20 FEBRUARY 1886, Page 4


THE " DESPONDENCY " OF THE SPECTATOR. ACORRESPONDENT, whom we heartily thank for the tone, if not the words, of his letter, complains that the Spectator is losing its faith, is ceasing to encourage its readers, and is becoming penetrated through and through with the despondency visible, he says, in every article of last week's issue, even in the paper on the safety of the old Shetland lady so miraculously preserved to reach the coast of Norway. He bids us pluck up heart, to trust in God and Liberal princip]es, and to believe that all will be for the best. The counsel is always salutary, but it is not in this in- stance needed. The conductors of the Spectator may suffer unconsciously, as almost all men do, from that decrease of hope which comes with long experience, and the sense it brings both of the endless complexity of human affairs and of the part played in them by what seems an irresistible drift such as all but Christians would term " Destiny ; " but they have lost faith neither in Providence nor in the future of Great Britain. God will work his own will in his own good time, the divine mills grinding slowly as of old, but grinding "exceeding fine," and England will march on to her goal, as she has done all through her history, not crushed down by Ireland, and though the road of escape is still invisible, not separated finally from her. The histories of nations are the result of their qualities, and history will not so change as that England shall be miserable or Ireland fortu- nate. We recognise as clearly as most men that there have been times of trial for England far deeper than any now present, clouds far darker than any now hanging over the State. The foreign difficulties of the hour are as nothing compared with those which were faced between Austerlitz and Waterloo ; the burdens on the country are trifling to those borne from 1816 to 1832; the disturbances at home are trivial to the disturbances which, just before the repeal of the Corn Laws, shook the determined will and calm intelligence of Sir James Graham. Indeed, there are features in the present situation which by themselves ought to be sources of political cheerfulness. The Empire as a whole was never more peaceful or apparently more content. The temple of Janus is momentarily shut, and if the Powers are still struggling with each other, it is with a visible desire to avoid war. The free Colonies are to an unprecedented degree both prosperous and loyal; and the only question about them is whether they can or cannot be drawn still more closely to the Mother-land. The Crown Colonies are scarcely heard of, and their difficulties resolve themselves into one,—an economic depression, still not thoroughly explained, from which the whole world is suffering. The burden of taxation, though heavy, presses nowhere on the springs of industry ; all that the people pay goes to the Treasury, and resistance to taxation is unknown. Pauperism has often been higher, and the volume of commerce, though decreasing, is still vast. Thought is intensely active, intercommunication is increasing till it be- comes burdensome, and the prosperous feel as they have never felt throughout history for the condition of the poor. The nation is spending almost beyond its means on education, the churches never were fuller, crime is decreasing rapidly, and the national manners have grown so much softer, that a rough crowd engaged in dangerous horseplay is regarded as an anachronism. Even in Ireland, the blackest spot in the Empire, murderous crime is infrequent compared with many pre- cedents; and both peoples are free of that old and once ever- present danger, the fear of abortive insurrections sure to be quelled in blood.

We see all these pleasanter signs as clearly as the most sanguine or the most Radical of our friends, and welcome them all most heartily ; but still, we confess to a despondency about the immediate, it may be even a protracted, future. There is a symptom present in the body politic as formidable as heart- disease in a man ; or shall we compare it to one of those brain affections which sometimes mean so little, and sometimes are the sure premonitions of decay? The weakness, or the malaise, or the failure, or whatever it is, exists in the very centres of the system—in the people, in London, in Parliament—not in the extremities. So far as we can see, the last steps taken towards democracy, instead of strengthening the governing power, as they certainly did in 1832, and perhaps in 1867, have impaired it. The representatives of the people, instead of feeling their new strength, are perceptibly weaker ; the, people, instead of becoming more decided, are unmistakeably more bewildered. The governing statesmen lack decision, and almost audibly—witness Mr. Gladstone's letter to Lord de Vesci—ask of the world at large the light which the world, in its turn, seeks to obtain, first of all, from their minds. No man knows clearly whither his leaders go, or whether he can follow. Parliament is not certain, is most uncertain, whether it is master of its own proceedings,—whether, for instance, it could pass a Bill which an eighth of its Members disapproved, if only that eighth were Irish. The people do not know what they want, but, as in this matter of the London riots, are full at once of sympathy and anger ; or, as in the matter of Ireland, of indignation and hesitation ; or, as in the matter of Egypt—where a fourth of our military force is locked up without visible result for good—of conscious impotence to decide on any course what- ever. The disease is not in the organisation of the State, for this is unchanged, and never worked more easily than in the recent formation of a Government. It is not in the ill-temper of the people, for the masses were never more reasonable, if it is reasonable to pause and hearken, as witness the re-elections. Nor is the disease in the parties, for never were leaders so looked up to. It is in the men of the nation themselves, in the mind of each individual who cannot, or at least does not, resolve. The central State itself, this England of ours, which has faced and overcome so much, seems to be in that strange mental condition into which De Quincey sometimes fell, when the body was sound, and the mind not only clear but over-lucid, but when the relation between thought and action failed, purpose was extinct, and the man, so to speak, was a suspended entity. Even that strange instinct which belongs to democracies on great occasions, and so often supplies the place of reason, seems to be inoperative,—though it may be, as it was in America before the attack on Fort Sumter, that thought is only held suspended, and will be crystallised by a blow. The mental condition may be a passing phenomenon ; it may be that Mr. Gladstone will break the spell, and once more reunite thought and movement ; or it may be that the people itself may shake it off, and arrive at some fixity of resolve ; or it may be that the torpor will be suddenly broken by some grand shock from without. But we never saw the national mind in the same condition before, and cannot rid ourselves, not, indeed, of a belief that the condition presages decay—decay such as fell on Spain after her splendid period—but of a fear lest it may be so, lest the horror of worry, of effort, of resolve, now visible throughout the State, should continue till a catastrophe occurs. If we meet a real danger as we are meeting a half-imaginary one, all might be over before the nation woke. That is the source of the" despondency" our correspondent rebukes, and no loss of faith in a God who ruled when England was not, and will rule when she is forgotten. The despondency is aggravated, though that is a detail, by total inability to sympathise with the New Radicalism in its foolish dream of conciliation through sur- render, and reinvigoration through profuse largesses, and by a melancholy sense that on the question of the hour we must resist the leader with whom we are most in sympathy ; but the root of it is there, a fear lest the mental condition of the people, the kind of arrest visible in its will, should be a symptom of historic decay. It is not, as we trust and believe —for with a failing England, what were life worth I—but a stranger condition never was visible yet. Every man apparently wishes for strength, and then decides that weakness is, after all, the less burdensome quality of the mind, and that he has only to shrink persistently to be saved from all the troubles of life. And, all the while, shrinking will not make any wind of the four blow lighter.