First results of the Reform Act – Why so little decided – Conservatism of Lord Grey – Personal ascendancy of Sir Robert Peel – Predominance of the old Parliamentary leaders in the new Assembly –Strength of the Conservative principle in the country.
It must be admitted on all hands that the immediate results of the Reform Bill realised neither the hopes of its friends nor the apprehensions of its adversaries. For so great an alteration, the first consequences appeared of a very negative character.
The causes of this absence of ·apparent results were various, and their enumeration may form the first chapter in the analysis of the working of the measure. In the first place, the Whigs are naturally very little of a democratic party. Their theory is to govern by the people and through the people; but they are to be the leaders of the people, and the practical administrators of their affairs.
Perhaps no statesman of that party was more deeply imbued with these principles than the late Lord Grey. The popularity consequent upon passing the Reform Bill placed him after the elections of 1832 at the head of a strong Administration, the only really strong Whig Administration which has held office since that time. But he began to use this power, not to promote what, according to the conventional slang of party, are called Liberal measures, [p.40] but to pass some very excellent laws of a decidedly Conservative character.
The first Bill of any importance which he introduced was the Coercion Bill for Ireland, a measure called for indeed by the lawless state of the country, and the prevalence of agrarian crimes, but which was in its provisions unquestionably the most stringent and arbitrary of the numerous Acts of a similar character passed since 1798.
The next measure, and incomparably the most important of his Administration, was the New Poor Law. It is impossible to give him too high praise for that measure. It was the act of a bold and vigorous Minister, proceeding upon sound principles, and applying a remedy to the most formidable and growing evil. It checked the progress of abuses in the face of which all agricultural improvement was impracticable – of abuses which were rapidly destroying property in land, and which had actually introduced into many parishes a virtual communism. The prospective evils which its introduction into the sister country prevented were still greater than the mischiefs which were arrested by its adoption in England. There the previous absence of any Poor Law left the field open for a more rigid application of its principles. When the subdivision of small cottier tenements, and the universal dependence on the potato, culminated in the frightful crisis of 1847, the workhouse system, aided by the safety valve of emigration, rescued the country from hopeless ruin, and is the principal cause of the prosperity and [p.41] improvement since remarkable in Ireland. But in its features and whole provisions the New Poor Law was anything rather than a popular measure. Nothing could be more stem and repulsive than its character. It might be, and I fully believe it was, a very wholesome medicine, but it was a remarkably bitter one.
It is deeply to be regretted by all Conservatives, and friends of the Established Church, that another measure for the settlement of a troublesome and dangerous question by a safe and advantageous compromise was most unnecessarily relinquished.
Lord Althorp's Bill for replacing Church Rates by a charge on the Consolidated Fund would have withdrawn that subject from the sphere of political agitation. It did not meet the views of the Dissenters, and would have experienced considerable opposition from them in its passage through Parliament; but bad it once become law, all collision between ratepayers and ministers .or churchwardens would have been rendered impossible, and for want of opportunity for contest the excitement upon the question would have died away.
The abandonment of this Bill, after the resolution affirming its leading provisions had passed by a majority of 256 to 140, in deference to the opposition of the Dissenters, was one of the earliest examples of the difficulties experienced by the successive Whig Governments in dealing with the claims and pretensions of their more advanced [p.42] Liberal supporters; but its introduction shows the Conservative animus of Lord Grey's Ministry.
The Act for the Emancipation of the Slaves was undoubtedly a Liberal measure, although it e countered no opposition from the Conservative party. Lord Grey and Lord Stanley endeavoured to guard against the risk of too rapid a transition, and to educate the negro race for personal freedom by the probationary seven years' apprenticeship. We must regret, in the interests of this great experiment on the capabilities of so large a portion of the human family, that this prudent plan of gradual preparation was subsequently given up.
There were two questions to be solved at that time: the first, whether it was morally justifiable, under any circumstances, or upon any considerations of economical expediency, that any human being should be held in a state of slavery. The decision of England was that it was not.
But there was another most important question waiting for solution behind this. It was whether the negro race, whose physical nature seems to qualify them almost exclusively for labour in the torrid zone, could be so disciplined and acted upon by the motives which urge more civilized nations, as to pursue those occupations in a state of freedom which require steady industry and persevering toil.
Had the experiment in this respect been attended with success, there can be little doubt that our example would have been imitated throughout America.
The shock which it has given to the prosperity of our colonies, and the apparent tendency of the negro to sink into apathy and indolence, have riveted his chains in the va.st regions of the Southern States and of the Brazils.
Upon a review of his whole policy, I am, I think, justified in regarding it as strongly imbued with a Conservative spirit. Lord Grey seems really to have believed that the result of the Reform Bill would be to transfer to the Whigs the power and the executive strength that had so long been wielded by Mr. Pitt and his successors.
The first elections under the Reform Act had given to his administration the nominal support of a large numerical majority in the House of Commons. He conceived himself to be at the head of a strong Government, and that he in his turn might rely upon the same steady confidence which had sustained ministers under the former system.
He exercised his authority wisely in many particulars, and passed laws of great public utility, regard Jess of the present unpopularity which he might incur. He soon found, however, that the scheme he had himself created did not allow him so to disregard the popular voice or the interests of large sections of his parliamentary supporters. His own forcible appeal against ''the pressure from without" showed that he was becoming sensible of the altered conditions under which parliamentary government must henceforth be carried on.
Too proud and independent to yield to this [p.44] “pressure,” too unbending to administer public affairs under an eternal system of compromise and concession, be was virtually ejected from office by his own colleagues in July, 1834, as a statesman whose modes of thought and action were no longer in harmony with the spirit of the times.
Conservatives, however, may feel grateful to his memory for the manner in which he exercised his power during the first two years of Reformed Parliaments, and we may fairly class the moderate and conservative character of his policy as among the earliest of the causes which checked the progress of democratic innovation.
The second cause which arrested this movement and impressed eventually a wholly different direction upon the march of events was the individual ascendancy of Sir Robert Peel in the House of Commons. Mr. Disraeli very justly remarks in his “Memoirs of Lord George Bentinck,” that whatever diversity of opinion may be entertained of his conduct as a statesman, or of the merits of his policy, his superiority as a great Member of Parliament was incontestable. Trained in official life, early familiarized with the cares and responsibilities of high ministerial appointments, he breathed the atmosphere of the House of Commons as if it alone was his natural element. The death of Mr. Canning and the elevation of Lord Brougham to the Peerage bad left him without a rival.
No one ever possessed a more thorough familiarity with all the arcana of that difficult science, the [p.45] management of the House of Commons ; no one knew so well how to pull the strings which regulate its movements ; no one was so thoroughly imbued with that peculiar species of tact which enabled him to catch its spirit and temper.
In 1833 there were, I think, but two other members who were able to contend with him in the arduous arena of Parliamentary debate. I do not mean that there were not many members who spoke well, and several who upon any subject with which they were well acquainted could address the House without preparation, and reply effectively to the arguments of an opponent.
None were superior to Sir James Graham in the power of lucid statement, of logical argument, and of mastery of complicated details. Still in the very first class of parliamentary speaking, in the faculty of recalling and confuting all the arguments of an adversary, in the facility with which at any time, upon almost every topic of public importance, they were always enabled to address the House and to command its attention on the spur of the moment, I think Lord Stanley and Mr. Spring Rice were the only ones who were entitled with Sir Robert Peel to rank as ready and accomplished debaters.
And of these two neither possessed, at the time to which I refer, a tithe of the personal weight in the House which was enjoyed by Sir Robert Peel. Mr. Spring Rice, now Lord Monteagle, was a ready, clever, accomplished parliamentary fencer. He was perfect master of his .weapon. No one, either with [p.46] the foils or the sharps, could more dexterously parry a thrust or more quickly take advantage of an opening given by an opponent. But if I may venture to pass a criticism upon a friend for whom through life I have felt a sincere regard, I should say that, like Craufurd in the Peninsula, he was better adapted to be the General of the Light Division, rapid in attack, skilful in retreat, seizing at a glance all the features of the ground, than quite fitted to decide the fortunes of the day at the last weighty charge.
Lord Derby, then Lord Stanley, was at least Sir Robert Peel's equal as a speaker.
There is no talent which improves so long and to so late a period of life as that of Parliamentary speaking. My own impression is that the orations of Lord Derby in later years contain more of comprehensive statesmanship than were exhibited by those earlier speeches. Yet even at that time there was a brilliancy and an animation in his style in which I think he excelled Sir Robert. There was in the manner of unfolding his subject an occasional prolixity in the latter, and sometimes a little approach to the verbose in his declamation, from which defects Lord Stanley was absolutely free. It must be remembered, however, that at this time he was a young man; that he was not the chief organ of his party; and that he had not acquired that consideration which the House slowly accords to leaders of long standing. He was sometimes impetuous to the verge of indiscretion, and there was often an almost boyish carelessness of manner, as if he rather engaged in politics [p.47] as others of his contemporaries might in deer-stalking or hunting, as an exciting sport than as the grave occupation of his life.
Sir Robert Peel, from his long standing, matured experience, and acknowledged leadership of a powerful party, had greatly the advantage of position. He never committed himself by an indiscretion, and rarely suffered a slip of his opponents to escape him. He was gifted with the most retentive and ready memory I ever knew. He never forgot a fact, an argument, scarcely even an expression.
He thoroughly understood the whole character of the assembly in which he was the foremost man. He never used an argument which was not exactly suited to its meridian. He never was surprised by a sudden difficulty, but his judgment and discretion, in which his followers absolute confidence, could always be relied upon in emergency. The deference with which he was regarded not only by his party, but by the whole House, had grown with years. He addressed it at this period with a weight of authority which no other member could approach.
I have previously remarked that it was with a sagacious and patriotic policy that he adopted the great Revolution of 1832, which he had so strenuously opposed in its progress, as an accomplished fact.
Without retracting his former opinions he gave in his adhesion to the new system as a final settlement. He was fully aware of that great political truth, that in the history of nations it is rarely [p.48] possible to revert to the past. He gave no cold, reluctant, merely formal acquiescence in the altered state of Parliament. He set to work to regulate, to discipline, to direct, to mould it to his own purposes, and the success which attended his efforts showed the great superiority of the man, particularly in that sphere in which he was placed. I do not for an instant suppose that this policy was dictated by selfish considerations, but it is a curious instance of the uncertainty which attends all speculation on future results in politics, that the Reform Bill, which dealt a heavy blow to the interests and predominance of his party, added greatly to his personal importance. His individual pre-eminence was greater under the new régime than it would ever have been under the old.
In endeavouring to trace the causes of the merely negative results, or of the no results, which first emanated from this great change, another presents itself, somewhat analogous to the last. The new elections occasioned very little alteration in the personnel, in the staff of the leading Parliamentary politicians. The old names appeared again in the debates, the old veterans took their accustomed places, the old adversaries were pitted against each other.
The Reformed House of Commons was not at all like the first Constituant Assembly in 1789, when a crowd of men, totally unknown to fame, quite inexperienced in the conduct of affairs, met together for the first time to remodel a kingdom. In the [p.49] parliament of 1832 appeared most of the notabilities of former ones, and what was very remarkable, scarcely any were added to the list.
Of those who did, either at the time or subsequently, take rank among the leaders in Parliament, still fewer owed their seats to the new constituencies.
The great majority of the new members, particularly from the large boroughs, fell into the rank and file of the party, and submitted to the guidance of the more practised and professional politicians.
It is curious to observe how long this continued to be the case, how tenaciously the old leaders kept possession of the ground, and how few new actors have appeared upon the stage of politics. In spite of its late hours, of its excitement, of its sedentary tendencies, of its trials to the nerves, politics must upon the whole be rather a healthy pursuit ; for after nearly thirty years we find many of the prominent persons of those days still foremost on the scene, and as late as the overthrow of Sir Robert Peel's Administration in 1846 scarcely any recruit except Mr. Gladstone had been admitted. The mode in which our policy has been altered and modified in this quarter of a century. has not been by substitution of one set of men for another, but by changes in the men themselves, squeezeable materials acted upon by pressure from without.
The principal cause which exercised so powerful an influence in modifying and counteracting the democratic tendencies of the Reform Bill remains to [p.50] be mentioned : it was the great inherent strength of Conservative principles themselves, and their wide diffusion through the upper and middle classes. The system had not endured so long, had not accomplished such vast results, without striking deep roots into the whole body of society. When the first shock of the change had passed over, and people began to accommodate themselves to an altered state of affairs, the Conservatives everywhere began to rally their forces, to survey their position, and to try their strength. They soon found that they possessed all the raw material in abundance which might give their opinions influence in the state.
They had Parliamentary leaders of consummate ability, they did not want advocates in the press, they had the command in the House of Lords. They soon discovered that throughout the country they had numerous and active adherents.
They were not slow to avail themselves of these advantages, $d under different circumstances, on a new battle-field; they contended against that doom of political extinction which had threatened them.