Monday, February 27, 2017

Retrospects and Prospects

The session which is now just beginning is, no doubt the last of a Parliament which will have very nearly died of old age, and which, if not an agent in great events, has at least been the spectator of some of the most remarkable transactions of recent history.  Short as the time seems since it met together, the face of both the old and of the new world is greatly altered from what it was when Lord Derby’s Government had to resign.  Parliament met at the latter end of May, 1859. At that time the battle of Solferino had not yet been fought; the King of Naples was still undisturbed; Italy was no more than a geographical expression; the Indian mutiny had only just died out; the United States were at the very height of peace and prosperity; Denmark and the Duchies reposed in undisturbed possession of relations peculiar to themselves, and supposed to be unintelligible to the rest of the world; the last Polish insurrection had been subdued twenty-seven years before; Europeans were still excluded from China, and could boast of no further acquaintance with the interior.  There is, indeed, hardly a country in Europe or North America which has not since a date which to the youngest of us seems so recent, experienced some great and striking change in its political character.

To England these six years have been a singularly quiet and prosperous period.  If we go back for six years further, we take in the Indian mutiny and the Russian war, and six years more take us back to the anxious time of the French Revolution and to the commercial revolution created by the adoption of free-trade.  Between the England of 1859 and the England of 1865, there is hardly any difference at all, except that we are all six years older, that many of us are a good deal richer, and that we have taken vigorously to volunteering.  It gives one a curious sense of the wonderful calm of these six years, as far as domestic politics are concerned, to look back at what has been done by our much enduring and most industrious legislature, which is now, so to speak, at its last gasp.  It has passed an unparalleled quantity of Acts of Parliament on every sort of subject, and besides the alterations which it has thus effected in the law, it has carried on any quantity of party discussion.  The Acts, it may be hoped and believed, are good and useful, but how little they affect the ordinary course of affairs!  We have made considerable alterations in the Government of India, and the management of Indian affairs.  The criminal law, after a decent interval of intricacy, confusion, and incoherent amendment, has been consolidated for the second time, and has by that elaborate contrivance been got into a condition which would not doubt enable any one who cared to take the trouble, to see what reforms it requires, and how they are to be made.  The law of bankruptcy also has by an extraordinary effort in the cobbling way been thrown into a condition which, if it cannot be described as scientific, may at least claim the praise of being elaborate.  Like the warlike acrobat in Bon Gaultier’s ballad, we may say of the law on this subject,--
“In a knot itself it ties,
Dreadful with its head appearing
In the middle of its thighs.”
Still, interesting as the laws of theft, and the rights and powers of assignees to important classes of Her Majesty’s subjects, most of us keep clear both of the assizes and of the Gazette, and feel no vital interest in the workings of those useful but not ornamental institutions.  Such as they are, however, these are the chief legislative measures of this longest lived of Parliaments.  Set aside a vast mass of special legislation about subjects for which no one cares who is not specially interested in local boards of health, the management of highways, the care of lunatics, and the like, and the rest of the business of Parliament will be found to have been composed of abortive attempts to pass a Reform Bill --which have always ended in a resolution to do nothing,--and the voting of budgets, and other current executive business.

That is the retrospect which the opening of the last session of a humdrum, easy-going Parliament suggests.  When we turn from the quiet state of our internal affairs and allow our minds to dwell a little on the possibilities of things, and the questions which they at any moment press upon our attention, the horizon is by no means altogether clear, though it would be absurd to call it stormy.  The repose of political parties depends altogether upon the continuance of the life and vigour of a man of eighty-four years of age, and it requires no great sagacity to anticipate that even if the present session should turn out a somewhat insignificant one as far as concerns the actual amount of work done, it will at any rate be enlivened by the sparring of politicians eager to put themselves and their views favourably before the public as competitors for a throne which must soon become the subject of serious warfare.  It is impossible not to feel that on Lord Palmerston’s tenure of office depends the greater part of the thin wall of separation which divides Mr. Gladstone, at least in domestic politics, from the Radical party, and in the journey from Oxford to Lancashire he will not be in want of company.

There are, however, many questions which will not even wait for the break up of the present Government, and which may at any moment give us whatever pleasure there may be to be found in stirring times.  There are two great subjects -- one domestic and one foreign -- on which we have many years of repose, and on which we may now expect to have to exert ourselves.  The domestic question is the Church, and the foreign question America.  As to the Church, there can be no doubt that whatever else has stood still since the leading members of the High Church party went over to Rome, theological speculation has been proceeding with a degree of rapidity and vigour unequalled in recent history.  Let any one look back only for ten years, and observe the difference of tone upon theological subjects which prevails at present in the press from that which prevailed so short a time ago.  Speculations may constantly be read in periodicals of good standing and general circulation which go as much beyond the Bishop of Natal as the Bishop of Natal went beyond the Essays and Reviews, or the Essays and Reviews beyond Mr. Maurice, who, it is rather amusing to remember, was considered by many people as a rather daring heresiarch not more than eleven or twelve years ago.  It is impossible to doubt that these speculations have deeply influenced the most powerful minds in the country, and it is at least equally certain that they have no less deeply moved that numerous class which regards their advance with terror and indignation.  That this state of things must and will affect the state of the national Church there can be no sort of question.  What particular issue will be raised, and what form it will take, is a question which time alone can settle; but that the great question between the course of theological speculation and the existing church establishment will be raised in some shape or other, and that at no great distance of time, is beyond all question.  Whenever it does arise, it will be a singularly intricate and complex matter.  The Church of England itself has strong sympathies both with orthodoxy and heterodoxy.  On the one side the clergy, or at least a very considerable party amongst them, regard themselves as the officers of an invisible and divinely appointed spiritual body, charged with the moral and religious superintendence of the nation, and forming a branch of the Christian Church at large. They will, of course, contend with all their might for the maintenance of authority and of all established dogmas in their most uncompromising form; and as the official representatives of the Church, the clergy have sometimes been taken for it.  On the other hand, the clergy, as a matter of fact, are no the Church.  They are only its officers; and are not even its only officers.  It is by law established; and, upon the legal ground, the position of the Liberals is as strong as that of the clergy on the ground of sentiment and association.  The great questions are, whether or not the clergy are to have more power; and whether or not the Liberals are to have more freedom.  These are the general questions which will be represented in Parliament by discussions on changes in the final Court of Appeal, and on the report -- about to be presented in Parliament -- of the Commissioners of the Subscriptions of the Clergy.  There is no reason to doubt that the proverbial vigour of theological discussion will give interest enough to this part, at least, of the debates which we may expect.

The great foreign question is, no doubt, the question of America.  It is obvious enough that some kind of crisis in the struggle is approaching.  If the Confederates really are determined to win their independence at all possible cost, and if, by the offer of freedom, they can get the slaves to fight for them, there is no saying how long the struggle may still go on.  On the other hand, there are symptoms which the North may reasonably consider as highly encouraging.  Be that as it may, it seems clear enough that our own relations with America are delicate, and may at any moment, and in consequence of any false step, become anxious and critical.  Of mere bluster and bad manners we think very little.  It would no doubt be well to forget many things which the exponents of public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic have said and written of each other in the heat of controversy.  We have something to forgive, no doubt, but there is also something for which we ourselves require forgiveness.  The notice, however, to terminate the treaty which secures the neutrality of the Lakes is another matter, and so is the proposition to tear open the old quarrels which were compromised by the Ashburton treaty at the expense of considerable concessions on our side.  These things certainly do show a degree of irritation which might under circumstances find vent in war.  It is, however, to be borne in mind that we easily exaggerate the importance of such symptoms.  We are apt to think that we fill a far larger space in the eyes of Americans than we really do fill. The Western States are taking the lead in the policy and government of the country by gigantic strides, and their swarming population troubles itself little enough about us and our affairs.  Let us only get through this war without a quarrel, and the American people, whether they form one state or more, will, we may hope, find peace so pleasant, and the claims of their monstrous debt so pressing, that they will be in less hurry to fight again than they themselves suppose whilst their blood is heated by the actual combat.

Pall Mall Gazette, February 8, 1865.

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