TAIT’S
EDINBURGH MAGAZINE.

JANUARY, 1856.

SOCIAL LEGISLATION – MR. FORBES MACKENZIE’S ACT.

The political questions of the age sink to comparative insignificance when contrasted with those that affect the moral and social condition of society, in the estimate of many persons, who quietly bear the Bullion Act, which diminishes work and reduces wages, or submit to exclusion from political privileges with exemplary resignation, yet threaten to rebel against the slightest infringement of their beer. The late William Cobbett once said that if Englishmen ever rebelled, it would be for two- pence-half-penny, or thereby. The London agitation of the last year confirmed this bad opinion of the revolutionary tactics of Englishmen. Great topics of public interest abounded, yet the Beer Bill had preference in Hyde-park over the bread meetings, and numerous assemblages threatened to stone Lord Robert Grosvenor for proposing to shut certain shops on the first day of the week. Social legislation comes direct to the habits and homes of individuals, and is felt in all their family and personal arrangements. They do not often pause to reason upon its qualities or tendencies, but work for or against its proposals from impulse or instinct. The Sunday meetings in Hyde-park last summer and in subsequent months, excited much interest out of the metropolis. The numbers were large for a provincial town, but small for Loudon, with its two and a-half millions of inhabitants. They were not meetings for discussion, because a considerable number of persons who might have supported the assailed bills could not, from their principles, attend to discuss the questions upon the day selected for these gatherings. The demonstrations were thus on one side, and, looking to the vast population of London, the selection of the day, of the park, and the professional attendance at all places of the kind, they were not, in any respect – not excepting the roughness imputed to the police and their subjects – comparable to large provincial assemblages on any question of popular interest. Their importance was derived from their locality. Hyde-park is the lounge of the genteel and the rich. It is the centre of aristocratic mansions. It has room for all classes, without confusion or jostling; but when the “tag rag” came west–not for air only, but practical amusement, hatting, hooting, a little stone-throwing, and a small row, in addition to speeches and resolutions, the affair became troublesome. Two sections of the east were engaged evidently in the proceedings – those who speak after they think, and who believed that solid privileges were endangered by Acts of Parliament passed and proposed; and those who think little, speak much, and have no particular are or love for any liberties that are worthy of preservation. The west were willing to legislate for the canaille while they kept in their lairs, but when this legislation threatened to bring them out, their effort ceased.

The history of recent legislation on social affairs induces us to consider carefully and minutely several questions arising out of the subject. The middle and upper classes of society can take their own time for any pursuit in which they may wish to engage. They can present a sober front on Sabbaths, because they have Mondays, or Saturdays, or any other days, for indulgence in debauchery; but the working classes must toil for six days, and if debauchery were a good article, they should have the means of enjoying it patent to them at the only time when they can use them. All classes, however, consider “debauchery” a term meant to signify whatever they deem vicious; and therefore any class would resent a proposal to ensure for them opportunities of engaging in its pursuits. The definition of the word is a difficulty. It is impossible to call a glass of beer by that name; but it may be the beginning of many sorrows. When therefore one party require the closing, and another the opening, of beer-shops and public-houses on the first day of the week, they have both much to say for their respective views. The intemperance common on that day amongst the more ignorant and thoughtless classes should close the question; but a large number of individuals resent an infringement on their freedom for no better reason than the welfare of their brethren.