Imágenes de página

are smaller Burghs where the whole revenue is consumed by the Magistrates and Council,--and a debt, very large in proportion to the income, actually contracted for payment of tavern bills. Many of the more considerable are said to be in great embarrassment; and the insolvency of Aberdeen, for a debt which has been reported as high as 300,0001., while it shows the importance of the subject, just exhibits what must be the result in all the other Burghs, if things remain on their present footing. But it is unnecessary to dwell upon these points. If further investigation be thought requisite, we trust it will be undertaken in a quarter that will ensure complete disclosure; and in the meanwhile, we do not think it can be reasonably objected, that the complaints are vague and unsatisfactory. It would be nearer the truth, we are afraid, to describe all cure as impossible,-and to illustrate the present anxiety for reform, by comparing it to the case of the person in the proverb who locks his stable after the steed is stolen. Neither do we imagine that the present system will be mentioned as the cause of the prosperity of such of the Burghs as have partaken in the national advancement. The case is too plain to admit that common sophism in political discussion which we so often find urged in favour of existing institutions, by referring the welfare of the community to causes which were only not strong enough to destroy it.

But there are other views of this subject, and these by no means the least material. Though we before observed, that it was not necessarily connected with Parliamentary Reform, in the proper sense of that term, yet we have no doubt that a popular election of Burgh Magistrates would be attended with the most beneficial consequences, both to the representation of the country, and to the political character of the people.

It is well known, that there is nothing in Scotland approach· ing to an open election. The members of Parliament for the

Burghs are elected by the Town-councils and Magistrates only; immediately in Edinburgh, and by means of delegates, ' in the other Burghs, which are formed into classes, each class

sending one member. If the citizens, then, have little to say in the election of their Magistrates, they are absolutely without the slightest influence in the choice of the members by whom the Burghs are said to be represented. An election, accordingly, excites scarcely any sensation; and if one be not particularly informed, it may be impossible to discover, even on the day of election, that any thing remarkable is going on. The sentiments of the people are not at all consulted by the representative of their town, either directly, or in his conduct. He has only to make his court to the Town-council; since, if he establishes an interest there, his seat is perfectly secure, though he might not be able to command another suffrage in the place. In this respect, unquestionably, the situation of the Burghs would be very much bettered by a freer election of their Magistrates; for, though this were but a small step towards that more general reform which would be in every way so advantageous to this country, it would nevertheless establish some connexion between the people and their representativebeget some sympathy in their sentiments, and some communion of interests, – and make their voice be in some measure heard in Parliament, by means of one who entertained kindred views, and who was not indifferent to their welfare, or careless of their opinions. Among the Burgesses, on the other hand, a popular election, even of their Magistrates, would cultivate the virtues of citizens, as it afforded them some opportunity of ex.erting their rights. It would enable them constitutionally to assemble for the exercise of a political franchise; it would be a legal occasion for the open declaration of their wishes; and would contribute, in the end, to create in them a livelier interest in the government of the country, and to give greater weight and efficacy to the public feeling. · In terminating what we have to say respecting the reasonableness of Burgh reform, it is proper to recal one circumstance, namely, that the Burgesses, in requiring to elect their own Magistrates, not merely demand what is quite consistent with the nature of their original constitution, but in truth seek only to

shake off a very visible infringement of their privileges. It is · not easy to conceive that the statute of James, which abridged their liberties, was justified by the causes assigned in its preamble, or recommended by any true considerations of expediency. But whatever may be thought upon this head, it is indisputable, that the ostensible reason and colour of the enactment have long since passed away. Is there any body who now thinks it necessary that a Town-Council should perpetuate

itself by the choice of its successors, in order to preserve the . peace and tranquillity of the Burgh, or that clamour and seedition would be the consequence of reinstating the Burgesses in

their original rights, and placing in their hands the only means of securing an intelligent and respectable administration? Were there any chance of danger even, we think the claims of the · citizens ought to be granted : Much more so, when in restoring · to them a franchise, of which they should never have been de

prived, there is not only no hazard, but a prospect of the most · important benefits.

One difficulty however remains, on which it will be proper to make a few observations. It has been proposed to derive the remedy from more than one quarter ;--- from the Crown,—the Convention of Burghs,--or the Parliament. This opens up a constitutional question, which, if it were necessary nicely to solve it, might occasion considerable difficulty.

The Crown, in the remoter periods of our history, exercised so many and such extraordinary powers over' the Burghs, that it appears, at first sight, by no means unreasonable to regard it as the source from which Reform ought to flow. On a closer inspection, however, many obstacles will be found to prevent the desired improvement from descending by that channel. In the infancy of the constitution, the King's authority seems to have been almost unbounded over the Burghs, which were less his vassals than his creatures, deriving from him their immunities, privileges and existence; while they were too low, in political consideration, to make any successful resistance against even arbitrary interference. But the Royal prerogative is no longer so extensive as in those days. In proportion as the science of government advanced, and the objects and limits of its various powers came to be better defined and understood, the Legislature appropriated to itself the cognizance of many matters that were formerly abandoned to the disposal of the Throne. The Burghs which, during this change, had risen to great importance, and obtained a parliamentary representation, have not only acquired security and stability, but now form too important a part of the constitution to remain dependent on prerogative; and, although they acknowledge the Sovereign as the author of their chartered rights, it seems altogether inconsistent with the principles and analogies of our constitutional law, to hold that the Crown, even with their consent, can make any radical alteration in their internal polity. That seems a work too varied in its bearings, and extensive in its consequences, to be undertaken by any power short of the highest.

It appears unnecessary, however, to proceed with the development of these general views, since there are some peculiarities respecting the Sets of the Scottish Burghs, which seem of themselves decisive against the competency of the Royal prerogative to effect their reform. In the first place, any alteration in the Set would, though remotely, yet necessarily affect the election of the member of Parliament. The Town Council may, in some respect, be considered as an intermediate electoral college, chosen by the people, and invested with the power of nominating their representative. Any change, of course, in the constitution of this body, must ultimately influence the election of the member. If the Crown, too, possess the power of giving to the citizens a more popular election, we must likewise concede to it the power of exclusion; and we own that, great as the benefits are which would result from the reform, we should regret to see it accomplished by an exertion of prerogative which, in less favourable circumstances, might be turned against the people. This, indeed, just forms one of those considerations which seem to sanction most strongly our preceding remarks. But, in the second place, it will be observed, that the Burgh Sets, as they now stand, owe their origin to statute. It is not by virtue of any royal charter that the old Councils are invested with the power of chusing the new. That primary principle was introduced by the act of James III., which, in this respect, still regulates their constitutions. The mode of election that has been established, even in disregard of some of its minor enactments, depends upon usage, which is not of the same nature with a royal grant, but forms a part of the public law of the kingdom; and which, as it possesses the power of controlling the statute, would appear, in sound reasoning, to be alterable only by Parliament. But it is manifestly the province of the Legislature alone, to redress those grievances which rest either immediately or indirectly upon legislative authority. In the third place, though no doubt could be entertained as to the constitutional power of the Crown, yet the evil seems too extensive to be remedied from that quarter. It exists, not in one Burgh only, but in all the Burghs; and though it were granted that the King might remodel the set of one Burgh, it does not exactly follow that it would be a proper or even a constitutional exercise of his prerogative, to renew their sets 'universally. Although the Crown appears to have been resorted to, for the purpose of redressing grievances in single Burghs, it was never considered, even in practice, as the proper instrument of effecting any general change. Where that was desirable, Parliament itself always appears to have interposed; and its numerous enactments, relative both to the mode of election, and to the qualifications of Magistrates, sufficiently prove, that, even at a period when the Royal authority was much greater than now, it was deemed unconstitutional and inexpedient to exert it so widely as a general reform of the Burghs in any respect would imply.

The same arguments apply to the Convention of Burghs, which has been mentioned as the next quarter from which redress should be sought; and it is liable, besides, to many other exceptions, derived from its constitution, from the uncertain extent of its jurisdiction and powers, and from its never having exercised, in point of fact, any such authority as the projected alteration requires. Parliament, therefore, it seems plain, is the most legitimate and most adequate source of reform. Its power alone is undoubted; all general grievances are natural and proper objects of its cognizance; and while it possesses most perfectly the means of inquiry, it can best ascertain the suitable remedy, and present it in the most acceptable form.

What that remedy ought to be, we have stated, in general terms, frequently, in the course of these observations. It is the recal of the self-perpetuating system, and the admission of the Burgesses to the right of choosing their Magistrates by a popular election. What modifications ought to be made with respect either to the franchise or eligibility, we shall not here examine, as it would lead us into a discussion of too much detail. Existing statutes, however, throw a great deal of light on some parts of the subject; and none of the arrangements will be attended with much difficulty, if investigation be commenced with an honest desire to give the people redress. .

There is one circumstance connected with this subject, on which we cannot help remarking. As we before stated, the Crown, on the application of Montrose, granted to that Burgh, not only a considerable reform in its constitution, but appointed a poll for the election of the new Council and Magistrates. Very soon afterwards, the magistracy of Aberdeen failed; but though a poll election was petitioned for, almost unanimously, by its citizens, it was refused, and a warrant granted to the members of the former Council. On the lawfulness of this warrant we have already expressed some 'doubts, and may state very shortly the general grounds of objection. It has been seen, that the Burgesses at large elected their magistracy, till the statute of James introduced the alteration, that the old Council, that is, the Council whose term was expiring, should elect the new. The ultimate right of the Burgesses, however, remained entire, although they had no power of electing their office-bearers, so long as there existed a Council to appoint their successors, in terms of the statute. But, when the magistracy determined without election, and there was neither a new Council chosen, nor an old one to chuse, then, the condition of the statute being no longer applicable, the right of the Burgesses revived, as it had previously existed. They had all along formed the proper constituent members of the corporation; and, notwithstanding that the choice of their Magistrates was suspended by the enactment, that the retiring magistracy should appoint their successors, it seems plain, that such a suspension could not endure beyond the condition on which it depended. When the Counfil thạt had been elected for a year, or other definite term, sufa

« AnteriorContinuar »