Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE GOVERNMENT AND THE DISSENTERS. ( From The Economist, 29 th March, 1873.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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THE GOVERNMENT AND THE DISSENTERS. ( From “ The Economist, ” 29 th March, 1873.) - 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 GOVERNMENT AND THE DISSENTERS.
A step of some importance was taken towards the healing of the breach between the Government and the Dissenters, by the large vote on Mr. Osborne Morgan’s Burial Bill, which passed the second reading by a majority of 63. Mr. Disraeli has apparently given up the policy after which, in his political novels, he has so often shown a hankering, of winning over the Wesleyans to his side. Nothing could be harder or less conciliating than his tone towards the whole body of Dissenters on Wednesday afternoon. He classed them altogether, and he set the Church of England over against them rather as a distinct sect which had acquired a right to the fabrics and churchyards of England through the negligence and laches of the Dissenters and their refusal to pay church-rates, than as still claiming in any sense to be a national Church, and eager therefore to offer to all English citizens their proper privileges as at least potential members of that Church. This line of Mr. Disraeli’s was evidently carefully considered, and intended to reassure his own followers of his staunch Church Conservatism. Nay, he went further, and gave the Dissenters a broad hint that they had lost a good deal of political power, which they wielded under the Reform Bill of 1832, since he gathered the poorer householders into the Electorate in 1867. They were no longer so powerful in the constituencies as they had been, he said—and this was his doing. Unless they allied themselves with the Church, and turned their common forces against the fashionable scepticism, they would find themselves but a weak political body in future. This was a significant attitude to take up, and was no doubt intended to soothe the grave distrust which Mr. Disraeli’s followers feel of his professed attachment to the Church of England. He believed that by thus “burning his ships,” and telling the Dissenters openly that he had undermined their power and meant to defy them, he would regain the confidence of some of his own discontented adherents.
This attitude of Mr. Disraeli’s makes the opportunity for a hearty reconciliation between the Government and the Dissenters particularly promising. And in view of a dissolution, which, whether it happens this year or next, cannot be long deferred, this reconciliation is plainly most desirable. The Nonconformists have now seen that their alliance is not only not courted by the Tories, but is declined by anticipation. Whoever gives them anything, the Tories will not. They know, moreover, that a real Tory success with the constituencies is, if not very probable, yet by no means off the cards. Whether the Tories fail or not in the next appeal to the country, it is tolerably certain that they will not fail in greatly diminishing the great Liberal majority. The apparent ill-success of Mr. Gladstone’s great Irish policy in conciliating Ireland, the alarm produced by the chronic troubles in France, and the still worse chronic troubles in Spain, above all, the fright which the great succession of strikes has given to every small tradesman and every small farmer in England, have all tended to diminish for a while the prestige of Liberal policy, and to carry a great many doubtful minds into the timid Conservative camp. If then the Dissenters really want a Liberal policy, this is not the time to desert their party. If they do, they may very well contrive to bring in a Conservative Government which, if it is prudent, will manage to rule the country for seven years to come. If the Dissenters desert Mr. Gladstone at the next dissolution, they will not only not obtain from the Tories the Education and Church policy they desire, but they will obtain from them a very different policy indeed, and one vastly more hostile to their own interests than any policy which even their prepossession can ascribe to the present Government.
On the other hand we have always maintained that the Government on their part should do what they can to satisfy their Dissenting supporters that their political claims are regarded as claims of a very high kind, the neglect of which might fairly be resented on the part of a political body so active and strenuous for Liberal statesmen as they have been. The conduct of the Government, in relation to the Burial Bill, will give them some assurance of this. But they may fairly claim something more, and, in relation to the Education Act, it is only reasonable to grant something more. However small the scruple may seem to be, which the Dissenters have raised on the subject of the 25th clause of that Act, it may be admitted at once that it is not the only cause of offence the Act has given them. Very naturally they hoped that the Education Act would do a great deal to destroy the caste-advantages which the Church enjoys in the country. And unquestionably, owing no doubt to the praiseworthy zeal of Churchmen and also to their great advantages over the Dissenters in wealth, it has not had that effect, but, in the country districts at least, the opposite effect. We do not say and do not think that the Government can fairly be blamed for this. But it must be admitted that it is a fair cause of disappointment to the Dissenters, and that they are therefore at least very excusable for criticising with more jealousy these minor provisions of the Education Act which tend in the same direction, and which are not of the essence of the Act, than they would be if the effect of the Act had not in country districts been distinctly favourable to the power of the Church. We say therefore that as regards the clause which enables School Boards to devote a (certainly not very large) proportion of the Education rate to paying the fees of pauper children in denominational schools, a clause to which it is quite conceivable that a very scrupulously controversial conscience might feel serious moral objection, there is a very strong prima facie case for relief. It is, as far as it goes, very much in the nature of a minute church and chapel rate; and a good deal of the money payable under this clause to denominational schools is exceedingly likely, considering the poverty of the Irish colonies in our great towns, to go to Roman Catholic schools, which are a special object of dread to Protestant consciences. Here then is a clear case for concession. The Government have promised a Bill to amend the Education Act, and we venture to express our hope that it will treat the Dissenters fairly if not generously; and will not take any account of the hostility likely to be created on the Tory side of the House. We do not think that the efficient education of the children should be sacrificed to any party exigences, but there are, no doubt, ways of satisfying the scrupulous Dissenting consciences, in which there would be no danger that the interests of the children would suffer. We are aware that the Dissenters also demand the extension of compulsion and of School Boards to all the rural districts. We are by no means clear that this is possible without creating a very great prejudice against education in the rural districts where the poverty is great and the dread of rates even greater. But however this may be—and on this point the Dissenters must be prepared to be reasonable, if they are satisfied on the other issues, more especially their own—we are quite sure that the Education Department could find more than one remedy for the grievance now contained in the twenty-fifth clause, and more than one remedy which would be perfectly satisfactory. And if it can be found, it should. It would be a very great misfortune to the country if the divisions among the Liberals prove to be so great at the next elections, that the Conservatives may gain the opportunity for which they are hoping to arrest the progress of society, and that gradual but steady inroad on mischievous traditions which has now gone on almost uninterruptedly for forty years. But Mr. Disraeli’s boast that he has got down to a class in the electorate which prefers old abuses to new remedies is probably not by any means an idle boast; and therefore it becomes all good Liberals to be on their guard and act with harmony as well as vigour.