Thursday, September 15, 2016

Essays on Self-Government

Review of:
“L’Angleterre.  Études sur le Self-Government” by M. ——.

The state of political affairs in France appears to be directing a great deal of attention to the working of our own institutions. Almost every French book published at present upon political subjects dwells more or less upon the contrast between liberty, as we understand it, and the want of it which exists in France. There is a uniformity of style about these speculations which, it must be owned, is tedious. They go on, with touching good faith, preaching the same sort of things about self-government, liberty and order, the freedom of the press, and other topics which are to us the most threadbare of all commonplaces. It is to be hoped that they persuade somebody, and probably they do, but to English renders it is not very interesting to read a set of elaborate panegyrics on things which to them are prosaic. It is ungracious, perhaps, to read with indifference praises of institutions which in the main, and on the whole, are justly dear to all of us; but the title of “the Just” was probably rather tiresome to Aristides himself as well as to his neighbours, and there is so much that is feeble, second-rate, and poor in all we see about us that there is something hardly satisfactory in an elaborate defence and laudation of England and the English. It is pleasanter to be blamed. That at least shows us our own faces from a point of view which is not our own. A foreigner who tries to catch our point of view, and does not altogether succeed, is uninteresting almost in proportion as he is complimentary. No doubt, however, it ought to be borne in mind that nearly the only way in which a Frenchman in the present day can attack the state of things which exists in France is by praising England and English institutions, and by forcing his fellow-countrymen, if possible, to understand the practical advantages which arise from a free government.

M. ——  begins his essay on England with a set of small historical sketches, intended to illustrate some of the leading features of the English system of government, and especially; the advantages of an aristocracy such as we possess. He says, “I maintain an apparent paradox in maintaining that there can be no durable liberty without an aristocracy.” He then goes on to explain that he means, by an aristocracy, a rich and well-educated class, fitted by their habits of life and of thought for understanding and managing the affairs of the nation, and invested by the law and practice of the country with considerable influence over them. This, so far from being a paradox, is surely almost a truism. If a man is to make a profession of politics, and if he is to do so upon independent terms—that is, if it is to be a matter of secondary importance to him whether or not he holds office—he must be rich and well-educated. But he cannot make his fortune, either in professional or in commercial life, till he has reached middle age, and therefore, if he is to take to politics young, his wealth must be inherited. But a class of men who are well educated, who inherit wealth, and who take a prominent art in politics, are an aristocracy, as we in this country have understood the word, or rather have possessed the thing, for centuries. This is so plain that to state is to prove it. In illustration of the services rendered to the country by men of this class, M. gives a short sketch of the principal English statesmen from Walpole to Sir Robert Peel, and of two or three of the most remarkable of our late measures—such as the Reform Bill, Catholic Emancipation, and the repeal of the Corn Laws. They are described with a laudable spirit, but in the regular thin French style—a style which is perfectly unconscious of the fact that it is commonplace, and which hardly ever, even by chance, goes beyond the most ordinary routine of observations, thrown nevertheless into a certain philosophical shape. It may, however, be said on behalf of M. ——, that his chapters on these topics are by no means a bad résumé of a fairly good and sensible set of commonplaces on measures about which almost all reasonable people are by this time perfectly well agreed.

After describing the great political discussions of the day, M. —— proceeds to take a rapid glance at a great number of other subjects, such as English agriculture and commerce, the appearance of London, the administration of justice, literature, legislation, &c. He is by no means so happy in this part of his book as he was amongst the common laces, where, with the help of Lord Macaulay, Mr. Hallam, and de Tocqueville, he was able to get through his work in a pretty safe and satisfactory manner. It is by no means so easy to describe the laws of a country and the organization of its courts of law, as it is to get up the approved and correct view of the political questions of the day. In this part of his work, accordingly, M. ——  falls into mistake after mistake in a way which shows that he has not really studied England, but has contented himself with learning the theories approved and recognised by almost all sensible people upon a few leading subjects. This might be illustrated from eat every chapter of this part of the book. Passing over a disquisition on the subject of codification, of which M. ——— obviously knows nothing at all, for the subject requires much special knowledge, we come to an inquiry into the leading points of English legislation, which are as follows:—Flogging in the army, the impressment of sailors, the observance of Sunday, arrest for debt, laws on poaching, divorce, affiliation orders, and “secret mortgages.” The list is an odd one, and. the remarks on the different matters selected are odder than the selection itself. For instance, as to flogging, M. ——  either does not know or does not mention the restrictions lately introduced into the practice, and especially the rule that a man, in common cases, cannot be flogged until he has been sentenced by court-martial to be degraded into the class which is liable to that punishment. As to impressment, he does not say a word about the system of naval volunteers which has practically superseded the press-gang, nor does he say that for nearly fifty years no sailor has been pressed. As to the “laws for the observance of Sunday,” he does not explain what they are. Except that Sunday trading is forbidden, there is nothing but the feeling of the people to prevent the Sunday from being spent here as it is in France. As to arrest for debt, he says, “Imprisonment is practised in England with extreme ease. Arrest for debt is the base of English commercial legislation.” He is probably not aware that arrest on mesne process, except where the debtor is in meditatione fugae, has been abolished for many years, and that arrest in execution is now mitigated to such a degree that a man can hardly stay in prison for more than a month or six weeks even if he wishes it. In speaking of the laws about poaching he merely repeats oommonplaces of the vaguest kind. As to divorce, he informs his readers that a divorce a vinculo “ne peut être prononcé que par un bill du parlement.” He must have got this commonplace out of a very old authority.

The most grotesque of all his remarks is upon what he calls the “Recherche de la paternité,” which, being interpreted, seems to mean the law of affiliation orders. These blessings to society are, it appears, unknown in France. Their effects in England are obvious to all the world. The following account of them appears to us one of the queerest passages that ever were written:— “Thanks to this salutary law, our neighbours can leave a certain liberty to their daughters; they circulate under the safeguard of the law. With this viaticum they may mix in male society without fear of being compromised." How many of the young women who “circulate” in our parks and drawing-recurs are aware of the bulwark by which they are protected ? Little as they think it, their real guardian is the weekly half-crown which they might extract from the pocket of a vile seducer by appearing at the Middlesex Sessions and submitting to be cross-examined by those ornaments to the bar who there exchange amenities with the Deputy Judge. Certainly, if unmarried Englishmen are kept to the paths of virtue by the fear of having to pay a maximum of £6.10s a year – 4s more than a club subscription—they must be a wonderful race. M. ———’s remark about “ secret mortgages” is noticeable as a proof of the mischief done by ignorant novelists. He says, “The want of publicity in mortgages breeds those interminable suits which exercise so well the wit of humourists. Dickens has found a perfect mine in English procedure.” He goes on to say that, as the inconvenience is not remedied, it is probably exaggerated. A man who writes upon such a subject ought to have some better authority than a mere novel. The fact that mortgages are not registered is no grievance at all, nor is it the source of interminable suits, nor are English suits interminable. M. -—— has got hold of the whole subject entirely at the wrong end. English real property law is intricate and unsatisfactory enough, but the non-registration of mortgages has nothing to do with it. No form of security is more common, more convenient, or more strictly private than an equitable mortgage, and to prevent it would be a grievous hardship.

If M. ——— were himself a novelist he could not be more unlucky with his law. He always gets it wrong. He says in a chapter on the Courts of Law:—“The head of the magistrature is the Lord High Chancellor. The magistrates are nominated and paid by the Crown. They are removable. Justices of the peace are not paid.” A man who does not know that the fifteen Judges are removable only on an address from both Houses of Parliament, and that the Vice-Chancellors are on the same footing, has no business to write about the English Constitution. M. ——— seems to have no distinct notion of the difference between the County Court judges and the judges of the Courts of Westminster Hall. He says that if the County Court judges were made irremovable and elective, the administration of justice in England would be as respectable as it is in America. Perhaps it might, but we had rather let it alone. No English agitator has ever thought of proposing to make the Judges elective.

Elsewhere he describes the criminal courts. He says that what the French call contraventions are in England tried before justices of the peace; that délits are tried before “two magistrates in petty sessions, or in certain towns a Recorder, who is equivalent to two magistrates,” or else before the police courts; and that “crimes are reserved for the assize courts.” He is altogether wrong. Some crimes, in the technical French sense of the word, are reserved for assize courts, and some contraventions are reserved for justices of the peace; but the great mass of offences of all sorts are cognisable by the assize courts and the courts of quarter session. He obviously confounds the quarter sessions with the petty sessions; and recorders are in no sense of the word equivalent to two justices. He makes the confusion greater by talking, in the next section, of the police magistrates as if they had a wider jurisdiction than the courts of petty session, and could dispose of offences of greater importance.

As to his account of English literature, it will perhaps be enough to quote one line:—“Littérairement parlant, elle (l’Angleterre contemporaine) se résume en deux noms, Byron et Walter Scott.” The book swarms with small mistakes, and with those constant misspellings of English names and words which one would suppose to be errors of the press if they did not occur in every French book, with hardly an exception. Thus, for instance, the Mutiny Act is repeatedly called le meeting bill, or Meeting Act. As this happens three times in a few pages, it can hardly be a misprint. After describing the universities, he speaks of the public schools:—“Les établissements d’instruction secondaire sent inombrables et absolument libres. On désigne parmi les plus célébres Eton, Harrow, King's et Trinity College.” As for proper names, we have Chatam, Jame Watt, Kinglathe, Crokes (Croker) Schadevell (Shadwell), Yang, Blake (Black), and such words as yomen, schoals, statut‘s book, and shop-beers for beer-shops. These are trifies in themselves, but, taken in connexion with serious blunders, they give a character to the book. ' '

Saturday Review, June 18, 1864.

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