« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
protection, but they were unknown to its letter; they had thoughts which it did not take account of, and ideas with which it was inconsistent. The structure of English society was still half feudal, and its new elements were utterly unfeudal. It was impossible to subject Lancashire, such as it became, to the dominion of any aristocracy, however ancient and long-descended it might be. Such rulers were not fitted for such subjects, nor were such subjects fitted for such rulers. Between the two classes there was a contrast which made the higher unintelligible to the lower, and the lower disagreeable to the higher. Education, moreover, was diffusing itself. The political intelligence of the aristocratic classes was no longer so superior to that of other classes, as it had formerly been. The necessary means of information were more widely accessible than they had been, and were very extensively used. The contrast between the constitution of England and England itself in consequence became day by day greater and greater, and at last became unendurable. We have not space to go into detail on this part of the subject, and it is not necessary to go into details about it. If it had not been for the terror excited throughout Europe by the French revolution, the old system of parliamentary representation could hardly by possibility have lasted as long as it did. In the end it passed away; and the recollection of the evils of its latter time has obscured the remembrance of its former usefulness. As we have shown, it long gave us a Parliament coincident in judgment with the nation; it maintained upon the throne the dynasty under which we live, and secured the foundations of English liberty. It long worked well; and if at last it worked ill, the excuses for its doing so were many. It had survived all that was akin to it, and was in contact with every thing which was most discordant to it. stitution which was adapted to the England of 1700 must necessarily be unadapted to the England of 1832. Changes so momentous as there had been between those years in our society required and enforced equivalent alteration in our polity.
Such is the general result of this long examination of our old system of representation in the main quality of a representative system that by which above all others it must stand or fall-its coincidence with the real national opinion. We see that this is a mixed and a complicated, but not on the whole an unsatisfactory one. We will now shortly examine our old system in three other respects. Did it give a means of expression to the views of all classes ? Did it secure to us really strong administrations? Did it train for us efficient statesmen? If we can in any way answer these questions, it will, we think, be admitted that we have discussed the most important part of
the subject, and examined our foriner system of representation by the tests that are most stringent and satisfactory.
In the second requisite of the representative system, that which existed in England in the last century inust be considered to have been successful. It gave a means of expression to all classes whose minds required an expression. The mercantile and trading class had not, as we have just explained, their due weight in the system of government; they did not regulate all that they should have regulated, or control all that they should have controlled; but they had always the means of expressing their sentiments. They had not, especially in the later times, a representation proportioned to their intelligence and their influence; but they always had some representation. _The gentry were not only represented, but over-represented. Especially during the closing years of the eighteenth century and the first few years of the nineteenth, their influence was unreasonably great, and their despotism absolute. They ruled the country without check and without resistance; they were subject only to a weak and modified remonstrance; they had but to listen in the House of Commons to the speeches of those whom they could immeasurably outvote; they had but to quell out of doors the unrecognised murmurs of an unorganised multitude, which had long obeyed them, which was still ready to obey them, which did not know its own power.
With respect to the lowest class of all, the working of our own system of representation is peculiarly instructive. That system, by its letter, attempted to throw a good deal of power into their hands. In a great number of boroughs the suffrage,
. as we have seen, was practically all but universal ; all inhabitant householders not receiving alms very frequently had votes. What is now so much desired, the representation of the workingclasses then really existed. In Stafford, in Coventry, and in other places, the lowest classes were preponderant. Those classes had then the means of making their voice heard, and their sentiments known, in Parliament. They had some influence in the State, though they did not rule the State. In theory our constitution was at that time in this point perfect. As we read the description of it, we believe that nothing could be better. In practice it was a failure. The trial of the experiment demonstrated that it is useless to provide means for expressing the political thoughts of classes who have no such thoughts. The freemen of Stafford and Coventry did not send to Parliament members who really and truly expressed the opinions and sentiments of the working-classes, because the working-classes had no opinion on matters of legislation and administration, and had only vague ideas of what was passing in their time. For
the most part, they used the power which was given to them, not as an opportunity of influence, but as a source of income. They did not think of it as something by which they could control the rich, but as something which they could sell to the rich. Sheridan has left an amusing document as to the constituency of Stafford. They probably did not expect that so unbusinesslike a person should have preserved so businesslike a document; but it is as follows: R. B. Sheridan, Esq. Expenses at the Borough of Stafford for
Election anno 1784. 248 Burgesses, paid £5 5 0 each
Yearly Expenses since.
£ s. d. House-rent and taxes
23 6 6 Servant at 68. per
15 12 0
8 8 0
10 0 0
57 66 Ale-tickets
4 4 0
86 11 0
143 17 6 Multiplied by years
863 5 0 Total expense of six years' parliament, exclusive
of expense incurred during the time of election
£2165 5 0 Corruption of this kind, and perhaps sometimes greater in degree, prevailed in almost every town in which the suffrage was very extended. As the wealth of the country grew, the price of votes becaine greater. If the old system of representation had endured till now, we can scarcely estimate how great it would by this time have become. Experience proved what our theories suggest that the enfranchisement of the corruptible is in truth the establishment of corruption.
In one respect, however, the representation of the working, classes which we formerly had in this country may be considered to have been successful. The towns in which the suffrage was practically universal at times sent to the House of Commons, not spokesmen of their own grievances, but spokesmen of grievances in general. Sir Francis Burdett is but the type, and the best-known instance, of a whole class of members who, in former times, were always ready to state any one's complaints, without much inquiry whether they were true ; to bring forward a case, without much asking whether it were very well founded; to make a general declamation about the sufferings of the country which was a kind of caveat against abuses in general, and might be construed as a protest against any particular one which chanced to occur. Such undiscriminating and vague invectives had their use. They prevented gross instances of administrative harshness—at least they tended to prevent them. They prevented the air of politics from becoming stagnant; they broke the monotony of class domination. But it may be questioned whether, on the whole, their influence was beneficial. These reckless orators had but little moral weight; they were too ready with their statements to have them trusted, they were too undiscriminating in their objections for those objections to have influence. A weak Opposition is commonly said to be more advantageous to a government than no Opposition at all; it gives an impression to the public that all which can be said against the plans of the Cabinet has been said ; it gives an impression that what is unchecked is checked, that what is uncontrolled is controlled. It diminishes the practical responsibility of an administration, by diminishing the popular conception of its power. In the same way, the vague demagogues who occasionally appeared in the old House of Commons did not weaken the substantial power of the classes that ruled there. They were “her majesty's" objectors. It was their province to say that whatever was done was done wrong. It was not therefore of much consequence what the administration did. They were sure of its being opposed, they were sure of its being carried; and they had therefore the advantage of complete power without the odium of enforcing silence. A despotism disguised in this manner is perhaps more uncontrolled than any other despotism :-such, however, was the mode in which the attempt of our old system of representation to give special members to the lowest classes really operated. It failed in what may be considered its characteristic function. The ideas of the lowest classes on politics were still unheard in the legislature, because those classes had no ideas. A confused popular feeling sometimes sent popular orators to Parliament. But the kind of indiscriminate objection and monotonous invective which those orators without ceasing made use of, seem to have been rather an assistance than an obstruction to the governing classes. The lesson of the whole history indubitably is, that it is in vain to
lower the level of political representation beneath the level of political capacity ; that below that level you may easily give nominal power, but cannot possibly give real power ; that at best you give a vague voice to an unreasoning instinct, that in general you only give the corruptible an opportunity to become corrupt.
It is often said, and commonly believed, that the old system of representation secured, under almost all circumstances, the existence and the continuance of what is called a strong govern
а ment: it is believed that under that system the administration of the day had almost always the power to carry any legislative measure which it deemed beneficial, and to do any executive act which it might think fit. History, however, when it is accurately reviewed, affords little or no confirmation of this idea. Many parts of the history of England during the existence of our old constitution bear, on the very face of them, the most conspicuous evidence that there was then no security for the existence of a strong executive government. Many administrations during the last century, so far from being preëminently powerful, were not moderately coherent. The earlier part of George the Third's reign is simply the history of a series of feeble governments, which had little power to act as they intended, or to legislate as they desired. The traditional notion of the strength of governments in former times is founded upon the enormous strength of the administrations which successively directed the long struggle with France and Napoleon. The French revolution frightened the English nation, it haunted the people of that generation so much, that they could not look any where but they imagined that they saw the traces of it. Priestley interpreted the prophecies by means of it; Mitford wrote Grecian history by the aid of it. If its effect was so striking in the out-of-the-way parts of literature, in politics its effect might well be expected to be extreme. It was extreme. The English people were terrified into unity. They ceased to be divided into parliamentary sections, as their fathers were divided, or as their grandchildren are now divided. The process by which the unanimity of the nation created a corresponding unanimity in the House of Commons was simple and was effectual. The noblemen and gentlemen who had the greatest influence in the counties, and a certain number of whom were proprietors of boroughs,—the class which, as we have seen, had a despotic control over the House of Commons as it then was,-felt the antipathy to French principles as much as any other class; perhaps they did not feel it more, though some persons have thought they did, than the rest of the nation ; but they undoubtedly did not feel it less. The Parliament was as united in its