Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Triumph of Pure Reason

The articles which some of our contemporaries are publishing about the representation of minorities which is to be effected by Lord Cairns’s motion deserve a place amongst the curiosities of journalism. The Times and the Spectator vie with each other in chanting "Nunc dimittis." The unusual liveliness of their articles, and the intense heartfelt joy which they appear to derive from the fact that, after much coaxing, the British public has consented to take one dose of Morrison's pills, are quite pathetic.
"Give but time," said the Times, "and the truth must win. The victory may be deferred, the contest may be protracted, the end apparently uncertain; but the result is sure. Were it otherwise, we might well despair of human progress. If there be not in just principles of conduct--if there be not in sound motives of action -- if there be not in truth and justice, some element to give them the superiority, what ground have we for faith in the future ? Why should we not resign ourselves to the belief that the government of the world is the sport of chance? We have a better assurance. Possessing the consciousness of ultimate triumph, we are calm under temporary defeats. Knowledge must be victorious. Stupidity must give way." 
Birmingham and Leeds having got a minority member, the Times was quite inclined to believe in Providence last Friday morning. On Saturday the same state of feeling continued. "The triumph of the true principles of representative government on Thursday night was a victory of pure reason," and so on for a column and a quarter. The Spectator, if not quite so pious as the Times, was at least as enthusiastic. The immortal division of last week "may yet prove a turning point in the history of Great Britain." The speculative politicians, men "who want to build like architects and  not merely pile up excreta like coral insects, who believe that an electoral chamber should be an organism and not a powdery precipitate from electoral chemicals," have won a great victory and this is how it is celebrated:--
"The aristocrats would not listen, the bourgeoisie could not understand if they did listen, the people would not care, wire-pullers like Mr. Disraeli perceived that the innovation threatened their trade, and orators like Mr. Bright, in the true spirit of political insolence, called the only proposal ever made for scientific representation the 'spawn' of feeble and prejudiced minds. Still the 'reasoners,' and the 'dreamers,' and the 'enthusiasts,' and the 'politicians of the writing-table' fought on, opposing argument to assertion, sarcasm to horse laughter, intellectual enthusiasm to brute anger, till they converted the peers, convinced the representatives of the workmen, won over the great newspaper--the Times actually became earnest, for the first time since the Crimean war--and, finally, being aided by a casual concurrence of circumstances, compelled the mass of members to consent to justice as a temporary experiment." 
The styles of the two enthusiasts are worth comparing. There is a richness in the one, and a shrillness in the other, which remind us of the way in which Mause Headrigg and Kettledrummnle encouraged each other to testify on their way to the battle of Loudon Hill. "We," says the writer in the Times, in that expressive double bass which always carries a certain weight, "We are the only persons capable of treating political questions wisely. To follow us is to push forward human progress, to promote just principles of conduct, to obey sound motives of action, to be on the side of truth and justice. Must we not win? Have not we faith in the future? Do we not look for an inheritance, and seek a kingdom?" "And I," adds the Spectator, in the treble which is appropriate to the sparrow on the housetop, "did not I always say so? and did not the wicked world always laugh at me? and did not they call me a prig and a doctrinaire? and did not they say I knew nothing about business? and did not they sneer at me for being a reasoner, and an enthusiast, and a dreamer; yea, and a politician of the writing table? and did not I argue against them ? and was not I cruelly sarcastic towards them ? and did not I show a beautiful intellectual enthusiasm ? and have not I won ? and am I not the very shrillest, cleverest, most intellectual sparrow that ever sat on any housetop whatever, and far superior to the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie, and the people, and the wire-pullers, and the insolent orators, and everybody else who does not understand scientific representation?" To all which the answer is, "You are fluent and noisy, and have a certain sort of speciousness in advocating your crotchets but if you were wise you would know that the mercy for which you are so overpoweringly thankful is an imperceptibly small one; and if you were as clever as you want to be thought you would neither exult over it so openly and with so little restraint, nor state so distinctly the ground of your exultation." The reason why the Times and the Spectator are so exceedingly delighted with the triumph which they claim is, according to the Times, that it will preserve "representative government" from disappearing, and it explains in its article of Saturday what representative government is. We must, it is said, give additional members to the large constituencies and extinguish the small constituencies, and this may be done either by increasing the number of representatives and letting each voter vote for all as at present, or by dividing the boroughs into districts, or by the three-cornered scheme. As for the first proposal, "We know that the members for large constituencies are almost all of one party, and of one section of a party." As for the second, "We have Mr. Bright’s own statement, in which we entirely agree, that if Birmingham were searched from end to end the same opinions would be found everywhere predominant." The same, it is indicated, is true of the metropolis. Hence, the Times argues, subdivision would do no good, and the addition of members would do no good, and if either were adopted "representative government disappears." From this we get a clear notion of what the Times means by representative government, namely, Conservative members for Radical towns, and for towns which are so Radical that each part of every town is Radical. The whole contrivance, in short, is simply a device for getting a certain number of representatives of the Tory minority in certain towns. The Spectator puts it more generally. This is the thin end of the wedge. It is a small experiment, which, however, will gradually "change the House of Commons from a Chamber representing a numerical majority into one representing "the whole nation, and finally save us from the greatest of all our immediate dangers-- the rule of a bourgeois democracy, irresistible, as any democracy must be, and vulgar in thought, aspirations, and action, as an Anglo-Saxon democracy tends always to become."

Such being the object in view, we can only wonder at the effrontery of those who regard the Lords' amendment as just, and the simplicity of those who regard the hopes founded upon it as capable of being realized under any circumstances. As to the justice of the Lords' amendment, it is enough to say that the principle on which it is founded is one of those which must always be grossly unfair unless it is universally applied. Mr. Hare’s scheme, though open to objections which appear to us conclusive, and which we will not now discuss, might be fair if applied universally. To throw the representation of all England into hotchpot and enable every set of say 6,000 voters who chose to combine together to return a member is intelligible, but to represent minorities in a few selected places is simply to give an unfair advantage to the party to which those minorities belong. The Lords' amendment is neither more nor less than the creation of so many new Conservative constituencies in the boroughs to which it applies. As for the counties, which also come under its operation, its effect will be to leave the representation very much as it is, at the most substituting a Liberal-Conservative for a Conservative, a whitey-brown politician for one of a more decided hue.

As for the hopes founded upon this notable resolution, they appear to us perfectly idle, and nothing but a singularly fretful vanity, with some mixture of simplicity, can explain the jubilant tone of those who rejoice in this triumph of pure reason. The proper way of testing their principles is by an extreme case. Their view carried out by pure reason would lead to Mr. Hare’s scheme. Suppose it was adopted, and suppose they were right in believing, as their whole argument implies, that the great numerical majority of all our voters are of the low Radical or "bourgeois democracy" type, what would follow? Simply that a corresponding majority of the representatives would be of the same type. If any 6,000 voters could return a member, and if a large majority of the voters were of one way of thinking, that majority would return a great many members. These pretty little schemes make in the long run about as much difference as it makes whether, when you have to count a quantity of articles, you begin at one place or another. If you count right, you will always reach the same result. So with regard to governing a nation, you may play what tricks you please, but you must come, sooner or later, to one of two results.  Either your Government does faithfully represent the bulk of the nation, or else it does not.  If it does not, all that train of evils will follow which have been experienced in this country for several generations, and which have at last brought about the present Reform Bill.  If it does, then the Government will represent the numerical majority of the nation.  If that numerical majority is coarse and stupid and vulgar, the Government will be coarse and stupid and vulgar.  If it is high-minded, patriotic, and wise, but it is easier to square the circle or to invent perpetual motion than to devise a scheme by which a coarse, vulgar, and stupid majority shall freely invest a refined and intellectual minority with all the powers of government over it.  The one thing which rules in this world in the last resort is force. Brute force if the adjective adds anything to the substantive.  A minority, and a very small one, has often a far greater amount of brute force than a majority, and where that is the case the minority may rule the majority as the rider rules his horse; but it is an idle dream to suppose that mere superiority in education or refinement will ever enable a minority to rule a majority by the consent of the majority and according to the views of the minority.  If it be true-- and we do not say that it is not -- that the numerical majority of the English people are by nature a bourgeois democracy with vulgar tendencies, all the dodging in the world will not prevent the Government elected by them from being a bourgeois democracy with vulgar tendencies.  All the ingenuities of scientific representation will crumble to dust under the heavy grasp of that leaden hand.  To suppose that three-cornered constituencies will make any real difference is like thinking that you will cheat the gallows by holding a straw in your mouth to breathe through when you are turned off.

Pall Mall Gazette, August 15, 1867.

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