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BELGIUM


403


BELGIUM


non-interference was accepted as the guiding prin- ciple, and particularly when there was any question of labour legislation, the words on every tongue were: "most liberty, least government."

When, therefore, in 1886, serious uprisings, plainly revolutionary in character, took place, first at Liege (18 March), and soon afterwards in the industrial districts of Hainaut, the whole country was throwTi into a state of consternation and alarm. The labour party came forward and put the social question before the country in the form of incendiarism and riots. The most enlightened Catholics grasped the significance of these events and saw that the time had come for turning their attention towards labour reform. Under the presidency of Bishop Doutreloux of Liege, three Congresses of Social Works were held at Liege, in 1886, 1887, and 1890, in which the most \-ital questions were studied and exhaustively dis- cussed. Groups were formed, especially among the younger men, to introduce the most urgent re- forms into the Catholic platform; Canon Pottier, professor of moral theologj' in the grand seminaire of Liege, became the apostle of the reform move- ment; the Catholic friends of reform established a Democratic Christian League, which, encouraged by the bishops and keeping within the bounds of the strictest orthodoxy, bent all its energies on reform. The Bishop of Liege formed among the secular priests a new order, "The Almoners of Labour", whose zeal and devotion were entirely directed to bettering the lot of the working people.

As for the Government, it proved equal to its task, new and unforeseen as it was. A thorough investi- gation of the labour question gave an understanding of the nature and extent of the principal grievances of the working classes, after whicli the necessary reforms were energetically entered upon. For sev- eral years, the entire legislative acti\-ity devoted it- self to the redress of the most crying evils. Councils of Industry and of Labour were formed; legislation was passed on the following subjects: workingmen's dwellings, wages, the abolition of the truck system, the illegality of attaching or assigning wages, labour inspection, child-labour, and the labour of women. Strong encouragement was given to mutual benefit societies which had been hitherto in anything but a flourishing condition. To these important laws was added the commendable law of conditional condemnation and liberation, the work of M. Lejeune, the minister of justice; it has since been imitated by many larger countries.

This work, which extended over ten years, culmi- nated in a re\-ision of the Constitution, which the advanced members of the Liberal party had been demanding for a long time, and which the Sociahsts were now insisting on. This revision had become imperative. Belgium was a country which had verj' few voters; out of a population of more than six millions there never were more than 150,000, and during the last years of the Liberal Government no less than six laws had been passed to diminish this number still further by excluding entire classes of Catholic voters. In spite of this, and though it was clear to all that the Catholics would be the first to profit by a revision, through a spirit of conserva- tism, they shrank from taking the initiative in this matter. One of their leaders, M. Woe-ste, was its declared adversary-. The Liberals, observing this hesitation on the part of their opponents, joined the Socialists in demanding the revision, hoping for its refusal. Under these circumstances, and with a full appreciation of the necessities of the situation, M. Beernaert proposed the revision of the Constitu- tion, and succeeded, after many difficulties, in having the revision adopted by the party of the Right. The revision was as broad as possible: the motion for universal suffrage was passed without opposition —


a suffrage, however, modified by plural voting as proposed by M. Nyssens, a deputy of the Right. Each Belgian was to have one vote; a married man w^ho could prove his title to some property had two; a man able to give certain proofs of education had three. The electoral body was increased tenfold, and henceforth only the worthless and the incom- petent were excluded from the administration of pubhc affairs in Belgium (1893).

In this way the Belgian Government, by exercising prudence as well as courage, succeeded in a few years in carrying out a splendid reform programme," and deserved the admirable eulogy of Femand Payen, a French jurisconsult: "We have before us the most complete body of legislation which the history of this century can show in any country." A former liberal minister praised hardly less emphatically the wise policy of the Cathohc Government, by declaring that it was difficult to combat it because it offered no grounds for complaint. For the first time in the history of Belgium Catholics showed their ability to govern, that is to say, their ability to comprehend at a glance the needs of the times and to meet them satisfactorily. Even the king, hitherto distrustful of Catholics, gradually gave up his prejudices, and at everj' election the voters confirmed their tenure of power. The party of the Right showed their ingratitude towards M. Beernaert, by declining, partly through motives of personal interest, to vote for the proportional representation of parties, and this the head of the Cabinet demanded as an indis- pensable item in the revision of the Constitution. On this refusal, M. Beernaert resigned his position at the head of the Cabinet, in 1894, depriving Belgium of her greatest statesman.

Results proved M. Beernaert's wisdom. From the time of the revision, the Liberal party, which had its exclusive support in the bourgeoisie of the cities, had been entirely shut out of Parliament, where its place had been taken by a strong group of Socialists. This group, destitute, for the most part, of culture and parliamentary training, introduced coarse and violent methods of discussion into the Chamber, seriously compromising the dignity of parliamentary debate. On the other hand, the total suppression of Liberal representation was both an injustice, since this party still retained the sym- pathies of the middle class in the large cities, and a danger. for the true parliamentarj' spirit was violated by the exclusion from public life of %-iews which had lately been aU powerful and were still very much alive. Proportional representation seemed to be the only way of restoring parliamentary balance, and it came about that those who had caused M. Beer- naert's loss of power to avoid this very thing were won over to his views. Proportional representation was therefore proposed and carried, making electoral legislation in Belgium the most complete in the world. The Liberals returned to the Chambers, the Catholics sacrificing their overwhelming majority in their desire for the representation of every shade of opinion to be found in the electoral body, thus substituting the three parties for the two which had divided the power previous to 189.3.

The Catholics, nevertheless, retained a permanent majority. The successors of M. Beernaert continued to conduct the Government along his hues, even if with less prestige and authority. From time to time the administration was affected by reactionary in- fluences, occasionally compromised by mistakes in policy, but the current of social legislation has not changed its course. In 189.5, a special department of Labour was created, and M. Nyssens, the first minister, filled the position with great distinction. Laws were passed regulating workshops, trade unions, pensions for workmen, insurance against accidents wliile working, and providing for rest on Sundays.