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In no respect is the reality of the accordance in opinion between Parliament and the nation so convincingly shown as in the sympathy of Parliament with the eccentricities of public opinion. We are constantly acknowledging that “the English mind” is exclusively occupied with single questions; sometimes with one and sometimes with another, but at each time with one only. If Parliament did not share the same influences as the general body of fairly educated men, there would every now and then be a remarkable contrast between the subjects which interested Parliament and that which occupied the nation. The intensity of our peculiar sympathies makes this more likely. Satirists say that the English nation is liable to intellectual seizures; and so exclusive and so res[is]tless is our intellectual absorption, so sudden its coming, so quick sometimes is its cessation, that there is some significance in the phrase, - we are struck with particular ideas, and for the time think of nothing else. It will be found that Parliament, if it be sitting, thinks of the same. No instance of this can be more remarkable than the parliamentary proceedings on Mr. Roebuck's motion for an inquiry into the conduct of the Crimean campaign. There was great excitement in the nation at the moment; it has enabled the present generation to understand what historians did not before understand,- the fate of poor Admiral Byng. The English nation cannot bear failure in war: if there had been any one to hang at the time Mr. Roebuck made his motion, and he could have been hanged directly, certainly he would have been hanged. On the other hand, the authority of statesmanlike opinion in Parliament, the weight of political connection, the legitimate disinclination to break up a Government during a dangerous crisis, and what is more remarkable – the great preponderance of sound argument, were united to influence Parliament not to grant even an inquiry. The result showed that the opinion of our leading statesmen was right, and that the arguments they produced were incontrovertible : few investigations that have been commenced with so much outcry have ever had so trivial an effect. Yet in opposition to all these influences, usually so omnipotent, - in opposition to the combined force of personal feeling and abstract argument, — the House of Commons so far accurately represented the sentiment of the country as to grant, and even to insist on granting, the inquiry. This parliamentary episode appears to be an instantia lucifera on the subject : it shows that even when we could wish it otherwise, the House of Commons will echo the voice of the nation.
After all, there can be no more conclusive evidence of the substantial agreement between Parliament and the nation than the slight interest which is taken by the public in all questions of organic reform. Every one knows how the Reform Act of 1832 was carried ; no one doubted that the public mind was excited then; no fair person could doubt what the decision of the nation then
The “insurrection of the middle classes," as it has been called, insured the success of the bill. It was alleged by its most reasonable opponents “that the measure could not be final; that [the number of] those on whom it was proposed to confer the franchise would, even after the passing of the measure, be but small in comparison with those from whom it would be still withheld ; that in a few years a similar agitation would recur, and a similar necessity of yielding to agitation ; that the storm of 1832 would be a feeble prelude to that of 1842," etc. These prophecies were not without a species of probability, but they have not been realized; no excited multitude clamors for enfranchisement, — the reality is the reverse of the anticipation.
Two defects, however, may be discerned in the general accordance of parliamentary with national opinion.
The Parliament certainly has an undue bias towards the sentiments and views of the landed interest. It
is not easy to trace this in immediate results. We have said that we scarcely think that it is proved by the history of the Free Trade agitation : that agitation was successful nearly if not quite as soon as it should have been. We may indeed speculate on the results which might have occurred if the Irish famine had not happened, and if Sir R. Peel had not formed a statesmanlike judgment upon its consequences; we may believe that there would in that case have been an opposition between an educated nation converted by reasoning to the principles of Free Trade, and a majority in Parliament wedded by prejudice and interest to Protection: still, as this is but conjecture, we cannot cite it as conclusive evidence. Nor is the partiality to real property in matters of taxation which is occasionally dwelt on very easy to prove in figures. The account is at best a complicated one: the exemption of land from probate duty is partly compensated by the succession duty, by the land tax, by the more severe pressure of the income tax, and still more by the necessary incidence of much local taxation on this kind of property. Still, a fair observer, closely .comparing the opinion of the House of Commons with that of the public out of doors, will certainly observe some signs of a partiality towards the landed interest among our legislators. We cannot ascribe this to any obvious preponderance in number of the county over the borough seats: taking population as a test, it is otherwise. There are in England and Wales 159 county members, more than double that number (viz., 335) of borough members; the population of the represented boroughs is 7,500,000, that of the counties 10,500,000 : consequently the represented boroughs have not as many inhabitants as the counties, though they elect twice the number of members. This test is of course a most imperfect one; but it may serve to show that.in mere arithmetic the counties are not extravagantly favored. The real cause is the peculiar structure of our county society. A county member is almost of necessity one of the county gentry; he must not only possess land, but it must be land in that place: no one else is “entitled to stand.” On the other hand, boroughs return a very miscellaneous class of members: many important land-owners sit for them; so great is the variety that no class is excluded from them altogether. This contrast must affect the distribution of parliamentary power; the county members form a peculiar class in the House of Commons, and exercise a steady influence there out of proportion to their mere numbers.* Besides, so much more of social influence belongs to the territorial aristocracy than to any other class that its weight is indefinitely increased: not a few men enter Parliament mainly to augment their social importance, and over these the unquestioned possessors of social rank necessarily have great power. A A third circumstance contributes its effect: the ministers of the Crown are generally large land-owners; by imperious social usage they must be men of large property, and all opulence gravitates towards the land, political opulence does so particularly. Until recently there was much difficulty in finding other investments not requiring sedulous personal attention, and not liable to be affected by political vicissitudes. It is of essential importance that ministers of state should be persons at ease in their worldly circumstances, and it is quite out of the question that they should have any share in the administration of commercial enterprises; they have enough to do without that. Their wealth, too, should not be in a form that could expose them even to the suspicion of stock-jobbing, or of making an improper use of political information. We have now many kinds of property — debentures, canal shares, railway shares, etc.— which have these advantages in nearly an equal degree with land itself, but the growth of these is recent; it may hereafter have important consequences, but it has not as yet had time to achieve them. Accordingly the series of Cabinet ministers presents a nearly unbroken rank of persons who either are themselves large land-owners, or are connected closely by birth or intermarriage with large land-owners. This combination of circumstances gives to real property an influence in our political system greater than in strict theory we should wish it to have. It is true that the owners of much land are men of much leisure, and the possession of such property has a sedative influence, which in moderation may not be undesirable; but the effective representation of national opinion requires the selection of members of Parliament from men of various occupations, various tendencies, and various sympathies. Public opinion in a composite nation is formed by the action and reaction of many kinds of minds; and abstractedly it seems a defect that the solid mass of county members, on whatever side of the house they sit, should present features so marked and uniform.
The second defect in the accordance of parliamentary with national opinion is but another phase of the same fact: too little weight is at present given to the growing parts of the country, too much to the stationary. It appears that the county constituencies in England and Wales have only increased, in the twenty years between 1837 and 1857, from 473,000 to 505,000, —that is, at about six* per cent.; the borough constituencies in the same period have increased from 321,000 to 439,000, or at the rate of seventeen * and it further appears, as we should expect, that the principal increase, both in the case of counties and boroughs, is not in the purely agricultural districts, but in the great scenes of manufacturing industry and in the metropolis. The growth of constituencies according to the present franchise is a much better test of relative importance than the mere growth of population : it indicates the increase of property, and therefore of presumable intelligence. These figures
* Obvious blunders for “seven" and "thirty-seven." - ED.