TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE APPEAL TO THE COUNTRY.
NEWER since the Reform Act has a general election presented to the constituencies an issue in one sense so simple, in another so obscure and perplexed, as the issue to be determined within the next two months. On all similar occasions till now, the country has been called on to decide either between two very distinct policies or two verydistinct parties, sometimes both. Either some great legislative ohange has divided the opinions of the public, or a series of such changes constituting a 'definite system of policy with its principles and results; or the question has been, to which of two well-marked political parties the conduct of affairs at home and abroad should be intrusted. Nothing of this sort can be predicated of the appeal about to be made to the country by Lord Palmerston and his colleagues. The onlypart of their domestic policy on which a question has been raised is their financial policy, and that has been affirmed by a large majority of the House of Commons, and is, apparently, in all its essential features a policy satisfactory to the country, suitable to the transition period from a great war to ordinary peace establishments, and unassailable except by the contradictory and puzzleheaded refinements of a jealous Ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer. The foreign policy of the Government has equally received as a grand whole the approval of Parliament and of the nation. There are suspicions indeed—more or less well-founded—that Lord Palmerston is a turbulent and aggressive Minister • that he delights in embroiling this country in order to show off his energy and fertility of resource ; and that he manages to render England unpopular with Absolute Governments without effecting any changes in favour of " Liberal" institutions abroad or a more humane treatment of individuals of " Liberal " opinions. But if we look to definite facts, we find him supported in his foreign policy by majorities in Parliament ; and with respect generally to our relations with Continental states and the Great American Republic, however the public may grumble at particular details, the great results have been satisfactory. At any rate, whatever differences of opinion may exist among us on these points, it is obvious that the appeal to the country is not an appeal to decide between Lord Palmerston's policy either at home or abroad, as indicated by any definite acts marked with censure by his opponents, and some other _policy equally definite which they have to propose in its place. Leaving aside the Persian war, of which we yet know nothing certain except that it is concluded, and the Chinese dispute, there is in fact no one definite question on which Lord Palmerston and his opponents can call upon the constituencies to make up their minds and pronounce a verdict. And the singularity of the appeal is the more striking when we remember, that the conduct of the Government in reference to the proceedings in China can by no Parliamentary exaggeration be construed into a polioy, on the continuance or the reversal of which the verdict of the country can be expected to exercise any influence. For with respect to what ought now to be done, there can be little or no practical difference of opinion. Lord John Russell put this strongly and truly when he said that there would probably have been no debate in the .House of Commons if Lord Clarendon had done all that he has done with a slight change of phrase, and had refrained from committing the Cabinet to a hearty approval of Sir John Bowiing's warlike zeal. So that if the country is really called on to give its votes at the coming election with direct and single reference to the motion which went against Ministers in the House of Commons, it will, by Lord John Russell's own acknowledgment, be exercising its greatest constitutional privilege on a question not more important than whether Lord Clarendon, as the organ of the Cabinet, used an adjective too much or too little, too warm or too cool, in communicating to the Superintendent at Hongkong the practical information that under the circumstances he would be supported and held blameless for what he had done with perfectly good intentions. To add to the delightful minimizing of the question put to the constituencies, viewed in this light, we may sax that there is not a rational man in England who entertains the faintest doubt that, had Lord Derby been Prime Minister, with Mr. Gladstone in his Cabinet, these distinguished humanitarians would have acted precisely as Lord Palmerston has acted ; though had the Member for Oxford University been employed to write the despatch for the Government, it is probable that he would have made distinctions, and put the matter in such a superlatively clear-obscure form, that poor Sir John Bowring might not have known precisely whether he was to be made a victim or not. Unless' therefore the electors are content simply to record their decision that Lord Palmerston and his colleagues are or are not the Ministers most to their taste, they must themselves make a new issue. For, as political affairs stand, this is really the only intelligible issue that is presented to them, either by the immediate circumstances under which their decision is called for, or by a recurrence to the political history of the whole career of the sitting Parliament, at least of that period during which Lord Pal merston has been Prime Minister. For these two years nothing has occurred to mark off the House of Commons or the country into two parties, between which the electors can be called to decide on intelligible grounds : in other words, unless on the ground of Lord Palmerston having been Minister during the latter period of the Russian war, and having by his energy and ability greatly sided to bring that war and the negotiations to a success
ful issue, there is no political reason why the people of this country should care one jot whether he or Lord Derby be Prime Minister. The one represents Liberal politics about as much as the other, and. in the matter of social reforms we really do not see much to choose between them. Nor can a Ministry be said to represent the old Liberal party, when we find such men as Lord John Russell, Earl Grey, Earl. Fitzwilliam, with the whole of the Manchester and Dissenting party, if not in habitual opposition at least caring nothing for its continuance in office.
So far as political principles and defined political parties are eoncorned, the Government of Lord Palmerston represents nothing but itself, and the temporary circumstances out of which it arose and which so curiously modified its composition. But the same may be said of any Government that could be formed out of the opponents of Lord Palmerston, either his habitual opponents, or those who found themselves "by fortuitous concourse " cheek by jowl in the lobby on Tuesday week. Which amounts to saying, that there are no recognized party principles among us, and no recognized parties to carry them out, though there are and always must be plenty of political opinions on special questions, and plenty of sectaries to enunciate them, and ready enough to raise them into the rank of party principles.
The electors, then, are in this position, that they must either be content to vote at the coming election simply for Palmerston or Derby ; or, as we said, they must invent a policy for their candidates; or, as a third alternative, they must choose just the wisest and best men that they can find without reference to special political opinions. That each of these alternatives has its inconvenience is plain. The first is, as we hinted at the beginning of these remarks, a very simple issue, if the constituencies could be beguiled into really entertaining a vigorous enthusiasm on behalf of a name combined with certain showy qualities in each case, and in each case equally disconnected with earnest and practical-devotion to progress. In the absence of this, we presume a great stress will be laid upon the fact that Lord Palmerston steered the country through the Russian war and the consequent difficulties : and certainly, as aotinst no such corresponding exploit on Lord Derby's part, the tea will have, and ought to have, its 'weight, especially when other statesmen went far to blight the promise of their whole previous career, by-shrinking in the face of diffi eulties, some of them of their own creation. It is' however, a somewhat unsatisfactory programme for the Prime Minister of a nation -which devoutly wishes to be at perpetual peace, that he is a vigorous and lavish War Minister. We cannot see what else Lord Palmerston has to rely on.
The moral of this is, that a Government cannot abdicate its proper initiative functions, in a country like ours, without utter disorganization extending through the community. Lord Palmerston and his opponents have equally failed to identify themselves with any well-defined vigorous attempt to reform any of our institutions. Even with Army-reform, forced upon them by oiroumstances, the Ministry has trifled to an extent hardly conceivable, but capitally exemplified in their contemptible and ungentlemanlike treatment of the Crimean Commissioners. Law-reform is rotten before it is ripe in the hands of their Lord Chancellor. With education they dare not even pretend to deal. Churchrates and all ecclesiastical questions are left to independent Members. These are but types of their whole conduct of affairs. And the result is, that we are going to a general election without a policy to be decided—Without a party to -be supported—with nothing definite at issue except whether a certain set of gentlemen of no particular opinions are to continue to occupy the Treasury-benches, or to give wayto another heterogeneous combination equally without opinions that can be stated intelligibly beforehand.
The last general election went upon a false issue, and the result has been political annihilation. Whether no issue at all, or simply a personal one, will produce a [louse of Commons capable of carrying on the business of legislation, and that higher business which belongs to Parliament as the Grand Inquest of the nation, remains to be seen. The best result would be a House largely composed of able men of business, unpledged to the old ghosts of parties that are still apt to revive and revisit the glimpses of the moon at these periodical saturnalia of cant and humbug—men of high character and cultivated minds, and chosen by the constituencies for these qualities. There never was a time more favourable for' such men to come forward. On the other hand, there is also a chance of violent sections of politicians taking the opportunity of a lull in the broader currents of political opinion to bring forward their small crotchets, and to insist on candidates uttering their shibboleth. Already there are symptoms that the Anti-State-Church Society will adopt this plan, and force upon constituencies men whose single political pledge will be to do their utmost to unsettle existing relations between Church and State. Other small parties will follow the same course. If the plan be generally successful, we shall have a House of Commons containing within itself the elements of its own speedy dissolntion—a House of Crotchets, full of eagerness for particular measures which are utterly impracticable in the hands of private Members, and quite indifferent to great social improvements.
These remarks are based upon a consideration of facts extendinn'b back some years. No doubt, within the next fortnight we shall have programmes in abundance, with professions of political faith varying through the whole scale of intensity and definiteness. These will not much affect our opinions. We prefer to look to the antecedents rather than to the election professions of
Ministers in ease and in posse. Till we see the contrary, we shall continue to believe that a political cosmos is unlikely to arise out of political chaos under the influence of leaders apparently without political purposes or convictions that supply an adequate motive to vigorous action.