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Peter the Great's Will-Aspect of the Eastern Question-Lord Salisbury, The
Empress of India-English Interests-Changes in the Commons and prospects
Emperor Alexander. We are certainly not apt to believe in its authenticity; but it forms, perhaps, no inappropriate introduction to the history of an eventful year; one which must be ranked, unhappily, in a category too well-filled of late, and marked by the declaration and progress of a cruel and destructive war. in the first place, of those who are bound to entertain, or to express, no strong personal opinions; and even were it otherwise, “ En fait d'histoire contemporaine,” M. Van de Weyer has said, “il n'y a de vrai que ce qu'on n'écrit point.” We must therefore leave it to the judgment of our readers to form their opinion on the last new phase of the perplexing Eastern Question, which had again been brought so painfully forward when the year opened, and which, to the exclusion of all other topics of interest, occupied the public mind. The indignation kindled by the stories of the Bulgarian massacres, and the strong anti-Turkish movement which had taken place throughout the country, culminated in the great meeting at St. James's Hall, which was described at some length at the close of our domestic history last year, in Mr. Freeman's famous declaration, “ Perish our English interests and our dominion in India," rather than join hands with the Moslem again ; and in Mr. Gladstone's impulsive and eloquent crusade. Things looked black for the influence and even the existence of the Ministry at the date of this meeting, but changed in this respect as time wore on. The appointment of Lord Salisbury as our representative at the Conference of Constantinople was generally approved, and it was hoped that the statesman who had proved himself one of the first living debaters in the House, and of administrators at the India Office, would add to these distinctions the reputation of a successful diplomatist. He, at all events, was everywhere highly popular, the numerous meetings held during the recess always cheering anything in his favour. He was thought to have gone out with the sincere and straightforward purpose of lightening the Turkish yoke and raising the Christian populations. It was a singular tribute to the energy of his character that he should be chosen for the mission, and the selection was an unusual one in itself, as on all previous occasions of the kind the Foreign Secretary had represented England when the presence of a Cabinet Minister was desirable. The interest of the situation at Constantinople left less space than they would otherwise have occupied for the “large honours claimed and assumed for the Queen at Delhi, on New Year's Day, in a pageant of unexampled splendour, under the new style of Empress of India, which was Lord Beaconsfield's gift to his royal mistress. Not without its bearing on the Eastern Question was the assuming of the imperial style. It might be read as a quiet proclamation to the world of the resolve of England to hold her own in India against all comers; and a reassurance to the alarmists, and they are not a few, who believe in the purpose, if not in the authenticity, of “ Peter the Great's will." In spite of Mr. Freeman, it is to be feared that English interests in India,
real or supposed, were uppermost in English minds in connection with the Eastern Question, and that both those who sympathised with the “oppressed Turk," and believed the ends of Russia to be merely selfish and ambitious, and such as were persuaded by Mr. Gladstone's restless energy of denunciation into a certain belief in the crusading character with which the invader sought to invest the contest—all, perhaps, except the few who, with a possibly larger and more unselfish view, could not choose but side with Christianity against Islamism, irrespectively of motives or of indirect results-- looked with uneasy eye upon the Suez Canal and our position in Egypt, upon British trade, and upon the high road to India. Nor was a feeling of antagonism to Russia, which seems latent in the English mind, combined with a certain prejudice in favour of an old ally, without its effect in bringing about the change of feeling to which we have alluded, and singularly modifying the popular feeling of the autumn. Mr. Layard, who succeeded Sir Henry Elliot as minister at Constantinople, reported, in the same spirit as his predecessor, of the exaggeration which had characterised the accounts of the Bulgarian massacres; but, unhappily, the declaration of war in April was followed by conduct on the Turkish side so clearly established by evidence, that, whatever might be the sympathy justly roused by the courage and fortitude of her soldiers, the dangerous anomaly of her position among the Christian Powers of Europe forced itself more and more upon the consideration of thoughtful men; and probably, however protocols, and treaties, and sympathies might obscure it, only the geographical position and value of Constantinople, and the jealousy with which all the six great Powers must regard the possibility of its occupation by any one of them, prevented the adoption of a concerted action very near akin to Mr. Gladstone's “bag and baggage " policy in its fullest acceptation.
The prominence of the topic of the day reduced the Session of 1877, little to the regret of the Government probably, who, in their safe policy of neutrality could reckon upon general support, to one of singular barrenness. The changes of 1876 reduced their majority by five seats, counting ten upon a division, but that majority remained substantially unaffected during the session, the close of which left the Conservatives with a tenure of power apparently as secure as before. The Liberal Opposition failed in any way to acquire, or show signs of acquiring, the unity of purpose and organisation which alone could weld together their scattered ranks. The Eastern Question threw into strange relief the revolution in party feeling which had taken place since the imperial days of Palmerston ; and, as far as the future could be forecast, the signs of the times pointed more and more to a new division of parties at some period more or less remote, when the two great sections of Liberalism should fall definitely apart, and fuse on the one side with the great Radical body, who represent the real advancing tendencies of the age; on the other, with its natural opposite, the Conservatism of the time. Between the Whig of Lord Palmerston's type, and the Tory who follows Disraeli, the difference looks now very small; and it is reserved, perhaps, for the rising out of the course of events of some new and great question of home legislation, sharply and freshly to define the two great parties without which party government has little “ reason of being.” We may be thankful, meanwhile, to think and to hope, in this most “self-adjusting” of all countries, that the signs of the times which looked so dangerous a few years since have died away, and that Conservatism does not now mean ( bstruction, nor Radicalism, Revolution. The increasing difficulty of dealing with the Irish Home-Rulers, who this year deliberately claimed for themselves the name of a third and distinct party in the House, and through one of their leaders, just before the meeting of Parliament, disclaimed all allegiance to the Liberals, has become a prominent feature in the politics of the day. Another and an interesting feature in the story of the year was the thoroughly new light in which it was to place the two great champions whose names have so long been the rallying cries of the two opposite camps.
Mr. Gladstone, his great and characteristic enthusiasm directed into an entirely new channel by the stimulus supplied to it from Bulgaria, showed himself in vigour and eloquence as young and as masterly as ever, but in the wars of the House enrolled himself as a guerilla chieftain, the leader of the Radicals of the future rather than the Liberals of the past; and Mr. Disraeli, his strange career crowned by a strange success, subsided into an almost silent member of the Upper House, to take no active part even there in the debates where such names as those of Derby, Cairns, Salisbury, and Richmond were already conspicuous, and to leave his mantle in the Lower, to be fitted as best it might be to the shoulders of Sir Stafford Northcote. Many believed that Lord Beaconsfield's silence and apparent inaction, which led more than once to the report that he was on the point of abandoning the Premiership altogether, were due to a cherished desire to inaugurate a new and a bolder policy for England in Continental matters, with something like a recurrence to the Palmerston era. Active interference on behalf of Turkey, and the annexation of Egypt as a quid pro quo, would have been, if nothing else, an imperial policy well suited to the minister who had made his mistress an empress and himself one of her leading nobles, and was believed by many, in his purchase of the Suez Canal, to be feeling his way to the annexation of Egypt. But such a policy was not suited to the times nor to the party which he still nominally led, but who were to show him in a little episode of the session, not much to their credit, how little power his name had over them, and how little of chivalry there was in their feeling for a leader who had brought them out of years of the cold shade of Opposition into an unexpected sunshine of favour which promised to expand into a lasting
The speeches of members preceding the opening . f Parliament were many and various, the recess, that once "inarticulate period,” as the Times called it, having of late years developed into a season of talk almost as busy as the session. Only one subject has been capable of fixing the attention of an audience; and it is hardly too much to say that there is at present no effective antagonism of Conservatives and Liberals, Ministerialists and antiMinisterialists, except that which attaches itself to the Turkish dispute. But on this matter people have been more vehement and irritable than the most burning domestic question has made them for years; a philo-Turk and anti-Gladstonian feeling prevailing in the higher society, while the constituencies tend, though perhaps not decidedly, the other way.
Speaking at a banquet of the Lord Mayor of York on the position of the Eastern Question, Mr. Lowther, whose name we find first in the field on the Conservative side, expressed his opinion that “all would admit that at the present moment the position of foreign affairs in Europe was one, the continuance of which was pre-eminently favourable to the interests of the country. He believed the Turks were quite able to take care of themselves. • The sick man, if too much sat upon, was quite capable of rising from his couch, and equal to the task of showing courage and how fields were won.' One interest above all others possessed the mind of the Government, in which they were cordially supported by the all but unanimous voice of the community—to maintain intact British interests and preserve the great and inestimable blessings of peace."
On the other hand, Sir William Harcourt, who proved himself throughout the recess one of the most dangerous of the enemies of the Government, but who failed to maintain in the session the ground he then seemed to gain, said at Oxford, that there had been many indications lately of a waning confidence in their policy, and declared that our foreign affairs had never been so glaringly mismanaged as they had been during the last eighteen months. In arguing that the autumn agitation had had the effect of changing the policy of the Government from a decided Turkish sympathy to a somewhat anti-Turkish neutrality, he struck the key afterwards sustained in Parliament. In the course of his speech, Sir William pointed out that the Government had lost ground in the constituencies, while in Oxford itself the municipal elections showed a large Liberal gain ; and, just as in the latter days of the Gladstone Ministry the Conservative gains in these contests had shown the speaker that the Liberals would soon be out of power, so, from the opposite change, he now inferred that they would soon be in again." It may be added,” said a writer in the Saturday Review, in commenting upon this speech, “ that all trustworthy accounts of the present feeling of the constituencies concur in assigning a far larger amount of present influence to Mr. Gladstone than the criticism justly and freely bestowed on