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CONTEMPORARY LIFE AND THOUGHT ITALIAN POLITICS.
"TTTHAT is the real state of parties in Italy? It is so difficult T T for us in England to see exactly how matters stand, that we should be glad to have them clearly and briefly explained to us." This is an inquiry often put to us by English friends, but one to which it is by no means easy to reply. It is hard to make clear an uncertain and changeable state of affairs. We must rather describe how it came into existence, and the causes of its confusion and mutability. Our readers can then form their own judgment about it.
The real origin of the present state of affairs dates from 1870— the year of the Franco-German war, and of our entry into Some. From that moment everything in Italy began rapidly to change, and the fall of the Moderate party, which had governed Italy since 1859, soon became inevitable. This party had maintained its supremacy by resisting the pressure of foolhardy impatience, and by prudently directing the revolution towards the constitution of Italian unity and independence. This object was now achieved. The Moderate party had been the ally of the French Empire, and been effectively helped by it. The Empire had now fallen; humiliated France had lost her preponderance in Europe, and was becoming a Republic. While engaged in the war of independence and the establishment of national unity, the Moderate party had been compelled to incur enormous expenses and liabilities. The settlement of these debts and the reorganization of our finances, made it necessary to burden the country with taxes, weighing most heavily on the poorer classes of our population. "We succeeded in balancing our finances, but the party so long in power had forfeited the popular favour, and was doomed to defeat.
In March, 1876, a Railway Bill afforded the desired opportunity; the Left overthrew the Right, and assumed office. An appeal to the country resulted in the decided victory of the Left, and reduced the opposite party to a small minority. But the strength of the Left was unequal to its numerical superiority. Having for many years steadfastly opposed every Government measure, its numbers had continually grown by the accretion of the most divergent and contradictory elements, which now proved to be totally lacking in cohesion. There were the Centres, differing but slightly from the Moderates, with whom they had often voted. There were the exRepublicans, who had been converted by the logic of facts and the triumph of the Monarchy in Italy, and the Republicans, who were resigned to patience, in the hope that the development of the Monarchy would consist in its dying a natural death. There were also a few Intransigeant Republicans, a few Radicals, and some members of the Clerical, or Reactionary party, who had joined the Left in order to fight the Government. The result of this state of things was a series of Ministries, in which each of the principal groups alternately held power, without being able long to keep it. It was speedily seen that none of these groups had sufficient strength and weight to maintain its predominance over the rest. All were agreed and unanimous when there seemed to be any danger of the Right returning to power, but as soon as the danger was past, their dissensions broke out again; and the Right, which had taken shape by continually supporting the Government, continually preaching moderation, was now enfeebled and disheartened, and seemed totally incapable of any organized or vigorous resistance.
It was during this time of confusion that Signor Depretis gradually became a prominent personage. Having established his position by the exercise of a sort of parliamentary dictatorship, his nomination to the Presidency of the Council followed as a natural result. His influence over parties has occasionally been greater than that formerly wielded by Count Cavour. Nothing, however, could be more dissimilar than the power of the one and the other statesman. Cavour created his party, was its leading spirit, and guided it to its predestined goal. Depretis, on the contrary, achieved power by showing that he could manage the fluctuating majority of the House better than any one else, and that he was ready to follow its lead, while keeping it back from perilous extremes. Having been long in Parliament, and being, after Rattazzi, the most influential member of the Left, he had also held office in several Moderate Cabinets, and thus acquired much administrative and parliamentary experience. A statesman of thoroughly monarchical convictions, and bent upon maintaining order in the country, he has a most accurate knowledge of the leaders of the various groups and parties, and of their individual passions. Whatever the subject of debate, he is able, by a rapid glance at the aspect of the House—by touching its pulse, as it were—to divine with magical accuracy its actual current of thought and feeling, and what must be said or proposed in order to obtain an overwhelming majority. And he is willing to say or do anything—provided it be of no immediate harm to the country—without troubling himself about the remote future. And in any case of pressing danger he shows no less ability in temporizing and procrastinating, in order to gain time, and alter the state of affairs and parties in the House, by suitable concessions and compromises. Herein lies the secret of both his strength and his weakness. He is a parliamentary dictator, but a dictator continually compelled to trim his bark to steer it clear of the reefs, and continually obliged to change his course. Thus he is frequently driven into some strange port at a great distance from that for which he was bound. As a natural result his Ministry was as weak, uncertain, and changeable as the majority upon which it depended. Worse still, owing to the necessity for continual compromise, the pressure of parliamentarism was brought to bear upon every branch of the Administration. The weakest, basest, or most audacious characters occasionally met with a totally undeserved success. A political or party colouring had to be given to all measures, without even excepting those that should be entirely independent of politics. Besides, undue and, as many believed, very dangerous indulgence had to be shown towards the extreme parties whenever it was expedient to win their suffrage. Signor Depretis was openly taxed in the Chamber with all these offences, and did not attempt to deny them. He merely asked, in what other way Government could be carried on with a House "of all the colours of the rainbow." And it would have been difficult to contradict him. Down to the recent elections his home policy may be described as follows:—Opposition to the Right, consolidation of the power of the Left, exclusion from office of all Radicals, and also of such Monarchists aswere too closely allied with them. To avoid, nevertheless, all open warfare with these two parties, and to seek to conciliate them by timely concessions and by rousing their fear of the return of the Right to power. But this did not suffice. The country expected great reforms from the Left, and above all a notable decrease of taxation. These hopes had been long kindled, and were difficult to fulfil; but something had to be done to prevent being crushed by the weight of unredeemed promises.
Accordingly, first came the Bill for Compulsory Instruction, which was passed in 1877. This made instruction compulsory only on children of the lowest elementary classes—i.e., on those between the ages of six and nine years. Unfortunately this law is still little more than a dead letter, and the steady growth of our schools is rather owing to the increasing need for them felt by the people than to the prescriptions of the law. The percentage of illiterates is still very high in Italy.
Next came the abolition of the Grist Tax, and it was upon this that the hottest conflict was waged. Here was an oppressive tax that, nevertheless, had been sanctioned, was tolerated by the country, and yearly returned eighty millions of francs to the exchequer, which was thus at last enabled to balance its accounts. The suppression of the Grist Tax upon Indian corn was carried by a large majority, although not without furious opposition. Hotter still was the debate when it was proposed to immediately remove a fourth of the Grist Tax upon wheat, and to abolish it entirely in the year 1884. Our budget, as was proved by the Right, was then in no state to face such a reduction. Who could foresee our condition in 1884? We should be taking a leap in the dark! But all that could be done was to delay the passing of the Bill, which was anxiously desired by the country, and which the Left had converted into a party question. However, our budget continued to improve, and in 1880, by the addition of certain new taxes, one fourth of the Grist Tax was suppressed, and its total abolition decreed for the year 1884.
Nor was this all. Immediately after came the proposal to do away with the paper currency, by which our- trade was hampered, our credit depressed, and our Government forced to procure at a heavy discount the gold required for payments abroad. The Minister Magliaui brought forward this Bill with consummate dexterity. But, when stripped of oratorical device, it consisted in negotiating a loan of 644 millions of francs, at five per cent, interest, in order to obtain the gold required to replace the paper currency. It was an operation of the simplest kind A new and heavy debt was to be incurred immediately after the abolition of the Grist Tax. Although in itself a beneficial and necessary measure, the suppression of the paper currency may have very serious consequences for Italian trade and commerce at the moment of its accomplishment. By means of the paper currency our banks have largely increased their floating capital. A bad harvest may compel us to make large importations that have to be paid in gold; rumours of war, or of a political crisis abroad, would depreciate our stock in foreign countries, and return it on our hands in exchange for gold, which would thus be drained from the country as quickly as it had come in. We are at present obliged to receive silver as legal currency, yet its value is much depreciated, and we may be flooded by it to the loss of our gold. Naturally, all these points have been duly considered and calculated by our Minister of Finance, and he has provided every safeguard—as far as it is possible to do so in a matter of this kind.
But however indisputable the necessity of abolishing the paper currency, it would certainly have been higher prudence to do only one thing at a time; to have awaited the results of the suppression of the Grist Tax before venturing on a fresh enterprise. But the abolition of the paper currency formed part of the programme of the Left; the Right, being exhausted by the struggle on the Grist Tax, was no longer strong enough to prevent the approval of a law so grateful to the country at large, and confined its efforts to the insertion of certain improving clauses. Therefore, save in the unforeseen event of war, or other forcible impediment, the disappearance of the paper currency, fixed for the 12th of April of the present year, will be followed by the total abolition of the Grist Tax in 1884. It is too soou to prognosticate the economic and financial results of two such highly important measures, but of late years our budget has certainly shown far greater elasticity than it was previously thought to possess. Whether from the economic development of the country, or because new taxes do not at once yield the returns of which they are capable, it is a fact that they now give a much higher revenue than was expected. Nevertheless, the Ministry will undoubtedly be obliged to impose additional burdens, and in the face of strong opposition.
We have certainly been too ready to spend. On one occasion, when a Railway Bill was before the House, the efforts of certain deputies to obtain a line through their part of Italy inspired others with a similar eagerness. So, to satisfy everyone, a general Bill was brought in for new railways in various parts of the country, to be laid down within a few years at a cost to the nation of more than a milliard of francs over and above the quota contributed by the provinces. The requisite funds could be procured here by the issue of fresh stock. Railways are productive capital, it was said, and can afford to pay interest on a new loan. But, on the other hand, we know how little profit Italian railways yield to the State, which has to disburse many millions yearly in kilometrical guarantees. And the new lines about to be made through districts of little importance will seriously add to the burdens of the State.
We now come to the new electoral law, which has totally altered the political basis in Italy. The franchise was formerly limited to citizens above the age of twenty-five years, who could read and write, and who paid yearly taxes amounting to forty francs. In twenty-eight millions of inhabitants there were only 638,874 electors. It was clearly necessary to extend the franchise. As early as 1872 the Left had proposed a Bill giving electoral rights to all citizens above the age of twenty-one years who were able to read and write. An enlargement of the franchise based upon capacity rather than upon a property qualification soon became an essential item in the programme of the Left. The Radicals started an agitation in favour of universal suffrage, but it was opposed, not only by Depretis, but even by Zanardelli, the most advanced member of the Cabinet. Both were willing to give votes to all who had gone through the highest class of elementary instruction; but this would not even have doubled the number of electors. However, the opposition of the Right had the effect of pushing things much further.
It was urged by the Right that scholars of the fourth elementary