The results of the Reform Bill gradually developed after the retirement of Lord Grey – The General Election of 1835 a tolerably correct index of the relative proportions of parties under the new system Strong Government impossible – Frequent changes inevitable – Inconsistency in public men.
I HAVE always regarded the fall of Lord Grey not merely as the overthrow of a minister, but as the break-up of a system of government. In the Coercion Act he had engaged the executive in a contest with the most powerful of demagogues.
The Parliamentary influence of Mr. O'Connell was so great, that Lord Grey's colleagues shrank from the struggle, deserted their leader, and made their own terms with the great Tribune of the Irish people. In Lord Grey's person, the system of a vigorous Executive Government acting on its own convictions and responsibilities, and requiring, as the condition of service to the party, the entire confidence of its adherents, received a fatal blow.
From that time the mode of conducting public affairs was altered. Greater pliancy was permitted to a minister. He was called upon to hearken to suggestions, to acquiesce in changes, to recast and remodel his measures according to the demands of different sections of his supporters. Administrations became feeble: they lost the direction of [p.52] public affairs, and became more and more the agents of the House of Commons.
The second Whig Administration did not long survive the retirement of Lord Grey. It had been previously weakened by the secession of Lord Stanley and Sir James Graham. King William the Fourth appeared to have been alienated from this party during the four years they had held office, and he took the opportunity of Lord Althorp's quitting the House of Commons to dismiss it.
The circumstances under which the general election, which immediately ensued, took place, and the results which followed, had an important bearing upon the subject I am considering, the practical working of the Reform Bill since 1832. The enthusiasm and popularity which had attended the authors of the measure in their first election had passed away. Their divisions had weakened them; the Conservatives had rallied, and were promoting a strong reactionary feeling. The general election of 1835 was therefore a much surer test of the real distribution of parliamentary weight and influence among the different parties in the State than that of 1832 had been. The exceptional circumstances were less operative.
It is curious to observe that the results of this general election have not differed materially from almost all the subsequent ones, except when they took place under some circumstances of peculiar excitement. The divisions on the election of a Speaker and on the Irish Appropriation Resolutions, [p.53] which may be admitted to afford a correct index of the relative strength of parties, gave somewhere about three hundred Conservatives to three hundred and fifty Liberals of all shades and grades.
The next general election, in 1837, occasioned by the death of King William the Fourth, took place under circumstances of still less excitement, for there was no question of a change of Ministry nor any very important subject pending; yet the results of that election did not differ materially from those of 1835, and the gain of the Conservatives was fully maintained.
The following one, in 1841, took place under exceptional circumstances. The weakness and mismanagement of Lord Melbourne's Government, their perpetual playing fast and loose with the Appropriation Clause, their connexion with O'Connell, the deranged state of the finances, and their attempt to regain popularity by attacking the Corn Laws, which they had always upheld, discredited them with the country. Sir Robert Peel's discretion, ability, and surpassing parliamentary talents had exalted him in public opinion, and a majority of ninety supporters were returned in his favour.
On the disruption of his party and the dissolution of his Ministry which followed, it might have been anticipated that a great reaction in favour of the Liberals would have been manifested. Such was not the case. The Conservatives, contending under considerable disadvantages, maintained their numerical strength as a powerful minority.
After several general elections and the experience of a quarter of a century, the returns at the commencement of last session, when Lord Derby was defeated by a vote of want of confidence, exhibit almost precisely the same numbers by which Sir Robert Peel was driven to resign in 1885, on the questions of the Election of Speaker and the Appropriation Clause.
Moreover, the relative numbers of county and borough members, of English, Irish, and Scotch representatives, do not greatly vary.
The results of so many different appeals to the constituency, extending over so many years, and differing so little, entitle us to assume that, under any ordinary conditions, such are the tolerably well ascertained proportions which parties bear to each other under the Parliamentary Constitution of 1832.
We may conclude that the Conservatives are a tolerably united party, amounting to three hundred or near it, not without shades of opinion within their ranks, yet not carrying them to such extremes as to prevent their combined action. We may assume that the remaining three hundred and fifty or three hundred and sixty members represent three or four divisions of political sects, whose principles are widely asunder. They are comprehended, or they class themselves, under the vague designation of Liberals, but they are avowedly separated by the most irreconcilable differences.
Such a state of things appears to me the normal [p.55] and permanent condition under the present composition of the House of Commons. The changes which have been rung several times may be rung again. A Ministry which depends upon such discordant supporters may very probably be displaced by adverse votes obtained by the temporary cooperation of some of their discontented allies with their declared opponents. The consequence might be the formation of a Government conducting public affairs with the aid of a minority, assisted, perhaps, by some indirect support from some section of the opposite camp.
In either case we should have a weak Government, unable to follow out its own views, or to act upon its own convictions, and dragging on a precarious existence by a series of compromises and concessions. The best that can be said for such a state of affairs is that it is favourable to the status quo, and that, where nobody is able to move, much positive mischief is not to be apprehended. The ordinary business of the country will probably be carried on by general agreement; and national progress is, in fact, so self-sustained, and so little dependent upon legislative interference, that we may not fare worse for the want of great measures. All this may be true, and we may go on very well in quiet times: in point of fact, it is exactly the way in which we have gone on for some years.
I cannot, however, convince myself that occasions do not arise in which energy, decision, foresight, administrative vigour, are imperatively required; nor [p.56] can I admit that a hopelessly weak executive is a good form of government.
The first result which has clearly flowed from the Reform Act of 1882 is, therefore, a House of Commons so divided into parties and sections, that a strong Government, supported by a firm and decided majority, is impossible. The second is almost a necessary corollary from it, that changes of Ministry are perpetually recurring, and that no Cabinet can feel the slightest security in its tenure of office. It is scarcely requisite to go through the form of establishing this proposition by lengthened proof, or by reference to facts; the proposition is so self-evident, the facts are so fully present to the recollection of everybody. It is one of those cases in which a priori reasoning and experience thoroughly agree. If any maker of constitutions had set to work to frame one with the express object of obtaining this result, he would probably have sought to arrive at it by some similar contrivance for securing so nicely-balanced a division of the representative body.
If we glance our eyes over the parliamentary history of the last twenty-seven years, we shall distinctly perceive that the Reform Act has realized this object.
It is tolerably evident also that this attendant consequence is becoming more marked and decided with the progress of time. Lord Grey's Administration, the last which attempted to govern energetically upon its own convictions and responsibilities, survived the Act two years. 1will not dwell upon [p.57] Sir Robert Peel's short Government in 1834-35, because, though very important in its results, it was called into existence by the prerogative of the Crown, and not by the action of Parliament.
The succeeding Ministry of Lord Melbourne lasted six years, and that of Sir Robert Peel five years. Since hat period how constant have been the changes! Lord John Russell five years, Lord Derby's first Administration ten months, Lord Aberdeen's two years, Lord Palmerston's two years, Lord Derby's second Cabinet fourteen months, Lord Palmerston's reinstated for the moment. Nor do these fluctuations represent fully the instability and insecurity of Administrations, for during their brief sojourn in Downing Street every one of these Administrations has sustained checks, defeats, and humiliations, any of which would have been followed by its resignation in former times.
In no other European community could such a state of things subsist two years without plunging it into hopeless confusion. Even with us it is a marvel how it can go on, and it must evidently place us frequently on the very verge of disastrous embarrassment.
The secret of its having been maintained at all lies in the tacit understanding that exists between the two parties who have hitherto enjoyed a monopoly of the direction of public affairs. Neither of them really desire any further inroads to be made upon the existing system by Radical or Democratic encroachment. They therefore fight their battles [p.58] as far as they can upon conventional questions, which do not jeopardise its permanence. When in office, the Conservative element which exists very strongly among the Whigs leads them to be as sparing as possible in their concessions to their Radical allies. The Tories are, of course, or ought to be, still more inclined to practise a similar policy. The danger of committing themselves to extreme principles obliges them to great caution and reserve in their choice of points of attack when in opposition. Thus these perpetual changes in the drivers occasion no corresponding disturbance in the State carriage: it runs on in the narrow groove which alone is possible to it, until some Radical jolt shall throw it off the line altogether.
Were either of these still powerful parties satisfied to give an entirely independant and disinterested support to the other, this provisional state of affairs might endure a long time. It is, however, manifestly quite idle to expect from them such an amount of self-denial. Each will persevere in their hereditary antagonism to the other, each will seek those official prizes which are the goal of Parliamentary ambition, and neither will be able either to obtain or to keep them without some aid from the different sections of extreme Liberals, which most assuredly will not be rendered without an equivalent.·
The second marked result of the Reform Act, therefore, is a constant see-saw between Whig and Tory Administrations, by every oscillation of [p.59] which some advantage is gained by the Movement party.
The third consequence of the alteration effected in 1832 is another corollary from the preceding two.
Mr. Horsman, in a recent speech, paid a high and deserved compliment to the “priceless honour” of our public men. During all the bitterest contests of party, during all the changes and struggles of past years, I cannot recall to mind that the faintest shadow of suspicion ever rested for a moment on the private reputation for honour and integrity of any of our statesmen. When we remember how sensitive is British public opinion upon such a point, we may almost venture to assert that any striking example to the contrary would almost shake the whole system. The notorious case of M. Teste contributed powerfully to the fall of Louis Philippe. But although no taint has ever been thrown upon the purity and incorruptibility of our public men, although calumny has never ventured to attribute to them any ignoble or mercenary conduct, they cannot, I fear, be equally absolved from the more venial sins of political inconsistency and insincerity.
The statesmen of the reigns of George III. and IV. were never accused of reversing their opinions or changing their principles. Mr. Pitt and Mr. Fox, Lord Liverpool and Lord Grey, Lord Eldon and Sir Samuel Romilly, Lord Castlereagh and Mr. Tierney, Mr. Canning and Lord Brougham, during their illustrious Parliamentary careers remained to the end the embodiments and personification of the [p.60] political causes they had respectively espoused. Mr. Pitt was never known to attend a dinner at the Crown and Anchor, and propose “The Sovereignty of the People” as a toast. Lord Eldon's mind never wavered as to the danger of admitting the Roman Catholic element into Parliament. Under no conceivable circumstances would Sir Samuel Romilly have hanged a genteel lady shoplifter for purloining three yards and a half of lace, value 2l. 10s. 6d., from the counter of a respectable haberdasher.
Whatever may have been the opinion as to the soundness of their political creed, or as to the wisdom and justice of their policy, no one ever dreamed of charging them with inconsistency or instability in the maintenance of their principles.
As far as all evidence can prove a case they acted upon sincere conviction, and adhered not merely to a party connexion, but to those opinions upon which that party was founded, with steady fidelity. The most remarkable disruption of party ties which occurred throughout that period, viz., the secession from the Whigs of Mr. Burke and his friends, was justified by that great political philosopher on the ground that the circumstances introduced by the French Revolution were entirely new, and that his opposition to it was in accordance with the whole previous tenor of his life.
No one can doubt that this uniform consistency of action and opinion was a great source, not only of power and strength to their party, but of weight, influence, and consideration to the individuals.
The force of an argument is wonderfully increased when his hearers are fully persuaded that the speaker himself is convinced of its truth. The moral influence of a leader is extended by the confidence which his followers place in his firmness and sincerity. The English nation, above all, watch with jealous scrutiny the conduct of their statesmen, and the most brilliant talents lose their ascendancy over the public mind if coupled with infirm purpose, and frequent changes, and compromises of their opinions.
We have no reason to apprehend that the statesmen of the present day are personally less resolute in character, or more inclined to sacrifice principle to the temptations of office, than were their predecessors. Our late history is full of instances to the contrary. A hundred cases will suggest themselves to our recollection.
Let me cite that of Mr. Gladstone in 1845, when he resigned his office under Sir Robert Peel, a statesman in whose general policy he so fully concurred, because he would not sanction, as a Cabinet Minister, the endowment of Maynooth.
On a more recent occasion the resignation of Mr. Walpole and Mr. Henley because they dissented from the details of Lord Derby's Reform Bill.
Our public men in general are, no doubt, equally raised above the mere selfish motives of personal interest.
There is something nevertheless in the altered state of the House of Commons which has strangely modified their course of action in these respects. [p.62] The exigencies of their position and the extreme difficulty of administering affairs through the agency of a House of Commons so split up into sections, and so acted upon: by external pressure, appear to force them into constant inconsistencies and self-contradictions. Much as I respect the memory of Sir Robert Peel, and fully as I believe in the purity of his motives, I cannot altogether acquit him of having set a dangerous example in this respect. He seemed to have framed a peculiar code of political morality for himself, and to have held that urgent considerations of State expediency called upon a Minister to sacrifice every tie of party, to renounce every previous opinion, and to trample upon every declaration or engagement implied or expressed that he had ever made. It required all our knowledge of the man, all our consciousness of the real sincerity of his belief that he was thus promoting the best interests of his country, to enable us to pardon such an exceptionable doctrine.
I have not a doubt that his view was perfectly erroneous, that no man ought to carry his zeal in his country's service to such a length as to immolate his reputation to it, and that such a suicidal course never does effect sufficient good to compensate for the pernicious tendency of the precedent.
Be that as it may, the practice has become very general, and public men conceive themselves entitled to surrender every previous opinion, to adopt totally different lines of policy from those they have previously advocated, and to treat every question in [p.63] the manner best calculated to maintain or to win popular support.
This habit pervades equally the ranks of all those who are candidates for Ministerial power. The theory was once epitomized by Sir Robert Peel when he observed that all Government was a system of compromise. It would have been nearer the truth if he had said that the only practicable Government in England since the Reform Bill was a system of compromises.
I believe such to be the simple fact. In the present state of parties in the Legislature no party can hope·to acquire or to retain office if they are obstinately attached to their own convictions or to any definite policy. The art of governing or of guiding affairs consists in a skilful adaptation of measures, so as to enable them to wriggle through the two branches of the Legislature, and to conciliate support from opposite factions.
The third consequence which has flowed from the Reform Act appears to be an inconsistency and tergiversation in the conduct of public men which is impairing their moral influence with the community.