TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE PROXIMATE PREMIER.
THE r0110WiDg communication on the character of Sir ROBERT PEEL is offered by a friend of ours, a man of mark among the Libe- rals, who with excellent abilities possesses good opportunities of observation, and far more fairness than most of his party. Un- fortunately, our estimate of Sir ROBERT PEEL'S fitness to grapple with the difficulties of his position has never been so high as our friend supposes, or, in some respects, so favourable as his own, founded, we doubt not, on superior means of knowledge. But we have no choice; and our friend himself would teach us, by his in- duction, to rank PEEL many degrees above MELBOURNE at least.
" You are well aware that while I do full justice to the honesty and consistency of the Spectator, I venture to think that your present course with respect to Ministers and their opponents is founded on an erroneous view of the means by which the great principles of liberal and popular government are to be advanced. I think your error springs, to a certain extent, from undervaluing the good intentions and right judgments of the present Ministry and its supporters. It must be admitted, indeed, that in your strictures on them you are often and considerably in the right. I think you wrong in having assisted to turn them out ; but I cannot deny that there is much force in the arguments by which you justify your course. But where I think you completely and palpably in the wrong, is in the tone which you take towards Sir ROBERT PEEL. If that tone were one of merely negative preference,—if you were to be content with saying that the Whigs have proved themselves so bad in office that PEEL could be no worse, and that the change would give us at all events the advantage of a Liberal Opposition,—I should not concur with you, but I should not seek an occasion of contesting the point. But the blackness of the Whigs seems in your eyes to in vest PEEL with positive brilliancy : you not only think he can do no worse than they, but you fancy that he will do a great deal of positive good. This seems tome to be pure fancy on your part : you make out not the slightest ground for ex- pecting good measures at his bands. You show, indeed, that he is in a position in which a Minister might do much good ; that if he takes a sound and comprehensive view of his position, and exhibits a states- manlike vigour and sagacity in carrying that view into effect, he has a great career and a lasting tenure of power before him. But when from this view of what he has the power and what it is his interest to do, you infer that he will adopt and be able to carry out a cautiously but still essentially Liberal policy, it seems to me that you are assuming without any ground the most material fact, namely, the character of the man, and his possession of the qualities requisite for his position and his task.
" Placed at the head of' the aristocratic party of this country—of all those classes whom the Reform Bill stripped of a portion of their ancient power and privileges—a sagacious and vigorous statesman might earn the gratitude of his country by adopting and carrying into effect a policy of concession. Supposing his sympathies to be with the few ; sup- posing him to be jealous of the advance of popular power, and of the adoption of new principles of government ; supposing his purpose to be to yield only to necessity, and to concede as little and as late as pos- sible; he might still prove his wisdom and evince his utility by seeing, before the rest at any rate of his own party, the fightiobject, and mo- ment, and mode of concession—by foreseeing necessities ere they had been apparent to every eye, and by so anticipating obvious pressure as to maintain the generatsolidity of the institutions which he undertakes to keep as intact as possible, and to make a merit for himself and his party of the very concessions which he would refuse if he thought that a refusal could be maintained. But let me say, that there is no more vulgar error than the notion that any weak and timid man may play this part. To be a Minister of Concession—to be so at least with credit and success—to continue to be so until a task of sufficient magnitude has been completed—requires the possession if not of the highest, cer- tainly of very high qualities of a statesman. I do not believe that Sir ROBERT PEEL has the necessary qualities either of head or of heart. I do not believe that he has the knowledge of the state of society and of the great principles of government, the foresight, the abundance of resource, the courage, or the activity requisite for the task, which you seem to believe he will perform. He has never shown that he possesses them : on the contrary, it strikes me that his 'whole public career shows him to be thoroughly deficient in them. "I am perfectly ready to allow Sir ROBERT PEEL the possession of many very valuable qualities. I don't much like his speaking ; but I admit that on the whole he is the best speaker we have at present in the House of Commons. I think he is an honest man ; devoid, it is true, of any strong enthusiasm for the right, or of any very warm sym- pathies with the people, but still a man who would, I think, shrink from willingly sacrificing the interests of his country to personal objects. He is a thinking titan: not generally well-informed, but respecting knowledge, aware of the necessity of acquiring information before acting in any particular matter, and capable of vigorous application to instruct himself on any subject with which he may have to deal. He is a pru- dent and patient maim; not irritable, and very averse to violent courses and extreme opinions These are great merits: they have enabled Sir ROBERT PEEL to pass creditably through his career as a subordinate Minister, and to lead an Opposition during ten or eleven )ears without blame, though certainly without any brilliant or speedy success in its efforts to obtain power. But these are not the qualities required for vigorous and successful action ; they are not the qualities essential to a great Minister. When has Sir ROBERT PEEL shown that he possesses such qualities ? when has he been called on to act without showing himself lamentably deficient in them? I know of no man in our history endowed with his talents, favoured by circumstances as he has been, who has so invariably and so signally failed in every trying emergency of his life.
" The necessity of granting Catholic Emancipation was the most for- tunate opportunity of escape ever offered to a man in PEEL'S position from a vicious course in which early party connexions had entangled him. That concession, had Sir ROBERT PEEL made it the commence- meat of a new career—had he, seeing the errors and danger of his past principles of action, reviewed his own position and the state of affairs— resolved to quit for ever a course which had led to so signal a failure, and determined on one suited to the state of things and in which it might be possible to persevere—had he acted thus, be would have made Catholic Emancipation a great act and the foundation of a successful career. Instead of assuming this high ground for an altered policy, he degraded his own act by acknowledging it to be wrong while he was doing it. When that great measure was accomplished, Sir ROBERT instantly attempted to reinstitute himself in the position in which he had stood before, and to be readmitted into the bosom of Ultra-Toryism. He took up no new ground; his position was that which it had been before, with one act of apostacy to mar it : he gained no new supporters, but forfeited the support of those with whom he had acted before. The act which might have been an earnest of future success, and a claim to respect and renown, he himself degraded into a blunder and a weakness. " The refusal of Parliamentary Reform was the crowning mistake of this period of his career. Having once made this mistake, I think that his continued and determined opposition to the Reform Bill was the wisest act of his life. Having deprived himself of the opportunity of leading a popular party, he did right in placing himself at the head of the minority, and biding the chances of its return to power. I cannot say that I think he showed any statesmanlike qualities in his short Ministry of '34-'35. Placed from the outset in an almost hopeless minority, his position while in office was that of a leader of an Odpo- sition rather than of a Government : his only business was to bid for popularity with little fear of immediate results ; and he showed some skill in preparing the details of particular measures of concession, and much in the various debates which he conducted almost without sup- port. In the most important circumstances in which he was compelled to come to a decision, involving the character of his policy, he showed that want of statesmanlike wisdom which I impute to him. His first error was that of accepting the task imposed on him : be ought not to have undertaken to form a Ministry. His second capital error was that of throwing himself on the Orangemen and Ultra-Tories when Lord STANLEY and Sir JAMES GRAHAM, by refusing to join him, prevented his giving the character of a Juste-Milieu to his Government. In both these capital cases he decided wrong; and in both I feel sure that he decided against his better judgment, through weakness. "His last capital blunder was on the occasion of the negotiations for the formation of a Ministry in '39. If I thought that he had really quailed before the Ladies of the Bedchamber, and that he really judged it impossible to master their influence, I should estimate his sense and courage more meanly than I now do. I suppose that he shrunk from the difficulties of conducting his Government in the face of a hostile House of Commons and the divisions of his own party, and that he wanted to find a pretext for not undertaking the task. I admit this explanation of his conduct ; and I cannot but wonder at the extraordi- nary awkwardness and want of sagacity that could induce a statesman in Sir ROBERT PEEL'S position, when in want of a pretext, to get one by picking a quarrel with the Queen, and adding to all his other diffi- eultierthat of her personal and durable aversion. "These are the cases in which Sir ROBERT PEEL has been called upon to do acts or take a course materially influencing his future ca- reer. In all, he stems to me to have judged most unwisely, and acted most feebly. It is from his conduct in these cases that I judge him to be eminently deficient in the qualities which he will now find most re- quisite to success. My firm belief is, that he will exhibit much less disposition to do right than you attribute to him ; and that be will fail of success even if he make the attempt. If you do not object to insert- ing any further communications from me on this subject, I will go on on some future occasion to point out, with as much precision as I can command, the nature of the difficulties with which Sir ROBERT PEEL has to contend, and the mode in which I think that he will fail."
The rebuke of our esteemed correspondent, that we have based our view of the future career open to Sir ROBERT PEEL upon an assumption, is itself based upon an assumption of the character which we attribute to Sir ROBERT: it is assumed that we expect him to adopt and carry out an "essentially Liberal policy"; that we "believe" he will perform the task which offers itself for per- formance; that we have attributed to him a greater disposition to do right than our friend is willing to give him credit for. We have never said a word to justify those assumptions : we have never said that PEEL will carry out a "Liberal" policy, or that we "believe" he will perform any task whatever; nor have we attempted to measure his "disposition." Our censor, indeed, endows him with qualities which no man can possess and not have every possible disposition to do right—he describes him as prudent, patient, moderate, and honest. With respect to his abilities for action, as much is said as need be, when his career as a Minister, and as the leader of the Opposition in the midst of the greatest disadvantages, is indicated. But the great and pervading misapprehension is, that we expect Sir ROBERT to become a Liberal. We expect no such thing. Ile is not a Liberal, but a Conservative. Men of his age, when prudent and honest, do not change their principles with their seats : men of average understanding settle the principles by which they will be guided early in life, and that question is then closed. The question of maturer years is action according to the principles thus settled. Bad or good, the principles by which Sir ROBERT is guided are Conservative; and there is neither hope of a change nor could there be advantage in it. The consideration that remains, there- fore, for those whom he is to serve, must be, what can a Conserva- tive possessing the qualities ascribed to this man do ? We have seen that out of office he has been enabled to swell the party with which he entered an adverse Parliament from 150 to 360-; while his opponents have sunk their 500 to 290. This is not an age of greatness ; but among a smaller race it is well to find a man that can do something. if we have aided in ejecting the Whig Minis- ters, who have shown that they are come to that pass when they can do nothing, we have only performed what many of our friend's party now say they desired to see done ; though they did not dare openly to avow the wish or do the work. If our sin- cere endeavour has had any influence, we have aided in stopping the progress of a plague—in putting a* end to a course of corrup- tion and pretence, with all their immoral incidents, which has ob- structed for a time and all but ruined the Liberal cause. In assuming that Sir ROBERT PEEL had a task before him, we only assumed an obvious fact ; in showing what a Conservative might do, we only carried out the philosophy of extracting good out of every thing : our reprover says that Sir ROBERT brings prudence, patience, and honesty to his task.