Subject continued – The changes occasioned by the Reform Act in the Personnel of the House of Commons, considered under the division of men of the old and new systems – Men of the Reform Act not available for office – Fickleness of large constituencies – Lord Broughton, Mr. Hawes, Lord Macaulay, Mr. Bright, Mr. Cobden, Mr. Muntz – Practical Government of the country in fact carried on by the old portion of the House-Conservative element wholly unrepresented in the new constituencies.
THE House of Commons may be divided by a line drawn in a totally different manner from that usual political classification which groups its members together as Conservatives, Whigs, and Radicals.
They may be distinguished as the men of the Reform Act, and the men who belong to the previous system.
This has nothing at all to do with the period of their entrance into Parliament. Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Disraeli both became members of the House after the Act of 1832; but the representatives for the University of Oxford and the great agricultural county of Bucks are not the offspring of the measure: still less do the cast of their· minds, their highly cultivated and polished intellects, their graceful and flowing oratory assimilate them to this class.
Neither is it in the least degree identified with the political opinions of its component parts. Lord Ripon when he sat as Lord Goderich, and Lord [p.65] Bury, both professed opinions of advanced liberalism; but if the Reform Bill had never become law, the great probability is that they would equally have had seats in Parliament.
Mr. Milner Gibson is member for Manchester, and represents the extreme section of Liberal politicians in the Cabinet ; but were we still living under the old Constitution, his talents would not have been lost to the country. He would still have fixed our attention by his able and brilliant speeches as member for Ipswich or for Suffolk.
I mean that portion of the House of Commons who owe their entrance into the House to that Act; who have been returned by the constituencies created by that Act ; and who in all likelihood would never have played any part on the stage of politics at all ü it had not passed.
They comprise probably about a fifth of the House. They are to be sought among the representatives of the large manufacturing towns, of the metropolitan boroughs, a considerable portion of the Scotch members. The Irish Liberal members have many national characteristics which distinguish and separate them from this class. It is the more important and interesting to study and to analyse this portion of the House, because it appears probable that the effect of a new Reform Bill will be to add to their numbers.
The first remark which suggests itself on a review of the quarter of a century which has elapsed is, that their abilities are not available for [p.66] the public service or for official life. They seem to spring from a class of men not· generally fitted for office, and where they merit or attain it the jealous and arbitrary temper of their democratic constituents soon severs the connexion. Democracy is always suspicions and distrustful of talent as of every other species of individual superiority. The advice of Ledru Rollin to the French electors in 1848 was characteristic of the sect – to return to the Assembly good Republicans, and to avoid men of ability and education.
Sir John Cam Hobhouse, now Lord Broughton, was one of the earliest instances of the fate which awaits the representatives of large popular constituencies when they climb to the heights of official eminence. He had great claims upon the advanced Liberals, for he espoused their cause at a time when they had few Parliamentary advocates. He was a bold, dashing, sarcastic speaker, somewhat in the style of Mr. Bernal Osborne, and he did them good service. But they soon quarrelled with him when he became Secretary at War, and ejected him from Westminster.
A more useful or creditable member of their party than Mr. Benjamin Hawes did not exist; a ready, fluent, practical, sensible speaker, acquiring a great mastery over the details of his subject; a laborious and intelligent man of business, deservedly popular and highly esteemed; he possessed qualities invaluable in a member of Parliament, or in a department of Government. The Whig Ministry [p.67] recognised his merits,·and an honourable official career lay before him. But the electors of Lambeth did not approve of this divided allegiance. They preferred a servant who, like Mr. Williams, derived all his lustre solely from themselves, and they remorselessly put an extinguisher upon Mr. Hawes's parliamentary course.
A more illustrious victim to popular fickleness and intolerance was offered up by the Athena of the North, the chosen seat of learning and literature.
The orator, the philosopher, the historian, the man who alone since the days of Mr. Burke had elevated the two characters of author and of statesman by combining them together, could not content the citizens of Edinburgh. The modern Athenians were not satisfied till they had imitated the example of their ancient prototypes by ostracising the name of Macaulay.
Among the general mediocrity exhibited by the chosen of the large constituencies, two remarkable exceptions will occur to every one. Mr. ·Bright and Mr. Cobden have been among the very few who, by the energy of their characters and the robust vigour of their intellects, have sensibly influenced the march of public events. Certainly none have higher claims to the gratitude of these great trading and manufacturing communities. It is they, and they alone, who have maintained the position of these classes in the legislature. They have demonstrated to the world that out of their ranks champions could be found capable of contending on terms of vantage [p.68] with all that England could produce of pre-eminence in intellect, however perfected by culture, and trained to parliamentary warfare. They had carried the most important economical question of the age by the sheer force of resolute determination and convincing reason. Upon another subject their conclusions were not inspired by the same logical truth, and it is always a marvel to me how men of such admirable faculties can contrive to lose themselves in the chimeras of their Peace Utopia. But this was no new doctrine of theirs. It had long been the theme of their eloquence, and a fundamental article of their political creed. They had declaimed upon it in halls of commerce, on hustings and platforms, for years. Their auditors, their constituents partook of their belief, and celebrated their triumphs. None cheered more loudly when the folly of standing armies and navies was reprobated; none more exulting when the power and influence of their accomplished representatives in the House of Commons drove a weak ministry, against its better judgment, to consent to large reductions in its military establishments. Had these men no claims upon your toleration and indulgence, excellent electors of Manchester and Huddersfield, because they had more consistency than yourselves? Were they men you could so conveniently spare, and so easily replace, that you could afford to forget all their claims upon your gratitude?
Did not that very consistency, so rare a virtue [p.69] in these days, that singular proof of the sincerity of their convictions which they gave when they sacrificed their popular ascendancy to it, fail to elicit one generous feeling of respect?
Constituencies so fickle in their attachments, so jealous of mental superiority, so impatient of independence of thought and action in their representatives, are likely to be best satisfied with mediocrity and commonplace. Their sympathies are not in unison with genius or exalted ability. They are not attracted towards these higher forms of mind; and when a fortuitous contact with them does occur, the repelling and discordant elements soon lead them to fly off in different directions.
A type of the class generally selected by the great trading and manufacturing communities, and not an unfavourable specimen either, was afforded by the late Mr. Muntz. Who that has had the honour of a seat in Parliament of late years does not remember his athletic form, his broad shoulders, his long black beard, and his thick stick? Those who were thrown into his society in the lobbies or the tea room will not forget his bold, rough, unpolished, yet not rude or uncivil address.
An extensive and prosperous manufacturer, a fearless and independent politician, he loved liberalism much, and his trade still better. The chosen representative of the town of Birmingham, he stood by all its local interests stoutly, which were identified with his own, and advocated the extreme liberal opinions of his constituents, with which he cordially [p.70] sympathized. I have heard, I will not vouch for the fact, that in abstract principle he was a Republican; but he was much too sensible, too prosperous, too well satisfied with his position and himself ever to desire violent changes here. Endowed by nature with strong nerve, an imposing stature, and a stentorian voice, he often asked and generally commanded the attention of the House. He did not abuse the privilege, for he spoke briefly and to the purpose. His language was plain, even to homeliness, but never ungrammatical or incorrect. The cast of his mind was essentially practical and, within a limited sphere, shrewd and observant; but the range of his ideas was confined, and his prejudices strong and narrow. He delighted in rising towards the close of a debate and in conquering the impatience of the House by his perseverance and physical powers. He then dealt with the most complicated and difficult questions in a few sentences. He delighted in hitting off some single point, some novel view, in which there was generally a degree of truth. He brought·it forward apparently with the belief that it contained the whole pith of the matter; that it had been overlooked by everybody else ; and that it disposed of the question. Self-confidence was a large ingredient in his composition, not taking the form of outward conceit and assumption – his character was too simple and natural – but giving the impression that he had lived in a small circle, of which he had been so long the oracle that he believed in nobody but himself.
Men of this class are not fitted by their habits, acquirements, or modes of thought to gain any considerable influence over the House of Commons as now constituted – their strength lies in the sympathies which unite them with the large masses they represent, and who are more in harmony with them from the absence of higher qualifications. Neither are they adapted to take any active part in the administration of affairs, to which they seldom aspire.
They form the bulk of that Radical party who are more and more assuming a separate position, equally hostile at heart to both the great divisions of the House who aspire to govern the country – intent upon advancing their own objects by playing off one of these against the other, and nourishing an inward discontent at most of the established institutions of the country.
The practical conclusion to which the preceding remarks tend is that since the passing of the Reform Bill the public business of the nation has been carried on by statesmen drawn from the same classes of society, and having the same education, training, social and political connexions and sympathies, and to a great degree by the same individuals, who administered it before. The difference is to be sought for, not in the persons, but in the altered conditions under which ministries and oppositions manage to conduct them.
That the most marked result of that measure has been to introduce within the walls of the House a [p.72] number of new members, who constitute, as compared with the old ones, a separate class, who are far from being perfectly fused with the original stock. That they are neither numerically strong enough, nor as a body sufficiently endowed with Parliamentary ability or possessed of sufficient weight and consideration, to aspire to the reins of government.
Nevertheless they are drawing more and more closely together, and under three or four leaders of great ability are acquiring party organization; and advancing their ultimate objects by rendering their aid absolutely necessary to one or the other of the rivals for power.
Hitherto the Government has been practically administered by the portion of the House which has been little affected by the Act of 1832. They are very much the same men, and they are almost all returned by the same class of constituencies. It is quite curious to remark how important a part in the executive has been acted by the small boroughs. As a general rule we might almost venture to lay down that the higher the office the smaller the constituency. Tamworth, Tiverton, Westbury, Caine, Wells, Ripon, Midhurst, Stamford, Dorchester, and several others, would furnish a long list from which Premiers, Secretaries of State, Secretaries of the Treasury, and other important officials obtained their seats. It affected an old member of 1831 almost with a sense of the ludicrous to hear in the Reform Bill debates of last year so many excellent speeches [p.73] made from the Whig benches in favour of the small boroughs. They were well argued, they were based upon incontrovertible facts, but they had not the merit of originality. Precisely the same reasons had been given in defence of Schedule A in the first Reform Bill. The practical government of the country has been carried on on since 1832 by that portion of the House which was not affected, or was slightly affected, by that Act.
We sometimes encounter m society some delicate-looking person who is cited as a wonder by his friends and physicians, because twenty years ago it was thought he could never live, as one of his lungs was actually gone. Such is the wonderful curative agency at work in the human frame, and such its power of adaptation, that individuals thus affected have frequently been known to go on living in defiance of all these predictions, and the one sound lung has acquired the power of performing both its own functions and those of the portion which has perished.
Another important change is, that as ministerial power and ministerial volition no longer exist, ministerial responsibility has taken its departure also. Lord Aberdeen's Government was strongly opposed to the Russian War, but they could not resist the voice of the country which forced them into it. Lord John Russell is a good Churchman, and he has declared that the question of Church Rates is the question of a Church Establishment; but he finds that the majority of the House, and especially [p.74] of his own side of the House, are so determined upon their abolition that he has no alternative but to submit.
There are probably few statesmen less favourably inclined to a new Reform Bill than Lord Palmerston, but the exigencies of his position require that he should introduce one. It would be hard to render public men responsible for measures which are forced upon them; and the Cabinets of the present day are no longer the governors of a mighty empire – they are agents having received the commission to carry out in detail certain measures, the conduct of which is delegated to them.
I cannot dismiss the subject of these large new borough constituencies without one remark, which has an important bearing upon their present condition, and which is likely to have still graver consequences under a new Reform Bill. As a general rule they all return members professing very Liberal, not to say Radical, opinions. There are of course exceptions – some great manufacturer or shipowner of opposite politics may make his influence felt in a particular locality, or some peculiar circumstances, such as the reaction caused at Bristol by the frightful riots in 1831, may give a different turn to political feeling. in a particular town ; but such is the general complexion of the whole. In all these communities there exists a large mass of Conservatism, a great numerical amount of Conservatives. They are generally to be found among the most respectable, opulent, and [p.75] educated portion of the population. They everywhere form considerable minorities. They can scarcely anywhere command a majority. They are shut out from all share in the representation – all influence on the march of public events. I remember two instances which came recently under my notice. I happened to be in a large seaport town during an election. It was a sharp one, but the Conservative was defeated. I happened to enter upon the subject with a most respectable optician, a man of good education and considerable scientific acquirements. “It is hard, Sir,” he observed; “the large majority in this town of the respectable tradesmen and professional men are Conservatives, yet we have never since the Reform Bill been able to return a single member.” The other instance was that of a tradesman at the head of a large firm in the parish of Marylebone. I asked him if he had attended a recent election. “Sir,” replied he, “I have not attended an election, nor taken the slightest interest in one, for the last ten years. Neither Colonel Romilly nor Mr. Edwin James represents in the smallest degree my political sentiments or feelings. I know perfectly well that the squares, and great thoroughfares, and principal streets in this borough are filled with Conservatives; but I know also that they are completely swamped by the lower description of voters. Any attempt to obtain a representation of my opinions would be vain, and I withdraw myself from all concern in election matters in disgust.”
The case is not the same in other parts of our representative system. The predominance of the different interests and parties is chequered and various. Here a Whig county, there a Tory one, a third where the representation is divided; one small borough Conservative ; another large country town Radical; many in which the parties are equally balanced, and obtain the victory by tums.
The Conservative element is nowhere wholly sup pressed. But in the class of constituencies I have been adverting to, although it comprises a large portion of the property and intelligence of the community, it is politically annihilated.
It may be a question for thoughtful men, even where they are the most thoroughgoing Reformers, how far it would be wise or just to push the principle of numerical majorities to this length. One effect would inevitably be that a large portion of the community, of the wealthiest, of the best informed, of those who long governed it, and who still have an important participation in the conduct of its affairs, would be alienated from a system by which they were altogether excluded. They would begin to regard the new institutions of their country with a feeling akin to that expressed in the somewhat energetic language of the Marylebone tradesman, “with disgust.”
The sense of the injustice and danger of this exclusion of the opinions of so powerful a portion of the community from all share in the Representation appears to have struck Lord John Russell. [p.77] His scheme in his Reform Bill of 1854, for a partial Representation of the Minority, must have been intended as a remedy. It was natural that it should provoke the fierce opposition of the more democratic party, and it is so novel a principle, and so much at variance with the theory of representative government, that there would be great difficulty in reducing it to practice.