MR. W. E. FORSTER ON THE LIBERAL CAUSE.
AS there are men who permit themselves a sort of prodigal munificence in expenditure up to a certain point, and ensure themselves, as it were, against the results of that pro- digality by an austere rejection of all appeals, either to their personal wishes or their generosity, beyond that point, so there are Liberals, of whom Mr. Forster, the member for Bradford, strikes us as one of the best examples, who lavish an almost measureless sympathy on the wants of the masses of the people, and guarantee themselves against the exigeance of such a habit of mind by an ascetic adherence to a rule of thrifty and even stinted economy in foreign policy. He gives his heart freely to the Liberal cause at home, and then makes the sacri- fice to prudence and caution of binding himself by a sort of penitential vow to do nothing practical for that cause abroad. Mr. Forster's speech yesterday week at Bradford is sharply stratified by this wide distinction of tone between its treatment of English and of foreign policy. A careless reader might fancy at first that on foreign policy he was adopting the laisser-faire principle of Mr. Cobden. But looking a little closer he would see at once that whereas Mr. Cobden would dissolve the Empire to-morrow rather than sacrifice the free operation of a single economical principle in Europe, Mr. Forster's practical line is rather that of Mr. Henley, or other sagacious Tories, who would not let slip, if they could help it, one exist- ing element of British greatness, and would also refuse to hazard it by one iota of needless generosity. Yet this, too, wholly fails to express the spirit, though it may afford a practical key to the conclusions, of Mr. Forster's foreign policy. He does not really care for England's greatness in the abstract half as much as he cares for international justice and popular rights; but he is absolutely terrified at the enormous opening for reckless and plausible interference which any admission of such claims as these would make, and only professes the selfish principle of never interfering in Europe except on behalf of English interests, in order to tarn the key, as it were, on the dangerous warmth of his own sympathy. " Of late years," said Mr. Forster, in this ascetic mood, after expressing a warmth of sympathy with Poland which evidently made him feel most bitterly that we could offer no particle of aid, " England bad clearly shown, by the expression of public opinion in meetings, in the press, and in Parliament, that it was not her intention as a *nation any more to be dragged into wars on the Continent or else- where in which she is not concerned He was well aware there were many who regarded this as a selfish poll.* but as a trustee for millions of his countrymen and fellow- subjects he could not venture to involve them in war with other people, at the cost of their lives and the ruin of their property, without having full reason to believe that they were bound to undertake such a war, and that the honour and interests of the country were involved." We agree with Mr. Forster that the public opinion of the country has recently declared itself in a very pronounced way in this direction, but we think he for- gets that this was at a time when it also declared itself in a still more pronounced way against a Liberal home policy.. If he is to take Mr. Henley's cautious sagacity for his law in the one case, why not in the other also ? The truth is that the " Rest and be thankful" era is even more unfavour- able to an active policy, even in cases of real urgency not involving our own interests directly, in foreign affairs than to reform in home affairs. It is a dangerous thing to rely too much for an abstract principle—like this of only meddling where our own selfish interests are concerned—on a public opinion which has been notoriously passing through a Conser- vative phase. We are much mistaken if the adoption of Mr._ Forster's popular views as to representative reform would not lead to a complete rejection of the abstract principle he now lays down, and an even dangerous reaction in the direction of a.
propagandist foreign policy. And it is, if we mistake not, the presentiment, to which his own warm popular sympathies- give rise, of such a danger, which induces him to set up, as a sort of iron barrier against the indulgence of such impulses,. the principle of non-interference except on selfish grounds_ Yet it is a mistake, and, we think, a grave one. We are quite as well aware as Mr. Forster can be of the manifold dangers of needless interference in foreign disputes,—of the tendency all interference has to enlarge the scale and multiply the issues of a quarrel, and to sow abroad that- suspicion and fear which originates so many quarrels. Still the remedy for this is certainly not the selfish principle. In the first place, it is a most inefficient remedy, for almost every quarrel in which England has ever been engaged has been represented by the morbid imagination of our rulers, or the nation, or both, as one in which our national self-interest was involved, so that Mr. Forster's principle only removes the form of the issue from the question of " Ought we to in- terfere ?" to the quite as embarrassed and even more easily pre- judiced question, " Is it England's interest to interfere ?" the next place, the adoption of the selfish principle is not only inefficient to control meddling, even if it could be driven into the- popular mind, but it is the one aggressive principle which of all others most demands control. There is scarcely any legitimate ground of interference in Europe, except to resist the selfish en- croachment of greater races on smaller and yet naturally inde- pendent races. If we cannot prevent that, there can be no in- ternational stability at all. The equilibrium of Europe entirely- depends on bridling every purely selfish aggression of power- ful on weaker States. And how can this ever be effected if every nation's foreign policy is to be regulated only by the question, "Does it, or does it not, matter directly to me whether this small Power be swallowed up or not ?" Under such a canon a lasting peace would be about as likely as a lasting social order in any society whose people never inter- fered to prevent any robbery or violence that did not directly injure themselves.
But while we cannot admire Mr. Forster's strenuous. effort to guard himself against the treacherous warmth of his. Liberal sympathies by voluntarily thrusting them into the straight waistcoat of a selfish theory, we heartily concur in very much of his able exposition, both of what still remains to be done at home and of the forces by which alone it is likely to be accomplished. Ecclesiastical reform, both in Ireland and in England, he says, is pressing for considera- tion • but it cannot be separated from the reform which would infuse a direct representation of the labouring class into our present Parliament. This is both sound and im- portant. Mr. Forster did not say what, perhaps, no repre- sentative would feel it prudent to say directly, but what is, nevertheless, true,—that the majority of the present electors are exactly of that class which is most likely to be illiberal on all our urgent ecclesiastical reforms. The ten-pounders, as a mass, have little sympathy with intellectual freedom in matters of faith, and we are persuaded that either a considerable contraction or a liberal extension of the electoral privileges would give us a Parliament more likely to abolish some of the most galling fetters of the clergy, and to remove the monstrous injustice of the Irish Protestant Establishment than the present. The operative class and the highest education of the country have in common a far keener dislike to sectarian bigotry and intolerance than the mass of our present electors. As no one will seriously propose to contract the suffrage, we believe the genuine ecclesiastical reformer will hold with Mr. Forster that he must seek the aid of the labouring class,—hoping not only to gain in it a firm friend in the cause of intellectual freedom, but, in doing so, to give it, what it much needs, a growing conviction that the highest culture of the intellect is not the foe but the most sure ally of true faith.
There is one point, however, in Mr. Forster's speech of still more immediate importance. He says, most truly, that it is a shame to this country that the poorest class, both in our great cities and in the agricultural counties, should be so miserable. The Times concurs in this opinion, but represents Mr. Forster's speech as a succession of useless aspirations,— the vain sighs of an idealist who wishes for some great im- provement to which he points us out no way. This is quite untrue. Mr. Forster touched one of the most easily removed as well as critical causes of this misery, when he pointed to the fact that labour is not free to move at will towards the great attracting masses of capital so long as the present poor- law continues. To the imagination of the middle-class, which never practically contemplates the workhouse as either a re- lieving power to its necessities, or as a temporary or final home, except in joke, the law of settlement and of " irremove- ability," as it is technically called, seems to have no connec- tion at all with the chances of life. But to the poor labourer, who habitually contemplates the weather and other kcal circumstances as determining for him in any particular week whether his wages will cover the necessities of life or not, the question of his right to claim relief in any particular locality is a vital one. People wonder that the agricultural population hug their parish and eight shillings a week, when in the manutacturing districts a likely lad may make twenty with ease; but they forget the horror of an absolute stoppage of all resources, and the habitual nearness of that alternative to every poor labourer's mind. Mr. Villiers has done something to improve the situation by diminishing the period after which a poor man is" irremoveable" to three years. But, though something, it is still but little. A man in search of work knows that he must often change his locality till he suits himself; that he probably will not be able to live for three years together in any individual parish; and besides, to the igno- rant imagination, three years is a vague, immeasurable stretch of opportunities for starvation and certainties of recurring want. There will be no free trade in labour till the poor man is entitled to relief wherever he may happen to be residing. What you want is to encourage labour to go in search of the market for labour, whereas the present law imposes the most terrible of imaginative and often substantial penalties on the search. We ought to make labour a fluid commodity, following capital as the tides follow the moon; we do make it almost a fixture, heaped up in this place into a pyramid of un- used force and suffering want, depressed in that into a supply so precarious that capitalists dare not enlarge their scale of operations. The natural method of effecting this enormous re- form would be to make every pauper after some exceedingly short residence irremoveable, which would have the effect also of charging him on the common fund of the Union, and not on the special fund of the parish. This would be desirable in every way, as it would generally defeat those selfish landlords who banish cottages entirely from their estates in order to pre- vent the growth of rates. The increase of the Union rates and decrease of parish rates would soon render it nearly impossible for landlords to manoeuvre in this way. They may keep the poor out of a parish, but even if one or two owned a whole Union between them, it would never answer to keep the poor out of the Union. We look to this as the greatest and most urgent social and economical reform now before us. We believe it would end in giving a real spirit of courage and self-dependence to the agricultural poor, and complete the free-trade movement by one of the most important of all its steps, namely, giving freedom of choice and exemption from constant fear of starvation to the labouring man. Moreover, it would soon diminish the general average of the poor rates by bringing labour where it is most wanted. Mr. Forster will do the Liberal cause the greatest possible service if he will press this reform home.