Front Page Titles (by Subject) 373.: THE REFORM DEBATE DAILY NEWS, 8 JULY, 1848, P. 3 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV
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373.: THE REFORM DEBATE DAILY NEWS, 8 JULY, 1848, P. 3 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, XXV - Newspaper Writings December 1847 - July 1873 Part IV, 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 REFORM DEBATE
This article was prompted by the introduction by Joseph Hume on 20 June, 1848, of a Motion on National Representation, which included household franchise, the ballot, triennial parliaments, and redistribution (PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 99, cols. 879-906). The debate (ibid., cols. 906-66) was continued on adjournment to Thursday, 6 July, when the motion was lost by a vote of 84 to 351 (ibid., Vol. 100, cols. 156-226). This is the first of many leading articles Mill wrote for the Daily News. Unheaded, it appears after the parliamentary report. It is described in Mill’s bibliography as “A leading article on the Reform Debate (1st leader) in the Daily News of 8th July 1848”
(MacMinn, p. 69).
if the condition and prospects of a great popular question may be estimated at each period by the character of the opposition to it, the reform movement has made great progress in the interval between the first debate on Mr. Hume’s motion and that of Thursday last; for the change in the complexion of the anti-reform advocacy is most perceptible. On the first occasion, the tone was that of a champion who is quite persuaded that he is safe, and only for form’s sake exchanges a few thrusts. Lord John Russell’s speech sounded like an echo of Mr. Canning in days long gone by, when nobody in parliament took reform au sérieux, and the orator well knew that what his hearers demanded from him was not reason or argument, but a colour, to put upon the vote they were predetermined to give.1 All Lord John Russell’s points were an exact repetition of Mr. Canning’s. The country did not want organic change. Our constitution was the admiration and envy of surrounding nations. In England, a man might rise from the lowest station in society to the highest. If the House of Commons were reformed, it would not be compatible with an unreformed House of Lords. All these saws Lord J. Russell had heard, twenty times from Mr. Canning, in opposition to his own motions for reform; and there was as much truth and pertinency in them then as there is now. Whether Lord John, a tardy pupil in his opponents’ school, now actually thinks that these are arguments, we do not know; but we feel sure that Mr. Canning did not, that (to use a stale metaphor) he laughed in his sleeve at them, and that if he had ever been brought to close quarters, he would have fought the battle with weapons totally different. He estimated his tory supporters very justly in supposing that they did not require anything better, and as for reformers they were not strong enough (at least he thought so) to be worth the trouble of any more ingenious sophistry.
It is possible that Lord John Russell, when he delivered his speech against reform, may have been of a somewhat similar way of thinking. It was not then many weeks since the glorious tenth of April, when the demon revolution, or at least a noisy braggart that attempted to look like him, sneaked away at the sight of a special constable’s staff; and perhaps Lord John thought that democracy had been extinguished with Mr. Cuffey.2 If so, subsequent reflection has brought wisdom, if not to him, at least to his supporters, for on Thursday there was no renewal of this old and once serviceable style of argumentation. Nobody took down from their shelves any more of Mr. Canning’s dusty instruments of warfare, or borrowed from Lord John those which he had brushed and burnished for the former occasion. The speakers on Thursday had completely altered their tactics. They no longer took their stand in defence of “things as they are.”3 They gave up the defence of their own position, and only tried to show that their assailants where as vulnerable as themselves. The series of speeches against Mr. Hume’s motion was a succession of assaults not upon reform, but upon the details of the particular plan of reform which Mr. Hume has brought forward. The burden of the complaint was that the plan is not systematic—that it rests on no definite principles, and is open, at various points, to the double question, why go so far; and, since you go so far, why not go farther?4
The assertion is only true in a sense in which it is denied by no one. Mr. Cobden accepted the charge,5 and none of Mr. Hume’s supporters repudiate it. But it comes with an ill grace from the speakers and writers who advance it. There is not one of them who does not proclaim that he also is for reform. A member of Sir Robert Peel’s cabinet congratulates the ministry on having done with finality;6 and we find, to our great edification, that all the world are reformers, each in his little way. Then, may not Mr. Hume retort on his assailants their cavilling objection against himself? Does any one of their little plans rest on any abstract principle any more than his, or contain in itself any demonstrative reason for doing exactly so much and no more? In what, then, do their schemes of reform differ from his? In that which is of more importance than anything else—that his proposition is for a great reform, theirs for a small one. If it is asked what principle is involved in Mr. Hume’s proposition, this is the principle. It is the principle of a large reform.
Whatever people may say, for the sake of success in a debate or in a leading article, every one knows that the question is not about any particular collection of details, about any six points, or four, or five. The question is that of a large alteration in our representative system. Any plan which is brought forward as a standard for a party to rally round, must be of the nature of a compromise. The new reform bill is neither more nor less so than the old one. There is probably as much variety of opinion among those who voted with Mr. Hume, as there was among those who voted with Lord Grey in 1831.7 But they are agreed in this, that they demand a large measure. There is no other principle in the matter, and there needs no other. The measure is intended to be such as all may vote for, who think that a large reform of parliament, in a democratic direction, but short of actual democracy, is desirable in itself, and suitable to the circumstances of the present time. In this respect the scheme perfectly fulfils its purpose. It draws the line with sufficient distinctness. Those who are for no change at all, or for such changes only as would make no difference in the spirit of the government, of course vote against it. All others may vote for it, reserving their ulterior opinions. It excludes all who do not come up to its mark, but admits all who go beyond it.
One lesson the consistent supporters of reform may take to themselves—a lesson which becomes more important in proportion as the contest ceases to be a mere mock fight and becomes a serious conflict of opposing reasons. Their practical conduct as politicians necessarily partakes of compromise. Their demands and systematic aims must often fall short of their principles. But let them not therefore cut down their principles to the measure of their demands. If they do, they lose far more in vigour of argument, and in the imposing influence of a sense of consistency and power, than they can possibly gain in charming away the fears of those who would, but dare not, follow them. Let them disclaim nothing which is a legitimate consequence of their principles. Let them tell the truth—when it is the truth—that their private opinion goes further than their public demands, and that if they ask less than what their principles would justify, it is not because they fear to avow, or are unable to defend, their principles, but because they think they are doing more good by uniting their efforts with those of others to attain a nearer object, and one more immediately practicable.
[1 ]Russell spoke on 20 June in opposition to Hume’s motion (PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 99, cols. 915-33). The views of George Canning that Mill found similar to Russell’s may be seen in Speech of the Right Hon. George Canning, to His Constituents at Liverpool, March 18, 1820 (London: Murray, 1820). See also No. 61, n1.
[2 ]Following the failed Chartist demonstration (see No. 372), William Cuffey (d. 1870), a London tailor, son of a West Indian slave, a leader of the Chartists, was among those arrested in August for sedition. In September he was tried and sentenced to transportation for life.
[3 ]For the phrase, see No. 73, n4.
[4 ]See, e.g., the speech on 20 June by the emerging Conservative leader, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 99, cols. 949-50.
[5 ]See Speech on National Representation (6 July, 1848), ibid., Vol. 100, col. 181, for the admission by Richard Cobden (1804-65), Manchester businessman and reforming M.P., former leading spirit in the Anti-Corn Law League.
[6 ]Sidney Herbert (1810-61), Peel’s Secretary at War, Speech on National Representation (6 July), ibid., cols. 213-17, esp. 213, where he is taunting Lord John Russell for pronouncing the reforms of 1832 “final” in his speech of 20 Nov., 1837.
[7 ]Grey was supported in bringing in the Reform Bill by Radicals such as Hobhouse, free-traders such as Thompson, moderate reformers such as Brougham, Whig aristocrats such as Palmerston and Lansdowne, and others of various political views, including even Charles Gordon Lennox, Duke of Richmond, a Tory member of Grey’s cabinet.