TOPICS OF THE DAY.
LORD LANSDOWNE AND THE GOVERNMENT.
/111E violent outcry against Mr. Balfour for not having shown more tact in his speeches—that was what the accusations against him really came to—has worked itself out, and now the newspapers which were hottest against him have virtually abandoned their crusade. We do not, however, intend to dwell upon the levity with which the whole incident was marked. Nor do we mean to copy this plan of making an attack upon a Minister one day and abandoning it the next. We gave it as our opinion last week that Lord Lansdowne had not shown himself to be a competent War Minister, and we are of that opinion still. We desire to return to the point, and to give our reasons (1) for thinking that the responsibility of Lord Lansdowne can and should be separated from that of the rest of the Csbinet, and (2) for thinking that Lord Lansdowne has shown himself unable to take a proper grasp of our military affairs, and therefore a person of insufficient energy and vigour to be at the head of the War Office at a moment of great strain.
We are, of course, well aware that under the theory of the Constitution the Cabinet has a collective responsibility, and that the Ministry as a whole deems itself responsible for the acts of each one of its members. That is, when rightly understood, a very proper arrangement, and has always been maintained, and ought to be maintained, in re- gard to matters of policy. It must not, however, be pressed too far or into the domain of practical details. The whole Cabinet, in fact as well as in theory, share responsibility over a matter of policy,—such as, for instance, a declaration of war, or the line of action adopted in a diplomatic con- troversy. The theory of collective responsibility cannot, however, be asserted in regard to matters of detail, and as to the efficient or inefficient management of a Department. A Cabinet Minister's colleagues may desire, and very naturally do desire, to stand by him when he is under fire ; but that must not prevent the country from enforcing an individual and particular responsibility when the failure complained of arises from want of per- sonal efficiency and. vigour. If that is not granted, we put a positive premium on slackness and incompetence. Many a man is prevented from taking a post beyond his powers by a misgiving in his own heart that he is not up to the work. Such misgivings often save nations and private businesses from blunders in matters of im- portance. But once grant that a man's colleagues will hold him up whatever happens, and you take away a useful bulwark against the misfortune of men accept- ing posts for which they are unfitted. Again, if you are to assume collective Cabinet responsibility and press it home to the utmost, and even in cases of inefficiency, how are you ever to clear a Government of a man who has not shown himself up to his work ? Unless in the last resort there is an opportunity for getting rid of men who have been proved weak, how can the business of the country be properly conducted ? In every partnership in which there are a large number of partners, necessarily of varying capacity, the deed provides for some method of shelving, and there must be such a power resident in the Prime Minister, which be uses by " accepting with sincere regret the resignation" of a colleague. It is idle to argue as if a Cabinet were a body which must always and in every case stand or fall together. To throw out an unpopular colleague to the wolves would be base and disloyal, but it is. not disloyal or base to ask a Cabinet Minister to change his office when he has not proved a successful administrator. There is no novelty about our proposition. A Cabinet can, and in the past often has, found a new office for a member who has not proved efficient in his original post. No doubt the process is a disagreeable one, but when the interests of the nation are suffering it is madness to think of men's feelings. But there is really no need to labour the point. All men must agree that if a Cabinet Minister has not proved equal to the task he has undertaken, he may be fairly and reasonably asked to resign or to take another office, and that his colleagues may agree to such change or resigna- tion without any injury to that principle of loyalty and solidarity which they naturally and rightly value so highly. In the present case everything turns upon whether Lord Lansdowne has or has not proved equal to the task of managing the military affairs of the nation. If he has not proved equal to the task, no knowledge of his devotion to the interests of the country, of his desire to do his best, of his many fine qualities of heart and head, should have any weight. If he has shown incompetence, it is not to the interests of the nation that he should remain at his post. How are we to judge of the corn. petence or incompetence of a War Minister ? Most certainly not by asking whether the generals he appoints have or have not managed to do well in the field. To visit upon Lord Lansdowne the reverses suffered by our armies in South Africa would be the height of injustice. We should never dream of preferring against him any complaint based upon the fact that this or that general has not been successful. We base our statement that Lord Lansdowne has not proved himself well-fitted to hold the post of Secretary of State for War upon considerations far more general and more essential. Lord Lansdowne has been Minister of War for nearly five years. During that time he has been supreme ; and yet during that time he has not given us an Army which can by any possibility be called an Effective fighting machine. No doubt people will say that, even granted the hypothesis that the Army is not an efficient fighting machine, it is very hard to make Lord Lansdowne bear the blame. We do not think so. We have always argued in favour of keep- ing the civilian Secretary of War really responsible for our land forces, and the real head of the Army. And this is the system which prevails. But what does this fact import ? It means that the office of Secretary of State for War involves a tremendous burden, but that when a man accepts that burden he cannot say later that it is not his business to carry it. When a statesman is entrusted with the great, and as every patriotic man should consider it the noble, duty of being responsible for the military affairs of such a nation as ours, he should surely enter upon his duties with a keenness and an energy of no ordinary kind. He should say to himself I have a great trust laid upon me, and to fulfil it properly I must be continually considering whether I have done, and am doing, all that can be done to perfect the machine. It is true I have experts to help me and advise me, and on those experts I must lean in regard to many matters of detail, but it is my supreme duty to keep those experts up to the mark, to see that they do not become petrified by habit or dulled by prejudice, and to use my own reason and my own common-sense to correct their judgments. I must never be content to say that I am satisfied if they are, but I must assure myself that they have good grounds for being satisfied, and that they are not merely giving themselves and me an "easy time." Not an expert myself, I must thus exercise a ceaseless vigilance over the experts, and compel them to use their reason and not trust to conventions and formulre. In a word, I must never be content with the notion that when a thing seems rotten and absurd, I may allow it to go on because it has gone on for the last twenty years without a breakdown, and because people who ought to be better informed than I am do not seem to have noticed it. Again, I must never allow kindliness, or laziness, or dislike of a conflict to prevent me from purging the Army of incompetence. I must be merciless in regard to inefficiency wherever I find it. Lastly, I must not hesitate to refuse to be any longer responsible for the Army if I cannot persuade my colleagues to support me in action I consider really essen- tial.' Can it be said that Lord Lansdowne has exercised his functions on these lines ? We fear that he has—un- consciously, no doubt—regarded his duties rather as those of a figure-head chairman of a great charitable or ornamental corporation than as those of the Minister on whom the efficiency of the Army depends, and on whose exertions was staked the safety of the nation. He did his best as far as he could, but he did not go into the work as a man does who is determined to make a great business flourish or kill himself in the effort. We will take an example of the way in which Lord Lansdowne appears to us to have erred in the carrying out of his duties. When three years ago there was a great public controversy in regard to Army reform, two things were urged upon the War Office,—the provision of more artillery,• and of more mounted troops. At the time we ourselves wroto very strongly as to the question of artillery, and also as -to the moimted troops. But having made our protest, we regret to say that we did not follow the matter up. We thought, most foolishly we now admit, that there must be some good reason which we as mere journalists did not know, which, however, had been put before Lord. Lansdowne, and had. convinced him that we did not need more artillery and more mounted troops. At any rate, Lord Lansdowne did not listen to the demands for more guns and more horses, but rejected them. Events have proved that he was wrong. But that being so, we cannot see why the consequences should not follow which would certainly follow in the case of the head of a department in any well-managed business. We do not of course say this from any vindictive feeling, or because we want, as it were, to exact a forfeit for a blunder. We say it because Lord Lansdowne's manage- ment of the War Office in the past deprives us of con- fidence in his action in the present and the future. If we thought that Lord Lansdowne, having made his blunder, would now throw himself into the work with tremendous energy and initiative we should not for one moment dwell upon the past. But we cannot persuade ourselves that he will do anything of the kind. He will play the part he has always played of a high-minded English. gentleman—no mean part we admit—but he will show none of the tiger-will, none of the tireless vigilance and resource which are wanted now. Of course the War Office keeps its greatest secrets, but just look at some of the recent examples of want of vigour and energy that have lately been apparent. The War Office, it is stated, and has not been denied, had the option of buying fifteen thousand Basuto ponies at £15 a piece. They did not accept the offer ; we suppose because the military advisers, having determined that this is to be an infantry war, are not going to spoil their "face" by admitting that ponies can be wanted. But surely Lord Lansdowne, if he had possessed any originality of mind, would have said :— 'Buy those ponies, whatever happens. You military ex- perts may be right, and they may never ba wanted ; but if they are wanted they will be above price. I will at any rate effect this insurance against the failure of the infantry view.' Again, take the feebleness of the way in which the raising of the Yeomanry force has been handled. It was quite right to delegate the raising of that force, but it was not right to withhold from the Committee an abso- lutely free hand as to all the arrangements for that force. Think, too, of the way in which valuable recruits are running to waste because the Committee can only take men who are up to a fairly high standard. The Government are quite right to exact that standard, but does it not stand to common-sense that the War Office should have said: 'Enlist all likely men, even though they cannot now pass, and we will give them six months' training at home. It may be that they will never be wanted, because the war will be over. But if the war is not over they will be invaluable.' As far as we can hear, Lord Lansdowne has given no such order, and hence some thousands of really valuable men are being lost, and lost for good and all,—for men peremptorily rejected once as "not good enough" are never likely to seek re-enlist- ment. Of course these two examples do not constitute the whole post-bellum case against Lord Lansdowne. We merely cite them as examples of how utterly inadeqnate seems Lord Lansdowne's grasp on the military problems of the hour. His failure to get hold of, or even to explore, the great reserve of trained men in the country (and, we may add, to provide mobility for the Volunteers) is a most serious matter, but of that our readers have, we fear, heard only too much in these columns.
We can only end our remarks on a most disagreeable theme by asserting once more that we have no vindictive or mali- cious feeling against Lord Lansdowne. As a Liberal Union- ist of enlightenment and high character he naturally appeals to us strongly. We should only be too glad to be able to say that his tenure of the War Office has been successful and carried on on right lines. But we can say nothing of the kind, and we have, therefore, no choice but to adopt the thankless task of speaking out on the subject. We do not, of course, suppose that our protest will have any practical effect. There is no more colossal humbug than the alleged power of the Press in such matters. Unless Lord Lansdowne chooses himself to recognise, that he is not the man for the post, and that he had better change his present office for some other, his position will not ba shaken by our words. If he gees it will be of his own free will. Nevertheless, we shall have at least the satis- faction of having spoken out, and perhaps of having done something to check that dangerous and deadening notion which is creeping into English public life,—the notion that no man need fear any of the consequences of inefficiency in public affairs, provided only that his hands are clean.