Page images
PDF
EPUB

that they preferred representatives from those classes, and gave those representatives much license. If a hundred small shopkeepers had by miracle been added to any of the '32 Parliaments, they would have felt outcasts there. Nothing could be more unlike those Parliaments than the average mass of the constituency from which it was chosen.

I do not of course mean that the ten-pound householders were great admirers of intellect or good judges of refinement. We all know that, for the most part, they were not so at all: very few Englishmen are. They were not influenced by ideas, but by facts; not by things palpable, but by things impalpable. Not to put too fine a point upon it, they were influenced by rank and wealth. No doubt the better sort of them believed that those who were superior to them in these indisputable respects were superior also in the more intangible qualities of sense and knowledge. But the mass of the old electors did not analyze very much : they liked to have one of their 6 betters” to represent them; if he was rich, they respected him much; and if he was a lord, they liked him the better. The issue put before these electors was which of two rich people will you choose ? And each of those rich people was put forward by great parties whose notions were the notions of the rich-whose plans were their plans. The electors only selected one or two wealthy men to carry out the schemes of one or two wealthy associations.

wei

ere

So fully was this so, that the class to whom the great body of the ten-pound householders belonged the lower middle class—was above all classes the one most hardly treated in the imposition of the taxes. A small shopkeeper or a clerk who just, and only just, was rich enough to pay income tax, was perhaps the only severely-taxed man in the country. He paid the rates, the tea, sugar, tobacco, malt, and spirit taxes, as well as the income tax, but his means were exceedingly small. Curiously enough the class which in theory was omnipotent, was the only class financially ill-treated. Throughout the history of our former Parliaments the constituency could no more have originated the policy which those Parliaments selected than they could have made the solar system.

As I have endeavoured to show in this volume, the deference of the old electors to their betters was the only way in which our old system could be maintained. No doubt countries can be imagined in which the mass of the electors would be thoroughly competent to form good opinions; approximations to that state happily exist. But such was not the state of the minor English shopkeepers. They were just competent to make a selection between two sets of superior ideas; or rather—for the conceptions of such people are more personal than abstract—between two opposing parties, each professing a creed of such ideas. But they could do no more. Their own notions, if they had been cross-examined upon them, would have been

found always most confused and often most foolish. They were competent to decide an issue selected by the higher classes, but they were incompetent to do more.

The grave question now is, How far will this peculiar old system continue and how far will it be altered? I am afraid I must put aside at once the idea that it will be altered entirely and altered for the better. I cannot expect that the new class of voters will be at all more able to form sound opinions on complex questions than the old voters. There was indeed an idea--a very prevalent idea when the first edition of this book was published—that there then was an unrepresented class of skilled artizans who could form superior opinions on national matters, and ought to have the means of expressing them. We used to frame elaborate schemes to give them such means. But the Reform Act of 1867 did not stop at skilled labour; it enfranchised unskilled labour too. And no one will contend that the ordinary working-man who has no special skill, and who is only rated because he has a house, can judge much of intellectual matters. The messenger in an office is not more intelligent than the clerks, not better educated but worse: and yet the messenger is probably a very superior specimen of the newly enfranchised classes. The average can only earn very scanty wages by coarse labour. They have no time to improve themselves, for they are labouring the whole day through ; and their early education was so small that in most cases it is dubious whether, even if they had much time, they could use it to good purpose. We have not enfranchised a class less needing to be guided by their betters than the old class ; on the contrary, the new class need it more than the old. The real question is, Will they submit to it, will they defer in the same way to wealth and rank, and to the higher qualities of which these are the rough symbols and the common accompaniments ?

There is a peculiar difficulty in answering this question. Generally, the debates upon the passing of an Act contain much valuable instruction as to what may be expected of it. But the debates on the Reform Act of 1867 hardly tell anything. They are taken up with technicalities as to the ratepayers and the compound householder. Nobody in the country knew what was being done. I happened at the time to visit a purely agricultural and conservative county, and I asked the local Tories, “ Do you understand this Reform Bill? Do you know that your Conservative Government has brought in a Bill far more Radical than any former Bill, and that it is very likely to be passed ?” The answer I got was, “What stuff you talk! How can it be a Radical Reform Bill? Why Bright opposes it !" There was no answering that in a way which a “common jury” could understand. The Bill was supported by the Times and opposed by Mr. Bright; and therefore the mass of the Conservatives and of common moderate people, without distinction of party, had no conception of the effect. They said it was 6 London nonsense” if you tried to explain it to them. The nation indeed generally looks to the discussions in Parliament to enlighten it as to the effect of Bills. But in this case neither party, as a party, could speak out. Many, perhaps most of the intelligent Conservatives, were fearful of the consequences of the proposal ; but as it was made by the heads of their own party, they did not like to oppose it, and the discipline of party carried them with it. On the other side, many, probably most of the intelligent Liberals, were in consternation at the Bill; they had been in the habit for years of proposing Reform Bills; they knew the points of difference between each Bill, and perceived that this was by far the most sweeping which had ever been proposed by any Ministry. But they were almost all unwilling to say so. They would have offended a large section in their constituencies if they had resisted a Tory Bill because it was too democratic; the extreme partizans of democracy would have said, “ The enemies of the people have confidence enough in the people to entrust them with this power, but you, a • Liberal,' and a professed friend of the people, have not that confidence; if that is so, we will never vote for you again.” Many Radical members who had been asking for years for household suffrage were much more surprised than pleased at the near chance of obtaining it; they had asked for it as bargainers ask for the highest possible price, but they never expected to get

« PreviousContinue »