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The Redress of Wrongs. II page 2


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The bill was passed, and reform was withdrawn for a time from the list of great questions. A few years later the system of secret voting was adopted, and the poor voter was effectively protected by the ballot-box against the petty tyrant who sought to rob him of his political rights.

Though the vast revolution which had been in progress for half a century was not yet fully accomplished, the transfer of power was complete. Sixty years ago a few great families guided the destinies of the nation. The people had no shadow of control over the actings of their government, and little knowledge regarding them. Their attitude was that of spectators. They had ceased to petition; they had not yet learned to express their wants by the voice of public meeting. Wars which were to be fed by their earnings and their lives were entered upon without any one caring to know their opinion. Laws whose injustice was flagrant and shameless were submitted to as unresistingly as the judgments of Heaven. The masses of the British people plodded on their dull life-journey, leaving all its conditions to be adjusted for them by a few men who, by good fortune or by dexterity, had contrived to gain the direction of the national resources.

[The Reform Act of 1867 changed all that. The measure of 1832 had been a middle-class Reform Act. Its successor was essentially a working-class Reform Act. It placed the controlling power in the hands of the people. The platform and the press became powerful in as far as they guided and expressed the opinions of the newly-enfranchised democracy. Members of the House of Commons were powerful because they spoke with the authority derived from the thousands at their backs. The voice which could speak decisively at the polling-booth was a voice whose authority no man dared question. It became the care of the politician to discover the wishes of the people, and he was the most successful who was the earliest to detect and cherish the yet hidden tendencies of opinion.

The democracy enfranchised by the Act of 1867 consisted of the working-classes in cities and boroughs. The same classes in small towns and villages and in rural districts were still in political bondage, and were carefully excluded from any share in the government of the country. The injustice of their position was glaring. They belonged to the same class as the artisan voters in boroughs. They were in the main as intelligent, and as fit to exercise the franchise. Yet the fact of their Jiving in a village and not in a city cut them off from the rights of free subjects of a free state. This great wrong of the electoral system was redressed by the County Franchise Act of 1884, which placed the voters in the counties and those in the boroughs on precisely the same footing. The measure was in the first instance thrown out by the House of Lords, on the alleged ground that it made no provision for the redistribution of seats. That provoked great excitement in the country, and strong resentment against the House of Lords.

The bill was re-introduced in an autumn session held for the purpose. Mr. Gladstone came to an agreement with the Marquis of Salisbury as to the terms of the Redistribution Scheme. Then the Lords allowed the Franchise Bill, which included Ireland as well as Great Britain, to pass without a vote. The leading feature of the Redistribution Bill which followed was the creation of single-member constituencies. Counties and boroughs were broken up into as many divisions as there were members assigned to them. The membership of the House of Commons was increased by twelve, and the same number of additional members was given, to Scotland (These changes raised the number of electors in Great Britain anrl Ireland from three million to five million.). Thus was the process of parliamentary reform brought to completion, after the struggles of more than half a century. What further modifications in the electoral system may still be required must be of secondary importance, and cannot be withheld when the people desire them.

Against every proposal to extend the franchise the educational argument has been made the most of. In 1867 it was said that the new voters were ignorant, half-educated, and unfit for the franchise. It is true that education was in a backward state. It is true that many voters could neither read nor write. Provision had to be made in the Act of 1867 for enabling the illiterate voter to record his vote. The extension of the franchise now forced on Parliament the necessity of making better provision, for the education of the people. " Now, we must educate our masters," was the remark of a cynical statesman who afterwards became a peer. The strong Liberal Government formed by Mr. Gladstone after the general election, of 1868 very soon turned its attention, toward this vital question.

Early in 1870 a bill for the education of the people was introduced by Mr. Forster. In each district it was to be ascertained, by local authorities, what was the existing provision for educating the children of that district. Where there was a deficiency of school accommodation, it was to be supplied up to the full measure of the public need. Funds would be provided by local taxation, supplemented by a government grant. Religious teaching was to be given, but with ample security that it should not be thrust upon any child to whose parents it was distasteful. The management was to be local, subject to the control of a central authority. In England power was given to school boards to make attendance compulsory. In Scotland the law itself compelled attendance under sharp penalties of fine or imprisonment. The children of parents unable to pay fees were to receive education free.

The nation, thus entered, in good earnest, upon the work of abolishing ignorance by educating - compulsorily, if need be - every child living under its dominion. It is a labour vast and toilsome, but needful to the welfare both of the individual and the state, and it leads to results precious beyond all estimate. The perfect ideal of a state is a people governing themselves, and fitted by intelligence and principle to do so. We have yet a far journey before we fully realize this high ideal; but it is much to know that we are in full progress towards it (Since the Act of 1870 came into operation there is an increase of two million and a quarter in the attendance on primary schools in Great Britain. In other words, two million and a quarter of persons who would have grown up wholly uninstructed will now enter upon life with the inestimable advantage of a sound education. In due course of years uneducated men and women will become almost unknown in these islands. The registrar-general gives in a recent report this gratifying proof of educational progress: "in 1837 there were only 58 persons in every 100 who were able to sign their names to the marriage register; in 1876 the number had risen from 58 to 81 and is steadily growing." The amount expended in England upon primary schools during the year 1886 was close upon four million sterling.).

Ireland had shared in the ameliorations of the last twenty years, and had made very considerable progress in the development of her resources. She was still, however, unsatisfied; and reasonably so, for she was still suffering under wrongs of which the sister countries had no experience.

The Irish Parliament of Henry the Eighth's time had yielded to the converting influences of that monarch - owning his supremacy and renouncing that of the pope. Like the turning of England to Presbyterianism in the seventeenth century, however, this official conversion of Ireland was not real or enduring. It soon became evident that the Irish remained loyal to their old faith. But the revenues which had once maintained the Romish Church continued to be enjoyed by her Protestant sup-planter. Four-fifths of the people were Catholics, one-tenth were Episcopalians, and the remainder were mainly Presbyterians. While the Catholics, under a cruel Protestant ascendency, had to endure every imaginable indignity, they had also to witness a handful of Episcopalians in possession of those endowments which they regarded as rightfully their own. But the Episcopalian Church of Ireland was united with the Church of England, and the great strength of her powerful sister was pledged for her defence. While the monstrous injustice under which Ireland suffered was acknowledged by all excepting those who shared its gains, its continuance was too beneficial to persons of influence to admit the hope of easy or speedy redress.

Towards the close of Lord Palmerston's life, Mr. Gladstone took opportunity to express emphatically his opinion that the condition of the Irish Church was unsatisfactory, and could not much longer be endured. This declaration was regarded with unusual interest. Lord Palmerston was a very old man, and it was certain that no great measure would now be undertaken while he ruled. But the remarkable ability evinced by Mr. Gladstone put it beyond doubt that he would occupy the highest place in the next Liberal administration. When that time came, he was virtually pledged to deliver Ireland from the wrong which she had suffered for ages.

It came with little delay. In 1869 Mr. Gladstone was Prime Minister, with an amount of support in public confidence and Parliamentary votes which made it possible for him to uproot abuses even of the greatest age and the highest respectability. He entered without an hour's delay upon the arduous task. Parliament met on the 16th February, and on 1st March Mr. Gladstone introduced a bill for the disendowment and disestablishment of the Irish Church.

The Irish Church was to be severed from her English sister, and was no longer to be recognized by the state. Her bishops were no longer to enjoy seats in the House of Lords, and would not in future be appointed by the crown. She would retain her ecclesiastical buildings without payment, and her glebe lands for half their value. Her clergy would no longer be maintained from public funds, but the life-interest of existing clergymen would be paid for liberally. That portion of the church endowments remaining, after all claims were satisfied, was to be expended for the good of Ireland on objects which were not ecclesiastical or educational. Mr. Gladstone expected that seven million sterling would become available for such uses as Parliament might determine. The bill fought its way against fierce opposition in both Houses (Lord Derby delivered his last speech against this bill. He was then old and feeble, and within a few weeks of the grave. His very latest words in public were a protest against a measure "the political impolicy of which is equalled only by its moral iniquity."), and on 26th July received the royal assent.

The disestablishment of the Irish Church freed Christianity from a scandal; and if the disendowment had given full effect to the intentions of Parliament, it would have freed Ireland from a perennial source of irritation. But the church was wiser in her generation than the world. However imperfectly furnished with the harmlessness of the dove, she proved herself on this occasion to be amply endowed with the wisdom of the serpent. Mr. Gladstone provided that no new interests should be created after the bill was passed. But five months elapsed from the introduction of the bill before it became law. During that precious interval the church lengthened her cords and strengthened her stakes. Her bishops " laid hands suddenly " on every youth who could be persuaded to accept holy orders. When the bill was passed the curates of the church had increased from five hundred to fully nine hundred; and the incomes of very many of her clergy had undergone a sudden and unprecedented augmentation. It resulted from these very questionable manipulations that the sum which the clergy of the church had to receive, in lieu of their life interests, was little short of eight and a half million, - apart from private endowments held in trust by the church. After Maynooth and the Presbyterian. Church were satisfied, the sum gained for the general good of Ireland was about six million. The church stooped to the inevitable disestablishment; but she carried off, to solace her widowhood, a large portion of the endowments which had made her union with the state attractive.

The tenure of land was of extreme importance in Ireland, where more than one-half of the people gained their subsistence, such as it was, by agriculture. Irish crime was in a large measure agrarian. The landowners were few in number, mainly poor and non-resident. The cultivators of the soil were tenants at will. There was no law to protect them from being ejected and the improvements they had made from being appropriated by the landlord. The unduly harsh exercise of the proprietor's rights was tempered chiefly by the tenant's power to assassinate.

In course of ages there had grown up certain customs which had gained, in the opinion of the tenant-class, a sanction equal to that of law. In Ulster, for example, where there was no lease, the tenant claimed a right to occupy his holding on payment of rent, just as the owner claimed a right to receive rent. This shadowy right, although unknown to law, was so effectively supported by public opinion, that it had a recognized money value, and was always saleable at a price equal to several years' rental of the property. But there and elsewhere the landowner occasionally declined to recognize this right, especially when it was vested in a tenant who failed to pay his rent. He further declined to compensate the man whom he expelled for the improvements which had been made upon the land or buildings, or he utterly destroyed the value of his tenant's right by laying upon him an unreasonable increase of rent. The aggrieved cultivator thereupon drew public attention to his wrongs by the slaughter of the landlord, or of the new tenant, as circumstances counselled.

Mr. Gladstone undertook to reduce to order the chaos of centuries. The customs which had grown up to shield the tenant were now converted into law. The landlord might exempt himself from their dominion by giving a lease of thirty-one years. If he did not choose that course, and wished to be rid of his tenant, he must pay him a sum which ranged from two up to seven years' rental. He must also pay for improvements effected by the tenant. Loans of public money were offered to the occupier who desired to purchase his farm, and to the owner who desired to reclaim waste lands, or to make roads and erect buildings.

[If Great Britain expected that Ireland would at once become a contented country, it was very much mistaken. The wrongs and the hatred bequeathed by many generations of sufferers cannot pass so quickly. The Land Act did not remove the Irish grievance. Despairing of obtaining satisfaction from the British Parliament, the Irish leaders demanded Home Rule, which meant the restoration of the Irish Parliament in Dublin. The Irish members of Parliament, led by Mr. C. S. Parnell, made their power felt by an organized system of "obstruction" in the House of Commons, which necessitated by-and-by changes in the rules of procedure. A succession of bad harvests, accompanied with a fall in the prices of agricultural produce, caused much suffering among the tenants of small farms, and discontent again became widespread. A Land League was formed, which advised tenants not to pay rents. Landlords and their agents were shot. The cattle and the goods of those who obeyed the law were destroyed. The system of social persecution called "boycotting" became fearfully common. The law was defied, and the country seemed to be on the brink of civil war.

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