TOPICS OF THE DAY.
MR. BALFOUR'S SPEECH AND THE " TIMES " LEADER.
"W E cannot, as Unionist Free-traders, profess ourselves satisfied with Mr. Balfour's speech. But in making this declaration we must confess that we did not expect that we should be. Ever since the " Valentine " correspondence we have felt that Mr. Balfour had, for the time at any rate, abandoned the Free-trade position, and that therefore it was not for us to scan his speeches with any great hope of finding therein statements of principle on the question of the hour with which we could agree. It has become the turn of the Tariff Reformers to study Mr. Balfour's speeches with anxious eyes and knit brows, and to try to discover the exact meaning of the oracle,— to weigh words and phrases, and to consider whether it will be safe for them to rely upon general assurances and abstract expressions of agreement, and to accept an atmosphere, or apparent atmosphere, of assent with their views as equivalent to a specific guarantee. We remember only too well the doubt, hesitation, and pain of trying to come to a conclusion as to what Mr. Balfour really meant. Hence there is nothing ironic, insincere, or malicious in our words when we say that we feel no small amount of sym- pathy with the Tariff Reformers in their attempts to decide whether Mr. Balfour has gone far enough for their purposes, and whether they dare regard his speech as that of a leader who will lead them in the end, not where he wants, but where they want to go.
In these circumstances, we should have preferred not to attempt any explanation of Mr. Balfour's speech. We have, however, as journalists, a duty to perform,—the duty of expressing an honest opinion as to what we ourselves think is the general result of that speech. We can best express that opinion by saying that if we were Tariff Reformers we should feel exceedingly anxious and per- turbed. In the first place, Mr. Balfour's determination not to allow the Unionist Free-traders to be driven out of the party—a determination which, of course, we personally think most sound—would greatly alarm us. Forlorn hopes are not usually successful when a percentage of the storming-party are most anxious that the attack shall fail. Again, if we were Tariff Reformers we should look with no little alarm upon Mr. Balfour's announcement that another Colonial Conference must be summoned before action is taken,—for, remember, Mr. Balfour has never receded from the point that after a scheme had been formulated in a Conference it must be submitted to the people, not only in this country, but in the component parts of the Empire, at a General Election. Next, if we were Tariff Reformers we should feel by no means happy about Mr. Balfour's four points of principle in regard to changes in taxation. Those principles have a suspiciously anti-Preferential and anti-Protectionist look in their insistence upon tariff for revenue and in their demand that no extra burden shall be placed upon the working man. They remind one, indeed, of the impossible conditions in the old bonds. "—If John Nokes shall ride to Rome in three days." Unless we are greatly mistaken, no instance is recorded of John Nokes accomplishing that feat. If we must sum up our general impression of Mr. Balfour's speech, it is that it was of very little practical political importance, and was not intended to be of any. It was meant to leave things as they are for the present—to keep them just on the simmer and no more—and this it has done.
A far more important event in the region of practical politics is the leading article which appeared in the Times on Wednesday dealing with the crisis in the Unionist Party. We say this not merely because the change of attitude towards the Fiscal controversy exhibited by the Times is welcome to us personally, but because of the statesmanship displayed by the article in question, and its appreciation of facts as they are. When we speak of the change of attitude on the part of the Times, we do not mean to suggest that the Times has hastily and lightly thrown over Tariff Reform and adopted Free-trade, but rather that it has adopted an attitude condemnatory of those extreme Tariff Reformers who declare that they can get on perfectly well without any help from the Free-trade Unionists, and that the sooner the latter are ejected from the party the better. In effect, the Times asks for what - we have been asking,—namely, for a truce between the Tariff Reformers and the Unionist Free-traders in which the Fiscal controversy shall be for the time definitely put aside, and combined action taken against the common enemy. We have further suggested, following here the Scottish correspondent of the Times, that the period of truce should be utilised to appoint a Royal Commission to* consider the whole Fiscal question. The Times, as we gather, is not yet prepared ,to commit itself editorially to this proposal ; but at any rate there is nothing in its leading article which is hostile to such a course.
Let us attempt to explain somewhat more in detail the line taken by the Times, and show how satisfactory that line must be to all those who agree with our desire to see the Unionist Party once more united. After dwelling upon the great national dangers incident to the campaign against the House of Lords, the "carnival of disorder" in Ireland, and the " attacks upon property in every form," and upon " the principles upon which our society is founded," the Times declares that on these and other vital questions it is the first duty of Unionists to preserve complete and effective unanimity :— "It is their duty to subordinate to these questions everything that is less vital and less urgent, and especially to avoid everything that has not yet commanded the general support of Unionists themselves, or that, even if commanding general approval, has not been thoroughly discussed in a concrete and practical form. However great may be the importance of tariff reform, it is not urgent in the same sense as the things we have mentioned. Its most thoroughgoing advocates must recognise, unless, like the fanatical free-traders, they have lost all sense of proportion, that we can get along for a few years without tariff reform. But a very few years may see irreparable mischief done to the Constitu- tion and the bases of all society, whether protectionist or free trade, unless a stand is made against the projects we have named."
Equally satisfactory is the conclusion that the ardent advocates " who are trying to force Tariff Reform to the front, and, indeed, to make it the exclusive test of Unionism, should be invited to look at the matter from the practical common-sense point of view. Do they think that the general conditions of the moment are favourable to their enterprise ? " The article goes on to point out that a time when trade is as prosperous as it is in this country at present is an exceedingly bad moment to ask people to change the system under which we have lived and prospered. But even supposing that this diffi- culty were to be surmounted, and that the Unionist Party won the next General Election upon Tariff Reform, " could it," asks the Times, "carry Tariff Reform straight away P "— " Every one knows that it could not. Would it even be ready to offer a coherent and practical scheme of legislation embodying its views ? We think not. Such a scheme may have been thought ont somewhere, but it certainly has not been offered to, discussed by, and assented to by the party as a whole or any considerable section of it. Many differences would disclose themselves when the thing came to be handled at close quarters, so that to carry its policy into effect the party would need a very large majority and an assured lease of power. We do not yet perceive the signs of so pronounced a revulsion of feeling as would make a victory of that kind possible upon a tariff reform platform. Mr. Balfour long ago perceived and stated that such a change could not be carried into effect without an assurance that it would not be reversed by another election."
The Times ends its leader by once more asserting that " in face of the present political storm, the urgent duties of the Unionists, while including a vigorous tariff reform propaganda, do not seem to call for the making of it into a test question or into the exclusive object of concern." We may perhaps be inclined to doubt the tactical wisdom of the Times in inserting in this context the phrase "while including a vigorous tariff reform propaganda," for such a phrase seems to us somewhat out of focus with the general tone of the article. No one would, of course, expect the Tariff Reformers to give up holding or expressing their personal views on the Fiscal question during the truce, any more than Free-traders would be expected to keep silent on such a subject, but we should have thought that it would have been better in the context not to insist on this point. That; however, is relatively a small matter. What is important is that the Times realises the need for a truce, and for reuniting the party on the basis of the principles which the party held before the beginning of Mr. Chamberlain's campaign, and further, that it has the courage to tell the Tariff Reformers that not only is their notion of winning an Election without such reunion impracticable, but that . even if they were to win the Election, they could not hope on the strength of such a victory to revolutionise com- pletely our fiscal policy.
While rejoicing in 'the wisdom and courage shown by the Times, we may also be allowed as journalists to express our satisfaction at seeing the greatest of English newspapers revert to what we may venture to say is the true position for the Times to occupy,— that is, a " Left-Centre " and moderate position. It has, however, always been the practice of the Times not to be afraid of admitting and rectifying mistakes of policy boldly and frankly. Herein has lain no small measure of its strength. When all is said and done, the mass of the British people are " Left-Centre," and it is only fitting that their typical newspaper should in this respect reflect their mental attitude.