Front Page Titles (by Subject) DULL GOVERNMENT. ( From The Saturday Review, 16 th February, 1856.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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DULL GOVERNMENT. ( From “ The Saturday Review, ” 16 th February, 1856.) - 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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Parliament is a great thing, but it is not a cheerful thing. Just reflect on the existence of “Mr. Speaker”. First, a small man speaks to him—then a shrill man speaks to him—then a man who cannot speak will speak to him. He leads a life of “passing tolls,” joint-stock companies, and members out of order. Life is short, but the forms of the House are long. Mr. Ewart complains that a multitude of members, including the Prime Minister himself, actually go to sleep. The very morning paper feels the weight of this leaden régime. Even in the dullest society you hear complaints of the dulness of Parliament—of the representative tedium of the nation.
That an Englishman should grumble is quite right, but that he should grumble at gravity is hardly right. He is rarely a lively being himself, and he should have a sympathy with those of his kind. And he should further be reminded that his criticism is out of place—that dulness in matters of Government is a good sign, and not a bad one—that, in particular, dulness in Parliamentary Government is a test of its excellence, an indication of its success. The truth is, all the best business is a little dull. If you go into a merchant’s counting-house, you see steel pens, vouchers, files, books of depressing magnitude, desks of awful elevation, staid spiders and sober clerks moving among the implements of tedium. No doubt, to the parties engaged, much of this is very attractive. “What,” it has been well said, “are technicalities to those without, are realities to those within.” To every line in those volumes, to every paper on those damp files, there has gone doubt, decision, action—the work of a considerate brain, the touch of a patient hand, yet even to those engaged, it is commonly the least interesting business which is the best. The more the doubt, the greater the liability to error—the longer the consideration, generally the worse the result—the more the pain of decision, the greater the likelihood of failure. In Westminster Hall, they have a legend of a litigant who stopped his case because the lawyers said it was “interesting”. “Ah,” he remarked afterwards, “they were going up to the ‘Lords’ with it, and I should never have seen my money.” To parties concerned in law, the best case is a plain case. To parties concerned in trade, the best transaction is a plain transaction—the sure result of familiar knowledge; in political matters, the best sign that things are going well is that there should be nothing difficult—nothing requiring deep contention of mind—no anxious doubt, no sharp resolution, no lofty and patriotic execution. The opportunity for these qualities is the danger of the commonwealth. You cannot have a Chatham in time of peace—you cannot storm a Redan in Somersetshire. There is no room for glorious daring in periods of placid happiness.
And if this be the usual rule, certainly there is nothing in the nature of Parliamentary Government to exempt it from its operation. If business is dull, business wrangling is no better. It is dull for an absolute Minister to have to decide on passing tolls, but it is still duller to hear a debate on them—to have to listen to the two extremes and the via media. One honourable member considers that the existing ninepence ought to be maintained; another thinks it ought to be abolished; and a third—the independent thinker—has statistics of his own, and suggests that fourpence-halfpenny would “attain the maximum of revenue with the minimum of inconvenience”—only he could wish there were a decimal coinage to “facilitate the calculations of practical pilots”. Of course, this is not the highest specimen of Parliamentary speaking. Doubtless, on great questions, when the public mind is divided, when the national spirit is roused, when powerful interests are opposed, when large principles are working their way, when deep difficulties press for a decision, there is an opportunity for noble eloquence. But these very circumstances are the signs, perhaps, of calamity; certainly of political difficulty and national doubt. The national spirit is not roused in happy times—powerful interests are not divided in years of peace—the path of great principles is marked through history by trouble, anxiety, and conflict. An orator requires a topic. “Thoughts that breathe and words that burn” will not suit the “Liability of Joint-Stock Companies”—you cannot shed tears over a “toll”. Where can there be a better proof of national welfare than that Disraeli cannot be sarcastic, and that Lord Derby fails in a diatribe? Happy is the country which is at peace within its borders—yet stupid is the country when the Opposition is without a cry.
Moreover, when Parliamentary business is a bore, it is a bore which cannot be overlooked. There is much torpor secreted in the bureaux of an absolute Government, but no one hears of it—no one knows of its existence. In England it is different. With pains and labour—by the efforts of attorneys—by the votes of freeholders—you collect more than six hundred gentlemen; and the question is, what are they to do? As they come together at a specific time, it would seem that they do so for a specific purpose—but what it is they do not know. It is the business of the Prime Minister to discover it for them. It is extremely hard on an effervescent First Lord to have to set people down to mere business—to bore them with slow reforms—to explain details they cannot care for—to abolish abuses they never heard of—to consume the hours of the night among the perplexing details of an official morning. But such is the Constitution. The Parliament is assembled—some work must be found for it—and this is all that there is. The details which an autocratic Government most studiously conceals are exposed in open day—the national sums are done in public—finance is made the most of. If the war had not intervened, who knows that by this time Parliament would not be commonly considered “The Debating Board of Trade”? Intelligent foreigners can hardly be brought to understand this. It puzzles them to imagine how any good or smooth result can be educed from so much jangling, talking, and arguing. M. de Montalembert has described amazement as among his predominant sensations in England. He felt, he says, as if he were in a manufactory—where wheels rolled, and hammers sounded, and engines crunched—but from which, nevertheless, by a miracle of industrial art, some beautiful fabric issued, soft, complete, and perfect. Perhaps this simile is too flattering to the neatness of our legislation, but it happily expresses the depressing noise and tedious din by which its results are really arrived at.
As are the occupations, so are the men. Different kinds of government cause endless variety in the qualities of statesmen. Not a little of the interest of political history consists in the singular degree in which it shows the mutability and flexibility of human nature. After various changes, we are now arrived at the business statesman—or rather the business speaker. The details which have to be alluded to, the tedious reforms which have to be effected, the long figures which have to be explained, the slow arguments which require a reply—the heaviness of subjects, in a word—have caused a corresponding weight in our oratory. Our great speeches are speeches of exposition—our eloquence is an eloquence of detail. No one can read or hear the speeches of our ablest and most enlightened statesmen without being struck with the contrast which they exhibit—we do not say to the orations of antiquity (which were delivered under circumstances too different to allow of a comparison), but to the great Parliamentary displays of the last age—of Pitt, or Fox, or Canning. Differing from each other as the latter do in most of their characteristics, they all fall exactly within Sir James Macintosh’s definition of Parliamentary oratory—“animated and continuous after-dinner conversation”. They all have a gentlemanly effervescence and lively agreeability. They are suitable to times when the questions discussed were few, simple, and large—when detail was not—when the first requisite was a pleasant statement of obvious considerations. We are troubled—at least our orators are troubled—with more complex and difficult topics. The patient exposition, the elaborate minuteness, the exhaustive disquisition, of modern Parliamentary eloquence would formerly have been out of place—they are now necessary on complicated subjects, which require the exercise of a laborious intellect, and a discriminating understanding. We have not gained in liveliness by the change, and those who remember the great speakers of the last age are the loudest in complaining of our tedium. The old style still lingers on the lips of Lord Palmerston; but it is daily yielding to a more earnest and practical, to a sober before-dinner style.
It is of no light importance that these considerations should be recognised, and their value carefully weighed. It has been the bane of many countries which have tried to obtain freedom, but failed in the attempt, that they have regarded popular Government rather as a means of intellectual excitement than as an implement of political work. The preliminary discussion was more interesting than the consequent action. They found it pleasanter to refine arguments than to effect results—more glorious to expand the mind with general ratiocination than to contract it to actual business. They wished, in a word, to have a popular Government without, at the same time, having a dull Government. The English people have never forgotten what some nations have scarcely ever remembered—that politics are a kind of business—that they bear the characteristics, and obey the laws, inevitably incident to that kind of human action. Steady labour and dull material—wrinkles on the forehead and figures on the tongue—these are the English admiration. We may prize more splendid qualities on uncommon occasions, but these are for daily wear. You cannot have an æra per annum; if every year had something memorable for posterity, how would posterity ever remember it? Dulness is our line, as cleverness is that of the French. Woe to the English people if they ever forget that. All through their history, heavy topics and tedious talents have awakened the admiration and engrossed the time of their Parliament and their country.