The Spirit of Whiggism, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 2.

Parliamentary Reform

When the Whigs and their public organs favour us with their mysterious hints that the constitution has provided the sovereign with a means to reestablish at all times a legislative sympathy between the two Houses of Parliament, it may be as well to remind them that we are not indebted for this salutary prerogative to the forbearance of their party. Suppose their Peerage Bill had passed into an Act, how would they have carried the Reform Bill of 1832? The Whigs may reply, that if the Peerage Bill had become a law, the Reform Bill would never have been introduced; and I believe them. In that case, the British House of Lords would have been transformed into a Venetian Senate, and the old walls of St. James’s might have witnessed scenes of as degrading mortification as the famous ducal palace of the Adriatic.

George III. routed the Whigs, consolidated by half a century of power; but an ordinary monarch would have sunk beneath the Coalition and the India Bill. This scheme was the last desperate effort of the oligarchical faction previous to 1830. Not that they were inactive during the great interval that elapsed between the advent of Mr. Pitt and the resurrection of Lord Grey: but, ever on the watch for a cry to carry them into power, they mistook the yell of Jacobinism for the chorus of an emancipated people, and fancied, in order to take the throne by storm, that nothing was wanting but to hoist the tricolour and to cover their haughty brows with a red cap. This fatal blunder clipped the wings of Whiggism; nor is it possible to conceive a party that had effected so many revolutions and governed a great country for so long a period, more broken, sunk, and shattered, more desolate and disheartened, than these same Whigs at the Peace of Paris. From that period till 1830, the tactics of the Whigs consisted in gently and gradually extricating themselves from their false position as the disciples of Jacobinism, and assuming their ancient post as the hereditary guardians of an hereditary monarchy. To make the transition less difficult than it threatened, they invented Liberalism, a bridge by which they were to regain the lost mainland, and daintily recross on tiptoe the chasm over which they had originally sprung with so much precipitation. A dozen years of ‘liberal principles’ broke up the national party of England, cemented by half a century of prosperity and glory, compared with which all the annals of the realm are dim and lack-lustre. Yet so weak intrinsically was the oligarchical faction, that their chief, despairing to obtain a monopoly of power for his party, elaborately announced himself as the champion of his patrician order, and attempted to coalesce with the liberalised leader of the Tories. Had that negotiation led to the result which was originally intended by those interested, the Riots of Paris would not have occasioned the Reform of London.

It is a great delusion to believe that revolutions are ever effected by a nation. It is a faction, and generally a small one, that overthrows a dynasty or remodels a constitution. A small party, stung by a long exile from power, and desperate of success except by desperate means, invariably has recourse to a coup-d’état. An oligarchical party is necessarily not numerous. Its members in general attempt, by noble lineage or vast possessions, to compensate for their poverty of numbers. The Whigs, in 1830, found themselves by accident in place, but under very peculiar circumstances. They were in place but not in power. In each estate of the realm a majority was arrayed against them. An appeal to the Commons of England, that constituency which, in its elements, had undergone no alteration since the time of Elizabeth, either by the influence of the legislature or the action of time — that constituency which had elected Pym, and Selden, and Hampden, as well as Somers, Walpole, and Pulteney — an appeal to this constituency, it was generally acknowledged, would be fatal to the Whigs, and therefore they determined to reconstruct it. This is the origin of the recent parliamentary reform: the Whigs, in place without being in power, resolved as usual upon a coup-d’état, and looked about for a stalking-horse. In general the difficult task had devolved upon them of having to accomplish their concealed purpose while apparently achieving some public object. Thus they had carried the Septennial Act on the plea of preserving England from popery, though their real object was to prolong the existence of the first House of Commons in which they could command a majority.

But in the present instance they became sincerely parliamentary reformers, for by parliamentary reform they could alone subsist; and all their art was dedicated so to contrive, that in this reformation their own interest should secure an irresistible predominance.

But how was an oligarchical party to predominate in popular elections? Here was the difficulty. The Whigs had no resources from their own limited ranks to feed the muster of the popular levies. They were obliged to look about for allies wherewith to form their new popular estate. Any estate of the Commons modelled on any equitable principle, either of property or population, must have been fatal to the Whigs; they, therefore, very dexterously adopted a small minority of the nation, consisting of the sectarians, and inaugurating them as the people with a vast and bewildering train of hocus-pocus ceremonies, invested the Dissenters with political power. By this coup-d’état they managed the House of Commons, and having at length obtained a position, they have from that moment laid siege to the House of Lords, with the intention of reducing that great institution and making it surrender at discretion. This is the exact state of English politics during the last five years. The Whigs have been at war with the English constitution. First of all they captured the King; then they vanquished the House of Commons; now they have laid siege to the House of Lords. But here the fallacy of their grand scheme of political mystification begins to develop itself. Had, indeed, their new constituency, as they have long impudently pretended, really been ‘the people,’ a struggle between such a body and the House of Lords would have been brief but final. The absurdity of supposing that a chamber of two or three hundred individuals could set up their absolute will and pleasure against the decrees of a legislative assembly chosen by the whole nation is so glaring that the Whigs and their scribes might reasonably suspect that in making such allegations they were assuredly proving too much. But as ‘the people’ of the Whigs is in fact a number of Englishmen not exceeding in amount the population of a third-rate city, the English nation is not of opinion that this arrogant and vaunting moiety of a class privileged for the common good, swollen though it may be by some jobbing Scots and rebel Irish, shall pass off their petty and selfish schemes of personal aggrandisement as the will of a great people, as mindful of its duty to its posterity as it is grateful for the labours of its ancestors. The English nation, therefore, rallies for rescue from the degrading plots of a profligate oligarchy, a barbarising sectarianism, and a boroughmongering Papacy round their hereditary leaders — the Peers. The House of Lords, therefore, at this moment represents everything in the realm except the Whig oligarchs, their tools — the Dissenters, and their masters — the Irish priests. In the meantime the Whigs bawl aloud that there is a ‘collision’! It is true there is a collision; but it is not a collision between the Lords and the people, but between the Ministers and the Constitution.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:20