Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

to counteract the effect produced by the formation I have mentioned. For all practical purposes the upper and middle classes were divided into two camps, each convinced that its own theory of government, its own foreign, domestic, and ecclesiastical policy, was essential to the welfare of the nation. This formation continued undisturbed down to the first Reform Bill; and, though complicated afterwards by the gradual growth of a third party, remained practically unbroken down to 1867. The lower middle class was absorbed into the old electorate, without either swamping it or swelling it to unmanageable dimensions beyond the power of party to control. But with the grant of household suffrage to the towns, and its subsequent extension to the counties, we poured an overwhelming mass of new voters into the field, of whom the large majority neither know nor care anything about first principles, and are, of course, quite incapable of making the smallest sacrifice for the sake of them. Or, if this assertion is thought rather too sweeping, I may say that, as far as they do know or care anything about first principles, they are not divided on the subject. They are all united, and so cannot form two opposing parties. They can be got to fight, no doubt, by being set on, like other animals : but when it is not merely for persons, then it is only for words; and the opponents of to-day may be the allies of tomorrow. As long as the electorate consisted of a smaller number of voters, and was divided, as aforesaid, into two parties, each with some definite principles of action independent of the passing questions of the day, this was not the case. It was less liable to be swayed by sudden appeals on minor or collateral issues, and could be relied upon for a certain amount of steadiness and consistency. Each party then,

large enough to be popular, and small enough to be responsible,'had made up its mind that either Conservatism or Liberalism, as the case might be, was for the public good: and constituencies were neither to be diverted from giving effect to this general conviction by the mistakes or mismanagement of their party leaders, unless they were something very flagrant, nor to be moved from the path they had chalked out for themselves by plausible cries' or accidental controversies having no reference to the fundamental articles of their creed.

Then it was possible for statesmen to rely on a continuous amount of support, and ministers were not afraid of being deserted at the poll through the effect of any temporary agitation. I do not say that this never occurred, but only that down to 1867 it was not the rule, and that ministers representing those broad principles which were predominant in the constituencies could pursue what they believed to be for the public good in comparative confidence and security. It will hardly be denied, I think, that both Mr. Gladstone and Lord Beaconsfield were as popular men in their time as Lord Palmerston: yet both, I verily believe, were turned out of office—the one in 1874, the other in 1880—-on grounds which would not have cost Lord

Palmerston the loss of twenty votes. It will hardly be denied that the doctrines of economy, retrenchment, and peace at any price, had quite as strong a hold on the country in 1861 as they have in 1888. Yet Lord Palmerston was not afraid of swelling the estimates by expenditure on our national defences. The leaders of parties then had their followers well in hand, and knew that they would be supported on principle, and not merely because of their adherence or opposition to some particular question of the moment. The old constituencies trusted this or that statesman not so much for what he did as for what he was supposed to believe; and the minister so trusted could set at defiance accusations of which almost every government in turn is now equally afraid. A government can hardly take a single step of importance at the present day, but what a host of demagogues at once put on their hats and rush off to the provinces to denounce it to constituencies bound together by a much weaker party tie than united the old ones, much less cohesive, much worse informed, much more ready to believe what is told them against men in power, and with no common political principles at the bottom of their party professions to keep them steady to their colours against the blasts of declamation let loose upon them. That parties of the old stamp should hold the fate of government in their hands was tolerable enough, because we had some guarantee for their tenacity and stability of purpose ; but that parties such as these should exercise this same power is, I will not say absurd, but at least utterly incompatible with any kind of strong government.

Formerly we had reason to believe that parties having once declared themselves in favour of certain policies and principles would continue to support them, through evil report and good report, till time and circumstance had wrought a gradual change in the general feeling of the country. This was what happened prior to 1867. One set of principles or another was in the ascendant for long terms of years, and ministers could carry out a continuous' policy without much fear of interruption. Then, parties were compact political organisations for embodying and representing the permanent convictions of the public on the most important questions of political and social science. Now, they are mere temporary agglomerations of floating particles, representing nothing but the passing accidents of the hour. It is impossible for governments to lean for support on them with any confidence. What seems at first sight a solid rock turns out to be only a sandhill, to be blown about in all directions by the next wind that arises, or to crumble away in various directions by its own weight under the ordinary pressure of the atmosphere. These large accumulations of loose materials are not, in fact, parties at all. Government by such is not party government at all. And as statesmen cannot trust to their support, their support, I maintain, ought no longer to be necessary to statesmen.

It is intolerable that when some great scheme of national policy is being carried out, the party which has originally sanctioned it and still approves of it should suddenly strike in and derange it all for local reasons.'

This is what happened only the other day at Southampton ; and it would be impossible to find a better illustration of what I am anxious to enforce. Electors on that occasion who voted for the Gladstonian candidate were heard to acknowledge that they had no wish to depose the present Administration. It is therefore quite possible that the Opposition might obtain a small majority in the House of Commons by the votes of men who did not seek to change the Government. Yet, according to our present system, the Government would have to go. That is how the system works now.

The existence of our Administration is made dependent on the votes of men whose votes are not given with any consciousness of that responsibility ; and who in opposing a ministerial candidate have no desire to oppose the ministers. Our large democratic constituencies will not be restrained from acting in this manner; and thus Governments may be turned out by the action of the very men who, on the whole, would rather wish to keep them in. The inference is either that government must become virtual anarchy, or that the conditions under which ministries are called on to resign must be considerably modified.

What happened at Southampton might happen in half the constituencies of the country. Men were very much surprised at the results of the general election of 1874. They were astonished at the results of the general election of 1880. I remember Mr. Courtney saying in the House of Commons soon after the new Parliament met, 'I don't like these large turnover majorities.' I remember also a distinguished Conservative friend of mine, now an ornament of the judicial bench, meeting me when the elections were just over, and complaining in a very serious manner that there was no reliance to be placed on the public. We had not then begun to realise the nature of the change which the Reform Bill of 1867 had wrought in our electoral machinery: a change which has been carried still farther by the bill of 1885, till finally we may almost say that we have exchanged indirect for direct representation. Parties as they once existed were, in a way, intermediate bodies between the people and the House of Commons, who did the political work of the people for them, and returned their members to Parliament. Now all this is done by the people themselves; and the awkwardness of such a system in connection with our old party machinery is sufficiently proved by the attempts that have been made to get rid of it. The caucus is the direct result of the dissatisfaction that is necessarily produced by the combination of democracy and party. If we are to retain the old system we must have something resembling the old

organisation to work it with; and the nearest approach to that is now found in the caucus.

It is both useless and unjust to blame individual statesmen for the errors and confusion which are incidental to a period of transition ; and the results of causes which men engaged in the central conflicts of parliamentary life are sure to be the last to notice. Party is not suited to what have been called pure forms of government: and as we drifted away from one we are gradually drifting forwards to another. We have outgrown the intermediate stage. England outgrew pure monarchy, and was governed by parties. She has outgrown parties, and is now virtually governed by the people. It was small blame to Charles the First that he did not recognise himself the national growth which made his subjects impatient of a form of government cheerfully and loyally acquiesced in during the preceding century. The abuse which has been showered on this unfortunate sovereign, merely because he accepted the system which he found in existence without looking much below the surface, is beside the mark. Charles the First was not a political philosopher: and he had the misfortune to come to the throne at the fag end of feudalism, and before constitutionalism was born. He was trying to conduct the government of the country on a system which the country had outgrown, and he did not understand his own position. Is it altogether a fanciful conjecture that what personal government had become in 1640 that party government has become in our own time? Conditions have arisen to which the system is wholly unsuitable. Great masses of the population whose opinions are in a state of perpetual flux, combination, and dissolution may be called parties, but they afford no firm foundation on which governments can be based, and are informed by no principles capable of resisting the appeals of the professional orator, whose tongue is against every man till his own mouth is closed. If, therefore, we are to have the permanency, self-reliance, and fixity of purpose which were possible to our rulers in former days, the result of such appeals must be disregarded, and ministers must govern the country independently of party majorities. If not, then we can only expect to see repeated under one form or another the weakness and the hesitation of which Lord Wolseley has complained. Ministers who held office at the goodwill of the old constituencies had something to rely upon below the surface which neutralised the action of the demagogue. Now they have nothing, and they must be more than mortal if they are not influenced by the fact.

But it will be asked, of course, Why should they be afraid of the people? Would the people, if they knew the truth, ever hesitate to do all that was necessary for the efficiency of our army and navy? My answer is, Certainly not. But there are those in the country who are determined that they shall not know the truth; and others who do not believe that what Lord Wolseley says is the truth. The

demagogue, whose object is to damage every government in turn; the Radical, whose object is to damage every form of administration which has a taint of aristocracy about it; and the peace party, who honestly believe that wars are wicked and unnecessary, and that nineteen times out of twenty England is only led into them by the interests of a privileged class—these I say have been, still are, and apparently always will be, busy at work to prevent the working classes from knowing the truth on these subjects; and this is just the point of my argument-namely, that masses of men so capable of being misled on these momentous questions, and so little to be relied on for constancy or stability, are not fitted to fulfil the functions of party, or to possess that direct control over the movements of the government which, according to the theory of party, they ought to exercise.

I shall be told very likely that this is all very fine, but how is it possible to govern independently of party majorities; and many perhaps will think that such talk is unpractical and puerile. All I can say is, that if such is the case, we are apparently in a bad way. But the sympathy and assent which Lord Wolseley's words have called forth seem to show that such is not the case: that there are a great many people who do not think such language unpractical or puerile; while a great deal more besides this has been written and spoken about party during the last few years, which all points in the same direction. In 1835 Sir Robert Peel thought it not impossible to carry on the King's government without a party majority, believing there might be enough public spirit in the country to support good measures, even though the numerical majority of the House of Commons might be against him; and in those days, we must remember, party was in full vigour, and had inspired none of the disgust and impatience with which it is regarded now by very soberminded and practical politicians.

No doubt we have before us a choice of evils and a choice of difficulties; but I venture to believe that no political thinker of the present day who will reflect calmly on the origin and history of our party system but will agree with me in the main proposition laid down in this article—namely, that party was never meant for democracy, will not work with democracy, and that all attempts to yoke the two together must end in disappointment and disaster. What is to be the alternative is another question. But I cannot believe that a system which at the present moment stands condemned by so many independent voices, and of which the practical operation has been for some years past almost wholly for evil, is one from which escape is impossible—I mean by peaceful and constitutional means. I think it is pretty evident that the people are tired of the system, and that it will have to be got rid of by one way or another in the course of time. The English people have no fear of losing their

« AnteriorContinuar »