Monday, February 27, 2017

The Liberalism of the Future

The extreme care and diligence with which Mr. Grant Duff prepares his annual addresses to his constituents at Elgin has given them a value of their own, different in kind from that which belongs to the great majority of autumnal political speeches.  He is always both piqant as to the events of the past session and instructive as to the future.  The way in which he states his estimate of different persons who have been specially conspicuous during the past session may not be exactly pleasant to them, but it is so thoroughly hearty and vigorous that we, on whose shoulders the lash does not descend, cannot be expected to look on without pleasure.  His picture of Mr. Disraeli as an Englishman by choice merely, who looks upon thoroughbred English statesmen merely as the pieces on a chessboard, and his solemn admonitions to Mr. Gladstone top “get rid of the rags and tatters of mediaeval superstition” are good illustrations of this.  This, however, is of passing importance.  The really substantial part of Mr. Grant Duff’s speeches, and especially of the last speech which he delivered, is the singularly precise and definite programme which it contains of the liberalism of the future.  We doubt whether any other man in Parliament has conceived with equal distinctness the course of policy which he hopes to see inaugurated by the new Reform Bill, or whether there are more than half a dozen men there capable of expressing such a view if he had conceived it with equal precision and vigor.  Apart from certain electoral reforms specially interesting to the Scotch, Mr. Grant Duff wants a variety of particularly definite things.  He wants to see a thorough reform in secondary and superior education, which shall “take away from Oxford and Cambridge their predominantly sectarian, ecclesiastical, and mediaeval character, and which, leaving the outward forms of the past, shall make their spirit national, lay, and nineteenth-century.”  Next he wishes to see the military system reconstructed by the abolition of the purchase system; the improvement of the condition of the private by a general revision of the existing system of discipline; the encouragement of professional ability; the reduction of the number and the improvement of the quality of the regular troops; the consolidation of our military establishments into a single defensive army; and by putting an end to the system of double government at the War Office and the Horse Guards.  He also wants a code; also the revision of the administrative departments; also Irish reform, including the general disendowment of religious bodies, the maintenance of the national system of education, the retention of the Queen’s University in its present shape, and the throwing open of Trinity College.  He proposes to settle the land question, first by trying mild measures about leases and improvements, and if they are not enough he “would not shrink from more sweeping changes.”  H would no more give the Irish our denominational system than he would give them “that ornament of our English heaths, the viper.”  With regard to Church matters, he sighs for the day “when discussions upon ecclesiastical subjects will be as completely out of place in the House of Commons as they are in the Congress of the United States,” but, alas! “we are far from that time.  Those ecclesiastical questions are likely to torment us for the whole lifetime of this generation.”  All Churches are in a bad way, “St. Peter’s Church heaves silently like a mighty ship in pain,” and so do many other communions.  “Where is the wisdom of grappling old political systems to old ecclesiastical systems” so as to give an extra purchase to political agitators?  As to reforms in the matter of landed property, Mr. Grant Duff’s voice is rather inquiring and warning than definite and stringent.  He does not see his way to making every man’s will for him by Act of Parliament, but he shakes his head over the present system, and in his pleasant way quietly reminds the public that “three-quarters of an hour on the 24th of September, 1790, sufficed to settle this whole group of questions in France,” and this civil revolution, he says, “took place in the midst of profound peace.” Surely there is something wrong here.  The 14th of July and the 6th of October, 1789, were not exactly days of profound peace.  The revolt of the troops at Nancy, and the bloody combat which took place in that town between the mutineers and the forces under BouillĂ©, happened at the end of August, 1790, and throughout the whole of that year there had been more or less violent disturbances at Nismes, Brest, Toulon, Toulouse, Marseilles, Montauban, and Angers.  Moreover, unless the great Alison is more than unusually inaccurate, the measure in question passed on the 18th of March, 1791.  This, however, is a small matter.  Mr. Grant Duff’s further proposals are “a dead lift to improve the position of farm labourers,” and reforms in the constitution of the House of Lord’s, including disuse of proxies, a larger quorum, and the creation of life peers.  This he thinks is almost enough for the present.  The ballot may be put off, the redistribution of seats may be put off.  Let us try to get something done with our new machinery instead of insisting upon cobbling it further.

Rather a characteristic little scene followed the publication of this pretty comprehensive programme. A local Liberal insisted on asking a few questions.  “Mr. Grant Duff, Sir, what alterations would you propose in our game laws?  Or would you sweep them aside as a disgrace to the country?”  Mr. Grant Duff said he would transfer the jurisdiction from the magistrates to the sheriff.  He was then asked whether he would vote for the abolition of capital punishment, and said he would not.  This very small incident has its value.  People may talk for ever about the Liberal programme and depict in glowing colours all the reforms which ought to follow an extension of the suffrage; but reform to a vast mass of ignorant and careless voters will always mean some little question like flogging in the army, or what are vaguely called the game laws, though we greatly doubt whether one person in five who denounces them knows with any sort of precision what they are.  This remark, indeed, supplies the subject of the principal criticism which we should be disposed to make on Mr. Grant Duff’s speech.  Subject to certain exceptions, especially in regard to ecclesiastical questions, we agree with the greater part of what he said, and if the Reform Bill does procure for us any considerable part of the various good things which he enumerates, it will have been carried into force in this country.  That some of the things in question will have a much better chance of being done under the next than under preceding Parliaments, is hardly a matter of doubt.  It is a very different question in what spirit the necessary changes will be made.  Whether they will be made at all in cases in which no gross practical grievance which immediately touches the pockets or the feelings of any considerable section of the people can be specified may be doubted.  Look, for instance, at the question of army reform in the difficult branches enumerated by Mr. Grant Duff.  No doubt such questions  as the abolition of the purchase system, the abolition of military flogging, and increased encouragement to special talent in all ranks, would admit of being made popular questions.  Perhaps, too, the substitution of one office for two at the head of military affairs might be put in a light sufficiently glaring to catch the eye of large masses of the electors; but why should we expect from the new Parliament a broader or more statesmanlike view of such a measure as uniting into one defensive army all the different arms of the present service than that which prevails with the present Parliament?  Why should we suppose in particular that the new constituencies will see more clearly than the old ones the importance of keeping ourselves in a state of readiness for a large expansion of our military force on short notice, and of being provided for that purpose with a better central organization of our various military forces than we at present possess?   Look again at the question of the code, to which Mr. Grant Duff justly attaches so much importance.  Particular questions, such as the alteration of the law of inheritance, might be made popular but how can you ever succeed in making a popular constituency attach any sort of meaning to the difference between the consolidation and the codification of the law, or form an intelligent opinion upon the degree of latitude which it is desirable to leave to the judges in the interpretation of various parts of it?  There are not many men in Parliament as it is who know much about law reform.  Why should we suppose that the number will be increased by an increase in the constituencies?  With respect to education, we think it not only possible, but probably, that the bill of last session will introduce great changes.  The constituencies no doubt, will be fully able to understand that the great reason why they have not as yet got a general national system of education for their children is that the present system represents not the views of the parents, but the views of the gentry and the clergy.  They will be likely enough to wish to alter this, and it is far from improbably that the shock of the alteration may make itself felt throughout the whole educational system of the country, including secondary and university education as well as primary education.  We feel as much as Mr. Grant Duff the necessity of alteration in these matters, but we greatly doubt whether the new constituencies will exercise a particularly wise discretion as to the persons whom they will entrust with the task of rearranging the present state of things.  It is eminently desirable that Oxford and Cambridge should be made national, lay, and nineteenth-century, but eminently undesirable that they should be made vulgar, narrow-minded, an fanatical, after a petty, ignoble fashion.  There is a real risk that the nineteenth-century sprit which will be infused into those ancient bodies under the new system will not be the best of the many spirits of the age.  We might in this way go through every one of the topics which Mr. Grant Duff has handled, and ask similar questions with regard to each.  Mr. Grant Duff would probably reply that there is no use in asking such questions, inasmuch as the answer can lead to no useful result.  We have got our Reform Bill. It was obviously inevitable from the first.  All that remains is to try to direct into beneficial channels the new force which is called into play, and to teach our masters not only to know their letters but to know their friends, their best counsellors, and the course on which, if they are wise, they will steer.  He would say, Whether you will get all these reforms or not is one question; Whether it is wise to agitate for them, to put forward distinct proposals supported by intelligible reasons as the program of the Liberal party, is quite another, and it is one about which those who think as we do cannot entertain any real doubt.  Find reasonable work for the new constituencies to do, and show them how to do it, and the late change will be a blessing to us all, otherwise not.  This is, we think, true and manly doctrine, and we can only add it that we must all work, and hope for the best.  Whether our expectations are more or less sanguine, let us, at all events, put the best face on matters which they can reasonably wear.

Pall Mall Gazette, October 11, 1867.

No comments:

Post a Comment