"A stranger who was told that this country is unparalleled in wealth and industry, and more civilised and more enlightened than any country was before it, that it is a country that prides itself on its freedom, and that once in every seven years it elects representatives from its population to act as the guardians and preservers of that freedom, would be anxious and curious to see how that representation is formed and how the people choose their representatives, to whose fate and guardianship they entrust their free and liberal constitution. Such a person would be very much astonished if he were taken to a ruined mound, and told that that mound sent two representatives to Parliament; if he were taken to a stone wall and told that three niches in it sent two representatives to Parliament; if he were taken to a park where no houses were to be seen and told that that park sent two representatives to Parliament. But if he were told all this and were astonished at hearing it, he would be still more astonished if he were to see large and opulent towns, full of enterprise and industry and intelligence, containing vast magazines of every species of manufacture, and were then told that these towns sent no representatives to Parliament." Then Lord John went a step further, but in a different direction, for the purpose of giving his intelligent stranger a new chance of surprise. "Such a person," he said, "would be still more astonished if he were taken to Liverpool, where there is a large constituency, and told, here is a fine specimen of a popular election. He would see bribery employed to the greatest extent and in the most unblushing manner; he would see every voter receiving a number of guineas in a box as the price of his corruption; and after such a spectacle he would, no doubt, be much astonished that a nation whose representatives are thus chosen could perform the functions of legislation at all, and enjoy respect in any degree. The confidence of the country," Lord John went on to declare, "in the construction and constitution of the House of Commons is gone. It would be easier to transfer the flourishing manufactures of Leeds and Manchester to Gatton and Old Sarum than to re-establish confidence and sympathy between this House and those whom it calls its constituents".
Nothing could be more complete and correct as a picture than this vigorous outline which Lord John Russell drew of the majestic fabric of the British constitution. Had he had time, or were it necessary to elaborate every detail, it is quite certain that the more he worked into the picture the more appalling would its fidelity become. The House of Commons listened with intense interest to this masterly exposition; and if votes were to be governed merely by philosophical conclusions or considerations of unselfish patriotism, there can be no doubt that the House must then and there have decided to accept the principle that reform of some kind was needed for such a constitution. But then came the question, What kind of reform had the Government to propose; and what sort of reform would the House of Commons be likely to accept ? In judging of the merits of the whole measure, it is necessary to bear in mind that the House was divided on this subject into three classes of opinion. There was the opinion of those who in their hearts were opposed to all manner of reform; there was the opinion of those who would have liked what they considered a moderate and gradual change; and there was the opinion of those, strengthened by a great popular influence out of doors, who were not likely to be thoroughly satisfied with any measure which the Government might see their way to offer. It is not possible to appreciate the difficulty of Lord John Russell's task if we do not give due account to these considerations. Lord John Russell went on to explain that there were three principal grievances which the Government proposed to abolish. The first was the nomination of members by individual patrons; the second was the election of members by close corporations; and the third was the expense of elections, including the vast sums squandered on bribery and corruption. Now, to begin with, Lord John proposed to deprive all the really extinguished boroughs of any right of nomination whatever.
The Gattons and Old Sarums, the green mounds and the park-walls, were no longer to be able at the command of the lord of the soil to send up a so-called representative to the House of Commons. Further, the Government proposed that no borough which had less than one thousand inhabitants should any longer be allowed to send a member to Parliament; and that no borough which had not more than four thousand inhabitants should be allowed to return more than one representative. By this process of reduction the number of members would become less than it was by one hundred and sixty-eight; and Lord John Russell explained that the Government did not mean to fill up the whole of these vacancies, believing, as they did, that the House of Commons had too many members already. Many years, more than a quarter of a century indeed, after this announcement John Bright complained that the House of Commons had still far too many members; and, as he put it in his blunt away, the House was sometimes an orderly and sometimes a disorderly mob, but that, orderly or disorderly, it was always a mob. Lord John Russell went on to say that the necessity for some reduction in the number of members in the House was all the more necessary, seeing that he hoped the attendance in future would be that of really working members; and that the Parliamentary Roll would not contain the names of a great number of gentlemen who, when once they had obliged themselves or their patron by accepting an election to Parliament, took care to live their lives pleasantly abroad, and never troubled themselves to attend the debates and divisions in the House of Commons. Lord John Russell announced that it was intended to give two members each to seven large towns which had not had previously any manner of representation. It is something positively amusing now to read the names of the seven towns on which it was proposed to confer the right of representation for the first time. These towns were Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Greenwich, Wolverhampton, Sheffield, and Sunderland. Six at least of these towns may be said to represent - might even then be said to represent - the growing commercial prosperity and energy of England, as no other towns could possibly do.