Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE USES OF SCOTCH LIBERALISM. ( From The Economist, 17 th April, 1869.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
Return to Title Page for The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
THE USES OF SCOTCH LIBERALISM. ( From “ The Economist, ” 17 th April, 1869.) - 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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
THE USES OF SCOTCH LIBERALISM.
It was no mere compliment which the Lord Advocate paid to his countrymen when he said on Saturday, at St. James’s Hall, that the infusion of the Scotch element into English political life was very serviceable to the Empire. Nothing can be more true, and it is most true when for the Empire itself we substitute the Liberal party of the Empire. That party in England, with some great merits, among which is moderation, has also some remarkable defects. It is apt to hold its creed in a limp, flaccid, nerveless way, which suggests that it has either never thought it out, or is afraid of the conclusions to which hard thinking would lead to—turns aside from obstacles which one step forward would bring down as if they were immovable. It cannot bear to be logical or decisive, and allows all sorts of objections, which it knows to be nonsensical, to impede, or, in many cases—as for example Army Reform—prevent its own advance. Even its creed itself it not clear as a creed should be,—is rather a kind of general impression based on traditions, prejudices, speeches, party feelings, and reverence for certain well-known leaders. English Liberalism is very rarely indeed prepared to say that such and such an abuse is bad, because opposed to such and such a Liberal principle, though when its leaders have told it that the abuse must be removed it will follow them very readily. The protracted existence of the Irish Church after it had been condemned by every man who knew what Liberalism was, is a case in point, and the same spirit is displayed in almost every department of ecclesiastical legislation. The party passes a Divorce Bill, for example, allowing remarriage, but allows the clergy to say that they will be no parties to carrying out the law; condemns Church rates, but allows them to remain legal as long as they are not collected by force; and while firmly convinced that every man ought to be compelled to teach his child, declines altogether to compel him. It denounces primogeniture, but lets Mr. Locke King’s Bill slide, and is inclined to regard the Bill for legalising marriage with a deceased wife’s sister as a right but insignificant measure which may as well be defeated as not. On the other hand, a few watch-words are retained, long after their meaning has been lost, and the party is quite startled to hear a Liberal resist a Press Bill, though only intended to legalise slander, or advocate limitations on the right of holding public meetings in crowded thoroughfares. It does not, in fact, try things by definite tests and then act on the result, but tolerates everything till it becomes too inconvenient to be borne any longer.
The Scotch Liberal, on the other hand, is essentially a rationalist, a man who looks directly from cause to effect, who reasons out his principles in his own mind, and once satisfied applies them unflinchingly. The perfervida vis of Scotchmen is really to a great extent what the French call having “the courage of their opinions,” and is the precise quality English Liberals are apt to want. It is right, say Scotchmen and Englishmen equally, to vote for a member independently, but only the Scotchman does it. The Englishman is as fearless perhaps, but the logic of the situation does not take such hold on him: he is not so impressed with the necessity of the action following the thought as the Scotchman is—is disposed to temporise and wait for a better opportunity. The English farmer is very wroth very often about ground game, but the Scotch farmer in the same mood insists that ground game shall go, keeps on insisting till he forces his members to adopt a Bill which is called a compromise but which will extinguish ground game. If the Scotch believed, as it happens from religious ideas they do not, that marriage with the deceased wife’s relatives was right, they would remove the restriction as illiberal even if no individual ever had been or would be aggrieved. In fact they act in politics as strong men act in the ordinary business of life, trust their own principles and apply them undoubtingly, so undoubtingly as to be called enthusiasts very often, when they are not enthusiastic at all. The English difficulties in dealing with criminals would, if Englishmen were Scotch, scarcely exist. They would make up their minds as to the policy to be pursued, and would pursue it steadily till violent crime had perceptibly diminished. In the same way a Scotch mob is exceedingly dangerous, because it will not rise till it knows what it wants, and will then go straight forward to that even if the path lies over human lives The infusion of this spirit, which may be described as sternness, but is really the result of a stronger habitual relation between thought and action, is precisely what English Liberalism wants to give it bone, and we wish that a larger infusion of it were possible—that Scotch members would take a more prominent share than they do in English business, would strive for more decided influence and weight in the House, would let their true views be more clearly manifested. They reason while the English are often only feeling, and the reason, if expressed, would often make of the feeling a more active and determined force. They would correct, too, those momentary fluctuations of opinion to which we are so liable here, but which in Scotland have scarcely any perceptible force, as witness the total failure of the No-Popery cry. Scotchmen dread Rome, but they had made up their minds that a Free Church could resist Rome better than an established one—and the cry fell dead.