Front Page Titles (by Subject) 211.: MUNICIPAL INSTITUTIONS EXAMINER, 11 AUG., 1833, PP. 497-8 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II
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211.: MUNICIPAL INSTITUTIONS EXAMINER, 11 AUG., 1833, PP. 497-8 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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Writing to Carlyle on 2 Aug., Mill remarks that he has recently not seen much of Fonblanque and has contributed very little to the Examiner, “almost the only paper” being one that will appear “in the next or”—as it did—in “the next but one”. He continues: “I will let you find it out if you can; there is not much in it; it is all political” (EL, CW, Vol. XII, pp. 171-2). This deprecation must be somewhat discounted, for Mill habitually played up Carlyle’s distaste for the merely political; in any case, the reform and health of local institutions were important matters for Mill throughout his career. The first leader in the “Political Examiner,” headed as title, it is described in Mill’s bibliography as “An article headed ‘Municipal Institutions’ in the Examiner of 11th August 1833” (MacMinn, p. 33). In the Somerville College set of the Examiner, it is listed as title and enclosed in square brackets.
a commission has been appointed, and, judging from some of the names in the list, we anticipate that it will be an honest and efficient one, for inquiring into the state of Municipal Corporations, and, of course, for suggesting all possible amendments in the constitution and functions of those bodies.1
These commissioners have now a noble opportunity of planting in the public mind the germs of the most important improvements which remain to be made in the machinery of government in this country. But to do this they must take a liberal and expanded view of the subject of their inquiries. They must not consider themselves limited to the paltry office of devising means by which rude institutions, adapted to the exigencies and the conceptions of rude ages, may be patched and cobbled so as to hold together some years longer. The whole of our local institutions must be revised; there is no soundness in them; for many important purposes they do not exist at all; for no good purpose do they make effectual provision, while they are the seats of the most pervading and audacious political profligacy to be found in the kingdom.
It would certainly be an exaggeration to say that the character of the local functionaries, and the conduct of local business, is more important than the constitution and character of the general government; for the latter includes the former: if the general government is bad, the local administration will commonly be bad too; the only security for the working of the subordinate parts of the machinery, is in the construction of the great central wheel or lever which sets the rest in motion. But it is little, if any, over-statement, to affirm, that the excellence of the form of government is chiefly desirable as a means to obtaining good local institutions. The real business of government is, almost all of it, local business. All the visible apparatus of a windmill or a watermill, is for nothing but to bring two millstones together: some of the greatest steam-engines in the world do nothing but send down buckets into a well. The machinery of government is equally humble in its immediate ends. It is neither at the head nor the heart, but at the extremities, that the ruling body touches the ruled. With what magistrate of the state do the bulk of the citizens come in contact? Who, as far as they are concerned, constitutes the Government? The king? the prime minister? the lord chancellor? No; the justice of the peace, the overseer, and the parish constable. Except in order that these last may do their duty, it matters little to any but a very few persons, what happens with regard to the others. Even the Legislature, the power which controuls all, when it makes laws affecting the most vital interests of the humblest citizen, does but issue orders which those local functionaries are to execute. And it might as well issue no orders, as issue them to persons who are incapable of executing them properly. There are numbers of important laws which the legislature cannot enact, because it knows that it has no persons to whom it can trust for carrying them into effect. This is the great obstacle to many of the most necessary amendments in the details of our institutions. One only part of the business of government—the levying of taxes—the central authority shows itself well able to accomplish without help from any one: it takes care to have local officers fit for that, if for no other purpose. But even that function it but divides with the authorities of the county and of the parish. The taxes which are voted by local and irresponsible bodies, probably exceed in amount those levied by Parliament for the general purposes of government. And this is no more than reasonable: for those local bodies really do us more service in return for our money: what they do, they do unspeakably ill; but they do the greater part of what is done. We often wonder what the nominal Government does, or pretends to do, for all that it costs. The question must be a puzzling one to foreigners, and to those who have lived in foreign countries, where Governments do govern, where the public business really is transacted by the persons who are paid for transacting it.
In this country, the practice has always been that the Government shall not govern. That was the practice, all over Europe, in the feudal times. The king, by the custom of those times, only led the people to battle. The king did not govern: so far as there was any government, the barons governed; and the king, as one of those barons, governed his own domain. As the king gradually absorbed the power of the barons into his own, they were superseded in their function of governing: but scarcely any substitutes were provided. The king supplied scarcely any organs of government, except the officers whom he had originally employed to govern his private domain, and those to whom he had been in the habit of referring the petitions which were made to him complaining of the conduct of the barons; in particular, his private secretary, his cancellarius, seal-bearer or chancellor. There were neither local courts of justice, nor local officers of administration. The French talk of centralization; but where is the centralization to be compared with ours, where, from one end of England to the other, there is scarcely to be found a paid Government officer, except a soldier or a tax-gatherer, anywhere but in London? It is true that the public business is not transacted in London, because it cannot be. It therefore is left to transact itself. Whatever could only be done on the spot, or could not bear the delay and expense of a journey to London, and yet could not be left undone, was turned over to amateurs. The corporate towns retained the powers (which had been granted them as an exemption from the jurisdiction of their enemies the barons) of managing their own local affairs, and administering justice by their own officers. The rest of the local business was flung to any person of station who would consent to undertake it. Hence the “commission of the peace,” and the perpetually increasing powers of judicature and administration which were intrusted to “their worships, the justices.” In almost all cases affecting the mass of the people they are the sole tribunal, and without appeal, except to themselves in quarter sessions. Almost every function or duty of a local nature, out of the corporate towns, has been thrown upon them, for want of any one else to undertake it. The administration of the poor laws is under their absolute controul. Gaols must be superintended, therefore the magistracy must do it. Gaolers must be appointed, therefore the magistracy must appoint them. There must be somebody to impose county rates, and to regulate their expenditure: who but the magistracy? Power to make roads and footpaths, and to stop them up, must reside somewhere: where but in the magistracy? Power must exist to preserve order in public places; therefore the magistrates must have arbitrary power of licensing, and arbitrary powers of restricting or of dispersing, assemblages of all kinds.
Let any one tell who knows, how these powers, and others without end which might be enumerated, are actually used. Interrogate any barrister who practises at the quarter sessions, in which, of all places where the magistracy reign, they are most under observation, and consequently most under restraint; you will hear that of all places where public business is done, that is the place where the most flagrant acts of injustice are committed with the least scruple. And what wonder? The men who made corn laws and game laws2 are the élite, the “choice and prime”3 of these men; selected expressly as such, and exposed to the gaze of all mankind. If such are the best, what must the worst be! If such is their conduct in the great theatre of London and Parliament, with the press standing over them rod in hand, what must it be in the dark corners, where the light never penetrates, and where the voice of complaint is never loud enough to be heard beyond the walls of the beer-house?
These are the institutions of England which need reform: unless they be reformed it is idle in practice and vain in theory to affect to reform the Legislature. If the possession of a certain number of acres of land, without any other requisite whatever, qualifies a man to administer the laws in his own hall, why not in Westminster-hall? Let the man with the greatest number of acres preside in the highest court: let the Duke of Northumberland be Chief Justice, and the Duke of Sutherland, Chancellor.4 If landed property be sufficient title for imposing county taxes, why not for imposing king’s taxes? Why did we complain that the great landholders nominated the House of Commons? We demand that the principle which Earl Grey broadly laid down as the foundation of his Parliamentary Reform, be taken for the foundation of Municipal Reform: we demand “Representation, not Nomination.”5
The Local Courts of Justice which must speedily be established, and to which, if so constituted as to work well, more and more of the judicial business of the country will as certainly be confided; these will, in time, gradually and quietly supersede the judicial functions of the unpaid magistracy. Their administrative functions, including that of local taxation, ought to be intrusted to local representative bodies, in the election of which all rate-payers should have a voice. The representative principle, though in a corrupt state, already operates in the election of the authorities of many corporate towns, and by the late Vestry Act6 it has been partially introduced into the affairs of parishes. But, for most purposes, parochial management is on too small a scale; the persons interested do not form a sufficiently numerous public, nor is the publicity sufficient to fix the attention of that public with the needful energy and constancy.
For every town there should be, as in France, a municipal council: for every district equal in extent and population to an average county, there should also be a council. In these councils should reside the exclusive power of imposing local taxes, and of determining their appropriation to local purposes. All local functionaries should make periodical reports to them, and should act under their constant surveillance. They should have the right of addressing the king for the removal of any officer of Government within their district. The multitude of private bills which now occupy the time of Parliament, to the great hinderance of the proper duties of the Legislature, and the success or rejection of which is now invariably determined by private intrigue and jobbery, should (where they cannot be superseded, as in many cases they might be, by general statutes framed once for all) be turned over to these local assemblies. They should have the controul of the local police, and the superintendence of all schools and other establishments supported by public money or private endowments. The purposes for which such bodies might be made available will be found to be innumerable; and are mostly such as cannot be even tolerably performed but by such means.
The necessity of such institutions is borne out by the authority both of constitutional and of absolute Governments. In France, representative bodies exist, chosen by a portion of the people, for the local taxation and administration of every department, every arrondissement, and every commune (township or village). In Prussia, a country which by the excellence of the details of its institutions puts to shame all the constitutional Governments of Europe, there have for some time existed provincial assemblies, and other municipal bodies, on the principle of popular election.7
If our country were to be judged by her laws, well might M. Cousin give the palm of highest civilization to France and Prussia, “without excepting England herself, all bristling with prejudices, gothic institutions, and semibarbarous customs, over which there is awkwardly thrown the mantle d’une civilisation toute matérielle.”* The opinion be it remembered of no Jacobin or Republican, but of a French Whig, a philosophic doctrinaire.
The Commissioners for Municipal Corporations should carry their views, and even their recommendations, to the full length of what we have now proposed. There would, indeed, be no hope that plans of so comprehensive a character would at once be adopted; but the Commissioners need not expect to carry all that they propose, let it be ever so little. Though they pare down their reforms to the most inconsiderable dimensions, there will be abundance of persons who will take care that not more than half of what they ask shall be granted them. A Commission has this advantage over a Ministry, that it is under no necessity of proposing no more than can be carried; it may cast its bread on the waters, certain that the world will find it after many days.8 A solemn declaration of opinion from an authoritative quarter, going the full length of a great principle, is worth ten paltry practical measures of nibbling amendment. The good which any mere enactment can do, is trifling compared with the effect of whatever helps to mature the public mind; without which, all attempts to improve institutions must be failures, or at best only palliatives. And besides, even in actual legislation, what is obtained always bears some proportion to what is asked. Men may be frightened by the extent of change proposed, but that very alarm makes changes which would otherwise have seemed almost equally formidable, appear moderate; and we always find that gradual reform proceeds by larger and more rapid steps, when the doctrines of radical reform are most uncompromisingly and intrepidly proclaimed.
[1 ]See “Report from the Select Committee on Municipal Corporations; with the Minutes of Evidence Taken before Them,” PP, 1833, XIII, 1-399, for the names, which included Althorp, Abercrombie, Peel, Poulett Thomson, O’Connell, and Charles Buller.
[2 ]The latest corn law was 9 George IV, c. 60 (1828); the latest game law was 1 & 2 William IV, c. 32 (1831).
[3 ]Milton, Paradise Lost, II, 423; in Poetical Works, p. 40.
[4 ]George Granville Leveson-Gower (1758-1833), 1st Duke of Sutherland.
[5 ]Cf. Charles Grey, Speech on Parliamentary Reform (3 Oct., 1831), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 7, col. 936.
[6 ]1 & 2 William IV, c. 60 (1831).
[7 ]Gesetze Nos. 810-13, in Gesetz-Sammlung für die Königlichen Preussischen Staaten 1823, pp. 129-52.
[* ]We quote from Mr. Roebuck’s excellent speech on National Education. [Roebuck (PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 20, cols. 147-8 [30 July, 1833]), was quoting Victor Cousin’s Rapport, p. 133.]
[8 ]Cf. Ecclesiastes, 11:1.