Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE CONSERVATIVE VEIN IN MR. BRIGHT. ( From The Economist, 29 th April, 1876.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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THE CONSERVATIVE VEIN IN MR. BRIGHT. ( From “ The Economist, ” 29 th April, 1876.) - 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 CONSERVATIVE VEIN IN MR. BRIGHT.
It seems a paradox to say that there are few more typical Conservatives in the House of Commons than Mr. Bright; and yet the assertion is in one sense certainly true. Vehemently as he has fought for the cause of popular right, and eloquently as he has, at times, attacked the privileged classes who resisted these reforms, Mr. Bright’s political notions are,—and this is the characteristic of a Conservative,—probably more strictly prepossessions and traditions, less the result of inner deliberation and intellectual judgment, than those of any Conservative in the House of Commons, immeasurably more so than those of the Conservative leader. We doubt very much whether even Mr. Gathorne Hardy has as much right to represent the Conservative whose political mind is the product of deep traditional, and, we may say, hereditary preoccupations, as Mr. Bright. Of course it is not merely the accident that a man’s traditional feelings on politics represent the tendencies of the future rather than the tendencies of the past, which makes him in this sense a Liberal rather than a Conservative. We are now using the word rather in relation to character than in relation to the progress of events. And in this sense we should say that while the Liberal turn of mind denotes the willingness to admit new ideas, and the perfect impartiality with which those ideas, when admitted, are canvassed and considered, the Conservative turn of mind denotes adhesiveness to the early and probably inherited ideas of childhood, and a very strong and practically effective distrust of the novel intellectual suggestions which come unaccredited by any such influential associations. Now in this sense, it hardly needed Mr. Bright’s very able speech on Wednesday, against Women’s Suffrage, to show that constitutionally, though not in the sense which the accident of chronology attaches to the word, Mr. Bright is a Conservative. Mr. Bright has been throughout his life a very warm friend of what is called progress on all subjects on which he inherited from his early traditions the ideas of progress. But it is not possible to mention a single subject on which he has abandoned the traditions of his youth in favour of the newer ideas of his maturity, and of the age in which that maturity has been cast. Let us cast a glance all round the political world. In relation to the question of Throne or Republic, it cannot be doubted that he inherited from his forefathers a sort of abstract preference for a Republic, together with a very decided disposition to let well alone, and acquiesce in a throne so long as that throne is dignified by high character and personal virtues. And this is precisely the shade of policy which he has always represented whenever such matters have come into discussion at all. That Mr. Bright has always been the first to claim a kindly and cordial consideration for the Republic ultimately founded by the descendants of the Pilgrim fathers in the United States of America, we all know. But we also all know how, whenever anything like a taunt has been cast at the institution of royalty in England, Mr. Bright has been foremost to lend the shield of his personal enthusiasm to the present wearer of the British crown. When the Queen is in question it would be impossible to name a more cordial Conservative than Mr. Bright. His feelings are kindled, like the feelings of a cavalier of old, at the mere mention of her name, as Mr. Ayrton has had occasion to know. No doubt it is in great measure the simplicity and worth of the present monarch which endears her so much to Mr. Bright. But that, again, shows that old associations and emotions, not mere intellectual convictions, are at the root of his feelings. He does not desire to discriminate between the institution and the form which the institution takes at the present moment. The mixed feelings which he has always felt grow stronger with his years. He is as earnest as ever in his abstract admiration for republics. He is more earnest than ever in his concrete loyalty to the throne.
Or take questions of constitutional reform, and consider his attitude on them. He has always been eager for the enlargement of the franchise up to the point of a household franchise. He holds that family life is a sort of guarantee for English sobriety—a notion very dear to the British middle class, but not perhaps very adequately sustained by the testing of experience. For that inherited idea he has fought gallantly till he has succeeded in making it part of the British constitution, at least as regards the boroughs, and he is pledged of course to extend it to the counties. But while he is eloquent on behalf of the guarantee given by a householder’s responsibility and ties, and would be the last, we suspect, to ask us to dispense with it, as a condition of the suffrage, any attempt to take guarantees of another sort, which were not familiar to his childhood—like that known as cumulative voting, or representation of minorities—he has always hated with an intensity and inexorability almost amusing. But some one will say that this only shows that Mr. Bright is really Liberal, and not Conservative,—that he sees these suggestions advanced by those who grudge the democracy its triumphs, and not by those who trust the people. Well then take this question of the women’s franchise. Our readers are aware that we have advocated that change partly on the ground that in the working class, at least,—the most numerous class,—the women are often more careful, and intelligent, and scrupulous, and competent to vote, than the men,—partly because we have regarded them as likely to be themselves the better for an extension of their practical interests. But Mr. Bright, after voting once reluctantly for it, has at last been unable to suppress the disgust with which this proposal to turn family life and traditions (as they have been transmitted to him) upside down affects him, and has broken through the trammels of personal ties to speak with all the force and vigour of his character on behalf of traditions so deeply ingrained into it. This metamorphosis, as it seems to him, of the true functions of women, revolts him far more than it revolts the bulk of the Conservative party, some of whom, indeed, may perhaps have adopted the cry for women’s suffrage out of party motives, but most of whom, no doubt, sympathised far more deeply with Mr. Bright than with any of their own leaders. Indeed, Mr. Bright dwelt on the idea that a revolution rather than a reform was involved in the proposal, with the genuine Conservative horror of revolution. There was not much evidence in his speech that he had carefully weighed the probable results of the change, and found them dangerous. On the contrary, the speech went to prove that the change, if adopted, must be adopted on the ground of considerations fundamentally different from those which had recommended the various reforms of the franchise already adopted. And this seemed to be almost enough for him. Prove that it was a proposal not only new in detail, but new in principle, and it lost all charm for him. Revolution is as much a term of reproach to Mr. Bright as it is to Mr. Gathorne Hardy, though it means somewhat different things in the two men’s mouths. In each of them alike it represents the antithesis of all the cherished traditions of early years.
In short, Mr. Bright’s political constitution vehemently repels the new ideas of modern statesmanship. He cannot bear the agitation for the election of labourers or artisans as members of Parliament—a new idea which seems to him subversive of political traditions. He wisely snubs Home Rule. He will not listen with patience to any argument for the fair representation of minorities. He declines all invitations to join the Alliance League for the diminution of public-houses. His Liberal sympathies are confined to the causes which he found popular among his people long before he was a great personage on the political stage—to Free-trade, economy, peace, a popular franchise of the old kind, the ballot; and enthusiasm for these causes is really in him political Conservatism. And the manner of his advocacy is as Conservative as the matter. He always addresses the political affections rather than the political reason, and this is no doubt the great secret of his true popularity. The creed of the Mr. Bright of 1876 is probably far less altered from the creed of the Mr. Bright of 1840 than is the creed of the Duke of Richmond of 1876 from the creed of the same peer in 1840. The Duke of Richmond has reluctantly abandoned many articles of his old creed—Mr. Bright has abandoned none.