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Introduction of Household Suffrage, 1868–1884 - Albert Venn Dicey, Lectures on the Relation between Law and Public Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century (LF ed.) 
Lectures on the Relation between Law and Public Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century, edited and with an Introduction by Richard VandeWetering (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Introduction of Household Suffrage, 1868–1884
From about the middle of the nineteenth century conditions unfavourable to the despotic authority of individualism operated by degrees on the opinion of wide classes, and especially of the artisans. But these conditions did not greatly modify legislative opinion, and therefore produced little effect on actual legislation till 1868.45 Though the Metropolitan Commons Act, 1866,46 which marks a reaction against the policy, ardently favoured by Bentham, of converting common land into private property, and one or two other isolated enactments, may be taken as a sign of approaching change even in law-making opinion, still by far the greater part of the reforms—such, for example, as the Common Law Procedure Acts, 1851–1862, or the Companies Acts, 1856–1862—passed between 1850 and 1868 are in harmony with Benthamite doctrine. The reason why the spirit of legislation remained on the whole unaltered was that till the Reform Act of 186747 Parliament still represented the middle classes who were in the main guided by the Benthamism of common sense.
“In this country, . . .” writes Mill in 1861,
what are called the working classes may be considered as excluded from all direct participation in the government. I do not believe that the classes who do participate in it, have in general any intention of sacrificing the working classes to themselves. They once had that intention; witness the persevering attempts so long made to keep down wages by law. But in the present day their ordinary disposition is the very opposite: they willingly make considerable sacrifices, especially of their pecuniary interest, for the benefit of the working classes, and err rather by too lavish and indiscriminating beneficence; nor do I believe that any rulers in history have been actuated by a more sincere desire to do their duty towards the poorer portion of their countrymen. Yet does Parliament, or almost any of the members composing it, ever for an instant look at any question with the eyes of a working man? When a subject arises in which the labourers, as such, have an interest, is it regarded from any point of view but that of the employers of labour? I do not say that the working man’s view of these questions is in general nearer to truth than the other; but it is sometimes quite as near, and in any case it ought to be respectfully listened to, instead of being, as it is, not merely turned away from, but ignored. On the question of strikes, for instance, it is doubtful if there is so much as one among the leading members of either House who is not firmly convinced that the reason of the matter is unqualifiedly on the side of the masters, and that the men’s view of it is simply absurd. Those who have studied the question know well how far this is from being the case; and in how different, and how infinitely less superficial a manner the point would have to be argued if the parties who strike were able to make themselves heard in Parliament.48
These words, though they refer to trade unionism, admit of a much wider application; they describe the attitude of a Legislature which, sharing the convictions of the middle classes, looked with little favour upon ideas entertained by wage-earners whose voice was scarcely heard in parliamentary debates.
Even when Mill wrote, however, a change in the constitution of Parliament was near at hand. The year 1865 brought to an end the War of Secession. This event opens a new era. During the nineteen years which followed, democracy, under the modified form of household suffrage, was established throughout the United Kingdom. First the artisans of the towns, and later the country labourers, were admitted to the parliamentary franchise. The details of these transactions belong to constitutional history. Here we note only their connection with, and their effect upon, legislative opinion. Two points are specially noticeable.
The first is that the laws establishing democratic government were themselves the fruit of opinion produced by and in turn influencing public events.
Progress towards democracy was in England immensely stimulated by the victory of the Northern States of America. The conflict between North and South was recognised as a contest between democracy and oligarchy; each had submitted to the ordeal of battle, and democracy came out the victor. This triumph increased the strength of democratic faith; it also, owing to the special circumstances of the day, added weight to the claim of English working men for admission to the full rights of citizens. The artisans had stood by the North, the landowners and the wealthy classes had as a body given moral support to the South. Popular sympathy or sagacity had, it might be argued, proved more far-sighted than educated conservatism, whilst the patience with which the Lancashire “hands” endured the sufferings arising from the cotton famine gained for them general respect. The current argument, too, that the workmen of England could not be denied votes which would soon be conceded to the negroes of the United States, though weak as logic, was irresistible as rhetoric. At the very moment when the moral authority of the artisans was thus increased they had, under the guidance of able counsellors, resumed their interest in politics, and especially in the reform of Parliament.49 Their return to the political arena was no revival of Chartism. The old Chartists were dead or forgotten. In 1866–1867 the People’s Charter and its six points were never mentioned. Little was heard of universal suffrage, nothing of republicanism. Toryism also came once more into strange, but not accidental, alliance with democracy; the Reform Act of 1867 was carried, not by a Liberal, but by a so-called Conservative ministry. Of the manoeuvres, or diplomacy, or of the real or alleged sacrifices of principle, by which this result was attained, nothing need here be said. Even if the very harshest view possible were to be taken of the process by which Disraeli “educated” the Conservatives, the one matter which for the present purpose deserves consideration is the nature of that education, and its connection with the current of public opinion. The lesson which Disraeli taught his party was the possibility, which he had long perceived, of an alliance between the Tories and English wage-earners; and the true basis of this alliance was their common dissent from individualistic liberalism. It was no accident that Disraeli and his pupils were far less alarmed at the power which might, under a democratic Reform Bill, fall into the hands of the residuum than was John Bright; or that the last and by far the most effective opponent of any attempt to alter the settlement of 1832 was Robert Lowe, who, from the general tenor of his opinions and the character of his intellect, might be termed the last of the genuine Benthamites.50 What in any case is certain is that the changes in the constitution of the House of Commons, begun by the Act of 1867 and completed by the Act of 1884, were strictly the result of a peculiar condition of opinion, and especially of the belief on the part of Tories, whether well or ill founded, that constitutional changes would in practice produce no revolutionary effect, but would diminish the influence of liberalism.
The second point is that the democratic movement of 1866–1884 was, if from one point of view more moderate, from another more far reaching than the Chartist movement 1838–1848.
The Chartists claimed universal suffrage; they demanded a share of political power as one of the natural rights of man; the artisans who resumed political agitation in 1866–1867, on the other hand, demanded household, not universal suffrage; they demanded electoral rights, not as one of the rights of man, but as a means for obtaining legislation (such, for example, as a modification of the combination laws), in accordance with the desires of trade unionists. Looked at from the political side, therefore, the moderation of the new democracy contrasts conspicuously with the revolutionary spirit of chartism. But if the two movements be looked at from the social side the comparison presents a different aspect. The avowed wish for social change on the part of the new democracy stands in marked contrast with the desire for merely political change represented by chartism. The same contrast becomes even more marked if we compare, not the Chartists and the later democrats, but the Reform movement of 1832 with the Reform movement of 1866–1884. The great Reform Act was carried by and for the benefit of the middle classes.51 It was the work of men who desired to change the constitution of Parliament because they wished for legislation in conformity with the principles of individualism.52 The Reform Acts, 1867–1884, were carried in deference to the wishes and by the support of the working classes, who desired, though in a vague and indefinite manner, laws which might promote the attainment of the ideals of socialism or collectivism. Note, too, that whilst the reformers of 1832 possessed a programme of legislative reform created by the genius and designed to carry out the principles of Bentham, the new democracy came into power under the influence of vague aspirations and unprovided with any definite plan of legislation. If we substitute the word “desires” for “passions,” we may apply to the working classes of England in 1868 the language applied by Tocqueville to the working classes of France in 1848:
“Les classes ouvrières . . . aujourd’hui, je le reconnais, sont tranquilles. Il est vrai qu’elles ne sont pas tourmentées par les passions politiques proprement dites, au même degré où elles en ont été tourmentées jadis; mais, ne voyez-vous pas que leurs passions, de politiques, sont devenues sociales?” [Today the working classes . . . are quiet. I recognise that. It is true to say that they no longer are stirred, as once they were, by true political passion, but do you not see that their passions, in politics, have become “social”?]53
These aspirations may, to use the expression of another French writer, be described as Le Socialisme sans doctrines,54 or a wish for socialistic laws without the conscious adoption of socialistic theory. Here, as elsewhere, law and speculation, action and thought react upon one another.55 One example of such interaction may be seen in the writings and speeches of H. Fawcett. He was himself an economist and individualist after the school, not of Senior or McCulloch, but of John Mill. His essays published in 1872—that is within five years after the Reform Act, 1867—show that a writer, who criticised socialism in a moderate and not unsympathetic manner, felt that he was struggling against the sentiment of the time. When six years later, in 1878, Fawcett protested with vigour against restrictions imposed by the Factory Acts on the liberty of women, he is clearly the brave defender of a lost cause. In 1885 appeared the Radical Programme. It celebrated the complete establishment of the new democracy; it demanded reforms in the direction of socialism. These reforms, it is assumed, will sound the death-knell of the laissez faire system. Democracy is to advance, and “the goal towards which the advance will probably be made at an accelerated pace, is that in the direction of which the legislation of the last quarter of a century has been tending—the intervention, in other words, of the State on behalf of the weak against the strong, in the interests of labour against capital, of want and suffering against luxury and ease.”56 Under this programme free education—that is, education at the expense, not of the parent, but of the nation—“cottage farms and yeomanry holdings,” also in some form or other to be provided at the cost of the nation, the complete reversal of the Benthamite policy embodied in the Inclosure Act 1845, the provision by the use of the resources of the State of good houses in towns for the poor, and a graduated income-tax, as well as a considerable extension of the right of the State to take for the public use the land of individuals at the lowest market price, are advantages offered or promised to the electorate. No one can doubt the direction in which the current of legislative opinion was in 1885 assumed to be flowing by the Radical leaders; they believed it—and no one can say that their belief was erroneous—to be completely turned in the direction of collectivism.
If to any student the conditions referred to in this lecture appear, even when co-operating, insufficient to account for a remarkable revolution in legislative opinion, such doubts may be lessened by one reflection: The beneficial effect of State intervention, especially in the form of legislation, is direct, immediate, and, so to speak, visible, whilst its evil effects are gradual and indirect, and lie out of sight. If a law imposes a penalty on a shipowner who sends a vessel to sea before he has obtained a Board of Trade certificate of its seaworthiness, it is probable that few ships will set out on their voyage without a certificate, and it is possible that, for the moment, the number of ships which go to sea unfit to meet a storm may be diminished. These good results of State intervention are easily noticeable. That the same law may make a shipowner, who has obtained a certificate, negligent in seeing that his ship is really seaworthy, and that the certificate will in practice bar any action for real negligence, are evil results of legislation which are indirect and escape notice. Nor in this instance, or in similar cases, do most people keep in mind that State inspectors may be incompetent, careless, or even occasionally corrupt, and that public confidence in inspection, which must be imperfect, tends to make the very class of persons whom it is meant to protect negligent in taking due measures for their own protection; few are those who realise the undeniable truth that State help kills self-help. Hence the majority of mankind must almost of necessity look with undue favour upon governmental intervention. This natural bias can be counteracted only by the existence, in a given society, as in England between 1830 and 1860, of a presumption or prejudice in favour of individual liberty—that is, of laissez faire. The mere decline, therefore, of faith in self-help—and that such a decline has taken place is certain—is of itself sufficient to account for the growth of legislation tending towards socialism. This consideration goes far to explain the peculiar development of English law during the later part of the nineteenth century.
The Period of Collectivism
this lecture deals with two topics: first, the principles of collectivism, as actually exhibited in, and illustrated by English legislation during the later part of the nineteenth century; and, secondly, the general trend of such legislation.
[45. ]The passing of the Ten Hours Act, and subsequent Acts passed prior to 1868 which extend its operation, afford an apparent but not a real exception to this statement. See pp. 156–164, ante.
[46. ]29 & 30 Vict. c. 122. See Pollock, Land Laws, pp. 182–188.
[47. ]The last Parliament elected under the Reform Act of 1832 came to an end on July 31, 1868.
[48. ]Mill, Representative Government, pp. 56, 57 (ed. 1861).
[49. ]See Webb, History of Trade Unionism, p. 231.
[50. ]John Austin was as much opposed to any further advance towards democracy as was Lowe. See Austin’s pamphlet on Reform (1859). Note, too, that, if John Mill assented to a democratic Reform Bill, he desired every advance in the democratic direction to be accompanied by checks which he fancied would protect the rights of minorities.
[51. ]See Brougham’s Speeches, ii. pp. 600 and 617.
[52. ]Compare the language of Sydney Smith, cited, p. 151, ante, and the Benthamite programme of parliamentary reform, and of the ends to be attained thereby set forth in an article published by George Grote in 1831.
[53. ]Souvenirs d’Alexis de Tocqueville, publiés par Le Comte de Tocqueville, 1893, pp. 15, 16. [Editor’s note: The translation was added in the Liberty Fund edition.]
[54. ]Métin, Le Socialisme sans doctrines. The expression is used in reference to socialistic experiments in Australia. See W. P. Reeves, State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand.
[55. ]See pp. 30–35, ante.
[56. ]The Radical Programme, with a Preface by the Right Hon. J. Chamberlain, M.P. Reprinted, with additions, from the Fortnightly Review: Chapman and Hall, 1885. [Editor’s note: This footnote was expanded in the second edition.]