TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE COMING SESSION. THE Government are committed to an enormous legislative programme in the coming Session. In the first place, they are pledged to a Bill dealing with primary and secondary education. There has been much talk of this measure being capable of winning the support of all parties, but those who have watched the education question for the last twenty years may be excused for doubting whether even an inspired draughtsman could produce such a scheme. It is far more probable that the new Government Bill, like the last, will stir up a feelings on all sides. We say this regretfully, anadin spite of the fact that if, as is rumoured, the Bill is based upon the principle of contracting out, we shall our- selves start with a favourable impression,—provided, of course, that the contracting out has a fair and reasonable financial basis. Our readers may remember that during the debates on the Government's first Education Bill we insisted again and again that in contracting out was to be found the safety-valve which would prevent the wrecking, not only of the measure, but of our whole system of primary education by an explosion of religious feeling. Under contracting out it is possible to secure an elasticity which is in itself very valuable, and which meets the claims of the Roman Catholics and more extreme Anglicans without giving any excuse for "passive resist- ance." Again, contracting out, if properly handled, may save us from two very great dangers. The first of these is the secularisation of the schools, a solution to which we would never willingly assent ; and the second is the abolition of the use of the Cowper-Temple compromise in the Provided schools. That, in our opinion, is a matter of the very greatest importance, for while it is maintained we have a barrier, not only against the secularisation of the schools, but against what is quite as important,—the secularisation of the teachers. The real difficulty of contracting out is the amount of the Government grant. It would be clearly impossible to accept contracting out if the Government were to make no extra grant in lieu of the rate-aid now received by the Voluntary s2bools. On the other hand, it would not be necessary, or, in our opinion, wise, to ask that the new grant from the central Government should be as large as the present subvention from the rates. If the voluntary character of the denominational schools is to be preserved, it is essential that such schools shall be able to point to the use of annual subscriptions, not merely to maintain the fabric, but also a portion of the teaching in the schools. That such subscriptions can and ought to be provided by those who desire to maintain the denominational schools cannot, we think, be a matter of doubt. At the same time, if too large a proportion of the cost of the schools is to be obtained from voluntary subscriptions, a very great hardship may fall upon the Roman Catholic schools in certain parts of England. In order to be just to them, and to do nothing which would incidentally, if not deliberately, cause their destruction, it will probably be necessary to make the Government grant on a generous scale. The notion of discriminating between the Roman Catholic schools and the Church of England schools cannot, of course, be entertained. What is done for one denomination must be done for the others. The finance of such a proposal as contracting out will have to be care- fully scrutinised ; but we do not see why it should be necessary to increase the total burden on the public. What is spent in an extra central grant ought to be more than saved in the rates, considering that subscriptions will also be obtained from private sources. Unless, however, the matter is carefully handled, we fear there is a very considerable risk of our spending more at the centre without any corresponding saving at the circumference. Waste and extravagance are apt to dog all new legislation in the matter of primary education.
The next measure on the Government programme is quite as controversial as that connected. with education. It is the Licensing Bill. The public has as yet received no clear indication as to the nature of Mr. Asquith's measure. We may, however, venture to put forward what we hold to be the lines on which a. satisfactory Bill should be drawn. If Mr. Asquith and. his friends imagine that they are going to produce any temperance reform worth having— that is, any reduction in the use of intoxicants—out of a new Licensing Bill, they are, we are afraid, very much mis- taken. An increase in sobriety, and the abandonment of that gross waste of their resources through the undue consumption of beer and spirits which marks the majority of the British population, are not to be looked for from legislation. The change will come, and can only come when it does come, amongst the poorer classes as it has come amongst the richer,—from the exercise of greater self-control, from a desire to indulge other and more reasonable tastes than those connected with so-called physical enjoyment, and from a better understanding of the laws of health. Temperance will come from within, and not from any Act of Parliament, however skilfully drawn, and however much vaunted. by temperance reformers. But though the Government are not going to make the people sober by a new Act of Parliament, they may, we believe, make very large administrative and. fiscal reforms through the introduction of a just and well-considered system of licenses. At present we grant a share in a very valuable State-created monopoly on the most extraordinary principles, or rather upon no principles at all. In the case of licenses for small and not very' profitable houses we exact something which approaches' the money value of the license granted by the Govern- ment. In other cases the money paid to the State is ludicrously out of proportion to the value of the license granted. But though we want to see the great monopoly which Parliament has for various reasons created dealt with in a less profligate manner, we are by no means among those who in effect ask that the brewers and other vendors and manufacturers of intoxicants should. be harshly treated. We do not regard them, and. we think it is monstrously unjust to regard them; as if they were engaged in a grossly immoral trade upon which the Government ought to have no mercy. They are entitled not only to justice, but to just as much fairness and consideration as those who manufacture cotton or woollens. Such consideration, however, must not be pushed to the point of undue indulgence. Nor must we, for fear of being unjust, give traders in beer and. spirits advantages we should never dream of giving to other traders.
It is, we admit, easier to lay down such general proposi- tions than to amplify them. The problem, put frankly, is this : "We have been very foolish in giving away licenses practically for nothing. flow far are we bound to go on with this stupid policy in the future because we indulged. in it in the past ? " Clearly we cannot do morally what we may do legally,—namely, declare that the existing owners of licenses have no right to expect any kind of renewal of them on the existing terms. That is, we must in equity recognise the claim of the existing license-holders to have their licenses renewed for a period of years on something like existing terms. To do otherwise would involve a forfeiture of many interests which must prove not only unjust to individuals, but would also prove injurious to the State as a whole. In other words, there must be a generous time-limit arranged, and the State must not expect before that period is reached to resume full power over the monopoly which it has of late been throwing away in so wasteful a manner.
What the time-limit should. be we do net propose to discuss in this article, but that it will have to be considerably longer than many persons, ourselves among them, thought sufficient four years ago is obvious. The bad times which have been endured by the liquor trade during the last few years make it essential that they shall not receive treatment which will cause any- thing in the nature of a panic among those who have invested. their money in brewery shares. It would not only be most unjust, but most unwise, in the present condition of the business world, to do anything which would cause a heavy depreciation of the value of brewery shares and debentures. No doubt the creation of brewery shares of all kinds has been very greatly overdone, and. no doubt also the holders of such shares have largely exaggerated, not only existing difficulties, but also what would happen if the Government were to change the national policy in the matter of grants of licenses. Still, making all possible allowance for such exaggerations, it, must be admitted. that the present condition of the trade ought to be taken into consideration, and that nothing must be done which can reasonably be regarded as a crushing blow aimed at an industry which, let us say once again, it would in our opinion be grossly unfair to treat as an immoral industry, and one which does not possess normal rights. The man who owns brewery shares does not feel, and is not in the opinion of sane and just persons, a criminal, and he ought not to be treated as one, even though' he has no claim to be specially pampered by the State. We have said enough to show how exceedingly difficult a task the Government will have in framing a Licensing Bill which will not either be unjust and dangerous financially, or likely, on the other hand, to prove unsatisfactory to their temperance supporters, some of whom will no doubt clamour for their full pound of flesh, while others will declare that the Government have no right to obtain any further fiscal benefits from the sale of the accursed thing. It is a tangled web, and one which will require all Mr. Asquith's skill, courage, and tenacity —qualities which we admit he possesses in a high degree— to straighten out.
Two such measures as those we have named would be long enough for any ordinary Session. Yet we have not mentioned the chief and most controversial item of the Government programme,—old-age pensions. Here, indeed, the Government will be in very deep waters, and for the following reasons. The measure, we venture to say, is not one over which any member of the Cabinet is really enthusiastic. Not one of them has ever made, as far as we know, in the past a special study of the old-age pension question, or has regarded it as an essential part of the Liberal programme. Old-age pensions have been pressed upon the Government from outside rather than from inside. When we say this we do not, of course, wish to suggest that the Cabinet, or a majority of the Cabinet, disapprove of the measure they have agreed to pass. Probably by this time they, or the majority of them, have convinced themselves that something must be done, and that the thing has got to be. What we mean is that there are no real enthusiasts for the measure in the Ministry, and that their desire is to get quit of the subject on as easy terms as possible. On the other hand, there is a large and clamorous body of their supporters, both inside the House and out, who are determined to enlarge the Government measure, and to convert a tenta- tive and experimental scheme into what they call "a great and comprehensive measure." When such conditions as these prevail, Governments invariably find themselves in difficulties, and it will therefore be no surprise to us if old-age pensions should prove a matter of extreme difficulty for the Government.
We have mentioned the three most important Govern- ment proposals, but in addition Ministers have promised a Housing of the People Bill, an Eight Hours Day (Mines) Bill, a Town Planning Bill, a Port of London Bill, an Irish University Bill, an English Valuation Bill, and an Irish Land Bill. Further, the Scottish Small Landholders Bill and the Scottish Laud Valuation Bill are, we have been informed in the plainest terms by the Prime Minister, to be repassed in the Commons and sent back to the Lords. Finally, it has been hinted that the question of the Lords itself is to be taken up this Session. We deal with another aspect of the questions involved in the Ministerial pro- gramme elsewhere, and will only say here that unless we are very greatly mistaken, the actual results of the Govern- ment programme will prove very different from the fore- cast. Also we must never forget tha• the element of the unexpected is always very potent in Parliament. Who knows. but that some personal question, some matter of Imperial or foreign concern, now unhooked for, or some social problem of which now no one dreams, may assume formidable proportions in the next month or two and change the whole course of events ?