Classic Podium: Renew the youth of the state

From a speech by Thomas Macaulay during a debate in Parliament on the Great Reform Bill to widen representation of the electorate in the Commons (2 MARCH 1831)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I CONSIDER this, Sir, as a practical question. I rest my opinion on no general theory of government. I distrust all general theories of government. I will not positively say that there is any form of policy which may not, in some conceivable circumstances, be the best possible. I believe that there are societies in which every man may safely be admitted to vote. Gentlemen may cheer, but such is my opinion.

I say, Sir, that there are countries in which the condition of the labouring classes is such that they may safely be entrusted with the right of electing members of the legislature. If the labourers of England were in that state in which I, from my soul, wish to see them, if employment were always plentiful, wages always high, food always cheap; if a large family were considered, not as an encumbrance, but as a blessing; the principal objections of universal suffrage would, I think, be removed.

Universal suffrage exists in the United States without producing any very frightful consequences: and I do not believe that the people of those states, or of any part of the world, are in any good quality naturally superior to our own countrymen. But, unhappily, the labouring classes in England, and in all old countries, are occasionally in a state of great distress. We know what effect distress produces, even on people more intelligent than the great body of the labouring classes can possibly be. We know that it makes even wise men irritable, unreasonable, credulous, eager for immediate relief, heedless of remote consequences.

The question of Parliamentary Reform is still behind. But signs, of which it is impossible to misconceive the import, do most clearly indicate that unless that question also be speedily settled, property and order, and all the institutions of this great monarchy, will be exposed to fearful peril.

Is it possible that gentlemen long versed in high political affairs cannot read these signs? Is it possible that they can really believe that the representative system of England, such as it now is, will last to the year 1860? If not, for what would they have us wait? Would they have us wait, merely that we may show all the world how little we have profited by our own recent experience? Would they have us wait, that we may once again hit the exact point where we can neither refuse with authority, nor concede with grace?

Would they have us wait, that the numbers of the discontented party may become larger, its demands higher, its feelings more acrimonious, its organisation more complete?

Let us know our interest and our duty better. Turn where we may, within, around - the voice of great events is proclaiming to us, "Reform, that you may preserve".

Now, therefore, while everything at home and abroad forebodes ruin to those who persist in a hopeless struggle against the spirit of the age; now, while the crash of the proudest throne of the Continent is still resounding in our ears; now, while the roof of a British palace affords an ignominious shelter to the exiled heir of 40 kings; now, while we see on every side ancient institutions subverted, and great societies dissolved; now, while the heart of England is still sound; now, while old feelings and old associations retain a power and a charm which may too soon pass away; now, in this your accepted time; now, in this, your day of salvation, take counsel, not of prejudice, not of party spirit, not of the ignominious pride of a fatal consistency, but of history, of reason, of the ages which are past, of the signs of this most portentous time.

Pronounce in a manner worthy of the expectation with which this great debate has been anticipated, and of the long remembrance which it will leave behind. Renew the youth of the State.

Save property, divided against itself. Save the multitude, endangered by its own unpopular power. Save the greatest and fairest, and most highly civilised community that ever existed, from calamities which may, in a few days, sweep away all the rich heritage of so many ages of wisdom and glory. The danger is terrible. The time is short.

If this bill should be rejected, I pray to God that none of those who concur in rejecting it may ever remember their votes with unavailing remorse amidst the wreck of laws, the confusion of ranks, the spoliation of property, and the dissolution of social order.