Administrative Reform


This was a speech on administrative reform by Charles Dickens at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London on 27 June 1855.



I cannot, I am sure, better express my sense of the kind reception accorded to me by this great assembly, than by promising to compress what I shall address to it within the closest possible limits.  It is more than eighteen hundred years ago, since there was a set of men who “thought they should be heard for their much speaking.”  As they have propagated exceedingly since that time, and as I observe that they flourish just now to a surprising extent about Westminster, I will do my best to avoid adding to the numbers of that prolific race.  The noble lord at the head of the Government, when he wondered in Parliament about a week ago, that my friend, Mr. Layard, did not blush for having stated in this place what the whole country knows perfectly well to be true, and what no man in it can by possibility better know to be true than those disinterested supporters of that noble lord, who had the advantage of hearing him and cheering him night after night, when he first became premier—I mean that he did officially and habitually joke, at a time when this country was plunged in deep disgrace and distress—I say, that noble lord, when he wondered so much that the man of this age, who has, by his earnest and adventurous spirit, done the most to distinguish himself and it, did not blush for the tremendous audacity of having so come between the wind and his nobility, turned an airy period with reference to the private theatricals at Drury Lane Theatre.  Now, I have some slight acquaintance with theatricals, private and public, and I will accept that figure of the noble lord.  I will not say that if I wanted to form a company of Her Majesty’s servants, I think I should know where to put my hand on “the comic old gentleman;” nor, that if I wanted to get up a pantomime, I fancy I should know what establishment to go to for the tricks and changes; also, for a very considerable host of supernumeraries, to trip one another up in that contention with which many of us are familiar, both on these and on other boards, in which the principal objects thrown about are loaves and fishes.  But I will try to give the noble lord the reason for these private theatricals, and the reason why, however ardently he may desire to ring the curtain down upon them, there is not the faintest present hope of their coming to a conclusion.  It is this:—The public theatricals which the noble lord is so condescending as to manage are so intolerably bad, the machinery is so cumbrous, the parts so ill-distributed, the company so full of “walking gentlemen,” the managers have such large families, and are so bent upon putting those families into what is theatrically called “first business”—not because of their aptitude for it, but because they are their families, that we find ourselves obliged to organize an opposition.  We have seen the Comedy of Errors played so dismally like a tragedy that we really cannot bear it.  We are, therefore, making bold to get up the School of Reform, and we hope, before the play is out, to improve that noble lord by our performance very considerably.  If he object that we have no right to improve him without his license, we venture to claim that right in virtue of his orchestra, consisting of a very powerful piper, whom we always pay.

Sir, as this is the first political meeting I have ever attended, and as my trade and calling is not associated with politics, perhaps it may be useful for me to show how I came to be here, because reasons similar to those which have influenced me may still be trembling in the balance in the minds of others.  I want at all times, in full sincerity, to do my duty by my countrymen.  If I feel an attachment towards them, there is nothing disinterested or meritorious in that, for I can never too affectionately remember the confidence and friendship that they have long reposed in me.  My sphere of action—which I shall never change—I shall never overstep, further than this, or for a longer period than I do to-night.  By literature I have lived, and through literature I have been content to serve my country; and I am perfectly well aware that I cannot serve two masters.  In my sphere of action I have tried to understand the heavier social grievances, and to help to set them right.  When the Times newspaper proved its then almost incredible case, in reference to the ghastly absurdity of that vast labyrinth of misplaced men and misdirected things, which had made England unable to find on the face of the earth, an enemy one-twentieth part so potent to effect the misery and ruin of her noble defenders as she has been herself, I believe that the gloomy silence into which the country fell was by far the darkest aspect in which a great people had been exhibited for many years.  With shame and indignation lowering among all classes of society, and this new element of discord piled on the heaving basis of ignorance, poverty and crime, which is always below us—with little adequate expression of the general mind, or apparent understanding of the general mind, in Parliament—with the machinery of Government and the legislature going round and round, and the people fallen from it and standing aloof, as if they left it to its last remaining function of destroying itself, when it had achieved the destruction of so much that was dear to them—I did and do believe that the only wholesome turn affairs so menacing could possibly take, was, the awaking of the people, the outspeaking of the people, the uniting of the people in all patriotism and loyalty to effect a great peaceful constitutional change in the administration of their own affairs.  At such a crisis this association arose; at such a crisis I joined it: considering its further case to be—if further case could possibly be needed—that what is everybody’s business is nobody’s business, that men must be gregarious in good citizenship as well as in other things, and that it is a law in nature that there must be a centre of attraction for particles to fly to, before any serviceable body with recognised functions can come into existence.  This association has arisen, and we belong to it.  What are the objections to it?  I have heard in the main but three, which I will now briefly notice.  It is said that it is proposed by this association to exercise an influence, through the constituencies, on the House of Commons.  I have not the least hesitation in saying that I have the smallest amount of faith in the House of Commons at present existing and that I consider the exercise of such influence highly necessary to the welfare and honour of this country.  I was reading no later than yesterday the book of Mr. Pepys, which is rather a favourite of mine, in which he, two hundred years ago, writing of the House of Commons, says:

“My cousin Roger Pepys tells me that it is matter of the greatest grief to him in the world that he should be put upon this trust of being a Parliament man; because he says nothing is done, that he can see, out of any truth and sincerity, but mere envy and design.”

Now, how it comes to pass that after two hundred years, and many years after a Reform Bill, the house of Commons is so little changed, I will not stop to inquire.  I will not ask how it happens that bills which cramp and worry the people, and restrict their scant enjoyments, are so easily passed, and how it happens that measures for their real interests are so very difficult to be got through Parliament.  I will not analyse the confined air of the lobby, or reduce to their primitive gases its deadening influences on the memory of that Honourable Member who was once a candidate for the honour of your—and my—independent vote and interest.  I will not ask what is that Secretarian figure, full of blandishments, standing on the threshold, with its finger on its lips.  I will not ask how it comes that those personal altercations, involving all the removes and definitions of Shakespeare’s Touchstone—the retort courteous—the quip modest—the reply churlish—the reproof valiant—the countercheck quarrelsome—the lie circumstantial and the lie direct—are of immeasurably greater interest in the House of Commons than the health, the taxation, and the education, of a whole people.  I will not penetrate into the mysteries of that secret chamber in which the Bluebeard of Party keeps his strangled public questions, and with regard to which, when he gives the key to his wife, the new comer, he strictly charges her on no account to open the door.  I will merely put it to the experience of everybody here, whether the House of Commons is not occasionally a little hard of hearing, a little dim of sight, a little slow of understanding, and whether, in short, it is not in a sufficiency invalided state to require close watching, and the occasional application of sharp stimulants; and whether it is not capable of considerable improvement?  I believe that, in order to preserve it in a state of real usefulness and independence, the people must be very watchful and very jealous of it; and it must have its memory jogged; and be kept awake when it happens to have taken too much Ministerial narcotic; it must be trotted about, and must be bustled and pinched in a friendly way, as is the usage in such cases.  I hold that no power can deprive us of the right to administer our functions as a body comprising electors from all parts of the country, associated together because their country is dearer to them than drowsy twaddle, unmeaning routine, or worn-out conventionalities.

This brings me to objection number two.  It is stated that this Association sets class against class.  Is this so?  [Cries of “No.”]  No, it finds class set against class, and seeks to reconcile them.  I wish to avoid placing in opposition those two words—Aristocracy and People.  I am one who can believe in the virtues and uses of both, and would not on any account deprive either of a single just right belonging to it.  I will use, instead of these words, the terms, the governors and the governed.  These two bodies the Association finds with a gulf between them, in which are lying, newly-buried, thousands on thousands of the bravest and most devoted men that even England ever bred.  It is to prevent the recurrence of innumerable smaller evils, of which, unchecked, that great calamity was the crowning height and the necessary consummation, and to bring together those two fronts looking now so strangely at each other, that this Association seeks to help to bridge over that abyss, with a structure founded on common justice and supported by common sense.  Setting class against class!  That is the very parrot prattle that we have so long heard.  Try its justice by the following example:—A respectable gentleman had a large establishment, and a great number of servants, who were good for nothing, who, when he asked them to give his children bread, gave them stones; who, when they were told to give those children fish, gave them serpents.  When they were ordered to send to the East, they sent to the West; when they ought to have been serving dinner in the North, they were consulting exploded cookery books in the South; who wasted, destroyed, tumbled over one another when required to do anything, and were bringing everything to ruin.  At last the respectable gentleman calls his house steward, and says, even then more in sorrow than in anger, “This is a terrible business; no fortune can stand it—no mortal equanimity can bear it!  I must change my system; I must obtain servants who will do their duty.”  The house steward throws up his eyes in pious horror, ejaculates “Good God, master, you are setting class against class!” and then rushes off into the servants’ hall, and delivers a long and melting oration on that wicked feeling.

I now come to the third objection, which is common among young gentlemen who are not particularly fit for anything but spending money which they have not got.  It is usually comprised in the observation, “How very extraordinary it is that these Administrative Reform fellows can’t mind their own business.”  I think it will occur to all that a very sufficient mode of disposing of this objection is to say, that it is our own business we mind when we come forward in this way, and it is to prevent it from being mismanaged by them.  I observe from the Parliamentary debates—which have of late, by-the-bye, frequently suggested to me that there is this difference between the bull of Spain the bull of Nineveh, that, whereas, in the Spanish case, the bull rushes at the scarlet, in the Ninevite case, the scarlet rushes at the bull—I have observed from the Parliamentary debates that, by a curious fatality, there has been a great deal of the reproof valiant and the counter-check quarrelsome, in reference to every case, showing the necessity of Administrative Reform, by whomsoever produced, whensoever, and wheresoever.  I daresay I should have no difficulty in adding two or three cases to the list, which I know to be true, and which I have no doubt would be contradicted, but I consider it a work of supererogation; for, if the people at large be not already convinced that a sufficient general case has been made out for Administrative Reform, I think they never can be, and they never will be.  There is, however, an old indisputable, very well known story, which has so pointed a moral at the end of it that I will substitute it for a new case: by doing of which I may avoid, I hope, the sacred wrath of St. Stephen’s.  Ages ago a savage mode of keeping accounts on notched sticks was introduced into the Court of Exchequer, and the accounts were kept, much as Robinson Crusoe kept his calendar on the desert island.  In the course of considerable revolutions of time, the celebrated Cocker was born, and died; Walkinghame, of the Tutor’s Assistant, and well versed in figures, was also born, and died; a multitude of accountants, book-keepers, and actuaries, were born, and died.  Still official routine inclined to these notched sticks, as if they were pillars of the constitution, and still the Exchequer accounts continued to be kept on certain splints of elm wood called “tallies.”  In the reign of George III. an inquiry was made by some revolutionary spirit, whether pens, ink, and paper, slates and pencils, being in existence, this obstinate adherence to an obsolete custom ought to be continued, and whether a change ought not to be effected.

All the red tape in the country grew redder at the bare mention of this bold and original conception, and it took till 1826 to get these sticks abolished.  In 1834 it was found that there was a considerable accumulation of them; and the question then arose, what was to be done with such worn-out, worm-eaten, rotten old bits of wood?  I dare say there was a vast amount of minuting, memoranduming, and despatch-boxing, on this mighty subject.  The sticks were housed at Westminster, and it would naturally occur to any intelligent person that nothing could be easier than to allow them to be carried away for fire-wood by the miserable people who live in that neighbourhood.  However, they never had been useful, and official routine required that they never should be, and so the order went forth that they were to be privately and confidentially burnt.  It came to pass that they were burnt in a stove in the House of Lords.  The stove, overgorged with these preposterous sticks, set fire to the panelling; the panelling set fire to the House of Lords; the House of Lords set fire to the House of Commons; the two houses were reduced to ashes; architects were called in to build others; we are now in the second million of the cost thereof; the national pig is not nearly over the stile yet; and the little old woman, Britannia, hasn’t got home to-night.

Now, I think we may reasonably remark, in conclusion, that all obstinate adherence to rubbish which the time has long outlived, is certain to have in the soul of it more or less that is pernicious and destructive; and that will some day set fire to something or other; which, if given boldly to the winds would have been harmless; but which, obstinately retained, is ruinous.  I believe myself that when Administrative Reform goes up it will be idle to hope to put it down, on this or that particular instance.  The great, broad, and true cause that our public progress is far behind our private progress, and that we are not more remarkable for our private wisdom and success in matters of business than we are for our public folly and failure, I take to be as clearly established as the sun, moon, and stars.  To set this right, and to clear the way in the country for merit everywhere: accepting it equally whether it be aristocratic or democratic, only asking whether it be honest or true, is, I take it, the true object of this Association.  This object it seeks to promote by uniting together large numbers of the people, I hope, of all conditions, to the end that they may better comprehend, bear in mind, understand themselves, and impress upon others, the common public duty.  Also, of which there is great need, that by keeping a vigilant eye on the skirmishers thrown out from time to time by the Party of Generals, they may see that their feints and manœuvres do not oppress the small defaulters and release the great, and that they do not gull the public with a mere field-day Review of Reform, instead of an earnest, hard-fought Battle.  I have had no consultation with any one upon the subject, but I particularly wish that the directors may devise some means of enabling intelligent working men to join this body, on easier terms than subscribers who have larger resources.  I could wish to see great numbers of them belong to us, because I sincerely believe that it would be good for the common weal.

Said the noble Lord at the head of the Government, when Mr. Layard asked him for a day for his motion, “Let the hon. gentleman find a day for himself.”

“Now, in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Cæsar feed
That he is grown so great?”

If our Cæsar will excuse me, I would take the liberty of reversing that cool and lofty sentiment, and I would say, “First Lord, your duty it is to see that no man is left to find a day for himself.  See you, who take the responsibility of government, who aspire to it, live for it, intrigue for it, scramble for it, who hold to it tooth-and-nail when you can get it, see you that no man is left to find a day for himself.  In this old country, with its seething hard-worked millions, its heavy taxes, its swarms of ignorant, its crowds of poor, and its crowds of wicked, woe the day when the dangerous man shall find a day for himself, because the head of the Government failed in his duty in not anticipating it by a brighter and a better one!  Name you the day, First Lord; make a day; work for a day beyond your little time, Lord Palmerston, and History in return may then—not otherwise—find a day for you; a day equally associated with the contentment of the loyal, patient, willing-hearted English people, and with the happiness of your Royal Mistress and her fair line of children.”


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