Front Page Titles (by Subject) QUIET REASONS FOR QUIET PEERS. ( From The Economist, 12 th June, 1869.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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QUIET REASONS FOR QUIET PEERS. ( From “ The Economist, ” 12 th June, 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.
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QUIET REASONS FOR QUIET PEERS.
The present crisis in the House of Lords is in one respect without a precedent. (Passing of the Irish Church Bill.) During the last thirty years they have many times been compelled to pass Bills which they would rather not have passed. But in each case they yielded to some one peer who then predominated, first to the Duke of Wellington, and then to Lord Lyndhurst. The repeal of the Corn Laws was mainly carried without a struggle in the House of Lords because the Duke of Wellington said it must be carried. Sir Erskine May—one of the most calm critics of our present politics—says that it is one of the principal defects of the House of Lords as now constituted that it is apt to yield so extreme a deference to single leaders. But be this as it may, no such deference to any single peer now exists. Lord Derby last year abandoned it, and Lord Cairns has not this year acquired it. Lord Derby, it is true, on this occasion has returned to some of his activity, but he has not retaken all his old ascendancy. A great influence such as that cannot be laid down and reassumed at will. Many thoughtful peers now say: “We had confidence in Lord Derby’s judgment while he was the responsible leader of a great party, but now we are not so sure. He tells us that in no event will he take office; that in no event can he take office. Amateur statesmen are always dangerous advisers, and Lord Derby is now an amateur statesman.” Many quiet peers who, thinking it best, have till now always acted as their leader said, have now to act on their own judgment, and unless we mistake the subject altogether the following considerations should decide them.
First. As we last week showed at length, the rejection of the Bill by the Lords will not prevent its passing immediately—within a few months or weeks. The very same Bill will be returned to the Lords, and then in one way or another it will be passed. Some speakers at public meetings have said that it was the duty of the House of Lords to disregard the momentary passion of the people. But there is no passion in the present case as yet. The verdict of the nation was given so calmly that another class of orators say that the nation “does not care”. But it will care about a month or so hence if the Bill is rejected. The issue then will be—shall two or three hundred peers do as they like, or by far the greater part of the nation do as it likes? No one can doubt what the decision of large meetings in great cities will be upon such a question. They will be asked, “Will you have your way, or shall a few noblemen have theirs?” They would march to London (according to the old saying) to have their own way.
Secondly. As it now appears, the Bill cannot be rejected by a very large majority. The better probability is that the majority will be very small. The decision lies with so many peers, of whom so little is known, and who have so rarely acted for themselves, that we do not profess to be able to compute numbers. Still some say, some Conservatives say, the majority is to be only ten; and suppose it were twice or three times—granted it were twenty or thirty—how absurd would the result be. The country would be asked to yield not to the overwhelming majority of the Lords, but to an inconsiderable fraction of that House. A popular orator would say, “On a single bench in this vast meeting, there are as many people as this whole majority, and would this meeting by itself consent to be ruled by the persons on a single bench? And if this meeting could not be ruled, how should the country be so ruled?” To suppose that twenty or thirty noblemen can rule the English nation would be ridiculous, and above all things an aristocracy must not be ridiculous. Indeed it will not long be so; by its inherent sensibility it will give in. And therefore now that the only practical alternatives are the second reading of the Bill and its rejection by a small majority, we cannot imagine that it will be in fact rejected.
Thirdly. What many conscientious peers think most material—if the House of Lords once rejects the Bill it can never alter it hereafter. When the country is once agitated, when the Bill is a second time presented, their power is gone. The old cry, “The Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill”—such is the nature of appeals to the people. You must put a great issue to them as it stands. You cannot specially plead upon it or divide it. When they decide it they decide it as a whole. No practical politician can doubt that if the Irish Church Bill is rejected in June, the same Bill will be again before the Lords in August or October, or before the year is out, and that then the nation will not have it tampered with. They will say it is “our Bill and we will have it”. But at present the Lords have great power of alteration. The Bill contains a thousand details, and each one of these may be changed. Granting that the Irish Church be disestablished and be disendowed, the mode of both and the degree of the latter may be discussed. If the Lords throw on the Ministry the burden and the responsibility of agreeing or rejecting alterations of this clause and that clause, the task of those leaders will be painful and heavy, for they will be anxious for peace’ sake to concede much, and indeed anxious from selfish motives too, since they cannot rely on the national support on details which the nation does not know or heed, and because there is a taste for compromise in England that is most apt to upset any Ministry which asks for “all or nothing”. To reject this Bill is to ensure its passing as it is, and to prevent its being changed as its rejectors would prefer.
Fourthly. By such a rejection questions must be raised as to the House of Lords, which it is easy to ask and hard to answer. On paper a philosopher may prove that hereditary rank is a good thing (and we quite think it has been so in England, and is still); but at a big meeting it is not easy to prove the proposition to a number of people without rank. The contrary arguments are very plain. Why should a person who has done nothing to deserve eminence, who has only “taken the trouble to be born,” whose ancestors may or may not have been meritorious, but who does not even say that he is himself meritorious, who is only the heir of an heir, the “tenth transmitter of a foolish face”;—why should such a person (and in matter of fact such persons are the mass of every aristocracy) be selected, not only for honour, but for responsibility, for the discharge of duties affecting millions, and requiring for their good discharge real ability? If the question comes to be ever plainly and practically discussed, you will never convince any nation that it ought to establish an aristocracy. The merits of it are so hidden, and the objections so very strong and plain, that the mass-vote of mankind must always be against it. An hereditary legislature exists because it exists and is accepted; but it will perish if the common mass of men are set to inquire into it, to discuss it, and vote on it as they themselves wish. The prestige of a privileged order is like the credit of a bank: if you do but discuss whether a bank is bad or good the bank will stop, and so of an aristocracy: if you have to prove that it ought to be obeyed, it will not be obeyed.
Lastly. This rejection will throw the present power and the management of this controversy into the very last hands in which the rejectors could wish to see it. There are “no moderate people” it is said “in a revolution,” and though the rejection will not bring on a revolution, it will cause a great crisis in which loud voices only can be heard, and where all half-and-half opinions will come to an end. In a word, if the quiet peers, with whom the power is, want to help Mr. Bright, they will reject the Bill, for then his words will again move multitudes and his genius be supreme, for it is a genius that suits a storm, and he will have the power to settle what shall happen. But now the quiet peers have much power themselves, and we cannot think they will be so infatuated as to transfer it to their oldest, their strongest, and most dangerous opponents.