Front Page Titles (by Subject) 220.: THE CORPORATION BILL EXAMINER, 20 OCT., 1833, PP. 659-60 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXIII - Newspaper Writings August 1831 - October 1834 Part II
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220.: THE CORPORATION BILL EXAMINER, 20 OCT., 1833, PP. 659-60 - 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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THE CORPORATION BILL
This article discusses a plan for municipal corporations outlined by Brougham late in the session in a speech of 22 Aug., 1833 (PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 20, cols. 821-4); the plan did not result in legislation until 1835. It is Mill’s fifth leading article on the parliamentary session of 1833, prompted by Le Marchant’s The Reform Ministry; for the entry in Mill’s bibliography and the context, see Nos. 216-19. Unlike the previous articles in the series, this and No. 221 are signed “A.B.,” Mill’s most common form in these years. In the Somerville College set of the Examiner, it is listed as title and enclosed in square brackets.
the measure which Lord Brougham has introduced for giving municipal constitutions to the new boroughs, is far from an advantageous sample of his talents for legislation.
The elements of a local constitution for the management of the affairs of a town, are obvious enough to common sense. They are, first, a municipal assembly, or sub-legislature, elected by popular suffrage, to enact local regulations, levy local taxes, and direct their application to local purposes. Secondly, a superintendant of police, with a sufficient number of policemen for watch and ward. Thirdly, one or more local judges, who should be magistrates as well as judges; for it requires the very same order of judicial ability to determine whether there is evidence sufficient for commitment, as to decide subsequently whether there is sufficient for conviction. These judges, like all other judges, should not be elected by the people: a multitudinous body is not qualified to select, previous to trial, the fittest among several candidates, for the delicate and arduous functions of a judge. That most difficult and perilous choice can only be made by an officer of great skill and experience, especially appointed to that duty: an officer who, in almost all civilized countries except this, is a member of the Cabinet, under the title of Minister of Justice. But in order to give to the people the necessary security against bad appointments, (the control of Parliament, even if Parliament were other than it is, never could be exerted but in extreme cases,) the local judge ought to be removable by the people of the district, either directly, or through their representatives, the municipal council, not only for malversation, but unfitness of any kind.
The Chancellor having to frame a new municipal constitution, what does he? Place before himself the ends to be attained, and look out for the simplest and straightest means by which to reach them? No; he never applies the force of his intellect to the matter at all; never, it is obvious, puts the subject distinctly before his own mind. But he turns, perhaps, to the most philosophical writers on the subject, and takes their views for the guidance of his own. Just as little. What then does he? Servilely copies the constitution of the Corporation of London: instead of thought, contents himself with mere mimicry. The city of London has a common council and aldermen; therefore the new Corporations must also have a common council and aldermen! Not even tact enough to change the names; names so loaded with associations of vulgarity and imbecility, that, as a correspondent of the Times well remarked, nothing more than that one circumstance is wanted to prevent persons of education and refinement from seeking or accepting the office.1 But aldermen!—why aldermen? This from the author and enthusiastic promoter of the Local Courts’ Bill!2 what need of aldermen when we have Local Courts? and if we have them not yet, shall we not have them next year, or at farthest the year after? Why not insert them in this very Bill? Why build up, what we must immediately pull down? Aldermen! Have we not had a long enough trial of unpaid judicature? of amateur judges, whose first business is their shop, and the bench only their second? If there is an occupation upon the earth which requires the devotion of the entire faculties, it is the function of judicature; and men who would not allow their clerks or their footmen to have any second employment, will allow their judges to make judging the mere délassement of their leisure hours. But so it was in the old Corporations; so, therefore, the reformer of our laws wills that it shall be in the new.
Nevertheless, the anti-popular instinct has guided him most surely to the abridging of whatever privileges the old constitution conferred upon the democracy. For annual, he has substituted triennial elections;3 and the aldermen are not to be elected by the inhabitants at all. In the latter of these two points we think him right by accident; but not in the mode of nomination which he has instituted. The aldermen are to be elected by the common council: and (to put the comble to all the rest) they are to be elected by the common council from their own body.4 And mark this: the whole magistracy of each of the new boroughs will have to be selected for life from among the few persons who will be chosen the first time to form the common council.5 We stand appalled at the bare imagination of the jobbing, the intriguing, the backbiting, the undermining, the low tricks of all sorts, and the ill blood that will spring out of the contest, first to be elected into these primitive common councils, and afterwards to be elected by them. What a scheme for starting the new municipal constitution—for giving it that prosperous commencement which is of such inestimable importance to all new institutions, and the want of which it takes so many years to repair! But this is the smallest part of the evil of the absurdity. No qualifications whatever being required, apparently, to make a good judicial officer, anybody, who is not absolutely unfit for anything, being supposed to be fit for a magistrate; the choosers of aldermen are to be limited in their choice to the few persons whom the people have selected for a quite other sort of function: just as if the fifteen judges were required to be selected from the House of Commons. Because a man has been deemed fit for vestry business, he is fit to decide the most delicate question of evidence affecting the liberties and fortunes of the people!
This is instructive in more ways than one: it is a specimen which brings strongly into view (what are almost always equally mischievous, but seldom so ridiculous) the consequences of halting between two roads, and not choosing between two principles, but taking half of one and half of another. The Chancellor had renounced the principle of popular election of aldermen; he was alarmed at his own audacity; and we are persuaded, he flattered himself that by requiring those functionaries to be selected from a body which already emanated from popular election, he should still give something of a democratic air to his measure, and ward off a part of the disapprobation which might otherwise fall upon the curtailment of popular privileges. He will fail in this, as all such truckling policy deserves to fail; he will succeed only in ruining the utility of his own measure.
While in these particulars the Chancellor has deviated from the constitution of the city of London, only that the new machinery might be worse than even the old, he has faithfully imitated the most defective parts of his worm-eaten model. Think of proposing aldermen for life! The proposition has excited so universal a shout of condemnation,6 that to expend any more words in the exposure of it would be superfluous.
The appointment of a Commission to inquire into the abuses of Municipal Corporations was commendable.7 Not that, in any enlarged view there was the least necessity for such an inquiry; it is sufficiently notorious what the corporations are. There is not a man in England, not imbecile, or the rankest of Tories, who would not vote for making maison nette of all the existing filth, and giving the same constitution to the old boroughs at once which ought to be given to the new. The proper municipal constitution for an English town is a question of general legislative policy; not of judicial investigation. However, although the public are completely convinced, they are not yet sufficiently strongly moved; and without the publicity which will now be given to the details of the abominations of the existing town-governments, the disgust of the public would perhaps not yet have been roused to declare itself with the energy, without which no triumph is ever achieved over the hosts of interested enemies fighting as for their daily bread.
Many of the names of those who compose the Municipal Commission, are guarantees to the public that its duties will be performed with honesty and vigour. Indeed, there are few things in which the conduct of Ministers has, on the whole, been more unexceptionable than in the appointment of Commissions. We could find something to criticize there too, if we were disposed; but Ministers have been the subjects of so much vulgar abuse precisely where they have least merited it, that we prefer the more grateful office of defence. Never, surely, was there a more absurd reproach than that of “governing the country by means of Commissions.”8 Their Commissions have been so much more efficient than themselves, that we heartily wish the reproach were well-founded. If the Commissioners are fit to govern the country, where would be the great evil if they did govern? We should then, for the first time in this island, have our affairs managed by persons chosen, because they were believed to be fit for their work, not because they were lords, or had a “stake in the country,”9 or on any other such despicable ground of recommendation.
We have not quite come to it yet; but there will soon be a time, it will probably be but a short one, during which the country will actually be governed in the manner alleged; that is, all the more important and difficult public business will be carried on by Commissions, or other unacknowledged and comparatively unresponsible subordinates: and this, though but a transition to a more natural state of things, (in which the same men will do the work and gain the credit,) will even in itself be a far better state than that which now exists. But a change which really constitutes a great step in advance often looks so absurd and incongruous on the face of it, that people give it all sorts of bad names.
Thus, for example, when the five great Powers of Europe commanded Belgium and Holland to lay down their arms, and because one of them refused, instead of leaving them to fight out their quarrel in the old-fashioned way, commanded the other party to hold its peace, and took the chastisement of its more obstinate antagonist into their own hands; some people laughed, and others were angry, and exclaimed, Why interfere at all? And, assuredly, the exhibition, if looked at simply in itself, was grotesque enough: but if, on the other hand, we view it as what it really is, a proof of universal anxiety for the preservation of peace, founded indeed on no philanthropy, solely on a sense of interest, but yet so eager and earnest, even in the worst governments of Europe, that instead of coming to blows immediately, as they were wont to do, upon the slightest quarrel, they will not even suffer the most insignificant of their neighbours to go to war, lest the conflagration should spread to them; we then behold in what seemed absurd at first, no less than the commencement of a federative system of police for the European commonwealth: a commencement imperfect and barbarous enough, but such as all government was in its first beginnings. We recognize the same interests at work in the community of nations, which elevated the separate communities of men from a state of nature to a state of peaceful society. We see in the London Conference the first small germ of an international tribunal, an arbiter established by common consent to adjust the quarrels of nations by other means than a recourse to the sword; and what seemed a mere accidental variety of folly, brought about by the temporizing policy of a few individuals, becomes a sign and precursor of a great advancement in civilization, gradually, but surely preparing.*
A change in progress, of a similar but a still more far-reaching kind, seems to us to be indicated by many symptoms, among which none is more significant than what has been sarcastically called “government by commissions.” We are gradually emerging from a dark period in which mental capacity (with a few exceptions which, when correctly analysed, are scarcely exceptions) was not regarded at all, as a criterion of fitness for high station and power. We are about to enter into a period in which capacity, or the reputation of capacity, will be the sole criterion. In the interval of transition there occurs a particular moment when the Incapables, those who occupy the high places solely on account of their riches or their connexions, are not yet dislodged from their seats, but in which public opinion and the growing difficulty of the times render it necessary that the work should be done better than the Incapables can do it. When this happens the matter is temporarily accommodated in this way: the Incapables retain the offices; but capable men are associated with them for the purpose of relieving them from the more arduous of the duties: and the appurtenances of office are shared between the parties in this way; the Incapable takes all the dignity and the greater part of the emoluments; his capable subordinate receives the minimum of pay and does the work. We are now in the beginnings, the first small beginnings, of this transition.
What is to be lamented is, not that the Ministers have had good sense and honesty sufficient to seek and find men fit to do those things for which they themselves are unfit; but that the fittest men are not themselves Ministers, or Ministers the fittest men. Not being so, they deserve the more praise for finding others who are fitter and trusting to them: would they had deserved it more! we should not then have had inflicted on us a series of legislative crudities, enough to make the very idea of altering any of our institutions almost alarming, and to make even earnest reformers occasionally wish that the attempt could have been deferred until better heads could have been found for planning and better hands for executing it.
Commissions are appointed to investigate all sorts of subjects; and when a commission has thrown every imaginable light upon a subject, has made its principles so intelligible and conspicuous that ingenuity itself can scarcely find a word additional to say in illustration; then the Ministers rush in and legislate in ignorance or disregard of all that the commission recommends and of all the evidence which it has collected. Something of this sort, not certainly in so great a degree, happened in the instance of the Factory Bill; a measure which, but for the alterations suggested by the Factory Commission, never could have been executed, and would have been most mischievous if it could. Ministers did adhere to the salutary recommendations of the commission in respect to infant labour: but made numerous alterations directly in the teeth of those recommendations; and, in particular, contrary to all sound principles of legislation and without the shadow of a case made out in justification, consented to impose restrictions on the hours of labour of certain classes of adults.10
This was done to gain votes and appease a popular clamour. But something far worse in its tendencies, and which indicates a far more serious and deeper-seated defect in the minds of the men themselves, was the support which some of the principal of them gave to the Labour Rate Bill.11 Of all which they have done, this is to our minds the most decisive of their unfitness for the higher duties of government, and has the most completely divested us of all expectation or even hope of further considerable good from their hands. For in no other case have they sinned so flagrantly, we will not say against knowledge, but against the amplest opportunities of knowledge. In no other case had equal pains been taken to place the subject before them in the proper light. In no other case, if they had been capable of understanding the question, could they have attained to the understanding of it with so little trouble. And in no case perhaps has their absolute want of the very first elements of a knowledge of the subject been so lamentably conspicuous.
[1 ]“Detector,” Letter to the Editor (26 Aug.), The Times, 28 Aug., 1833, p. 3.
[2 ]See No. 219, n16.
[3 ]Brougham, speech of 22 Aug., col. 823.
[4 ]Ibid., col. 822.
[5 ]Ibid., col. 823.
[6 ]See, e.g., a leading article on the Municipal Corporation Bill, The Times, 26 Aug., 1833, p. 2.
[7 ]The Commission was granted on 18 July, 1833, and began its hearings on 2 Sept. The Commissioners are listed at the beginning of “First Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the Municipal Corporations in England and Wales” (30 Mar., 1835), PP, 1835, XXIII, 1-798.
[8 ]See William Maginn, “Specimens of the Art of Governing ‘by Commission,’ ” Fraser’s Magazine, VIII (Oct. 1833), 470-8.
[9 ]For an early use of this catch phrase, see William Howe Windham (1750-1810), M.P. and member of Cabinet under Pitt and Grenville, Speech on Defence of the Country (22 July, 1807), PD, 1st ser., Vol. 9, col. 897.
[* ]Be it well understood that we are not giving credit to the men who ruled the councils of the five powers, for having the slightest foresight of these ultimate results, or being actuated by any other motives than those of immediate convenience. They are unconscious, and if they were conscious, would probably be unwilling agents, in a work which is greater than they know. The Holy Alliance was a mere vulgar union of the strong for keeping down the weak. Now the weak have also become strong and the hostile interests being nearly balanced, have been brought to a compromise. No otherwise than thus were law and order substituted for chaos in any individual community. The strong never would yield submission to a superior authority while their strength would serve them; but when the weak by combination became in their turn formidable to the strong, the latter reluctantly consented to the acknowledgement of a common superior. [In response to the revolt of Belgium from the Netherlands in August 1830, Britain, France, Austria, Prussia, and Russia met in the London Conference of November 1830. (For background, see No. 59, n5.) They ordered cessation of hostilities on 20 Jan., 1831, but following the powers’ recognition of the Belgians’ election of Leopold as king in June, the Dutch invaded in August. The French forced the Dutch to retreat, and a treaty was arranged by the London Conference on 15 Nov., 1831.]
[10 ]See “First Report of the Central Board of His Majesty’s Commissioners Appointed to Collect Information in the Manufacturing Districts,” 3 William IV (28 June, 1833), PP, 1833, XX, 1-1125, specifically on infant labour, pp. 36-8, and on adult labour, p. 38. The Factory Act, 3 & 4 William IV, c. 103 (1833), restricted the hours of work of young persons (aged fourteen to eighteen) to twelve.
[11 ]“A Bill to Explain and Amend an Act of the Second and Third Years of His Present Majesty’s Reign, for the Better Employment of Labourers in Agricultural Parishes,” 4 William IV (29 July, 1833), PP, 1833, I, 33-6 (not enacted). See No. 221 for the Ministers who defended the bill, and Mill’s discussion of the issues.