TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE TRUTH IN WHAT FOREIGNERS ARE SAYING ABOUT ENGLAND.
WE are just now the subject of much derision and much pity on the Continent, a fact which, on the whole, disturbs us but little, and perhaps ought to disturb us less. When a people like the Prussian people, who have for the first time in this century taken a really important and digni- fied position in the affairs of Europe, who three years ago were the least of the Great Powers, if a Great Power at all, and four months ago might have sunk back in a moment to the same low level had the pistol of Blind taken effect upon the life of the imperious and cynical statesman who has won so great a prize for his people in the lottery of war and intrigue, —a people, moreover, who are still torn by political divisions between the power of the Crown and the power of the people, that may well end in paralyzing the arm of their nation, though it seems now the most powerful in Europe,—when such a people as this taunt us freely with our failures and our impotence, with the blustering and the timidities of our Parlia- ment, with the ignoble failures of our foreign policy, with the craven caution of our mercantile wealth, we may well reply that if the present is our zero point of national influence, it is as far above the point at which Prussia stood only ten years ago in the time of the Crimean war, as our highest point, that at which we stood in 1815, is above the present maximum point of Prussian greatness ; and that if the whirlgig of time thus brings about its revenges' even to Prussia, it will scarcely fail to do so to England. But though such answers may be all very well as mere parries to the criticisms directed upon us from abroad, they are not sufficient for ourselves, so far as we attach any real significance to those criticisms ; and we confess that the bold assertion recently made by several of our own statesmen, Mr. Disraeli especially,—that England was never so powerful as she is now, and that it is precisely the magnitude of our colonial interests and of our Indian Empire, not our own miscalculations or mistakes, which is detaching us from the great movements of European politics, and giving us an air of isolation and helplessness,—seem to us more ingenious than candid. It is easy to smile at the contempt which Germany and even France now seem to feel for English national influence. We know our own strength, and that a turn in the affairs of England and Europe may come any year to restore us to more than our former weight in European counsels. But for our own sake at least it is wise to look steadily at the truth, to ask ourselves how far these criticisms are really false or true ; what it is that we have lost, if we have lost anything ; what it is that we must look to gain before we can again take the position we so lately held. If we can gain any light for ourselves by reading the attacks of our unfriendly critics, there are few Englishmen who will not study them with the most impartial attention and almost pleasure.
Le Nord of Tuesday had a very able and really remarkable article from the high autocratic or Russian point of view on the failing resources of our Constitution, and on the same day the Daily News printed in an interesting letter from Wiesbaden a condensed account of the German sneers against England. We shall attempt to appreciate all the more weighty of these hostile criticisms, and to draw out the lesson they contain. Le Nord remarks that the agitation conducted by Mr. Bright and his friends in favour of Reform, draws all its arguments from abuses that may be either called terri- torial or may be ascribed to the influence of the aristocracy, and that they do not venture to harp -upon the flagrant mal- administration of workhouses, tiro., by our bourgeoisie, as evi- dence of the need of Reform. The middle class have still, and are likely to have, physical power enough to get plenty of homage from the agitators, even while they are apparently crying out for the privileges of the working class. Le Nord regards the importance attached by the democratic press to the prosecution of Mr. Eyre and the denunciation of the Jamaica atrocities, as proceeding in great measure from the wish to bring into discredit with the working class who are the new candidates for power, the aristocracy, whose nominee and protege' Mr. Eyre is, and to screen the bourgeoisie from the accusations which they deserve. On the other hand, Le Nord observes that the aristocracy shrink from defending Mr. Eyre from a dislike to seem to apologize for acts of cruelty and inhumanity, or what are thought so in the eyes of the masses, and its weakness in this matter Le Nord regards as the proof that the English aristocracy is losing manliness and vigour. On the other hand, it observes that the intellectual aristocracy,—Carlyle, the Kingsleys, Ruskin, and the Univer- sities generally,—are taking up the defence of the man froni whose side the nobility are shrinking, and are so bringing down upon their heads the wrath of the democracy, who can- not bear to see democratic principles tried and condemned by the intellect of the country, and it quotes articles from the Star and a letter of Professor Newman's attacking the inhumanity of intellectual culture, and calling out not for more, but for less representation of Universities, learned bodies, and educated thought generally. From all this Le Nord argues that the spirit of English Radicalism is aiming first to destroy what it has already in great measure rendered impotent, the first great line of defences which confront it,—the aristocracy of birth and fortune ; that it finds that this will not be enough, but that the aristocracy of intellect and culture must go down next if it is to win the day ; finally, that it does not yet attack, that it is afraid to attack, the great abuses of middle-class vulgarity and narrow-mindedness in the shape of workhouse abuses, muni- cipal trickeries, local nuisances generally. Such is the criticism on England of Le Nord, the organ of the party which sets up Russian autocracy against the spirit of popular progress. The German criticisms upon us come from a different point of view—the popular point of view—but are equally bitter. They say we have lost the power to judge the signs of the times, that English sympathy went with the losing side in America, and did much even to encourage the partizans of reaction and slavery in their useless and impotent struggle ; that with the same blind eyes we judged the Danish war in 1864, urging on the Danes to their destruction, and entirely ignoring the great and growing power of Prussia, with which we ought to have had far more sympathy than with that of France ; that our justification of ourselves for standing aloof from European politics is in great part mere sulkiness at our own blunders, and so far as it is not so, an indication of deca- dence and gross self-occupation ; that even in our administra- tion of the army and navy, while lavishing millions, we fait to obtain what we need, through utter incapacity to control the anarchical power of those selfish individual influences, which, for the rest, are threatening even our commercial prosperity, and gnawing at the sources of the only thing left to us—our material wealth.
There would seem to be at first sight but little common element between these two very different classes of -reproaches. Reproaches directed against our aristocracy for timidly fearing the appearance of inhumanity,—against our middle class for actual selfishness and incapacity,—sgainst our working class for hating the aristocracy of intellect as much as the aris- tocracy of rank, and for hating both more than the imbecile plutocracy which actually reigns, do not at first sight seem very like reproaches against England for not dis- cerning the true progressive element in other nations. Yet whatever is just in the reactionary reproaches of Le Nord comes to the same thing in the end as what is just in the Radical reproaches of the German democracy. Whatever is just in either comes to this,—England just now is weak, embarrassed, dull-sighted, because the centre of her political gravity is in a state of transition, and there is no single end before the eyes of the nation in struggling for which the Government can feel that it is heartily supported by the whole nation. Which are the nations that have grown most rapidly in power and importance of late years ? Those which have had single objects in view, more or less uniting the whole national sympa- thies in their favour ;—for instance, Italy, whose whole people have cried out with one voice for unity and freedom ; Ger- many, whose people have similarly agitated and struggled for a coherent national life; the United States, absorbed in one mighty effort to smother the terrible disease which threatened their na- tional existence. All these now great powers have had before them a simple, a distinct, an intelligible appeal to the popular imagination to stimulate their progress in a single direction. What are the great nations, on the contrary, which have lost in weight of late years ? Those whose organization is so complex and whose popular wishes are so indeterminate and ill-adjusted, that they have been able to come to no clear understanding as to the immediate future to be aimed at,— like Austria, who has suffered far more from not knowing her own wishes, or rather from including within her too many and quite incompatible wishes, than from any deficiencies of military organization ;—like Russia, whose territorial progress has been checked to adjust internal struggles not endangering the national existence, and not appealing directly therefore to any national ambition ;—like England, whose external in- fluence has in like manner been checked through the paralyz- ing influence of issues of the same kind as in Russia, though arising at a far higher bend in the spiral movement of popular progress and civilization. Whenever the predominant interest .of any nation has been one affecting the national unity, life, or existence, then we have seen rapid and wonderful progress, which the national enthusiasms so keen in our day have worked. Whenever the predominant interest has been one of the internal adjustment of the different forces in the national life, not endangering national unity or existence, then we have had a period of comparative weakness and suspension of ani- mation, or even, as in Austria, of decadence.
And next, why is England in this latter predicament? Because, as Le Nord sees, and the German Democrats also see, the questions vitally affecting English unity and nation- .ality have long ago been determined, so that what remains to give us the force of a unanimous intent is the decided pre- dominance of some one phase of national desire or purpose, whereas there is at present a fluctuation between many phases of national desire, a fluctuation embarrassing and disappointing to all. An aristocracy rarely leads a nation and becomes its true organ except on territorial questions,—questions affecting the nation's own territorial greatness. On all such questions aristo- cracies, where they exist at all (and where they do not, as in America, then the landed classes), take the actual lead, and they are now leading both in Italy and Prussia, while the masses of -the nation follow. But such questions vitally affecting our own territorial greatness do not, for the present at least, exist for England at all; and the aristocracy which led England ably while they did exist, have fallen into a comparatively insignificant place. Again, the middle classes usually lead a nation when it is deciding the questions which chiefly affect property, ques- tions of finance, of commerce, of penal jurisprudence, of na- tional investments of capital in roads, railways, telegraphs, .8ro. For the last thirty years England has been settling these questions, and the middle class has led her with an earnest and proud sense of leadership that has given it dignity, and even nobility. But the middle class has for the most part settled these questions now, and it is falling into the lassitude and the indifference which indicate that it does not truly care about the great questions still unsettled, and which affect the greatest class of all, and must ultimately determine the 'bent of our national future. The labouring class have still their turn to come, and when they get it, we shall begin to see if there is not once more a new and inexhaustible energy thrown into our national affairs,—whether they will not be able to infuse fresh energy into the middle class (as thirty years ago the middle class %fused fresh energy into the aristocracy), so as to give us once more strongly defined national desires and unanimous purposes. And if, as we believe, it prove so, we may well expect England to be once more in the very van of Europe, for no other country has solved so completely the territorial and the mercantile questions which properly belong, as it were, to an earlier stage of civilization, or can bring to the greatest of all political problems—the intellectual education of labour and our political education by labour--a political mind so completely free from the complications of territorial struggles for unity and nationality, and of economical struggles for a true solution of the problems affecting the accumulations of _material wealth.