CHAPTER XXIV - LOCAL GOVERNMENT
The French Revolution was condemned by Britain, and the voices raised in its favour in Wales were few. The excesses of the Revolution, and the widespread fear of a Napoleonic invasion, caused a strong reaction against progress. The years immediately after were years of great suffering, but the very suffering prepared the way for the progress of the future, because it made men willing to leave their own districts and to move into the coal and slate districts, where wages were high enough to enable them to live.
The first demand was for political enfranchisement. In 1832, in 1867, and in 1884 the franchise was extended, and every interest found a voice in Parliament. But, with the exception of the sharp struggle between the tenant and landlord after the Reform Act of 1867, the effects of enfranchisement on Wales have been very few. Two Acts alone have been passed as purely Welsh Acts - the Sunday Closing Act, and the Intermediate Education Act. In Parliament, the voice of Wales is weak even though unanimous; it can be outvoted by the capital or by four English provincial towns. Until quite recently its semi-independence - due to geography and past history - was looked upon as a source of weakness to the Empire rather than of strength. Its love for the past appeals to the one political party, its desire for progress to the other, but its distinctive ideals and its separate language are looked upon, at the very least, as political misfortunes. Education and justice have suffered from official want of toleration; the appointment of a County Court judge who could not speak Welsh, within living memory, has been justified by Government on the ground that Englishmen resident in Wales object to being tried by a Welsh judge.
Far more important to Wales than the Reform Acts are the Local Government Acts which followed them. When the Reform Act of 1884 added the agricultural labourer to the electors of representatives in Parliament, every interest had a voice. A further extension of the franchise would not affect the balance of parties, it was thought; and a British Parliament has no time or desire to think of sentiment or theoretical perfection. The Parliament found it had too much to do, the multiplicity of interests made it impossible to pay effective attention to them. The result has been that half a century of extension of the franchise has been followed by half a century of extension of local government. The County Council Act came in 1888, and the Local Government Act in 1894.
Of all parts of Britain, Wales had least local government, and needed most. Its justices of the peace were alien in religion, race, and sympathy; they were either country squires who had lost touch with the people, or English and Scotch capitalists who, with rare exceptions, took no trouble to understand the people they governed, or to learn their language. The vestry meeting had been active enough during the early part of the eighteenth century; but religious difficulties made it impossible for a semi-ecclesiastical institution to represent a parish. The Tudor policy had separated the people from the greater land-owners; the iron masters and coal-owners had not yet become part of the people; there was not a single institution except the Eisteddvod where all classes met.
In no part of the country was local government so warmly welcomed, and no part of the country was more ready for it. One thing the peasants had been allowed to do - they could build schools and colleges, churches and chapels. They had filled the country with these - their architecture, finance, government, are those of the peasant. The religious revivals had left organisers and institutions. Four or five religious bodies had a system of institutions - parish, district, county, central. All these were thoroughly democratic in character. When the Local Government Acts were passed, there was hardly a Welshman of full age and average ability who had not been a delegate or in authority; and those of striking ability, if they could afford the time, continually sat in some little council or other and watched over the interests of some institution.
It was from among these trained men that the councillors for the new county, district, and parish senates were elected. The work of the councils, especially that of the County Council, has been very difficult; and when the time comes to write their history, the historian will have to set himself to explain why the first councils were served by men who had extraordinary tact for government and great skill in financial matters. In the lower councils the village Hampden's eloquence is modified by the chilling responsibility for the rates, but the Parish Councils have already, in many places, made up for the negligence of generations of sleepy magistrates and officials.
With a great difference, it is true, Wales under local government is Wales back again in the times of the princes. The parish is roughly the maenol, the district is the commote or the cantrev, the shire is the little kingdom - like Ceredigion or Morgannwg - which fought so sturdily against any attempt to subject it.