Front Page Titles (by Subject) XIX: PROGRESS OF THE NATION - Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions
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XIX: PROGRESS OF THE NATION - John Bright, Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions 
Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions, introduction by Joseph Sturge (London: J.M. Dent and Co., 1907).
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PROGRESS OF THE NATION
Birmingham, January 29, 1864.
On the evening of this day Mr. Bright attended a soirée in the Assembly Room of Nock’s Hotel. The audience was necessarily small, between two and three hundred. The following address was delivered in answer to a motion of Mr. William Morgan, which called on the audience to recognize “the patriotic labours of the members for the borough.” Mr. Scholefield, Mr. Bright’s colleague, was unable to be present. Mr. Sturge, the eminent Birmingham philanthropist, is alluded to in pp. 254, 255. The speech was intended to be a familiar comment on the past history and the present interests of the Reformed Parliament.]
I AM afraid that I cannot in such graceful language as would have been heard from the lips of my colleague, had he been present, express my pleasure at the company of the ladies who have been kind enough to join our party to-night. I can say with the greatest truth that I rejoice on this, as I have on many other occasions, to see them exhibiting an interest in the progress of political questions. It has not only been common, as Mr. Dale has said, to create the impression that what are called serious people should not meddle with politics, but that these public questions were entirely out of the field in which women should exercise themselves. I venture, not diffidently, but confidently, to differ from any such opinion, and to say that politics, by which we understand the science of legislation and government, have a very direct and constant influence upon the happiness of every family in every country where there is a government, and that, therefore, what is done under the form of political action can by no means be indifferent to the mothers, and wives, and sisters, and daughters of England.
I have had the pleasure of meeting, whilst I have been in Birmingham, a gentleman who I suppose, though I have not been told it, does not generally act with our political party, and after much conversation, and after I had told him that some time when I came to Birmingham I would speak on a particular question, he said he should be very glad if some time or other I would make a speech on the bright side of England. You understand, I dare say, the sort of sarcasm there was in that suggestion. I suppose that, as he does not agree with me on all subjects, he thought I took too gloomy a view of the position and prospects of this country. Now, you will admit that there are a great number of speakers and a great number of writers whose business it seems always to persuade everybody that everybody is well treated and perfectly happy—and they advise their hearers or readers to avoid the errors of the French on the one hand, and the mistakes of the people of America on the other. But if everybody was contented and happy, and there was nothing that it was our business to reform, I should stay at home. I have no fondness for political meetings and platform work, and I should not for the last twenty years have given the whole of my time to public questions if nothing was necessary but to come before an audience and to rejoice with each other at the glorious position we occupy. It is the very existence of grievances which calls me from the quiet of my own home, from the pursuit of my own business, and from attention to my own family; and whenever I find that there is nothing for me to do but to say, “What a happy people we are, and how delightful it is to be under the Government of Lord Palmerston and his Whig colleagues!” then I assure you I will not trouble you with saying it, but I shall leave you to find it out, and I shall stay at home.
But still there is a bright side to the aspect of England, and you may see some of it probably by looking forward, and you may see a good deal of it on looking backward. But the bright side of the history of this country, so long as I have been permitted to take any part in it, is that side in which are delineated the changes that have taken place—the changes which I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have supported—the changes which no doubt many of those who would wish me to speak on in a different tone have to the utmost of their power opposed.
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Most of us can remember thirty or thirty-five years ago, and if there be any gentleman who complains of the tone of my speeches in general, I would ask him to bear in mind what are the changes that have been made, and if he can, to measure the results upon the prosperity and upon the happiness of this country.
The first great measure which suggests itself to me is that which gave the right of Parliamentary representation to the whole nation of Ireland, being the Catholic population of that country. Up to the year 1829 no person professing or holding the Christian religion as it is held by the Roman Catholic Church was permitted to sit in the House of Commons. There were at that tie, I suppose, five millions, or very nearly, of Roman Catholics in Ireland, but they were not allowed to send to the House of Commons any man agreeing with them in religious opinions. It is within the recollection of many of us that it required an agitation of a most formidable character, led on by one of the most remarkable men that Ireland has ever produced—the late Mr. O’Connell—to obtain the concession of that right; and bear in mind that it was fiercely opposed by a very powerful body in this country, and there is a party in this country even yet that regrets that the concession was ever made. Therefore, although it may be said that we are in a sense a free country, yet thirty-five years age 5,000,000 of Catholics in Ireland, and, perhaps, nearly 1,000,000 in England, were shut out altogether from representation, from being able to return any man of their won religious sentiments to Parliament. Every one of them was prevented from becoming a candidate for a seat in Parliament; and therefore, as regards this particular, this was not then a free country.
The next great step which was made was that in which Birmingham took so distinguished a part. It is not certain, I think, but, looking back, we may have some doubt whether the Reform Bill would have been carried at the time it was if it had not been for the strenuous and patriotic efforts of the inhabitants of this great town. The body which has always opposed, and does always oppose every step in advance, ran the country to within twenty-four hours of a revolution before they conceded that measure. And when it was conceded, it was so mutilated, so much changed from the original proposition, and on the whole, though so great, was yet so inefficient, that we look upon it now as leaving the representation of the country in a very unsatisfactory state. Now, after that Bill had passed, as was natural after so great an agitation, there was a powerful swell of Liberal opinion throughout the country, which did not satisfy itself by the passing of that Bill, but carried other measures of great importance. One of them was the Bill by which all the corporations in the towns and cities of the kingdom, with one or two exceptions, were reformed. Up to that time there was no real representation in scarcely any town in the kingdom, but some half a dozen, or a dozen, or two dozen men, self-elected or elected by some landed proprietor or some lord of the manor, were the municipal authorities. Such were the governors of your town, and formed your Corporation, and the corruption was of a character so foul that the odour of it remains in our nostrils even to this day. Now, although corporations are by no means centres of absolute wisdom—I say that, of course, with great trepidation—in the presence of your worthy Mayor and others who surround him; yet I think it must be acknowledged that the passing of that Bill and the reform of these corporation has been an enormous advantage to this country: and I only hope that corporations generally will become much more expensive than they have been—not expensive in the sense of wasting money, but that there will be such nobleness and liberality amongst the people of our towns and cities, as will lead them to give their corporations power to expend more money on those things which, as public opinion advances, are found to be essential to the health and comfort and improvement of our people.
About the time when that celebrated measure passed there passed another still more celebrated, because it affected, not England alone, but the opinion of the world, and excited emotion in the mind of every good man in every country, and stirred in him, I believe, a lasting admiration for the wisdom and magnanimity of the English people. I speak of the measure which emancipated 800,000 slaves in the colonies of England, and did even more than emancipate 800,000 salves, for it set an example which the world could not but follow. You may rely upon it that from this great act is to be dated to a large extent the creation of that conscientious feeling in England which has been growing from that day to this, while it is owing to the unteachable spirit of the slaveholders of another country that a great nation has been brought into the throes of a fearful revolution, out of which I trust not only will that nation itself be purified, but that 4,000,000 of salves will be free. And whilst this passes through my mind, I cannot help for a moment touching upon the fact that one of your citizens now no more, my personal and intimate friend, was one of the most eminent of those who endeavoured to stir the conscience of the English people to that great act of justice; and I never pass, as I do often pass when I come here, that memorable figure of him which you have erected in one of the most conspicuous places in your town, without hoping that every citizen of Birmingham when he comes to consider public questions, whether regarding this country or that other country to which reference has already been made, and where that great struggle is being carried on, will endeavour to be animated by the disinterested, the noble, and the Christian spirit by which your late eminent townsman was distinguished.
There is another law to which I might refer, but it is not of the same character, though no doubt it has been productive in some cases of great advantage—I mean the law which was passed for reforming the administration of the relief of the poor throughout this country. That law was subjected, I believe, to greater assault than almost any other law, and this for a long time after it was enacted. It had features in it that seemed harsh, and unfortunately its administration was entrusted to the hands of men who seemed to wish to make it as unpalatable as possible. Notwithstanding, I am free to say that, looking back at it as a measure, I believe it to be one which did credit to the Whig administration of the day—to their courage and to their legislative and administrative capacity. I mention it, therefore, as one of those changes which I believe have given satisfaction to the country, and which have passed during the time which I am now sketching. Well, then, after that we came to a very quiet, and, I may say, unsatisfactory time. The Whigs had settled comfortably into their places. They, I believe, have a motto, which they have not publicly announced. It is this: “A place for every man, and every man in his place.” That means, of course, every man of their own respectable party. Well, at this time they became very much indisposed to go further, and the satisfaction of the country with them was considerably diminished. Their majorities in Parliament were reduced, and, finally, they came to a general election in the year 1841, but nine years after the passage of that great measure of Reform. They were thrown out of office by the constituencies, and Parliament re-opened with a majority against them of a little under a hundred votes. At this time there came another great change in the State—the adoption of the principle of Free Trade. This question was brought before the public very much in consequence of the sufferings which arose from the bad harvests that we had immediately before that general election. It took from the year 1838 to the year 1846 to bring about the great change of the abolition of the Corn Law. Parliament was elected in 1841 with a majority of ninety pledged to oppose the abolition of the law. Sir Robert Peel was the great leader of that great party, and as these men found themselves in Parliament with this enormous majority, they looked down with contempt upon all who were moving in that question, and considered that they were absolutely sure to maintain the law and to maintain their places. The result shows how much is to be done by continuous and disinterested labour on behalf of a great cause, and by appealing to the sympathies of the whole nation. In 1846, partly at that moment owing, no doubt, to the failure of the harvest and the difficulties which threatened from an impending famine in Ireland, this vast majority melted away. Men who had pledged themselves in every form of language to their constituents in 1841, who had attended meetings opposed to Free Trade, subscribed to newspapers which opposed it, found their whole power melting away, and their leader himself converted to the necessity of a change; and the change took place—a change so great that there were members of both Houses of Parliament, and I believe a majority of the House of Lords, who believed that to them at least the world was brought nearly to an end. I recollect that a lady—a relative of mine—sat below the bar of the House of Lords on the night when the Corn Law Repeal Bill was read a second time. It was very late—or, rather, early in the morning—when the division was approaching, and a lady sitting near her, who was a connection of some peer, spoke with him as he came from the House, and she said, “How will it go?” It was just before the division, and, pointing up to the clock, as it were in an agony of excitement, he said, “In twenty minutes“—or in some number of minutes which it would take to go to a division—“We shall be no better than dead men.” Well, now, the Corn Law was abolished, and if they had not told the farmers—those poor terrified farmers, and landlords still more terrified—I am not sure that any of them would ever have found it out. The country would have found that it was much better off, and the people would have discovered that by some power, the force of which they could not perhaps understand, loaves of bread and provisions to the amount of more than twenty millions sterling per annum had been deposited in their homes for the sustenance and enjoyment of their families, and they would scarcely have known how it was brought about. But we know that it was brought about by the repealing of a single Act of Parliament. It was not by a number of benevolent ladies and gentlemen forming societies all over the country and giving people alms, but it was by repealing the Corn Law—by a simple act of justice, an act that was so just that I have never heard a man, or have scarcely heard a man deny its justice, except on something which they call political considerations, which means that there were political reasons why that great act of justice should not be done. I recollect that a pious banker whom I happened to be travelling with in the North of England, admitted that it was very unjust that there should be a law to make food scarce and dear, but said, “I accept it because I believe it necessary to maintain the hereditary aristocracy of this country.” And further, he said that he thought that our greatness in the eye of the world depended very much upon the maintenance of the wealth and power and the display of the aristocracy of England. That is exactly the sort of reason which people give. Weak-minded men are taken by reasons of this kind, and they give you reasons now that are not a bit better for opposition to many changes which wiser men wish to promote, and which doubtless by and by will be effected. And then results will show that the reasons of those who have opposed them were just as silly and just as little worth as those of my fellow-traveller the pious banker.
But that question of the Corn Law was not all; there was the question of sugar. In 1840—it is not very long ago—the single article of sugar in this country cost, by reason of the monopoly, not less than six millions sterling more than it would have cost if you cold have bought it freely in the market of the world, while the fall of the corn monopoly, which was the keystone of the arch, let everything belonging to it and supported by it down. The sugar monopoly fell, and I do not now know how much more. One was connected with the supply of timber from abroad; and another, still more important, was the monopoly which our ship-owners had, and the abolition of which has been found to be injurious, I believe, to nobody, and greatly advantageous to the whole country. When all this was done the course was perfectly easy, for our Chancellor of the Exchequer has had nothing but driving downhill since that time. Once we had a tariff, that upon which Sir Robert Peel began his reform, with 1,000—I am not sure that there were not 1,200 items on which duties were raised at the ports, some of them articles which, when the names were read off in the House of Commons, raised a general laugh, for people turned to each other and asked what they were. There were things so minute that nobody in the House had ever heard of, and yet they were articles upon which duties were levied. Then the tariff was simplified, until now there are perhaps only twelve or fifteen articles upon which duties are levied. All other things can come freely into the country; we have made a very great clearance, and the result has been that we have obtained fiscal reforms which are more comprehensive and more just to the country than probably have ever been made in the same time by any other Government in any country in the world. I do not think those who were most active in promoting these changes were regarded by certain people with much more confidence than before. But the changes were made, and they worked well for the nation.
We may now come down to one or two other topics, one of them the question of the treaty with France. We were taught when we were children—I was born just before the termination of that monstrous and wicked war which was so long carried on with France—at any rate, the school-books of those days were filled with charges against the French people. The representations on the stage, I am told by those who frequented theatres at the time, were to the same effect, and there was a general feeling that there was some risk to Englishmen if they became too well acquainted with the French, and if by any possibility they should learn to believe that the French were not the natural enemies of Englishmen. Well, my friend Mr. Cobden—who, as you know, is occasionally mentioned with very abusive language by several of the great instructions of the press—thought that the Emperor of the French and some persons who are occasionally consulted by him would be very glad to have more intimate relations with the people of this country, and he went over to Paris. He saw the Emperor, and discussed the matter with him. He found the Emperor most willing, and not only most willing, but most anxious that the people of the two countries should be introduced to each other through the medium of extended commerce, and that his object was—for I heard him say it—that the people being thus united together, it should not be in the power of rulers and statesmen to induce them hereafter to enter into those dreadful struggles which, now we look back upon them, we can say have for centuries disfigured the history of the two nations. Now, there is another fact which ought to have some interest, but which I shall merely mention, that it was not—and I was glad to see it noticed by Mr. Milner Gibson at Ashton the other day—it was not one of your official diplomatists who effected that treaty; it was done solely by my friend Mr. Cobden, who, as the cricketers would say, got in entirely off his own bat: and I venture to say that as long as the history of England and France is read it will be read of him that he, a simple citizen of this country, interested in its welfare, interested in peace between France and England, interested in the spread of great and enlightened principles and commerce throughout the world, that he went over to Paris, and there negotiated with the Emperor of the French a treaty, which, I believe, is the most important document of the kind that has ever been signed by the rulers of any two nations in Europe.
From this I pass to the last of these reforms that I shall touch upon, and that is to another kind of freedom, in which no persons in Parliament were more actively engaged than Mr. Milner Gibson, Mr. Cobden, and myself—that is, the freedom of the press. You pay a penny for your admirable newspaper in this town, and when doing so you are not conscious, perhaps, of what happened only a very short time ago. The paper on which it was printed, say ten years ago, had a stamp of a penny upon it, the paper itself did not cost probably more than a halfpenny, and therefore there was over 100 or perhaps 200 per cent. of taxation upon the paper before our friend Mr. Jaffray could touch it. Well, then—I am not speaking now of the stamp—there was also a tax of, at one time, threepence, and at another time three-halfpence per pound upon paper itself at the paper-mill. This unfortunate article seemed to be thought the greatest of all nuisances and trespassers. The moment it was made out of the meanest rags and rubbish, the Chancellor of the Exchequer put a tax upon it of three-halfpence per pound: and the moment it was sent to the newspaper office, unless the manufacturer had already done it, the proprietor must send it to the Government office to have a stamp of a penny put upon it; and when he ran it through his machine and printed the columns of letterpress, if he put in a short paragraph that a cook wanted a place, or that anybody wanted a tutor, although it was only three words or only one word, it was an advertisement, and for every one of these he must pay a tax of 1s. 6d. to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The newspapers were, as you know, not very long ago many times the price that they are at present. People said then that we had a free press. We denied it, and we asserted that unless the Chancellor of the Exchequer would undertake really to free the newspaper press there was not a single thing else that he undertook to do which we would not oppose. Therefore, by getting the Chancellor of the Exchequer into a difficulty of this nature, and by absolutely insisting upon an act of justice, we used the skill and ingenuity with which Mr. Gibson conducted that question in Parliament to obtain what we desired. Now what has followed? We have a gentleman so eminent as the Speaker of the House of Commons the other day, at a meeting, expressing himself in terms of the very highest commendation and admiration of the penny newspapers in this country. But what did all the people say who opposed us? They said first of all, “You will steal everything from the Times.“ Well, I do not think anything else could by possibility make a paper so bad as stealing everything from the Times. I recollect the prophecies of the Globe newspaper, which I believe values itself at 4d. or 5d., while other papers quite as good and as large are selling for a penny. The Globe newspaper declared that these cheap papers would do nothing but crib paragraphs and news from the respectable press, which they would not acknowledge. Why, the Globe newspaper itself is made up almost entirely of “scissor-work,” and I have seen in it little paragraphs which it has copied from the penny press of the morning, and which it has copied without acknowledgment. I venture, then, to say that every prophecy of the opponents of a free press, so far, has failed; and that whether it be in quality of writing, in elevated and moral tone, in the industry with which facts and news are collected and offered to the people, I believe that the newspapers which are sold at a penny will bear comparison with any of their dearer neighbours, and that there is but one opinion throughout the whole kingdom—except it be in the mind of some particular man who never could find out anything himself, and never could be taught anything by others.— there is, I say, but one opinion as to the inestimable benefit which the freedom of the press has conferred upon this country. Is it not a very curious thing that every one of the things I have mentioned is now almost by general consent admitted to have been a just and beneficial change? You can hardly find a Tory now. It is a blessed thing, but somehow or other either the Tories die off, or they change themselves, or they do certainly take a little different colour. You can hardly find any of them now but will admit that a great number of these changes—some will admit that all of them—have been wise changes, and beneficial to the country. And yet it is very odd that the very same men at this moment set up to be authorities in politics. They opposed every one of these changes; they have obstructed every one to the extent of their power; they have told you at every step that every change was destructive to the best interests of the country, and they have rushed to the poll with what I should call a frantic blindness of patriotism to put off the good day when these beneficial changes should take affect. And, having been wrong in every single thing for twenty-five years back—and if they have lived as long, for fifty years back—at this very moment, without a blush, without the slightest appearance of difficulty or embarrassment, they will call upon a constituency now to believe that they are the men, and that wisdom will die with them. If there had been no violent party spirit, if these men would have given themselves, if they were capable of it, to some intelligent thought on these questions, is it not very likely that many of these changes might have been made at an earlier period, and that the public might have had, say for twenty years, the advantage of these reforms, which, owing to the obstinacy of opponents, they have only enjoyed, it may be, for five or ten years? I suppose there are not many of this class of gentlemen here—or else I might try to improve the occasion, and see if I could not reach—reach, as the preachers say—their intellect and their conscience. There are other questions to which these men might turn their minds if they like, unless they have been so long standing still, that, like a weather-vane, they have become rusted, and cannot turn at all.
There is a question that has been discussed of late years, and that will come on again for urgent discussion before long—the question of Parliamentary Reform. It is thirty years or more since the Reform Bill passed. It was not a good Bill, though it was a great Bill when it passed; and to show you how insufficient it was, I have already mentioned that in nine years after passed, so entirely had the old governing class recovered from its fall, that it entered Parliament in 1841 with a majority of ninety. And when we know that it leaves an immense number of small boroughs that are assailable and open to management, and that it leaves the county constituency as it now is, in many counties entirely in the hands of three or four or half a dozen landed proprietors, and that it shuts out the great body of the people from the franchise everywhere, it is not to be wondered at that we should have found ourselves, nine years after the passing of the Reform Bill, in a minority in the House of Commons, and at this moment in a position when nobody seems to know exactly whether there is a majority nor a minority. What has taken place since 1832? Surely, nearly all the changes I have mentioned. What else has taken place? Not these changes only, and not those changes only which Mr. Wright has said have taken place in Birmingham, but similar changes all over the kingdom. Have not your schools extended to a great degree? Have not the habits of industry and frugality become more prominent? Is not the country more peaceful? Is not the law generally better observed? And are not magistrates and all men in authority held in better regard than they were thirty or forty years ago? Don’t we all feel that there is a more kind, generous, merciful, and just spirit spread amongst the people, and animating great masses of them? And unless we are prepared to say that the English Constitution is not a Constitution by which representative Government is favoured; that we have no right to a share in the administration of the affairs of our country, but that a small, a powerful, and a rich class acting upon a small portion of the middle class, and banded so that their influence becomes almost irresistible, should appropriate the Constitution; and that the Government shall be handed over to them for the furthering of their special purposes—unless we are prepared to say this, we have no right to call ourselves free men living in a free country—unless we determine before long that there shall be another substantial measure of reform.
The other night I referred to the question of emigration from this country. I am told, though I have not seen it in print, that a newspaper, which does not care to improve its character by being fair to those whom it judges, declared that I put myself up as an advertising agent for the American Government. Let me tell you that the advertising agents, the practical advertising agents to the American Government, are those who refuse to do justice to the English people. Mr. Bancroft, the best historian of his country, has declared in words that Europe should never forget that the history of the colonization of America is the history of the crimes of Europe. We know perfectly well how it was that those noble men who colonized New England—and whose spirit yet lives on that continent, and is now, I will venture to say, directing the energies of the American Government in the preservation of their Union and in the establishment of freedom from the pole to the gulf—first settled in that country. We know that those men were driven from this country by the oppressions of despotic monarchs and of an insolent Church. And we know that from that time to this there have landed in the United States millions of persons, who have emigrated from the United Kingdom, the largest portion of them from Ireland. I have said before, and it is well to say it on every suitable occasion, that such has been the conduct of the government of England to the people of Ireland, that wherever the Irishman plants his foot in any foreign land, having quitted for ever his native soil, there he stands as an enemy of England, whom nothing can reconcile to this country. But if the Government of England in Ireland had been a just Government, if it had been just even since the time of the Union, sixty years ago, all that hostile feeling might have been cleared away long since, and Irishmen would have been as loyal and contented as any class of Englishmen. And if they had found it necessary from any cause to transport themselves to the United States, you would have found in the United States the feeling that they had not been driven by injustice from their native land, but that, turning back to that land with the loving, longing gaze of patriots, they might have said:
But now—now under the feelings created by a long course of misgovernment, continued from father to son, directed against their social, their political, and their religious feeling, there is hardly an Irishman in the United States who is not the victim of any man who chooses to make political capital by exciting hostility against England. There can be no just government of Ireland until you abolish the Irish Protestant Church. There have been no feelings in the history of the world that have so stirred men’s love, and so stirred their hate, as the feelings connected with their religious belief. There was never an act at once so unjust and so unwise as that of the English Government when it maintained a Church in Ireland that never could call within its fold more than about one-tenth of the whole people, and which from the day of its establishment to this has probably never been able to convert—I was going to say, a single real Catholic to Protestantism—but which, having found Catholicism a belief of the people, has made it also a patriotism. For every Catholic has not only had the ordinary reasons for adhering to his Church which every man has who learns the doctrines and teachings of his religion from his mother, but he has this further reason—that the Church which is sought to be imposed upon him is imposed upon him by another nation, and, to him, by an alien Government. And, therefore, every feeling of reverence for God, and every feeling of self-respect which he has as a free man, makes him resolve that he never will come within the pale of such a Church as that.
And, now, but one more matter, which it would be wrong to pass by at this moment. This is the situation of foreign affairs, and the doctrine of non-intervention. The people of England must, and will before long, make up their minds on this great question—whether they will accept the doctrine of non-intervention in its entirety and completeness, or whether they will allow it when it is convenient, and repudiate it when their passions have been a little stirred. Bear in mind that one of two eminent Ministers of the present Cabinet certainly was in office as long ago as some years before I was born. He comes down, then, from a generation that is almost passed away. Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, is that man. Lord Russell, though not so old, also goes back into that early time. They are both naturally—I am not imputing it to them as a crime, because, possibly, it was what they could not help—but they naturally have been saturated with those theories and doctrines upon the question of non-intervention and foreign affairs which prevailed near the beginning of this century, and they may fancy in their old age that what was taught them and practised in their youth is right now, and was right during the time of the Italian war, I mean the war between Austria and France, in which, it is thought, Italy gained much in the direction of liberty. I went one day in the session of Parliament during which these events occurred to spend an hour with the late Lord Aberdeen. He had been Prime Minister, and Foreign Secretary for many years. He was a man of very sound judgment, of great moderation, and of many good qualities, which his political opponents did not always give him credit for. He spoke about the war which was then beginning between the French and the Austrians, and he said that when he was young there was not a statesman in England of any party who would have hesitated for one single moment to go into that war on the side of Austria against France, with the view of preventing the increase of French influence in Italy and in Europe. But he said that he hoped, and he thought it was probably true, that statesmen had grown wiser since that time. Well, we did not go into the war in Italy; our Government did not take sides with Austria, nor yet with France. The people generally, I think, were rather in favour of France, because they thought that France was in favour of freedom in Italy. But, suppose these statesmen of the old time, of Lord Aberdeen’s youth, had carried out their principles and had gone into that war, it is difficult to see that things would have been any better than they now are in Italy; it is not difficult to see that probably they would have been much worse, and that no doubt thousands of our fellow-countrymen might have been lying in their graves on the continent of Europe; that great sea-fights might have taken place with great destruction; that the French Treaty certainly would not have existed, and that the harmony which now exists between the peoples of these two great nations might have been intercepted for many years. I won’t go back to the Russian war; you know the part I took in regard to that. I have, on my part, to thank it for only one thing, and that is, that it is owing, I believe, to the part I took in that question that I now stand here in this borough as one of your Parliamentary representatives. But how were you dragged, or beguiled, or excited into that war? By the impulse of these two aged Ministers. They could not keep themselves out of it. I am not imputing to them other than honourable motives, but saturated as they were—I say saturated—with the doctrines of a bygone time, a time, I hope, never to return, they fancied it was the duty of this small island to take care of a rotten Government and of a country devastated by the oppressions and excesses of that Government. The result was that amongst the various contending nations, at least four hundred thousand men’s lives were sacrificed, and probably more than as many millions of treasure were thrown entirely away; and instead of the affairs of Europe being settled on a permanent basis—that is always their cry—you find that the affairs of Europe at this moment are not settled on a permanent basis, and that Europe has doubled the armed men and doubled the military expenditure that it had before that war.
And now we come to another topic, and that is the question between Denmark and Germany. I am one of those, I hope, who sympathize even with men who wear crowns when they are in trouble, and the difficulty which has overtaken the King of Denmark does not appear to have been a difficulty of his own seeking. There has been a difficulty for many years with regard to those Duchies. It is not yet settled, though perhaps it may be settled. But I do not know; I doubt extremely whether anything that England could do by sending 25,000 men into Schleswig, and by putting a fleet in the North Sea, or the Baltic, or Adriatic, would permanently settle that question. You may rely upon this, that questions of that nature are only permanently settled when they are brought to a conclusion by those alone who are deeply interested in them. We are not deeply interested in this question—I do not mean interested in the sense of the Prince of Wales marrying a daughter of the King of Denmark. I think nothing would be more unfortunate than that, whilst the members of the Royal Family are not allowed to marry from English citizens, they should, in marrying abroad, therefore embroil Englishmen in the quarrels of foreign countries. I can imagine nothing more likely to make Englishmen doubt whether Royal alliances can have any pleasant interest to them than if such a course is taken. We see it reported in the papers that the Guards have had orders, and that the fleet is to come to some place or other. These, I fancy, are mostly at present paragraphs put out as feelers or paragraphs of bluster, intended to operate upon Austria or Prussia. But I cannot understand the object of Austria and Prussia, unless it is that they are afraid of a revolution in Germany, and are therefore taking a lead in great operations which may save them from any unpleasant change which may be impending. But if I were speaking to members of her Majesty’s Government, I should remind them of this, that in 1853–4 there were members of that Government, who talked of peace, and for peace. In Mr. Gladstone’s speech at Manchester the burden was a hearty wish for peace, and peace doubtless was the wish of the Queen and the Prince. And yet the Government went into war. They take steps which they fancy do not mean war, but they are gradually brought nearer and nearer to the verge of it, and then under some pretence that they have gone so far that they cannot honourably retreat, they plunge over into the abyss. On that occasion I believe there were members of the Cabinet who had not the slightest idea that they were going into war.
And that leads me to speak about a curious custom of the Cabinet on which the people generally are ignorant, but concerning which I now feel it my duty to inform them. When a Government is made, a list is drawn up of about thirteen gentlemen who are to form a Cabinet, and who are summoned to the meetings of the Cabinet. But there is an inner Cabinet, and it is generally compounded of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and occasionally one other Minister. While Lord Derby was a member of Sir Robert Peel’s Cabinet, he knew nothing whatever of a most important memorandum or understanding which had been drawn up on an agreement come to between Sir Robert Peel, the Duke of Wellington, and the late Emperor Nicholas of Russia. Until he came to be Prime Minister he had never seen that memorandum, and never knew of its existence. Well, I have been told that there was an attempt made when Lord Derby’s Government was formed to keep the whole of that interior Cabinet in the hands of himself and Lord Malmesbury, the Foreign Minister, but that a certain other Minister, who knew the responsibility which attaches to the deliberations of such an inner Cabinet, would have nothing to do with the responsibility of its great decisions unless he were made acquainted with all the facts and with everything belonging to them. And, therefore, the secret Cabinet in Lord Derby’s Government was composed of three, and not of two members. But take this present Cabinet. I will undertake to say, by what I know of what has been done on past occasions, that a great deal of the most delicate business of foreign affairs is conducted almost entirely by Lord Palmerston and Lord Russell. Do not let me be supposed to insinuate that Lord Palmerston has not had a most lengthened experience in foreign affairs, and do not let me be supposed to say that Lord Russell is not anxious to have the affairs of the country transacted in such a way as he thinks will best serve the interests of the nation. But there may be members of that Cabinet at this moment who are not aware of the steps that are being taken from day to day, of despatches that are being written, of suggestions that are being thrown out, and of resolutions that are partly come to, and which being once arrived at and determined upon by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, will plunge the country in war. If there by any member of that Cabinet who is not in that secret knowledge, and he finds that these matters are advancing towards war, let me beseech him, as he values the price of his conscience during his lifetime, and his reputation also with his fellow-men, which is of much less real value, that he will take care to know everything that is done, that he will not be made the partner, it may be in great errors, it may be in great crimes, which he and his country, if the war should come, may have occasion to regret. I have not seen a paper written out of London which argues in favour of war, and I do not think the London press generally has yet stimulated the country to violent action. But let us here—we, the people everywhere—have our eyes wide open at this moment, and by every means in our power show that, while we are willing to sympathize with any monarch, it may be, or any State under any difficulties of any kind, we also consider it our duty in the present and future interest of the people of these islands to show in addition that, looking over our past history for the last two hundred years, we have come to the fixed determination that the power of England shall not be exerted, the blood of England shall not be spilt, the wealth created by the toils of Englishmen shall not be squandered, except it be in some great cause in which the solid and permanent interests of this country are engaged.
I fear you will think I have been preaching you a too long political sermon. I wish this to be a free country—not to be afraid of anything that is good because they say it is French, or of something good because they say it is American, or to stand by something that is clearly evil because they say it is old. A very eminent writer, not long ago, said that England to a large extent was still as it were fettered in the grave-clothes of the middle ages. But we have a competition to run with other nations, and, most of all, with that nation which is now distracted and in the throes of a great Civil War. We have also within our shores, and within the limits of these islands, a great and a noble people. We have within us the elements of a nation far greater in the future than anything that has been in the past, even in the most renowned and glorious days. We can set ourselves free from the prejudices and from the darkness of the past. We can give to our people education, we can open up to them new sources of industry, we can reduce the expenditure of our Government, we can invite another million or two of our people within the pale of the constitution, and taking them, we can ask counsel of them that we may assist each other in the wise government of this great nation. All this we can do, and all that is wanted is that in working out our political problems we should take for our foundation that which recommends itself to our conscience as just and moral. I have not the slightest regard for that statesmanship which is divorced from the morality which we say ought to guide us in our private life, which we gather for a nation as for individuals from the religion which we profess. Time, persistent labour, fidelity to the great principles which we hold and believe in, will certainly give us the victory over existing evils, as similar qualities and similar conduct have given the victories which I have described to you in the observations I have made.