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(1859.) [Reprinted as a pamphlet, with some corrections (but the most glaring and obvious blunder repeated unnoticed) and a few trivial alterations (often for the worse, and sometimes making nonsense out of a previously intelligible sentence); also with some fresh typographical blunders. I have called attention to all the material deviations. Later, this and the following article, with the section of the “English Constitution” added in the second edition, were collected in a volume entitled “Parliamentary Reform.”—ED.] We shall not be expected to discuss in a party spirit the subject of Parliamentary Reform. It has never been objected to the National Review that it is a party organ; and even periodicals which have long heen such, scarcely now discuss that subject in a party spirit. Both Whigs and Conservatives are pledged to do something, and neither as a party have agreed what they would do. We would attempt to give an impartial criticism of the electoral system which now exists, and some indication of the mode in which we think that its defects should be amended. It is possible, we fear, that our article may be long, and that our criticism on existing arrangements may appear tedious; but a preliminary understanding is requisite. Unless we are agreed as to what is to be desired, we cannot hope to agree as to what is to be done: a clear knowledge of the disease must precede the remedy. In business, no ingenuity of detail can compensate for indistinctness of design.
*On the Electoral Statistics of the Counties and Boroughs in England and Wales during the Twenty-Five Years from the Reform Act of 1832 to the Present Time. By William Newmarch, one of the Honorary Secretaries of the Statistical Society. Read before the Statistical Society, June 16, 1857, and printed in the Journal of that Society, Vol. xx., Parts 2 and 3. We cannot speak too highly of these most admirable statistics. No pains have been spared to make them complete, and extreme judgment has been shown in the selection. When it is not otherwise stated, all our electoral statistics are from this source.
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There is much that may be said against the Reform Act of 1832 ; but on the whole it has been successful. It is a commonplace to speak of the legislative improvements of the last twenty-five years, and it would be tedious to enumerate them. Free Trade, a new colonial policy, the improved poor-law, the Encumbered Estate[s] Act in Ireland, the tithe commutation, municipal reform, the tentative but most judicious support of education, are only some of the results of the reform of the House of Commons. Scarcely less important is the improvement which the Reform Bill has introduced into the general tone of our administration : our executive has become purer, more considerate, and more humane, and it would be difficult to show that in its ordinary and beneficial action it is much weaker. Nor is this all. So much of agreement in opinion as we see around us is perhaps unexampled in a political age; and it is the more singular, because the English nation is now considerably less homogeneous in its social structure than it once was. The prodigious growth of manufactures and trade has created a new world in the North of England, which contrasts with the South in social circumstances and social habits; yet* at no former time was there such a difference as there now is between Lancashire and Devonshire. It is impossible not to ascribe this agreement to the habit of national discussion which the Reform Act has fostered. The scattered argument, the imperfect but perpetual influence of the press and society, have made us, perhaps even to an excessive degree, unanimous; possibly we are all too much disposed to catch the voice which is in the air: still, a little too much concord is better than a little too much discord. It is a striking result, that our present Constitution has educed from such dissimilar elements so much of harmony.
Beneficial, however, as are these incidental results of the Reform Bill, they are not the most important parts of its success. This measure has, to a considerable extent, been successful in its design. The object which its framers had in view was, to transfer the predominant influence in the state from certain special classes to the general aggregate of fairly instructed men. It is not perhaps very easy to prove upon paper that this has been, at least in a very great degree, effected: the most difficult thing to establish by argument is an evident fact of observation. There are no statistics of opinion to which we can refer, there is no numerical comparison which will establish the accordance of parliamentary with social opinion: we must trust to our eyes and ears, to the vague but conclusive evidence of events. If indeed public opinion had always been as unanimous as it now is, we should have some difficulty in ascertaining the fact; when everybody thinks the same, there is no saying which is the stronger party : but during the last twenty-six years there have been many periods at which public opinion was much divided and strongly excited. The great legislative changes which have been mentioned were not effected without long and animated party dissension. The policy of a great country like this has continually required the determination of critical questions, both at home and abroad ; its ramified affairs have been a never-failing source of controverted topics. What would have been the sign if the expressed opinion of Parliament had been contrary to the distinct opinion of the country? In the present state of the country we should not have been long in learning it. We should have had political meetings not of one class but all classes, clouds of petitions from every quarter, endless articles in newspapers ; the cry would only have died away when the obnoxious decision was reversed and the judgment of Parliament submitted itself to the will of the nation. The inclination of the House of Commons is evidently not to oppose the country; on the contrary, we all know the power, the undue power, possessed by that
* This word is an unaccountable addition in the reprint, exactly reversing the intended meaning.- ED.
part of the press whose course is supposed to indicate what is likely to be the common opinion. So far from our legislators dissenting too often from the expressed judgment of the country, they are but too much swayed by indications of what it probably will be. The history of our great legislative changes of itself shows that the opinion of Parliament is in the main coincident with that of the nation : Parliament and the country were converted at the same time. Even the history of the Corn-Law agitation, which is often referred to as indicating the contrary, proves this conspicuously: it succeeded almost at the moment that impartial people, who had no interests on either side, were convinced that it ought to succeed. Mr. Cobden liked to relate that when he first began to dream of agitating the question, a most experienced nobleman observed to him, “Repeal the Corn Laws! you will repeal the monarchy as soon.' The noble lord was right in estimating the tenacity and intensity of the Protectionist creed; but he did not know, and Mr. Cobden did, the power of plain argument on the common mass of plain men, and the certainty that their opinion, if really changed, would suffice to change the course of our legislation, even in opposition to strong aristocratic influence and very rooted prejudice. It has been said that Sir Robert Peel owed his success in life to “being converted at the conversion of the average man”: the same influences acted on his mind that acted on the minds of most other people throughout the nation, and in much the same measure; he was therefore converted to new views at the same time that most other people were converted to them. The same may be said of the present Parliament, Nobody would call the reformed House of Commons original; it is never in advance of the higher order of cultivated thought: but every one would agree that it is pre-eminently considerate, well-judging, and convincible; and when people say this, they mean that its opinions commonly coincide with their own.