Introduction – Temporary character of the Settlement of 1832 – Its effects have not yet been impartially considered – They fairly arise on the question of its reconstruction.
The Constitution of 1832 bas lasted upwards of a quarter of a century, a very large portion of the life of a man, a very short moment in the history of a nation. Nevertheless its duration has considerably exceeded the prognostics of its opponents. Their anticipations that it would be the immediate precursor of social revolution have been delayed at least, although not disproved.
The expectations of its authors that it would be a final settlement of a great constitutional question have been still more mistaken, even in that limited and qualified sense in which the term final can be applied to human institutions. An organic change in the governing power of a country, which does not last thirty years, cannot be considered as entitled to the appellation of a final, or of a permanent and stable system. A scheme of representative [p.2] government, which during a brief existence of twenty seven years has been exposed to incessant attacks, which has been altered and modified repeatedly, which is on the point of being entirely remodelled, but which, after having been submitted to this process, will most unquestionably not satisfy powerful parties, clamorous for farther changes, has no semblance of fixedness in it.
The most limited range of political foresight must perceive that there is no reasonable prospect of any permanent settlement of our representative system. Constant change in its forms, and in its operation upon society, is henceforward to be regarded as its normal state.
The practical problem to be resolved is, not the creation of a permanent system, which may be abandoned as hopeless, but the effects of continual changes in this vital organ of the body politic, of constant encroachments of the democratic power upon the laws, institutions, and form of society existing in this empire.
The occurrence of frequent changes, or, to speak in more precise language, the periodical agitation for Parliamentary Reform, more or less successful in its objects, may be assumed as certain; and because the law of 1832 has lasted twenty-seven years, we have no right to infer that the next will endure half as long. It is the tendency of all intermittent disorders, as the intensity of the disease becomes aggravated, for the intervals of rest to grow briefer. But there is a far more difficult question behind this. [p.3] What will be the form which our political and social relations will take under these new combinations? When we look at our highly complicated and artificial civilisation, the ramifications and deep-rooted strength of our institutions, the influences which silently pervade our people, it is impossible to foretell what may be the results of these innovations. Our representative system, anomalous and irregular in its forms, has hitherto been in harmony in its spirit with our social state. There can be little doubt that more democratic powers will be in antagonism with much that exists.
What may be the result of the struggle, what curve the body politic may describe, when subject to these conflicting forces, a Babbage would find it difficult to calculate.
There is another element which must be taken into the account, the effect of foreign influences and sympathies. The popular mind is always reluctant to admit the existence of these influences, but they nevertheless produce the most direct and powerful effect on the march of our domestic affairs.
The proximate cause of the Reform Bill was the Paris Revolution of 1830. The Russian war turned Mr. Bright and Mr. Cobden out of Parliament. The Refugee Bill overthrew Lord Palmerston's Administration, when it seemed the strongest; and the state of Europe is now transforming us into a nation of riflemen.
The Continent of Europe, acting so powerfully upon ourselves, is itself in a state of transition. A [p.4] new force has been evolved out of its throes and struggles, the direction of which we can scarcely estimate. The sceptre of the greatest of earthly conquerors, like the talisman in the Eastern tale, which found its way back to its master through rocks of adamant, has almost miraculously been restored to the grasp of the heir of that mighty name-heir to his name-heir to his genius-heir to his profound policy, his intuitive perception of the spirit of his age, his iron will, his ascendancy over mankind. No servile copyist of that immortal uncle, no mere follower in the exact track of his footsteps, but fertile in resource, original in design, “varying the means, to secure the unity of the end” – that end being the grandeur of the French empire.
Where this new star may lead Europe, or what direct or indirect influences it may exert upon ourselves, must be one of the secrets of the future. All that we can perceive now is, that the two nations are moving in two totally opposite directions; England extending and strengthening the democratic and republican element, France consolidating a brilliant absolute empire, testing upon a vast army.
It is under these circumstances that we are drifting into a new Reform Bill, and it is curious to remark the contrast which they offer to those under which the Act of 1832 was passed. An ambitious political party, long estranged from power, and bent on converting the precarious tenure [p.5] upon which they had repossessed themselves of it into an enduring possession; a Sovereign kindhearted and good, desirous of popularity, new to his position, inexperienced in the tactics of constitutional monarchy, carried away by the vehemence and boldness of his ministers, not fully estimating the bearing and importance of the measures to which he gave his assent, until it became impossible to retract ; a democratic fever in the mass of the population, caught from the contagion of sympathy with the triumph of the Parisian mob, and kindled by the spectacle of the overthrow of an established government by a popular insurrection ; the name of the King, the whole weight and authority of the executive, the example of a neighbouring nation, the revival of theories and doctrines which had slept since the first years of the French Revolution ; all these, and perhaps other concurrent causes, inflamed the nation to the highest pitch of excitement. The most exaggerated expectations, the most visionary hopes of benefits and blessings which no form of government could confer, intoxicated the public mind. An under current of cupidity stimulated the lawless and the needy; wild theories of political ameliorations inflamed the enthusiastic; the masses were everywhere in a ferment. These forces, fortuitously combined, irresistible in their united operation. were directed against that anomalous yet national representative system which had endured so long, which had raised us so high – the earliest, the most illustrious, the only perfectly [p.6] successful example of constitutional monarchy the world has yet seen.
The defence was not unworthy of its renown. The strength of the citadel was shown in its firm and protracted resistance. The successors of Burke, of Pitt, and of Canning, did not degenerate from those great champions of English institutions. They were no feeble minority. Everywhere, in the press, on the hustings, in debate in both Houses of Parliament, they maintained during two years an obstinate struggle.
No means of influencing public opinion were left untried – no power or authority in the state was left unappealed to. The whole nation was convulsed during two years, the most alarming riots broke out, threats of physical force were unsparingly used, and it was not till the alternative of popular insurrection was distinctly held out, it was not till the independence of the House of Lords was violated, and their votes coerced, that this revolution was consummated.
How marked is the contrast offered during the present time! It is now about eight years since Lord John Russell, admonished by an adverse vote in a thin House, upon a motion of Mr. Locke King, abandoned the ground of finality which he had before occupied, and became again a Parliamentary Reformer. During these eight years we have been living under a provisional constitution. Parliamentary Reform Bills, brought forward as Government measures, have been constantly forthcoming, [p.7] always promised, and have occasionally appeared. Every considerable town population, now unrepresented, or half represented, has been tantalized with hope. Chelsea, Battersea, Kensington, a dozen manufacturing towns in the North, as many nearly in the West, have had the vision of Parliamentary Representation dancing before their eyes. Whole classes of the population, counted by hundreds of thousands, occupiers of 8l. houses, of 6l. houses, and of 5l. houses, lodgers on first floors, on second floors, and in garrets, clergymen, half-pay officers, doctors, apothecaries, and attorneys, graduates of universities, depositors in savings' banks, and soldiers in the militia, all in turn have had this dazzling prize of the elective franchise dancing before their eyes, and all have evinced the most absolute indifference to it. Platform orators have declaimed to empty benches. Reform petitions have ceased to fill the Clerk of the House's carpet bag. Everywhere there has been languor and apathy. Lord Robert Grosvenor's Bill against Sunday trading created five times more popular agitation and excitement than all the Reform measures united.
The single question which did appear to attract some popular interest was that of the Ballot, which it seems is not to forma part of the next Bill. It is probably kept in reserve to guard against the possible recurrence of a second period of finality.
The Constitution of 1688 fell after the most vigorous and determined resistance. It fell like one of those great feudal fortresses which only [p.8] yielded to the combined assault of the most potent and novel engines of destruction, and whose massive walls and solid masonry attest even in their ruins the original strength of their construction.
The Constitution of 1832 succumbs to the feeblest attack; it falls because it has no defenders ; the keystone of the arch has tumbled out, or the mortar would not bind, or the foundation was built upon sand: it crumbles by its own inherent weakness.
Reformers have, however, an excellent argument for re-opening the whole question of the Parliamentary representation, derived from this very indifference and apathy on the subject which so incontestably pervades the public mind.
“There is no excitement about the matter. Nobody cares a straw about it. It would be a positive relief to a great number, perhaps to a majority, if the whole thing were to be dismissed. This is, therefore, exactly the moment to legislate upon it. People are so calm, so careless about it, that we shall not be liable to be swayed by popular agitation. There will be no pressure from without, no bludgeons or brickbats flying about to disturb our lucubrations. This is just the opportunity of digesting our scheme calmly and coolly, passing a really safe: and moderate measure, silencing by anticipation all clamour regarding it.”
It .appears that there are two periods, two states of the public mind, equally propitious to changes in the representative system – one when people are quiet, the other when they are agitated ; one when [p.9] they are totally indifferent, the other when they are very keen on the subject.
In the one case an opportunity so favourable of settling the question peaceably and deliberately is too precious to be lost ; in the other the popular demands are urged with so imperative a voice, that it is not prudent to refuse them. These enthusiastic and zealous Reformers appear to have arrived at a somewhat similar conclusion to that of the jolly toper in the old drinking song: –
“Friends and neighbours, I've been thinking
What's the fittest day for drinking :
I find, after all my thinking,
These are the fittest days for drinking.”
It may not be an uninteresting study to endeavour to trace some of the causes of this leaden torpor on the subject of Parliamentary Reform, which has succeeded to the highly wrought excitement of former days. Some of these may be, like the law of storms, or like the moral epidemics which occasionally visit a community, so subtle in their essence as to defy our coarse powers of perception. But there are others, within the sphere of observation and of analysis, which are capable of being described. It may be no uninteresting nor wholly uninstructive task to trace them. It will revive many of the reminiscences of an important passage in our history – what will, I suppose, shortly be the transition state of our constitution. During this period I have [p.10] been sometimes an actor in, always a close and near spectator of, the scenes I would depict.
I am not about to attempt a history, or even an historical sketch, of this first reformed Parliament during its brief existence ; but my retrospect will embrace some of my impressions of its character and practical working – of the amount of change it has introduced, both directly upon our representative government, and indirectly. It must be borne in mind, that since the passing of the Act of 1832, any criticism or analysis of its operation and effects from Conservative quarters has been almost excluded. From the time that it became the law of the land, Sir Robert Peel adopted the sagacious policy of accepting it as an accomplished fact, and as a final settlement of a great constitutional question. There can be no doubt of the prudence of this course in a statesman still ambitious of guiding the affairs of the nation. It was well conceived both in the interests of his party and in those of his country. It showed a confidence in the strength of his cause, and in the great latent power of the Conservative principle in England, which was not disappointed. Instead of playing a losing game upon a ground where he had already been worsted, he disentangled himself from the position which had been carried, and transferred the contest to a new field, on which he maintained a party warfare, which gave him, ultimately, a triumph over his political rivals.
It followed, as a necessary consequence, that a [p.11] similar reserve was imposed upon all the members of his party. They could not deviate from the line he had chalked out, without traversing his views, and perhaps frustrating his aims. It followed, therefore, that while the whole Liberal party trumpeted forth the Reform Bill as a great victory to the cause of freedom and of progress, the Conservatives were reduced to a silence which seemed a tacit admission of the truth and justice of all these claims. A doubt of the reality of the gain, a distrust and dislike to the working of the new system, was like an heretical opinion in religion, something that discreet people kept locked within the recesses of their own breasts.
But time has weakened or destroyed all those motives which then existed for reserve. The expectation of abiding by the Reform Bill as a final settlement can no longer hold out any inducement to forbearance. The hope of that species of compromise has vanished. The apprehension that the assertion of an unpopular opinion may impede the return of Conservative leaders to office ought no longer to influence the frank and fearless expression of our convictions. On the eve of great further changes the time has surely arrived when we ought carefully to review our position, and to take as accurate an account as our faculties enable us to do of the bearing and the results of those which have already been accomplished. It is with such an object that I offer to the public some of the fruits of a parliamentary experience which now extends [p.12] over many years. They may assume a somewhat desultory shape; they may not aspire to systematic regularity; they may rather be regarded as detached essays; but they will be written chiefly with the object of presenting, I hope, a tolerably impartial review of the results of the Reform Bill upon our government and social state, but still one which is taken avowedly from a Conservative point of view.