TOPICS OF THE DAY.
111.b EVE OF THE POLLS. TO-DAY polling takes place in several of the leading con- stituencies in England, and by the time next Saturday's Spectator is published the most momentous issue that has been placed before the nation since the reference of Mr. Gladstone's Home-rule Bill to the electors in 1886 will have been virtually settled. It is true that the majority of the county elections will still be undecided, but on this occa- sion there is little likelihood of town and country being in disagreement. If the impulse is against Protection in one portion of the electorate, it will be against it in the other. For ourselves, we have never had, and have not now, any doubt as to what the verdict will be, for we believe that the mind of the nation is irrevocably fixed on two points. The British people will neither break up the legislative integrity of the United Kingdom, nor will they accept Protection under any of the aliases in which the negation of Free-trade is presented to them. That, however, is a matter of prophecy, and we admit that it is not worth while to dwell on prophecies when fulfilment is so near at hand.
What is not prophecy but certainty, not opinion but fact, is that the decision of the electorate will be taken on the one supreme issue of Free-trade or Protection. We confess that for a time we feared that Mr. Balfour would be able to confuse that issue, and, by the use of arts which have proved so successful in the House of Commons, persuade a portion of the electorate that Free- trade was not in peril, and that their duty at the polls was to protect the Union from certain imaginary dangers. Fortunately, the country is not so easily misled as the House of Commons. The electors have brushed aside without a doubt or a misgiving all the insincerities that have been forced upon them in regard to other problems, and instead of being alarmed by the Home-rule bogey, have refused to trouble their heads for a moment about that creature of sawdust and painted cloth. Even Mr. Balfour himself has been unable to persuade the people of Manchester that the thing is other than a fraud, and of late he has been obliged to put the image back in its box with the rueful admission that the electors cannot be induced to believe that it is alive. And, after all, we wonder that Mr. Balfour, of all men, should have dared to talk about " the Union in danger," for if it were in danger, there would rest upon him, as the head of the Unionist party, the irremediable stain of having allowed it to remain in danger when he had it in his power to make it safe for all time.
No sane man believes that if a Home-rule Bill is ever again carried in the Commons it will be carried by anything but a very narrow majority. If, then, Mr. Balfour had done electoral justice to Britain and to Ireland—had reduced the Irish representation to its fair and equitable proportion, and had taken away from Ireland and given to England the thirty Members which Ireland has in excess—he would have placed the Union out of all possible danger. But this he deliberately refused to do. For the past five years we have urged upon Mr. Balfour in season and out of season the duty that lay upon him as a Unionist Prime Minister of reducing the Irish representation to its just dimensions ; but our appeals met with no response till late last Session. But even then he introduced, not a Bill, but a weak and perfunctory series of Resolutions which every person of Parliamentary experience knew were not meant to pass, but merely to deck the political shop window. Mr. Balfour—and we say it deliberately and with a full sense of the responsi- bility involved—was not sincere in his Redistribution proposals, for he did not take the scheme in hand till he must have known that it could not become law. If he had meant business, he would have introduced a Redistribu- tion Bill at the beginning of last Session. That he could have passed such a Bill with far less difficulty than he passed his Licensing Act there can be no sort of doubt, for he would have had behind him the whole weight of a practically united public opinion. The Liberal leaders in the Commons would, no doubt, have opposed the proposal, though not, we expect, with any very great enthusiasm; but at any rate the democratic feeling of the country as a whole would have been strongly in favour of a sound scheme of Redistribution. The weight of argument for taking away from Ireland an electoral privilege so huge and so indefensible, and for remedying the gross electoral injustice done to some thirty English constituencies, would have proved irresistible.
But even if Mr. Balfour could not have counted on this external help, he had plenty of power and authority to pass the Bill without it. If he could beat down the opposi- tion offered to proposals so disputable in themselves and so fiercely contested as the Licensing Bill and the sanction- ing of Chinese labour in South Africa under semi-servile conditions, it is idle to say that he could not have carried Redistribution. The measure would have rallied his party to him, and would have provided a legitimate opportunity for the whole Unionist party to work together in harmony. No ; Mr. Balfour's refusal to pass a Redistribution Bill was deliberate and conscious, and not accidental. It affords an absolute proof that he does not believe the Union to be in danger • for we do not challenge the sincerity of Mr. Bal- four's Unionism, or suggest that he would have let the cause of the Union run any grave risk which he could prevent, and in the reality of which he believed. He held that the Union was not in danger, and that therefore he could safely refuse to do electoral justice to the-United Kingdom. But it may be asked " Even if he did not consider the Union in peril, why did he not at any rate take a pre- caution which could have done the Union no harm, and must have increased its security ? No structure of such vital importance can be the worse for having its stability made absolute." We hold that Mr. Balfour, believing that there was no essential danger to the Union, preferred the retention of the Irish Members in their unfair propor- tion of power for two reasons. He considered that their presence in Parliament in undiminished. numbers would be useful to him in the coming controversy over the Educa- tion Act, and he also believed *that the Nationalists would. prove a thorn in the side of the Liberals in the next Parliament, and, from his point of view, a big thorn was naturally better than a small one. Undoubtedly on purely tactical grounds there was a good deal to be said for this view. The greatest danger ahead of the Liberals is the risk of their being in a minority when the Irish Members are numbered with the Unionists. But if there were thirty fewer Irish Members than at present, and thirty more English Members, and these extra English Members sent from great democratic con- stituencies, this danger to the Liberals would vanish away completely. A reduction of the Irish Members to just and normal proportions would have made for them a secure tenure of office after the General Election a matter of practical certainty. In other words, Mr. Balfour's chance of upsetting the present Government is immensely increased by the fact that the task of obtaining a majority over the Unionists and Irish combined is so tremendous a one, as it unquestionably is, when Ireland has thirty Members too many and England thirty too few. Unionists complain of the Irish Members holding the balance, and of the temptation to purchase their aid offered to our politicians, but a great part of the power they thus hold comes from the utterly indefensible, unjust, undemocratic, and anti- Liberal system under which they are given a prerogative vote in the House of Commons.
But though Mr. Balfour's calculated failure to reduce the over-representation of Ireland may possibly give him and Mr. Chamberlain the opportunity they desire for de- feating the Free-trade Government, and with it the cause of Free-trade—unless it has a majority over the Unionists and Irish combined the present Government cannot con- tinue in power—we trust and believe that they will not have that opportunity. All the indications point to the fact that the British people realise the momentous nature of the issue that is before them. Instinctively they have come to understand that it is on.the maintenance of the policy of Free-trade and of the free market that the safety and welfare of the realm depend. If we continue to keep our markets open to the commerce of the world, and let all men sell in them freely and unhindered, we shall remain strong, prosperous, and secure. If we close them, and incur the waste and loss inseparable from any interference with freedom of trade, the future of the nation must be dark and precarious. After all, our prosperity, great as it is and secure as it is under Free-trade, rests upon a narrow basis. Why is it that this small and overcrowded island, with no very exceptional natural resources, and blessed with neither a specially fruitful soil nor a specially beneficent climate, has been able to hold its own among nations far better dowered by Nature ? It is, in the last resort, because in commerce, as in politics, we have adopted a sound, a true, and a simple principle,— the principle of freedom. That is our advantage in the race. That is what has enabled us to maintain the empire of the seas, to keep in union with the free British communities abroad, and to uphold our power and influence over India and our tropical depen- dencies. Protection, if we adopt it, must sap the foundations of the State. The waste which under it cannot be avoided must ruin our industries one by one. And with the ruin of our industries must come the ruin of that social and political system of which we are now so proud, and so justly proud. The first phenomena of Protection in a polity so congested and so artificial as ours would be corruption and commercial tyranny, the eldest children of monopoly, as we see from American experience. But we have not got a vast, an undeveloped, and a thinly populated country to mitigate the worst perils of Protection. In our cockpit of a nation we have no room to escape the evils of monopoly and of economic waste. We must prey upon each other. To the momentary triumph of the monopolist, of the Trust, and of the Combine must succeed the leaders of the Social Revolution, the demagogue, and the Anarchist, and those whose opportunity is found in the misery that must follow the footsteps of Protection in a land like ours.
We shall doubtless be accused of sensationalism, and maybe of political hysteria, for writing as we have done ; but we would rather suffer under such accusations than neglect what we believe to be a duty. In any case, we are assured that a vast number of our countrymen feel as we do,—very many through their reason, an even larger number through what in such matters may be quite as safe a guide, a quickened emotion of alarm. Instinctively they draw back from a great peril. They feel rather than see that they are standing on the edge of an abyss. Therefore we have no fear of the results of the appeal to the people which begins to-day. Britain has run many risks before, but has survived and overcome them. So will she now, for she holds a talisman of power,—the talisman of freedom. In that sign she will conquer and maintain the policy which has made her the mistress of the seas, and given into her hands the merchandise of all the earth.