But Russell's speeches never failed to be interesting in themselves; and they had the not common advantage of being as good to read as they were good to hear. The new Ministry has to be remembered for the fact, among other and greater facts, that Lord Palmerston entered into office under Whig auspices for the first time. Lord Palmerston became Foreign Secretary, and with that office all the best days of his parliamentary life were afterwards associated.
Lord Grey at once entrusted to Lord John Russell the principal conduct of the Reform Bill through the House of Commons; and Lord John Russell went into communication with Grey's son-in-law, Lord Durham, the Durham who, as John George Lambton, had rendered great public service to the Reform cause already, and who was to become celebrated afterwards as the man who composed the momentous strife between Canada and the mother country, and rendered Canada one of the most prosperous and loyal of all the British Colonies. Lord John Russell sketched a plan of Reform, which he submitted to Lord Durham. On the whole, Lord Durham approved of it with, however, certain amendments of his own, some of which Lord John Russell readily accepted. The plan was approved by Earl Grey, and was then submitted to the King himself, by whom it was, to adopt Lord John Russell's own words, readily and cheerfully sanctioned. But the scheme was kept a profound secret from the outer world. All Ministerial schemes are supposed to be profound secrets until the moment comes for expounding them in Parliament; but in the ordinary course of things the purport of most Ministerial schemes does happen to get known in political society somehow, and gives a subject of discussion to the clubs and the dinner tables for days and days before the authoritative exposition is made. In this case, however, the secret, although in the keeping of more than thirty men, was not allowed to get out to the public anywhere, and conjecture was busy as to what the new measure was to be even in the House of Commons itself on the very day when Lord John Russell was to make his statement. It was thought of the utmost importance by Grey and Russell and their colleagues that the opponents of Reform should not have an opportunity of tearing the Bill in pieces, or rather rending it by pieces, before the full Ministerial statement could be brought under the attention of the public. It must be remembered that in the House of Commons there were a good many anti-reformers not to be found on the benches of the Tory opposition. Many a professed Liberal, who, if once the public outside showed a determination to accept the Bill, would not have ventured to say a word against it, might yet have grasped at any chance of decrying certain of its details and turning attention away from its main purpose if he could have known beforehand what the precise contents of the measure were to be. Some particular clause, weak or positively defective in itself, some clause which in the course of the parliamentary proceedings could easily have been amended as the Bill passed through Committee, might have been made the means of creating a premature, irrelevant, and yet dangerous discussion, filling the mind of Reformers out of doors with the idea that the measure would never do.
On the 1st of March, 1831, Lord John Russell made his opening statement of the Government's proposals on the subject of Parliamentary Reform. Nothing could be more clear, more comprehensive, and in its way more eloquent than Russell's speech on that great occasion. The speech is even now a most interesting and a most important historical document. There is not, perhaps, anywhere to be found in our parliamentary records an exposition so complete and yet so concise of the reforms which it proposed to introduce and of the anomalies and the evils which it proposed to abolish. It seems hard now to understand how a State which at one time possessed a full understanding of the principle of a representative government and a system which very fairly corresponded with that principle should have come in the process of generations to lose all the reality of constitutional government, and to sink into a condition of things which was but the burlesque of a representative system. Russell's speech made it clear that this was the fact, and made it clear also how the fact had come to be in existence. "The ancient constitution of our country," said Lord John Russell in his opening sentences, "declares that no man should be taxed for the support of the State who has not consented by himself or by his representative to the imposition of those taxes." This, of course, is the keynote of the whole principle of representative government. It is not meant to be understood, as some of Russell's quibbling and feeble-minded opponents tried to make out in the course of the debate, that Lord John was laying down a principle which amounted to the absurdity that, if a man voted against a tax, he therefore ought not to be called upon to pay it. The meaning of Russell's words, which these right honourable and honourable members affected not to understand, could not have puzzled for one moment the mind even of a schoolboy far inferior in native understanding to the intelligent pupil who appears so often in Lord Macaulay's Essays. Russell's meaning was quite clear; and his exposition of the representative principle could not be disputed.
The principle of representative government means that no man should be compelled to pay a tax who has not had an opportunity by himself or by his representative of expressing his opinion as to whether the tax was or was not one that ought to be imposed. Of course a majority must decide in the end, or there could be no representative government at all; for representative government is in its very essence government by majority. Lord John Russell showed that at one time this principle of representation did exist in England; and that it was provided by English law that each county should send to the House of Commons two Knights - a county member is still called in formal phrase a Knight of the Shire; each city, two burgesses; and each borough, two members. "Thus, no doubt," said Russell, "at that early period the House of Commons did represent the people of England. There is no doubt, likewise, that the House of Commons does not now represent the people of England." How the change came about has already been shown in these pages. The whole condition of the country had meanwhile been changing; some of the boroughs had dwindled away until they were left with no inhabitants at all, but the owner of the soil still continued to return himself as representative of the little desert to the House of Commons. Great towns and cities were springing up everywhere over the country, but these had come into existence too late to have the benefit of the old constitution; and the people of England had not yet exerted themselves to create a new constitution suited to the new times. There is one passage in Lord John Russell's speech which has indeed been often quoted already, but which cannot be quoted too often, cannot be read too often by students of English history, and should certainly not be omitted from this page.