TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE CRISIS THAT FAILED.
TURING the earlier part of the week it looked as if jJ the Unionist Party were about to go through a crisis which would rid it of the supporters of Tariff Reform, and although not immediately placing that party on a Free-trade basis, would leave Mr. Balfour and his supporters in a position which must ultimately result in their acceptance of the old attitude of the party towards the question of Protection. They could not long have maintained a position which demanded that they should fight the Chamberlainites with one hand and Free-trade Unionists with the other. The force of circumstances must in the end have obliged them to make common cause with the Unionist Free-traders, and on the Unionist Free- traders' terms. We believe that in Ireland during the seventeenth century there were once three armies in the field which fought with each other in turn without combining ; but the Irish people have a genius for combat which does not belong to the more common- place Anglo-Saxon. His views are limited to two sides in a fight. In these circumstances, it would be hypo- critical for us to pretend that we viewed the possibility of a complete rupture between Mr. Balfour and Mr. Chamberlain with anything but satisfaction. We admit that, in spite of appearances, we did not think that such a rupture was likely to happen, for we had not forgotten the history of the past two and a half years. Still, if the rupture came, we realised that it could not but work in favour of that policy of reconstruction upon a Free-trade basis which we so ardently desire, and for which we mean to strive.
The hopes of those who believed in a real conflict between Mr. Balfour and Mr. Chamberlain did not last long. On Thursday it was announced that a compromise had been reached between the parties, and that the crisis was, at an end. Mr. Chamberlain had written a letter to Lord Ridley, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Tariff Reform League, expressing his surprise that there was so much misapprehension as to the position of the Tariff Reformers. In this letter Mr. Chamberlain. sets, forth the situation as it appears to him. In the first place, he strongly repudiates the notion that there is, or possibly could be, any question of persons or leaders. After having worked in the closest friendship with Mr:Balfour for twenty years, he would not place himself in competition with him. Moreover, he entirely agrees with those who say that the leader of a party of which seven-tenths are Conservatives must be a Conservative. The only matter in question is the policy which the Unionist 'Party propose to adopt in the future. It was absolutely untrue that any ultimatum had been presented to Mr. Balfour, either by himself or any one else. All he desired was a meeting of the party in order that their leader might learn the views and wishes of his followers. He need not necessarily accept them as a whole, but he ought at least to know what they are. As regards Tariff Reform, three views were held by different sections " of our party." According to the first view, Tariff Reform was to be placed on the shelf. All the enthusiasm and interest which it had created in the country was to be damped down. " At by-elections it is not to be mentioned." The work of education could not be carried on, since teachers would not know what they were expected to teach, and would have no clear guidance from their leader. Such a view, Mr. Chamberlain contends, is entirely in- consistent with Mr. Balfour's language when he said that Tariff Reform was the first item in the constructive pro- gramme of the Unionist Party, and commercial union with the Colonies the most important and urgent branch of Tariff Reform.—Here we may note a small, but possibly important, error on Mr. Chamberlain's part. Unless we are greatly mistaken, what Mr. Balfour said was that Fiscal Reform was the first item in the programme of the Unionist Party, and that commercial union with the Colonies was the most important and urgent branch of Fiscal Reform. But Fiscal Reform is " the half-sheet of notepaper," and Tariff Reform means duties on food and 'a general tariff.—The second suggestion is that, while not pressing Tariff Reform in existing circumstances, " we are to unite, as among ourselves, on the programme known as ' the half-sheet of notepaper.' " Between this programme and that of the more advanced Tariff Reformers- there are, Mr. Chamberlain notes, two differences. The Tariff Reformers wish to keep their food-taxation pro-. posals prominently before the country. "Mr. Balfour,' he goes on to say, " has more than once stated that he has no objection in principle to such a duty, but he has accepted without protest the statement of the Free-fooders that' under no circumstances, whether after a Conference or not, and whatever may be the offers made by the Colonies, will' they assent to any duty on corn." Mr. Chamberlain next deals with the question of a general tariff, "as to which it is necessary to say that in our opinion it 'is impossible without it to have any practical or effective scheme of• Retaliation." Mr. Balfour has not attempted to put forward any alternative, although he has been pressed to' do so both by Lord Hugh Cecil and by the Tariff Reformers. " I believe that he himself regards this difference of opinion as to procedure as insignificant, and I have hoped, not unnaturally, I think, that if he did not attach great importance to his own point of view, he would be able, without any sacrifice of principle, to approach more closely to ours." Mr. Chamberlain next deals with the statement that an attempt has been made to lay down as a condition of union that all persons shall be excluded from the party who decline to accept the whole programme of the Tariff Reform League. Nothing of the kind, he declares, has been suggested, though he (Mr. Chamberlain) had pointed out that it would be dishonest to pretend that the Free-- fooders were in the same boat as either the Tariff Reformers or the Retaliationists.
Curiously enough, Mr. Chamberlain, though he speaks of there being three views, held by different sections of the party, does not deal with the third. We pre- sume that by it he means the view of those who, like ourselves, believe that only by the reconstruction of the party on a Free-trade basis can its efficiency be secured. In any case, the letter next proceeds to deal with the question of the reorganisation of the party on popular lines. And here Mr. Chamberlain makes a clever and, characteristic hit by asserting that the advocatei of the, existing system describe the proposal to popularise it as an attempt to secure the party machinery for the furtherance' of Tariff Reform. It is evident, he declares, that this statement involves the admission that if the organisation' were popularised, and if the whole party were consulted, they would vote for Tariff Reform, and that consequently' the policy and action of the organisation have been opposed to the wishes of the party. The composition of the party, Mr. Chamberlain believes, is such that the great majority, if not all, are perfectly ready to accept Mr. Balfour's general' leadership. But he adds :—" I think it probable, however, that a majority would welcome a declaration by Mr. Balfour which would show clearly that Tariff Reform was not to be dropped, and would indicate a definite and un- mistakable programme for the future, to which they could all give their hearty support. If, however, the majority should be in favour of the views expressed by the' Free-' fooders, or should desire that the whole question should be left in abeyance, the Tariff Reform minority would- in that case have to reconsider their position."
But even in this 'case it is not Mr. Chamberlain's' opinion that it would be necessary 'or wise that the Tariff Reformers should separate themselves from the party as a whole, or from the general leadership. They would in such circumstances constitute them- selves into a Parliamentary group such as existed during the late Parliament,—a group meeting periodically, and agreeing as to common action, and as • to the occasions when they might bring forward their views in the House of Commons. These occasions must frequently arise, he thinks, because the question of social reform involves the question of raising revenue, and all proposals for taxation suggest alternatives to our present system. Thus the question can be kept alive, and con- tinuous discussion in the country secured. Then follows the ominous remark that the Tariff Reformers will " take care that our views are fully represented at the by- elections." Mr. Chamberlain ends his letter by pointing out that there is no question of the repudiation of the leadership of Mr. Balfour, or of putting undue pressure upon him to abandon his opinions or his friends. " On the other hand, Tariff Reformers sincerely believe in their principles, and cannot be expected to put them aside to suit the exigencies of party wirepuller& They are ready now, as ever, to work with their Unionist colleagues for common objects, but they cannot, accept a policy of inaction and mystification with regard to the main object of their political life, honestly convinced, as they are, that in the acceptance of a full measure of Tariff Reform lies the best hope for the future success of the party, as well as of the cause."
Such is Mr. Chamberlain's ultimatum. It remains to be seen what Mr. Balfour will say to it. If we are to judge by the reception accorded to the letter in papers like the Times,• the Daily Telegraph, and the Daily Mail, which have always worn their Chamberlainism with a Balfourite difference, Mr. Balfour will accept Mr. Chamberlain's statement as satisfactory, and henceforth the party will be regarded as united. The crisis, that is, is at an end, and for the time, at any rate, co-operation under Mr. Balfour secured. For ourselves, we expect that the prognostica- tions of the Balfourite Press will prove correct. Mr. Chamberlain by his letter hangs the dead albatross round the neck of Mr. Balfour. Will Mr. Balfour have the courage to tear it off and fling it on the deck with the declaration that even though he unfortunately acquiesced in the shooting of the bird, he did not shoot it himself, and that Mr. Chamberlain, not he, is the Ancient Mariner, and must accept the Ancient Mariner's doom ? If he has not the courage to do this, Mr. Balfour will himself be obliged to play that luckless part by adoption. Whatwe are afraid will happen is this. Mr. Balfour will pretend not to notice that the albatross has been hung round his neck, but will proceed to prove by speeches courteous, vague, and long that there is no such thing as an albatross, or that if there is, its killing is an entirely unimportant matter which need not concern the naviga- tion of the ship or her crew and leaders. He will demonstrate, indeed, that it is far safer for ships to drift than to be steered, and that such manifestations as the rotting sea and the appearance of Life-in-death and the phantom barque are the most natural and pleasing of marine phenomena. In other words, he will reject the only open and safe course of declaring that the country has once and for all decided against Tariff Reform and Fiscal Reform, and that in the future he means to have nothing what- ever to do with either of them. Such a declaration would, no doubt, produce for the moment a violent revolution in the .party, but in the end it would secure its rehabilitation on sound lines. If, on the other hand, Mr. Balfour adopts once more the policy of shilly-shally, coupled with polite hopes that Mr. Chamberlain will secure the great objects for which he is striving, the country will, we are certain, judge him by the formula on which we have so often insisted. It will remember that " he that biddeth him God-speed is partaker of his evil deeds." No amount of dialectic can alter that simple truth.
For Unionist Free-traders who feel as we do there is only one course open. They must wait and watch, con- vinced that in the end common-sense will prevail, and that the party, weary at last of Mr. Chamberlain's bluff and Mr. Balfour's tactics, will resolve that the albatross shall receive decent burial, the spell be broken, and the party once more begin its true work for the nation and the Empire.