Sydney Dobell.

Of parliamentary reform : a letter to a politician online

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My dear Friend,

You wish me to set forth in a Pamphlet-letter
the scheme of enfranchisement to which I alluded in
our late conversation on Parliamentary Reform. I
think that even your flattering request would not
compel me to what must necessarily be a brief and
insufficient exposition of that scheme, if I did not
care more for its principles — which I shall be glad to
see yourself or any other eminent publicist embody
more happily — than for the machinery by which I
propose to apply them; and if I did not believe that
the question of Reform will retain its troublesome
Premier-haunting character, till we answer it on
principles more organic, expressed in machinery more
natural, than those of that provisional and temporary
reply which, in 1832, was the best that state exigen-
cies allowed.

But I believe that the principles of the scheme you
desire to examine are so conformable to the best order
of national development, and so necessary, therefore,
to any such change in our institutions as may main-

tain our present place among the progressive nations,
that if, in the following remarks, I find time, and
you patience, for anything like a clear indication of
them, I shall cheerfully forego the attempt to present
you with an elaborate jwjet de loi, and shall not be
seriously disappointed if the claims of more peremp-
tory work, the shortness of my stay in England, and
the limits of any letter that I could conscientiously
inflict, just now, on your busy life, may even oblige
me to offer you my plan without those assistant sta-
tistics and illustrative instances which your wide
knowledge and practised judgment can so readily
supply. I am the less mlling to wait for greater
leisure to either of us,, because a great national con-
troversy on the subject of Reform seems presaged
pretty plainly for the coming year; and as Parlia-
mentary Reform has come in our day to mean reform
of the popular branch of Parliament, and the patient
is not usually the best judge of his own case, one is
glad to expect that, in this age of journalism, a large
part of the discussion will be outside the House of
Commons. If that expectation be just, the outsiders
should at once begin their irregular portion of the
del)ate, since it is not the extramural disputations
themselves, but the national mind which they exercise
(and your Giant-politic, having perhaps to clean out
his rijiderpest^ clul) some Asiatic maii-cater, or liold
his bale of cotton for ()mj)hale, is not often quick at
his lessons), tliat must })roximatcly affect the more
formal controversy indoors. Therefore, and because

one specific advantage of a popular debate should be
the outbreak, undeterred by too nice an etiquette, of
whatever true thought on the subject in dispute the un-
ceremonial nation can anywhere throw up, I dispense
with all modest exordium, and address myself point-
blank to the honour you would have me undertake.

If, as I have hinted. Parliament has special diffi-
culties in discussing Parliamentary Reform, arising
from the retrospective self-conscious character of
the investigation, the non-parliamentary world has
also special difficulties, resultmg from an opposite
cause. If the legislature, with its eyes turned in-
ward, is likely to get no just notion of its own
objective personality, we who regard it from with-
out are likely to be too much impressed with the
characteristics of its bodily presence. And that
bodily presence is, at to-day's point in our history,
precisely of the kind on which it is most dangerous
to reason, because it is, and has been for more than
thirty years (that is to say, during the political life of
those who will be most likely to examine it), the ques-
tionable shape of a hybrid. A hybrid, as most of us
are aware, may be very safe and useful in action, but
it is singularly perilous and untractable as an object
of scientific inquiry, especially when that inquiry is
for the discovery of organic principles. He who
looks for horse or for ass in the horse-ass is pretty
certain to find it; and even the steadiest judgment
will conscientiously see more ass or more horse, ac-
cording to its natural bias or acquired prejudices.

That wondrous interfusion of differing traits to a new
resultant that is neither and both, which we see m
the produce of two individuals of the same species,
does not exist in the non-propagating hybrid. Its
life has no consistent paradigm, and in breeding
another creature of the same kind (I hoj)e the
illustration may not seem irreverently pastoral),
we must decide whether of the two co-operating
natures is the more apt to the work for which
the hybrid is designed. It may be that by ad-
justing the relative size and -vigour of the parents
the quality we seek can be strengthened in the
ofFsprmg. It may be that new conditions of the
work may render it desirable to omit an element
formerly useful, and to rear no longer the mule but
the horse.

Now, as we aU know, the Parliament of England
was, up to times quite recent, a means of assisting a
governing sovereign, or a governing oligarchy, with
what wisdom might be in the nation ; and the theory
of parhamentary representation, as understood by our
earlier jurists, was the rationale of a method for
eliminating that wisdom and conveniently presenting
it to the ruler. When, however, (as Ave all also
know, ) in process of time the sovereign really reigned
-without governing, that is to say when England,
gradually and unconsciously, became the only true
and safe republic that ever existed (because, among
many "bccauses," a republic wherein the highest
prize in social rank is im})ossiblc to the ambition of

any citizen), Parliament virtually assumed to be the
alter ego of the governing nation, and by parliamen-
tary representation the nation sought to create that
other self. The problem was no longer how to ex-
tract a certam element from a compound national
mass, but how to present, at one time and place, a
national epitome, synopsis, and quintessence — in
short, the old problem of macrocosm and microcosm.
But as this change in the problem, and in the
desideratum it was to yield, was never theoretically
stated, and as (faithful to that peculiarity in all our
English changes by which we avoid the break of con-
tinuity that is mortal to all, except the lowest, living
bodies) the modern Parliament and the ancient Par-
liament differed little in appearance and materials,
it was natural that many observers should ignore
what had essentially taken place. We had turned
the old wisdom-making machine into a kind of demo-
meter, but the two natures in the cross refused to
mix ; we had configured mthout metamorphosis, and
compounded without transubstantiation. Therefore,
while the popular politician honestly discerns in the
resulting institution only the modern version of de-
mocracy, the conservative eye as honestly perceives
only the last form of " Witena Gemot." According to
the Witena-gemotic system, the principles on which
Parliament should, if needful, be further modified,
would seem, at first glance, to be simple and self-evi-
dent. Whenever a non-electing class in the nation can
demonstrate its equality in whatever qualities are ex-


pressed by "Witena" with any class already possess-
ing the electoral franchise, that non-electing class has
proved its right to share the possession. But, as recent
arguments have indicated, further consideration will
show that this simple formula is not sufficient to the
case, because as, by the hypothesis, an equality with
the enfranchised class possessing the lowest amount
of qualification, entitles any other class to share pos-
session of the franchise, whatever accession of num-
bers happened to the electing body might happen at
the lowest qualifjdng degree. And to increase the
number of inferior choosers is, of course, where
majorities are to decide, to deteriorate the chances
of the choice. Therefore, when choosing a " council
of the wise," an equality in choosing power mth a
class already privileged to choose, ought not, /?<?r se^
to entitle a non-choosing class to share the privilege
of choice. But who will ever con\'ince the excluded
class of the justice of their exclusion? Or who can
wonder that the denial of claims which, to the claim-
ants, must appear so logically irresistible, arouse those
heartburnings which, when inflaming great masses of
physical force, end in rebellion and revolution? I
will not pause upon these and other difficulties, in
any theory of parliamentary representation that has
" ivisdom^^'' in the popular sense, for its final cause,
because (like others whose eye is not specially con-
servative) my ])ias sees in our modern Parliament
rather those vital principles by which it may sub-
serve present and future necessities than those by

which, however beautifully and beneficially, it con-
nects the present with the past.

I think that, by the "Reform Act," and by the
Parliamentary policy that has succeeded it, we prac-
tically gave up the advantages of being governed by
others mser than ourselves (as under our origmal
Parliaments) for certain other advantages supposed
to result from self-government. But the amount of
advantao-e from self-o-overnment — ^whether individual
or national — is (I think the deepest truths of human
nature are concerned in this) in proportion to the
selfness of it. Experience shows (and in this the
deepest thinking would forerun experience) that the
mistakes and ill-doings of genuine self-government
are, in the long-run, more advantageous to the'
governed, because more conducive to real progress,
than the sage anachronisms and out-of-place wisdom
of governors whose mental and moral rank is, for
other purposes, very far superior to their own. But
(and, again, some of the fundamental truths of human
nature are concerned) for the errors and wrongs of
self-government to be salutary they must be genuine :
for the sins we commit under partial compulsion
have little, if any, therapeutic effect upon us; and'
good deeds mechanically done are nearly useless to
moral development.

Therefore, by partial self-government we lose, at
once, the specific advantages of nationality and
bureaucracy — the educational effects of our own
right and wrong, and the temporary and superficial


benefits which might accrue from a perfunctory sub-
servience to others. It seems to me therefore that,
in endeavouring to represent the British people in
ParHament, you must, at the stage of national life to
which we are arrived, endeavour towards whatever
may, in the truest, completest, and most living man-
ner, realize self-government ; — whatever will, in such
time and place as is consistent with unity of action,
present that British nation which, in a manner
inconsistent with such unity, is spread abroad over
these islands. I say "present" it; for, when theo-
rizing on this subject, we must remember that, in
making Parliament, we are not creatmg an entirely
vicarious being, — an absolute other self, by whose
'substitution we escape all personal activity, and in
whose mere and sufficient proxy we alone have
responsible existence, but a representative agent
whereby we (who occupy such and such territories,
own armies, navies, and a flag, have, at home
and abroad, all kinds of material and immaterial
interests, and will that here, within our own borders,
and elsewhere, the right be done) are ad extra to
take not only our place, but our part, in the com-
munity of nations, and, ad i?itro, so to act and enact
as shall reach the allegiance, and, in some sort, the
co-operation of the humblest and remotest subject of
this empire.

Now, in representing an individual, whether man
or nation, so that it may virtually be and act, en
pcriiiannire^ in a ])lncc wliore it is not, how must you


represent it ? Neither at its best nor its worst ; but
at the best which it can healthily and continuously
maintain. Represent a man in that state wherein
he says his prayers, or makes love, or reads poetry,
or enjoys fine pictures, or performs an heroic action,
and your representation is, for practical purposes,
untrue; because no man can healthily maintain him-
self in that key through all the hours of every day.
Represent his lowest possibilities, and you are still
more perniciously false. Represent him even at a
vulgar mean, below what his qualities can healthily,
harmoniously, and continuously reach, and your
representation, if he is bound to realise it (and Par-
liamentary representation is, as we have seen, a
representation we are bound to realise), is untrue,
and morally deleterious. But represent him at the
highest moral, intellectual, spiritual, and physical
degree, which, with no more strain than is healthy
stimulus, he can consistently and effectively main-
tain, and your representation, being true to the
essential and persistent characteristics of the original,
will not only represent him fairly, honestly, and
efficiently to others, but, if he is to back it by
personal action, will place himself under exactly
those fortunate conditions of present exercise which
are also the happiest guarantees of beneficial develop-
ment. If these things be true of just representation
when the individual to be represented is a man, they
■will be found, I think, equally true when the original
to be reproduced is that large man a nation. I assume,


therefore, that a just national representation is such
as represents the nation at its efficient durable
BEST. Granted this kind of representation to be de-
sirable, by what machinery can it be accomplished?
Xot by such as should merely represent numbers;
for numbers, inspired by somethmg that is not due
to number, are capable of a higher national life than
they could themselves originate. These flesh and
bones of the state depend, and seem likely long to
depend, for their noblest national character, on the
vital life supplied by other functions. Yet numbers
must not be unrepresented. You cannot appraise
a man's total nature by his bodily Aveight and forces,
but in representing his sum of ability you omit "them
at your peril. Nor, for similar, but not identical,
reasons, is it sufficient to represent property. We
want not a democracy^ — in the modern sense — nor
a plutocracy, but a nation : and not only a nation,
but, as I have already suggested, a nation at its
efficient durable best. Extremes are comparatively
easy, and so is vulgar mediocrity; but the healthy
best has ahyays been the crucial difficulty of portrait-
painter, moralist, and psychologist. And if to create
this kind of other-he is difficult when the primary
self is an individual man, how much more difficult
when the i[)sissimus is a nation !

I think there are four obvious methods in which,
with more or less success, it might be attempted.
One, but the least desirable, would l)c to represent
classes instead of })laces. You might so represent


classes as to create an assembly of intensely typical
men, whose correlation of forces might result in such
a dynamical mean as should give the strength and
direction of thinking and feeling England. The
highest philosophy, the merest heroism, the widest
knowledge, might leaven the grosser representatives
of the (so to speak) popular flesh and blood, to a
total that should express the nation at its " effi-
cient durable best." But, apart from the fact of our
instinctive English dislike to class representations,
this mode would be guilty of a great human waste.
We do not want philosophers in the legislature.
Their function is to prepare governors and governed
for a better than the present best; and their legis-
lation would always, therefore, be that most pathetic
kind of failure, the impracticability of beautiful
anachronism. Discarding this method, I see three
others. You might endeavour so to modify the fran-
chise as to favour a practical union of all the aristo-
cracies — the aristocracy of blood, of talent, of land,
of wealth, of science, and of skill — e. g. the here-
ditary "nobility and gentry," the chief thmkers,
artists and learners, the exceptional traders, and the
skilled artisans — i. e. the born " upper classes" of
the country, (for the skill of a skilled artisan implies
a born aptitude,) against the dead weight of mere
numbers and stupid welfare. Or you might, by
slightly altering our present modes, make a Parlia-
ment of political physicians, able in popular diagnosis,
who should do as a legislature what journalism does


in another fashion — reproduce, to the best of their
power, that which tact, talent, and study teach them
to be " Public opinion." Or you might create a
self-adjusting electoral machine to do that work in a
less conscious and voluntary manner. Of the three
former of these methods I say nothing here, except
that I would rather not depend on them till the
fourth has proved impossible. And of the self-
adjusting self-registering machinery for that fourth?
Towards some mechanism of this laographical sort
I would, with much diffidence, offer the following
suggestions : —

The thing of which you would create such another
self as you can bring into the palace of West-
minster, is not a nomadic or stationary crowd, but
that unity a nation. Therefore, in representing its
constituent parts, you must represent them in their
constituent character. That is to say, in represent-
ing the proportionate value of each constituent, you
must estimate his part in the size, shape, and weight
of that unity, his formative share m the national
whole; — i.e. you must represent him not as the man
but as the citizen. This large One a nation, is, so to
speak, a great Chinese puzzle, made up of different
parts, each part differmg in size and shape; and in
estimating the political value of a man, you require to
know not what and hoAV much he is, per se^ but what
and how much of him goes to the puzzle. You are
going to make an enormous national civis, and you
must make it by aggregating not men but cives.


You must, therefore, give to each voter who coacts
with his fellow-citizens in choosing a representative,
such an amount of influence in that choice as shall
express his comparative value as a citizen. The
special characteristics of a citizen are, I think, those
which relate him to his compatriots (including in
that term his sovereign and his fellow- citizens) and
those which relate him to a certain quantity of the
earth and its goods — social relations and, to speak
familiarly, "vested interests." (1 say "to speak
familiarly," because, of course, a man may have an
" interest" in the existence of a " relation.") If it is
answered that, inasmuch as relations may exist with-
out corresponding virtues, and interests without ade-
quate rights, the representation of relations and in-
terests would not necessarily reach that standard of
" efficient durable best" which I have proposed as
the test of beneficial representation, I would reply
that, in the present state of our laws, and of their
administration, the maintenance, without legal punish-
ment, of interests and relations is, taken generally
and for practical purposes, sufficient proof and mea-
sure of the virtues that should actuate and the rio^hts
that should justify them, e. g. that out of a given
number of masters and heads of families there will be
a large majority in whom those relations indicate the
presence of an average amount of the appropriate
magisterial and paternal qualities. Therefore, if you
represent social relations and vested interests, you
are not only representing the outward configuration


of the citizen, his ci^dc size, shape, and weight, and
consequently his constructional value m the national
form, but you also represent (not "vvdth the delicacy
of a recording angel, but in as accurate a way as is
usually possible to great human estimates) the virtues
and the rights which are his quota m that total heart,
soul, and conscience, whereby alone the li\Tng body-
politic can attain or maintain its "efficient durable
best." Which of the social relations should repre-
sent themselves — which of a man's social conditions
as subject, husband, father, master, servant, artisan,
tradesman, ratepayer, landlord, tenant, dealer, capi-
talist, professor, graduate-in-arts, and the like, should
separately represent itself by an electoral vote, and
should therefore add to that sum of votes by which
I would express his comparative importance as a
citizen, is a matter of detail that does not affect prin-
ciples, and may be left, therefore, to another time
and place. But I would indicate an essential dis-
tinction between relations and interests, which seems
of vital moment, and which is the answer to such
objectors as might demur to the enfranchisement of
interests, on the plea that inasmuch as interests
always involve relations — " property has its duties
as well as its rights" — to enfranchise an interest,
in se, would be to give an undue preponderance to
property. Social relations should be counted in esti-
mating the citizen as a component part of the state,
because (among other reasons) each new relation
which a man protends — each new social office he fills


— binds him to his fellows by a new kind of social
obligation. But it is the kind and not the quantity
of the obligation that the relation expresses, and, in
the majority of cases, it is the kind rather than the
quantity that affects his value and character as a
citizen. A man Avith his third wife may be no
more husbandly than with his first ; and the father
of a dozen children and of one may be equally pater-
nal. But when we come to deal with interests, ex-
pressing rights, the case is different, because it is not
so much the kind, as, so to speak, the quantity of
right that expresses a man's shape and weight as a
citizen. " The widow's mite" is not to the point,
because in the parable it represented not a right but
a virtue. If one objects that when legislation takes
the widow's mite (which is her "all") it interferes
with a larger quantum of right than when it takes
the mite of the millionaire, I would answer that, in
both cases, it interferes with the right to a mite and
no more. If the widow had ten mites, she would
have the same right to each of them as to her " one,"
and she holds her " one" by a right neither larger
nor less than that by which she holds each of those
decimals. That her one mite when she gives it up
to the state may represent as much patriotism as the
million pounds of the millionaire is quite true ; but
in this it is the measure of a virtue and not of a
riHit; — and a measure so difficult of use and srauo-e
as to be unavailable for the rough purposes of
human government. Again, her right to a mite



may, when the mite is " her all," involve other
rights, as e. g. the right to life. But this involution
is not in virtue of her mterest in a mite but her
interest in her " all," which is in an entirely other
category, and would be dealt with on other legislative
principles than those of ordinary fiscal legislation.
The allness of the mite represents its size and shape
in the economy of the owner, the miteness of it repre-
sents, so far as it can be represented by property, the
owner's bodily size and shape in the economy of the
nation. I say "bodily" size and shape, for every
man not a felon or (in the absolute sense) a pauper,
has, viewed as a subject for legislation, a dual ex-
istence — he exists per se^ and by the proxy of his
goods. Legislation cannot move without impinging
on goods ; but as it never affects them as possessions
of tenants in common, or as a copartnery of equal
shares, the size of that second existence is a quantity
differing in every citizen. AVhile that impersonal-
lookmg statute that impartially levies so much in the
hypothetical pound practically means that, though I
and my neighbour look so much alike, I am to pay a
trifle and he is to bleed thousands a year, it is as
evident that my neighbour's real personality is, as
regards this law, greater than mine, as if he had

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