Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE PREMIERSHIP. ( From The Economist, 2 nd January, 1875.) - 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 PREMIERSHIP. ( From “ The Economist, ” 2 nd January, 1875.) - 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.
Every one must rejoice at the authoritative announcement by Sir Stafford Northcote that Mr. Disraeli was very much better, and that in consequence he would be able to begin the Session with his usual spirit. Literary men take an especial interest in the matter; Mr. Disraeli is the one Premier of England who has been distinctively and characteristically a literary man. Others may have written books, but they did not begin by writing books, and they did not put the best of themselves into their books; but Mr. Disraeli was an author before he was anything else, and there is a volatile and acute essence in his best writings which will enable posterity to estimate, perhaps, his most characteristic quality. Politics apart, all literary men have a secret wish that the premiership of their one representative shall be long. But these wishes must not blind us to plain facts. There is no doubt that Mr. Disraeli’s late attack was long and trying; that it may not improbably be succeeded by another; that last session he was often not vigorous; that instead of being strengthened by an autumn holiday he was weakened by an autumn illness. The case is the more serious because Mr. Disraeli’s life has not been spent in harness, and because office and its incessant cares are new to him. He has always been an observing and thinking, and, in his way, an industrious man. But his work has been for the most part optional work, not involving much anxiety; he has not been hardened by the habit of years to the daily toil of necessary action; he has known less than most politicians of what Lord Macaulay called “the grinding, the invidious, the closely-watched slavery, which is marked by the name of power”.
We must consider what the work of the Premier is. The most authentic description (though by no means a complete one) was that given by Sir R. Peel in 1850: “Take the case of the Prime Minister. You must presume that he reads every important despatch from every foreign Court. He cannot consult with the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and exercise the influence which he ought to have with respect to the conduct of foreign affairs, unless he be master of everything of real importance passing in that department. It is the same with respect to other departments, India, for instance; how can the Prime Minister be able to judge of the course of policy with regard to India unless he be cognisant of all the current important correspondence? In the case of Ireland and the Home Department, it is the same. Then the Prime Minister has the patronage of the Crown to exercise, which you say, and justly say, is of so much importance and of such value; he has to make inquiries into the qualifications of the persons who are candidates; he has to conduct the whole of the communications with the Sovereign; he has to write, probably with his own hand, the letters in reply to all persons of station who address themselves to him; he has to receive deputations on public business; during the sitting of Parliament he is expected to attend six or seven hours a day, while Parliament is sitting, for four or five days in the week; at least, he is blamed if he is absent.”
And though in some respects the work of a Prime Minister has perhaps been somewhat altered since then, probably now he would scarcely be expected to overlook—so much as Sir R. Peel thought necessary—such a department as India. But on the whole his work has rather increased than diminished. Sir R. Peel explained that it had increased between 1830 and 1850. He was asked by Cobden: “You alluded to the increased labour to which the Ministers are subject at the present time, as compared with the middle and end of the last century, but do you not think that in all classes of the community there is much more active and continuous labour in all pursuits than there was at that time?” And he answers: “There probably is, but that activity reacts, I think, upon the duties of the Minister; that tendency to increased labour throughout all classes adds to the public business; it would be important that the Committee should ascertain the progressive increase of business in each department, caused by a combination of many circumstances. Probably the penny post has had its influence. There is a greater disposition to write to Ministers; to send suggestions; and it is very useful that there should be that free voluntary communication upon all matters of public concern; but it greatly increases the business of the public offices.”
And this is a process which has gone on augmenting from 1850 till now, till it must make the miscellaneous work of a Prime Minister most teasing and vexing. And independently of that, and considering only the principal points, if we consider what it must be to lead the House of Commons; to consult with, and often control, colleagues; to be chairman of the Cabinet; to compose the quarrels of the Cabinet; to write to the Queen in the careful, delicate way necessary in dealing with a superior; to dispense the most critical patronage; to form some kind of idea of the legislative plans proposed and contemplated—we shall wonder how any man can be equal to so much. And even this is scarcely all, for the Prime Minister is at the head of our business, and, like every head of a business, he ought to have mind in reserve. He must be able to take a fresh view of new contingencies, and keep an animated curiosity as to coming events. If he suffer himself to be involved in minutiæ, some great change in the world, some Franco-German war, may break out, like a thief in the night, and if he has no elastic thought and no spare energy, he may make the worst errors. A great Premier must add the vivacity of an idle man to the assiduity of a very laborious one.
We cannot but doubt how long Mr. Disraeli’s frame can stand such fatigues as these. The strongest man of business might well shrink from them; and he has never been a man of business, and is not now strong. There are, undoubtedly, those who say, “Oh, you need not mind, Dizzy takes things very easily. He will pull along very well.” But we do not believe that Mr. Disraeli would neglect any matter which he considered of national importance. In his way he was a singularly conscientious leader of Opposition. No doubt there is much of Parliamentary life which he regards as a mere game, which he thinks may go anyhow without hurting the nation, and this part he manipulated as he thought best for his party and for himself. But on other parts of politics—on the larger issues of foreign policy especially—Mr. Disraeli has for many years shown an amount of self-restraint and of conscientiousness which men professedly much more scrupulous might well envy. During the very many years in which he led the Opposition, it would be hard to find even a single instance in which he hurtfully hampered Government on a great international question. And in many cases—particularly throughout the American civil war, and the other day on the Geneva arbitration—he not only did not harass the Government himself, when it would have been easy to do so, and when it would have been a party advantage, but also held back his followers, whose sympathies were eager and whose passions awakened. A statesman who has acted with so much conscience in the irresponsible regions of Opposition, is not likely to lose much of it in the more congenial region of office. We may be sure that there is much of the work of a Prime Minister which Mr. Disraeli would never neglect, and to which he would apply the whole of his discriminating observation and delicate thinking. There is, no doubt, a sort of cant of indifference about him, but so there was about Lord Melbourne, who is now known to have been a most thinking, careful Minister, and whose brain was found after death to show the signs usually indicative of habitual anxiety. So far from expecting Mr. Disraeli to shield himself from the higher responsibilities by constant neglect, we cannot but fear that he impairs a finely-adjusted intellect and a feeble frame by too much application to them.
What will be the effect on the Government of any calamity to its head it would be very premature to discuss. On the one side it may be said that the main part of his work is done; that Mr. Disraeli has “educated” his party; that the questions on which the moderate part of them differ from moderate Liberals are few and small; that there is no occasion and no room now for the adroit tactics which he used to practice while his party was in a minority; that now that they are in a majority the time is come for a more plain and straightforward policy, which others may be as well able as he would be to practice, and more willing. But, on the other hand, without Mr. Disraeli this Ministry, it has been justly said, would be “Quarter Sessions all over”. All the other leaders of the Ministry (Lord Cairns excepted) belong exactly to the class from whom chairmen of Quarter Sessions are taken, and many of them have been such. But this class, though a most respectable, is by no means the quickest, the keenest, or the most experienced in business to be found in English society; and it is a serious thing to commit the fate of the country to a Cabinet composed of them and them only. There is known, too, to be a part of the Cabinet not indisposed to return to some old Tory maxims which the country would not endure for a moment. The Conservative party have, too, been out of office so much for so many years that we really cannot say of its leaders whether they have the capacity and the courage required for great affairs. We may well wish for the health of Mr. Disraeli, for when he goes we shall be governed by an “unknown quantity’.