« AnteriorContinuar »
body of the ten-pound householders belonged-the lower middle class-was above all classes the one most hardly treated in the imposition of the taxes. A small shopkeeper, or a clerk who just, and only just, was rich enough to pay income tax, was perhaps the only severelytaxed man in the country. He paid the rates, the tea, sugar, tobacco, malt, and spirit taxes, as well as the income tax, but his means were exceedingly small. Curiously enough the class which in theory was omnipotent, was the only class financially ill-treated. Throughout the history of our former Parliaments the constituency could no more have originated the policy which those Parliaments selected than they could have made the solar system.
As I have endeavoured to show in this volume, the deference of the old electors to their betters was the only way in which our old system could be maintained. No doubt countries can be imagined in which the mass of the electors would be thoroughly competent to form good opinions; approximations to that state happily exist. But such was not the state of the minor English shopkeepers. They were just competent to make a selection between two sets of superior ideas; or rather-for the conceptions of such people are more personal than abstract-between two opposing parties, each professing a creed of such ideas. But they could do no more. Their own notions, if they had been cross-examined upon them, would have been found always most confused and often most foolish.
They were competent to decide an issue selected by the higher classes, but they were incompetent to do more.
The grave question now is, How far will this peculiar old system continue and how far will it be altered? I am afraid I must put aside at once the idea that it will be altered entirely and altered for the better. I cannot expect that the new class of voters will be at all more able to form sound opinions on complex questions than the old voters. There was indeed an idea-a very prevalent idea when the first edition of this book was published that there then was an unrepresented class of skilled artizans who could form superior opinions on national matters, and ought to have the means of expressing them. We used to frame elaborate schemes to give them such means. But the Reform Act of 1867 did not stop at skilled labour; it enfranchised unskilled labour too. And no one will contend that the ordinary working man who has no special skill, and who is only rated because he has a house, can judge much of intellectual matters. The messenger in an office is not more intelligent than the clerks, not better educated, but, worse; and yet the messenger is probably a very superior specimen of the newly enfranchised classes. The average can only earn very scanty wages by coarse labour. They have no time to improve themselves, for they are labouring the whole day through; and their early education was so small that in most cases it is dubious whether
even if they had much time, they could use it to good purpose. We have not enfranchised a class less needing to be guided by their betters than the old class; on the contrary, the new class need it more than the old. The real question is, Will they submit to it, will they defer in the same way to wealth and rank, and to the higher qualities of which these are the rough symbols and the common accompaniments ?
There is a peculiar difficulty in answering this question. Generally, the debates upon the passing of an Act contain much valuable instruction as to what may be expected of it. But the debates on the Reform Act of 1867 hardly tell anything. They are taken up with technicalities as to the ratepayers and the compound householder. Nobody in the country knew what was being done. I happened at the time to visit a purely agricultural and conservative county, and I asked the local Tories, "Do you understand this Reform Bill? Do you know that your Conservative Government has brought in a Bill far more Radical than any former Bill, and that it is very likely to be passed?" The answer I got was, "What stuff you talk! How can it be a Radical Reform Bill? Why, Bright opposes it!" There was no answering that in a way which a "common jury" could understand. The Bill was supported by the Times and opposed by Mr. Bright; and therefore the mass of the Conservatives and of common moderate people, without
distinction of party, had no conception of the effect. They said it was "London nonsense" if you tried to explain it to them. The nation indeed generally looks to the discussions in Parliament to enlighten it as to the effect of Bills. But in this case neither party, as a party, could speak out. Many, perhaps most of the intelligent Conservatives, were fearful of the consequences of the proposal; but as it was made by the heads of their own party, they did not like to oppose it, and the discipline of party carried them with it. On the other side, many, probably most of the intelligent Liberals, were in consternation at the Bill; they had been in the habit for years of proposing Reform Bills; they knew the points of difference between each Bill, and perceived that this was by far the most sweeping which had ever been proposed by any Ministry. But they were almost all unwilling to say so. They would have offended a large section in their constituencies if they had resisted a Tory Bill because it was too democratic; the extreme partizans of democracy would have said, "The enemies of the people have confidence enough in the people to entrust them with this power, but you, a 'Liberal,' and a professed friend of the people, have not that confidence; if that is so, we will never vote for you again." Many Radical members who had been asking for years for household suffrage were much more surprised than pleased at the near chance of obtaining it; they had asked for it as
bargainers ask for the highest possible price, but they never expected to get it. Altogether the Liberals, or at least the extreme Liberals, were much like a man who has been pushing hard against an opposing door, till, on a sudden, the door opens, the resistance ceases, and he is thrown violently forward. Persons in such an unpleasant predicament can scarcely criticise effectually, and certainly the Liberals did not so criticise. We have had no such previous discussions as should guide our expectations from the Reform Bill, nor such as under ordinary circumstances we should have had.
Nor does the experience of the last election much help us. The circumstances were too exceptional. In the first place, Mr. Gladstone's personal popularity was such as has not been seen since the time of Mr. Pitt, and such as may never be seen again. Certainly it will very rarely be seen. A bad speaker is he got on as a candidate. "Oh,” he answered, “when I do not know what to say, I say 'Gladstone,' and then they are sure to cheer, and I have time to think." In fact, that popularity acted as a guide both to constituencies and to members. The candidates only said they would vote with Mr. Gladstone, and the constituencies only chose those who said so. Even the minority could only be described as anti-Gladstone, just as the majority could only be described as pro-Gladstone. The remains, too, of the old electoral organisation were exceedingly
said to have been asked how