« PreviousContinue »
It has always therefore been a subject of more than ordinary solicitude to Liberal chiefs. For it is sufficiently evident that the Liberal party, though it still has a common organisation, has no one informing spirit or aspiration. It is united by the past, not by the present or the future. It fought together earnestly for the admission of the middle classes to political power, for the destruction of every form of religious disability, for the reconstruction of our fiscal system. Upon these questions it has been completely victorious; but with its triumph the conditions of its unity are at an end. With the exception of one or two points of detail, it is not agreed as to the policy of disendowing or disestablishing the Church of England. It is still more hopelessly divided upon the question of transferring supreme political power to the wage-earning class. Nor is this difference accidental or temporary It is one that in the nature of things must continue to exist for the points in issue are points upon which it is impossible that squire and townsman, peer and mechanic, should think alike. They are separating the party, therefore, into two layers, which consist, speaking very roughly, of those who are and those who are not connected with the great territorial interests of the country.
The guidance of such a party, or rather of such a disorganised band of politicians, was unquestionably no easy task. But looking at the subject merely as a question of tactics, it is very obvious that the policy adopted towards them by Lord Palmerston was the judicious policy to pursue. It was, on the face of the matter, hopeless to gratify two sets of men who were animated by diametrically opposite desires. It was necessary, especially in regard to this matter of Reform, to select the policy of one section or the other; for they were too antagonistic to be combined. Lord Palmerston boldly cast in his lot with the Old Whigs'—the moderate and constitutional successors of Mr. Burke. He was probably impelled to that choice by his own strong convictions. The requirements of his later political career never quite drove out of him his early Tory training. But if he had been wholly without personal convictions upon this, as he was upon many subjects, the selection he made was the one which, as a matter of tactics, he was forced to make. The constitutional wing of his party was not only the most numerous and the most powerful, but it had another recommendation, which will always induce a judicious party leader to lean on the less extreme portion of his followers. It can desert. The Radicals are active, noisy, turbulent. They can be profuse with menaces of obscure disaster; they can give trouble upon critical divisions : but so long as the Whigs choose to tolerate their alliance, they cannot permanently desert.
For a deserter must have some other army to which he can desert. Moderate politicians can incline their weight to one side or the other, according as the exigency of the time seems to require. But extreme politicians, if they are dissatisfied with the moderate men who are nearest to them, have no one else to whom they can go. If the Radicals quarrel with the Whigs, they cannot take their services permanently to any other allyunless they choose to go to America. They might injure an individual minister for a time, by factious votes upon by-subjects. But, as has been proved by experience more than once, their discontent can do no permanent harm to their more moderate allies.
Mr. Gladstone has acted on an entirely different theory. He has treated the radicals with a consideration, almost with an awe, that was never shown to them by any minister before. The form of proceeding which they adopted was originally suggested by Mr. Bright, and he risked the fate of his bill and his government rather than consent to depart from it before the second reading of the bill. When it was proposed to adopt for the counties a less extensive franchise than that contained in the bill, he refused on the ground that it would be a breach of compact between Parliament and the Reformers, as though they constituted an independent power, competent to negotiate with Parliament on equal terms, and to bind it, as a matter of compact and good faith, to the provisions contained in any bill that had been read a second time. On the other hand, the idea of any compact' between Parliament and the Whigs who sat behind him never entered into Mr. Gladstone's head. Still more marked was the tenor of his arguments. To some extent the provisions of his bill recognized the fact that his party were not entirely democratic. The bill, no doubt, had to meet the approval of his colleagues, and did not express Mr. Gladstone's opinions without mitigation. But in his speeches, where no colleagues could check the free flow of his language, he has framed every principle and every argument to please not the moderate but the extreme wing of his party. He was arguing nominally in favour of a seven and fourteen pound franchise; but in doing so he was careful to lay down principles which would cover not only those suffrages, but even household or manhood suffrage. He proposed a lowering of the line of extension; but he argued against any line at all. The relationship of flesh and blood,' the similarity of religion, did not cease at the limits of a sevenpound rental. When he asked the audience at Liverpool whether they thought the figure of 101. could be permanently maintained as the boundary, when there were millions whom it did not admit, he must have been perfectly aware, that the same argument would apply with almost precisely the same force to the limit he was at the time proposing to adopt. When he summed up, according to fancy estimates of his own, the wages of all who lived below the ten pound line, and contrasted them with the income of those who lived above, trying, out of their imaginary excess, to construct an argument in favour of the supremacy of the poorer classes, no one knew better than he did that his reasoning was worthless unless it extended to the whole of the population who do not possess the franchise. This scarcely disguised purpose of furthering to the utmost the views of the democratic party in the House was at last distinctly revealed by his two chief law-officers, the Attorney-General and the LordAdvocate, who shortly before the bill was defeated announced their adhesion to Household Suffrage.
From the beginning of the long argument to the end, Mr. Gladstone did not indicate a single principle that would enable the Legislature to stop short at the limits which the bill contained, and refuse to be pushed further. His proffered favour was not unrequited. The politicians to whom he offered to give up, not only the opinions of his past life, but the party to whose leadership he has so recently been raised, were not ungrateful or unappreciative. They have hung upon his speeches with the well-drilled cheers of hearty partisans. From above the gangway, from the immediate supporters of the Government, Mr. Gladstone's most fervid eloquence could rarely elicit any expression of sympathy. Throughout the whole discussion their morose and distrustful silence during his speeches furnished a curious contrast to the tumultuous applause with which every point was received below the gangway. In the press the same contrast has been apparent. The papers which a year ago were enthusiastic supporters of Lord Palmerston have followed Mr. Gladstone's course with hesitation and alarm; while those that a year ago only upheld Lord Palmerston's government as the least of two evils, have been almost abject in their flattery of Mr. Gladstone. There is no formal mode by which a Minister can announce his adhesion to one section rather than to another of the party that follows him. But short of such a formal declaration, every indication combines to prove that Mr. Gladstone having been offered a choice between the moderate and the extreme politicians of his party, discarded the Whig, and chose the Radical.
What could his motive in doing so have been ? His friends will tell us that it was sincere conviction. It is difficult to use such a phrase in reference to Mr. Gladstone's mind. It assumes an analogy to other minds which has no true existence. Many
men allow their interests to overbear their convictions. A still greater number are biassed by their interests in forming their convictions, and half-consciously drive their reason to conclusions to which it would not otherwise guide them. But such a description is not applicable to Mr. Gladstone. He is never, even halfconsciously, insincere. But he is not, on that account, exempt from the action of the temptations which generate insincerity in other men; nor is his conduct free from the results which it produces upon the conduct of other men. His ambition has guided him in recent years as completely as it ever guided any statesman of the century; and yet there is not even a shade of untruth in the claim made for him by his friends, that he is guided wholly by his convictions. The process of self-deceit goes on in his mind without the faintest self-consciousness or self-suspicion. The result is that it goes on without check or stint. Other men's convictions follow after their ambition coyly and coquettishly, and with many hesitations and misgivings: but in Mr. Gladstone's mind the two are inseparably wedded. He was much nettled at an assertion we made in our last number that he had sacrificed the paper-duty at a moment of great financial pressure, and to the disadvantage of worthier claimants for remission, in order to gain the votes of Mr. Bright and his adherents. The statement irritated him so much that he began his speech, on moving the second reading of the Reform Bill, by designating it as a lie,' with a frankness which he hardly cared to qualify. We have no intention of retorting his courtesy. We are quite ready to admit that he fully believes that the proposal to remit the paper-duty in the face of a deficit, in 1860, was not dictated by any wish to conciliate the Radicals. Probably he believes further that no such notion had any part in impelling him to make a sudden declaration in favour of universal suffrage, in 1864. He no doubt persuades himself, with perfect success, that he has introduced the late Bill in a purely impartial spirit, and that in the course of its discussion he has not sought to make political capital by inflaming the passions of the lower class. No one who has closely watched the progress of his political career can doubt that the sudden development of vehement opinions, where they existed only faintly or not at all before, had some connection with the political advantages which at the moment of their appearance they seemed to promise. If Mr. Gladstone really felt as keenly as he now speaks concerning the honourable obligation that has lain upon Parliament since 1860, to enfranchise the working-class, his career is quite inexplicable. We should be forced to conclude that the conscience that actuates him, though a very active organ, is, like some diseases, intermittent in its activity ; and that its energy at the
time of the paroxysms is fully made up by a singular torpidity during the intervals that come between. How his intense conviction that Parliament has been pledged to a large measure of enfranchisement permitted him for four years to suffer in silence while that pledge was being dishonoured, or again in 1865, to sit by while Sir George Grey, in his name, refused to recognise that pledge at the elections, is an insoluble mystery, if we believe that Mr. Gladstone's mind is constructed upon the ordinary plan. The only mode of reconciling his sincerity with the facts, is to assume that the process by which the mind is made to accept the most advantageous or the most convenient belief, is with him automatic and unconscious.
Certainly the course which he pursued, though hardly explainable by a keen sense of Parliamentary obligations, was one that would have commended itself to a reckless and farsighted ambition. There is something unsatisfactory in an ordinary Parliamentary triumph. Its advantages are purely for the moment. It contains no guarantee, no promise for the future. Parties are too evenly balanced to suffer any statesman, however large his majority may seem to be, to indulge in the dream that his tenure of office is secure. For him the fight is never over. He lives in a beleaguered city, and must sleep always under arms. At any moment, from the quarter in which he least expects it, the difficulty 'may appear which is to be fatal to his power. Mr. Gladstone has suffered more than the average share of these vicissitudes. In one who had so suffered, the idea of seizing a favourable moment to secure once and for ever his own power, and that of those who thought with him, may have been especially inviting. A lasting occupation of office, such as the Whigs enjoyed after the death of Queen Anne, and the Tories after Fox's India Bill, in which the schemes of an all-powerful Minister would not be menaced or impeded by the struggles of an opposition, would be a golden dream to him. If only the territorial interest could be laid so low that it could be safely despised, how easy finance and legislation upon property would be for the future ! How pleasantly and smoothly all such Radical theories concerning the non-existence of any true property in land, as Mr. Mill delights to propagate, would speed forward to their fulfilment, if once the power of the Squires could be broken! What glorious budgets might be produced, if only the great enigma of finance could be solved by putting all taxation upon the land !
It would be worth while incurring a very considerable risk in order to realise such a dream as that. But it can only be attempted with any chance of success under peculiarly favourable