Front Page Titles (by Subject) POLITICS AS A PROFESSION. ( From The Economist, 17 th June, 1865.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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POLITICS AS A PROFESSION. ( From “ The Economist, ” 17 th June, 1865.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
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. 9.
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POLITICS AS A PROFESSION.
Mr. Gladstone opened a very grave question the other day when, defending his son’s candidature at Chester, he maintained that statesmanship, like every serious calling to which men devote themselves, was a profession, and that it has this in common with all other professions—that no man can expect to attain high eminence or great success in it unless he enters it while young, and gives himself up to it pretty exclusively. At a moment when the subject of Parliamentary Reform is about to be mooted on a hundred hustings by men who have never given any serious thoughts to its many complications and its momentous consequences, it will not be amiss to consider this one of the several difficulties which lie ahead of us in the course of action in which so many zealous politicians are anxious to embark the country, and which many more have come to regard as inevitable, even if not desirable.
Mr. Gladstone is perfectly right: Statesmanship—political business—is a profession which a man must learn while young, and to which he must serve a practical apprenticeship; and in England the House of Commons is the only school for acquiring the necessary skill, aptitude, and knowledge. Those who enter in middle life may be admirable senators, sagacious legislators, competent checks upon an extravagant or an interfering Government, excellent representatives of the popular feeling,—but they will scarcely ever become Ministers, nor would they be very successful and capable ministers if they did. There are many reasons why this should be so. Office requires much drudgery and routine training,—and men of five-and-forty do not like this. They do not want to go to school at their time of life. Moreover, they would half despise inferior posts, and yet could scarcely, unless in very exceptional cases indeed, aspire to superior ones. If they have attained wealth—and most men who enter Parliament late in life have done so, and go into Parliament principally because they have done so—the emoluments of office are no object to them, and its labour would be a nuisance to them, while their vanity would be scarcely flattered by a position which confers little real power, and makes them mere Government subordinates. If they have attained eminence, political or other, they cannot accept subordinate posts without compromising at once their opinions and their dignity; and it is only in the very rarest cases that a seat in the Cabinet can or would be offered to them,—while it is still more rare that it would be advisable either for themselves or for the country that they should accept it. Mr. Bright and Mr. Cobden, and perhaps Mr. Forster, are the only names that now occur to us, of politicians who did not enter Parliament young and served no apprenticeship to political business, who appeared naturally fitted for and entitled to claim Ministerial position; and none of these gentlemen could well have taken subordinate positions which would involve to a great degree silence and self-abnegation;—while the extreme opinions of two at least of them (to say nothing of rigidity of character and habits) would place Cabinet office beyond their reach, at all events in the first instance. Mr. Cobden is about the only exception that could be pointed to; and he was not offered a seat in the Cabinet till so late in life that his Ministerial career must have been short, and might not have been efficient. We cannot at this moment remember a single instance of any British Minister of the least note who did not enter Parliament at an early age, and devote himself to politics as a profession,—unless, indeed, Mr. Lowe and Mr. Stansfeld may be regarded as instances;—and certainly they are scarcely exceptions which could be quoted to disprove the rule.
Now, it is of the greatest consequence to the country that we should have a secure provision for a constant and adequate supply of embryo statesmen, of future Ministers. Parliament with us is not merely a legislative body;—it is the body out of which exclusively our Executive Government is chosen,—and it is not well, and indeed cannot be permitted, that the Government should be formed from the Upper House only, or chiefly. We must have a supply of young Commoners who are qualified, and who aspire, to become Ministers and in time Cabinet Ministers. How is this supply to be provided? In former times, as we know, it was provided mainly by the small boroughs. Young men of great families or aristocratic connections often found seats for counties, and do so still, and will always do so. But young men of promise, of early ambition, of superior powers, of independent means, who wished to devote themselves to political life and felt within them the ability to rise to eminence, had seldom much difficulty in obtaining seats for small or close boroughs. While sitting for these, they had opportunities of showing their genius and winning their spurs, and, having once made themselves a name, they were pretty sure of a permanent seat, and were often afterwards asked to represent large cities. But large cities never chose them in the first instance—unless, indeed, they chanced to have great local influence and connection. It would, we believe, be impossible to point to a single name of political and Ministerial eminence who, not being an aristocrat or county magnate personally or by near connection, did not originally sit, and has not habitually or most frequently sat, for small boroughs. Close boroughs are all but extinct; small boroughs still remain in sufficient numbers to afford openings for some of the young men of whom future statesmen may be made; but unfortunately as a fact, these seats are generally secured either by the scions of some noble or quasi-noble family, or by men of mere wealth, or mercantile or railway influence. If, as most Parliamentary Reformers either demand or are prepared to concede, these small constituencies are to be swept away or largely reduced,—how are the class of young men of whom we are speaking, and whom we want for our future Ministers, to find entrance into Parliament—young men, that is, who have nothing to recommend them but talent, honesty, independent means, laudable ambition, and a resolution to devote themselves to the most honourable and arduous of all professions,—young men who are neither extreme Radicals, nor millionaires, nor younger sons of Peers or great Statesmen, nor members of mighty county families?
That is the problem—and it is no easy one to solve. Counties, as we know, will not return them,—nor will large towns. Large towns will often return Ministers of established fame—never embryo Ministers of mere promise. No actual—and with perhaps one exception, no possible Minister—ever entered Parliament for the first time for a great popular town constituency. Of eighty-one members who now sit for boroughs over 50,000 inhabitants, only eight are, or have been, or can be expected to be Ministers—and of these four are lawyers, and hold or have held mere legal office. Nothing can be more natural; no political fact can be expected to be so constant. There are three sorts of men whom large boroughs will elect. First, popular orators, holding advanced opinions, echoing and representing popular creeds, sympathising warmly with the masses, devoted to their interests, and supporting or submitting to their dictation. Mr. Bright, Mr. Forster, Mr. Stansfeld, will always be sure of seats for the great centres of industry, and it is well they should be; no fitter or abler representatives, and few more useful senators, could be found. But besides these, and in far larger numbers, will be found men who are chosen not for oratorical ability, or for any ability at all, but simply because they represent the radical opinions of the numerical majority.—Secondly, large boroughs will choose official statesmen of proved ability and settled eminence, who are liberal enough for most constituencies, and would reflect honour upon any. Thus Lord John Russell sat for London, Mr. Villiers for Wolverhampton, Sir H. Cairns for Belfast, Sir R. Collier for Plymouth, Sir C. Wood for Halifax, and Mr. Milner Gibson for Manchester and Ashton. But not one, we believe, of these gentlemen sat for those places to begin with, or if they did, it was the lawyers who had already made a name in another field.—Thirdly, and chiefly, and properly enough, great cities will return fellow-townsmen—men who have endeared themselves to those among whom they live, who have attained local estimation and local eminence by local services—who have grown wealthy by years of industry and influential by years of municipal attention. Thus Birkenhead returns Mr. Laird; Blackburn, Mr. Hornby and Mr. Pilkington; Oldham, Mr. Hibbert; Leeds, Mr. Baines; Nottingham, Mr. Paget; Liverpool, Mr. Horsfall and Mr. Ewart; Manchester, Mr. Turner and Mr. Bazley, and so on. This, too, is quite right, and desirable in a degree as well as natural. But all these men, by the very presumption of the eminence they have attained, and the wealth they have acquired, and the services they have rendered, must be men of mature age—untrained for ministerial life, and too old to begin such training.
The consequences are inevitable, and are already beginning to be obvious. As the older race of statesmen, who began their career in the days of close boroughs, are dying out, few of the same class are rising up to take their places; and the result is a marked tendency in each successive Cabinet to become more and more aristocratic. The members out of whom future Ministers are to be made belong in an ever-augmenting proportion to great county or great noble families; a larger and larger number of the Cabinet sit in the House of Lords, or are closely allied with it; of the present Whig Cabinet only three are unconnected Commoners, and of the probable Tory Cabinet scarcely more;—so that unless Reformers are very careful and foreseeing in their operations, unless they are vigilant and sagacious to provide substitutes for what they propose to destroy or change, measures which are devised in the popular interests and intended to give preponderance to popular views, may end in being aristocratic in their practical operation to a wholly unexpected degree. A Ministry composed of Peers and landed gentry, with a House of Commons composed of Radicals, Railway Directors, elderly local celebrities, and county magnates, is not exactly the combination which thoughtful and learned Liberals would most desire to bring about.