Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Possibilities of the Session

As the session approaches the rumour that the Government will not bring forward a Reform Bill at all appears to gain ground. Of course every one except the members of the Cabinet is about equally unenlightened on the subject; but the question as to the considerations by which they may probably be actuated is open to every one. There is obviously a good deal to be said on both sides. On the one hand, all, or at least all the most conspicuous, members of the party are committed to a Reform Bill, and most of them have actually taken part in an attempt to carry one. If they could succeed in carrying a bill which would last, there is no obvious reason why they should not retain their places till they had reached the natural term of life accorded to fortunate Governments. So large a field in the shape of practical reforms is open to them that a serious endeavour to cultivate it might be sufficiently attractive to a considerable section of the country to induce them to acquiesce in the postponement of parliamentary reform for a considerable time. If the present Government could enter on this career with the prestige of having carried a moderately satisfactory measure of Reform, they would enter it with extraordinary advantages; but, seductive as such a prospect is, all observers must feel that there are difficulties in their way. They may be expressed in a single phrase. An honest Reform Bill might turn them out; a dishonest one could not be passed. It must be understood that by "honest" and "dishonest" we do not mean to imply moral praise or blame, but to describe bills which would or would not satisfy the feelings which really lie at the bottom of the cry for Reform. The meaning of that cry is simple enough. It is to make another step towards democracy, or, to speak more accurately, towards the recognition by law of a certain democratic state of society which exists amongst us in fact. Last year's bills, whatever other objections they were open to, certainly did that. If carried, they would have made the representation of the country distinctly more democratic than it is at present, and this was the reason why they were supported by the Radicals. A dishonest bill, on the other hand, would be a bill which would try by dexterous arrangements to make an extension of the suffrage consistent with the retention, or even with the extension, of the power of the Conservative party. There are various ways of doing or trying to do this. For instance, if the suffrage in the counties were considerably lowered, the effect of this might be neutralized to a great extent by a well-managed bill for the redistribution of seats. Disfranchise a number of small Whig boroughs, and transfer their seats to places now unrepresented, the voters in which form the strength of the Liberal party in the counties, and the thing is done to a considerable extent. The Whig borough loses its members, and a new Radical borough in what was formerly a Liberal county draws off from that county a considerable number of Liberal voters; and thus the Liberal party, on the whole, get a Radical borough instead of a Whig one, and lose it may be a county seat. Various clever contrivances of this sort may be imagined, by any one of which, if they could only induce Parliament to accept it, the Conservatives might hope to make a Reform Bill which would leave their actual power unshaken. Of these two supposed bills, that which we have called the dishonest one would probably be fatal to the existence of the Government. That they would carry an honest one is, in the present state of parties, almost certain; but even then a question for the Government remains, whether, having passed it, they could still hold office. We have our own opinions about the result in such a case, looking especially at the condition of parties at present, and at the distrust of themselves which the Radicals have inspired throughout the whole body of the middle classes. But we are not now expounding our own views, but those which the Government may take at the present crisis; and they know that after passing a Reform Bill they would have to take the risks of a general election; and as a dozen important accidents might take place in the interval, the result of a new election upon the majority of the House of Commons is by no means certain.

The difficulty of bringing in any Reform Bill makes it probable enough, then, that the Government may decide against making the attempt. Let us consider, always from their point of view, what the effect of such a step might be. To bring in no Reform Bill would subject them to the chance of being turned out upon an amendment to the address, or by any other summary process; though there is also a chance that a different view might prevail. Suppose, however, that the Government were turned out, how would matters stand then? The old Government would be restored without any additional strength so far as can be seen, and with the pleasing prospect before them of having to do this year what they proved themselves to be unable to do last year. The Liberal party is in such a condition that a certain interval of opposition appears to be almost necessary for its consolidation. If such an interval is denied it, will its discipline and its prospects of carrying its characteristic measures be in the least degree improved? Does it appear probable that Lord Russell and Mr. Gladstone will begin the next session with a larger, a more compact, a more resolute following than that which they had at the beginning of last session? Is it not very possible that, after defeating the present Government by some such coup as we have imagined, they might in a few months be again making room for the Conservatives, or at all events dissolving Parliament? and would not such a result give increased force to the cry that Reform is a practically impossible and insoluble question for the present, and that it is the part of wisdom and common sense to postpone it, for a while at least, to matters on which some sort of result may be attained?

This consideration of the state of the prospects of the two parties which are struggling for the mastery over us naturally suggests another question which it is impossible to leave in the background, and that is the prospects of the country at large. A certain disposition to cry, "A plague on both your houses," and even to wish for a moment--if so blasphemous a thought may be forgiven--that Prime Ministers, like American Presidents, held office for four years certain, will sometimes rise in the human mind when these matters are brought under its notice. When we consider the importance of the questions which this constant see-saw holds in abeyance, and the amount of national discredit, danger, and suffering which may arise from it at any moment, it is difficult not to feel disposed to curse the whole system of party Government with its vacillations, its weakness, and its absorption in topics which after all are important principally as means to ends. Amongst other questions before us there are the subjects of the army, the poor laws, education, the reform of every branch of the law, yet all these are hung up indefinitely by the question of Reform, and there is no sort of reason to suppose that the forthcoming session will do more for them than the last. We can even imagine that the existence of the question of Reform may be made a plausible reason for postponing their consideration. It will be said, perhaps, these are topics which are specially interesting to those who are about to receive the franchise; had we not better wait to legislate upon them till we can find out what their views about them may be? There certainly is some plausibility in such a question. It would tell on the platform; it would have a certain weight in answer to an appeal in favour of practical reforms from a Conservative Minister anxious, as all Ministers are, to continue in office; but it surely ought not to convince the public at large, for if it were true it would stultify all the measures of practical reform which have been passed since 1832. Indeed the answer to it is obvious. Whenever a Reform Bill is passed, the then constituencies will have undisputed control over the whole government of the country, and they will be able to amend, alter, or abolish altogether whatever has been done by their predecessors.

We do not pretend to suggest a solution of the various difficulties of which we have indicated the existence, but one proposition we do feel perfectly competent to affirm in the most emphatic manner, and that is, that whoever is in and whoever is out, and whether we do or do not succeed in hatching a Reform Bill, we stand in the most urgent need of a variety of reforms of a totally different kind, the postponement of which, from whatever cause and by whatever mishap, may do us all injury of which it is impossible to calculate the amount.

Pall Mall Gazette, January 22, 1867.

No comments:

Post a Comment