« PrécédentContinuer »
fully to retract them, the attempt to set up all sorts of pitiable pleas in his own defence have produced a very different impression on all unprejudiced minds. The best refutation of the sophistries to which he has had recourse is to be found in the republication of his argument. That admits but of one interpretation. If it had been a single phrase hastily introduced there would have been some ground for the indignation he has expressed. But his speech was based mainly on the argument that the working-classes were unfit to be entrusted with
power, and every illustration which he introduced was intended to give this reasoning a keener point. The worst classes of the present constituency, he maintained, were the poorest; and ridiculing the notion that greater purity could be obtained by going down into a deeper stratum, contended that the lower we went the worse the evil would become. In confirmation of this opinion he pointed to the freemen, and adduced their corruption as an illustration of what might be expected from the introduction of the artisan class. If his introduction of this illustration, his classical allusion to the ancients, who fancied that if they travelled sufficiently far north they would get out of the region of the north wind altogether, and the general conclusion to which the reasoning is pointed were not meant to cast reflections upon the workingclasses, we should be glad to know what their meaning really was. Of course no one supposes that Mr. Lowe meant to charge all working-men with venality and drunkenness, but unquestionably the whole effect of his speech was to create the impression that, as a class, they are prone to these vices, and, therefore, intellectually and morally disqualified for the franchise. Let him confess that he has been mistaken, or prove that his hearers have mistaken him, and it would be unjust to inflict any further penalties for his offence. In the meantime, it is only natural that those whom he has thus assailed should bitterly resent such imputations.
But there is a far more important question than any connected with Mr. Lowe's personal relations to this controversy, and that is, the real value of the argument he has employed. He has undoubtedly uttered, in very forcible and eloquent language, thoughts that were already working in many minds, which perhaps they rather hoped than believed to be true, which some of them who had a craving for popular sympathy were afraid to avow themselves, but which they were delighted to hear so boldly proclaimed and so ably defended by another. They revealed that mingled fear and distrust of all democratic tendencies which Trades-unions undoubtedly have done much to foster; that dislike of innovation which is naturally so powerful in the minds of those who enjoy prosperity and power under the existing
system; and that disposition to glorify the constitution as it is, so pardonable in those who regard themselves as its pillars and strength. All who have, or expect to have the blessings of the present monopoly of power, all who have a nervous fear of change, fancying that the beginning of change like the beginning of strife is the letting out of water, the members of the clubs and their literary hangers-on, the young lordlings, Whig and Tory alike, who believe that they have a vested right in the government of the nation as indefeasible and secure as the title to their own estates, have something of the feelings of the countryman, in listening to the speech of an eloquent orator, “Them's my very sentiments, only better expressed.” If the fear of the constituencies and of the people beyond them could only have been removed, the House of Commons would have been glad enough to acquiesce in the same notions, and considerations of popular right would have been very summarily dismissed as worthy only of wild enthusiasts and impracticable theorists. Mr. Lowe appealed very adroitly both to their foibles and their nobler sentiments. There was something chivalrous in the idea of standing manfully by venerable institutions, assailed by a powerful and unreasoning democracy, of showing a superiority to mere vulgar clamour, of obeying the dictates of reason in defiance of the clap-trap of popular declaimers. At the same time, there was something very pleasant in the belief that though not theoretically perfect, the House of Commons presented the very model of a wise and impartial legislature, that if it did not adequately represent the people, it at all events cared for their interests in a way which could not be surpassed by an assembly more thoroughly representative in its character, and that whatever improvements might be effected in its constitution, there could be none which would make it a better reflection of public opinion, or a wiser conservator of national interests. The policy of selfishness has never been presented in a more pleasing form, or made to look so like an incarnation of the highest virtue. It is not wonderful that numbers were enamoured of it, or disposed to laud to the skies the magician who had performed so extraordinary a feat.
In calmer moments, perhaps, some of those who were at first carried away by Mr. Lowe's plausible appeals, may be disposed to suspect the soundness of his reasonings, and the wisdom of his conclusions. Possibly even that gentleman may, on a review of his own experiences, doubt whether the House of Commons has always exhibited that freedom from class prejudice, that superiority to all considerations but those of the general weal, that determination to do what is right, which he so generously Ascribed to it. He has not, we trust, repented of his own sound
and liberal policy at the Educational Board, or entirely forgotten the way in which it was thwarted by the selfishness of the clergy and the squirearchy. He must be more or less than man if he does not remember those exciting evenings when galleries and lobbies were thronged with eager crowds of angry clergymen, when bitter taunts and insults were levelled at himself personally because of his resolution to uproot gross abuses, when the effect of his powerful speech was marred by the garbled quotations from his despatches, circulated on the very benches of the House by the noble lord whom he has helped to place at the India Board, and when he was compelled to bow to The storm created by his zeal on behalf of right and liberty. We can hardly fancy that he would at that time have spoken in such eulogistic terms of a House of Commons prepared to sanction such a waste of public money, and pervert to sectarian purposes a scheme designed to secure a great national good. We may admire the forgiving spirit which
has consigned these memories to oblivion, and has led him to serve so faithfully and disinterestedly the very men by whom his character was maligned, and his public career thus early arrested; but we cannot commend the statesmanlike wisdom which allows him to ignore such significant facts when forming a judgment on the character of the present House of Commons.
We are not disposed to take up a position of strong antagonism to the existing legislature, or to deny the services which it has rendered to the cause of popular progress. He must be a very uncandid or unreasoning man who, on surveying the history of the last thirty-five years, can pronounce a verdict of unqualified condemnation on the reformed House of Commons. It has swept away many abuses, it has secured the general predominance of Liberal principles, it has inaugurated and carried to perfection the great system of Free Trade, it has greatly relieved the industry of the country from the pressure of severe taxation, it has, above all, done something towards the establishment of a more perfect religious equality. But it must never be forgotten that these great reforms have been achieved by means of that democratic element the increase of which Mr. Lowe regards with such jealousy and dread. Mr. Gladstone, against whom some of his bitterest tirades were directed, but by whom some of the very measures now so much lauded were carried, in defiance of the avowed or secret opposition of a large portion of the aristocracy, is pre-eminently the minister of the people, and owes the success he has achieved mainly to the support of the popular constituencies. Mr. Bright, who is now the butt of every petty whipper-snapper of the Clubs, has always been one of the leading advocates of reforms which were
opposed at the time just as much as his present proposals for a change in the representation, but which are quoted now in justification of the wisdom of the very men by whom they were most sternly opposed. The very sagacity, therefore, of the popular leaders, and the ability with which they have been able to secure the triumph of their own ideas, has furnished the most plausible argument against the recognition of their present demands. It is contended, and not without some show of fairness, that a House of Commons which has served the country so well has constituted for itself a right to preserve its organization unchanged. But even a very slight amount of reflection would show that such reasoning was essentially superficial and fallacious. It would be more fair to argue that, if under all its disadvantages, the popular party has been able to work out such beneficial changes, it has established a claim to have a still ampler recognition of its power, in order that it may pursue the same course with greater freedom and efficiency.
It is indeed simply absurd, in the face of the many questions at present waiting a settlement, on which the public opinion of the country is sufficiently decided, but on which the House of Commons lags behind the more intelligent and thoughtful portion of the community, to assume that it has done all that needs to be done, and that none of the charges against it can be fairly maintained. We are promised, at present, a series of administrative and social reforms, in almost every department, from the Conservative government, to serve as sops for the comfort of those who are dissatisfied with their treatment of the Reform question. The list may seem tempting enough to some, but it is significant both in its contents and its omissions, for most of the measures it contains ought to have been passed years ago, while it passes over and ignores many of far higher importance. The condition of our Army and Navy, supported at so extravagant a cost, and yet continually declared to be utterly inefficient, is alone sufficient to prove that the House of Commons has succumbed to selfish influences, and suffered a shameless waste of the national resources. The state of the Poor Law, and the whole history of the struggles for the alteration of the law of Settlement, afford one among the many proofs of the undue predominance of the landed interest, a fact still more strikingly illustrated by the way in which the subject of the Cattle Plague was dealt with last session. It is only necessary indeed to take a list of the members of the House in order to see to how large an extent it is controlled by an aristocratic influence. What with peers' sons, peers' cousins, and peers' nominees, the broad-acred squires who represent the counties, and the nouveaux riches, whose grand ambition it is to be admitted into the ranks
of county society, the military and naval officers, who go into Parliament to do battle on behalf of the two services, and the lawyers who enter it to fight a battle for themselves, there is a sufficiently strong anti-popular phalanx in the popular branch of the legislature. These are the men who frequent the Clubs, who give the tone to their opinion and talk, who vote an earnest champion of democracy a bore, who manage to break down the virtue of many a Radical, sturdy enough out of doors, but only too sensible to the fascinations of these aristocratic circles. The indirect influence thus exerted is far stronger even than the actual power commanded by their votes. It hinders the action of Liberal cabinets. It deters Liberal members from pressing points felt to be inconvenient to these aristocratic interests. It creates an atmosphere unfriendly to earnestness and enthusiasm on behalf of liberty. To say that all this has not told is to fight against the evidence of facts, and to require us to believe that these gentlemen are endowed with superhuman virtue. It is simply contrary to all experience to suppose that there should be such a direct preponderance of any one class without its making its power felt. It has been felt, and is felt still, and the only hope of providing any adequate counterbalancing force is by a considerable introduction of the popular element. That, after all that can be done, the strength of the aristocracy will still be very great is certain, but, at all events, a freer spirit would prevail
, and questions bearing directly on the interests of the workingclasses would secure more attention, and be discussed with more intelligence if the real opinion of these classes themselves could be heard in the debates of St. Stephen's. We do not anticipate the commencement of a political millennium as the result of such a change, but even as the infusion of the middle-class element in 1832 has been found to be most healthy in its results, so do we expect an equal amount of good, though in another direction, from giving the working-classes their due place in the legislature.
But even if it were not so, if the House of Commons was as pure and patriotic as Mr. Lowe contends, we should still demur to his conclusions. The working-classes of this country are a body continually increasing in intelligence, numbers, and wealth. They are infinitely superior in their understanding of political subjects to the ten-pound householders to whom the act of 1832 gave the suffrage. Their income from wages is very large, and their proportionate share in the taxation of the country considerable. It is unjust, it is impolitic, it is unsafe, that they should feel the humiliation necessarily attendant upon an exclusion from all share in the government of the country. The political inferiority to which they are thus doomed sours their spirit, alienates their syn.