Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE CHANCES FOR A LONG CONSERVATIVE REGIME IN ENGLAND. 1 - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays)
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THE CHANCES FOR A LONG CONSERVATIVE REGIME IN ENGLAND. 1 - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 7.
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THE CHANCES FOR A LONG CONSERVATIVE REGIME IN ENGLAND.1
The change of last February (1874) was one of the most sudden ever seen even in the shifting world of English politics. The catastrophe of the Gladstone Cabinet took every one by surprise. People hardly seemed to believe that it could be true, or that it could be permanent. The Conservatives could hardly help asking, “Are we really in, and really going to stay in?” or the Liberals murmuring, “Surely we are not out, and going to stay out”. On many familiar faces there was a sudden disappointment, and on others an equally sudden hope. Even now, though months have passed, the world is not sure what the change means; and therefore it may not be amiss to examine it carefully. There are some questions more important than who are to be our rulers, but there are not many such questions.
Of course, what we want to know is, which party is likely for a certain time, say the next twenty years or so, to have the preponderance of power. There will always be many “ins-and-outs” in English politics. But experience shows that though these minor perturbations are determined by momentary events, there are secular causes which, in the long run, fix the predominance. For forty years before 1832 the Tories were in power with only one exception; during the forty years since, the Liberals have been in power with brief exceptions. These instances of continued power were too long and too remarkable to be produced by mere luck. And the cause is not difficult to find. Each generation naturally prefers one party or the other. Events and circumstances stamp a similar character on most of the members of it. The terrors of the first French Revolution stamped on a whole generation of Englishmen a bigoted Conservatism. The same sanguine spirit which in France produced the Revolution of 1830, generated in a whole generation of Englishmen a spirit of hope and a desire for innovation. The result was a long Tory Government in the first case, and a long Liberal Government in the second. Minor changes were caused by passing accidents, but permanence in power coincided with the settled feeling of the age. If we would cast the horoscope of the future we must see what influences are now fixed in the ascendant and on which side they work.
In happy States, the Conservative party must rule upon the whole a much longer time than their adversaries. In well-framed polities, innovation—great innovation that is—can only be occasional. If you are always altering your house, it is a sign either that you have a bad house, or that you have an excessively restless disposition—there is something wrong somewhere. Just so a nation which is for ever having great eras, changing fundamental laws, founding new constitutions, is either very unfortunate in its old polity, or very fickle in its disposition—perhaps it may be both. In any case there is no hope for steady happiness in such a State. Happiness, as far as it is affected by politics, needs a good, or at any rate a suitable, inherited polity, and a tenacious resolution not to change that polity without reason shown. The most successful nations have erred on the other side, and have evinced a stupid inability to admit even the best reasons. Not to cite the Romans and other common book examples, let any one try at the present moment to persuade the Americans to alter any of the clauses in the “Washington Constitution,” and then he will comprehend how hard it is to induce a practical people to change its fundamental political code; how keenly it values a “deed of settlement” of that kind; how much it feels that it gains by it; how unwilling it is to venture out into the unknown. Nations eminent in practical politics have always possessed a singular constancy to old institutions, and have inherited institutions more or less deserving that constancy.
As I write for Englishmen, I need not draw out a formal proof that England is a country successful in politics. This is a fact which we are all of us ready to accept and assume. Nor need I prove that we have inherited a Constitution of some value. Almost all thinking Englishmen prize much of it highly; and unthinking Englishmen are apt to believe it the one good and adequate Constitution in the world—the sufficient cure, if they would only take it, for the evils of all other nations. And we have been constant to it for centuries; some parts of it may be traced back to the woods of Germany; others, though much newer, are still several hundred years old; the whole outward framework of it is ancient; the inner part, though gradually modified, has never been changed upon system. Few such things have ever lasted so long; few such have ever undergone so much needful change with so little solution of continuity. But there are prerequisites of our political success, and for that success itself we must pay a price, and a part of that price—to Moderate Liberals, like myself, a serious part—is a preponderance—perhaps a great preponderance on an average, and taking a long time—of Conservative rule over Liberal.
I say that this price is serious, because I am sure of its magnitude. The best Government for free States, both past history and present experience seem to me to prove, is a Government, as the French would say, of the Left Centre. The centre in their language is the representative of the great neutral mass, which is not violently in favour either of one side in politics or of the other; which inclines now more in one direction, and now more in the other; which is often nominally divided between Left and Right, between the movement and the non-movement parties, and which then forms a certain “common element,” of which both parties partake, and the members of which are much more akin and much more like to the members of it in the other party, than they are to the extreme partisans in their own. The Left Centre is that side of this steadying and balancing element which inclines to progress, which is alive to new ideas, which wants to introduce them not nearly so violently as the Extreme Left wishes, nor so soon as it wishes, but which tries to adjust them to existing things and older ideas, and which wants to bring them down to the real world as soon as the real world will bear them. In short, the Left Centre wants to introduce tested innovations when the average man begins to comprehend them, and not before; and to introduce them in the shape in which he comprehends them, and not in any other shape. If the predominant power is in the hands of men like this, they secure the State against the worst evils of Conservatism and the worst evils of innovation. They will not allow evils to stand so long unredressed, that at last it is of little use redressing them; they will not permit new men rashly, and on a sudden, to apply new ideas which match nothing in the present world, which join on to nothing, and which mar everything. The Left Centre will neither drive so slow as to miss the train, or so fast as to meet with an accident.
But though it is most desirable that the Left Centre should gain lasting power, it is also most improbable that they can, as a body, obtain power upon no “cry,” and yet they have no cry. There is no scream in them. They have very sound words, very steady arguments, very judicious observations; but the multitude do not care for sound words, or steady arguments, or judicious observations; it wants something exciting, something stimulating, something with a note of exclamation. And the Left Centre are just the last people in the world to supply this, for their pleasure is to be calm, and their aim is to be accurate. You might as reasonably ask a Quaker for oaths as a member of the Left Centre or a Moderate Liberal—for it is all the same—for stimulating programmes and exciting plans.
“You must in politics,” a distinguished statesman once said to me, “have not only a scheme before you, but a power behind you.” And this is where the Left Centre and the Moderate Liberals fail. The great energies of the earth are not theirs. There are two principal powers in politics. One is the great wish of all ordinary decent people, poor and rich, to lead the life to which they have been used, and to think the thoughts to which they have been accustomed. In real life this elementary feeling does not, indeed, display itself simply; on the contrary, it hides itself in a prettier shape, it calls itself loyalty; it cries that it wants to preserve the Queen, or the Czar, or the Union. Nothing, indeed, is more absurd than this Conservative sentiment when it does not know what to cry out. Conservative Frenchmen are in this position at this moment; they are puzzled between the Septennate, the Republic, and the Empire; they would cry for any one of these, if they were sure of its efficacy; indeed they would cry for the Governor and Company of the Bank of England, if they were sure that the Governor and Company would do the work. But however we may smile at the feeling, its strength makes it of cardinal importance; in times of revolution it has volcanic power. The shopkeeper, ordinarily so quiet, will fight for his till, the merchant for his counting-house, the peasant proprietor for his patch of soil, with an almost rabid fury, such as no mere soldier will show for anything. In quiet times it is the most enormous of “potential energies”; a statesman who is supported by it may reasonably feel that he has a force in reserve, which, if he elicit it, will certainly produce a mighty effect, and perhaps annihilate his enemies and maintain his rule.
On the other hand, there is in States a mighty innovating—it would almost be clearer to say, revolutionary—impulse. It is not given to “one good custom to corrupt the world”. Nature has an effectual machinery to prevent it. We imagine a fictitious entity called a nation; we habitually think and speak of it as if it always remained the same; but in truth, after a few years, it is no longer the same. The men who compose it are different. The generations change; the son is not like his father; the grandson is still less like his grandfather. They do not feel the same feelings, or think the same thoughts, or lead the same life. If a man of fifty will take any house which he has always known, and which has twice changed owners in course of nature, he will get a notion of the intensity of the change. “Nothing about the place,” he will be almost inclined to say, “is the same now as it was when he was a boy,”—it is not so much a question of this or that particular thing, but the look is different, the spirit different, the toutensemble is different. In States it is the same. You can no more expect different generations to have exactly the same political opinions, to obey exactly the same laws, to love exactly the same institutions, than you can expect them to wear identical clothes, own identical furniture, or have identical manners. In both cases there will no doubt be much which is common to the two generations, but the similarity will be enhanced by contrast; the identity will be assured by differences. Unhappily, laws and institutions are not changed so easily as furniture and manners. The things of the individual can be changed by the individual, but the things of the community—at least in free States—can only be changed by the community; and communities are heavy to move. The necessary agents are many, and slow to gain. In consequence, all these States are liable to acute spasms of innovating energy. The force which ought to have acted daily and hourly has long been effectually resisted every day and every hour; at last it breaks forth with pent-up power; it frightens every one, and for the minute seems as if it might destroy anything. This catastrophic innovating rage is, for the instant of its action, the predominant force in politics, and a statesman who gains its support need look for no other and care for no other.
But the misfortune of the Left Centre—or Moderate Liberals—is that they cannot rely on gaining the support of either of these great powers. They are in sympathy neither with the intense Conservative force, nor with the intense innovating. They are “betwixt and between,” and make distinctions which no one heeds; they live in a debatable land, which each party attacks and neither defends; they have the sympathy of neither party, but the enmity of both. In, perhaps, his best novel, Sir Walter Scott has sketched the fate of such men in troubled times. Henry Morton, the hero of Old Mortality, is a moderate Presbyterian, but the Conservative Government—the Episcopalian Government—want to kill him because he is a Presbyterian; and the Cameronians—the extreme Presbyterians, the working rebels—want to kill him because he is moderate. And so his aims are frustrated, his hopes annihilated, and he has to leave his country for a long exile. In quiet times, moderate politicians have certainly not to fear either death or exile. But they have not only to fear, but to expect, that Conservatives like Mr. Disraeli—the head of one power—will sneer at them as “stray philosophers”; that Liberals like Mr. Bright—the head of the other power—will deny that they are “robust politicians”. They will have the consolations of philosophy, and they have a confident perception of truth attained; but they must do without conspicuous power and the “worship of those with whom you sit at meat”; they must endure the tedium of inaction, and bear the constant sense of irritating helplessness. Though they are the best of rulers for the world, they are the last persons to be likely to rule.
The fate of the Left Centre—the Moderate Liberals—is the harder, because that of the Right Centre—the Moderate Conservatives—who differ from them so little, is so very much better. The world will accept from them that which it would never dream of accepting from their rivals. If the Moderate Conservatives choose to propose moderate Liberal measures, they are certain to pass them. The Liberals must support them on principle, and even the Extreme Conservatives rarely try to oppose them, and still more rarely do so effectually. The most extreme Conservative is usually aware that some change must be carried sometimes, and he is disposed to think that perhaps the changes that his own friends incline to may be those changes. At any rate, he does not see where he can get so little change. If he leave the alliance of the Moderate Conservative, he must either stand alone, which is impotence, or ally himself with Liberals, which is hateful. For one who wants to change nothing, to combine with those who want to change more, against those who wish to change less, is ridiculous. Accordingly the Moderate Conservatives have almost always a game at their disposal if they are wise enough to perceive it. All that they concede, the attacking force will accept, and whatever they choose to concede, the rest of the defending force must allow. In two ways the Conservatives in happy States are likely to have a preponderance of power: first, because that happiness is an indication that in the main the existing institutions are suitable, and that very much organic change is not wanted; and secondly, because Conservatives, if they only knew it, have the greatest advantage in making the changes which have to be made.
This constant tendency to Conservative rule may be counteracted by many accidents for short periods, and by two lasting causes for long ones. The Liberal party may long be maintained in power, either when the country requires a kind of administration which is at variance with Conservative ideas, or an incessant course of legislation which is equally so. Recent English history has excellent examples of both. For many years after the accession of the House of Hanover the Liberal party was in power without a break. They came in with George the First, and reigned without a break till the accession of George the Third—that is, for forty-six years. The cause is obvious. During the greater part of that time the Tory party was incapable not only of effectual competition, but even of any approach to it. The strongest and most characteristic members were opposed to the reigning dynasty; in country parsonages and manor-houses Jacobitism was a creed slowly dying, though not dead.
If no more could be said, and if the subject stopped here, we should have proved that the prospects of Liberals, and especially of Moderate Liberals, were at all times most unhappy. But fortunately the causes we have described may be for long periods effectually counteracted in two ways. First, the Liberals may be persistently maintained in power because the nation persistently exacts a species of administration which is inconsistent with the Conservative ideas in that age, and from which Conservatives in that age are excluded. This was the case in England during two whole reigns. From the accession of George the First to the death of George the Second the Whig party was continuously in office. And it was so because the new dynasty had been placed on the throne by the exertions of the Whigs. The Extreme Tories, at the accession of George the First, were Jacobites; the Moderate Tories were lukewarm. The former would have opposed the Hanoverian dynasty; the latter would never have striven for it. For many years the sentiment of the Tory party—the sentiment of country parsonages and rural manor-houses—was in favour of their exiled Sovereign; they were Legitimists, as we should now say, in feeling, if not in practice. The Whig party were in office because there was a pretender to the Crown, and because the reigning dynasty could only be maintained on the throne by the persons who had placed it there; all others would have been unsafe supporters at a time of real danger. The hold of the Whigs on office was the stronger because the dynasty which they supported embodied a principle, and the dynasty which they resisted denied that principle. In essence, the rule of the House of Hanover implied that the House of Commons should be the dominant power in the Constitution; the return of the Stuarts would have implied that it should be reduced to a subordinate power. The judgment and sense of the nation preferred to be governed by Parliament, though much of its fancy and feeling still remained on the other side. The Whigs, who founded the system of Parliamentary Government, were long the only party who could be trusted to work it, because they alone were at heart in favour of it. To entrust its working to avowed Tories, would have been to place it at the mercy, at the best, of latent critics; at the worst, of latent enemies. The Liberal party were at the beginning of the period the sole possible administrators, because they were the only reliable friends of the system to be administered; and they continued to administer it till the end of the period, though the Jacobitism of the Tories was steadily waning, because no evident proof of that waning had been publicly given, and because the long possession of power had created as usual a practised skill in using it, and a popular belief that in fact it must be theirs, and that of right it ought to be theirs.
It may at first sound absurd to ask whether there is at the present time any obstacle likely to disable the Conservatives from creating or maintaining a suitable administration; but it is not really absurd at all. It is true that there is no change of dynasty from which they can suffer, but there is a change of ideas which may be as perplexing. They have, as we have seen, been out of office upon the whole and with trivial exceptions for more than forty years. Those years have been busy with changes—far more busy than the previous hundred. Our economic policy has been revolutionised, so has our colonial, so has our Irish. Our foreign policy has become altogether different. Our domestic policy is much changed on secular matters; in religion the way of regarding the Church and the way of regarding dissent are even more changed. These are the consequences of long Liberal rule, and the Conservatives must be content to accept them, and to act as if they were their own; to act as if the new policies were policies such as they would have shaped, and the new laws such as they would have chosen. It will not be enough that they do not attempt to repeal the new laws or to reverse the new maxims; they must apply those maxims to new cases and new circumstances; they must supplement those laws by incessant subordinate auxiliary legislation. If they wish to inherit the fruits of the last forty years, they must work in the spirit of the last forty years. And they will find this very difficult. In their hearts they will not like it; the best of their supporters will grumble at it. They must be prepared to hear from old friends, “We might just as well have the Liberals in, if this is to be their policy”; and from old members of Parliament, “I wish the Whigs were back again with all my heart, for then one could vote against their measures, and now one has to vote for them”. If the Conservatives are to remain in power, they will be far from enjoying an exquisite life of unmixed happiness; they will have to renounce very much for which they have contended, to take to their hearts much against which they have contended.
Two accidents enhance the difficulty. There has not been for many years—I am not sure that there has ever been—so great a change in our administrators. A party which has been forty years out of office necessarily inherits many leaders who have been little in office, and who have passed their lives in opposition; who may have an inborn genius for official business, but who can have had little training; who are like old generals who have seen no war. But it rarely happens that a great party has only such leaders. Almost every party has some leaders who have come over from the opposite party, and who, when that opposite party has been long in office, will bring with them official experience. Thus when the Whigs came into office in 1832, they had been for more than a generation out of office. Lord Grey and Lord Althorp—in name their two leaders—were almost wholly without official experience; but then there came in with them the Canningites, as they were called, who had much official experience. Lord Palmerston—the most vigorous of them—had almost no experience of anything else. He had been all but continuously in office for the previous twenty-five years—for the whole of his public life. And the records of that time show that this infusion of trained aptitude was a great help to the new Liberal Government. Lord Brougham especially dwells with emphasis on the vigour and promptitude which Lord Palmerston showed in Cabinet Councils, as compared with the “indecision and inefficiency” of the “unofficial Whigs”. But the present Cabinet have no such aid. The Canningites were men of another world; there is no group of politicians now in the least like them, or comparable to them. All the present Conservatives are untrained as administrators, though their task peculiarly requires skilled and trained administrators, for they have to adapt themselves to a situation which they did not make, and to administer a policy which is not their own.
If the Conservatives were now led by a Premier with a pre-eminent faculty for administration, these obstacles might be surmounted without extreme difficulty. Much greater miracles have often been worked by an active and competent dominant mind. But Mr. Disraeli, so far from being a pre-eminent man of business, scarcely pretends to be a man of business at all. He had no training in it. His youth was passed in light literature. Till (in 1852) he was made Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House of Commons, he had never filled any office whatever; probably had never transacted any business whatever. Nor has he done much since. When in office, he has, till now, been always leader of the House of Commons without a majority. His whole mind has been occupied in clever strategy; he has been trying to make five men do the work of six; he has been devising clever policies which will divide his enemies, and little epigrams which will sting. Such work exactly suited the nature of his mind;—the movements of no leader were ever so delicate; the sarcasms of no speaker were ever more fine and well-placed. But in all other matters he was simply a tolerated deficiency. If you pointed out the monstrous inconsistency of his serious assertions, his friends said, “It is Dizzy, you know; that is his way”. If you showed some astounding inaccuracy, they said, “Yes, Dizzy goes like that”. If you asked as to any of the wonderful stories of his official negligence, they said, “Ah, Dizzy does not care for these things”. But the world has gone on, and we have come to a time when his party may be ruined because Dizzy does not (probably can’t) do these things.
The best description of the duties of a Prime Minister is that given by Sir Robert Peel. “You must presume that he reads every important despatch from every foreign court. He cannot consult with the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, and exercise the influence which he ought to have with respect to the conduct of foreign affairs, unless he be master of everything of real importance passing in that department. It is the same with respect to other departments: India for instance; how can the Prime Minister be able to judge of the course of policy with regard to India unless he be cognisant of all the current important correspondence? In the case of Ireland and the Home Department it is the same. Then the Prime Minister has the patronage of the Crown to exercise, which you say, and justly say, is of so much importance and of so much value; he has to make inquiries into the qualifications of the persons who are candidates; he has to conduct the whole of the communications with the Sovereign; he has to write, probably with his own hand, the letters in reply to all persons of station who address themselves to him; he has to receive deputations on public business; during the sitting of Parliament he is expected to attend six or seven hours a day, while Parliament is sitting, for four or five days in the week—at least he is blamed if he is absent.” It is obvious that these duties cannot be performed at all except by a considerable man of business, and that they can only be tolerably performed by a consummate one. Most of these duties are performed in private, and the public—if it ever comes to know whether they are well or ill performed—comes to know it only after a long time, and by some casual distant effect. But we do know that up to this time two of the most important are at present very badly performed. The conduct of the business of the House of Commons was last session (1874) so bad that, though it was the easiest year which has been known for years, and though members of Parliament had twice as much time on their hands as has been known for years, yet the most important business Bill of the Session—the Judicature Bill—which was all ready for passing, which might have been passed in a few hours, for which the whole legal profession was waiting, and by the delay of which they are vexed and hampered, was abandoned without an excuse. Again, the supervision of the Premier over the departments has this year (1874) been so ineffectual, that the Bill of the Government which awakened most interest and excited most discussion—the Endowed Schools Bill—was so drawn that the Premier said he could not understand it. He tried to throw the blame on the way in which bills for the Government are now drawn; but on this point the Lord Chancellor replied to him, and said that the bills of the Government were now extremely well drawn, and that he was ashamed of the remark of his colleague. The truth is, that Mr. Disraeli had no real knowledge of the subject, though it is one of such interest, that he had no accurate acquaintance with the Endowed Schools Act which he was going to amend; that, in consequence, he did not know how it was proposed to amend it; and that, as usual, he was but using neat words to cover confused ideas.
It is too late for Mr. Disraeli to change his habits. He was not trained as a man of business, he has never lived as one, and he cannot now become one. He is wholly unable to give to his Cabinet the administrative impulse and the administrative guidance which their want of experience makes so necessary, and which their peculiar task requires. “An oak,” according to the saying, “should not be transplanted at fifty,” and a novelist who is near to seventy—who hates detail, and who knows no detail—cannot guide his younger colleagues in a new world of thorny business, much of which is alien to their prejudices, much of which was made by their adversaries, but to which they must shape their ways and adapt their policy. So long as Mr. Disraeli remains at the head of the Conservative Government, its career will be one of many stumbles, though its great majority may keep it from falling. It is, indeed, argued that Mr. Disraeli’s supremacy is essential to the present Cabinet for another reason. It is said that if it were not for his influence this Cabinet would not try to adapt itself to the world which it inherits from the Liberals, but that more or less it would try to return to the past, and to re-make an unmade world. But as to this I have no authority to say anything, and little inclination. As a general rule, nothing can be less worth attention than rumours as to the divisions in Cabinets. Every one knows how they are generated in the smoking-rooms of clubs and of the House of Commons. Of course all Cabinets are divided. Fifteen clever men never agree about anything; but how they are divided it is rarely possible to know, and then only under a pledge of secrecy. The few who know such things are slow to divulge them; and as to this particular rumour, I can only say that, if it be true, it does not make the defects of Mr. Disraeli smaller, but shows that the Government has another great defect besides those which he causes. It does not make him a better man of business that he has to resist a reactionary party; on the contrary, it will make him a worse, for he will have less mind and less energy to devote to business. This division within the Cabinet will be another cause of stumbles. It will not diminish the effect of the other cause, but heighten it; for the scandal of twenty blunders is much greater than twenty times the scandal of one. Nothing can be more probable than the existence of such a reactionary party in the Cabinet. It is almost inevitable that some of its members should dislike to accept Liberal measures, and, where a link is missing, to complete Liberal measures. But, if they mean to stay in office, they must do so. The country is as firmly attached now to the Liberal laws of the last forty years, as it was a century ago attached to the principles of the Revolution. It will no more permit their curtailment now, than it would permit the deposition of the House of Hanover then. The Conservatives will not be able to maintain themselves in office unless they can find a Cabinet able to transact the business of the country, and willing to accept the principles of the country. The natural inclination to a Conservative Government of such a country as this, in such an age as this, will be suspended at least till then.
Whether that tendency can be longer counteracted depends on our second cause. As we have seen, the instinctive inclination of comfortable Englishmen to a Conservative Government may not only be counteracted, it may be replaced by a steady and intense desire for a Liberal Government, if there is an immense demand for new laws. That demand Conservatives cannot supply if they would, for they cannot be enough in sympathy with the love of novelty to know what is wanted; and they would not supply it if they could, because they think that what is coincides, in its main scheme, with what ought to be. They may be ready to change the detail of many things, and even the spirit of a few things, but they are not ready to change the life of much—the essence of the whole. As we all know, such has been the case for the forty years last past. The Liberals have had a monopoly of power because they had an incessant supply of new laws, which they were ready to propose, which the Tories were not ready to propose, and which the nation wanted. And now the main question comes, Is this supply exhausted or is it not? Have the Liberals any new great measures which they will pass, which the Conservatives will not pass, which the nation will keep them in power in order to pass?
Such measures must fulfil three conditions: first, they must be such as will interest mankind; secondly, they must be such as to secure the support of men of sense; thirdly, they must be such as the Conservatives will not propose. The second condition is as important as either. Though in form the political constitution of this country approaches much more nearly than it did to a democracy, as yet it makes almost no approach to a democracy in spirit. The influence of education, wealth and rank are still enormous; it is at present of no use to propose taking measures which the mass of people might like, if sensible people see that the people ought not to like them, for they will really have more bad effects than good ones.
In searching for such subjects, I think that we may omit altogether the economic and commercial subjects which have filled so much space in the public mind of late years. There is little more to do in them—at least, little in comparison with the much which has been done;—whether the income-tax shall be repealed or abolished, whether the tea duties shall be remitted or retained, are questions of much fiscal, and perhaps more social, importance. But the Conservative way of dealing with them is not likely to be very different from the Liberal way. The sensible men of both parties would, I believe, be glad to retain the income-tax, though they cannot emphatically say so, because it might not be popular at an election. Sensible men would be glad, too, I think, though they are not so unanimous about it, to keep a larger yearly surplus than we have been used to keep, and to apply that surplus to redeeming debt. But the sensible men of one party are about as much in favour of these plans as the sensible men of the other. Neither has a monopoly of them, nor, if either had, would they be of use for party purposes. They do not interest the many enough to gain the votes of the many. In the main, what one party would do on these questions the other would do also. There is no advertising measure which the Liberals can get hold of, and the Tories cannot.
It may be contended, indeed, that the old conflict which Mr. Cobden was so fond of may be revived—that the new Government may spend more money than the late Government, and a reduction of expenditure may be used as a good cry against them. And we cannot, of course, discuss this till we know what this Government spends, and still more how it spends it. But we do not believe that the cry will again be so efficient as it has been, except there be gross mismanagement or corruption. No doubt, with a certain lower class, such a cry will always be popular. If you address a large meeting of poor people, and tell them that it is reckless waste to spend ten millions on our navy, and that all which is wanted may be obtained much cheaper, of course they will cheer you, and agree with you. Ten millions is too great a sum for their imaginations to carry; they think it would buy up the whole universe. If you told them that it was too much to spend altogether, they would quite agree with you; they cannot imagine so much really being required for anything or everything. But among thinking men, used to figures, the cry for a reduced expenditure rather excites suspicion than wins support. They cannot but see that the expenditure of the country can hardly fail to increase as the population and the wealth of the country increase, and that as a rule it ought so to increase. When the work of Government augments, the cost of Government must be expected to augment also; if it does not so, either too much was spent before, or enough is not being spent now. In public affairs, as in private, it is quite possible that there should be an excessive economy. The old miser in Pope, who let his tenants die—“he could not build a wall”—has an obvious analogy in every sort of business. A growing community must, in nine cases out of ten, require a growing expenditure. And this country is more likely to require it, because our society is augmenting not only in size but in complexity. Even now it probably contains the finest mass of interweaved relations which have ever existed in the world, and every day adds both to their number and to their involution. Such a nation takes more mind to govern it than a simple nation, and in “meal or in malt” mind must be paid for. Even the data to which that mind is to be applied are increasingly costly, and must be bought at an increasing price. Science is wanted to bring those data together, and on science much more must be spent for many years, than we have been in the habit of spending.
The country is quite willing to spend it and quite able. The Englishman individually is the most expensive animal on the face of the earth; and though he has learnt to babble a cant as to liking a cheap Government—it is a cant merely. I have heard a most experienced person say, “If you want a cheer in the House of Commons, make a speech on general economy; if you want to be beaten in a vote, propose a particular saving”. And this happens because in this matter, as in so many others, the practical instinct which guides Englishmen in the detail of life is far wiser than the general maxims which they have acquired, and in which they fancy they believe. When they see the question, as Lord Eldon used to say, “clothed in circumstances,” they detest the idea of a mean Government, and are quite ready to pay the cost of a dignified one. They are also quite able. There are of course countries in which the first duty of Government is to save every sixpence which can be saved. If at this moment the Government of Marshal MacMahon should spend any important sum which could be avoided, it would deserve the greatest censure. The people of France are so heavily taxed, and the inevitable taxes so much cripple trade, that any additional burden becomes a grave evil. But England is not in that position. No class here is oppressed by our taxes, and many classes could well bear to pay more than they do. The difference in cost between a mean Government and a dignified Government, between a stingy Government and a liberal Government, is one which the English nation is well able to pay, and one which rightly guided it would be eager to pay.1
[1 ] This fragment was written in 1874 and found among Mr. Bagehot’s papers after his death. It was published later by Mr. John Morley in the Fortnightly Review, and although there was a breakdown from 1880 to 1886, the long Conservative Government of Lord Salisbury and Mr. Balfour prove the accuracy of Mr. Bagehot’s forecast.—E. Bagehot.
[1 ] [This essay was never concluded. Mr. Bagehot proposed to discuss in it whether either a new Parliamentary Reform, a great Church Reform, or a great Land Reform would have enough hold on the people to keep the Liberal party in power, solely with a view to carry any one of these measures. But his judgment was clearly unfavourable to the popularity of any of these with men of sense, and his conclusion evidently was that unless the Conservative party should lose office by their inaptitude for administrative duties, a long reign of Conservatives was to be expected.—Editor of the Fortnightly Review.]