THE IDOLATRY OF PARTY.
NOTHING strikes us as more grotesque than the spasmodic efforts of Liberal politicians to put the Liberal Party together again, and the dismay and even bewilderment with which they seem to regard its divisions. Mr. Labouchere has been writing letter after letter to the Daily News to explain that really there is no difficulty about the matter at all, that all that has to be done is to pick up the biggest remaining fragment of the party, to label that the Liberal Party, and then to go on agitating till it becomes as big as the Liberal Party was before its recent break-up. And really, so far as we can judge, from the point of view of those who think that the great desire of reasonable men's hearts is to have some- thing that they can call the Liberal Party to idolise, we do not see how Mr. Labouchere's advice can be improved upon. If you must have something to idolise called the Liberal Party, the exigencies of the moment only admit of your taking the biggest fragment, and worshipping that. It is not as if the fragments, if they could be reunited, would remain united. The force which sent them in different directions is active still. Lord Hartington and Mr. Gladstone could no more act together on the Irish Question,if you could somehow manoeuvre theminto the same Government, than two planets whose orbits happened to cross each other, and which met at the same point, could remain together after the moment of collision. The pathetic counsels which we see urged upon the Liberal leaders from every side, to find something to agree upon and to compromise their differences, all imply just what no doubt those wise counsellors themselves assume, that it is far more necessary to drop out of the counsels of the Liberal Party all matters on which the leaders differ, than it is to admit that they do differ, and that without some of them changing their convictions, in difference they must remain. As for dropping the points of difference, the objection is that the points of difference happen to be of a kind which refuse to be dropped. If the one question between the navi- gators of a ship was whether by steering this course or that they would strike on a reef the existence of which no one doubted, it would be very idle for the crew to get up a requi- sition to the officers to agree among themselves where the reef really was. Yet it is a course very analogous to that which these idolaters of party who entreat the various Liberal leaders to settle their differences among themselves, appear to suggest. What these wiseacres forget is that the reef is in existence, and that we must strike upon it if we do not so steer as to avoid it. It is no use entreating our leaders to concede some- thing to each other. The reef will concede nothing at all to the ship. And the most complacent temper is the most dan- gerous, if it only leads to agreeing on some false opinion about the reef, which results in the ship striking after all. Nothing shows so clearly how unreal political life has grown as this curious superstition that the Liberal leaders can by some mutual compromise restore the unity of the party. No doubt they could, if they were such miserable creatures as to be quite satisfied with the restoration of unity, even though the restoration of unity should result directly in a wreck. What these political fidgets dream is that whatever Mr. Gladstone, Lord Hartington, and Mr. Chamberlain should agree to do, even if it represented the sincere political conviction of no one of those statesmen, would have some magic in it which would conjure the reef into non-existence, and render a wreck in the highest degree im- probable, even if not quite impossible.
Well, that seems to us a superstition of the baser sort into which party loyalty, when it has ceased to be intelligent and independent, and has become a mere automatic habit, tends to degenerate. It is good, we believe, for the Liberal Party to have been broken up ; for only by being broken up could Liberals have been brought face to face with this blind idolatry, and forced to ask themselves whether party exists for ends greater than itself, or is itself the end of political life. So far as we can sae, the latter is the view held by those who wish to patch up the Liberal Party at all hazards. Nay, we are not sure that it is not the view taken by Mr. Labouchere when he insists that the biggest fragment shall treat itself as the Liberal Party of the future, and blandly ignore the other fragments ; for after all, even if he regards Home-rule in Ireland as the one thing needful just now,—as he may do, for Mr. Labouchere is very apt to insist most, at any particular moment, on that in his creed which involves the heaviest immediate shock to all who are not Radicals,—still he or n hardly regard the Liberal Party simply as an instrument to great ulterior ends without being conscious that the loss of every
Liberal who is not a Home-ruler is an immense loss of power, and may lead to the indefinite postponement of a great many ends which even a Radical who cared less about shocking other persons' prejudices than about attaining useful and prac- tical reforms, would have greatly valued. However that may be, it is clear that those who are inconsolable, not because some of the Liberals must be going wrong,--which we admit to be a serious mischief,—but because all of them cannot agree, which they might easily do and yet all ba going wrong, —a still more serious mischief,—are idolaters of party. Without a single object called the Liberal Party to work for, they are like children who have lost their parents, and know not where to go or what to do. They are so accustomed to look up to the leaders of the party, and so enjoy reconciling the various utterances of the oracle's different priests, that to have it openly admitted that there is no such oracle left, that no one can say what the Liberal Party decrees, is to them baffling, paralysing, annihilating. They would rather reconstitute it, even if no one could interpret what the reconstituted oracle might inarticulately gurgle forth, than be left voiceless and alone. It is not enough for them to say simply, with Mr. Labouchere, The Home-rulers are the only true Liberals, and they think thus.' So bald a statement hurts their sense of dignity. Delphi is deserted when there is but one priest of the pythoness, —when, indeed, the pythoness and the priest must be identified. They go mourning after their broken idol, and will not be comforted.
For our own parts, greatly as we valued the great organisa- tion which stimulated so many healthy and wise tendencies, and had so many spokesmen who were in very tolerable harmony with each other, we believe that it will do us a great deal of good to be thrown back for a time on first principles, and forced to ask not whether the Liberal leaders approve our view, but whether our view is true to the conditions of our nation's life, even though the Liberal leaders disapprove it. We must learn for ourselves that a Liberal should not mean, and does not mean, simply a person who is always trying to break the hearts of Conservatives. What scepticism, or rather Pyrrhonism, there must be in those who tell us, as we are now so often told, that Liberals who are acting with the Tories are no longer Liberals in any true sense of the word ! Why, when Conservatives came over and acted with us, did we not say, and say truly, that we regarded them as all the truer Conservatives for being wise in time ? Why should not the converse be true ? If it is the evidence of wise Conservatism to accept a timely reform, why is it not the evidence of a wise Liberalism to avert an imminent catastrophe? A man would be a Nihilist, and not a Liberal, who did not wish to preserve much in our institutions strong and unshaken. The only question for any wise man is, how much ? Where does the region of strength and stability cease, and the region of wise change begin ? On one
phase of that great question we are now engaged, and it will not be adequately dealt with till Conservatives learn that there may be more to change before what is strongest will be safe ; nor till Liberals learn that there may be much to keep which recent reformers have, in their impatience, threatened. But let us at least give our minds to the real question at issue, not to the very trumpery question whether this or that fragment of the former Liberal Party will gratify us by agreeing with us if we answer the question in one way, or this or that fragment of the Conservative Party will shock us by agreeing with us if we answer it in another say. The grooves of party life have grown altogether too raid for anything like intelligent adapta- tion to the necessities af a new and very serious crisis.