Front Page Titles (by Subject) NOT A MIDDLE PARTY BUT A MIDDLE GOVERNMENT. ( From The Economist, 17 th January, 1874.) - 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.
NOT A MIDDLE PARTY BUT A MIDDLE GOVERNMENT. ( From “ The Economist, ” 17 th January, 1874.) - 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.
NOT A MIDDLE PARTY BUT A MIDDLE GOVERNMENT.
Mr. Grant Duff wisely cautioned his hearers at Elgin against believing that a middle party—a party neither Conservative nor Liberal—could be formed in Parliament. He showed that moderate Liberals—one of whom he specially named, and whose mind he analysed—could never belong to such a new party, and could never desert their old one. He might have said the same of the moderate Conservatives; neither in practice would they ever think of such a thing, however often theorists might advise them to do so. The conclusive argument against it is one which superficial theorists, who judge of Parliamentary Government by looking only at Parliament itself, are very apt to overlook. The difficulty is not so much with the House of Commons as with those from whom that House emanates. The constituencies would not hear of such a novelty. In each of them there are two rival electioneering organisations—two sets of antagonist lawyers—and it is only by getting a hold on one of these that any candidate can hope to be elected. Each of these organisations asks of a candidate, in the first place,—Are you for me or against me? And to this plain question it requires an equally plain answer. In London society the idea of a middle party can be understood; but in the country, in the constituencies which are the ultimate source of power, it would be an unintelligible nondescript. It would be only thought to be a fine name for a “cave”; for a union of discontented men who wished to act together.
But though a middle party is impossible, a middle Government—a Government which represents the extreme of neither party, but the common element between the two parties—is inevitable. Neither party, for a long time at least, will be able to govern in the spirit, or according to the wishes, of its extreme supporters: a Conservative Government will not be such as Mr. Newdegate would wish; a Liberal one must be far short of what Mr. Trevelyan or Sir Charles Dilke would prefer. Any extreme Government would be plainly contrary to the wishes of the nation. On many points it is not easy to say what is the state of feeling of the country; but so much as this at least is evident, it is not violently excited any way. It is not reactionary, it would not undo the work of the Liberals as strong old Tories wish; it is not “advanced Radical,” it would not go on at once to new and enormous changes. The spirit of the country is quiet but reasonable; indisposed to sweeping innovations, and equally indisposed to keeping, in the old Tory way, everything which is because it is. The moderate members of both parties represent this spirit very fairly. At a recent election a poor voter is reported to have said that both candidates were very nice gentlemen, but that, for his part, he could not see much difference between them; and this is the simple truth. Between such a Conservatism as Lord Derby’s and such a Liberalism as Mr. Cardwell’s, who can say that there is any difference much worth mentioning? Though in our politics these “middle men” cannot set up a party of their own, they can at present decisively enjoin their will on both parties.
There is nothing new in such a state of politics. Lord Palmerston’s administrations—his second one particularly—were aggravated instances of the type. Lord Palmerston belonged to a different generation; he had outlived his political contemporaries, and ruled over a race who might have been his children or grandchildren. He had no sympathy with any new proposal; to many of those which his followers most urged he had an eager antipathy. We do not expect to return to a Government with such a spirit as this; indeed, that spirit was never unmixed, even in Lord Palmerston’s second Government there were Mr. Gladstone’s great budgets which effectually broke the monotony and embodied many innovations. But we are confident that we are returning to some similar Government, to some example more or less mild of the same species. Such Governments are, indeed, the normal and natural Governments of the English people; they embody our particular characteristics—the loathing for extremes and the love of moderation. By stress of events we may occasionally be turned into eager innovators, as at the time of the Reform Act of 1832; and occasionally into bigoted Tories, as for some years after the first French Revolution, but usually we are neither “cold nor hot”. We are equally unwilling either to change very much or to change nothing.
Which party should hold office in such a state of politics cannot be easily decided beforehand. The causes which determine between the two vary with the circumstances of the hour, and these cannot be foreseen. It is evident that the Conservatives have a preliminary advantage for there is no great change desired; but this may be counteracted by other causes, as it was all through Lord Palmerston’s time. A great pre-eminence of ability on the Liberal side, accompanied by a tried reputation for extreme moderation, may turn the scale. Experience seems to show, however, that, in the long run, chronic causes prevail over intermittent ones. That of the last century is intricate and not easy to bring out, because at that time the favour of the Sovereign—a permanent influence while the same king was on the throne—still counted for much. But of late years it is certain that for some forty years after 1792-93—the period when Mr. Pitt’s Ministry became Tory—to 1832, the Conservatives were continuously in power, with only one slight break; and that for the next forty years, from 1832 to the present time, the Liberals have been continuously in power, with very slight intermissions. The party which suits the nation best tends on that account to be in office, and every hour that it is there tends to keep it there, for the possession of power teaches a party how to use power, and the long non-possession of it makes one raw and awkward in the handling of it. A deficiency of official skill was a perpetual reproach to the Whigs about 1832, as a similar deficiency is to the Tories now.
The retention of office by the Liberals for the visible future seems a good deal to depend on its retention for the moment. If they once let the Conservatives into office it will not be easy to turn them out again; at least, there is no measure, such as the Reform Bill used to be, which the nation wishes—nominally or really—but which Conservatives will not accept, and on which the Liberals can unite to displace them. The only changes in that direction now proposed are the identification of the county with the town franchise, and the equalisation, more or less near, of the electoral districts. And these, after some degree of coy reluctance, the Conservatives will probably be ready to “consider” and accept. Their effect would be very favourable to the Conservatives, for it would strengthen the voting force of the rural population, which is Conservative, and weaken that of the urban, which may be Liberal. A political party rarely refuses to accept from its adversaries a Shibboleth which will be beneficial to it as well as injurious to them. A measure on which to turn the Tories out of office, if they are once let in, will nowadays not be found easily.
We have endeavoured to put aside our own predilections for the time, and to sketch the chances of party politics as accurately and as fairly as we can. But there is one most cheerful consideration above party. After the great change of 1867—after the extension of the suffrage, and after the ballot—it might have been feared that we should be discussing questions far more dangerous and delicate. It was apprehended that the working classes would take all the decisions to themselves—would combine as a class and legislate for their class interests, or what they thought such. But as yet we see nothing of the sort. The most captivating thing which a candidate can say now is, that he is for the abolition of the income tax, which the working men have never paid and never can. The voters by household suffrage seem to act, from miscellaneous causes, which at times we cannot explain, much like the old £10 householders; they do not combine for their own ends or against the higher classes. In many respects the working of recent changes has not been beneficial. At no time, perhaps, were local influences so powerful, or petty ones, or the influence of money; at none was the difficulty so great of introducing mind into Parliament; but on the cardinal point, and that most feared of all, the effect of the new laws, as yet at least, is less than either friends or enemies expected. In the main things go on much as before. The predominance is as yet where it ought to be, in the hands of leisure, of property, and of intelligence; the poor and ignorant masses have not hitherto combined to displace them.