Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Mr. Gladstone at Oldham

There are a good many men, of various ages from youth up to middle life, whose favourite ambition it is to sit in Parliament and to take a more or less prominent part in politics. Many, perhaps most of them, must of necessity be disappointed, as there is not room for all. It appears to us that their disappointment might be considerably soothed by reading Mr. Gladstone’s speeches at Oldham. He began in the morning by returning thanks to "a crowded meeting held in the Town-hall" for a complimentary address presented by the Mayor and aldermen, which gave him credit for “an eloquence, powerful to sway a senate, an intellectual acumen penetrating as comprehensive, and a moral force not the less felt because unobtruded," and which expressed a hope that "the Allwise" might "long spare" him "in health and vigour." To this Mr. Gladstone replied that he was very much delighted and obliged and highly rewarded for his past services, and that it was a great satisfaction to him to have taken part in the commercial legislation of the last twenty-five years, and to have been connected with the French treaty. He thought, moreover, that the public were becoming extravagant as to the national revenue, which was wrong; that Fenianism should be firmly punished, and Irish grievances effectually redressed. In the afternoon he "assisted in the inauguration of a mechanics' institute at Werneth." There he made a speech to the effect that education comprised the two elements of training and of storing the mind; that it was specially needed in England in the present day, as our increase in refinement had not kept pace with our increase in wealth; that, however, there was no natural antagonism between refinement and trade; that institutions like mechanics' institutes were particularly valuable where they sprang, as in Oldham, from the efforts of the poor, not from the patronage of the rich, and that the report was extremely interesting. He added that he was glad to see that the institution provided means of amusement, and in particular that there was a billiard table. Amusement in its proper place was a good thing, and the power of amusing ourselves gracefully and in a satisfactory manner was not the strong point of the English people. The rich, in particular, ought to remember how much more important innocent amusement was to themselves than to the poor. He then entered upon the merits of the English literature and language, which lie observed deserved and would well repay any amount of study, and was equal to any language and literature in the world. The language, in particular, had grown up like the Constitution, and must present great difficulties to foreigners. Natural history, too, he considered an admirable pursuit, pre-eminently calculated to suggest pious reflections on the wisdom and goodness of God. It would greatly develop the powers of mind and body, and enable people fully to appreciate the pleasantness of country life as a balance to life in towns. He concluded by remarking that the responsibilities of the nation at the present moment were immense, and by pointing out the importance of the powers conferred upon the newly enfranchised classes by the measure of Reform lately passed.

"In the evening the right honourable gentleman attended a meeting at the Working Men's Hall at Oldham, for the purpose of distributing the prizes to successful pupils of the Science and Art School." Mr. Gladstone on this occasion observed that the subject of education presents itself to us in more aspects than one. There is general training and there is technical education With regard to general education for the poor "a great effort must be made for a further and early advance." The bill introduced by Messrs. Bruce and Forster seemed, with certain modifications, to "offer a fair basis upon which we may hope to proceed.” Mr. Gladstone had a sanguine hope that the religious difficulty might be met by conscience clauses and by permitting secular schools to share in the grant. As to technical education the Government could do little except by assistance. This was a result of the free spirit of our institutions. There were in Oldham a co-operative mill and store which Mr. Gladstone had seen; he hoped they would both do well, and thought that under circumstances they might both be useful. As for temperance legislation, he thought the tendency to excess in drink a great curse to the people of England. He neither practised nor advocated total abstinence, but he honoured those who did so upon conscientious principles, He would object to legislation about opening public houses on Sunday so contrived as to make invidious distinctions between the pleasures of the rich and the pleasures of the poor. He went at length into the question of trade unions, and said in substance that they had many good points, but that violence was to be deprecated and punished; that strikes, though always a misfortune, might sometimes be necessary in order to drive a bargain fair to the workman; that machinery was not the enemy but the friend of the working classes, as it relieved them of many forms of hard, painful, and unwholesome exertion, and that, though it no doubt caused much individual suffering, it operated on the whole to raise the level of comfort amongst the poor. He did not think ill of the prospects of English industry; on the contrary, he believed that Englishmen, with proper instruction, did quite as well as the natives of other countries, and particularly as well as Frenchmen, in works of taste, and that foreign competition afforded a healthy stimulus to British industry. We must be true to ourselves and one another, and value the means of social improvement, and we should all do very well: "The future of the country will be as the past of the country, aye, with the blessing of Heaven, it will be yet more abundantly prosperous and glorious." "The right honourable gentleman resumed his seat, having spoken for an hour and twenty minutes. He was enthusiastically cheered," and must, we should think, have been very glad to get home and go to bed.

Persons ambitious of entering upon political life should seriously lay to heart such performances as these. Mr. Gladstone is a man of rare genius, and has risen as high as a professional politician can rise, yet he has to do this sort of thing continually, and almost every public man is more or less surrounded by an atmosphere of it. It is one of the conditions of political life in England in these days that a man is always to be ready to go to great towns, to stay at the house of some local magnate, to live there in public for days at a time, to see the sights-- the co-operative mill and the co-operative store, and the new mechanics' institute, with its billiard table and its statistics about the comparative number of novels and books of history taken out of the library in the course of the year-- and finally, to make speeches all day and all night about the advantages of education, the curse of excessive drink, and the glorious prospects which lie before British industry. This is, so to speak, considered in the wages of modern politicians, and those who do not like it are so far disqualified for the position. It cannot be denied that such performances have their good side. The people of Oldham know Mr. Gladstone rather better than they did the day before yesterday, and probably Mr. Gladstone has a better knowledge of the people of Oldham. The commonplaces upon all this are too well known to require or even to justify much remark, but surely, if there is something good, there is also something bad in this perpetual outpouring of commonplaces by eminent public men. At all events it is very intelligible that many people should dislike it and refuse to take part in it. When a man speaks in Parliament he is, or if he is a person of any weight he ought to be, transacting a matter of business as much as a barrister who speaks in court. His words are intended to produce a specific effect, and their value must be measured by their tendency to produce that effect; and in adjusting the things said to the effect to be produced by them there is of course scope for an indefinite amount of mental skill and exertion; but such a speech or constellation of speeches: as those which Mr. Gladstone made at Oldham are simply talent thrown away. A whole day is passed in very hard work by a man of first-rate ability, and the article produced is nearly worthless except in so far as it is worth while to give harmless gratification to the people of Oldham. A single day, of course, does not so much matter, but if we reckon up all the days which public men are obliged in the course of a moderately long career to pass in this manner, the amount becomes very serious indeed, and it may be a question whether the habit of mind engendered by prolonged and frequently repeated efforts of this sort is not a more serious matter still. The habit of going starring about in the provinces, and of there "answering to the purpose easy things to understand" can hardly fail in the long run to contribute something towards the intellectual defects which certainly do belong to the political thought and conduct of our age, though fastidious persons may sometimes exaggerate their extent and importance.

Pall Mall Gazette, December 19, 1867.

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