Page images
PDF
EPUB

PUBLIC AFFAIRS—THE DISSOLUTION OF PARLIAMENT. PARLIAMENTS are mortal, like the men who compose them. An allotted period completed, and they sink into similar oblivion, unless, as in the cases of individuals, they are marked by some good or evil pecu-liarity. Our present legislative body is about to be gathered to its fathers, to become a tale of the past, an accident in the page of England's history. Whether the detail of its career will find praise or blame before posterity, it were idle to conjecture, because we know not what may be the measure of perspicacity that additional intellectual advance may impart to those who conie after us to lessen our existing pretensions. Even if we have not judges of us in future more acute than at present, we shall have them less partial. As the matter stands, we must notice the subject upon its own merits, clear of connexion with its immediate predecessors. We have no inclination to examine and parallel parliaments after the manner of Plutarch with his heroes and demi-gods, or to judge similar bodies that have died out in our annals. To compare this representative body with its predecessors in aptitude for business, or to fathom the infinity of mode in which influence was brought to bear upon electors in placing the chosen men in their high position, and endowing some of them with accomplishments under the accusation of which they had never before suffered, and if out of their existing position would never again have to suffer, is all we might venture to do. We feel our ill qualification to say more than this from the extensive aggregation of varied topics it must in volve. There is the consideration, it is true, that the present parliament, imagined at first about to work ill for the liberal interest, has worked well in its behalf upon the whole, if it worked so unconsciously. It was not possible the previous ministry of the Earl of Derby could last long. A few names among the noble lord's advocates were venerable, not for their opinions, for they had become obsolete, but for the consistency with which their supporters had maintained them, which gave those opinions the virtuous stamp of conscientiousness. With all the influence they had to spare, such could not thoroughly harmonise with certain allies, who, having had no remarkable attachment to any political principle, no consistency, no respect for any opinion but such as would conduce to the favoured object of the hour, might some day play the game of the cat and the chesnuts with a straightforward though mistaken integrity. Honourable men, much more inflexible in adherence to what early habit had accustomed them to deem right, than capable of investigating a principle which they apprehended to be dangerous because it was not timeconsecrated, we are still inclined to honour in their steadfastness though maintained at the expense of sound judgment. It is no light matter to be honest to any principle in days when principle is so lax as at present. Public virtue is not so cheap a commodity as it is vulgarly imagined to be, even when it ranks only second or third-rate in the multitudinous estimation that is, if the truth be honestly spoken. The weakness of the opposition to Lord Palmerston's administration consists in the political profligacy of many of its more conspicuous and pretending members, who run round every point of the compass for place. The country has no faith in them, their own existing friends have only a suspicious confidence. Thus the want of perfect reliance and unity of faith when

a

in action, necessarily weakens combined influences. Not that the country has any reason to desire things should be otherwise in this respect than they are, but that it is only fair justice should be done to every political party.

Let us be honest to all sides. The effect of continuous exclusion through the want of public confidence, often makes office the exception in relation to the party excluded. When in power, many men are thought out of their natural situations. A politician out of his post is generally more honest than when he is in, but unfortunately he often becomes too willingly neutralised in the exercise of the virtue just when it falls into his power to be otherwise.

In examining the career of the expiring House, and the conduct of Lord Palmerston's administration, it becomes us to look at the good or evil it has effected, not in isolated points, but upon the broad principle of the preponderance of the good or evil in the mass. Little things are great to little men. The number of tubs of filth extracted from the London sewers, or the scores of yards of tænia found in those who eat underdone pork (the last a new medical quirk just broached to keep alive human fears), such things may be very important to sustain the farce of “death in the pot” by means of as many alarmist doctors, become now as numerous as patients, in place of the recommendation of individual cleanliness, temperance but not abstinence, and fresh air. All this may be well enough in its place, but we must look at the results that are determined, and not speculative, whether regarding medicine or politics. Has the ministry effected good to a worthy extent, or has it not? Has it cured political diseases, not taken credit for healing those which are imaginary? Are its enemies to be credited, and is its continued existence a mere accident, its best actions falling far short of what its opponents would have achieved had they not, unfortunately, in their own opinion alone, been prevented from the exercise of their superior gubernatorial talents? It is here that, as lawyers say, " issue should be joined.”

It was not unfortunate for the government that, despite the animosity it had encountered, there had been a want of confidence in each other among its opponents. The honest men and the anythingarians for post and place, are not, cannot be truly cordial in action. Hence much of the effective character of an opposition has been missed. Dropping this point, however, and regarding the conduct of the government during the existing term by what it has brought about, we find every reason to entitle it to the national gratitude. A course which, on the whole, has proved itself judicious, has been pursued in regard to America. Under the exciting and irritable state of that country, in the midst of a most indefensible rebellion, it was not easy to steer clear of offence to one party or the other, and at the same time to preserve a course which should prevent the ultimate committal of England with either, for who can foresee the fortune of war? The contention for the purpose of forming a great slave empire, from sea to sea, the real object of the outbreak, was one England could not sanction, for she had treated the North as a free, great, and friendly nation, and slavery as a crime. The observance of neutrality-except by that influential body which has no principle but gain, no feeling of patriotism, no regard for any law that tends to interfere with its sordid ends, was the only course open. Except with such, their friends, journals, and influences, not, it is to be lamented, so limited as honour and high feeling could desire-except with such, the course pursued by Lord Palmerston's government as the wisest, has been sanctioned by the thinking and disinterested part of the nation--disinterested, we mean, in not joining to profit by latent evasions or open defiances of the laws of the land. We need not here be more particular, for the names of such evil-doers in and out of parliament have been sufficiently notorious through their own agents. These and the money market, the power of Mammon, in the hope of turning pence by disregarding principle, as usual in such cases, under the love of lucre at the cost of patriotism and justice, have swayed a part of the English press, made it pretend that the South was in arms for freedom in place of slavery and empire, and once more exhibited to the world the little influence that truth and right principles have yet obtained among vulgar minds in the more civilised lands. The lust of gain has been considered in the present case, as usual, before any other principle that earth or the hope of heaven itself could inspire.

The main rule of conduct for England, let circumstances be what they might, was with one party the preservation of things as they were, grounded upon the “wisdom of our ancestors.” In place of doubting its advantage upon that account, as those who possessed right reason should do, it proclaimed the possession of such doubts as a heinous vice. In nothing has the advantage of the course pursued by the present government been more advantageous than in the admission of beneficial changes in measures and institutions rust-eaten by time. Thus, the proposition of a free trade with France was a treasonable measure a little while ago. “What, trade freely with our natural enemies!" At one period in the last century a ministry was threatened with impeachment for proposing a reduction of the French wine duties to the level of the duties paid by other countries. Inch by inch the Opposition has at length got ashamed, and slunk out of its direct animosity to free trade. In policy of any kind no honest and clear-sighted statesman proposed a new and beneficial measure but he was viewed as a burglar about to commit a nocturnal depredation in the temple of domestic holiness. The repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, the abolition of the slave trade, Catholic emancipation, parliamentary reform, and popular education, were at one time bugbears with the Opposition, and considered destructive to the British constitution. Bull-baiting, cock-fighting, and boxing were regarded as manly sports, and commended from the judicial bench.

We can remember when the acceleration of mail-coaches to ten miles an hour was called a tempting of Providence.” At a later period, some of the straitlaced of the party would not travel by railway because it was an innovation upon the good old mode which time and custom had sanctified. The long duration of a nuisance was considered a proof of its sanctity, and a ground for its continuance.

Madame Roland was in conversation with her mother in her bedroom one day, when the canopy over the bed fell, and she exclaimed, without reflection, “Is it possible, when it has remained up twenty years? I always thought of the folly of my exclamation afterwards,” she said, " when the excellence of a thing was grounded alone upon its long usage. It had been up so very long, how could it possibly fall !” So in our old public measures, the good were not to be permitted because the bad had been so long current upon crutches--how could they fail being the most beneficial for the country!

[ocr errors]

(6

We can point with no light commendation to a ministry that has set such imbecile principles at defiance, and in proof could specify the advantages gained by the ration. With a pursuance of the course dice tated by the Opposition—for we are not inclined to admit the shuffling off or adopting principles at convenience, for which it contested so hardly a little while since, because it would be a great point gained to be permitted to do so or not at pleasure, according to existing circumstances we ask what would have become of the revenue had the Opposition course been followed? Suppose we had stood still in steam machinery

? with the improvements of Watt alone, where should we be now with our deep mines, sea-going vessels, and railway engines ? We have executed mighty works over the whole face of the land, subdued the sea without the aid of Æolus, and have made speech overcome time. All our marvels have been the product of abandoning the past to itself, and searching into the future after new discoveries. We are become alive to what the advocates of the “ wisdom of our ancestors” denominate an injurious activity, and can bear those endless iterations of the prognostication of our ruin with Christian patience, because the active good proceeds during the objurgation. They pretend that all with the government is left to chance, while they alone court benefit from a wise experience. They will not see that something must be left to chance in all mundane affairs, and that life itself is but a game of chances, under the conditions of human existence. What, with the best human vision, are our actions but speculations, for we know not prospectively the events of an hour. The gravity of proceedings, too, among the advocates of obsolete measures, the burdens our fathers seemed always to have on their backs, like the old man of the mountain, shackled their narrow efforts to move onwards still more. The advancement of the nation by their means was, therefore, the ascent of the sloth climbing the tree a few feet to his restingplace, while a tenant of the air swept over a hundred leagues of space.

The same favourite system once governed our fleets and armies. All was shackled by stateliness without efficiency; in the navy, it is true, this was counteracted in no small degree by the nature of the service. From the army, it is probable, pampered as this force has ever been, it is not yet banished.

We had a sufficient exhibition of it in the Crimean campaign, which it required all the long experience of Lord Palmerston to mitigate at home. Formerly everything lagged to suit established routine, as if, like the ridiculous farce of a Lord Mayor's show, the stare and adiniration of the vulgar-minded was to be gratified by a magnitude of silly appliances. It then took three or four times as much labour to assemble and transport a military force as it does now, leaving steam out of the question. A fleet, with troops for the West Indies, we can remember lying at Portsmouth for five or six weeks on the most extraordi. nary pretexts. Sometimes the wind was not promising, or some order was delayed, or some necessary departmental aid was in arrear. A minister of state has been as many as five or six weeks answering a letter from Portsmouth in the good old times of the present Opposition or its predecessors. Regulations often ridiculous, and idle routine, reigned paramount, as if their inanity could answer unforeseen contingencies. It would have been heterodoxy at the Admiralty in those days had an officer of the navy proposed sailing by the great arch. That Nelson was no " sailor,” used to be often remarked by a certain class of Daval men be

0

a

a

cause the trim of his rigging was slovenly, and he had not a particle of the naval martinet in his conduct. Great results went for nothing, as the grasp of mind of the general goes for nothing with the drill-sergeant if it be not produced according to regulation. There was no exception to this habit of gravity in action, a molehill being treated as a mountain because it had been so treated before. In fact, every official seemed to have a world upon his shoulders, and to be an Atlas in place. What the French style tenir la Morgue, or to be filled with an affected gravity in things trivial as well as important, marked every movement in the management of public affairs, following the “wisdom of our ancestors," and treating developments in the lapse of time as of no moment. When Bonaparte, in his first and most glorious campaigns, routed the Austrians in Italy, the cry was in England that “ he did not fight according to rule.” But enough has been seen by common observers to show until later times, when ministers less blind got into power in England, and thrust aside the “wisdom of our ancestors,” that the movement forward of the nation had been retarded. There had been continual feuds religious and civil, trade drooped, and there was no prospect of emendation until the principles of the Opposition ceased to rule, and the government moved forward in the right spirit of advance. It is probable, judging from the past, that an ultimate advance is still to continue under all vicissitudes

among

the nations, some of the foremost going to decay, and being supplanted by others still more forward, until the point of a progression is reached of the extent of which the existing races upon the earth can form no adequate idea, since the earth is one of the later formed worlds in our system. It is only to mark the state of England, France, and America, for example, to see that national knowledge is, as often asserted, now proved to be really national power, and that the opponents of advance such as ruled in England until nearly up to 1830 belonged to a past time, to an obsolete era, to a half-taught race, and that all their subsequent efforts to keep their old principles alive and in action, their old saws and ancient instances, their repeated vaticinations, continually disproved with the accession to their ranks of renegades that have run the gauntlet through every grade of political partisanship and joined them as a pis aller, all have been vain. The nation has flourished marvellously under cabinets that have pursued a course opposite to that by which its enemies are still so blind as to imagine, in the face of all experience, that this great country can continue to flourish.

But enough; the thinking part of the public can stand in no need of arguments to produce a conviction of the foregoing truths. If any will not endure the pain of thinking upon the matter, they may see in the columns of the newspapers the summings-up of the public accounts. The comparison of a few figures one year with another will exhibit lucid results, and if the causes are too tedious, and the details more so, they may be assured that what the Opposition most censured has become the most extensive ground for congratulation. Who can fail to see that the state of the finances is owing to that course which for years was vituperated, and for the honest conviction at last of the truth of which course poor Sir Robert Peel was baited almost to death.

But if we find in the conduct of the government matter for praise, what shall we say of the composition of the House of Commons with which it worked? It was thrown in the teeth of the reformers that the old

« EelmineJätka »