Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE LEADERSHIP OF THE LIBERAL PARTY. ( From The Economist, 6 th February, 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 LEADERSHIP OF THE LIBERAL PARTY. ( From “ The Economist, ” 6 th February, 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.
THE LEADERSHIP OF THE LIBERAL PARTY.
Mr. Forster is acknowledged to be a man of sound judgment, and he never made a better use of it than when he withdrew from competing for the leadership of the Liberal party. If he had continued his candidature there would have been a contest. Several sorts of persons from several motives would not have served under him if they could avoid it. And a contest in a party is like a contest in a constituency, an element of permanent disunion. The organisation which supported the defeated candidate is a permanent nucleus of disaffection, which is always grumbling, which always says that anything which goes wrong might have been made to go right—that anything which goes right might have been made more right—that all misfortunes are faults—that all difficulties are either made or aggravated. At a serious crisis this “cave” of discontent is apt to become a scene of mutiny. A party leader chosen by contested election must always be in uncertainty as to the loyalty of his followers, for he knows that many of them would not have obeyed him if they could have helped it.
We do not profess to think that the choice which has been made is the best possible. Although we differ much in opinion from Mr. Forster, perhaps as much as any Liberals can or do, we cannot help feeling much interest in him. There must be something very remarkable in a man who, with no advantage of birth or fortune, with no particular advantage of education, without brilliant eloquence or graceful manners, has risen by solid sense and determined energy to be where he is. We do not remember any instance (and we doubt if there is an instance) in which a self-made man of business has risen so high in England, and he has done so mainly by the sagacity and honesty which succeed in business.
There is, however, one great advantage which we gain by Mr. Forster’s retirement. He is committed to a zealous advocacy of an immediate reduction of the county franchise. He spoke of it as if it would be a decided practical good, and mentioned that “great man Mr. Arch” as if his career were one which suggested no misgivings. But these are not the opinions of moderate Liberals. No one, indeed, who calls himself a Liberal—scarcely, indeed, any Conservative—accepts the Act of 1867 as final. It was a piece of chance legislation which nobody meant, and which the country did not understand. Such an accidental work will need much amendment, and probably one of those amendments will be the ultimate assimilation of the borough and county franchise. But sensible people in general think that imperfect as the Act of 1867 is, we should see how it works before we begin to alter it; that experience of the Act of 1832 taught us much which was unforeseen, and that probably the same will happen in this case; that doses of ignorance should not be administered too rapidly; that as the practical working of household suffrage in boroughs is still of dubious benefit, we should not extend it, in a hurry, and without correctives, to the counties, where the householders are still less competent. Mr. Forster was pledged to do this, but Lord Hartington is not so; and this is a principal reason why the latter has been preferred.
Lord Hartington’s selection is a good instance of one use of an aristocracy. It was justly said by Whately—“In one respect a rise by merit exposes a man to more envy than that by personal favour, through family connection, private friendship, etc. For in this latter case, the system itself of preferring private considerations to public, is chiefly blamed, but the individual thus advanced is regarded much in the same way as one who is born to an estate or to a title. But when any one is advanced on the score of desert and qualifications, the system is approved, but the individual is more envied, because his advancement is felt as an affront to all who think themselves or their own friends more worthy. ‘It is quite right to advance men of great merit; but by this rule, it is I, or my friend So-and-so that should have been preferred.’ When, on the other hand, a bishop or a minister appoints his own son or private friend to some office, every one else is left free to think ‘If it had gone by merit, I should have been the man’.” It is much easier for the Liberals of the front rank to serve under Lord Hartington than under any one else; and in the present peculiar circumstances it is a great gain, both to the party and to the country, to have a nobleman of sufficient sense and determination to be chosen leader.
From the choice of Lord Granville and of the Marquis of Hartington it would seem that the great “Whig families” are going again to aid the cause of progress in the same way in which they have twice in history aided it before. When Liberalism is popular it can prosper very well without aristocratic help. But in times of adversity it is different. The English people have little respect for maturers of theories and proposers of unaccepted schemes. At a period of transition, when the old formulas are extinct, and when new ideas must be thought out, in such a country as England the support of wealth and rank is invaluable, for they bring the visible signs which the world thinks most of to confirm the invisible ideas which it thinks least of. At the beginning of the century, Liberalism, which had been destroyed in this country by the excesses of the first French Revolution, gained time and strength to grow again under the shelter of the great “Whig houses”. Their lands and position gave “Liberalism” the “respectability” without which nothing thrives in England, and which was exactly what it could not give itself. And in the same way, in a far older world, the principles of 1688 were matured under the same influence.
It has seldom happened in English history that the scene has changed so suddenly and so completely as in the last two years. When Parliament opened in 1873 a Liberal Government was in office with a powerful majority and every sign of permanence; now a Conservative Government replaces it with a similar majority and similar prospects. And at that time we seemed to know where we stood. We had had much experience of the then existing Government, and even more of their then existing Opposition. But now we have a Government of which we have little experience opposed by an Opposition of which we have none. Political life is become a struggle between two unknown quantities, and its formula therefore is quite unknown.