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ought to provide against evils which, though not really upon us, may fairly be apprehended.
Before the passing of the Reform Act of 1832 a general election was a very different affair to what it now is. The cost of elections under the Triennial Act was made a pretext for having fewer of them; but what was the result of extending the duration of Parliaments to seven years? This extension of the lease of power only made a seat in Parliament the more desirable, and intensified the bribery, corruption, and wild excess which had already been too marked a feature of all Parliamentary elections; and in support of this, I may quote some instances during the last half of the eighteenth century. At the general election of 1754 very gross bribery prevailed so much so that, out of forty-two elections, only one electoral contest took place. And in 1761, bribery was more lavish than ever, and the elections characterised by unusual excesses. In 1768 Earl Spencer spent 70,000l. to return his candidate for Northampton ; and the Duke of Portland is said to have spent 40,000l. in contesting Westmoreland and Cumberland. In 1794, even before the election, Gatton already fetched 70,000l.; in 1830, Lord Monson is said to have given 180,000l. for this same borough of Gatton, which returned two members; and, in 1831, Lord John Russell declared that, within the memory of some men still living, an election in the city of York had been known to cost nearly 150,000l. From all this it is impossible for any one to assert that the Septennial Act in the least met the evils of great expenditure and corruption.
In truth, the people who had votes were only bought and sold for a longer period than before by the patrician families of England. Writing of England as recently even as in 1821, Sydney Smith said truly: The country belongs to the Dukes of Rutland and of Newcastle, and to Lord Londsdale and about twenty other holders of boroughs. They are our masters.' And about this time in Scotland. the state of affairs was just as unsatisfactory. Edinburgh and Glasgow had each a constituency of thirty-three persons, who were pretty much self-elected; and the whole constituency of Scotland was under 4,000 voters! The county of Argyle, with a population of 100,000 inhabitants, had but 115 electors. The potentates elected whoever they liked. Then in the county of Bute there were but 21 electors, only one of whom was resident. He took the chair at elections, and settled everything his own way. The Scotch magnates nominated nearly all the Scotch members, and sold themselves, with their protégés, to the Ministry of the day. In Ireland two-thirds of the hundred members were nominated by some sixty influential patrons !
With such a state of things how often Parliaments were elected was of no kind of importance to the people in general; nor, indeed, were the elections desirable in the interests of anybody, for during
a poll of fifteen days there was an entire suspension of business through the tumults and riots which prevailed.
These evils were greatly diminished by the Reform Act of 1832, limiting the duration of the poll, and have almost entirely disappeared by the operation of the Ballot Act of 1872, for elections are now conducted in the main in a most quiet and orderly manner, and are short and sharp, as in 1868 and 1874.
Before the Reform Act of 1832, great fortunes were spent in elections; such elections as that of Yorkshire in 1807, or that of Northumberland in 1827, are no longer heard of. Formerly in England, during a fifteen days' poll in a great town, money was flowing in all directions, streets running with beer.' Now, although no doubt the amount of money spent upon an election is often very large, and is a great evil, yet it is nothing in comparison with what it was before the Reform Act of 1832 and with the Ballot. I am of opinion that shortening the legal duration of Parliaments to five years instead of seven will rather tend to reduce the cost to members. No one will deny that a seat in Parliament is greatly coveted in this country, and that a seat in Parliament for one year is of less value than for three or five-that, in a word, the very fact of it being a seat for six or seven years makes it not only worth the while of rich men to spend a great deal of money to secure it, but the time itself being so long it is a question of now or never with many middle-aged men, who will spend any money to secure a seat. There would, in my opinion, be fewer contested elections to settle, and public affairs would be less obstructed by the anxiety of the members to secure their future seats. Short reckonings make long friends. No doubt the great cost of elections is an evil, but in the opinion of many the official expenses would be considerably reduced if they were borne by the electors instead of by the candidates. If borne by the electors, many persons would be interested in reducing expenses when possible, whereas at present no one is specially interested in the matter.
Before looking at the practical aspects of the question, it is worthy of notice that no other country in the world gives to its representatives so long a lease of power as we do in England. The longest period in any country with a constitution that I know of is five years, which is the duration of the Chamber of Deputies in France, of the Camera de' Deputati of Italy, and of the Cortes of Spain. Then Portugal, Belgium, Brazil, Greece, and the Netherlands have adopted four years; whilst Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland have preferred three years. The United States, adhering from the first to the second article of their Constitutionviz. 'The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several States'elect a fresh Congress every two years. Then, what is the position.
of our own colonies? To all of them we have given constitutions, but to none of them did we ever dream of giving Parliaments of seven years' duration. In those colonies whose representative institutions were settled earliest the term of three years was generally fixed; but to those whose constitutions have more recently been determined the term of five years has been given, as in the case of Queensland, New Zealand, the Cape of Good Hope, and Canada. It may fairly be asked, if Triennial Parliaments were successful for twenty years, during the reigns of William and of Anne, why should we not now resort to that period rather than to five years?
That question can best be decided by looking at, and carefully weighing, the advantage of the one over the other; and, first of all, I think there is great force in that principle which we have seen Mr. Macaulay expounded when dealing with this subject, namely, • That whatever may be the legal term, it ought to be a year longer than that for which Parliament ought ordinarily to sit,' in order that the Government may, if the country is quiet, have a general election a year before the legal termination of the existing Parliament, lest in that final year the writs for a general election should have to go out when the country was in a disturbed or excited state. This custom of dissolving a year earlier than the legal term Hallam also advocated. He says: Custom appears to have established, and with some convenience, the substitute of six for seven years, as the natural life of a House of Commons, but an irregularity in this respect might lead in time to consequences that most men would deprecate.' If we accept this principle, and which appears to me to be a very wise and sound one, then, with a triennial period as the legal term, elections would take place every second year. A general election taking place so frequently would manifestly be most disturbing to the trade and commerce of the country. And the new House of Commons would be little fitted to carry on the business of the nation; such perpetual changes bringing always so many fresh and inexperienced men to the House, it would be next to impossible to conduct the varied and widespread affairs of the Empire, and the certain result would be to throw more and more power into the hands of permanent officials. So avoiding Scylla we should run into Charybdis; seeking safety from the risks of personal government, we should inevitably end in a bureaucratic government of a somewhat pronounced kind. With Parliaments so short many members would all through be new to the work; and, moreover, they would be new to each other, a point of weakness which it is hardly possible to overrate. One of the first results of Parliaments so short would inevitably be that many of the very best men would not offer themselves at all: Parliamentary work is now very onerous; with a general election and
5 Hallam's Constitutional History, vol. iii. p. 238.
all its attendant work, worry, and expense every second year, it would simply be unendurable. The change would be of an extreme kind, probably making elections more frequent even than in the days of William and of Anne. On the other hand, a quinquennial period would virtually be a Parliament of four years-certainly not a revolutionary change, seeing that the average of the first five Parliaments of the present reign was just four years and two months each in duration, yet the period would be long enough to impart a certain stability to the House, and the experience to members which is absolutely necessary in an assembly composed of so many, and dealing with questions so numerous and sometimes so complex; whilst at the same time four sessions would be short enough to maintain freshness in our political life, and to retain in the representative body that image of the represented which Lord Russell has declared to be the first principle of our representative system.'
Not only are there great changes taking place in the condition of the country every four or five years; but, with our widened franchise, there are multitudes of British subjects who in that time must become qualified to vote by attaining their majority. Who will say that the present Parliament is now the image of the represented? I believe that now it is not at all the image of the represented; but if it be, the existing Government would through a general election be reinstated. As the law stands Ministers may in any case remain in office two years more, declaring that their majority still is the very image of the represented.
No doubt in 1874 the position was the same as regards the image of the represented being effaced, for Mr. Gladstone might, in place of dissolving, have continued in office for nearly two years longer. But he appealed to the country-and found certainly that the image was changed! If, then, the first principle of our representative system is that the House of Commons should be the image of the represented, it is pretty clear that four or five years is about as long as the image will generally stand. Indeed, it would look as if by the friction of four or five years the image, and all the attendant superscriptions with which it may have been issued from the mint of public opinion, were pretty thoroughly rubbed off, and at least quinquennially required recoining in the heat of a general election.
It is true there is a certain show of control over the Executive besides general elections, for Sir Erskine May says that Parliament may tender its advice to the Crown regarding its own dissolution, so the people in their turn have claimed the right of praying the Crown to exercise its prerogative in order to give the means of condemning the conduct of Parliament.' But this is an old and unwieldly weapon, scarcely likely to be easily used in our day.
• Constitutional History, vol. i. p. 460.
Let us now look at some other practical aspects of the question, and how the change I propose would affect different classes of the State. As regards the Crown, as regards the executive Government, and Parliament, and as regards the people, I venture to affirm that the change would be beneficial. First, then, as regards the
No one can doubt that ever since the Revolution the strength of the Throne has depended upon the manner in which the occupants of it have jealously and carefully guarded the rights and interests of the people; with the Revolution the rights and interests of the Crown and the people became one.
When in 1734 George the Second dissolved Parliament, he used language which upon this point is very valuable. He said: That the interests of Sovereign and subject were mutual and inseparable, and that any infringement of the rights of either would be a diminution of the strength of both, which, kept within their due limits, constitute that just balance which is necessary for the honour and dignity of the Crown and for the protection and prosperity of the people.' Shortening the duration of Parliaments, yet leaving the power of dissolving Parliament at any earlier time in the hands of the Sovereign, would be not to weaken but rather to strengthen the Throne; it would cause the Crown to continue to look to the people and their interests rather than to rely upon any Ministry.
Then as regards the Government, the tendency would at least be in a wholesome direction, for they would look rather more to the good opinion of the people than to their power of influencing their supporters in Parliament; and Ministers have enormous powers whereby they may influence their followers to vote for any measure they may propose rather than to consider the opinion which the people may at a remote day pronounce upon the measure. And this always has been and always will be the easiest way of governing so long as the Septennial Act continues in force.
The effect of long Parliaments upon members, Mr. Bright said, was that their sense of responsibility was much greater at the end than at the beginning. So it is with administrations, for frequently they have been known to pursue a very different course in the earlier years of a Parliament from that which they have been compelled to adopt as the conclusion drew near. As an illustration of this: in 1852 Lord John Russell brought in his Reform Bill. For the first four Sessions of that Parliament Joseph Hume brought forward a Reform Bill. The Government and Lord John Russell not only resisted Hume's motion, but would hear of no compromise. But the near approach of a dissolution accomplished that which all the determination and energy of the member for Montrose could not. No better illustration
* Knight's History of England, vol. iv.