TOPICS OF THE DAY.
SHOULD MR. GLADSTONE RESIGN OR DISSOLVE I
WE may, we think, take it as fairly certain that the Government will be defeated on the second reading of the Home-rule Bill. The revolt of the Moderates assumes every week larger proportions as the cultivated classes gradually realise the full meaning and magnitude of the great change proposed. There is no chance of any change in the Bill which would conciliate them, for they are opposed to its principle, and are recognised by the Government as being for the moment in alliance with the regular Opposition. It will be found, we think, when the vote is taken, that this defection alone will imperil the Bill, its range being increased by every concession made by the Government to the demand for retaining Irish Members. We hold it to be clear, again, that even if Mr. Gladstone, by still further concessions, attracts a few of his Radical opponents, the main body are too strongly opposed either to his principle or to his continued leadership to vote upon his aide. The Bill, therefore, will be defeated, and it is time for Moderates to consider carefully what they wish the next step to be. Do they desire, to put the question in plain English, that Mr. Gladstone should dissolve, or that he should resign, so leaving it open to her Majesty to request Lord Hartington to form a Government I They will find that when they have thought it out, the answer to the question will be far from easy.
We may say at once, in advance, that if the interests of the Moderate Liberals are to be alone considered, Mr. Gladstone's decision to resign is greatly to be hoped for. To make them a real and permanent force in the country, it is necessary to convince it that the Moderates can form an alternative Govern- ment, thoroughly competent to conduct the business of the State; that they can devise a definite policy for Ireland; and that they possess the wit and the nerve to baffle the kind of opposi- tion to which the Parnellites will in all probability resort. That they can do this, we are confident ; and it is expedient that it should be done, and that before a dissolution occurs they should ascertain their strength in Parliament, and the feeling of the con- stituencies towards their leader and themselves. If they could hold on for a time, they would accrete strength, and, what is even more important, attract from the whole people that close attention which a democracy is slow to give to any but its actual rulers. Time will make for them as regards the Irish Question ; and in respect to all others, proved efficiency—and they will be as efficient as the Peelites—weighs heavily in forming the judgment of the people. They will be able, merely by forming a Government, to liberate the loyal in Ireland from some of the terrorism they suffer, and to call forth declarations which will at least convince the British people, to millions of whom Ireland is an unknown country, that the island contains two nations and not one. The Moderates in power, moreover, will be able to see, as only a Government is able to see, whether work with the present House of Commons is possible, and whether there is any hope of governing Ireland, excited as she now is, by the ordinary law, or by any law which could be passed applicable to the Three Kingdoms. A dissolution just now is in itself a bad thing, for half the dangerousness of the present House proceeds from rawness, and we do not want a succession of raw Parliaments ; while a clear comprehension of the depth of disorder in Ireland, and of the extent to which law is disobeyed, is essential to any remedy. This can be known accurately only to a Cabinet, which, again, cannot until it is responsible, seriously tackle the agrarian difficulty as it must be tackled by any future Govern- ment whatsoever. Mere inaction will not restore in Ireland the acquiescence which is essential to public order. Finally, if the Moderates take power, and can keep it for a time, they avoid the dangers which may arise from the triangular character of the next election. Those dangers may be averted, but they are serious ; and though the Moderates would prefer a temporary Tory reaction to the disruption of the Kingdom, they are not blind to the dangers at home and abroad which a strong reaction might produce.
These reasons seem to us strong ; but then, if the nation is to be considered first, other reasons are also strong ; and the very raison d'etre of the Moderates as a combination is that they place the nation above themselves and all other parties. In taking power, they avoid, though it be but for a moment, consulting the nation upon the question of Home-rule; and in that avoidance is a root of weakness. It is one of the many disastrous conditions of the present situation that the nation has not been asked whether it will grant Home-rule in any form, whether it will bear the existence of two Par- liaments, or whether it would endure any sacrifice rather than destroy the legislative power of the united repre- sentative body. Even the "simple issue "—which is not simple—has not been put to it ; and the most experi- enced observers differ radically as to its secret opinion, and especially as to the effect which the Northern dislike of the Irish, arising from their continued immigration into the in- dustrial districts, will produce on the mass vote. Even in Ireland the truth is not absolutely clear. Most men believe —we certainly do—that the Election of 1885 gave a correct expression to the general Irish feeling ; but still, it must not be forgotten that the Parnellites were returned by men who did not expect them to secure Home-rule, and that numbers will vote for an idea the realisation of which they nevertheless dread. We do not imagine, for example, that the few Protestant Home-rulers of Ireland retain to-day the impressions under which they voted a few months since. Home-rule was at the Election not even in the air ; and it so completely overshadows other questions, that a dissolution seems to be required merely to make the House of Commons constitutional. There is no certainty that any Member, even Mr. Gladstone himself, any longer represents ; and in a multitude of cases it is certain that the Member does not do so. We hardly see where an answer to this argument can be, and it is greatly strengthened by the undoubted, indeed the admitted, danger of postponing a settlement. Great Britain would not suffer if we waited a year, but then the limitation of the suffering to Ireland is no benefit. The Moderates want Ireland to prosper, not to suffer ; and whichever party is right as to the true source of prosperity, whether it is to be sought in self-government or in a restored regime of law, this much is clear, that protracted doubt whether a revolution will come or not, cannot favour a development of prosperity. The lowest bailiff in Ireland does not know whether he will be protected from above, or thrown by his superiors to the wolves ; the smallest farmer is uncertain whether the land- agent or the National League will ultimately be the stronger. To avoid a final vote on the principle, is to continue anarchy in Ireland during the time of avoidance, for it is the habitual, and not the momentary pressure of the law, which maintains social order ; and anarchy may, as we see, be fed on the expectation, as well as on the reality, of revolution. It is of the last importance to convince Ireland either that she will have Home-rule in some form, or that under the most favourable circumstances, with a Minister like Mr. Glad- stone ready to give way, the course of her strange destiny cannot be so deflected. Once convinced in either direction, Ireland would be calm ; and though a meaningless outbreak would simplify the whole question by compelling a resort to force, the first object of right-minded statesmanship is, and always should be, to prevent solution through catastrophe. It will be better for the Kingdom, though not for the Moderates, that Mr. Gladstone should dissolve ; and better, we may add, though that is a subordinate considera- tion, for the Monarchy also. The Queen is entirely within her Constitutional right in accepting a resignation produced by a defeat on a question never submitted to the people ; but that course will not increase her popularity. It is certain to be said and believed that her Majesty refused a dissolution, that she would not have refused it to Lord Salisbury, and that her course has been guided by an inner distrust, or even dis- like, of Mr. Gladstone's party. The Sovereign, to be useful, must run that risk sometimes ; but the argument for running it is this time far from overwhelming, and will seem to the body of the people weak. No nation ever yet thought the submission of a great question to its decision unwise or inopportune.