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DEVELOPMENT OF PARLIAMENT
THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
THE FIRST STEP TOWARDS DEMOCRACY
DURING the course of the last sixty years a revolution has been effected in the government of England. The power has been transferred from the control of a compact and vigorous aristocracy to that of a democracy which in fact, though not in outward form, is more complete and more uncontrolled than any at present existing in any first-class State. So rapid has the transition been, and at the same time so quiet, that we have hardly realised that it has been taking place. There has been no violence, no overt change of principle; all that has been done has been done in the name, and under the forms, of the same constitution that supported a monarchy in the sixteenth and an aristocracy in the eighteenth century. Yet the transformation is fundamental, as we are just
beginning to perceive. With astonishment we awake and rub our eyes, asking ourselves whither we have been tending and where we are likely to end. Such a question hardly admits of a reply that should be at once simple and adequate, nor is it the purpose of the following pages to attempt one. All that is proposed is to bring into relief a certain aspect of the case which appears to be of immediate importance; to show that while the transition in question has been achieved with the consent and even at the initiation of the governing class, yet in accomplishing it they not only have not avowed but have explicitly repudiated the democratic creed; that thus they have become the instruments of a revolution which they did not intend and which they cannot interpret; but that the interpretation which they have never seized has been given from the first, as it is being given now, by the majority into whose hands they have resigned the power. From these conditions arises the problem of present politics which will be considered in the concluding chapter.
The first step in the transition of which we are to trace the course is the Reform Act of 1832. Because it was the first, it was the most vigorously opposed and therefore the most vigorously supported. But though it evoked in its defence a violent popular agitation, it was not forced upon the aristocracy by the people; it was deliberately and voluntarily introduced by one section of the govern
ing class and carried by them against the other with the help of the populace. How then did it come about that a strong and capable aristocracy should have brought themselves to initiate a measure which has been shown, by the course of events, to have been nothing more or less than an abdication? Here is the starting-point of our historical inquiry.
The aristocracy of England in the eighteenth century occupied a peculiar position. While they were supreme in fact, their supremacy was exercised under the forms of a constitution which contained, in theory at least, a popular element. The House of Commons, as we read in so conservative an authority as Blackstone, ought, if only it safely could, to have been elected freely by the votes of all citizens, however mean. 'If it were probable,' he says, 'that every man could give his vote freely, and without influence of any kind, then, upon the true theory and genuine principles of liberty, every member of the community, however poor, should have a vote in electing those delegates to whose charge is committed the disposal of his property, his liberty and his life.'' This,' he con
1 Ed. 1770, Book I., chap. ii., p. 171. Reformers also quoted the passage from Sir Thomas Smith: Every Englishman is intended to be present' in parliament, either in person or by procuration and attornies . . . from the prince to the lowest person of England. And the consent of the Parliament is taken to be every man's consent,' But they omitted to refer to the passage in the same work where all the population below the 40s. freeholders are said to have no voice or authority in our commonwealth; and no account is made of them, but only to be ruled, and not to rule others.' (De Rep. Anglorum, ed. 1583, pp. 35 and 33.)
tinues, with unconscious irony, 'is the spirit of our constitution; how far it was the practice is sufficiently notorious. The franchise was not only not universal, it was not regulated by any principle at all, whether of property, intelligence, or birth. In the counties it belonged to the 40s. freeholders; in the boroughs to one or other section of the inhabitants, here to the members of the corporation, here to the freeholders, here to the potwallopers,1 no rule for the privilege being discernible, and no intelligible end in its variety. Moreover, since the seventeenth century no new boroughs had been created, while many of the old ones had lost all importance, and some of them all but their parliamentary existence, so that the borough representation bore no proportion at all either to the wealth or the population of the country. Seventy of your members,' as it is pathetically remarked in a petition presented to parliament in 1793, are returned by thirty-five places. . . in which it would be to trifle with the patience of your honourable house to mention any number of voters whatever, the elections at the places alluded to being notoriously a mere matter of form.'2
Such an arrangement of the franchise was as favourable to the power of the aristocracy as it was unfavourable to popular representation. In the
1 Potwallopers are defined as 'Such as cooked their own diet in a fire-place of their own' (Mozley and Whitely, Law Dictionary).
2 Petition drawn up by the Society of Friends of the People, and presented by Grey in 1793.
counties the influence of the landed gentry was naturally supreme, by virtue at once of their economic position and their social prestige; but under the existing system it was further extended to the boroughs. The members returned to Parliament by a green mound' or a stone wall with three niches in it' were nominees of the gentlemen on whose estates these remains of former cities stood; the few insignificant electors of a little county town were not likely to oppose the will of the resident landlord; and, even if opposition were attempted, it was not difficult to meet it. Votes might be created, if necessary, by the division of freeholds; 2 burgage tenants might be induced to sell under penalty of a worse fate; 3 and when intimidation failed there was always the resource of bribery. The franchise, indeed, as often as not, was regarded by its possessors as a means of making money. Votes were known to fetch as much as 100l. apiece; 207. was not an uncommon average; and in the corporate towns it was noticed that as a general election approached
'Speech of Russell on the Reform Bill, Hansard, vol. ii., p. 1064. 2 At Weymouth, we are told, 'two hundred freeholds were split into two thousand, and freeholders of Weymouth were to be found in London, and in almost all the towns and villages to the Land's End in Cornwall.' Oldfield, Representative History, vol. iii., p. 384.
3 If a freehold or burgage tenant refused to sell, it was not a very uncommon practice to blow up his house with gunpowder and thus disfranchise a political opponent.'-Lord John Russell, Recollections and Suggestions, ed. 1875, p. 35.
4 At the Liverpool election in 1830. See Greville's Journal of the Reigns of King George IV. and King William IV., vol. ii., p. 79.