Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

popular control. This is due to more than a predatory instinct; it is natural, and excusable enough, that
people should be reluctant to maintain what is no affair of theirs; but even staunch Conservatives have

been known to pay Radical taxes with comparative cheerfulness when their party has returned to power.

Government was gradually made the affair of the people by the series of Reform Acts extending from
1832 to 1885; and it is no mere accident that this half-century also witnessed the political emancipation

of the British colonies. Nor must we forget the Acts beginning with the repeal of the Test and

Corporation Acts (1828) and Roman Catholic Emancipation (1829), which extended political rights to

men of all religious persuasions. These and the Franchise Acts made the House of Commons infinitely

more representative than it had been before, and gave it its conclusive superiority over the House of

Lords. Not that the Peers represent no one but themselves; had that been true, the House of Lords would

have disappeared long ago. In reality it came to embody a fairly complete representation of the

Conservative party; and as a party does not need two legislative organs, the House of Lords retired

whenever the Conservatives controlled the House of Commons, and only resumed its proper functions

when the Liberals had a majority. Hence its most indefensible characteristic as a Second Chamber

became its strongest practical bulwark; for it enlisted the support of many who had no particular views

about Second Chambers in the abstract, but were keenly interested in the predominance of their party.

The restraint thus imposed by the House of Lords upon popular government checked the development of
its power and the extension of its activity, which would naturally have followed upon the acquisition by

the people of control over the House of Commons and indirectly over the Cabinet. Other causes

co-operated to induce delay. The most powerful was lack of popular education; constitutional privileges

are of no value to people who do not understand how they may be used, or are so unimaginative and

ill-disciplined as to prefer such immediate and tangible rewards as a half-crown for their vote, a donation

to their football club or local charity, or a gracious word from an interested lady, to their distant and

infinitesimal share in the direction of national government. This participation is, in fact, so minute to the

individual voter and so intangible in its operation, that a high degree of education is required to

appreciate its value; and the Education Acts of 1870 and 1889 were indispensable preliminaries to

anything like a real democracy. A democracy really educated in politics will express views strange to our

ears with an emphasis of which even yet we have little conception.

Other obstacles to the overthrow of the rule of laissez faire were the vested interests of
over-mighty manufacturers and landlords in the maintenance of that anarchy which is the logical extreme

of Liberty and Property; and such elementary measures of humanity as the Factory Acts were long

resisted by men so humane as Cobden and John Bright as arbitrary interventions with the natural liberty

of man to drive bargains with his fellows in search of a living wage. There seemed to be no idea that

economic warfare might be quite as degrading as that primitive condition of natural war, in which

Hobbes said that the life of man was "nasty, short, brutish and mean," and that it might as urgently

require a similar sovereign remedy. The repugnance to such a remedy was reinforced by crude analogies

between a perverted Darwinism and politics. Darwin's demonstration of evolution by means of the

struggle for existence in the natural world was used to support the assumption that a similar struggle

among civilized men was natural and therefore inevitable; and that all attempts to interfere with the

conflict between the weak and the strong, the scrupulous and the unscrupulous, were foredoomed to

disastrous failure. It was forgotten that civilization itself involves a more or less conscious repeal of

"Nature," and that the progress of man depends upon the conquest of himself and of his surroundings. In

a better sense of the word, the evolution of man's self-control and conscience is just as "natural" as the

gratification of his animal instincts.

 

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