Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE QUARTERLY REVIEW ON THE LESSONS OF THE WAR. ( From The Economist, 28 th January, 1871.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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THE “QUARTERLY REVIEW” ON THE LESSONS OF THE WAR. ( From “ The Economist, ” 28 th January, 1871.) - 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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THE “QUARTERLY REVIEW” ON THE LESSONS OF THE WAR.
TheQuarterly Review, in an article of considerable force, though not, perhaps, of any great width of view, on the political lessons of the war,—an article attributed by rumour to a distinguished Member of the Opposition in the House of Lords,—comments with something like bitterness on the vacillations of the popular mind in relation to our national defences, declaring it to be “the fault of our English system, that, with a dynasty absolutely secure, it artificially imitates the vices of a throne mined by revolution and conscious of hourly danger”. The Reviewer shows that it was the instability of the French Executive, the necessity for looking to the most opposite points of the political compass for aid, for fomenting the love of glory on the one hand, for respecting the hatred of a conscription on the other—the necessity for conciliating the army, which, as was supposed at least, could only be done by relaxing its discipline, on the one hand, and the equally strong necessity for strengthening it, which could only be done by improving its discipline to the utmost on the other hand,—which led to the frightful collapse of the French military system. The Emperor had yielded to the Corps Legislatif here, and to the peasantry there. He had made things comfortable for the army, and he had made the army comfortable to the country; and the net result was that first the army failed him disgracefully, and then the country. After pointing this out with a good deal of brilliancy, and pointing out also how the stability of the Prussian throne, which enabled the Hohenzollerns to set public opinion on the same subject at defiance, had given Prussia the fruits of a uniform and coherent military policy of a long series of years, never modified in deference to any popular pressure, the Reviewer goes on to assert that England, so far at least as our military policy is concerned, stands in precisely the position, not of Prussia, but of France. The administration of the War Office is always changing. Every Minister, in succession, has his own crotchets as to what will ensure efficiency; and every Cabinet, in turn, is subjected to a Parliamentary pressure of variable direction and equally variable intensity. Except in times of spasmodic alarm, reductions of expenditure are always popular; and times of spasmodic alarm come at intervals far too rare, and are continued for a period far too short, to mend the matter, if they do not absolutely make it worse. Hence the Quarterly Reviewer finds that the method of our military policy is far more like the incoherence of France than the steady coherence of Prussia, and predicts for us, whenever tried, a collapse of the same fatal kind. Our political machinery, he says, “unrivalled as an instrument of enfeebling the arm of Government, and therefore hindering an excess of executive interference, has prevented the oppressions into which the zeal of continental bureaus constantly betrays them. It satisfies the most imperious want of a free people, which is to be let alone. It is not ineffective for purposes of mere destruction, especially when it is driven by the forces of sectarian animosity. But in matters where it is necessary that Government should govern and create, it lamentably breaks down. All the virtues that are attributed to it,—in many respects justly, for purposes of peace, make it helpless for purposes of war.”
We do not, on the whole, dissent very materially from this criticism. The Reviewer may be slightly caricaturing the incoherence of public opinion when he describes “the decisions of the House of Commons upon the question who is to rule the country,” as “something between a judgment and a scramble”; but as regards military matters at least, this is not a bad description of what the policy of the House of Commons has been. Nor is it conceivable that while the military policy of the House of Commons is decided by “something between a judgment and a scramble,” the successive War-Ministers are likely to save us from the results of our own flightiness of purpose. Popular Government means, and as we suppose ought to mean, a Government which, for good and for evil, savours of all the good qualities and all the bad qualities of the people. It would not be well, but the reverse, if on subjects on which we are ignorant and careless, we were to be saved from the natural results of that ignorance and carelessness. The Quarterly Reviewer is perfectly right in saying that the English people and the English House of Commons have no steady military policy, and that as a consequence we are, and while it is so, always must be, unprepared for any great and sudden military effort.
But when the Reviewer assumes, as we think he does, that nothing can really remedy this mischief, except a change which will give us, in some form or other, a more permanent Executive, operating like the Presidential Government in the United States for instance, or the dynastic power of Princes like Hohenzollerns who refuse to surrender the army to the tender mercies of Parliaments, we cannot at all go with him. He seems to us to ignore the fact that military collapses happen as much to permanent Executives, which are not possessed with a special care and genius for military administration, as to changeable Executives. There is nothing to prove that the next, or next but one, President of the United States, will be much readier for a sudden war than was Mr. Buchanan. General Grant, who gained his Presidential chair by his success as a soldier, may be; but generals of genius and experience are not likely to be permanently resident at the White House. The military collapse of Austria in 1866 was not the collapse of an unstable Executive. The army of Austria had long been one of the great Imperial institutions, and yet it vanished before the Prussian arms even more quickly than the French army. The Russian military system had been most carefully matured and prepared by a ruler of real genius before the Crimean War in 1853; and yet it was found quite unequal to the strain put upon it by very indifferent armies under very feeble commanders. The instability of the Executive of a State is not by any means the sole cause of military incompetence. You may have a dynasty as completely masters of the situation as the Hohenzollerns, and as fond of dabbling in military matters, and yet as incompetent or as unsuccessful as Napoleon III. No doubt a variable mind in military affairs is a sure cause of failure; but a well-preserved tradition is not only not a sure cause of success, but may be—if the military tradition so preserved is not wise and well adapted to the exigencies of the people—as sure a cause of failure as variability of mind itself. The remedy for ignorance and incoherence of purpose is instruction. And we maintain that if you can but once get a people well instructed in what they want, there is far less danger of a feeble and ignorant policy on military matters, or any others, than there is from a dynastic tradition, however well preserved. When, therefore, the Reviewer proposes somewhat faintly, and as if he were half afraid of his own suggestion, that the military estimates might be voted for a term of years in order to escape the incoherence of popular feeling, we entirely object to his remedy. The people must learn what they really want, and must learn to understand the importance of keeping to a principle when once they have adopted it. The best way to teach them this is to turn their attention constantly to the subject. If, with an instructed people, and a House of Commons improved, as we may fairly hope that it will be improved when it comes to be chosen by an instructed people, we cannot ensure a certain amount of clear and constant purpose in military matters, as we can in domestic matters, we do not know any conceivable device by which such clearness and constancy of purpose can really be obtained. There was a time when the English people understood little or nothing about commercial and financial policy. We do not say but that that time may come again, if the children of the new electors are not speedily taught the elements of clear notions on these subjects. But at least for a considerable term of years we have had a House of Commons clearly knowing its own mind on this subject, and neither ignorant nor fickle. The same may be said of the general drift of our criminal legislation; and we do not at all see why the same should not be true of our Army and Navy system. There is at least far more chance of getting a coherent system out of popular knowledge, than there is out of bureaucratic independence. Popular intelligence is not easily cultivated, but so far as it is attained it is a sure guarantee against both folly and fickleness. Bureaucratic independence is no guarantee at all against the former; and while you have no safety as to the bureaucratic successions, it is no considerable guarantee against the latter. The military estimates might be voted for six years, and the only result be that all would be misspent, while at the end of the six years the people would know far less about the matter than before, and the nation be more helpless. It seems to us idle to propose any remedy for the misgovernment of a self-governed people, except the better information of the governing body—that is, of the public itself.