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CHAPTER 2 - William Edward Hartpole Lecky, Democracy and Liberty, vol. 1 
Democracy and Liberty, edited and with an Introduction by William Murchison, 2 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981). Vol. 1.
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The power given in England to a simple majority of a single Parliament to change, with the assent of the Crown, any portion of the Constitution is not a common thing among free nations. Italy and Hungary, it is true, appear in this respect to stand on the same basis as England. In Spain there is a written Constitution that makes no special mention of provision for its own reform, and it is a disputed question whether the text of the Constitution can be modified by a simple legislative measure of an ordinary Cortes, or must be submitted to a Constituent Cortes specially summoned for this purpose. But in most constitutions there is a distinct line drawn between organic constitutional changes and ordinary legislation, and careful provisions establish the manner in which alone the former can be carried into effect. In a large number of constitutions, of which those of the Austrian Empire, Belgium, and Bavaria may be cited as examples, two-thirds majorities are required for constitutional changes. In several constitutions it is necessary that such changes should be sanctioned by two successive Parliaments. In the Netherlands they may be demanded by a simple majority in one Parliament, but must be sanctioned, after a dissolution, by two-thirds majorities in its successor. In the German Empire there is a provision that fourteen hostile votes in the Federal Council constitute on these subjects an absolute veto. In France, constitutional changes, after being voted by majorities in each of the two Houses, must be approved by a majority in a National Assembly consisting of the two Houses sitting and voting together. In Switzerland they may be proposed by either Legislative Chamber, or by 50,000 vote-possessing citizens, but they cannot become law until they have been sanctioned by a direct popular vote taken in the form of a Referendum.1
Probably none of these provisions are as really efficacious as those which are contained in the Constitutions of the United States. None of them exist in the British Constitution, or in the constitutions of the great colonial democracies that are growing up under the English sceptre. One remarkable attempt to introduce the American principle into an English colony was, indeed, made by the great Australian statesman, Wentworth, who, in 1853, introduced into his scheme for the Constitution of New South Wales a clause providing that alterations in the Constitution could only be carried by two-thirds majorities. Unfortunately, this clause ultimately miscarried in England, and in this, as in the other Colonies, the power of an upper Chamber and the small measure of restraint involved in connection with the mother country alone restrict the power of unbridled democracy.2
Nothing, indeed, is more remarkable in our constitutional history than the small stress which has been placed in England upon mere legislative machinery, upon Constitutional laws definitely tracing the respective limits and powers of different institutions. The system of checks and counterchecks which it has been the object of written constitutions to maintain has been roughly maintained in England by the great diversities that long existed in the constituencies; by the powerful organisation of many distinct, and sometimes conflicting interests; by the great influence and essentially representative character of the House of Lords. It has been supported by a network of usages, traditions, compromises, and understandings which have no real or sufficient basis in the letter of the law, but which have long been universally accepted. Many of the most important working elements in the Constitution—the nature of the Cabinet, the functions of the Prime Minister, the dignity and the attitude of the Speaker, the initiative of the Government in matters of finance, the extent to which the House of Lords may use its veto—rest essentially on the foundation of custom. It is absolutely indispensable to the working of the whole machine that it should be in the hands of honest and trustworthy men, of men determined to subordinate on great occasions their personal and party interests to the interests of the State; imbued with a genuine spirit of compromise, and cordially in harmony with the general spirit of the Constitution. As long as such a spirit prevails in Parliament and governs the constituencies, so long the British Constitution will prove a success. If this spirit is no longer found among rulers and Parliaments and constituencies, there is no constitution which may be more easily dislocated, and which provides less means of checking excesses of bad government.
‘Upon the power,’ wrote Adam Smith, ‘which the leading men, the natural aristocracy of every country, have of preserving or defending their respective importance depends the stability and duration of every system of free government.’3 This truth has been always strongly felt in England, and it has sometimes been pushed to very extreme consequences. Thus, in the debates upon the abolition of the Corn Laws, some of the most considerable defenders of these laws refused to argue the question on merely economical grounds. They maintained that the preponderance of the landed interest was a political end of the first magnitude. They argued that it secured for the nation a governing class whose interests were indissolubly connected with the permanent prosperity of England; whose class standard of honour placed them above all suspicion of personal corruption, and who, by living among their people and conducting the local government of their counties, had acquired in a high measure the kinds of knowledge and of capacity that are most needed in political life. Long after the sceptre of power had passed from the landed gentry to the middle classes, the old belief, or prejudice, or superstition that the administration of government ought to be chiefly entrusted to gentlemen, prevailed, and, in spite of all democratic agitations, it is certainly very far from extinct.
As I have already intimated, this belief, like many others which are now often very disdainfully treated, is by no means incapable of defence. The position of a public man is essentially that of a trustee, and interests of the most enormous importance depend largely on his character. To place the direction of affairs in the hands of honest, trustworthy, and competent men, though it is not the sole, is certainly the most important end of politics, and an immense proportion of the calamities that politicians have brought upon the world are due to the management of great political interests having passed into the hands of mere scheming adventurers. Honesty and dishonesty belong to all ranks and to all grades of fortune, but in dealing with masses of men we must judge by averages and probabilities, and chiefly by the strength of temptation and the pressure of interest. ‘How easy it is,’ as Becky Sharp said, ‘to be virtuous on 5,000l. a year!’ The fact that a trustee who is entrusted with vast money interests is himself not a needy, struggling, embarrassed man, but the possessor of a competent fortune, is generally recognised as furnishing some guarantee, though, unfortunately, by no means a sufficient one, that he will not dishonestly abuse his trust. And the strength of this presumption is greatly increased if the character of his fortune is not fugitive and movable, but permanent and stationary, and if he holds a desirable social position which depends mainly upon opinion, and would be inevitably destroyed by an act of private dishonesty.
This is the mode of reasoning on which men invariably act in the transactions of private life, and it is equally applicable to politics. The code of honour which the conventionalities of society attach to the idea of a gentleman is, indeed, a somewhat capricious thing, and certainly not co-extensive with the moral law. It may be, and often is, compatible with acts that are, in truth, profoundly base and immoral. Without forfeiting this position in the eyes of the world, men have plunged their country, through motives of mere personal ambition, into the horrors of war; have sought for honours, or power, or party triumphs, by shameful acts of political apostasy and shameful incitements to class warfare; have purchased majorities by allying themselves with dishonest men pursuing dishonest ends; have framed constitutions to enable their allies to carry those ends into effect. Men of old families and ample means may be found among the active agents or the servile tools in some of the worst political transactions of our time. All this is profoundly true; and it is also true that when any one class, be it high or low, obtains an uncontrolled, or even a greatly preponderating, power, its policy will exhibit a class bias. At the same time, it is no less true that on special subjects, and within a restricted sphere, the code of honour of a gentleman is the most powerful of all restraining influences, more powerful even than religion with ordinary men. Wherever it pervades the public service men will soon learn to recognise that public servants cannot be bribed or corrupted; that in dealing with public money they will not be guilty of malversation; that their word may be trusted, that they are not likely to act by tortuous or intriguing methods. The credit of England in the world depends largely upon this conviction, and that credit has been no small element of her prosperity. Imputations against men in high office, which in many countries are constantly made, easily believed, and sometimes proved, are in England at once felt to be incredible. One thing, at least, is very apparent to all serious observers—if the government of England passes altogether out of the hands of the kind of men who have hitherto directed it, it will speedily fall into the hands of professional politicians. What the character and tendencies of such politicians are likely to be, the example of the United States abundantly shows, and it shows also how different must be the constitution under which alone they can be safely restrained.
I do not think there is any single fact which is more evident to impartial observers than the declining efficiency and the lowered character of parliamentary government. The evil is certainly not restricted to England. All over Europe, and, it may be added, in a great measure in the United States, complaints of the same kind may be heard. A growing distrust and contempt for representative bodies has been one of the most characteristic features of the closing years of the nineteenth century. In some countries, as we have already seen, the parliamentary system means constantly shifting government, ruined finances, frequent military revolts, the systematic management of constituencies. In most countries it has proved singularly sterile in high talent. It seems to have fallen more and more under the control of men of an inferior stamp: of skilful talkers and intriguers; or sectional interests or small groups; and its hold upon the affection and respect of nations has visibly diminished. Laveleye has truly noted the sigh of relief that is felt in many lands when a Parliament is prorogued, and the growing feeling that America has acted wisely in restricting many of her State legislatures to biennial sessions. He observes, with some cynicism, that Italy has one special advantage in her capital—the Roman malaria effectually abridges the sessions of her Parliament.
This great decline in the weight of representative bodies, which has made ‘parliamentarism’ almost a byword in many nations, has advanced contemporaneously with the growth of democracy. In a large degree, at least, it may be clearly traced to the general establishment of universal suffrage as the basis of representation. It is being generally discovered that the system which places the supreme power in the hands of mere majorities, consisting necessarily of the poorest and most ignorant, whatever else it may do, does not produce Parliaments of surpassing excellence. One thing, however, must be observed. Ignorance in the elective body does not naturally produce ignorance in the representative body. It is much more likely to produce dishonesty. Intriguers and demagogues, playing successfully on the passions and the credulity of the ignorant and of the poor, form one of the great characteristic evils and dangers of our time.
In England, no one can be insensible to the change in the tone of the House of Commons within the memory of living men. The old understandings and traditions, on which its deliberations have been for many generations successfully conducted, have largely disappeared, and new and stringent regulations have been found necessary. Scenes of coarse and brutal insult, of deliberate obstruction, of unrestrained violence, culminating on one occasion in actual blows, have been displayed within its walls to which there have been few parallels in other legislatures. Perhaps the nearest are to be found in the American Congress in the years of fiercely excited passions that preceded the Civil War. It is true that these scenes may be chiefly traced to one party, which made it its avowed object to degrade, dislocate, and paralyse the parliamentary machine till their objects were attained; but the contagion of their example and the connivance, through party motives, of other members have been very evident.
On the other hand, the power of arbitrarily closing debates, which has been placed in the hands of majorities, has been grossly abused. It has been made use of not merely to abridge, but to prevent, discussion on matters of momentous importance. Many clauses of a Home Rule Bill which went to the very root of the British Constitution; which, in the opinion of the great majority of competent British statesmen, would have proved the inevitable prelude to the dismemberment and downfall of the Empire; which was supported by a party depending on the votes of men who were ostentatiously indifferent to the well-being of the Empire, and was strenuously opposed by a great majority of the representatives of England, and by a considerable majority of the representatives of Great Britain, were forced through the House of Commons by the application of the Closure, and without any possibility of the smallest discussion. Nothing but the veto of the House of Lords prevented a measure of the first importance, carried by such means and by a bare majority, from becoming law.
And while this change has been passing over the spirit of the House of Commons, its powers and its pretensions are constantly extending. The enormous extension of the practice of questioning ministers has immensely increased the intervention of the House in the most delicate functions of the Executive. It insists on measures and negotiations, in every stage of their inception, being brought before it, and resolutions emanating from independent sections have more than once exercised a most prejudicial influence, if not on foreign affairs, at least on the government of India. At the same time, the claim is more and more loudly put forward that it should be treated as if it were the sole power in the State. The veto of the sovereign has long since fallen into abeyance. Her constitutional right of dissolving Parliament if she believes that a minister or a majority do not truly represent the feelings of the nation, and are acting contrary to its interests, might sometimes be of the utmost value, but it is never likely to be put in force. Her slight power, in the rare cases of nearly balanced claims, of selecting the minister to whom she will entrust the government, and the slight influence she still retains over the disposition of patronage, are regarded with extreme jealousy; while every interference of the House of Lords with the proposed legislation of the Commons has been, during a considerable part of the last few years, made the signal of insolent abuse. It would be difficult to conceive a greater absurdity than a second Chamber which has no power of rejecting, altering, or revising; and this is practically the position to which a large number of members of the House of Commons, and of their supporters outside the House, would reduce the House of Lords.
We can hardly have a more grotesque exhibition of this spirit than was displayed during the discussion of the Parish Council Bill in 1894. The Bill came for the first time before Parliament. It was one on which the House of Lords, consisting of the great proprietors of the soil, could speak with pre-eminent knowledge and authority, while a vast proportion of the majority in the House of Commons had not the remotest connection with land, and were notoriously acting under mere motives of party interest. The Bill of the Commons, in its principle and main outlines, was accepted by the Lords, and they went no further than to alter it in a few of its details. But because they exercised in this manner their clearest and most indisputable constitutional right, on a subject with which they were peculiarly competent to deal, they were denounced as if they had committed an outrage on the nation. The last ministerial speech with which Mr. Gladstone closed his long political career4 was an abortive attempt to kindle a popular agitation against them on that ground.
The enormous and portentous development of parliamentary speaking, which has so greatly impeded public business, is due to many causes. In the first place, the House of Commons of 670 members is far too large for the purposes for which it is intended. It is larger than any other legislative body in the world, and the nineteenth century has added greatly both to its numbers and its speakers. At the beginning of the century it received an important addition in the Irish members who were brought in by the Union. The abolition of the small boroughs and the increasing power of the constituencies over their members greatly increased the average attendance, by making the members much more directly dependent upon their electors. The Reform Bills of 1867 and 1885 gave an opportunity for some reduction. But, as is usually the case, the interests of party and popularity prevailed, and the number of members was not diminished, but even slightly increased. The scenes of violence, anarchy, and deliberate obstruction that have been so frequent during late years have done much to destroy that respect for the House, that timidity in appearing before a fastidious audience, which once weighed heavily on nearly all new members, and imposed a useful restraint on idle speaking. At the same time, the development of the provincial papers has made it an easy and desirable thing for each member to be reported at full in his own constituency as a prominent speaker; and the vast increase of stump oratory by members of Parliament in every town and almost every village has given nearly all members a fatal facility. Something, also, has been due to the fact that the House of Commons was led or profoundly influenced during many years by a very great orator, who possessed every form of eloquence except conciseness, and who could rarely answer a question without making a speech.
This diffuseness and incontinence of speech has not been the characteristic of the deliberative assemblies that have left the greatest mark on the history of the world. Jefferson observes in his ‘Memoirs,’ ‘I served with Washington in the Legislature of Virginia, before the Revolution, and during it, with Dr. Franklin, in Congress. I never heard either of them speak ten minutes at a time, nor to any but the main point which was to decide the question.’5 In our own House of Commons, old members still remember the terse, direct character of the speeches of Russell, Palmerston, and Disraeli, and many men who have exercised great weight and influence in English politics have been singularly deficient in the power of speech. The names of Lord Althorp, Sir Charles Wood, and the Duke of Wellington in the past generation, and of W. H. Smith in our own, will at once occur to the reader. The dreary torrent of idle, diffusive, insincere talk that now drags its slow lengths through so many months at Westminster certainly does not contribute to raise the character of the House of Commons. It is a significant sign that parliamentary reporting has of late years greatly declined, and that newspapers which would once have competed for the fullest reports of parliamentary speeches now content themselves with abridgments, or summaries, or even with sketches of the speakers.
On the whole, however, it may be questioned whether, in the existing state of the British Constitution, this diffuseness is an evil. There is some weight in the contention of Bagehot, that one great advantage of government by debate is, that much talking prevents much action, and if it does little to enlighten the subject, it at least greatly checks the progress of hasty and revolutionary legislation. There are worse things than a wasted session, and, in times when the old restraints and balances of the Constitution have almost perished, the restraint of locquacity is not to be despised.
It makes the House of Commons, however, a perfectly inefficient instrument for some of the purposes it is expected to fulfil. There are large questions, such as the reform and codification of great branches of the law, which bristle with points of difficulty and difference, but which at the same time do not fall within the lines of party or affect the balance of power. To carry highly complex measures of this kind through a body like the present House of Commons is utterly impossible, and these much-needed reforms are never likely to be accomplished till the Constitution is so far changed as to give much larger powers to Committees.
The independence of Parliament has at the same time almost gone. Since the country has committed itself to democracy the caucus system—which is but another name for the American machine, and which, like the American machine, is mainly managed by a small number of active politicians—has grown with portentous rapidity. It nominates the candidates for elections. It dictates their policy in all its details. It applies a constant pressure by instructions, remonstrances, and deputations at every stage of their task. It reduces the ordinary member of Parliament to the position of a mere delegate, or puppet, though at the same time it tends, like many other democratic institutions, to aggrandise enormously the power of any single individual who is sufficiently powerful and conspicuous to enlist the favour of the nation and dominate and direct the caucus machinery. What is called ‘the one-man power’ is a very natural product of democracy. Mr. Bright once said that the greatest danger of our present system of government is surprise—the power which a bold and brilliant leader possesses of committing his party by his own will to a new policy which had never been maturely considered or accepted. It is notorious that the most momentous new departure made by the Liberal party in our day—the adoption of the policy of Home Rule—was due to a single man, who acted without consultation with his colleagues.
At the same time, a great change has taken place in the relations of Government to the House of Commons. In order to guard against the dangers to be feared from an unrestrained House, opposite methods have been employed in the United States and in England. In the former, the ministers form no part of the representative Chamber, and the vote of that Chamber is incompetent to overthrow them. In England, on the other hand, the Ministry is the creature of the House of Commons; but the organised force of a united Cabinet is the most powerful restraint upon its proceedings. Most of the old power of the sovereign, as it has been truly said, has now passed to the Cabinet, and a solid body of the leaders of the majority, whose guidance is indispensable to the ascendency of their party, is able to exercise a strong controlling influence on all parliamentary proceedings. But the situation is much modified when Parliaments break up into small groups. All over the world this has been one of the most marked and significant tendencies of democratic Parliaments, and it will probably eventually lead to a profound change in the system of parliamentary government. In France, in Germany, and in Italy, as well as in many minor States, this disintegration may be shown to its full extent; in Great Britain it has made considerable progress. Not many years ago Belgium was said to be the only European country where the Legislature was still divided into only two distinct parties.6 One of the first results of her lowered suffrage has been the introduction into her Parliament of a new and powerful Socialist group.
The results of this disintegration are very manifest. Government in its relation to the House of Commons loses its old commanding and controlling authority. The Cabinet had already lost much of its initiating power by the growth of the caucus system, which dictates the policy of the party. In a Parliament divided into several groups its strength is still further diminished. A coalition may at any time overthrow it. It depends upon the concurrence of many distinct groups, governed by different motives, aiming at different objects, representing different shades of political feeling. It is obliged to conciliate by separate bribes these different sections, or to discover some cry that may rally them, some active and aggressive policy that may secure their support, and to which they will subordinate their special objects.
This evil is greatly accentuated by the modern discovery that the disintegration of parties is exceedingly conducive to the triumph of minor sectional objects. A group of men representing opinions and aiming at objects which are only those of a small minority of the nation, may obtain a decisive influence if it keeps apart from the great party organisations, subordinates all other considerations to its own objects, and at times when parties are evenly balanced, and when a few votes can save or destroy a Government, makes the attainment of those objects the price of its adhesion. Where there are only two strongly organised parties these minor questions fall into their natural place; but in a Parliament broken into many fractions, each fraction can exercise a power utterly disproportionate to its numbers and to its real hold upon the country. The action of the independent Irish Home Rule party in the parliamentary system has been the most remarkable instance of this truth, and other groups are evidently constituting themselves in the same way, and are likely to pursue their objects by the same parliamentary methods.
The consequences of all this are very far-reaching. If my forecast is not erroneous, it must end in the destruction of that ascendency of the House of Commons which was built up in the days of middle-class supremacy and of strong party organisation. It produces also a weakness and an instability in the executive power which is often very injurious to the interests of the nation. On the whole, however, this weakness seems likely to be greater under Liberal than under Conservative Governments, as the Conservative party is far more homogeneous than its rival. The great revolt of the nation against Radical policy in 1895 has created one of the most powerful ministries of the century, resting upon an enormous and substantially homogeneous majority in both Houses. But, with the fluctuations to which parliamentary government is now so liable, no one can suppose that such a majority can be permanent. All the signs of the times point to the probability in England, as elsewhere, of many ministries resting on precarious majorities formed out of independent or heterogeneous groups. There are few conditions less favourable to the healthy working of parliamentary institutions, or in which the danger of an uncontrolled House of Commons is more evident.
One consequence of this disintegration of Parliament is a greatly increased probability that policies which the nation does not really wish for may be carried into effect. The process which the Americans call ‘log-rolling’ becomes very easy. One minority will agree to support the objects of another minority on condition of receiving in return a similar assistance, and a number of small minorities aiming at different objects, no one of which is really desired by the majority of the nation, may attain their several ends by forming themselves into a political syndicate and mutually co-operating. The kind of politics which was notoriously adopted on the question of Home Rule illustrates both the nature and the danger of this system. The Home Rule Bill had been decisively condemned by the constituencies, and the Government which proposed it saw clearly that on that issue alone it was not likely to obtain a favourable verdict. It was argued, however, that if a Home Rule Government could win the support of the electors who desired local option, and the disestablishment of the Welsh and Scotch Churches, and the abolition of the hereditary element in the House of Lords, and legislation shortening the hours of labour, and other measures of a democratic character, these different parties would constitute a majority that would enable the ministers to carry Home Rule in spite of the wishes of the nation.
Probably still more dangerous is the necessity, which the existing state of parliamentary representation establishes, of seeking for a popular cry, which generally means some organic and destructive change in the Constitution. An appetite for organic change is one of the worst diseases that can affect a nation. All real progress, all sound national development, must grow out of a stable, persistent national character, deeply influenced by custom and precedent and old traditional reverence, habitually aiming at the removal of practical evils and the attainment of practical advantages, rather than speculative change. Institutions, like trees, can never attain their maturity or produce their proper fruits if their roots are perpetually tampered with. In no single point is the American Constitution more incontestably superior to our own than in the provisions by which it has so effectually barred the path of organic change that the appetite for such change has almost passed away. No one who observes English politics with care can fail to see how frequently, when a statesman is out of office and his party divided, his first step is to mark out some ancient institution for attack in order to rally his followers. Personal vanity here concurs powerfully with party interests, for men who are utterly destitute of real constructive ability are capable of attacking an existing institution; and there is no other form of politics in which a noisy reputation can be so easily acquired. Instead of wisely using the machinery of government for the benefit of the whole nation, English politicians have of late years been perpetually tampering with it, and a spirit of feverish unrest has passed into English politics which, if it is not checked, bodes ill for the permanence of parliamentary government.
Both parties have in this respect much to answer for. A weak Conservative Government is often tempted to outbid its rival and win the support of some discontented fragment of the Opposition; and there is no Radicalism so dangerous as this, for it finds no external body to restrain it, and the Opposition is bound by its position to aggravate it. Few pages in our modern political history are more discreditable than the story of the ‘Conservative’ Reform Bill of 1867. A weak Liberal Government, on the other hand, depends for its support on the concurrence of many semi-detached groups, among which extreme politicians often exercise a disproportionate power. The Home Rule schism, by depriving the party of the greater part of its restraining and moderating element, has much increased the danger.
There are few things, also, more disheartening in English politics than what may be called the unintelligent conservatism of English Radicalism. It moves persistently in a few old, well-worn grooves. The withdrawal of the control of affairs from the hands of the minority who, in the competitions of life, have risen to a higher plane of fortune and instruction; the continual degradation of the suffrage to lower and lower strata of intelligence; attacks upon institution after institution; a systematic hostility to the owners of landed property, and a disposition to grant much the same representative institutions to all portions of the Empire, quite irrespectively of their circumstances and characters, are the directions in which the ordinary Radical naturally moves. In hardly any quarter do we find less constructive ability, less power of arriving even at a perception of the new evils that have arisen or of the new remedies that are required. To destroy some institution, or to injure some class, is very commonly his first and last idea in constitutional policy.
Another tendency which is very manifestly strengthening in English politics is that of attempting to win votes by class bribery. With very large democratic constituencies, in which a great proportion of the voters are quite indifferent to the main questions of party politics, some form of corruption is certain to arise. The kinds of bribery, it is true, which prevailed in England under an unreformed Parliament have either disappeared or greatly diminished. The number of the electors, the secrecy of the vote, and the stringency of recent legislation against corruption, have had in this respect a salutary effect. The gigantic corruption which exists in America under the name of the ‘spoils system’ has not taken root in England, though some recent attempts to tamper, in the interests of party, with the old method of appointing magistrates in the counties, and some claims that have been put forward by members of parliament to dictate the patronage in their constituencies, show that there are politicians who would gladly introduce this poison-germ into English life. Happily, however, the system of competitive examination places most branches of the Civil Service out of the reach of politicians. But a form of bribery which is far cheaper to the candidate, yet far more costly to the nation, than that to which our grandfathers were accustomed, has rapidly grown. As Sir Henry Maine has truly said, the bribery which is most to be feared in a democracy is that of ‘legislating away the property of one class and transferring it to another.’7 Partial, inequitable taxation, introduced for the purpose of obtaining votes, is an evil which in democratic societies is but too likely to increase.
It has been rendered easier by the great fiscal revolution which took place in England after the abolition of the Corn Laws. A number of widely diffused indirect taxes, which were paid in the form of enhanced prices, were abolished; taxation has been more concentrated, and it has become very easy to vary both its amount and its incidence. It is remarkable that, at a time when this process was rapidly advancing, a note of warning and of protest was sounded by one of the wisest leaders of the Liberals. Sir C. Lewis, in the memorable Budget speech which he made as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1857, quoted the following striking passage from Arthur Young: ‘The mere circumstance of taxes being very numerous in order to raise a given sum is a considerable step towards equality in the burden falling on the people. If I were to define a good system of taxation, it should be that of bearing lightly on an infinite number of points, heavily on none. In other words, that simplicity in taxation is the greatest additional weight that can be given to taxes, and ought in every country to be most sedulously avoided.’ ‘That opinion,’ said Sir Cornewall Lewis, ‘though contrary to much that we hear at the present day, seems to me to be full of wisdom, and to be a most useful practical guide in the arrangement of a system of taxation.’8
These remarks of Sir Cornewall Lewis were much censured at the time; but I believe that many of our best contemporary thinkers will agree with me that they contain much truth, and that the concentration of taxation into a very few forms has been carried in England to an exaggerated extent. In times when prosperity is rapidly advancing and when taxation is easily borne the evil may be little felt; but in times of receding prosperity it is of no small advantage that the burden of taxation should be diffused in many forms and over a wide area. As it is much easier in times of adversity to raise than to impose a duty, it is often wiser in times of prosperity to lower than to abolish it. Low duties on articles of general consumption, showing themselves in a slightly enhanced price, pass almost unnoticed, and usually cause far less friction and discomfort than direct taxes. They are very equitable, for they are strictly proportioned to consumption or enjoyment; and this system of taxation makes it easy for the taxpayer, according to his improving or declining means, to vary his taxation by varying his consumption, while it secures that some portion of the national burden shall be diffused over a wide area. An excellent writer on this subject has truly said: ‘If only our fiscal burdens are equitably apportioned, and so contrived as neither to fetter industry nor to repress enterprise, that mode of levying them must be the best which is the least unpleasant and the least felt;’ and the same writer gives good ground for believing that there is much exaggeration, and even positive error, in the popular notion that the cost of collecting indirect taxes is greater than that of collecting direct ones.9 Two other considerations must also be remembered. One is, that the remission of a direct tax is usually felt to its full extent by the whole body of taxpayers affected, while a wholly disproportionate amount of the benefit arising from the remission of a duty is in most cases intercepted by middlemen. The other is, that the remission of a direct tax is usually an unmixed benefit, while the remission of an indirect tax, by stimulating competition, often produces acute suffering to particular classes. Thus, to give a single example, the kelp manufacture, on which the poorest inhabitants of the most barren coast-lands in Scotland and Ireland are largely supported, was for many years wholly dependent for its existence on a tax which was imposed on Spanish barilla.
I do not intend by these remarks to dispute the immense advantages which England has derived from her Free-trade legislation. This legislation has vastly stimulated both production and consumption; it has lightened many burdens; and in many cases the Treasury has derived a far greater revenue from a low duty than it had ever received from a high one. But the political evil of narrowing the basis of taxation is a real one, and, even in its purely economical aspects, the reaction against the abuses of the old fiscal system seems to have been carried too far. It is not probable that a single loaf of bread was made the cheaper by the abolition, in 1869, of the shilling registration duty on corn, though that small duty at the time it was repealed by Mr. Lowe brought more than 900,000l. into the national exchequer, and would, probably, at the present day have brought in double that sum. Not one Londoner in a hundred even knew of the existence of the small duty on coal which was abolished in the present generation. It had existed in one form or another for more than six hundred years, and was almost the oldest of our taxes. It furnished an income of more than 500,000l. a year, raised without complaint, for the purpose of effecting metropolitan improvements; and there is no reason to believe that any human being, except a few rich coalowners and middlemen, derived any benefit from its abolition.10
We have a striking instance—though it was not of a democratic character—of the manner in which changes in taxation may be made use of for electioneering purposes in the conduct of Mr. Gladstone in making the abolition of the income-tax his election-cry at the general election of 1874. The circumstances of this election may be briefly told. Mr. Gladstone was not obliged to go to the country. In spite of his defeat on the Irish University question in the preceding year, he had still a considerable and unbroken majority, though several defeats at bye-elections showed clearly that his power was declining, and especially that the upper and middle classes, who were the payers of income-tax, were profoundly shaken in their allegiance to him. The income-tax-payers, it is true, were not even then an absolute majority of the electors, but they formed a much larger proportion than after the Reform Bill of 1885. They included the great majority of the voters who could influence other voters; and they were a body so large and so powerful that there was no reasonable doubt that a general movement among them would decide the fate of the election. The fortune of the ministry was tolerably certain to turn upon the question whether the defection in this notoriously wavering class could be arrested.
It was under these circumstances that Mr. Gladstone, much to the surprise of the country, suddenly dissolved Parliament; and he issued a programme to his electors which, if the report of those who are likely to be best informed is not wholly erroneous, was as much a surprise to most of his colleagues as to the public. The times were very prosperous, and a great surplus was gathering in the Exchequer. Mr. Gladstone, throwing all other political questions into the background, resolved to utilise this surplus for election purposes, and to stake his chances at the election upon large direct offers of financial relief made to the electors, but especially to that class of the electors who were known to be wavering in their allegiance. One portion of his election address consisted of a general and undefined promise to reduce duties and assist rates; but the part which at once and especially riveted the attention of the country by its conspicuous novelty and boldness was a definite pledge that if he won the election he would abolish the income-tax. This promise at once became the leading feature of the election. It was urged from a hundred Liberal platforms and in a hundred Liberal newspapers as the great reason why the income-tax-payers should support the ministry. Every elector of this class, as he went to the poll, was clearly informed that he had a direct personal money interest in the triumph of the Government.
It is true that the promise of Mr. Gladstone was qualified by the following vague passage in his election address: ‘I have said nothing to preclude the government from asking Parliament to consider, in conjunction with these great remissions, what moderate assistance could be had from judicious adjustments of existing taxes.’ It is true also, that in a later speech, being pressed with the impossibility of repealing the income-tax without imposing other taxation, he admitted that, in consideration of the repeal of the income-tax and the reduction of rates, ‘property ought in some shape and to some considerable and equitable extent to make some fair contribution towards the public burdens.’ But the nature and magnitude of this contribution, the form it was to take, and the area over which it was to be distributed, were never revealed up to the day of the election. Everything relating to it was left perfectly vague and shadowy. One point only was brought before the electors in clear, vivid, unmistakable relief. It was, that if Mr. Gladstone won the day the income-tax would cease. Such a promise, unaccompanied by any distinct statement of equivalent burdens to be imposed, could only have operated as a direct bribe addressed to that great section of the electorate whose growing alienation from the Government was the chief cause of the dissolution. No politician, I believe, seriously doubted that when Mr. Gladstone placed the abolition of the income-tax in the forefront of the battle, his object was to win the income-tax-payers to his side.
Some strictures that I ventured to make on this transaction in the former book elicited from Mr. Gladstone two articles of indignant defence.11 No one who judged solely from those skilful and plausible pages would imagine that any question of winning votes, or arresting a political defection, or gaining a party triumph, could have entered even distantly into his calculations. He was merely, he said, ‘consulting’ the nation ‘upon the exercise of its chief and primary right of giving or withholding taxes;’ upon ‘a great subject of financial readjustment.’ ‘The rights of the people,’ as he truly said, ‘in respect to taxation are older, higher, clearer than in respect to any other subject of government.’ He at the same time asserted that his censor ‘ought to have known, and to have stated, that with the proposal to repeal the income-tax came a proposal to reconstruct and enlarge the death duties. Direct taxation of a kind most vexatious to trade and industry was to be removed-direct taxation, the least of all unfavourable to trade and industry, … was to be imposed.’
The assertion so confidently made in this passage was simply untrue, and is a curious instance of the lapse of memory into which, by too hasty writing, its author has sometimes been betrayed. No proposal of this kind was made. Mr. Gladstone was obliged in his second article to confess that on this point his memory had betrayed him, and that his critic was right; but he at once changed his ground, and argued that it would have been exceedingly prejudicial to the public service if he had disclosed at the election the ‘readjustment’ of taxation which he had contemplated, as such a disclosure would have enabled the tax-payer to evade the coming burden. ‘The disclosure of the particulars of the plan would have been both wholly novel and in the highest degree mischievous to the public interest.’ It is, surely, sufficiently obvious to reply that this fact is a very conclusive argument against the propriety of throwing such a matter into an election programme. ‘The ancient right’ of the people to be consulted on adjustments of taxation can hardly be very valuable when the condition of the consultation is that the nature of the adjustment should be concealed. Stated fully to the electors, Mr. Gladstone's proposal would, according to his own showing, have defeated itself. Stated as it was stated, it amounted to little more than a naked promise, that if a certain class of voters would maintain the Government in power, they should be freed from a burdensome tax.
But Mr. Gladstone takes a much higher ground than that of mere apology, and assures us that his real motive in this transaction was ‘the fulfilment of a solemn duty.’ He considered the income-tax unjust, unequal, and demoralising; twenty-one years before he had formed part of a ministry which promised to abolish it. This pledge, after a long slumber, revived in its full vitality at the eve of the election, and he offered the electors ‘the payment of a debt of honour.’
I have little doubt that Mr. Gladstone succeeded in persuading himself that this mode of reasoning was legitimate, but the answer to it is very simple. It was perfectly open to him to have introduced into Parliament a Budget abolishing the income-tax and carrying out, after full exposition and discussion, such other financial arrangements as he deemed desirable. Had he pursued this usual and regular course, no shadow of blame or discredit could have been attached to him, and he would, very probably, have rendered a real service to the country. But it was a wholly different thing to throw a half-disclosed and fragmentary Budget before the constituencies at a general election, making the simple abolition of a specific tax the main ground for asking the votes of those who paid it. A Minister who, seeing the popularity of his Government visibly declining, determined to dissolve Parliament before introducing his Budget, and to make his election-cry a promise to abolish the chief direct tax paid by a great wavering body of electors, may have been actuated by no other object than ‘the fulfilment of a solemn duty.’ But in ordinary men such conduct would imply other motives; and such men undoubtedly co-operated with Mr. Gladstone in the struggle, and such men will, for their own purposes, follow his example. In my opinion, few worse examples could have been given, and the constituencies in defeating Mr. Gladstone at this election rendered no small service to political morality.
Another argument of a curiously ingenious and characteristic nature must be noticed. I had said that the meaning of Mr. Gladstone's address was, that if he won the day the income-tax would cease. The statement is literally and incontestably true; but Mr. Gladstone very dexterously met it by declaring that it is an entire misrepresentation and an evidence of extreme ignorance to describe the election as if it was fought on the issue of the income-tax. It was not a question of one party supporting and the other opposing the abolition. ‘This supposed historical fact is a pure historical fiction.’ Both parties promised the abolition, and both parties, therefore, stood on the same footing.
A few words of explanation will, I think, place this matter in its true light. When Mr. Gladstone issued his election address, Mr. Disraeli was evidently taken by surprise. He was much alarmed lest this novel and unprecedented course might produce a great wave of popularity, and sweep the main body of income-tax-payers into his rival's net. He, accordingly, promptly replied that he also was in favour of the abolition of the income-tax, and had always been opposed to it. This implied promise was thought by many good judges at the time to have been an exceedingly improper one; and I am in no way bound to defend it, though it is but justice to add that Mr. Disraeli stated that he was only in favour of the abolition in case the surplus was sufficiently large to make it possible without the imposition of fresh taxation.12 But surely it is mere sophistry to argue that the conduct of Mr. Disraeli affects the character of Mr. Gladstone's original address. Is it not perfectly notorious that the popularity which Mr. Gladstone's promise was expected to produce in this great wavering portion of the constituencies was the element of success on which his followers most confidently relied? Did they not, after Mr. Disraeli's reply, still urge (and with much reason) the special claim which Mr. Gladstone had established on the voters by forcing the question into the van, and also that he was much more competent than his rival to carry the proposal into effect? Is the fact that Mr. Gladstone's example was so speedily followed a proof that it was not pernicious, and was not likely to be contagious?
A much more serious argument is, that among the questions that have at different times been brought, with general consent, before the constituencies there have been many, such as the abolition of the corn laws, or local taxation, or economical reform, in which a private pecuniary interest, as well as a public interest, must have been presented to the elector. The statement is perfectly true, and I have no wish to dispute or evade its force. Public and private interest are, undoubtedly, often so blended in politics that it is not possible wholly to disentangle them. The difference between an election which is mainly governed by low motives of private interest, and an election which is mainly governed by high motives of public spirit, is very great, but it is essentially a difference of proportion and degree. All that can be said is, that it will depend largely on a minister to determine at an election which of these classes of motives preponderate. Each dubious case must be judged by the common sense of the community on its own merits, and in the light of its own special circumstances. In former days, private interest was chiefly brought to bear upon elections by the process of corruption applied to individual voters. In modern days, bribery has changed its character, and is much more likely to be applied to classes than to individuals. Manipulations of taxation, and other legislative offers dexterously adapted to catch in critical times the votes of particular sections of the electorate, are the evils which are chiefly to be feared, and, of this kind of evil, the course adopted by Mr. Gladstone in 1874 still appears to me to have been a conspicuous example.
Many other illustrations might be given. No one who has carefully followed Irish politics during the period of the Land League agitation can doubt that appeals to the cupidity of electors formed the mainspring of the whole machine. Other motives and elements, no doubt, entered largely into the calculations of the leaders; and with them a desire to drive the landlord from his property was not in itself an end, but rather a means of obtaining political ascendency and separation from England. But it is notorious that the effectual inducement they held out to the great body of the farming class to support them was the persuasion that it was possible by the use of political means to break contracts, lower rents, and confiscate property. Nor can it be denied that the legislation of the Imperial Parliament has gone a long way to justify their prevision.
I do not include in this charge the Land Act of 1870, which appears to me to have been, in its main lines, though not in all its parts, a wise and comprehensive effort to deal with one of the most difficult and complicated questions that have appeared in English politics. The elements of the problem were very numerous. There was the imperfect sympathy between the land-owning and land-cultivating classes, arising originally from historical causes, from differences of religion, politics, and, in some degree, of race, and in modern times strengthened by the Famine and the Encumbered Estates Act, which created a multitude of new landlords, largely drawn from the trading classes, who had no knowledge of the traditions and customs of the estates they acquired, and who often purchased with borrowed money and as a commercial investment. Improvements, too, in Ireland were for the most part made by the tenant, and not by the landlord; and although the rents were in general proportionately lower than in England, although on most old estates a long tenure at low rents amply compensated the tenant for his outlay, there were, undoubtedly, cases where the advent of a new proprietor, or a sudden rise in rents or depreciation in values, led to a virtual confiscation of tenants’ improvements. Leases had been for some years diminishing, and tenancies at will became general. The custom of tenant-right was general in Ulster and occasional in other provinces, though it subsisted without the smallest sanction or protection of the law. Usage unsanctioned by law played a large part in Irish agrarian life; and there was a bad custom of allowing rents to be paid, in many parts of the country, with extreme irregularity, according to the good or bad seasons, and leaving the arrears of many years outstanding, not claimed, and not wiped away. It must be added, that the small number of manufactures had thrown the population, to an unhealthy extent, for subsistence on the soil; that political agitation had already done much to inflame class animosities and accentuate class divisions, and that there were grave faults on both sides. Wretched farming; thriftless, extravagant, unbusinesslike habits in all classes; a great want of enterprise and steady industry; much neglect of duty, and occasional, though not, I think, frequent, acts of oppression and extortion, all contributed to complicate the task of the legislator.
In my own opinion, it should have been his object to secure to the tenants compensation for all future improvements; to bring back by special inducements a land system resting on definite written contracts; to give legal character to tenant-right when it was generally acknowledged; and to assist by Government measures in the formation of a peasant proprietary, or, what was politically scarcely less valuable, of a class of tenants holding land for ever at a low fixed rent.
The question of tenants’ improvements especially was of vital importance, and it is one of the most real of Irish grievances that Parliament, in spite of the clearest warnings, so long neglected to attend to it.
Some years before the Famine Sharman Crawford had devoted himself with much zeal to the subject, and had repeatedly brought into the House of Commons a Bill which would have effectually met it. He proposed that when a tenant made improvements which were of a nature to produce an increased rent, and which had not been included in the terms of his existing lease, these improvements should be duly valued; that the tenant, at the expiry of his term, should have the right to claim either immediate money compensation from the landlord or a prolongation of his tenancy; and that, in fixing the new rent, the value of unremunerated improvements should be taken into account, so that the tenant might be repaid for them in the course of the succeeding tenancy.13
The Devon Commissioners, who sat under a commission ordered at the end of 1843, collected a great deal of valuable information on the subject, and treated it in an eminently judicial spirit. They acknowledged that ‘there had not been brought many cases to show that it had been the practice of land-proprietors to take advantage of improving tenants who had invested money without a lease or other security.’ They acknowledged also, that ‘it had not been shown that tenants possessing long and beneficial leases of the lands had in general brought them to a high state of improvement;’ that, in fact, there was evidence ‘that lands let upon very long terms, and at very low rents, were in a worse condition, and their occupiers even more embarrassed, than others.’ On the other hand, they urged that cases of the confiscation of tenants’ improvements had occurred; that a tenant at will or a tenant with a very short lease was always liable to them; that ‘a single instance occurring in a large district would naturally paralyse exertion to an incalculable extent;’ that the possibility and extreme facility of such confiscation in the existing state of the law was a gross injustice to the tenant, discouraged in the most powerful manner a kind of investment which was naturally very profitable both to the tenant class and to agriculture in general, and directly or indirectly contributed largely to most of the social evils of Ireland. They recommended, as of the highest importance to Ireland, a law giving tenants in the future compensation for permanent and productive improvements, and framed upon the following principles. Agreements between landlord and tenant relative to such improvements were to be duly registered, and, in cases where it was found impossible to arrive at such agreement, a tenant was to serve a notice on the landlord of his intention to make suitable improvements. Mutually chosen arbitrators were to report upon them, and the assistant barrister, after such report, and after examination, was to certify the maximum cost, not exceeding three years’ rent. If the tenant was ejected, or if his rent was raised within thirty years, the landlord was to pay such a sum, not exceeding the maximum fixed, as the work shall be then valued at. The improvements were to be completed within a limited time, and the landlord was to have the option of making them himself, charging 5 per cent. on the outlay.14
A Government measure based on this report was introduced by Lord Stanley, in a speech of great power, in 1845, and by Lord Lincoln in 1846. In the first case it was abandoned in the face of very determined opposition. In the second, it fell through on account of the overthrow of the Government of Sir Robert Peel, which had introduced it. Several attempts in the same direction were made in the following years, the most remarkable being the Bill of Mr. Napier, the Irish Attorney-General of Lord Derby's Government, in 1852, which had a retrospective character applying to all past improvements. None of these measures, however, ultimately succeeded, and the advice of the Devon Commission was neglected.
Besides the question of improvements, it was clearly recognised that something must be done to prevent the too frequent evictions, or threatened evictions, and the Land Act of 1860 did something in this direction. This Act, which was passed by a Liberal Government, affirmed in the clearest terms that the relations of landlord and tenant in Ireland rested solely ‘on the express or implied contract of the parties, and not upon tenure or service;’ but it at the same time provided that the landlord could bring no ejectment for non-payment of rent till a year's rent under the contract of tenancy was in arrear; and that, even after the ejectment had taken place, and the landlord was in possession of the farm, the tenant might apply to the court for his reinstatement if, within six months after his ejection, he paid his rent and costs. A clause which appears to have been imitated from the French Civil Code15 authorised the tenant to remove ‘all personal chattels, engines, machinery, and buildings accessorial thereto affixed to the freehold by the tenant at his own expense,’ provided this could be done without injuring the freehold as it existed when he first received it; and another clause established the right of the tenant to cut turf, in the absence of any express agreement to the contrary, on any unreclaimed turf bog on his tenancy. It may be added, that Acts of the old Irish Parliament had long since given the leaseholder a right of property in the trees he had planted, provided they were duly registered.
The very comprehensive and elaborate Act of 1870 went much further, and it was inspired by an evident desire to do justice to all parties; though, in the vast range of its provisions, there were some which have proved prolific in dangerous consequences not, I believe, clearly foreseen by its authors. One valuable portion of the Act followed and extended the policy, which had been adopted in the Church Act, of endeavouring to create a peasant proprietary. It authorised advances not exceeding two-thirds of the purchase money, and repayable by an annuity of 5 per cent. in thirty-five years, to any tenant who desired to purchase his holding. Another portion recognised, in the largest and fullest terms, the right of the tenant to compensation for his improvements, which are defined as works adding to the letting value of the holding, and suitable to it, and also to his crops and his unexhausted manure. This right was not destroyed by an ejection for non-payment of rent. It was not confined to improvements made subsequent to the Act. With certain clearly defined exceptions, it applied to all improvements made by the tenant or his predecessors in title. In the case of permanent buildings and reclamation of waste land there was no limit of time. In the case of other improvements there was a limit of twenty years. It was enacted that improvements, except in certain specified instances, should be deemed to have been made by the tenant or his predecessors, unless the contrary had been proved, thus reversing the old legal presumption that whatever is added to the soil belongs to the landlord. Durable and written contracts and tenant-right were encouraged by clauses limiting the improvements for which a landlord was liable whenever he granted a long lease, and permitting a departing tenant to dispose of the interests of his improvements to an incoming tenant on terms that were approved of by the court.
The Ulster tenant-right—or, in other words, the right of a tenant to sell his interest in his farm—received the force of law, and it was extended to all parts of Ireland. In Ulster the existing tenants had purchased their tenant-right, and they only obtained legal security for what was already theirs by usage. In the other parts of Ireland a saleable property which they had not bought was conferred upon them. One consequence of this was, that the boon was a much greater one to the first generation of tenants, who received it as a gift, than it was likely to be to their successors, who would in due course purchase their tenant-right. Another consequence, which was probably not foreseen, was that the tenants borrowed largely on their new security; and it was from this time that the ‘gombeen man,’ or local usurer, obtained his great prominence in Irish life. A provision, to which, I believe, there was then no parallel in the legislation of the world, provided that a tenant who had accepted a tenancy from year to year could not be removed, except at a ruinous cost, at the date at which his tenancy was terminable. Except in case of non-payment of rent, bankruptcy, or violation of specified conditions of tenancy, the landlord had no power of resuming possession of his land without paying the tenant a fine for ‘disturbance,’ which might, in some cases, amount to seven years’ rent. It will be observed that this ‘disturbance’ was not an illegal act. It was simply the enforcement by the landlord of a plain and incontestable right secured to him by the contract under which he freely parted from his land. As Judge Longfield has observed, it was possible for a landlord under this law to put a tenant in possession as tenant from year to year, to leave him in the enjoyment of it for five years, and then to be obliged to pay him seven years’ rent as a fine for removing him from it.16 This compensation was quite distinct from that given for improvements in the shape of permanent buildings or reclamation of the soil. A landlord might, however, free himself from this claim by giving a long lease.
The statesman who introduced the Act very clearly stated that it was not intended to give the tenant at will a proprietary right in his holding, but the provisions relating to disturbance plainly and unquestionably had this effect. Some faint and distant analogy may be discovered between this legislation and the English tenure of copyhold, which grew out of tenancies at will that had existed undisturbed in the same families for many generations, and which the law at last recognised as a permanent tenure, to be enjoyed by the tenants and their heirs, subject to the conditions prescribed by immemorial custom in the manor. The Irish law, however, applied to the newest as well as to the oldest tenancies. It was defended, partly on the ground that usage in most parts of Ireland made a yearly tenant secure that he would continue undisturbed in his tenancy as long as he paid his rent; partly as a measure intended to discourage the great political evil of unnecessary evictions; partly on the ground that it was likely to be beneficial to both landlord and tenant, by giving the tenant strong additional reasons for punctually observing the conditions of his tenancy. It was said that it merely gave the tenant of a bad landlord the security which the tenant of a good landlord already enjoyed, and that, in the case of small farmers, an increased stability of tenure would be not only a great political advantage, but also a great incentive to better agriculture. Even eviction for non-payment of rent might be deemed a ‘disturbance’ establishing a claim for compensation if, in the opinion of the Land Court, the rent was an exorbitant one, or if the arrears that were demanded had not wholly accrued within the previous three years. The right of compensation for disturbance applied to all tenancies from year to year, or held on leases for less than thirty-one years created after the Act had passed, and also to all tenancies from year to year existing when the Act was passed which were under the value of 100l. a year.
The Legislature considered, with some reason, that the smaller tenants were too poor to make their own bargains. Agreements between landlord and tenant, under which the latter gave up their rights to certain privileges granted by the Act, were in a large number of cases made null and void. These clauses prohibiting grown-up men from making their own bargains have been the fruitful parents of much later legislation. The principle passed into England in the Ground Game Act of 1880, which made it impossible for an English tenant to divest himself by agreement with the landlord of the right of killing hares and rabbits; and a tendency to introduce the same principle of compulsion into the largest possible number of contracts relating to land and trade seems fast becoming a distinctive feature of advanced English Liberalism.
The Irish Land Act of 1870, in its consequences, was certainly one of the most important measures of the present century. It appears to me to have been introduced with much integrity of motive, and in many of its parts it proved very beneficial. The recognition of a tenant's right to the improvements he had made; the recognition of the Ulster tenant-right; the encouragement given to the substitution of written leases and contracts for the system of tenants at will; the measures taken to create a peasant proprietary, were all marked with much wisdom. Capricious notices to quit, or notices to quit given for the mere purpose of accelerating the payment of rent, were discouraged by the imposition of a stamp duty, and there was a useful provision granting loans of public money for the reclamation of waste land. I cannot, however, reconcile with the rights of property the retrospective clause making a landlord liable for improvements made by tenants at a time when no such liability was recognised by law, and with a clear knowledge of that fact; and the clause giving a yearly tenant compensation for simple disturbance if he was removed at the end of the year seems to me essentially dishonest, and the germ of much evil that followed. It was not altogether a new importation into Irish politics. In 1866, Sir Colman O'Loughlin brought in a Bill for discouraging annual letting and precarious tenancies, and one of its clauses gave compensation to a yearly tenant if he was ejected for any other cause than non-payment of rent. This Bill was thrown out by a large majority.17
It is probable that the Act of 1870 would have been more successful if it had been less ambitious, and had aimed at a smaller number of objects. The difficulty, however, of the task was extremely great, and much allowance must be made for the statesmen who framed it. The two features of the old Irish land system which made the position of the Irish tenant most precarious were the general absence of leases, and the custom of the tenant, not the landlord, making most improvements. Neither of these points was, in most cases, a matter of much dispute between landlord and tenant. Those who are best acquainted with the conditions of Irish land before the recent legislation will I believe, agree with me that the majority of smaller tenants preferred a yearly tenancy, which was rarely changed, to a definite lease, which usually involved stricter covenants, and was likely when it expired to be followed by a revaluation and rise of rents; and that they preferred making their improvements in their own economical, and generally slovenly, way, rather than have them made in the English fashion by the landlord, who compensates himself by adding a percentage to the rent. If the rent is sufficiently low, and the tenure sufficiently long to compensate the tenant for his outlay, there is nothing in this system that is unjust; nor is it unjust that, after the tenant has been so compensated, the land should be rented according to its improved value. But it is easy to understand how this custom strengthened that notion of the joint ownership of the soil which had such a deep root among Irish ideas. In many of the poorest parts of Ireland the cabin built by the peasant, the clearing of stones, and the erecting of fences, constituted much the greater part of the value of the farm. These little farms of barren land were, indeed, essentially unsupporting. They furnished the small tenant with shelter and with potatoes for his subsistence. His rent, which was usually not more than about 4l. a year, and very irregularly paid, was earned sometimes by fishing, more frequently as a migratory labourer, and often by harvest-work in England or Scotland.
In the fertile districts the conditions were different and very various. Probably the greater number of the original improvements had been made under the old system of very long leases at very low rents. In many cases the erection of certain buildings was expressly stipulated in the lease, and was one of the elements in regulating the price. A great part of the cost of drainage which has been made under Government loans has been paid by the landlords, and in very many cases they have contributed a proportion to the cost of buildings; but, as a general rule, the improvements were made by the tenant, under the belief that he would enjoy his tenancy for a sufficient time and at a sufficiently low rent to compensate him for them. The immense deterioration of Irish land through bad and wasteful farming forms, however, a considerable offset against these improvements.
That rents in Ireland before 1870 were not in general extortionate, and were, indeed, much below the competition value, is abundantly proved.18 It is proved by the fact that wherever tenant right was permitted this right of occupation sold for a large sum; by the fact that wherever subletting was permitted the tenant almost invariably let the whole, or portions of his tenancy, at much higher rents than he paid. It is proved by the evidence of men of the greatest authority on Irish land, such as Judge Longfield and Master Fitzgibbon, and by the direct testimony of the Bessborough Commission in 1881, which, after a long and careful investigation, arrived at the conclusion that in Ireland it was unusual to exact what in England would have been considered as a full and fair commercial rent.’19 It is proved by comparison with English and with foreign rents, and by the slow increase of Irish rents, as compared both with the prices of the chief articles of agricultural produce and with the increase of rents in other parts of the kingdom. Arthur Young, in his day, considered the rents paid in Ireland to the owner of land unduly, and often absurdly, low; and in bringing in the Land Bill of 1870, Mr. Gladstone stated that, in the ninety years that had elapsed since Arthur Young wrote, the rents of Ireland had just doubled, and, if Ulster were excluded, had much less than doubled, while in ninety-eight years the rental of England had trebled, and in ninety-nine years the rental of Scotland had sextupled.20 If we take a shorter period, and a period of great prosperity, we shall come to much the same conclusion. Mr. Caird, who is one of the best modern authorities on agriculture, computed that in the seven years before 1869 ‘the land rental of England has risen 7 per cent., that of Scotland 8 per cent., while that of Ireland appears in the same time to have advanced, from its lowest point, not more than 51/2 per cent.’21 Taking Ireland, indeed, as a whole, it is probably the portion of the United Kingdom in which the benefit of the great rise in the price of agricultural produce in the third quarter of the nineteenth century has fallen most largely to the labourers and tenants, and in the smallest degree to the landlords.22
But although it is not true that Irish rents were in general unduly high, it is true that the position of the great body of the Irish tenants was utterly precarious; that in three provinces of Ireland many causes had conspired to break down the good feeling between landlord and tenant which was essential to a sound agrarian state; and that cases of gross oppression and extortion, though they were a small minority, did exist, and were not infrequent. Subletting, it is true, had much diminished, and with it the chief cause of extravagant rents. No fact is more clearly stamped upon every page of Irish agrarian history than that men of the farmer class have always been far harsher masters than men of the gentleman class; and in these latter days there have been instances of tenants holding at very moderate rents under the landlord, and actually having their rents reduced by the Land Court, at the very time when they were themselves extorting for portions of the same land extreme rack rents from their labourers. To no spot of the globe, indeed, is the parable of the servant who, having been forgiven his debt by his own master, exacted the last penny from his fellow-servant, more applicable than to Ireland.
But among rents paid to the actual owner of the soil two classes were often extortionate. There were small properties in the hands of men of narrow means, either of the trading or farming classes, and there were tracts—often extensive tracts—which had been bought by speculators under the Incumbered Estates Act, usually with borrowed money. There were cases in which the purchasers at once sought, by extensive clearances and greatly raised rents, to recoup themselves for their outlay. In the sale of these estates the tenants had usually been unprotected by lease. The law under which the estates had been sold recognised in them no right in their improvements, and rents were sometimes raised, in estates which had derived most of their value from recent tenants’ improvements, in a manner that was positively fraudulent. The purchaser thought only of his legal rights. He knew nothing and he cared nothing about the history of his property.23 Sometimes, too, on older estates, particular farms might be found rented at a strangely higher rate than those around them. The explanation is, usually, that these rents had formerly been paid to a middleman, and had not been revised when the middleman was removed.
The Act of 1870 had many merits, but it admitted, as I believe, a dangerous and dishonest principle. The Act of 1881 appears to me one of the most unquestionable, and indeed extreme, violations of the rights of property in the whole history of English legislation. In order to realise its character it is only necessary to remember that before the legislation of Mr. Gladstone the ownership of land in Ireland was, like that in France and in America, as absolute and undisputed as the ownership of a house, or a horse, or a yacht. The Incumbered Estates Act, and all the proceedings connected with it, brought this fact into the clearest relief. It had been the policy of the Whig Government, supported in its day by the loud applause of the Liberal party, to place landed property in Ireland on the strictest commercial basis. The measure was carried in 1849, at a time when Ireland was reduced to the lowest depths of misery by the great Famine, and when the newly imposed poor law in many cases equalled, in some cases even exceeded, the whole valuation income of an estate, and it was pressed on by the Liberal party with extreme harshness, to the ruin of countless landlords and creditors.
By this Act, at a time when Irish land had sunk to a mere fraction of its normal value, the first incumbrancer of an estate, or any other creditor who believed that the estate would fetch a price large enough to meet the payment of his own demand, might force the estate by a summary proceeding, and before a newly constituted court, into the market, utterly regardless of the interests of the other creditors and of the owner. Every creditor except the petitioner who was forcing the sale was at liberty to bid; and even the petitioner, by leave of the court (which was easily procured), might become the purchaser of the depreciated property. ‘By this new process,’ writes a very competent lawyer, ‘estates were sold to the amount of many millions, during the years 1849, 1850, 1851, and 1852, for less than half their value, and less than half the prices which the same estates would bring had the sale been deferred till the end of 1863. Some of the most ancient and respected families in the country, whose estates were not incumbered to much more than half their value, were sold out and beggared; thousands of creditors whose demands would have been paid if the sales had not been accelerated were not reached, and lost the money which they had lent upon what was ample security at the time it was lent, and would again have become sufficient security had the property not been ruined by the poor law and sold in that ruined condition, in a glutted market, under an enactment devised for the professed purpose of improving the condition of Ireland. The law's delay, which in ordinary circumstances is a grievance and a vexation, would have had a salutary and a just effect in those calamitous times. There was no justice in exonerating the early incumbrancers from all participation in the effects of the visitation which had come upon the country, and every feeling of humanity and every principle of equity demanded temporary indulgence from them. There was cruel injustice in turning a destructive visitation of Providence into an advantage to them which they could not have had if the law had been left as it stood when they made their contracts and took their securities, and as it still stands in England.′24
This measure, however, was at that time put forward by the Whig party as the supreme remedy for the ills of Ireland. It was pushed on against all remonstrances, and with many insults to the broken and impoverished landlords, who were now fast sinking into the shades of night. Political economy, it was said, was vindicated, and with a chorus of self-congratulation the Whig leaders proclaimed that Irish property was at last placed on its true basis, that all feudal superstitions had been effectually exorcised, and that a new and energetic class of landlords would replace the old thriftless, apathetic landlords of the past. During the last twenty-five years the main object of the leaders of the Liberal party has been to undo the work of 1849.
Let us now look at the Incumbered Estates Act from another side. The purchaser purchased from the Government, and at the invitation of the Government, the complete and absolute ownership of the estate, subject only to the existing contracts under which it had been hired out to the tenants. He bought every acre of the land, every stone of the buildings. If there were improvements on the land, these improvements were specifically mentioned in the printed advertisements that were issued by the Land Court, and they were sold to the purchaser by a judge who was appointed by the Government, and under the direct sanction of the Imperial Parliament. If the property was let on very easy terms; if the leases were soon to expire; if there was a possibility of making a considerable rise of rents, these facts were constantly put forward by the court as inducements to the purchaser, and they entered largely into the price which he gave. He was guaranteed the complete and absolute possession of the land and buildings on the termination of the tenancies in the schedule, the full legal right of determining the existing yearly tenancies. One of the special advantages attributed to the Act was, that it was perfectly clear; that the title which it conferred was absolutely indisputable. It was a parliamentary title, and highest known to English law; a security of the same kind and of the same force as that by which the fundholder or other Government creditor is guaranteed the interest of his loan. Between 1849 and 1870 more than fifty-two millions of pounds had been invested on this security in the purchase of Irish land. About an eighth part of the soil of Ireland is said to be held under this parliamentary title.
Let us now pass for a moment to the position of the existing landlords as it is established by the legislation of Mr. Gladstone. In the first place, the improvements which had been purchased under the Incumbered Estates Act have, by a naked act of confiscation, and without the smallest compensation, been taken from the purchaser, and are now the property of the tenant. A great part of what the State had sold to him, and what the State had guaranteed to him, is no longer his; and it has ceased to be his, not by an act of honest purchase, but by an act of simple power. In the next place, his clear and indisputable right to resume possession of his land when the tenancies upon it had expired has been taken from him. The tenant who was in possession when the Land Act was passed has acquired fixity of tenure. Subject to the periodical revision of rents by the Land Court, and the fulfilment of certain easy statutory conditions, he cannot be removed unless the landlord should purchase from him, by permission of the Land Court, and on conditions which the court prescribes, that right of resuming possession of his land which before the new Act was indisputably his own. The landlord has ceased to be the owner. He has become merely a rent-charger. Again and again in the debates of 1870, when the question of fixity of tenure was raised, the leaders of the Liberal party acknowledged the very obvious truth that such a provision simply amounted to the transfer of the ownership of the soil from the landlord to the tenant, and that such a transfer could only be honestly effected by paying for it in money. ‘By such a provision,’ said Mr. Gladstone, ‘the landlord will become a pensioner and rent-charger upon what is now his own estate. The Legislature has, no doubt, the perfect right to reduce him to that condition, giving him proper compensation for any loss he may sustain in money.’ ‘Inasmuch as perpetuity of tenure on the part of the occupier is virtually expropriation of the landlord, and as a mere readjustment of rent according to the price of produce can by no means dispose of all contingencies the future may produce in his favour, compensation would have to be paid to the landlord for the rights of which he would be deprived.’25 I shall not go into argument on that subject,’ said Sir Roundell Palmer when speaking of this proposal, ‘because that point was exhausted by the Head of the Government when he spoke of fixity of tenure, which, in plain English, means taking away the property of one man and giving it to another. My right honourable friend said that, according to the principles of justice, if we transferred property in that way we must pay for it. No doubt we may take a man's property, but in that case we must compensate him for it.’26
These principles appear to me perfectly true, and indeed self-evident; but they did not prevent the legislators of 1881 conferring fixity of tenure on the present tenant without granting compensation to the landlord, and from that time the first principle of much reasoning in Parliament about Irish land has been that it is a dual ownership; that the landlord is nothing more than a partner, or, as it is now the fashion to say, ‘a sleeping partner,’ in a joint possession, whose interests in every question of dispute should be systematically subordinated to those of the other partner. And this phraseology represents with much truth the position which the holders of land under parliamentary or other title in Ireland now hold.
In the last place, the Legislature has deprived the landlord of the plainest and most inseparable rights of ownership— the power of making contracts, offering his farms at the market price; selecting his tenants; prescribing the period and the terms for which he will let his land. A court is established with an absolute power of deciding the amount of rent which the tenant is to pay, and the landlord has no option of refusing, or seeking another tenant. It is often argued that the reduction enforced by the Land Courts is, on an average, somewhat less than that which has taken place in England, and that the Irish landlord has, in consequence, no reason to complain. There is, however, a great difference between a country which is mainly pasture and a country which is in a large degree wheat-growing; between a country where farms are constantly thrown into the hands of the landlord, as no tenant will take them, and a country where the average price of tenant-right is more than ten years’ purchase of the existing rental. There is also a clear difference between a reduction imposed by an act of mere power, and a reduction which is the result of the free bargaining of two contracting parties.
It might have been supposed that a legislature, in conferring this tremendous power upon a new court, would take great care at least to minimise its injustice by strictly defining the principles on which it was to act, and insisting that the reasons for its decisions should be clearly and fully given. Mr. Gladstone, however, with great skill, succeeded in persuading Parliament to abstain from giving any definition or any approximation to a definition of a fair rent, leaving this matter completely, or almost completely, to the arbitrary and unregulated action of the court. The single exception was a provision that no rent must be allowed for improvements made either by the tenant or by his predecessor in title. The one real test of the value of a thing is what men are prepared to give for it, and this market test was absolutely excluded from the valuation. Another possible test was the long continuance of the existing rent. The Bessborough Commission, which laid the foundation of the Act of 1881, proposed ‘that a rent which was paid at any time within the last twenty years, and which continued for not less than ten years to be regularly paid,’ should be always assumed to be a fair rent, unless the conditions had altered to the detriment of the tenant. Another proposal was, that rents should be deemed fair, and should be exempted from the jurisdiction of the court, if they had not been raised during the preceding twenty years. In spite of the great and almost unparalleled increase of prosperity in Ireland during that period, it appears that this proposal would be applied to no less than 4,700,000 acres of Irish soil.27
Both of these proposals, however, were rejected. Many rents were reduced which had been paid without a murmur for thirty or forty years, and in spite of clear evidence that the chief articles of Irish agricultural produce had during that period largely risen, and that the opening of new markets and the improvement of communications had materially added to the value of the farms.28 Many rents were reduced although it was shown that, within the last few years, the right of occupying the farms at these rents had been purchased by the tenant at a large sum under the Act of 1870.29 The decisions were virtually and mainly in the hands of the subcommissioners, who were to a large extent young barristers and county attorneys; many of them with scarcely any previous knowledge of land, or of the conditions of agriculture in the province in which they were adjudicating. They were sent to their task—or, as one of the ablest of them expressed himself, ‘let loose upon property'—without any instructions;30 and they usually gave their decisions without assigning any reasons. It was clearly understood that their business was to reduce, and not to regulate, rents. Their popularity or unpopularity depended on the amount of their reductions, and they knew that the wildest expectations were excited. One of the great perplexities of the lawyers who practised before them arose from the extreme difficulty of discovering the principle or reasoning on which they acted. One fact, however, which was clearly shown was, that the artificial depreciation of land arising from agrarian agitation and outrage entered largely into their estimate.31 It would be impossible to conceive a greater encouragement to such agitation; while the landlords were fined by the Government because the Government had failed to discharge adequately its elementary duty of suppressing anarchy and securing property. A hasty visit to the farms was made, and rents were settled according to their present condition. In this way, in a country where farming was already deplorably backward, slovenly and wasteful farming received a special encouragement in the form of the greatest reduction of rents.
It is not surprising that such decisions carried with them little moral weight. When complaints were made, the ministers dilated on the indecency of questioning ‘judicial decisions;’ as if such arbitrary proceedings as I have described bore any real resemblance to the judgments of a law court, where a judge is guided at every step by the clearly defined provisions of the law, and where his task is simply to decide or explain its relations to the facts that are before him. It may be observed, too, that while competition for rents was extinguished by the law, and rentals greatly reduced, the competition for tenant-right was practically unrestrained, and the price of tenant-right rapidly rose.32 There could be no better proof that the reductions did not represent the real market depreciation of value, but were in a large degree simply the transfer of property from one class to another.
I have no wish to put forward any extreme or exaggerated view of the sanctity of landed property. In my own opinion, the Legislature has a perfect right, if the public welfare requires it, to take possession of all such property, and to sell or hire it on such terms as it pleases, on the single condition of giving full compensation to the owners. The recommendation of Mill, that Irish landlords should be altogether expropriated, receiving full compensation, seems to me very doubtful in point of policy, but in no degree objectionable in point of principle. Mill will certainly not be suspected of any undue leaning towards landowners, but his doctrine differs little, if at all, from that which I am maintaining. ‘The claim of the landowners,’ he writes, ‘is altogether subordinate to the general policy of the State. The principle of property gives them no right to the land, but only a right to compensation for whatever portion of their interest in the land it may be the policy of the State to deprive them of. To that their claim is indefeasible. It is due to landowners, and to owners of any property whatever, recognised as such by the State, that they should not be dispossessed of it without receiving its full pecuniary value, or an annual income equal to what they derived from it. … When the property is of a kind to which peculiar affections attach themselves, the compensation ought to exceed a bare pecuniary equivalent.… The Legislature, which, if it pleased, might convert the whole body of landlords into fundowners or pensioners, might, á fortiori, commute the average receipts of Irish landowners into a fixed rent-charge, and raise the tenants into proprietors, supposing always (without which these acts would be nothing better than robbery) that the full market value of the land was tendered to the landlords in case they preferred that to accepting the conditions proposed.’33
I should myself state the claims of the landlord in somewhat different terms. As much land in these islands is held in trust, it seems to me that the Government, if it deprives the landlord, for purposes of public policy, of the whole or a portion of his property, is bound in equity to compensate him by such a sum as would produce, if invested in a trust fund, an income equal to that of which he was deprived.
The course which was pursued by the British Legislature towards Irish land was different, and if the terms ‘honesty’ and ‘dishonesty’ apply to the acts of Parliaments or Governments as truly as to individuals, it was distinctly and grossly dishonest. Under the Constitution of the United States, the greater part of this legislation, being a direct violation of contract, would have been beyond the competence of Congress. Nor is there, I believe, anything in the legislation of the great European countries that is parallel to it. It has been described by one of the best continental writers upon government as an attack on the principle of property more radical than any measure of the French Revolution, or even of the Reign of Terror.34 It is, indeed, much less like ordinary legislation than like extraordinary legislation of the nature of Acts of attainder or confiscation. There is, it is true, one material difference. Acts of attainder are usually passed for the purpose of confiscating the property of men who have been guilty of treason or rebellion. As the Parnell Commission abundantly showed, the true crime of the Irish landlords was their loyalty. It was for the avowed purpose of ruining and driving from the country ‘the English garrison’ that the Fenian party organised the agrarian agitation that led to the legislation of 1881.
The Bill was defended by some very serious statesmen on the ground of necessity. A gigantic agrarian conspiracy, including the bulk of the Irish peasantry, the great transfer of political power that had taken place in Ireland under English legislation, and an acute and protracted agricultural crisis, produced by bad seasons and wretched prices, had, they said, brought Ireland into a state in which some such measure was inevitable. It must be added that its character and effects were much misunderstood. It was believed that the free sale clause, which enabled a tenant who was in difficulties to sell his tenant-right to a solvent farmer, and, after paying all debts, to emigrate or set up business with a substantial capital, would operate to the great advantage of all parties. It would, it was thought, give the broken tenant a new start, secure the rent of the landlord, put an end to all necessity for evictions, and at the same time attract farmers of energy and industry; and it was not foreseen how completely it could be paralysed by violence and intimidation.
It is also tolerably certain that a considerable number, at least, of the most important ministers never anticipated that the provisions for settling rents by the authority of the court would be applied to the bulk of Irish tenancies, or made use of to create a new level of rental. It would, they believed, simply reduce to the general average those exceptional and extortionate rents which, in every county, undoubtedly existed. If it had not been for the assurances to this effect given by the ministers, it is very improbable that the Bill would have passed. ‘My view,’ said Mr. Bright, ‘is, that in reality the rents in Ireland will for the most part, in nine cases out of ten, be fixed very much as they are now.’35 ‘The Government,’ said the Attorney-General for Ireland, ‘did not admit that there would be any loss to the landlord except the loss of a power which he ought not to exercise.’36 ‘I deny,’ said the English Chancellor, ‘that it [the Bill] will, in any degree whatever, diminish the rights of the landlord, or the value of the interest he possesses.’37 ‘I think,’ said Mr. Forster, ‘the final result of the measure within a few years will be, that the landowners of Ireland, small and large, will be better off than they are at this moment.’38 It was believed that rents would be often raised as well as often lowered, that the tenants who were moderately rented would, in consequence, abstain from going into the court, and that the Act would in practice apply only to a small number of over-rented tenancies. Lord Carlingford, who spoke with especial authority on all Irish questions, and who took the chief part in carrying the measure through the House of Lords, was very explicit. ‘My lords,’ he said, ‘I maintain that the provisions of this Bill will cause the landlords no money loss whatever. I believe that it will inflict upon them no loss of income, except in those cases in which a certain number of landlords may have imposed upon their tenants excessive and inequitable rents, which they are probably vainly trying to recover.’39
I am far from presuming to fathom the true meaning or design of the statesman who is chiefly responsible for this legislation. In introducing the Bill of 1870, with its dangerous principle of compensation for disturbance, Mr. Gladstone had specially and repeatedly maintained that he was conferring a benefit upon the owners as well as the occupiers of the soil. He deplored the fact that the selling value of Irish land was much lower than that of British land, and predicted that the effects of his legislation would make it ‘not merely worth twenty or twenty-five years’ purchase, but would raise it altogether, or very nearly, to the value of English or Scotch land.’40 In 1881 he used similar language. When introducing a measure establishing fixity of tenure he was confronted with his own very plain words in 1870, which I have already quoted, about the confiscatory character of such a measure; but it was not difficult for so supreme a master of the art of evasion to extricate himself from his difficulty. He skilfully met the demands for compensation for property and legal rights that were clearly taken away by alleging that he was not injuring, but, on the contrary, benefiting the landowner. In many cases, he said, the probable effect of the Bill would be to raise rents; and although he would not say ‘whether the action of the court in fixing a judicial rent may not, on the whole, lower the rents rather than raise them in the first operation,’ he was convinced that the increased value of land derived from the greater solidity of the social state which he was bringing about would speedily ‘repay the landlord for any incidental mischief of the Act twofold or threefold.’41 As was his usual custom on such occasions, he pitched his tone very high, and appealed in noble language to the loftiest motives. ‘Justice, sir, is to be our guide; and as it has been said that love is stronger than death, even so justice is stronger than popular excitement, stronger than the passions of the moment, stronger even than the grudges, the resentments, and the sad traditions of the past. Walking in that light, we cannot err. Guided by that light—the Divine Light—we are safe.’
Probably no one who was present when, with uplifted eyes, and saintly aspect, and exquisitely modulated intonation, the great speaker poured out these sonorous sentences, predicted that in a few short years he would identify himself with the men whom he had truly described as preaching ‘the doctrine of public plunder;’ demoralising a people by ‘teaching them to make the property of their neighbour the objects of their covetous desire;’ attempting to substitute ‘an anarchical oppression’ for the authority of law; making rapine their first object; seeking ‘to march through rapine to the dismemberment of the Empire;’ destroying the peace of life; aiming at ‘the servitude of good men, the impunity and supremacy of bad men.’ Few persons could have imagined that this virtuous statesman would soon be endeavouring to place the government of Ireland in the hands of those who were guilty of such things; that he would be employing all the resources of his matchless dialectic to attenuate their misdeeds; that he would denounce as coercion measures for the enforcement of the criminal law against the most merciless of oppressions, which were largely copied from his own legislation; that he would spend the evening of his long and brilliant public life in inflaming class animosities and reviving the almost extinct embers of provincial jealousies. It is perhaps somewhat less surprising that the Irish landlords continued to be attacked just as if the Acts of 1870 and 1881 had never been carried, and as if capricious evictions and rack-rents had not been rendered impossible.
The Act was, indeed, as far as possible from appeasing Ireland. Probably the worst period of the land agitation followed its enactment, and hopes of plunder were excited to the utmost, while falling prices and ever-deepening agricultural distress vastly aggravated the crisis. The stability which was supposed to have been given by the Act of 1881 had been represented as one of its great merits; but every year the cry for revising it acquired fresh force, and after the utter political demoralisation that followed the apostasy of 1886, when the main section of the Liberal party purchased the votes by adopting the policy of the National League, this cry became probably irresistible. Some of those who had consented to the Act of 1881 now looked with consternation at their work. ‘I would rather have cut off my hand,’ said Lord Selborne, ‘than been a party to the measure of 1881, giving the House the reasons and assurances which I then gave, if I had known that within five years after its passing it would have been thrown over by its authors, and that the course they had now taken would have been entered on.’42
The Land Act of 1887, however, which reopened the settlement, was carried by a Unionist Government, and it again lowered rents which only four or five years before had been judicially fixed. It was said that the State, having undertaken to regulate rents, could not remain passive when prices had so greatly fallen, and that the political condition of the country imperatively demanded its intervention. It is true that, under the Act of 1881, the State, while reducing the rents of the Irish landlords, had guaranteed those reduced rents for fifteen years.43 It was a distinct, formal promise, resting on the national faith and on the authority of the Imperial Parliament. The promise was broken, but it was asked whether this was in truth a very different thing from what had already been done in 1881, when parliamentary and hereditary titles had been torn into shreds. The existing leaseholders were at the same time brought, for the first time, within the provisions of the clause for reducing rents. Mr. Gladstone had refused to do this in 1881; but it was said that it was intolerable that the flower of the Irish tenantry should alone be excluded from benefits which all other tenants so abundantly enjoyed, and that there was little chance of conciliating the Irish farmers if their leading and most intelligent members were left embittered by an exceptional disability.
The force of this argument is incontestable, but the gravity of the step that was taken is not less so. One great object, as we have seen, of the Act of 1870 had been to induce landlords to grant leases by giving them an assurance that they would in this way place themselves beyond the many entanglements and penal clauses of the new legislation. No one could pretend either that the Irish leaseholders were a helpless class, incapable of making their own bargains, or that their position rested on any other foundation than a distinct written contract. They were the most substantial and intelligent farmers of Ireland. The lease which regulated their tenancies was a fully recognised legal document, bearing the Government stamp, carrying with it all the authority and protection that English law could give. Its first clause was, usually, that at the expiry of the assigned term the tenant should hand back the land to its owner. This provision had been already torn to pieces by the Act of 1881, which provided that in cases of all leases of less than sixty years the tenant, at the expiry of the lease, if resident on his farm, need not hand it back according to his contract, but should remain a ‘present tenant,’ with all the rights of permanent occupancy attaching to that position.44 The next clause stipulated in very explicit terms the rent in consideration of which the landlord had, in the exercise of his full legal rights, hired out his farm. This also was broken, and the leaseholder had now the right of bringing his landlord into a court where, as the result of proceedings which always brought with them heavy legal costs to the landlord, the rent was authoritatively and judicially reduced.
It will be observed that the State did not in this matter annul or dissolve a legal contract, leaving the two parties free to make fresh arrangements. It left one party wholly bound by the terms of the contract; it contented itself with releasing the other; and, it need scarcely be added, it did this without granting the smallest compensation to the defrauded partner. There were other provisions, into which I need not enter, diminishing the few remaining powers of the landlord of recovering rent, and somewhat improving the position of the ordinary tenant. The Act was described by a leading Unionist statesman as ‘the most generous boon’ ever conferred by the Imperial Parliament on the Irish tenant. This ‘generosity’ which impels legislators, without the smallest sacrifice to themselves, to seek to conciliate one class by handing over to them the property of another is likely to be a growing virtue in English politics.
We can hardly, indeed, have a better example of the manner in which a subversive principle, once admitted into politics, will grow and strengthen till it acquires an irresistible power. When the principle of compensation for disturbance was introduced into the measure of 1870, it was carefully explained that this was not intended to invalidate in any degree the indisputable title of the landlord to the sole ownership of his property; that it was intended to be strictly limited in its application; that it was essentially a measure for the maintenance of public order; that its only object was to make a few bad landlords do what all good landlords were already doing; that it was certain to be as beneficial to the landlord as to the tenant class. Probably, few persons clearly foresaw that it was the first step of a vast transfer of property, and that in a few years it would become customary for ministers of the Crown to base all their legislation on the doctrine that Irish land was not an undivided ownership, but a simple partnership.
As might be expected, the Irish landlords claimed compensation for property that was manifestly confiscated, for vested and reversionary interests and clearly recognised legal rights which, for reasons of public policy, had been taken away. In an eminently moderate and closely reasoned statement they showed how invariably and rigorously the Imperial Parliament, following the general custom of civilised communities, had itself recognised this right, and imposed the obligation of compensation on all public bodies, companies, and individuals to whom it had granted a compulsory power of acquiring or interfering with property or vested interests. They suggested especially two forms of compensation. One of them was the reduction of the tithe rent-charge which was paid to the Government by the landlord. They strengthened their case by reminding the ministers that before 1872 the tithe rent-charge could be revised every seven years, according to the price of corn, which was then much higher than at the time they wrote; that before 1838 the tithe was paid by the occupier, and not by the owner, and that the duty of paying it, or, as it was then said, collecting it, was transferred in that year to the landlord, on the understanding that he could recoup himself in the rent. This rent was now arbitrarily reduced, and the landlord had lost all power over it.
The other suggestion was, that Government might lend money at low interest to pay off the heavy charges which rested on Irish land, and which had been incurred on the faith of legal rights that were now destroyed. Great sums had been already advanced in Ireland for public purposes on such terms, and it was noticed that this policy had very recently been adopted in Russia to relieve the embarrassments of the Russian landlords. As the normal rate of interest on charges on Irish property was little, if at all, below 5 percent., and as, with Imperial credit, State loans might be granted at an annuity not exceeding 3 1/2 percent., repaying capital and interest in about sixty-five and a half years, this measure would have very materially lightened the burden, and probably saved many landlords and many creditors from ruin.45
Such proposals, however, never had the least chance of being accepted. It was certain that the Liberal party, which now depended on the National League, would be steadily opposed to them, and it was quite powerful enough to prevent them. There was, indeed, a melancholy unreality about all such discussions. The two parties moved on different planes. Arguments of justice, precedents, clear statements by Liberal leaders, were put forward by the representatives of the Irish landlords, but every politician knew in his heart that the real question was one of votes and power, and political power had passed away from the Irish landlords.
It is not necessary to follow this story any further, and to describe the almost annual attempts that have been made to grant, through political pressure, to the occupying class in Ireland a larger share of the property of the nominal owners. It cannot be denied that this legislation has redressed some hard cases and benefited a large number of tenants; and as few men look beyond immediate consequences, or rightly estimate those which are indirect and remote, this fact is accepted by many as its justification. For my own part, I believe that it will one day be found that the evils resulting from this policy have greatly outweighed its benefits, and that they will fall far more heavily on another class than on the small class which was directly injured. In a poor country, where increased capital, improved credit, and secure industry are the greatest needs, it has shaken to the very basis the idea of the sanctity and obligation of contract; made it almost impossible to borrow any considerable sum on Irish land; effectually stopped the influx of English gold; paralysed or prevented nearly all industrial undertakings, stretching into a distant future. It has reacted powerfully upon trade, and thus contributed to impoverish the Irish towns, while it has withdrawn the whole rental of Ireland from the improvement of the soil, as the landlord can have no further inducement or obligation to spend money on his estate. In combination also with the Home Rule movement it has driven much capital out of the land. Probably only a small portion of the money which is now received for the sale of land under the Government Acts is invested in Ireland. Prudent men have learned the wisdom of placing their savings, and at least a portion of their realised property, outside a country where the dominant political influences are on the side of dishonesty; where the repudiation of debts and the intimidation of creditors have become leading features of popular politics; where the protection of property and the administration of justice may one day fall into the hands of the authors of the ‘No Rent Manifesto’ and of the Plan of Campaign.
Under such conditions, the difficulty of establishing any system of safe and honest self-government has been immensely aggravated. Ireland must indeed be greatly changed if the withdrawal from her country districts of the presence and influence of her most educated class proves a real benefit; if local institutions are more wisely and honestly administered by passing from the hands of country gentlemen into the hands of the professional politician; if the labourer and smaller tenant find it to their advantage to be more directly under the power of farmers, gombeen men, and local attorneys. Fair rents and free sale, as has been often observed, are mutually destructive, and after a few sales the burden of interest paid to the money-lender will be far heavier than the rent which was taken from the landlord; while the conflict between the farmer and the labourer is likely to reproduce in an aggravated form the conflict between the landlord and the farmer.
Three things, indeed, may be confidently asserted about Irish rents. The first is, that it has never been the custom of the great body of Irish landlords to exact the full competitive rents from their tenants, although a considerable minority have done so. The second is, that it has been the invariable practice of Irish tenants, in selling to one another their tenant-right and in subletting plots of ground to their labourers, to demand the full competitive price. The third is, that in order to make the system of what is practically rack-rent general, no better way could be devised than the recent land legislation. If you give the tenant fixity of tenure at a judicially fixed rent which is considerably below the market price, and at the same time give him a practically unlimited power of selling his tenancy with no restriction of price, the result must be two rents— one paid to the landlord, the other paid to the money-lender in the shape of interest on the money borrowed to purchase the tenant-right. And these two combined will represent the extreme value of the land.
The moral effects on the Irish people of the land legislation and of the agitation that produced it have been still more pernicious. If we ask what are the chief services that a Government can render to national morals, we shall probably obtain different answers. Some men will place the greatest stress on the establishment by the State of the religion which they believe to be true; on the infusion into national education of a large measure of religious teaching; on laws restraining private vices or controlling trades, institutions, or amusements that may produce them. On all these points there may be much controversy about the true province of the State, and there is probably much exaggeration about the good that it can do. To me, at least, the first and greatest service a Government can render to morals seems to be the maintenance of a social organisation in which the path of duty and the path of interest as much as possible coincide; in which honesty, industry, providence, and public spirit naturally reap their rewards, and the opposite vices their punishment. No worse lesson can be taught a nation than that violence, intimidation, conspiracy, and systematic refusal to pay debts are the natural means of rising to political power and obtaining legislative concessions. No worse habit can be implanted in a nation than that of looking for prosperity to politics rather than to industry, and forming contracts and incurring debts with the belief that a turn of the political wheel may make it possible to cancel them.
It is, indeed, a curious and melancholy study to trace the effects of recent legislation on different classes in Ireland. The landlords who have suffered least have probably been those who simplified their properties by the wholesale evictions, the harsh clearances, that too often followed the Famine. Next in the scale came those who exacted extreme rack-rents from their tenants. Those rents had been received for many years, and though they were ultimately more reduced than rents which had always been low, they still, in innumerable cases, remained somewhat higher than the others. The large class who regarded land simply as a source of revenue, and, without doing anything harsh, or extortionate, or unjust, took no part or interest in its management, have suffered very moderately. It is the improving landlord, who took a real interest in his estate, who sank large sums in draining and other purposes of improvement, who exercised a constant and beneficent influence over his tenants, who has suffered most by the legislation that reduced him to a mere powerless rent-charger, and in most cases rendered the sums he had expended an absolute loss. As I have already noticed, the careless and slovenly farmer had his rent more reduced than the farmer who, by good cultivation, had maintained his farm at its full value. An Arrears Act was carried conferring great benefits on the farmer who had allowed his rent to fall many years into arrear, but doing nothing for the farmer who, by steady, conscientious industry, had in bad times honestly paid his way. Even the land purchase Acts, though they are by far the most valuable parts of recent Irish land legislation, had a similar tendency. As the tenant is no longer asked to advance any portion of the purchase money, no premium is given to industry and thrift; the value of the purchased land has been artificially depreciated by agitation and attacks upon property; and as the landlord whose income has already been twice reduced by a land court knows that in most cases, in addition to heavy legal expenses, a sale will reduce each remaining 100l. a year to 60l. or 70l., he is, not unnaturally, unwilling to sell when his tenants are honest and solvent, though he may be ready to do so on easy terms when they are dishonest, troublesome, and unpunctual.
To crown the edifice, a measure was introduced by the Government, in 1894, for the purpose of reinstating, at the cost of 250,000l. of public money drawn from the funds of the Irish Church, those tenants who, in spite of judicial reductions and all the delays and indulgences of the law, had been either unable or unwilling to pay their rents, and had been in consequence evicted. By this measure it was proposed to invest three men nominated by the Government, and uncontrolled by any right of appeal, with an arbitrary and almost absolute power of reinstating any Irish tenant, or the representative of any Irish tenant, who had been evicted for any cause since 1879. The only restriction was that the consent of the present tenant must be obtained; but in a great part of Ireland he could not withhold it without imminent danger to his life. The tenant might have been evicted for dishonesty, for violence, for criminal conspiracy, for hopeless and long-continued bankruptcy. He might be living in America. The owner of the soil might have delayed the eviction for years after the law had empowered him to carry it out, and he might have at last taken the land into his own possession, and have been, during many years, farming it himself. He had no right of refusing his consent, and his only alternative was to take back the former tenant, or to sell to him the farm at whatever price a revolutionary and despotic tribunal might determine.
The explanation of the measure was very plain. It was specially intended for the benefit of the ‘Plan-of-campaign’ tenants, who had placed money which was actually in their possession, and which was due to their landlords for benefits already received, in the hands of ‘trustees,’ for the express purpose of defrauding their creditors. This ‘Plan of Campaign’ had been authoritatively pronounced by the highest law court in Ireland to be ‘clearly and absolutely illegal.’ It had been condemned by the head of the Catholic Church as distinctly immoral. It had been avowedly ‘a political engine,’ devised by political conspirators for the purpose of defeating the Government, proving that the Land League was stronger than the law, and persuading the peasantry that its directors were the real rulers of Ireland. The instigators of this conspiracy were now in Parliament. The Government depended for their majority upon their votes, and their terms were that the Plan-of-campaign conspiracy should be triumphantly vindicated. The proposed measure was not a mere measure of amnesty closing an old controversy, granting indulgence to poor men who had been duped by men far more dishonest than themselves. It was a measure of triumph, giving special and exceptional favour to defaulting tenants. No solvent tenant could become the owner of his farm without the consent of his landlord. This privilege was reserved for the evicted tenant.
In the light of this clause and of the persistence with which it was maintained, no reasonable man could doubt the character, the origin, and the motive of the measure. The Government bought the Irish vote by a Bill to carry out their design, and it resolved to devote a large amount of public money to the purpose. It is true that this scandalous instance of political profligacy was defeated by the House of Lords, and that in the Land Bill of the succeeding year the compulsory clause was dropped; but the fact that a British minister could be found to introduce, and a party majority to vote it, is not likely to be forgotten in Ireland. Never, indeed, did a minister of the Crown propose a measure more distinctly calculated to encourage dishonesty, and to persuade a deluded people that a sufficient amount of voting power was all that was needed to make it successful. It has been truly said, that the worst feature of the old penal code against Irish Catholics was that some of its provisions placed law in direct opposition to religion and to morals, and thus tended powerfully to demoralise as well as to impoverish. A system of government has, in our day, grown up in Ireland not less really and scarcely less widely demoralising. Those who have examined its effects will only wonder that so much honesty and virtue have survived it.
It has been well said by Senior, that ‘the most revolting, and perhaps the most mischievous, form of robbery is that in which the Government itself becomes an accomplice; when the property of whole classes of individuals is swept away by legislative enactments, and men owe their ruin to that very institution which was created to ensure their safety.’46 Probably the most serious aspect, however, of this Irish legislation is to be found in the precedents it created. I have not concealed the difficulties under which it grew up, and which explain and palliate the conduct of the legislators, and if a comparison were made between the losses English landlords have undergone through economical causes, and the losses of Irish landlords under the action of the law, it is very doubtful whether the position of the former would appear the more desirable. But, when all this is said, it is impossible reasonably to deny that this legislation involves as distinct instances of national faith violated, of property guaranteed by law taken without compensation, as can be found in the proceedings of any of those defaulting governments of South America on which English public opinion has so often and so largely expended its indignation. If Parliament passed a law repudiating its railway guarantees, or the whole or part of the interest of the National Debt, or limiting by an act of power the profits of tradesmen, or compelling a London lodging-house keeper to give fixity of tenure at a reduced rent to a London workman, or placing the debentures and preference shares of a railway on the same basis as the ordinary shares, or obliging a railway company to expend the whole or nearly the whole of its profits in cheapening fares, instead of increasing dividends, it would not be invading the rights of property more clearly.
It is idle to suppose that such a precedent can be confined to Ireland, or Irish land, or Irish landlords. With a suffrage that gives the predominant power to the very ignorant and the very poor; in an age when every kind of predatory theory relating to property is in the air, and when the province of State interference is continually extending, and under a Constitution which gives no special protection to contracts, such a precedent is certain to grow. A departure from sound principle in legislation is nearly always advocated, in the first instance, on the ground that it is entirely exceptional, strictly limited in its application, certain to do no practical harm, and intended to secure some practical benefit. Once admitted, it soon becomes a starting-point or logical premise, and is pushed into new fields and to new consequences.
There are very few forms of confiscation which an ingenious man may not justify by the Irish precedent. Irish landlordism is far from being an exceptional thing, and oppressive rents and harsh evictions will be found in greater abundance in the poorer quarters of London, Paris, or New York, than in Mayo and Connemara. The well-known American writer, Mr. George, compares Irish landlords to useless, ravenous, destructive beasts, but he acknowledges, a few pages later, that they are in no degree harder than any similar class; that they are less grasping towards their tenants than the farmers who rent of them are towards the labourers to whom they sublet; that it is pure ‘humbug’ to pretend that ‘Irish landlordism is something different from American landlordism;’ and that the position of an American tenant is, in fact, not better, but worse, than that of an Irish one. ‘In the United States the landlord has, in all its fulness, the unrestricted power of doing as he pleases with his own. Rack-renting is with us the common, almost the exclusive, form of renting. There is no long process to be gone through to secure an eviction, no serving notice upon the relieving officer of the district. The tenant whom the landlord wants to get rid of can be expelled with the minimum of cost and expense.’ Mr. George quotes with approval the statement of an American judge that there are few months in which at least 100 warrants of ejection are not issued against poor tenants in the more squalid quarters of New York.47
In countless instances, indeed, the rents of poor men's houses, the value of poor men's investments, and the burdensomeness of poor men's contracts, are affected by circumstances which they could neither foresee nor control. How often does some great quarter of houses for the poor grow up in the neighbourhood of a flourishing industry, but a change of fashion, a new invention, a migration of population or capital, destroys the industry: work ebbs away, prices and wages change, contracts which were once easy and natural become overwhelmingly oppressive, and with diminishing or disappearing profits, the interest of money borrowed to carry on the business ruins the worker. Ought the State under such circumstances to constitute itself a kind of Providence, to break contracts and regulate anew the conditions of industry? And if it begins to do this, without giving compensation for rights that it takes away, and under mere political pressure, at what point is it likely to stop?
Reflections of this kind must have occurred to every thinking man who observes the course of modern politics, and the alacrity and complaisance with which schemes of the most wholesale plunder are in many quarters received. One favourite form has consisted of attacks on the private ownership of land, and the popularity attained by the writings of Mr. George, who preaches on this subject the most extreme doctrine, is a striking sign of the times. Nothing, indeed, in history or in economics is more plain than that the strong stimulus of an exclusive personal interest can alone attract to land the labour and the capital that make it fully productive, and that the productiveness of the soil is one of the first conditions of the well-being of the whole community. The transition from the common ownership of land which existed when mankind were thinly scattered nomads and hunters, to a divided land cultivated and fertilised by individual industry, was one of the first and most valuable steps in the progress of civilisation. Nothing also in morals is more plain than that to abolish without compensation that private ownership which has existed unquestioned for countless generations, and on the faith of which tens of thousands of men in all ages and lands, and with the sanction and under the guarantee of the laws of all nations, have invested the fruits of their industry and their thrift, would be an act of simple, gross, naked, gigantic robbery. Were it not so, indeed, the words ‘honesty’ and ‘dishonesty’ would have no real meaning. Yet such a proposal has been warmly welcomed, such a measure has been eagerly advocated, by many who would be very indignant if they were described as the accomplices of thieves, and who would probably be perfectly incapable in their private capacities of an act of dishonesty. If, on the other hand, the State simply purchased honestly the land of the country, and placed itself in the position of the landlord, it is easy to show that the whole transaction could only end in a ruinous loss. The position of the occupying tenant would be unchanged, except that he would pay his rent, not to a private individual, but to the representative of the State. The purchase money could only be raised by a colossal loan, which would have to be paid for in the shape of interest. The returns from land are so small that, far from furnishing a surplus for the relief of taxation, they would, in most cases, be insufficient to pay the simple interest of this loan, even if it could be raised on ordinary terms. But every competent judge must know the utter impossibility of raising such a loan at the ordinary price, and without producing a financial convulsion probably more tremendous than any that the world has seen.48
Another doctrine which, in different forms, has spread widely through public opinion is that of Mill about ‘the unearned increment.’ Starting from the belief that the value of land has a natural tendency to increase through the progress of society, and without any exertion or sacrifice on the part of the owner, Mill proposed that this ‘unearned increment’ should be steadily intercepted and appropriated by the State in the form of taxation. It was true, Mill acknowledged, that men had long bought land, which brings a smaller return than almost any other form of investment, through a belief that their income would gradually increase, and with an implied assurance that they would only be taxed in proportion to other incomes. Mill, however, very honestly met this objection by maintaining that the confiscation of the increment should only take place from the present time and with due notice, and that the landlord should have the alternative of receiving from the State the present market value, which includes the present value of all future expectations.
In the long period of agricultural depression through which England and most other countries have passed the doctrine of ‘an unearned increment’ wears an aspect of irony. For many years the market value of agricultural land, instead of rising, has been steadily falling, and history clearly shows that the same phenomenon has taken place in many long periods and in many great countries. If the State takes from the owner by exceptional taxation the normal rise in the value of his land, it may very reasonably be expected by exceptional legislation to compensate him for its fall.
No statement can be more palpably untrue than that ‘unearned increment’ is a thing in any degree peculiar to land. The growth of population and the development of civilisation exercise exactly the same influence on the shares of a railway or a dockyard; on the wages of the labourer; on the fees of the professional man; on the masterpieces of art; on the value of innumerable articles of commerce. In countless cases property is increased, or industry and ability reap larger rewards in consequence of changes which do not lie within themselves, and to which they have contributed nothing, but which are wholly due to extraneous and surrounding circumstances. Ask any rich man which of his investments, without any sacrifice or exertion on his part, have doubled or trebled in value, and you will find that in the great majority of cases they have no connection with land. What reason is there, therefore, for selecting for exceptional and penal taxation the single form of property which usually produces the least return, and which is associated to the greatest degree with the discharge of duties that are eminently useful to the State? And this proposal is made in a country where so large an amount of money has been sunk in land by many generations of proprietors that the actual rent would represent, in very many instances, nothing more than the lowest interest on the outlay; in a country where the value of personal property enormously exceeds that of land, and has been, during the last century and a half, advancing with a vastly greater rapidity. According to Sir Robert Giffen, land in England constituted in 1690 about 60 percent. of the national wealth, and in 1800 about 40 percent. In the United Kingdom it constituted, in 1812, 44 percent.; in 1865, 30 percent.; in 1875, 24 percent.; in 1884, only 17 percent.49
The true explanation of such proposals is political. It is to be found in that almost rabid hatred of the landed interest, growing out of political antagonism, which has characterised large bodies of English Radicals, and which, in a time when the deep agricultural depression forms probably our most serious national evil and danger, makes the increased taxation of land one of the most popular of Radical cries.
One argument, upon which much stress has been put, but which has now, in a great degree, lost its force, is that the land of the country is the source of the food on which its people depend, and that special legislation ought therefore to prevent it from being in the uncontrolled power of the few. As I have already said, I believe that, if any clear case of public welfare can be established, the Government has the right to take complete or partial possession of the land, on condition of compensating the owners. If England were surrounded by a brass wall, and if its people depended for their subsistence on the crops raised within that wall, severe restrictions should undoubtedly be placed on the use of great portions of the soil for parks or sporting purposes. But the situation is much modified when the main supply of food for the people is not derived from English soil, but comes from the United States, from the Colonies, from India, and from Russia, and when this supply pours in with such abundance and at such prices that the best English land is almost crushed by the competition, while the inferior lands have become, as food-producing land, almost useless.
The unreality, however, of the speculation that would separate landed property by a sharp generic distinction as an object of spoliation from all other property speedily became apparent. The same class of reasoners soon found that similar or analogous arguments may be applied to other branches of property, and to defence of other forms of dishonesty. It is a significant fact that while Mr. George in his first book only proposed to rob the landowner, in his second book he proposed equally to rob the fundowner, being now convinced that the institution of public debts and private property in land rested on the same basis. In nearly all the Socialist programmes that are now issued on the Continent the ‘nationalisation of land’ is included, but it is always coupled with proposals for the nationalisation of all capital and means of production, and for the repudiation of national debts.
Jefferson had already anticipated these writers in their advocacy of the repudiation of national debts; and it must be acknowledged that the arguments for this course are quite as plausible as those in favour of land spoliation. It is said that one generation cannot bind another and impose on it the interest of its debts. We are reminded that these debts were incurred at a time when the masses, who now consider themselves, by a kind of right divine, the rulers of the State, were almost wholly unrepresented, and for objects of which they altogether disapprove. Demagogues are not wanting to persuade them that the war of the American Revolution and the war of the French Revolution, which are responsible for the greater part of the debt, were mere crimes of the aristocracy, and crimes directed against the people. Are the people, it is asked, for ever to bear the burden of debts so incurred, and incurred, too, when the national credit was so low that not more than 70l. or 60l. was paid to the Exchequer for bonds which now bear the value of 100l.?
As democracy advances, the precedents of spoliation pass into legislation, doctrines of this kind are likely to find an increasing number of adherents. This prospect renders peculiarly alarming the enormous increase of national debt that has taken place in Europe during the last few decades. It justifies the wisdom of the policy of America in paying off, even by very drastic measures, the bulk of its debt, and also the great and praiseworthy efforts that have been made by British Governments in the same direction.
Mining royalties stand on the same footing as private property in land. They are a kind of property which has been for generations bought, sold, mortgaged, and bequeathed with the full sanction of the law, and they have been estimated in the British Isles at the enormous sum of eight millions a year. There is a party, though happily not a large one, who openly advocate their simple confiscation. Thus the Glasgow Trade Council passed a resolution, ‘That this Council instructs the secretary to state to the (Mining Royalties) Commission that it is in favour of mining royalties becoming national property without compensation being given.’ Similar views are frequently expressed in Socialist literature, and they were put forward by some witnesses before the Labour Commission, the most conspicuous upholder of this shameless dishonesty being a Radical member of Parliament.50
Another kind of property which has been the subject of much more or less ingenious sophistry is literary property. The right of an author to the profits of the book he has written rests on the highest and simplest title by which property can be held—that of creation. The author made it. His title to what he has himself created, like that of the labour to what he himself earned, is certainly more direct, if it is not of a higher kind, than that of any species of property which is simply hereditary. But the peculiarity of literary property is, that while it may be of great value to its author, and of great utility to mankind, it may be stolen with peculiar facility, and in a different way from most other kinds of property. Like a bank-note, its value is destroyed if every one is allowed to reproduce it, and hence laws of copyright have been found necessary to protect it. Among all the forms of property, few are so imperfectly protected as this; but there are some who would abolish it altogether, refusing all legal protection to literary property. One of their arguments is, that an author merely gives a form to ideas and knowledge which are floating in the intellectual atmosphere around him, and which are the common property of all men, and has, therefore, no exclusive right to what he has written. If this be true—and it is far from being absolutely so—the simple answer is, that it is to the form alone, which is his own work, that he claims an exclusive right. A sculptor's right of property in his statue is not destroyed by the fact that the clay and the marble existed before he touched them with his chisel. An author claims no monopoly in his ideas; but the form in which he moulds them is so essentially the main element in the question, that the distinction is for all practical purposes trivial. There is no idea in Gray's Elegy which has not passed through thousands of minds. Gray alone gave them the form which is immortal.
It is said that an author is a ‘monopolist’ because he claims an exclusive right of selling his book, and that his claim is therefore opposed to the doctrine of free trade. But this is a pure confusion of thought. In the sense of political economy, a man is a monopolist who prevents others from pursuing a form of industry which they might have pursued independently of him, and had he not existed. He is not a monopolist if he only prevents them from appropriating what he alone has made, and what would not have existed without him. An author is a monopolist in no other sense than a proprietor or labourer who claims the exclusive possession of his own earnings or his own inheritance. If I write the history of a particular period, I claim no legal right of debarring others from writing about the same period, or using the materials that I have used. I claim only an exclusive right in that specific work which I have myself made. A fisherman would be rightly called a monopolist if he excluded all others from fishing in the sea. He is not rightly called a monopolist if he only claims an exclusive right to dispose of the fish which he has himself caught in the sea, which is open to all.51
But the author, it is said, is under a special obligation to the State because his property is protected by a special law. The answer is, that the very object for which all governments are primarily created, and for which all taxes are paid, is the protection of life and property. A government in protecting property is simply discharging its most elementary duty. Different kinds of property may be invaded, and must therefore be protected in different ways; and, as a matter of fact, the protection of literature costs the State much less in labour, in money, and in popularity than the protection of pheasants.
Others again contend for what they call the nationalisation of the means of communication, or, in other words, the appropriation of the railways and all other public conveyances by the State. If by this term is meant that the Government should either construct, or purchase at a fair price, the railways within its dominion, there is no objection of principle to be raised. The system of State railways exists in many countries. In judging whether it is for the advantage of the nation as a whole, we have to consider a large number of conflicting and closely balanced advantages and disadvantages, and the preponderance in each country must be decided according to its own special economical circumstances. It is also universally admitted that the State, having given great privileges and powers to a railway company, is perfectly justified in imposing upon it many restrictions. But when it is claimed that the State may, without purchase, or at a rate of compensation below its real value, take possession of a railway, depriving of their property the shareholders at whose risk and cost it was made, it can only be answered that such a claim is simple and naked robbery. And the same thing may be confidently asserted of many other ambitious schemes for ‘nationalising’ all great industrial undertakings and absorbing all capital into the State. If the element of just purchase enters into these transactions, they would only result in a great financial catastrophe. If purchase or compensation be refused, the catastrophe would not be averted, but the process would be one gigantic robbery.
Such schemes for turning the State into the universal landlord, the universal manufacturer, the universal shopkeeper, reorganising from its foundations the whole industrial system of the world, excluding from it all competition and all the play of individual emulation and ambition, can never, I believe, be even approximately realised; but no one who watches the growth of Socialist opinion in nearly all countries can doubt that many steps will be taken in this direction in a not remote future.
The question in what degree and in what manner the demands that are rising may be wisely met is of the utmost importance. The subject is one which I propose to discuss at some length in later chapters. Two things may here be said. One is, that in an overcrowded country like England, whose prosperity rests much less on great natural resources than on the continuance of a precarious and highly artificial commercial and manufacturing supremacy, any revolution that may lead to a migration of capital or the destruction of credit is more than commonly dangerous. The other is, that this class of questions is eminently one in which consequences that are obscure, intricate, indirect, and remote are often, in the long run, more important than those which are obvious and immediate.
Is the parliamentary system in the democratic form which it has of late years assumed well fitted for wisely dealing with these difficult and dangerous questions? Let any one observe how steadily and rapidly the stable forces, which in old days shaped and guided the course of English politics, are losing their influence. Let him watch closely a great popular election, and observe how largely the chance of a candidate depends upon his skill in appealing to the direct and immediate interests, or supposed interests, of large sections of the electorate; in making use of claptrap and popular cries; in inflaming class animosities and antipathies, and pledging himself so far as to conciliate many distinct groups of faddists. Let him then observe how Parliament itself is breaking into small groups; how the permanent forces of intelligence and property, which once enabled governments to pursue their paths independently of fluctuating or transient gusts of ignorant opinion, are weakened; how large a part of legislation, especially in the closing period of a Parliament, is manifestly intended for mere electioneering purposes; how very few public men look much beyond the interests of their party and the chances of an election. He must be a sanguine man who can look across such a scene with much confidence to the future.
He will not, if he is a wise man, be reassured by the prevailing habit, so natural in democracies, of canonising, and almost idolising, mere majorities, even when they are mainly composed of the most ignorant men, voting under all the misleading influences of side-issues and violent class or party passions. ‘The voice of the people,’ as expressed at the polls, is to many politicians the sum of all wisdom, the supreme test of truth or falsehood. It is even more than this: it is invested with something very like the spiritual efficacy which theologians have ascribed to baptism. It is supposed to wash away all sin. However unscrupulous, however dishonest, may be the acts of a party or of a statesman, they are considered to be justified beyond reproach if they have been condoned or sanctioned at a general election. It has sometimes happened that a politician has been found guilty of a grave personal offence by an intelligent and impartial jury, after a minute investigation of evidence, conducted with the assistance of highly trained advocates, and under the direction of an experienced judge. He afterwards finds a constituency which will send him to Parliament, and the newspapers of his party declare that his character is now clear. He has been absolved by ‘the great voice of the people.’ Truly indeed did Carlyle say that the superstitions to be feared in the present day are much less religious than political; and of all the forms of idolatry I know none more irrational and ignoble than this blind worship of mere numbers.
It has led many politicians to subordinate all notions of right and wrong to the wishes or interests of majorities, and to act on the maxim that the end justifies the means quite as audaciously as the most extreme Jesuit casuists. This new Jesuitism has, indeed, much real affinity with the old one. The root idea of the old Jesuitism was a strongly realised conviction that the Catholic Church is so emphatically the inspired teacher of mankind, and the representative of the Deity upon earth, that no act can be immoral which is performed in its service and is conducive to its interests. The root idea of the new Jesuitism is the belief that the moral law has no deeper foundation and no higher sanction than utility, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number is its supreme test and ideal. From this it is easily inferred that minorities have no rights as against majorities. In both cases, too, the love of power plays a great part. The old Jesuit found in his doctrine a strong lever for governing the Church and influencing the world. The new Jesuit finds his doctrine peculiarly useful in a society in which all political power is obtained by winning the votes of a majority. Many good Catholics will maintain that the old Jesuit misread the teaching of the Church, and some of them believe that religion has had no worse enemy than a society which has associated the most sacred Name given among men with falsehood, imposture, unscrupulous tyranny, and intrigue. Many good utilitarians will say that the new Jesuit has calculated falsely the balance of utilities, and that no course of policy which shakes the security of property or contract, and the rights of minorities, can be, in its far-off results, for the benefit of the majority. But in each case the inference of the Jesuit is plausible and natural, and it is an inference that is certain to be drawn.
Some of my readers will probably consider it fanciful to attribute to theories of moral philosophy any influence over political conduct. In England, speculative opinion has not usually much weight in practical politics, and English politicians are very apt to treat it with complete disdain. Yet no one who has any real knowledge of history can seriously doubt the influence over human affairs which has been exercised by the speculations of Locke, of Rousseau, of Montesquieu, of Adam Smith, or of Bentham. The force and the intensity which the doctrine of nationalities has of late years assumed throughout Europe is not unconnected with the new importance which speculative writers have given to race affinities and characteristics, and something of the current Radical notions about land is certainly due to our increased knowledge of the wide diffusion, in the early stages of society, of joint or communal ownership of the soil.
So, too, I believe the views of many politicians have been not a little coloured by the doctrines of moral philosophy, which have of late years been widely popular, which reduce our conceptions of right and wrong, of justice or injustice, to mere general utility, or a calculation of interests. Philosophy has its fanatics as well as religion, and to this conception of ethics may be largely traced the utter unscrupulousness in dealing with the rights of minorities which is sometimes found among men who are certainly not mere unprincipled self-seekers. In every conflict of interests between the few who own a thing, or have produced it, or paid for it, or run the risks attending it, and the many who wish to enjoy it, this bias may be discerned. In the eyes of many politicians, all differences between the landlord and his tenants, between the author and his readers, between railway-shareholders and the travelling public, between the producer and the consumers, are simply regarded as conflicts between the few and the many, and the rights of the few cease to have any binding force if their destruction is likely to confer an immediate benefit on the many.
Herbert Spencer has said, with profound truth and wisdom, that ‘the end which the statesman should keep in view as higher than all other ends is the formation of character.’ It is on this side that democratic politics seem to me peculiarly weak. Let us once more look at the representative body. Even taking the lowest test, can it be confidently said that its moral level is what it was? Too much stress may perhaps be laid on the many grave private scandals that have taken place among its members within the last twenty or thirty years. It is impossible, however, not to be struck by the number of cases in which members of that House have during this space of time been found guilty of acts of financial dishonesty that brought them within the scope of the criminal law, or of other forms of immorality sufficiently grave to come before the law courts. The House of Commons consists of 670 members. About the year 1892 the committee of a great London club containing nearly twice as many members had their attention called to the fact that, by a curious omission in their rules, no provision had been made for the expulsion of any member who, without breaking the precise rules of the club, had been guilty of any of those gross scandals which make men unfit for the society of gentlemen. The omission had been unnoticed because, although the club had existed since 1824, no such case had arisen among its members. It would be unreasonable to expect from a body elected under such stormy and contentious conditions as the House of Commons a standard as high as that in the Athenæum Club, but surely the contrast is too great and too marked to be lightly dismissed. And if we extend our survey beyond England, and count up the instances of gross profligacy or dishonesty which have been detected, often in very high places, in the Parliaments of the Continent, of the United States, and of the Colonies, in the present generation, the evidence will accumulate, showing how little democratic election secures a high standard of integrity and morality.
The House of Commons, however, as I have before said, is essentially a body of trustees, and it is by their performance of their public duty that its members must be chiefly judged. Is it too much to say that, in the opinion of the great body of educated men, there has been in this respect a marked decline? I am anxious on this subject to avoid all exaggeration. It is not yet true of England, as it is of America, that the best men in intellect and character avoid public life, though there are ominous signs that this may before long be the case. Parliament still contains a large body of such men, and there have been several conspicuous modern instances showing how much the weight of character still tells in public life. Probably a large proportion of my readers will be of opinion that the year 1886 witnessed the worst act of modern English politics; but it at least brought with it the consoling spectacle of a large body of public men, several of them of the highest political eminence, deliberately and without any possible selfish motive breaking old ties and sacrificing political ambition rather than take part in a disgraceful scene. But, on the whole, can any one doubt that apostasies have been more shameless, class bribes more habitual, and the tone of the House of Commons less high, than in the last generation; that principles are more lightly held and direct party interests more habitually followed; that measures of great and far-reaching importance are more recklessly launched for mere electioneering purposes; that men to whom, in private conversation, not one educated man out of a hundred would ascribe any real sincerity or weight of conviction are playing a more leading part in English public life? I have elsewhere dwelt on the profound and indelible impression made in the last century by the coalition between Fox and North. These two able, honourable, and in most respects patriotic, politicians, had been fiercely divided on the question of the American War, and Fox had used the strongest language against his opponent, denouncing him as the enemy of British freedom, and describing him as worthy of death upon the scaffold. The American War ceased; the controversies it produced were closed, and then Fox made an alliance with North for the purpose of keeping out of office a statesman whom they disliked and distrusted. Nothing in the English parliamentary history of the eighteenth century more profoundly shocked the public mind and conscience than this transaction, and Fox, at least, never recovered the discredit which the coalition left upon his character. Yet, after all, both of these statesmen were men undoubtedly devoted to the interests of the great empire they ruled, and after the termination of the American War there was no capital subject of present difference between them.
Compare this transaction with the alliance which gave the Liberal leaders eighty-five Home Rule votes in 1886, and placed them in a close bond of union with the very men whom they had so lately denounced and imprisoned for treason to the Empire, and for most deliberately inciting to dishonesty and crime. Those who will judge public men by their acts, and not by their professions, can have little difficulty in pointing the moral.
Few persons will question that this transaction would have been impossible in the Parliaments before the Reform Bill of 1867. In the days of middle-class ascendency every politician found it necessary to place himself in general harmony with average educated opinion. A very slight shifting of that opinion, especially in the smaller boroughs, could be decisive. There was always an ultimate court of appeal, which could be relied on to judge promptly, with shrewdness and patriotism, and some real knowledge of the facts of the case. Mere rhetoric and claptrap; brilliant talent, unallied with judgment; coalitions to carry some measure which the country condemned by uniting it with a number of bribes offered to many different classes; policies in which great national interests were sacrificed to personal ambition or to party tricks; the dexterity which multiplies, evades, or confuses issues, had seldom even a temporary success. The judgment of average educated men on the whole prevailed; and although that judgment may not be very quick or far-seeing, or open to new ideas, it rarely failed to arrive at a just estimate of a practical issue.
But the changes that introduced into the constituencies a much larger proportion of ignorance, indifference, or credulity soon altered the conditions of politics. The element of uncertainty was greatly increased. Politicians learned to think less of convincing the reason of the country than of combining heterogeneous and independent groups, or touching some strong chord of widespread class interest or prejudice. The sense of shame to a remarkable degree diminished. It would once have been intolerable to an English public man to believe that, in spite of all differences of opinion, he was not followed through life and to the grave by the respect of the great body of his educated fellow countrymen. This sentiment has greatly faded. Men have now become very indifferent to what they would nickname the opinion of the classes or the clubs, provided they can succeed, by the methods I have described, in winning a majority and obtaining power and office. The party game is played more keenly and more recklessly, and traditional feelings as well as traditional customs have greatly lost their force.
This tendency is increased by the extreme rush and hurry of modern life, which naturally produces some levity of character. A constant succession of new impressions and ideas takes away from societies, as from individuals, the power of feeling anything deeply and persistently. Disgrace never seems indelible when it is so soon forgotten, and the strong, steady currents of national sentiment and tendency, on which the greatness of empires depends, become impossible. Continuity of policy is more difficult, and, with a jaded political palate, the appetite for experiment and sensation becomes more powerful.
In the whole field of politics, personal and class interests seem to have grown stronger; and the latter are often not even those of a very large class. The objects of an ordinary trade strike have begun to blend powerfully with national politics. In the dockyard towns, it has long been said that questions of wages, salaries, or employment dominate over all others. There have been instances in which the political votes of the police force, of the Post-office officials, of the Civil Service clerks, have been avowedly marshalled for the purpose of obtaining particular class advantages.52 In county councils and other small elective bodies, it is probable that these motives will, in England as in America, be easily and efficaciously employed. When the votes of a body of men in a nearly balanced contest may be purchased with public money, or at least lost if public money is withheld, a higher standard of public virtue than is now general is required to resist a mode of bribery which is at once cheap, easy, and not illegal. A powerful trade union may capture a small elected body, and a weak government resting on a fluctuating and a disintegrated majority is strongly tempted to conciliate every detached group of voters.
The reader must judge for himself whether this picture is untrue or over-charged; if he believes it to be true, he will hardly question its gravity. The evil I have described is much aggravated by the very inadequate sense of the criminality of political misdeeds that prevails widely in contemporary thought. In the case of those acts of open violence and treason which are commonly described as political crimes, this may be largely traced to the time when power was in the hands of a very few, when religious liberty, and personal liberty, and liberty of expression were all unknown, and when much of the highest and purest heroism was displayed in resisting intolerable oppression. Much of the poetic glamour which was thrown over the revolutionists of those days still remains, though in nearly all countries the circumstances have wholly changed. Under the popular governments of modern times revolution is nearly always a crime, and usually a crime of the first magnitude. No one, as I have elsewhere said, ‘Who has any adequate sense of the enormous mass of suffering which the authors of a rebellion let loose upon their country will speak lightly of this crime, or of the importance of penalties that may deter others from following in their steps.… In the great lottery of civil war the prizes are enormous; and when such prizes may be obtained by a course of action which is profoundly injurious to the State, the deterrent influence of severe penalties is especially necessary. In the immense majority of cases, the broad distinction which it is now the fashion to draw between political and other crimes is both pernicious and untrue. There is no sphere in which the worst passions of human nature may operate more easily and more dangerously than in the sphere of politics. There is no criminal of a deeper dye than the adventurer who is gambling for power with the lives of men. There are no crimes which produce vaster or more enduring suffering than those which sap the great pillars of order in the State, and destroy the respect for life, for property, and for law on which all true progress depends.’
Let any one examine the chief revolutionary movements of our time, and he may soon convince himself that by far the greater number of them have been led by some ambitious soldier, or politician, or pretender, simply actuated by a desire for wealth and power, by a wish to defeat and overthrow a competitor, by overweening vanity, or by a mere love of excitement, adventure, and notoriety. A man who through such motives makes a revolution which destroys a multitude of lives, ruins the credit and commerce of a nation, scatters far and wide the seeds of anarchy, disaster and long-continued depression, and perhaps begins the decadence of his nation, surely deserves a prompt and ignominious death as much as the man who, under the influence of want, or passion, or drink, has committed an ordinary murder. A public opinion is very morbid which looks on these things as venial. It is the custom in England to assert that such crimes as the murders in the Phænix Park, or the massacre or attempted massacre by an Anarchist's bomb of a number of innocent persons in some place of public amusement, are not ‘political.’ It does not appear to me reasonable to deny this character to acts which were inspired by no motive of private gain or malice, and were directly and exclusively intended to produce political ends. But the fact that they were political does not attenuate their atrocity, nor ought it to mitigate the punishment of the criminal.
In home affairs, while the widest toleration should be accorded to all honest diversities of opinion and policy, there are courses of conduct which involve the deepest turpitude, and which, at the same time, bring with them no legal penalties, and can only be restrained and punished by opinion. If a man, for the mere purpose of winning votes, seeks to plunge his country into an unrighteous or unnecessary war, or to prolong a war which might be terminated with honour; to set class against class and deepen the lines of division and animosity; to place the power of government in the hands of dishonest or disloyal men, and assist them in carrying out their designs; if for the sake of an office, or a pension, or a peerage, he supports a policy which he knows to be unrighteous or unwise, he is certainly committing a moral offence of the deepest dye. Judgments which relate to motives are, no doubt, always uncertain, and ample allowance should be made for the eccentricities of honest opinion. A course which seems to most men very iniquitous may appear to some men positively good, or the lesser of two evils, or the necessary fulfilment of an old engagement, or an inevitable result of preceding policy. Yet still public opinion can, with a rough but substantial justice, estimate the characters and the motives of public men, and it is a very evil sign when it looks without serious reprobation on those whom it believes to be acting without convictions; to be playing with great national interests for party or personal ends, as if they were cards in a game or horses in a race.
This consideration is quite compatible with the fact that men acting in parties are frequently obliged, on public grounds, to subordinate their own judgment on minor questions to that of their party. They are often confronted with the question whether supporting a bad measure is not a less evil than displacing a good government or breaking up or enfeebling a useful organisation, and they are often obliged to vote for or against one measure with a view to carrying or defeating a totally different one. They must look to the whole results of their conduct, ulterior as well as proximate. In France, a large number of the best men of our century have successively supported more than one dynasty and republic, and they were not wrong in doing so. Though they preferred one or other form of government, they considered that the evils of instability and revolution were so great that it was the part of a patriotic man to strengthen the existing form, if it was only a tolerable one, and endeavour to graft upon it the best characteristics of the other forms.
In party parliamentary government, questions of ethics of a much more perplexing character continually arise. Some men differ from the dominant tendencies of their party, but not so strongly or universally as to induce them to break formally the ties of long-standing engagements; or they remain in it because they believe that it would be a great public calamity if it were deprived of its moderating element, and thrown altogether into the hands of extreme men. Usually, while the extremes of rival parties differ widely, there is a frontier line where the two parties almost blend. Sometimes, as in the latter days of Lord Palmerston's life, the lines of party have been so faintly drawn that a rising politician might very reasonably consider it a matter of great indifference to which party he attached himself. At other times parties are deeply sundered by questions vitally affecting the well-being of the nation. In practical politics there must always be much compromise and mutual concession; and, as Hallam long since said, the centrifugal and the centripetal forces, which correspond roughly to the rival party tendencies, are both needed to preserve the due balance of affairs. There are great evils, as well as great advantages, attending the party system, and there are periods when these evils seem brought into a more than common prominence.
All this, however, is clearly distinct from the conduct of a politician who, in matters of grave national concern, regulates his actions with an exclusive view to his own interests. In English opinion, very glaring instances of political profligacy are distinguished broadly from acts of private and personal dishonesty, such as malversation in the administration of public funds. But the distinction is, in truth, an unreal one, and it is not likely to last. A man who remains in a party which he would otherwise have abandoned, or votes for some important measure which he would have otherwise opposed, because he has been bought by the offer of a peerage or a place, would probably be incapable of swindling and cheating at cards, but his conduct is not really less dishonourable. The false trustee to the public will easily, under sufficient temptation, turn into the fraudulent bankrupt, and a public opinion which is lax and indulgent in dealing with one form of dishonesty will soon learn to look with toleration on the other. The same type of character which produces the unscrupulous professional politician produces also the too familiar fraudulent director. We need not look beyond the Atlantic for examples.
There is hardly any field, indeed, in which moral notions are more confused and inconsistent than in politics. Let any one, for example, read the report of the judgment of the Parnell Commission, and the sworn testimony on which it was based, and let him then remember that the men who were distinctly proved to have organised, encouraged, stimulated, and profited by all the violence, fraud, intimidation, and crime that is there recorded received the support of the great body of the Catholic priests in Ireland, and of the great body of Nonconformist ministers in England. There were, it is true, noble exceptions. The names that had most weight in the Nonconformity of our time—the names of Spurgeon, and Fraser, and Allon, and Dale—stand in this respect beyond reproach. But the majority of the English and Welsh Nonconformists took a different course, and their ministers have in the present generation been ardent politicians, prominent on the platform, and not unfrequently introducing their politics into the pulpit. They were, apparently, entirely unmoved by the judicial inquiry which proved beyond all possibility of doubt the complicity of the men they supported with crime. The boycotting, the Plan of Campaign, the incendiary speeches, the open advocacy of public plunder, the connection with American dynamiters, the concealed accounts, the many instances of hideous cruelty and oppression of the weak that were distinctly traceable to the Irish Land League, all left these religious teachers completely undisturbed. These things were regarded as merely ‘political.’ At last, however, it was shown that the prime mover of the Irish agitation had been guilty of adultery. It was a very ordinary case, without much special aggravation, and such as might be found in almost every newspaper. Then, for the first time, the Nonconformist conscience was aroused. It was intolerable that a truly religious party should be in alliance with a politician guilty of such an act; and the explosion of moral indignation, which began in the Nonconformist ranks, soon shook the land, and detached by successive impacts the Prime Minister, the Irish bishops, and most of the Irish members from their old connection. Can those who witnessed this grotesque exhibition wonder at the charge of Pharisaism and hypocrisy which foreign observers so abundantly bring against English public opinion? Can they be surprised that ‘the Nonconformist conscience’ is rapidly becoming a byword in England, much like the ‘moral sentiments’ of Joseph Surface?
My readers will not, I hope, so far misunderstand these remarks as to attribute to me any indifference to the private morals of public men. The example of men who hold a high and responsible position before the world exercises a more than common influence, and it is therefore specially desirable that they should be men of untarnished honour and blameless lives. There have been instances of men of very lax domestic morals who have been excellent politicians, and of men of exemplary private characters who have in Parliament been unprincipled and corrupt; but still private virtue is at least some guarantee for the right performance of public duty; while a man who has lost his position in the world through a great moral scandal would be almost more than human if he did not subordinate all political convictions and public interests to regaining it. But, after all, it is not the private vices of public men that are most dangerous to the community. It may be a curious question of casuistry whether it is a more immoral thing to commit adultery, or to incite to intimidation which leads to crime and outrage, persisting in it ‘with knowledge of its effect.’53 There can, at least, be no doubt which of these two acts is more injurious to the State.
The maintenance of a high standard of right and wrong in the field of politics is certainly one of the first of national interests, and it becomes increasingly difficult with the democratic tendency to throw public affairs more and more into the hands of professional politicians. To other classes the House of Commons has lost much of its old attraction. The extraordinary prolongation of its sessions; the growth of mere obstruction in its debates; the increased prominence of parliamentary manæuvre, requiring a more incessant attendance; the vast amount of stump oratory, and other wearisome work, which is now expected both from a candidate and a member, are making public life far more burdensome than in the past, and are gradually alienating from it men who have no strong personal object to gain. The influences that have begun to dominate at elections neither attract nor favour the best men. Such men will not readily consent to be mere delegates or puppets of a caucus, and they are not likely to be skilful in conciliating by vague promises groups of impracticable theorists, and in employing the language of class bribery.
The withdrawal of nearly all forms of local government from magistrates and from nominated bodies, and the great multiplicity of elected and democratic bodies, tend in the same direction. In the cases—happily, in the present century, very rare in England—in which public funds were corruptly administered for the benefit of the few, the introduction of the elective system on a broad basis may be a valuable corrective, though no one would maintain that local administration is, on the whole, purer in America than it has long been in England. It is contended, however, with justice, in favour of the elective system that it forms one of the best schools or training-grounds for the politician; that it gives an intelligent interest in public affairs to multitudes who had long been very indifferent to them; that it furnishes a security that the wants of all classes should be brought to light, and at least discussed; and that it infuses a new strength and energy into local administration.
All this is, I believe, very true, and very important. At the same time there are manifest and serious drawbacks. One of them is increased expense, which nearly always follows when a nominated or magisterial body is replaced by a democratic elected one; another is a great multiplication of antagonisms and dissensions. In many quiet country parishes, where Churchmen and Dissenters, Liberals and Conservatives, long lived in almost perfect amity, social fissures are now deepening, and constantly recurring elections are keeping up a permanent fever of contention. The elections for the school board, for the county council, for the parish council, the parliamentary elections, which now imply constant party meetings extending through the greater part of the session, are ranging the different parties more and more in hostile committees and opposing platforms, and whatever good may result is certainly produced by a great deal of ill-feeling and discomfort. Nothing, too, as we have already seen, is more clearly established by American experience than that very frequent contested elections tend to lower the moral tone of politics, and to throw them more and more into the hands of the professional politician.
It would, I believe, be a mistake to suppose that under the new conditions wealth will disappear, or even exercise a greatly diminished power in politics, but the rich men who will chiefly enter Parliament are not the kind who are most desirable. Three classes appear to have an increasing prominence. There are those who, having amassed large fortunes in trade, commerce, or manufacture, desire above all things social position, and are prepared to sacrifice large sums to attain it. The social precedence which a seat in Parliament affords, and the possibilities of rank which are open to every rich man who steadily supports his party, become their guiding motives, and very often shape the whole course of their political calculations. There are also prosperous lawyers who enter Parliament for professional objects, knowing that it is the path which leads directly to the chief honours in their profession; and there is the large class of business men connected with public companies, who find a political position useful to their financial enterprises. The increasing number of directors in Parliament, and the desire of companies to have members of Parliament for their directors, are significant signs, not, I think, of good omen for the purity of politics. As State functions multiply, including many things that were once left to private commercial enterprise, the position of member of Parliament is likely to have an increasing value in the fields of patronage, industry, and finance. Men of these different classes are often among the most dangerous of demagogues. Private aims predominate with them over public ones. If they can attain them, they care little for a large expenditure or sacrifice of money, and their special interests are usually only very slightly identified with the permanent interests of the country.
Two or three measures which are much advocated would confirm the power of the professional politician. I have already spoken of the abolition of university representation. It is not a measure which would have very extensive consequences, but it would at least expel from Parliament a small class of members who represent in an eminent degree intelligence and knowledge diffused throughout the country; who, from the manner of their election, are almost certain to be men of political purity and independent character, and who, for that very reason, are especially obnoxious to the more unscrupulous type of demagogue. Their expulsion would be a considerable party advantage to one faction in the State, and it is therefore likely to be steadily pursued.
A more considerable measure would be that of throwing the whole or a large part of the expenses of elections on the rates. There is much to be said in its defence. It is not a natural thing that men should be expected to pay largely for discharging what should be a public duty, for rendering what should be a public service. Payment from the rates would render it much easier for men of moderate fortunes to enter the House, and it would very possibly diminish the appetite for place, or for the less legitimate forms of gain, which are often sought merely for the purpose of recovering an expenditure already made. Men who have paid much for a position easily persuade themselves that it is legitimate to make profit out of it, and to regard their expenditure as an investment. But, unless payment from public sources were restricted to candidates who obtained a considerable amount of support at the poll, it would multiply useless and mischievous contests, and, like the payment of members, which would probably follow it, besides adding largely to the cost of government, it would greatly smooth the path of the professional agitator or wirepuller.
The reader will, I hope, understand that in the foregoing remarks I am describing tendencies which appear to me to be in operation and not fully accomplished facts. It would take a long time, and many disastrous revolutions, to break down the firm texture of English political life. The old feelings of traditional reverence; the long-established organisations of property and class and corporate existence; the shrewdness and sobriety of judgment, and, above all, the sound moral feeling which a long and noble history has implanted in all classes of the British people, have not disappeared, though power is passing mainly into the hands of the most uninstructed, and therefore least intelligent, classes, and though low motives are in consequence acquiring a greater prominence in English politics. Still, there have been encouraging signs that a politician who is ready to sacrifice his character in order to win power or popularity may make the sacrifice without obtaining the reward. Manufactured and organised agitations; ingenious combinations of heterogeneous elements; skilful attempts to win votes by distributing class bribes or inflaming class or national animosities, have not always proved successful. The deliberate judgment of the constituencies on a great question which strongly arouses national feeling will, I believe, seldom be wrong, though there is an increased danger that they may be for a time misled, and that such influences as I have described may obtain a temporary ascendency in the House of Commons.
The high standard, both of professional honour and of competence, that has long prevailed in our permanent services is certainly unimpaired, and, in days when parliamentary government is in its decadence, the importance to national well-being of a good permanent service can hardly be overrated. Parliament itself, though it shows many evil signs, has escaped some which may be detected in other legislatures. It would be difficult to exaggerate the value of the standing order which provides that the House of Commons shall make no money grant except at the initiative of the responsible Ministers of the Crown. Probably no other provision has done so much to check extravagance and to place a bound to that bribery by legislation which is one of the distinctive dangers of democracy; and the absence of such a rule has been justly described as one of the great sources of the corruption and extravagance of French finance. The Committee system also, which seems likely to become in England, as it has already become in America, the most important thing in parliamentary government, is still essentially sound. The House of Commons as a whole is becoming so unfit for the transaction of the details of business that it will probably more and more delegate its functions to Committees; and these Committees submit great questions to a thorough examination, bring together the most competent practical judges and the best available information, weaken the force of party, and infuse into legislation something, at least, of a judicial spirit.
I have already alluded to the great political value of the competitive system of examination as applied to the public services. It has undoubtedly many and grievous drawbacks, and few good judges will deny that examinations have been overdone in England, and that in these examinations mere book knowledge has been too prominent. Sometimes, indeed, there has been an almost grotesque dissimilarity between the character of the examination and the career to which it leads; as, for example, when questions about Spenser's ‘Faerie Queene,’ or about English parliamentary history, or about classical literature, are said to have turned the scale for or against a candidate who is examined for the army. Many of the qualities that are most useful in the administration of affairs and the management of men can be neither given nor tested by examination. Tact, knowledge of men, sound judgment, promptitude and resolution in times of danger, and that charm of manner which adds so much, especially in Eastern nations, to the success of administrations, lie wholly beyond the range of the examination hall. There are positions in life in which the wild, idle, high-spirited boy, whose natural bent is all to sport and to adventure, but who is utterly without the turn of mind or character that triumphs in examinations, is more likely to succeed than the plodding, industrious boy who will win the prize. The competitive system is in theory a very democratical one, but, like many democratic measures, it does not altogether fulfil its promise. It is a system which gives a wholly disproportionate share of the world's goods to a small minority who are endowed with a particular kind of capacity. It is a system also in which money plays a great part, for it has become all but impossible for boys to succeed in the most keenly contested examinations unless they have had the advantage of special and expensive teaching. It is curious to observe how often, under the old aristocratic system of patronage, a poor man gained a place on the ladder of promotion which he could not have reached under the present system. An officer who, like so many of his profession, found himself towards the close of a useful and honourable life with only a very humble competence, could, under the old system, always obtain for his son a commission without purchase in the army. His son must now enter by an examination, and he will hardly succeed unless the father is able to give him the advantage of an experienced crammer.
In India the competitive system may prove a serious danger. In that country the nimbleness of mind and tongue which succeeds in examinations is, to a degree quite unknown in Europe, separated from martial courage, and from the strength of nerve and character that wins the respect of great masses, and marks out the rulers of men. In the opinion of the best judges, a system which would bring to the forefront the weak, effeminate Bengalese, to the detriment of the old governing races of India and of the strong, warlike populations of the North, would be the sure precursor of a catastrophe.
But, with all its drawbacks, the competitive system has been, I think, in England a great blessing, and the disadvantages that attend it have been mitigated by more intelligent kinds of examination and by a judicious mixture of patronage and competition, which gives some power of selection to men in responsible positions. The competitive system realises, on the whole, more perfectly than any other that has been yet devised the ideal of the Revolution: ‘La carrière ouverte aux talents.’ If patronage were always exercised with perfect wisdom and public spirit, it would, no doubt, bring forward better men, but there is no real reason to believe that the class who, in Great Britain, are produced by the competitive system are, on the whole, at all inferior to their predecessors. At the same time, its value in keeping the public services pure from corruption can hardly be overstated. It is the one real protection against the complete dominance of the ‘spoils system,’ and it is a protection which is likely to last. In a democratic age it is very difficult to correct democratic evils except by democratic remedies. It would be impossible to measure the corruption which would ensue if all the powers of patronage and nomination that were once in the hands of governments and aristocracies were placed in the hands of popular bodies, to be scrambled for by professional politicians or used as bribes by contending factions.
It is a truth which is not sufficiently recognised, that the general character of a nation cannot always be fairly judged by the character of its public men or of its political actions. In a really sound representative system this remark would not apply. One of the truest tests of a good constitution is, that it brings into habitual political action the best characteristics of the nation. But in the extremes both of despotism and of democracy political action is often a strangely deceptive guide to national character. Governments sometimes pursue a constantly aggressive, military, and violent policy, simply because power is in the hands of a small class, and because the bulk of the nation are so mild, peaceful, and loyal that they can be easily led. In democracies, as America has abundantly shown, politics may be an equally faithless mirror of the best side of the national character. The politics of a nation and the character of its public men may deteriorate, not because the aggregate intelligence or virtue of the nation has diminished, but simply because the governing power has descended to classes who are less intelligent, less scrupulous, or more easily deceived.
If it be true—as there seems great reason to believe—that parliamentary government in England has entered on its period of decadence, it becomes a question of the highest importance to ascertain whether this implies a general decadence in the national character. I do not myself believe it. It appears to me hardly possible to compare the present generation of Englishmen with the generation of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers without believing that, on the whole, English character has improved. The statistics of crime are, no doubt, in this respect an imperfect test, for the criminal class always forms only a small section of the community, and an increase or diminution of actual criminal offences often depends upon circumstances that are only very slightly connected with the average morals of the community. As far, however, as this test goes, it is eminently satisfactory, for there can be no doubt that most forms of grave crime, in proportion to population, have, in the present generation, greatly diminished. Nor is this surprising, for no feature of our century is more remarkable than the skill with which, by reformatories and industrial and other schools, by factory laws, by the diminution of insanitary dwellings, and by the better regulation of the drink traffic, modern philanthropy has succeeded in restricting or purifying the chief sources of national crime. As a single illustration of the change that has taken place, I may mention that in 1834 it was officially stated in Parliament that not less than one-fifth of the army stationed in England had, in the two preceding years, passed through the common gaols.54 The great diminution of ordinary crime in England is especially remarkable, because both in France and in the United States there has been, in the present generation, a great and deplorable increase.
Not less conspicuous is the improvement that has taken place in the decorum, civilisation, and humanity of the bulk of the poor; in the character of their tastes and pleasures; in their enlarged circle of interests; in the spirit of providence which, under the influence of savings banks and kindred institutions, has arisen among them. The skilled artisans in our great towns, within the memory of living men, have become, not only the most energetic, but also one of the most intelligent and orderly elements, in English life. No one who has come into close contact with their political organisations, or trade unions, or mechanics’ institutes, or free libraries, or who has watched the working-class audience of some great scientific lecturer, will deem this an exaggeration. The spirit of humanity has immensely increased, both in the form that shrinks from the infliction of suffering and in the form that seeks out suffering in order to alleviate it. Churches and creeds will come and go; but the best index of the moral level of a community is to be found in the amount of unselfish action that is generated within it. I do not believe that there has ever been a period in England, or in any other country, when more time, thought, money, and labour were bestowed on the alleviation of suffering, or in which a larger number of men and women of all classes threw themselves more earnestly and more habitually into unselfish causes. Both within and without the Church the passion for social reform and philanthropic action has, to a large extent, displaced theological enthusiasm; but, at the same time, the increased activity of the Established Church is very apparent, the standard of duty among its clergy is appreciably raised, and its patronage is administered in a far better and purer spirit than in the past.
All this is, no doubt, compatible with the growth of some special forms of vice. It may perhaps be compatible with a decline of those stronger and more robust qualities that chiefly lead to political greatness. Whether in this last field there has been any decadence in England is a question on which it is difficult to pronounce. The last occasion in which England was engaged in a life-and-death struggle against overwhelming odds was in the Indian Mutiny; and, in that now distant crisis, it must be owned that there was no failing in the stronger, fiercer, and more tenacious qualities that have made England what she is. Amid all the much obtruded sentimentalisms of our time there are indications that the fibre of the race is still unimpaired. The old love of manly sports was never more abundantly displayed; in the great fields of adventure and discovery, in the forms of commercial and industrial enterprise that most tax the energies and resources of men, modern Englishmen bear their full part, and no other people are doing so much to explore, subdue, and civilise fardistant and savage lands.
Have their governing qualities declined? Have the Englishmen of our day learnt to prefer words to things and plausibilities to facts, and men who are cunning in the arts of parliamentary fence and political manæuvre to men of wise judgment and solid character? Carlyle believed that they had, and there have been symptoms in these later days that support his opinion. I believe, however, that they will nearly all be found in close connection with the influence of a democratic Parliament. When Englishmen escape from its interference and its contagion, their old high governing qualities seldom fail to shine. No piece of more skilful, successful, and beneficent administration has been accomplished in our day, under circumstances of great difficulty, than the English administration of Egypt, and no achievement of secular government since the Roman Empire can compare in its magnitude and splendour with the British Empire in India. The men who built up that gigantic empire, who have maintained for so many generations and over so vast an area peace and prosperity and order, who have put a stop to so many savage wars and eradicated so many cruel customs, are the statesmen of whom England should be most proud. There is no sign that they have lost their cunning; and if such men and such modes of government could have been employed nearer home, many old injustices and discontents would have long since passed away.
He would be a sanguine man who ventured to predict with confidence the long duration of this supreme monument of the genius and the character of our race; but most good judges will agree that the great danger that menaces it is to be found neither at Calcutta nor at St. Petersburg, but at Westminster. It is to be found in combinations of fanaticism with intrigue that are peculiarly dangerous in a country ruled by feeble governments, and disintegrated parliaments, and ignorant constituencies; it is to be found in the introduction into India of modes and maxims of government borrowed from modern European democracies, and utterly unsuited to an Oriental people; it is to be found in acts of injustice perpetrated by Parliament in obedience to party motives and to the pressure of local interests. Two shameful instances of this kind are very recent. The Commission sent out to India to inquire into the opium traffic in 1893 was wholly due to the action in the House of Commons of a little knot of fanatics and agitators in England, unprompted by any voice in India, and carried contrary to the whole force of experienced Indian opinion. Yet it was at first determined that a great part of its cost should be thrown on the Indian taxpayer. Still graver in its probable effects was the policy which forbade India, in a time of deep financial distress, to raise a revenue by import duties on English cotton, in accordance with the almost unanimous desire of her administrators and her educated public opinion. No one ever doubted that, if India possessed representative institutions, or if the opinions of English administrators in India or of Indian administrators at home had been taken, such duties would have been imposed. But votes might have been lost, an agitation might have been raised in England, and both parties feared to run the risk.
Fortunately, in these two cases the false steps that had been taken did not prove irrevocable. The Minister for India (Sir Henry Fowler), to his infinite credit, had the courage to insist at all hazards upon revising them, and he found sufficient patriotism in the Opposition to enable him to secure the support of a large majority in the House of Commons. Seldom indeed in recent years has the chord of genuine public spirit in that House been so powerfully and so successfully struck. But the original faults were very grave, and they illustrate the dangers to which democratic parliamentary government with a weak executive exposes the great interests of the Empire.
The blame must be divided between both parties. In both parties the minister representing India has, I believe, usually done his best, short of resigning his office; but when a small group of voters may turn the balance, the great interests of India are but too likely to be sacrificed to the party game. It is often said that England holds India by the sword; but this, though largely, is not wholly true. If the belief of the great masses of the Indian people in the essential integrity and beneficence of English rule is ever shaken, one of the chief pillars of our power will have been destroyed.
Our Indian experience, however, at least shows that the governing qualities of the race remain; and the same truth is taught by the admirable corporate government which has grown up in our great towns. It is very doubtful whether the spirit of municipal and local patriotism was more strongly developed either in ancient Greece, or, during the Middle Ages, in the great towns of Italy and Flanders or along the Baltic, than it now is in Birmingham, or Liverpool, or Manchester. The self-governing qualities that are displayed in these great centres, the munificence and patriotism with which their public institutions are supported, the strong stream of distinctive political tendency that emanates from them, are among the most remarkable and most consolatory facts of English life. In France, the ascendency of Paris has almost atrophied political life in the provincial towns, and the capital has again and again shown itself sufficiently powerful to reverse the decision of the country. In America, the corruption of municipal government in nearly all the more important cities is the worst side of the national life. England has hitherto escaped both of these evils, and the political weight of the chief provincial towns is unquestionable. The Manchester school of the last generation, and the Birmingham school of the present generation, have been among the most powerful influences in modern politics.
The growth of an independent provincial spirit has been much accelerated by the telegraph. The political influence of this great invention, though various and chequered, has been scarcely less powerful than that of the railway. It has brought the distant dependencies of the Empire into far closer connection with the mother country; but it is very doubtful whether the power it has given to the home ministers of continually meddling with the details of their administration is a good thing, and there have been times of disagreement when a rapid communication between foreign countries might have led rather to war than to peace. Government by telegraph is a very dangerous thing; and it has been often said that if an Atlantic telegraph had connected England with the United States in the first excitement of the ‘Trent’ affair, enabling the two nations, when their blood was still hot, to exchange their impressions, a war could scarcely have been averted. The telegraph, on the other hand, has greatly strengthened the Central Government in repressing insurrections, protecting property, and punishing crime. It has at least modified the Irish difficulty, by bringing Dublin within a few minutes’ communication of London. It has had enormous economical consequences, equalising prices, stimulating speculation, destroying in a great measure the advantage of priority of time which the inhabitants of great centres naturally had in many competitions.
The effect, however, on which I would now specially dwell is its great power in decentralising politics. The provincial press, no doubt, owes much to the repeal of the stamp duty and the paper duty; but the immense development and importance it has assumed within the lifetime of men who are still of middle age are mainly due to the existence of telegraphic communication. All kinds of foreign and domestic news, and even full reports of debates in Parliament that are of any local interest, are printed in an Irish, or Scotch, or Liverpool paper as early as in London. The local newspaper is thus able, in its own district, to anticipate the news of the London papers, and in consequence, over large areas of the country where the metropolitan press once exercised an enormous influence, a London newspaper is now seldom seen. With its increased importance and circulation, the provincial press can command far more talent than in the past, and it has become one of the most important agencies, both in indicating and in forming national opinion.
I do not know that it was ever clearly foreseen that while railways were doing so much to centralise, the telegraph would do so much to decentralise, multiplying in England powerful and independent centres of political thought and education, building up a provincial press which often fully rivals in ability that of the metropolis, while, within its own spheres of influence, it exercises a far greater ascendency. This has been one of the great political facts of our time, and, on the whole, it seems to me to have been a beneficial one. Representative institutions will probably perish by ceasing to be representative, genuine opinion being overlaid and crushed by great multitudes of ignorant voters of one class. In our day, the press is becoming far more than the House of Commons the representative of the real public opinion of the nation.
Its growth is but one of the many signs of the intense and many-sided intellectual and moral energy that pervades the country. There are fields, indeed, both of thought and action, in which the greatest men of our generation are dwarfed by their predecessors; but if we measure our age by the aggregate of its vitality, by the broad sweep of its energies and achievements, the England of our century can hardly fail to rank very high. In art, in science, in literature, in the enlargement of the bounds of knowledge, in the popularisation of acquired knowledge, in inventions and discoveries, and in most of the forms of enterprise and philanthropy, it has assuredly done much. It has produced in Darwin a man who has effected a greater revolution in the opinions of mankind than anyone, at least since Newton, and whose name is likely to live with honour as long as the human race moves upon the planet; while in Gordon it has produced a type of simple, self-sacrificing, religious heroism which is in its own kind as perfect as anything, even in the legends of chivalry. A country which has produced such men and such works does not seem to be in a condition of general decadence, though its Constitution is plainly worn out, though the balance of power within it has been destroyed, and though diseases of a serious character are fast growing in its political life. The future only can tell whether the energy of the English people can be sufficiently roused to check these evils, and to do so before they have led to some great catastrophe.
Report on the Majorities required in Foreign Legislatures for Constitutional Changes, presented to the House of Lords, April 1893.
Rusden's History of Australia, iii. 71-137.
Wealth of Nations, Book iv. ch. 7.
March 1, 1894.
Life of Jefferson, i. 179.
Laveleye, Le Gouvernement dans la Démocratie, ii. 101.
Popular Government, p. 106.
Northcote's Twenty Years of Financial Policy, pp. 309-10. There is a remarkable speech of Thiers in favour of a great variety of moderate taxes, delivered January 19, 1831. He contended that this is the only system of really equitable taxation that has been yet devised, as those who escaped one tax fall under another, and taxation adjusts itself almost insensibly to expenditure.
Greg's Political Problems, p. 304.
The facts relating to these coal dues will be found in a report issued by the Coal, Corn, and Finance Committee of the Corporation of London, on The Results in the way of Fluctuations and Alterations of the Price of Coal in London since the Abolition of the Coal Dues.
Nineteenth Century, June and August 1887. A brief article of my own will be found in the July number.
See the Digest of the Evidence of the Devon Commission, pt. i. 164-66.
Digest of the Evidence of the Devon Commission, pt. ii. 1124-1125.
See Richey on The Irish Land Laws, pp. 50-51.
Systems of Land Tenure (Cobden Club), p. 78.
See Sir William Gregory's Autobiography, p. 243.
Comparisons between Irish and British rents are apt to be very fallacious, on account of the different systems of farming and payment for improvements. The following passage, however, from a pamphlet by one of the greatest modern authorities on statistics, may be given : ‘Before the period of distress,’ writes Sir Edwin Chadwick in 1886, ‘the rents in Ireland appeared to average 15s. an acre for tillage land (it is now declared to be on an average under 10s.); in England, 23s. an acre. In Scotland, on inferior tillage lands to those of England, the rents were 40s. and more’ (Chadwick's Alternative Remedies for Ireland, p. 19). On the comparison between Irish and foreign rents I may cite M. Molinari one of the most competent judges on the Continent. His conclusion is: ‘Le taux général des rentes est modéré; autant que j'ai pu en juger, il est éa qualiteé égale de terrain, de moitiée plus bas que celui des terres des Flandres’ (L'Irlande, le Canada, Jersey (1881), p. 138).
See Report of the Inquiry into the Working of the Landlord and Tenant Act, 1870, p. 3; Judge Longfield's essay, in the Cobden Club volume, on ‘Systems of Land Tenure;’ Fitzgibbon's Ireland in 1868, pp. 268-70. Judge Longfield was for many years judge of the Landed Estates Court, and probably the first authority on land in Ireland. The authority of Master Fitzgibbon is scarcely less, for as Master of Chancery he had for many years no less than 452 estates, with more than 18,000 tenants and a rental of more than 330,000l., under his jurisdiction.
See Mr. Gladstone's published speech on introducing the Land Bill of 1870, pp. 26-27.
The Irish Land Question, by James Caird (1869), p. 15.
Sir R. Giffen speaks of ‘the stationariness of rents in Ireland for a long period, notwithstanding the great rise in the prices of the cattle and dairy products which Ireland produces;’ and he adds: The farmer and the labourer together have, in fact, had all the benefit of the rise in agricultural prices’ (Progress of the Working Classes in the last Half-century).
See some good remarks on this subject by Sir W. Gregory, Autobiography, pp. 157-59
Fitzgibbon's Ireland in 1868, p. 208
Speech of Mr. Gladstone in Proposing the Irish Bill, February 15, 1870 (Murray).
Hansard, cxix. 1666.
See the speech of the Right Hon. E. Gibson on the second reading, April 5, 1881.
See on this subject the striking evidence in the Third Report of the Committee of the House of Lords on the Land Act, 1883, p. 18; see, too, p. 101.
Ibid. pp. 17, 43.
Ibid. pp. 104, 132.
Ibid. p. 86.
For full statistics on this subject, see the Statements of the Irish Landowners’ Convention, addressed to H.M.'s Ministers, February 3, 1888, p. 23, and the reply to the Report of the Land Acts Committee of 1894, pp. 102-13.
Political Economy, Book ii. chap. ii. § 6.
Les lois agraires que M. Gladstone a fait voter pour l'Irlande et que l'on trouve déjà insuffisantes portent au principe de la propriété et du libre contrat une atteinte plus radicale que ne l'ont fait la révolution française et même la Terreur. … A moins de confiscation on ne peut guère aller plus loin’ (Laveleye, Le Gouvernement et la Démocratie, i. 31-32). M. Léon Say cites recent Irish agrarian legislation as the most striking modern instance of State Socialism (Socialisme d'Etat, p. 7). See, too, the remarks of M. Stockquart, Revue de Droit International, xxvii. 145.
Hansard, cclxi. 103.
Ibid. cclxi. 1379.
Ibid. cclxiv. 532.
Ibid. cclxiii. 1685.
Ibid. cclxiv. 252.
Hansard, cc. 1263.
Ibid. cclxiii. 1696-1697. See on this subject an excellent pamphlet, called The Working of the Land Law, February 1882, published by the Irish Land Committee.
Hansard, cccxix. 18.
‘An alteration of judicial rent shall not take place at less intervals than fifteen years’ (Sect. viii.).
There was an exception in case of bonâ-fide reversionary leases made before the law had passed; e.g., if the landlord had already granted to C. D. the lease of a farm on the expiry of the lease of A. B., in whose hands it now was, this arrangement was suffered to stand. See Kisbey, On the Land Act of 1881, pp. 64-65.
Statement submitted on the part of the Irish Landowners’ Convention to Her Majesty's ministers, February 3, 1888.
Journals, &c., relating to Ireland, i. 2.
George's Social Problems, chap. xi.
Mr. Fawcett has dealt fully with this aspect of the question in an admirable pamphlet called State Socialism and the Nationalisation of Land (1883).
Giffen's Growth of Capital, pp. 111-12.
Spyers, The Labour Question, pp. 128-30.
Locke's remarks about landed property appear to me very eminently applicable to copyright. ‘Whatsoever a man removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For, this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough and as good left in common for others’ (Locke, On Civil Government, c.v.).
A remarkable paper, giving instances in which this kind of pressure has been employed, will be found in the Times, October 15, 1892.
Special Commission Report, pp. 88, 92.
Hansard, xxv. 281.