Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

oppression.' But so far the leading Whigs were on his side, and the Wilkes agitation was only Radical in character because the question fundamentally at issue was that of the control of Parliament by pressure from without.* To Chatham, to Pitt, to Burke, and to almost all the Whigs, the doctrines of personal right to the franchise, and of the delegation by electors to representatives of functions, which withdrew from them the sense of all responsibility to their own consciences and judgements, were abhorrent.

It has often been said that it was the Wilkes agitation which gave rise to public meetings as part of the recognised system of bringing public opinion to bear upon the government of the country. It certainly brought them into vogue, and in other ways it did much to advance the democratic

But as to Wilkes himself-this first of Radicalswas he in truth a Radical at all? In many respects, at all events, he did not go beyond the moderate reformer. He 'opposed universal suffrage, which was the irreducible minimum demanded by the Radicals of a thoroughgoing type ; he accepted Pitt's proposals for reform, and he was

certainly not a republican in theory. But in so far as * Radicalism means the popular control of Parliament he was a Radical indeed, for his whole public life was directed to amplify and strengthen that control.' † With Horne Tooke, Wilkes founded the · Bill of Rights Society ' in 1769, a body which contemplated the double object of rendering pecuniary assistance to Wilkes himself, and of obtaining parliamentary reform, based apparently on manhood suffrage, and it drew up a list of pledges which parliamentary candidates should be required to take. This society, however, did not last long, for a violent quarrel arose between Wilkes and Tooke, and a new society had to be formed, from which the Wilkites were excluded. It seems to have been then considered that to ask a candidate for a pledge was to render him a very bond slave to his constituents, and great was the indignation of statesmen at the attempt by this means to turn a "representative' into a delegate.' The Bill of Rights Society was thus faithful to those two essential principles of Radicalism, which according to Mr. Kent have never varied -viz. the abstract right of man to vote, and the right of the people to control Parliament by pressure from without.

It cannot be said that doctrines as to abstract rights have

* The English Radicals, p. 45.

of P. 50,

was

ever been much relied on by English politicians, and it would not be easy to show that the theories of Cartwright, Price, and Priestley greatly influenced the exertions of practical reformers engaged in the battle of political life. That the suffrage should be universal, that parliaments should be chosen for the year, or for the session, and that members should be delegates, were doctrines that commended themselves to theorists. In Major Cartwright's eyes, a member of parliament was a proxy' or 'attorney' of his constituency, 'to transact its business and receive its wages;' and he indignantly asked whether 'an instrument' could pretend to originality or independence of action.'

Burke, on the other hand, with most statesmen of the day Whig or Tory, indignantly repudiated the notion that a member should receive instructions from his constituents or in any way pledge himself for his future action. In the debates on the Reform Bill of 1832, it was repeatedly urged that submission to pledges to constituents “а • degradation,' while it was known to every one that a very large proportion of the so-called representatives of the people were in no sense independent, but were the mere mouthpieces of the patrons who in fact returned them. It cannot be truly affirmed that Radicals of mark, engaged in active politics, have generally accepted the theory of delegation laid down by some of their writers, viz. that the sincere opinions or honest judgement of the representative should count for nothing against the representations of his constituents; and Joseph Hume, strong Radical as he was, declared that, liowever great might be his respect for those who sent him to Parliament, he was not bound to vote as they desired ' unless his own convictions went with them.'

It was of course in pursuance of their object of controlling Parliament from the outside that Radicals used to make so great a point as to shortening the duration of parliaments. Nobody nowadays falls foul of the Septennial Act, long the object of fierce Radical denunciation. Mr. Asquith a few years ago, whilst in opposition, did, it is true, introduce a Bill to provide for triennial parliaments; but the proposal was never taken seriously, and when, shortly afterwards, its author, holding high office and having a majority of his own party in the House of Commons at his back, seemed to be in a favourable position to carry out his reform, nothing more was heard of the Triennial Bil. Yet if the Radicals failed

** P. 270.

a

in carrying the measures they thought essential in order to gain their great end of the popular control of Parliament, that end itself has been completely won. Their final cause, • their raison d'étre, has gone; they have reached the pro

mised land of fulfilment and fruition,' says Mr. Kent; and he goes on to point out that even this doctrine of popular control was never in the exclusive possession of the Radicals.

• The difference between Whigs and Radicals was rather one of means than of ends, but it was difference that cut deep The former sought for the means of control in the " delegate” theory of parliamentary representation, a theory which they tried to carry out in practice by the plan of taking pledges from parliamentary candidates. The question of the relationship of members to their constituents is at the present time perplexed and undetermined; for, though the control of Parliament by the people is an indisputable fact, yet it is maintained by means of quite another kind from those which the early Radicals proposed. The result is somewhat paradoxical, for while the system of pledges has been contemptuously rejected, yet the theory that the member is a delegate tacitly prevails in English politics.'

We should not ourselves have put the results arrived at quite in these words. A member of Parliament is undoubtedly to some extent a mere delegate to carry out the wishes of his constituents, who have returned him to Westminster because he has professed his adherence to the views held by the majority of the electors. But the opinions a candidate expresses are accepted by the electors, and, in the vast majority of cases, in fact, are the opinions he honestly holds; and were he to present himself to any constituency and indicate to them that his own opinions were of no importance, and that he would be willing on every occasion to act upon the instructions sent to him by the electors, he would have no chance of election. In what sense, moreover, can it be said that the system of pledges has in practice been rejected? A candidate necessarily deals with the chief topics of political interest in his addresses to the electors, and the expression of his opinion upon each is naturally and rightly considered ' a pledge' from which he could not without very good cause depart; but it is certainly not the practice of electors to pledge candidates to particular details of measures, whilst if the theory of representation is to be carried out at all, it seems necessary that candidates should be frank in explaining their general attitude towards the principal questions of the day, and thus virtually pledge themselves upon most of the matters in which the consti

[ocr errors]

tuency takes an interest. We should doubt whether Burke's view is not still held by the great majority of self-respecting members of Parliament: viz. that on great and important questions the member owes to his constituents not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of

serving them if he sacrifices it to their opinions.'* There has been a good deal of idle discussion of the question of * delegate' versus representative.' To some extent the member must partake the character of both. It is because he shares with the clectors their general views of politics that he is elected. Probably the more educated a constituency the more it will wish to know the candidate's opinions on a wide range of topics; but, in fact, there must always be left a considerable margin for the exercise of independent judgement and discretion.

In Mr. Kent's second period, viz. 1789-1831, he finds that a different kind of Radicalism prevailed. The French Revolution changed the course of English history, and, by the fears to which it gave rise, the steady progress of reform was kept back for a generation. In imitation of French demagogues, too many English Radicals were now rivalling each other in the extravagance of their political theories, and in their hostility to all settled authority, human or divine. The hatred of Jacobinism possessed the great mass of the British public, and it was natural and easy for the enemies of Reform to associate English Radicalism with Jacobinism. With the first efforts of the French reformers the English Whigs were in hearty sympathy. It was not only Horne Tooke and his friends who rejoiced at the fall of the Bastille. If the former treasured in his study a fragment of stone from that famous prison, we find a good Whig like Sir John Stanley, in the enthusiam of 1789, himself borrowing a pickaxe from a workman and digging out a few old stones from the foundations as relics of the great victory that had been won over ancient tyranny.t

England was at first full of hope for France, and saw in the National Assembly the rise of a new and happier era for that country and the world. The work of Radicals like Price and Priestley was almost over, but their sanguine spirit remained with them to the end, and greatly did they rejoice

* This subject is well discussed in Mr. Lecky's recently published Map of Life,' London, 1899.

+ The Early Married Life of Maria Josepha Lady Strnley, London, 1899.

that they had lived to see the rise of liberty in the long downtrodden kingdom of France. Perpetual alliance between France and England would take the place of the old jars, now that the passions of kings and ministers would no longer be allowed to involve nations in war.

From Price and Priestley and Cartwright we advance to the Radical republicanism of Tom Paine, who would sweep away king and House of Lords as useless incumbrances, and who denounced, above all things, the views and the methods of moderate and constitutional reformers. The Rights of • Man' and the Age of Reason' threw into the ranks of the opponents of all reform multitudes of moderate men who were scandalised by the anarchical and irreligious doctrines to which their author endeavoured to lead the people. Godwin's direct influence with the lower classes was far less, for he appealed to a far narrower circle ; but however little his philosophical dissertations may have been read by the multitude, their tendency was universally recognised, and they helped to identify, in popular eyes, attacks upon the constitution with hostility to all religion. The earlier Radical writers, Cartwright and Jebb, Price and Priestley, were religious men, all of whom professed some form of Christianity, and a great change had come over Radical leadership when French revolutionary principles were upheld as worthy of British imitation. As Mr. Kent very truly says:-

"The advocacy of Radicalism passed at this time out of the hands of the Dissenters-who, whatever else they did, never forgot that men in their terrestrial journeys require celestial charts-into the hands of the necessitarians and of the materialists. In consequence the Radicals never made the progress which they might otherwise have done; they never obtained a firm hold of the allegiance of the people as a whole, even when in times of distress and discontent the crisis favoured the reception of Radical ideas. As Coleridge said, "it was God's mercy to our age that our Jacobins were infidels, and scandal to all sober Christians. Had they been like the old Puritans they would have trodden Church and King to dust--at least for a time.” As it was, they alienated more persons by their crude atheism than they did by their political principles.'

Thus Radicalism fell on its worst days in the years that followed the excesses of the French Revolution. Arbitrary almost despotic-rule, due to the fears of the Government of the day, was warmly supported by Parliament, and it not infrequently happened that mob violence was on the same

* The English Radicals, p. 131.

« VorigeDoorgaan »