative Peers will assure the country that their party is willing, if it attains power, at once to introduce a measure precisely like that which they are now about to reject,—only coupled with a Redistribution Bill. In other words, the Conservatives recog- nise the right of the two millions, whom this Bill enfranchises, to be enfranchised. They have no quarrel with the principle of what has been done by the Commons. They have no desire to condemn that principle. They do not even deny that what is needed to make that principle work well and safely may be added next year. Sir Stafford Northcote approved generally, though vaguely, Mr. Gladstone's sketch of the lines of his intended Redistribution measure, so that the Conservatives can- not even say that behind the present Bill revolutionary intentions are plainly working. The one sole reason for wast- ing the whole work of a session, for delaying the hopes of two millions of Englishmen, for compelling the House of Commons to do over again with great labour and trouble what it has done once, and what no one denies that it has done well, is that the Conservatives cannot be quite sure that the second mea- sure will be produced and will pass. and that they hold that if the second measure does not pass, the first, taken alone, may pro- duce many results which the House of Lords heartily dislike. They propose, then, to veto a Bill on which the hopes of multi- tudes hang, and to cast the labours of the representative House to the four winds, solely on a suspicion that, if it is not completed, as it ought to be, by a further measure, it may introduce a temporary and provisional condition of political affairs, under which the county representation would be neither what it has been, nor what it is intended ultimately to be, but a tertian: quid that has many of the disadvantages of both. Well, that would be vexatious, no doubt, just as temporary arrange- ments are apt to be vexatious. But none the less, temporary arrangements have to be made, and will have to be made, while the world is what it is. The notion of throwing out this Bill, in order to provide against the contingency of an unsatisfactory temporary arrangement, is one of the most cynical ever suggested, especially as the throwing-out of such a measure must be the most unsatisfactory temporary arrange- ment that can be conceived. For, it wastes recklessly the time and labour of an overworked Legislature, and it irritates all those the concession of whose rights is thereby delayed. And lastly, it leaves in operation a condition of things which the great majority of the British people will think far worse than even the temporary arrangement itself ; and this only for the purpose of insuring the Lords against a contingency the realisation of which, if it were realised, would in all probability be the Peers' own doing, for only they could manage to force a dissolution until after a Redistribution Bill had been carried.
Even now we can hardly believe that this monstrous political blunder is about to be committed by the one con- stituent element in our Legislature which is itself the weakest, the most anomalous, and the most unstable. Is it really conceivable that the hereditary branch of the Legislature is about to challenge criticism on a point on which it cannot even pretend to plead conviction, much less a popular and deep-rooted conviction ? Is it going to say to all and sundry that the ground which it deliberately chooses for the long-delayed battle is not merely a question of the thinnest opportunism, but an opportunist question on which its adversaries can boldly say, as Mr. Gladstone has said, that they had really no choice in the matter, since for them the issue lay between separating Redistribution from the Franchise, and
not dealing with either? Can a sillier choice of ground for the great controversy between the people and a privileged class be imagined, than the one which the Lords appear to have chosen They do not pretend to condemn the substance of the measure which they are going to throw out ; they do not pretend to doubt that by a careful complementary measure it may, be made a thoroughly good one ; they do not deny that the only sketch which they have had of the intentions of the Government as to the future Bill is a tolerably satisfactory- sketch ; they do not even venture to assert that had a complete measure been brought in at once, the House, under present conditions, could have succeeded in carrying it to completion. It is a contingency, and a contingency only that they profess to fear. ' We will destroy all that has been effected,' they say virtually, ' for fear that what has not yet been effected may turn out badly, though we have no sufficient reason to doubt that it will be as good as what has been. done ; and then, with this wanton act of rash but timorous destructiveness on our consciences, as our last solemn legislative feat, we will take our place at the bar of public opinion, and ask the people to thank God that they have a House of Lords.' Such an attitude is simply amazing,— the most marvellous and indescribably grotesque of the many marvellous and grotesque acts of penance which in our day the House of Lords in their humility have undertaken to perform. Dr. Johnson's penance in standing for two hours bare- headed in the market-place of Lichfield, was rational compared with this voluntary self-humiliation of the House of Lords. Even if Dr. Johnson had previously blacked his head, as the Staffordshire Yeomanry blacked the head of his statue for him. the other day, he would not have imposed cn himself a penance so absurd as the House of Lords is about to perform in the face of all the nation. For they really are about to tell us, that,—well as they know the weakness of their posi- tion,—well as they know that the ground on which they are chal- lenging public opinion is ground so unfortunate for them that their own friends shrink from declaring themselves willing to take it up permanently and on principle,—well as they know that the people are eager for this measure as they have never been eager for any measure since 1867,—they still think it right and wise and patriotic to come into deadly colli- sion with the Commons as the champions of a finical completeness of method, which everybody recognises as not only chimerical and impossible, but as selected for pane- gyric by the Lords precisely because it was known to be chimerical and impossible. If it had been really practica- ble to produce the whole Reform measure in one block and pass it, the Lords would never have thought of insisting on that course. They praise it now, as everybody knows, because it would have presented so much larger a surface to resistance, that successful resistance would have been all but certain. It is because the Franchise Bill alone was so much simpler and so much easier to carry, and because, when carried, it will give so. much purchase to the Government for the more difficult task of carrying a Redistribution Bill, that the Franchise Bill alone is so freely denounced by the Lords. The Lords are furious that the line of least resistance has been discovered, and say in effect,—' What we object to is that you have done what is practicable in the only way in which it was. workmanlike to do it.' That is the real ground of the wrath of the Peers. But it is the oddest and silliest of all hereditary caprices to confess, as they are confessing, that this is precisely what they resent. If the Government had embarked on any impracticable scheme, they would, of course, have been delighted to show the impracticability of that scheme ; but it is very simple, indeed, in them to rave against the Government, as they are raving, not for proposing what is impracticable, but for proposing what has been actually achieved. The Peers are telling everybody, ore rot undo, that if the Government had attempted what never could have been carried out, the Lords would have been willing to give their plan that impartial consideration which it would never have required, because it never would have reached the Peers ; but that as they have attempted what they could really do, the House of Lords will loudly condemn such wicked opportunism, and unravel the whole web of the Session. We suppose they will be foolish enough to keep their word. But if they do, what will the people say of that distinguished Assembly which, while it does not even venture to assert that what has been done has been wrong, does venture to assert that it ought to be undone, because something else wants doing which could not possibly have been done at the same time ? We think the people will reply,—' Here is an Assembly devoted to the cause of
the impracticable ; practical men will do well to sweep away this Assembly into that limbo of impracticabilities for which it is so jealous.'