« AnteriorContinuar »
other advantages, besides those now adverted to, visibly arise from election by the free suffrage of the citizens. It would place, in safe and in good hands, a great deal of patronage that is now very unconscientiously exerted; it would certainly have no bad effect upon the character of any candidate for such situations, that they were bestowed by a grateful community, in return for meritorious and distinguished service; and, above all, it would tend to create a character of independence and manliness in the people, by enabling them to exercise the power of judging and rewarding their own servants. These are benefits, perhaps, which might be easily overrated; but there is some danger also that they may be too much despised.
In addition to what has now been said, it ought to be considered, that the Magistrates of a burgh are not merely charged with the general police of the place, but are likewise the administrators of the common property, and entrusted with the disposal, in some instances, of very ample revenues. Nor is this all: For they are entitled, in that character, to contract debts, for which legal opinions of great authority have declared the property of the Burgesses to be liable; and they further possess the power of imposing taxes upon the Burgesses and inhabitants, to a very considerable amount. It would have been but reasonable to have afforded the greatest facility for legal redress against the abuse of powers so extraordinary and important as these; and we believe it will surprise most readers to learn, that there does not appear to be, at this instant, any means of calling the Magistrates of a burgh to account for their administration of its property and income. Their power indeed of taxation is very usefully checked, by the necessity of obtaining the consent of all the subordinate corporations to the assessment proposed : But, in all other respects, their own authority is sufficient; and there appears to be no jurisdiction to which they are amenable,the Court of Session having refused to interfere, at least where the action was at the instance of individual Burgesses,--and the Court of Exchequer, on whom some statutes seemed to confer the requisite authority, having declared themselves incompetent, except where the Crown was interested. As for the Convention of Burghs,-a court composed of delegates from the various burghs, which succeeded to some part of the Lord Chamberlain's power, and meets annually for one or two days,—they are evidently incapable to try such questions as the misapplication or embezzlement of revenue; and their claim, accordingly, tu such a jurisdiction, though sometimes brought forward, has ne ver met with much attention. Here, therefore, is an evil of gres magnitude, that requires instant correction. The Magistrates
all the Royal Burghs in Scotland are empowered to dispose of funds and revenues to a great extent, have authority to contract debts, and in all probability, to render the Burgesses property liable to the creditors,—and enjoy, besides, a qualified power of taxing the inhabitants and Burgesses. Yet it does not appear that they can be made accountable for their management, at the instance of individuals; and, considering that they themselves elect their successors in office, there seems to be no chance that a subsequent magistracy, created by them, and standing in need of similar indulgence, will be strict in calling them to account.
To deny the Burgesses a remedy against this abuse, and leave the common property and their own possessions in such a state of insecurity, would be too palpable injustice to be at all defensible. Accordingly, whenever the question of Burgh Reform has been stirred, the necessity of subjecting the Magistrates to a more effectual responsibility, has been uniformly acknowledge ed. When the subject was formerly before Parliament, a bill was brought forward (and a similar measure was lately proposed), professedly for the purpose of enabling individual Burgesses to demand from the Magistrates a statement of the Town's funds, and an account of their management. The discouragements, however, attached to any proceeding against the Magistrates are so great and alarming, that no profitable result could have been looked for, had the measure been actually adopted, No control of this kind would be at all efficient, unless some means were fallen upon to lay the town's expenditure regularly before the citizens, with a detail and precision similar to those observable in the national accounts. But, even were this point accomplished, the remedy would still be inadequate. Private persons would generally be deterred from having recourse to legal procedure; and, if some were found so public-spirited as to hazard the expense and annoyance, it cannot be denied, that of a great deal of mismanagement no court of law could take cognizance. A magistracy might be utterly unfit for their situation, who had not committed themselves so far as to justify the interference of the courts against them. Here, as before, the only redress that promises to be efficacious, is that of giving effect to public opinion, by vesting in the Burgesses the choice of the Magistrates, and consequently forcing the latter to approve themselves, in the eyes of the former, worthy of their honourable trust. This remedy is, in every way, preferable. It is the most efficacious—the most easily, and probably, too, the most correctly administered—reaching the greatest number of cases, and operating often in prevention as well as cure.
These are not abuses merely fanciful, or plausibly supposed solely because they are likely to exist. They have been actually experienced to a very great degree, and have furnished, from a remote period, a subject of complaint. They early drew the attention of the Legislature;, and statutes of a very ancient date de scribe, while they attempt to remedy, the internal mismanagement of the Burghs. In the act 1535, cap. 26, for instance, it is narrated, that the • Burghs are put to poverty, wasted, and de! stroyed in their goods and policy, and almost ruinous, thro' • fault of using of merchandize, and thro' being of outlands• men, Provost, Baillies, and Aldermen within Burgh, for • their own particular weil, in consuming of the common good
of Burghs, granted to them by our Sovereign Lord and his • predecessors, Kings of Scotland, for the uphold of honesty . and policy within Burgh.' Subsequent statutes recount the • dissipation of the common good, and perversion of privileges;' and in 1684, King Charles II. granted a commission, which proceeds on the narrative that the common property and revenues have been dilapidated, wasted, misapplied or peculated, and debts contracted without any necessity,—that factions procured themselves to be elected to the magistracy, and squandered the funds of the burgh, in rewarding their adherents and supporting their own interest,—and that numberless murmurs and complaints proceeded from this corrupt administration, &c. Many other documents might be produced, exactly to the same purport; for it unfortunately happened, that the Parliament mistook the true remedy, and that its measures were neither effectual nor complete. The object it was chiefly attempted to accomplish, was to make the Magistrates responsible for their management, and compel them to account for their application of the Burghs' revenues. This corrective, probably, would have done little good; but, imperfect as it was, it does not appear to have been used; the statutes being so framed as to protect the Magistrates against their application, by rendering it difficult or incompetent for the Courts to interpose. It will be seen, however, from these documents, how long and how often the misgovernment of the Burghs has been the subject of popular remonstrance; and it is only proper to add, that as no remedy has ever been applied, the abuse is as prevalent now as in the time of Charles II.; though, it is to be hopel, we may now profit by our experience, and destroy the principle which vitiates the system, by restoring the Burgesses to their rights, and to the election of their own magistrates. That the internal government of the Royal Burghs is at this moment the cause of great discontent, is sufficiently notorious, from the innumerable resolutions that have been everywhere made by the public bodies of which they consist; and, what puts the fact beyond all question, in a large proportion of the Burghs, the Magistrates and Town-Council themselves, the very parties to whose power and authority reform would be most fatal, have been constrained to concur with the Burgesses, and to express the necessity of some great and radical change. In Aberdeen, the members who retired from the Town-Council in 1817, after declaring the sincerity of their intentions, and the misconstruction of their motives in what they had formerly done, reiterate their decided opinion, that the • present mode of election of the Town-Council, and manage• ment of the Town's affairs, are radically defective and improvi• dent, tending to give to any individual or party who may be
so inclined, an excessive and unnatural preponderance; and • to foster and encourage a system of secrecy and concealment, • under which the most upright and best intentioned Magis• trates may not be able to acquire that thorough knowledge of • the situation of the Burgh which is requisite for the due - administration of its affairs. The subscribers are therefore
of opinion, that some change ought to be effected in the • manner of electing the Council
, and an effectual control given to the citizens over the expenditure of the Town's office-bear• ers.' The government of Aberdeen, however, is not more defective than that of almost every other Burgh in Scotland. They are all liable to the same objection; and, in many of them, the Magistrates have been equally forward to proclaim the ne cessity of some radical change in the system.
With such proofs as these before us, it would be unnecessary, were we even furnished with the materials, to give any particular instances of maladministration. A number of these will be found recorded in the Resolutions of the London Committee, contained in the present publication; though it is believed they are insignificant, both in number and extent, to what would certainly appear if any inquiry were made by adequate authority.
The affairs of most Burghs are studiously concealed : For while it is affected to open the books for the inspection of the public, yet the accounts are so made up, that the opportunity is almost useless ; and the management of the Burgh is conducted, not only without effectual responsibility, but even without explana tion. This is, however, only another striking abuse, so much the greater and more pernicious, that it secures others from delection. But, notwithstanding all these endeavours at secrecy, she general mismanagement is notorious. We believe there VOL. XXX. NO. 60.
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., wbile 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 ne 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 approaching 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 withiout 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 cne 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 reprezentative of their town, either directly, or in his