More Parliamentary Reform – 1850

The Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association was set up in May 1849 by John Bright, Joseph Hume, Sir Joshua Walmsley, and George Wilson, amongst others, to campaign for parliamentary reform, and reduced government expenditure. The argument being put forward that an increased electorate would naturally vote for less, rather than more government spending.

In the old days of coach travelling an unprofessional stranger intruded himself into the commercial room of a roadside inn. He was received with ready courtesy by the previous guests, and was invited to take part in the convivial mysteries of the evening. No questions were asked; the false brother remained undetected until the time for the bootjack and the flat-candlestick had arrived. On rising to take his leave for the night the stranger’s ears were assailed with cries from all sides of  ” Sir, the usual thing-the usual thing!”  It appeared that the custom of the house was that every guest should, before rising from table, favour the company with ” a toast, song, or sentiment,” and any one of the three would have been accepted as ” the usual thing.” Let us leave the pseudo-bagman to get out of the scrape as best he may, and turn to the proceedings of the Parliamentary Reform Association, which held its annual meeting yesterday at the London Tavern.

Now, the first thing that strikes the mind on reading through the addresses of the various orators, is what we will venture to call their customary dullness. They resemble each other, and all speeches on the same subject, delivered by the average run of platform orators, as closely as the ” Want Places “ of the maids of all work. They are the ” usual thing “.  An elderly gentleman with a turn for political excitement, or a young and aspiring politician who has an eye upon Finsbury for a future day, as a matter of course, endeavours to convince his fellow-countrymen that they constitute the most oppressed and ill-governed community on the surface of the globe. He exhorts them to union in the most pathetic terms, just as though serious endeavours were made to scatter amongst them the seeds of discord and jealousy.

He represents the upper and lower-let us rather say the richer and poorer classes, throughout the empire as in a natural position of antagonism. He attributes all moral virtues and all political principle to the struggling and the indigent; the more opulent are of course excluded from any share in these moral elevations of character. He shows the frightful injustice of excluding from. the political franchise any class of our fellow-subjects. He figures out a haughty aristocracy as battening. and fattening upon the vitals of the people.

Half-a-dozen instances are quoted of such application of the public money as may-be most likely to elicit from the meeting a few rounds of groans and hisses – and so, with the customary rhodomontade about ” freedom’s battle,” and the customary assurance that a violent change in the political constitution of the country would put an instant end to everything in the shape of jobbery or corruption, the orator of progress brings his address to a conclusion. Such a speech as this is ” the usual thing ;” and of such speeches was the business of yesterday’s meeting made up. There is, a difficulty in dealing with such a subject – a serious discussion would lead to nothing more profitable than an interchange of the driest platitudes.

The trade of political agitation has in this division of the empire seldom proved a profitable one to its professors. The opinions of the majority, the prejudices of the majority, the interests of the majority are in favour of a gradual development of our political institutions, and are diametrically opposed to any sudden and violent change. It required upwards of half-a-century of sharp struggle before the bulk of the community could be induced to pronounce in favour of out present representative system. Under this altered system changes of enormous importance have taken place. Religious disabilities have been removed; fiscal burdens have been repealed; the whole commercial system of the empire has been altered; reforms in the doctrine and practice of the laws have been extensively introduced. It would not be wise to draw from all these facts an inference against timely changes at a future day, but at least they furnish us with abundant reason for caution and circumspection.

The argument is no longer what it was before the passing of the Reform Act. In the main, the will of the English people is law. It may be obstructed fora time, it may be diverted from its object for a session, the personal views of a Minister or the prejudices of a class may, for a brief moment, interpose between the formation and accomplishment of the people’s wish, but, in the end, it is listened to and obeyed. A man of sober mind, now o’days, thinks it just as possible that we may go too fast as too slow –  and therefore it is he turns a deaf ear to the arithmetical blandishments of Sir Joshua Walmsley, to the pungent invective of Mr. Searle, and to the flowery periods of Mr. W. J. Fox. We look round us upon the most civilized countries of the earth, and find our own the solitary exception in the midst of civil turmoil and the din of arms. After all, there is something in this. If we turn to any of the tests by which the state of the country can be ascertained, we find it to be in an almost unexampled condition of peace and prosperity.

Sir Joshua Walmsley  and his friends say to us, ” Give up your present position. Take, upon our recommendation, the chances of an untried future. The violent influx of pure democracy into the political constitution of the various continental nations may indeed have caused the evils you describe, but in England the case is different. When we look to the analogies between the past, the present, and the future, we will warrant that in sober-minded England no mischief will- occur even from the most sadden and extensive changes  in our political institutions, to the change be made in the popular direction.”  With every respect for the sagacity of Sir Joshua Walmsley and his friends, we must object to the sufficiency of the assurances. A foolish politician may destroy the prosperity of a country – it would require the labour of a long series of statesmen to place it once more on a secure foundation. Would any one run such a risk for the attainment of an uncertain, probably of a visionary’ benefit?

The most fervent partisan of change must desire that it should be quietly brought about – that advantage should be taken of events – that the minds of the losers should be conciliated into something like patient acquiescence, not roused and exasperated into violent opposition.’ What would be the result of the adoption of such a scheme as that of the Parliamentary Reform Association? We leave the decision of the question to the judgment of any man who has been mixed up with the political combinations of the last half-century.

It may, after all, be an error in judgment to attribute any great importance to the labours of this new association. In a country such as ours, in which every person can speak or write his mind upon all political subjects, there must always be extreme parties in politics ready to call attention to their views. We may not approve of the objects of any one of these fanatics of opinion, but we recognize the use of them all. One of them may restrain us from action too precipitate, the other will prevent us from falling asleep by their eternal threats and murmurs.

It was but a short time back that the Liverpool Reform Association fell foul of the sums lavishly squandered on the officers in the two services. In the course of the discussion it came to light that ensigns and sea lieutenants were not, after all, such very prominent members of the            ” moneyed  circles” as had been originally supposed; but at least the discussion roused attention to many abuses in the administration of the services, which have either been reformed or modified. It is just the same case with the Parliamentary Reform Association.

We must make up our minds to live with such bodies on the one hand, and with agricultural and Protection meetings on the other. No doubt they will balance each other to the public advantage in the long run. Meanwhile, we cannot but congratulate ourselves upon the shape political agitation has assumed in England. No great harm can ever arise from this usual dry routine of time-honoured speeches and stereotyped resolutions.

the above text was from The Times, Tuesday, October 15, 1850 p.4

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