Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Premier's Lesson to his Enemies

One of the most grievous and constant puzzles of King David was the prosperity of the wicked and the scornful, and the same tremendous moral enigma has come down to our own days. In this respect the earth is in its older time what it was in its youth. Eyen so recently as last week the riddle once more presented itself in its most impressive shape. Like the Psalmist, the Liberal leader may well protest that verily he has cleansed his heart in vain and washed his hands in innocency; all day long he has been plagued by Whig lords, and chastened every morning by Radical manufacturers; as blamelessly as any curate he has written about "Ecce Homo;" and he has never made a speech, even in the smallest country town, without calling out with David, How foolish am I and how ignorant. For all this, what does he see? The scorner who shot out the lip and shook the head at him across the table of the House of Commons last session has now more than heart could wish; his eyes, speaking in an Oriental manner, stand out with fatness, he speaketh loftily, and pride compasseth him about as a chain. It is all very well to say that the candle of the wicked is put out in the long run, that they are as stubble before the wind, and as chaff that the storm carries away. So we were told in other times of tribulation. This was the sort of consolation that used to be offered in the jaunty days of Lord Palmerston. People used then to soothe the earnest Liberal by the same kind of argument. "Only wait," it was said, "until he has retired, and all will be well with us." But no sooner has the storm carried away wicked Whig chaff than the heavens are forthwith darkened by new clouds of Tory chaff. That the writer of frivolous stories about "Vivian Grey" and "Coningsby" should grasp the sceptre before the writer of beautiful and serious things about "Ecce Homo"--the man who is epigrammatic, flashy, arrogant, before the man who never perpetrated an epigram in his life, is always fervid, and would as soon die as admit that he had a shade more brain than his footman --the Radical corrupted into a Tory before the Tory purified and elevated into a Radical,--is not this enough to make an honest man rend his mantle and shave his head and sit down among the ashes inconsolable ? Let us play the too underrated part of Bildad the Shuhite for a space, while our chiefs thus have unwelcome leisure to scrape themselves with potsherds and to meditate upon the evil way of the world.

To begin with, it is probable, whatever may have been the case among the ancients, that in the modern world the most successful way of averting Nemesis is to defy her. In politics at least she is a coward. To be afraid of her is to fall under her feet. To be always protesting that your faculties are very poor, that your services to the State are very humble, that fallen man ought not to think that he can do much in such a world as this, is not the best way for giving a parcel of rather heavy-headed members of Parliament a particularly strong confidence in your capacity for leading them on to victory. A Roman general, if he found it desirable to go into battle, always took care that the birds should appear in the right quarter. A leader who knows how to get the omens on his side has half won the battle, Julius Caesar when he landed in Africa slipped and fell, but soon restored confidence by exclaiming that he had grasped his prize; the member for South Lancashire would not improbably have made it a text for a glowing if not wholly seasonable discourse on the fallibility of man. Look at his rival, whose horn is now so marvellously exalted. It is not at all difficult to imagine Mr. Disraeli crying to a timorous Tory Cabinet, after the manner of the great Julius, to the trembling boatman, "Fear not; ye carry the destinies of Disraeli." How far this would gratify and inspirit them may be rather hard to tell. It would, however, be the right cue. Intrepid self-reliance may, like other good things, be used for mean ends, but for organizing a party, founding a policy, welding men together for common action, it is simply indispensable. Only one thing may be worth noticing. The new Prime Minister spoke at Edinburgh with something like extreme arrogance about his efforts and performances. But then the battle was over. He was arrogant when arrogance was tolerably harmless. In the House he was ostentatiously deferential. Contrast his excess of pliancy to the people with whom he had to work, with the excess of inflexibility in the session of 1866, and much as we may dislike the former we cannot find anything to admire in the latter. Let us have thorough resolution in a leader, but tempered by discretion and tact in its manifestation.

Again, the composition of Mr. Disraeli’s Cabinet may teach his enemies another lesson. It is the most plebeian we have ever had, in the first place; and in the second, it is one of the least septuagenarian. The Whig Cabinets of late times have reminded one of those tremendous sums in the school books about the united ages of a party of people at dinner. The total years of the Palmerston Ministry or the Russell Ministry must have been stupendous. A stranger might have fancied himself in the presence of some assembly of the oldest inhabitants of each of a dozen country parishes. Lord Cairns, Mr. Hardy, Mr. Hunt, Sir Stafford Northcote, Lord Stanley, are mere lads by the side of Lord Russell and Lord Halifax and Lord Cranworth. When the Liberals come in again, are we again to have to do addition sums of ever so many figures to find out the total number of years that the Cabinet has lived unofficially and officially upon the earth? Then, there is little perfume of caste about the new Ministry. It is full of plain "Misters," and even the three live dukes do not bring its amount of blue blood up to the Whig average by a very long way. Mr. Jacob Bright himself cannot charge it with being feudalist or patrician. It is useless to deny that the traditional greediness of the Whigs, along with their intense administrative mediocrity, has been the curse of Liberalism for the last twenty years. What can one do with folk who think that it is all fair and just to place men like Lord Hartington and Lord De Grey in high office, while to Mr. Forster or Mr. Stansfield is tossed the scurvy bone of some under-secretaryship ? To be able to trample on a Grey, or an Elliot, or even a sacred Cavendish, is a much more indispensable qualification in the Liberal leader of the future than to have the very soundest views about Phoenicia.

Mr. Disraeli again has always treated the practice of politics as a business, requiring as much undivided devotion and assiduous attention as a large warehouse or monster factory. Through long years he has waited and watched. For example, we may profitably contrast the caution --call it feline, if you like--which held him silent or respectful in the American civil war, with the impulsive declaration on the other side that the South was made into a nation, a statement which has irrecoverably lost the speaker the friendship of a people whose sympathies might not have been useless to him even in England. This is the sort of thing that comes of comparative slackness of attention; of the mind not being closely, narrowly, tenaciously pinned down to events of every sort, reaching over the whole surface of political action, inspired with an unwearied patience in watching consequences, in turning them over in every light, in making mental provision for every contingency. While we are all thinking about Fenians, our chief is said to be thinking about Phoenicians. Is politics a battle that can be fought with one hand and half a mind and half an eye?  Mr. Disraeli never thought so, and if he had done he would never have been Prime Minister of England. A patrician may come to the top on the strength of his rank, but one of the other order can only come to the top by incessant labour undividedly given to public business.

Many good men have pleased themselves with the fancy that the shades of departed heroes long haunt the scenes of past triumphs, and take a ghostly interest in the struggles of their successors. The idea is probably illusory, yet one may innocently picture the mood in which the shade of Palmerston might be supposed to watch the elevation of the new Tory Premier. It is little more than two years since the event took place which was to inaugurate the blessed reign of earnestness and fervid sincerity, when political jockeying should be at an end, and nobody should jest in Parliament, or say what he did not mean, or be anything but very pure and very good. If cheerful humour is not a thing forbidden piorum manibus, we can believe that it pervades the spirit of the man who was supposed to stand in the way of this golden age of political innocence, as he sees Mr. Disraeli governing England, Earl Russell finally consigned to political limbo, and Mr. Gladstone writing tracts.

Pall Mall Gazette, March 3, 1868.

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