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IS THE LIBERAL PARTY IN COLLAPSE ?
We hear on every side that the country is under the influence of political apathy so intense that nothing suffices to disturb it. It is in vain to appeal in reply to facts which seem to prove directly the contrary. For any such suggestion is treated simply as a sign of an infatuation so inveterate that it is beyond the power of evidence to convince. The reasons assigned for the prevalent indifference are various. But the fact is treated as beyond all question. I venture, despite a good deal that is contradictory in the superficial aspects of the time, to doubt the correctness of the diagnosis. Were it true it would be an evil sign indeed for the political life of the country. The security for freedom and progress is to be found in the intelligent and active political thought of the people. It would be an evil omen indeed if there were any diminution of that healthy criticism which officialism may greatly dislike, but which is assuredly one secret of administrative purity and efficiency. And while that criticism is alive and active there must certainly be constant struggle between the friends of progress on the one side, and those who are content with things as they are upon the other.
It is not to be denied, however, that there has been a considerable change both in the composition of parties and in their relation to one another. If we are to believe the accounts that are continually given, the Liberal party is at present in a state of collapse. Its condition is indeed so melancholy that its opponents, from Cabinet Ministers downwards, add to the duties necessarily devolving on them in the inspiration and guidance of their own party a tender and anxious concern for the afflicted Liberals. They are reminded of their weakness of course only with the benevolent desire of showing them how to regain strength. The claims of different statesmen to the leadership are carefully discussed by those who will resolutely oppose the man on whom the election may ultimately fall. It is all extremely interesting, not to say affecting, but it is not so convincing as might at first appear. Apart from the fact that criticism of opponents is probably one of the best ways of diverting attention from their own failures, it is hardly to Unionists or. Con
servatives that we should look for an accurate estimate of Liberal strength.
One thing at least is certain—that if the Liberal party is weakened by internal division, no one is imposed upon by the show of unity among the supporters of the Ministry. The Liberal party may be in a condition of feebleness. But its old Conservative rival, if it has not ceased to be, at all events does not venture to make its existence known. The Parliamentary majority is not Conservative but Unionist, and the description is true, not so much because it was originally banded together for a policy of Imperial Union—the necessity for which, if it ever had any justification, has it no longeras because it is an amalgamation of two separate forces with very dissimilar motives and aims. In truth, the condition of parties has had no parallel in our memory. The Unionists rule in Parliament, but they have a secret consciousness that their great majority is not supported by a corresponding preponderance of opinion in the country. The Opposition, on the other hand, feel how much justice there is in the taunt that they are without leader, without policy, and without party cohesion. And yet, whenever a bye-election occurs, there is abundant evidence of the vitality of Liberal opinion in the country. The state of things is somewhat anomalous, and yet perhaps it is not incapable of explanation.
The continuance of such political disorganisation is certainly to be deprecated. In a remarkable passage in a recent number the Spectator says : ‘Italian affairs have for the most part little attraction for Englishmen. They want the two things which ordinarily make foreign politics interesting-principles and men. We look in vain for any indication that Italian parties care for anything beyond an immediate tactical success.' How far do these remarks apply to our English politics at the present time? To us, accustomed as we are to regard ours as the mother of all Parliaments, and to pride ourselves upon both the spirit and methods of our political warfare, and in fact to regard our system of party Government as approaching as nearly to perfection as a system worked by imperfect men is likely to do, such a suggestion must come as an unwelcome surprise. To compare us with Italians, who are but learning the Parliamentary art, must provoke our resentment. Of course, it may be admitted that it is not true to the full extent, and the circumstances of the two cases are so different that any attempt to set up an exact parallel would be misleading. But there is at least this resemblance. Like the Italians, we are suffering for the want of 'men and principles. In other words, there are only too manifest signs of a decay in the character and tone of our Parliamentary struggles. The House is 'still divided into two great sections, and on both sides there are men of fixed convictions and of resolute purpose who would be among the very first to mourn over the degeneracy, as it appears to them, of political life, and to criticise severely the action of many of their own associates. To speak frankly, it would not be very easy to draw the line which separates the one side from the other.
Many causes have contributed to this. The most potent, of course, has been the great schism in the Liberal party, complicated by the claim of the seceders to be the true representatives of Liberal principles. The question which has thus arisen has come to be one. as to the fundamental principle of Liberalism itself. Nor is this a mere question of words. For if those who formerly ranged themselves in the foremost ranks of the party of progress have passed over to the Conservative ranks, and are able to persuade their new associates that the only difference between the old combatants is one of time and opportunity, they have gone very far towards effacing the old distinctions, and probably also towards breaking up the old political confederacies. As a matter of fact this is what has occurred; and until there is some new line of distinction more clearly marked out than exists at present, our two parties are in danger of becoming mere unions of groups, each with its own distinct object, but without any strong uniting principle, and without any constraining sense of obligation to the general federation. Unionist critics would tell us that this is the case with the Liberal party already. The divisions of the Liberal party afford them subject for continual merriment, and it must be admitted they are not without justification for their satire. But when the worst has been said, it still remains true that, with the exception of one of the sections, the only point of difference is a question as to the order in which the separate reforms shall be undertaken. The friends of religious equality are also temperance reformers, and they, in their turn, are deeply interested in those questions of social reform which have attained such prominence of late years. With the Irish wing of the party it is different, as has been more than once shown in the course of the Education debates. But the Nationalists regard themselves as allies and allies only, and must be dealt with separately. The other contingents of the party, though having their separate aims and even organisations, are in essential agreement. They desire progress, and shape their action with that view. They believe in a policy of righteousness as opposed to one of selfishness, or of expediency, or of servile submission to the traditions of the past. They are not deterred from assailing what they hold to be abuses because of their hoary antiquity or their hold upon the prejudices of the nation. They are opposed to all class legislation, and believe that the people should govern in the interests of the people. There is thus a sufficiently wide area of agreement, and, when appeal is made to the constituencies, it is surprising how easily, in the majority of cases, a basis of united action is found.
It is only in a limited sense, therefore, that the party can be said to have a composite character. It is in the great Unionist party that the fissures are so wide that any attempt to conceal them is useless. Peers, parsons, and publicans are the classes which have mainly contributed to build up the present enormous majority ; bat. what sympathy have they with each other? They may all follow Lord Salisbury, and do their utmost to secure his ascendency; but they regard each other with but little sympathy, and at heart each regards the others as necessary evils, which must be endured, but which serve to weaken the common cause. There is a clerical brigade, headed by the Prime Minister's sons, which makes itself active in the House. Is it possible to believe that its proceedings are regarded with favour by the more mundane members of the party, numbers of whom have been touched by the spirit of sweet reasonableness,' and would, so far as is compatible with their convictions as conscientious believers in a State Church, show Nonconformists equitable consideration and Christian courtesy ? Or is it credible that the defence of the trade'is a congenial task for numbers of Christian gentlemen who, on the platform of the Church Temper. ance Society, express their deep sense of the curse which drunkenness is inflicting on the country, and their desire to find some counteractive ? But even these differences pale before the more serious distinction between the two great sections of the party. The assurances of the unity which prevails among them are very charming, but the curious fact is that, despite them all, they insist on maintaining their separate organisations. They meet on the same platforms, where they interchange expressions of mutual admiration and trust, but they deliberate in separate council chambers, and their forces are arrayed in separate camps, so that, should occasion demand it, they may be prepared for independent action. It is idle for a party existing under such conditions to taunt its opponents with their internal divisions.
Both parties are so much alike in this respect that it would be a waste of time to compare any differences there may be between them. It is a misfortune for the country that it should be so, for the inevitable tendency under such conditions is to government by groups. This is the real evil indicated in the suggestive remarks on Italian politics we have quoted. It has been the fruitful source of weakness in the French Republic, and it would be a melancholy outcome of our long centuries of political struggle if it were to establish itself among us.
It may be that the appearances of the moment are misleading, and that at the utmost they are only signs of a state of things which is in its nature ephemeral, and which, indeed, is already passing away. But before accepting this sanguine view it is well to remember that the conditions of our party warfare are greatly changed. Had I written prior to the meeting of the general committee of the National Liberal Federation at Derby, I should have said that the time for constitutional reform, as far as
the House of Commons is concerned, was past, and that the lines of our democratic government are fairly settled. And despite the extraordinary demonstration there in favour of adult suffrage—both for men and women alike I hold to the same view still. Of course there are improvements needed so as to make the vote a reality; but as to extension of the suffrage, it is hardly a cry which will serve the purposes of either party. Experience has shown the folly of the most confident calculation on the balance of parties of the lowering of the franchise. Women's suffrage stands on a basis distinctly its own, and I pass by it here. But he must indeed have a peculiar taste, or a very limited knowledge of the present constituencies, who believes that there would be any advantage in the addition to them of any large number of what Mr. Bright called the residuum. It may safely be said, too, that there will be a long and searching discussion of the principles on which the proposal is made before it is incorporated into the Liberal programme. Improvements in machinery there must be, and more particularly the autocracy of the House of Lords must be destroyed. With that exception, no great question of constitutional reform seems likely to be introduced into the political programme, and that itself materially affects the relation of parties. One great subject of contention at all events is ended. But that is not all. The democratic developments have helped to terminate other controversies. Reforms which fifty, or even thirty, years ago would have seemed dreams of Utopia have been accomplished. Some extreme Unionists, indeed, intoxicated by the greatness of their majority, have shown an infatuated desire to reopen old controversies. But Mr. Chaplin and Mr. James Lowther and Blackwood's Magazine are no more representative of the one party than the clique which is described as the Political Committee of the National Liberal Club is of the other. There is no real prospect of any revival of the old struggles, and, that being so, the area of future conflict is materially narrowed.
This is one of the conditions favourable to the formation of Parliamentary groups. There are those who regard the tendency with approval, but surely they can hardly have looked at it carefully all round. For where there is such an amorphous state of party, there are the most numerous openings for the play of personal ambition. From this our system has been remarkably free. Of the Queen's Prime Ministers there is one only on whom such an imputation can rest, and that only in a qualified degree. It is no calumny on Mr. Disraeli to say that he was inspired by an insatiate ambition ; but it would be only fair, on the other hand, to add that, while pursuing his own ends, he believed that the policy which he advocated would be for the good of the country. How far even that was dictated by personal predilections it would be bootless to inquire. But this, at least, is evident--that, when he had identified his name with that