« PreviousContinue »
real amount of the majority. It comprehended almost the whole popular representation of the counties. Of eighty-two English counties, it comprised seventy-six ; and it left the minority wholly composed of the members for close boroughs, nominees of peers, and purchasers of seats from corporations. Thus the whole House of Commons, as far as it is a real representation of the people, are devoted friends of the Bill. The country, with a rare unanimity, are its friends; and adversaries it has none, except those who are interested in resisting it, and those who, from ignorance of the true dangers of the country, are alarmed at the remedy, and shut their eyes to the mischief; or those who, from a desire to change the Ministry, would throw out a measure in which they suppose its existence is bound up. But it is not only that the vast majority, both in the country and in the House of Commons, is for the Bill. The anxiety, the fervour the unprecedented ardour with which the people regard a measure in which their whole hearts are embarked, renders the rejection, or even delay of its passing, a matter of the most serious consideration.
The enemies of the Bill, however, have been flattering themselves that all this expression of public opinion proceeded only from a sudden and transient impulse. The people, it has been said, have been intoxicated by the agitation; they are now calmer and more sober; the storm of reform has passed over our heads, and no one will much grieve if the Bill be flung out in the Lords. Other things occupy the people; and the Great Measure, which a few months ago engrossed every man's thoughts all the day, is already forgotten.
Never since the world began, we will venture to assert, was there a more gross deception, or a more grievous delusion: it is in some persons a fraud-in others, a lamentable and inexcusable blunder. The people had not taken up reform hastily, and they will not lightly abandon it. For above forty years-near fifty, indeed-it has been slowly, but with an accelerated pace, gaining ground, till it has spread over the empire, and become the great wish of every one who thinks of state affairs. change in such a feeling was wholly impossible. The fact, indeed, of less being said, fewer meetings being held, fewer petitions presented, while the Bill was slowly making its way through the Commons, is undeniable; but then it proves absolutely nothing. The people were quiet, because they plainly saw that their favourite measure was safe-only because of this. They were a little impatient of the delays caused by so vexatious an opposition as it experienced; but the commanding majority in its favour silenced all fears, and the only question
was one of time. Had any thing like the vestige of a doubt appeared as to its passing, we venture to say all England and Scotland would have been thrown into immediate alarm and activity. So, now, the impression continues, that the passing the bill into a law, is a question only of time; but no thinking man can, without a great effort of distrust, bring himself to believe that the Lords will set themselves against all their fellow-citizens. Latterly it has been doubted whether or not this confidence in the wisdom and patriotism of the Upper House is altogether well founded. The interested feelings of some, the factious disposition of others, the honest alarms of a third class, though utterly groundless, and rather directed to the wrong point, had begun to operate, it was supposed, among the Peers, and the obstruction of the Bill to be expected.
Instantly the people awoke as from a trance, and we have no doubt that before these pages can see the light, they will have given a loud and universal answer to the silly persons who were pleased to think the reform feeling gone for ever. If any feeling less wide-spread and less vehement be found than that which ruled the general election, the difference can only be in the reluctance of men to believe the possibility of so fatal an error as the rejection of the Bill by the Peers. Should, unhappily, that consummation be in store for us, no man can foresee when the mischiefs will end, and no man can contemplate them without dismay.
What will the Lords do? This is the question asked by all the people. Suppose their Lordships shall be aware that all the country is as anxious and determined for the measure as before, and that it is sent up by a great majority from the Commons, even as now constituted, but by an almost unanimous vote, if we regard those members who speak the sense of any part of the people at large, will they venture upon so perilous an experiment as to reject it?
We desire it to be understood in the outset, that we withdraw ourselves altogether from those reasoners, and those topics of argument, and of invective, which have represented the Upper House of Parliament as not entitled to exercise any free judgment upon this question. By the constitution of England, the Peers must concur in this, as in all other Bills, before it becomes a law. By the plain rules of common sense, the Peers must be allowed to exercise their free and unfettered judgment in accepting or rejecting any proposed change of the law. If not, the proceeding that affects to consult them is an insult, and their existence a mockery. But we, assuming them to have the power of free discussion, of accepting and rejecting the
Bill, appeal to their reason, and, in the existing state of things, we expect that reason to pronounce in favour of the Bill.
We take the principle to be this: If the Lords see the people to be in a state of temporary delusion, plainly acting against their own better judgments and true interests, they are bound to resist the perverting impulse, even though the representatives of the people in Parliament shall have partaken of the frenzy, and sanctioned the measure to which it has given birth. But then even here one qualification must be added. The delirium must be gross; the people must be plainly in the wrong; and the interposition of the Lords must be to save them from the violence of their own hands, as you would a patient in the paroxysm of a fever affecting his brain. For, after all, the Lords' House, as a branch of the government, exists, and is intrusted with a portion of the supreme legislative power, only with one view-the benefit of the people; and it is quite manifest, that if the people, all in one voice, and with sufficient deliberation, desire any change of government, they have a right to choose the course, though at their own cost and risk. Indeed, nothing which the whole community desires, with its eyes open, can be correctly said to be against its interests.
Suppose it were possible for the Lords to set up their own separate opinions and wishes against those of all the community, then, as the Lords are irremovable, we should have a complete and pure aristocracy, or rather an oligarchy, for the much boasted government of this much boasting country. We say an oligarchy, for a handful of peers, a few borough patrons, ex-ministers, and bishops, may be all that stand between the people and the object of their universal and ardent desires. Suppose all the country, and all the Commons, and the Executive Government and its Ministers, all anxious to terminate some long and costly war, but the Lords by a narrow majority are bent upon continuing it,-must the Crown refrain from making peace, because whoever ventures to advise it is sure to be censured by an address from the hereditary counsellors of the Crown? But why should we go out of the case before us? The supposition is extravagant, which would enable the Lords to set themselves against all the rest of the community, and prevent an amendment of the law, which all, save only themselves, demand.
It must never be forgotten that the Lords stand in a peculiar position. If they differ with the Commons, an appeal to the people is resorted to, as in 1784. But suppose a new House of Commons is returned as much in conflict with the Lords as before-shall the whole government of the country be thereby paralyzed, and the constitution become an instrument, not of
good, but of evil? Yet the Peers cannot be dissolved-what then shall be done if they do not yield to their country's voice?
The increase of the numbers of the Peers, is no doubt the remedy which the constitution has provided for this state of things. Immovable and hereditary in their exalted station, if they forget its duties in the exercise of its powers, they may be controlled by the augmentation which the Crown has the unquestioned right to make of their numbers. This part of the prerogative has been exercised, and successfully, and without any recorded disapproval. Attempts have been made to restrain its use, and these have always failed. Nay, when the extraordinary crisis of the Regency produced all kinds of anomalies in the constitution, and exhibited the spectacle of an Act of Parliament passed without the royal assent, and then the Regent created by that phantom of a law giving his assent to another by which it was validated, the power of creating Peers was only restricted for twelve months. But Mr Pitt, whose precedent was then followed, expressly declared, that no such limitation could be thought of at a time when there was the least risk of a factious combination of the Peers to control the other estates of the realm, supported by the voice of the community;—an ample admission that the prerogative is vested in the Crown for the very purpose to which we are at present alluding. In truth, this check is absolutely necessary to prevent the government from degenerating into a pure aristocracy. A peerage irremovable and hereditary, having co-ordinate jurisdiction with the other estates, must needs become master of the state if not so controlled.
But though the right is undeniable, and though, in an extreme case, it must be exercised, and exercised without the least hesitation, and quite as a thing of course, there is as little doubt that an extreme case alone can justify the resort to so severe a remedy; and, as we heartily wish that no such necessity may ever arise, so do we most chiefly desire that it may not come in connexion with the measure which is to amend and perpetuate our popular constitution. For nothing is more plain than that the application of so violent a medicine, must leave behind it serious evils in the system. The Peers will be weakened in their authority incalculably, and at a time when the Commons are exceedingly strengthened; so that the just balance of the government will be shaken, if not destroyed. The country has a deep interest in avoiding this extremity, and of all the country the Peers have the deepest.
The question then is, will they disregard this consideration, and drive the other orders of the state to this as a necessary
expedient to avoid worse mischiefs? This is really the question; and we desire to know--not from a few silly individuals whom nature has endued with the faculty of speech, and whom the ignorance of their own palpable defects sets always upon making a display of their incapacity to think-but of the reflecting portion of the community, above all of the Peers, what means they can devise for avoiding such a fate, other than yielding to the united prayers of all their countrymen, and passing the Bill? This, we are well assured, is the only answer we can expect from those who reason and look before them; unless they labour under some delusion, and either suppose the love of the Measure less universal and less ardent than it is, or fancy that the authority of the Upper House, backed by the strong hand of power, can keep down the whole people of three kingdoms. But we will even appeal to another far less reputable class, and we believe, at the present moment, an inconsiderable one-those party men who, for the purpose of effecting a change of Ministry, would throw out the Bill.` We allude to those who have lost their places, and failed to get their pensions, and, naturally enough, want such a change as shall restore the one and bestow the other. To them let a few words of admonition be offered; for even they would hardly desire to see all the mischiefs befall our country which all thinking men foresee in the rejection, if their own interest could not be in any way served by the convulsion. Now, we are quite certain, that they would be injured, nay, irretrievably ruined, by it. At present they stand in a very fair position. Their talents, past services, and experience in office, (an endowment much wanted by some of their successors,) place them in a position to render their future employment fit and desirable. All they have done of violent and factious against the Bill, will, after a little interval, especially when the people have carried their favourite measure, be forgotten: it was not to be expected that such a change in the constitution should be effected without vehement resistance in some quarters. A reformed Parliament would be far less under the domination of party spirit, far less a prey to the regular divisions of marshalled factions than the old legislature; composed, in great part, of men who only represented their patrons' interests, and their own
The return, therefore, of the class we speak of-that is, the better part of them-to a share of power, may be reckoned by no means improbable. It will be one of the benefits of a change which tends directly to put down oligarchical, and exclusive, and personal influences, and to give the state the benefit of all the