TOPICS OF THE DAY
MR. BRIGHT'S DEMOCRACY.
IT is the singular power of Mr. Bright as an orator that in times of profound political apathy he can command an apparently inexhaustible spring of hearty political wrath. Like the camel in the desert, he travels over these level and sandy stretches of political history with a private store of those waters of bitterness which the country over which he passes certainly fails to supply. To say that his speech at Birming- ham on Wednesday night could have been made by no other man is a mere common-place ; but it could not have been made even by himself, had he not within him a fountain of political passion which renders him quite independent of the state of feeling amongst those on behalf of whom he battles, and which gives a fire to his language and a glow to the colouring of his dreams such as transport us for a moment back into the midst of those struggles of twenty years ago in which his nervous style was formed and his fame as a speaker gained. Like Jonah against Nineveh, Mr. Bright pro- phesied in those days against the aristocracy of this country, and like Jonah, too, he has never really forgiven the repentance which averted the judgment he had menaced, and frustrated the dramatic catastrophe on which he had fed his imagination. "I do well to be angry even unto death," is the sentiment that springs up ever new within his heart as he sits under the shadow of that great gourd of Commerce which ought to "deliver him from his grief." The thunder of his eloquent passion bursts as loudly through the quiet air of the present time as it formerly burst upon the heavy atmosphere of those years which saw the Irish famine and the railway panic. It is an indignation which is almost independent of occasion, and quite independent of cause. Not of course that everything, or nearly everything, now is as it should be, or that Mr. Bright could not find much to dis- approve if his disapprobation were directed against real evils ; but that his wrath tracks the aristocracy like its shadow, burning against them almost with the spirit of a political vendetta, and so prefers rather to rage with all its force against the emptiest phantom of injustice which he can attri- bute to the selfishness of his hated foe, than against the greatest iniquities for which that foe is not responsible, or which it might even be willing to join in denouncing and rooting out. It is curious to know from his own mouth that in 1859 there was at least serious thought of asking him, with Mr. Cobden and Mr. Milner Gibson, to join Lord Palmerston's Ministry, and that he himself was excluded from the invita- tion for the bitterness of that hostility to the House of Lords which he had just somewhat ostentatiously paraded in his Reform tour through the North of England. Certainly there would have been more than incompatibility, there would have been cruelty in such an alliance between a ministry of the aristocracy and one not merely its candid critic, but its implacable foe,—between Lord Palmerston and the man who had just denounced his foreign policy as "neither more nor less than a gigantic system of out-door relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain,"—between Lord Russell and one who had just denounced Parliament as "a Parliament of the rich," which "secured to the class it really represents the patronage and emoluments which are to be disposed of in the spending of the vast sums which find their way into the National Exchequer;" who had just lamented in the bitterness of his soul that it was so hard for the poor "to loosen the grasp of the insatiable hand against whose extortion you complain." Mr. Bright seems now surprised if not hurt that such an alliance should have been thought unadvisable. Yet seeing the mode in which he then spoke, has ever since spoken, and still speaks, of his contemplated colleagues, he could scarcely say in relation to it with Shakespeare, "Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments." It was a marriage that could but have ended in one way, judicial separation for cruelty and desertion, if not a still more disgraceful divorce. We think Mr. Bright may be grateful that he was spared even the smallest danger of that unblest union. If there was to be a manage de convenance between the extreme Democrats and the Whigs, Mr. Milner Gibson's more pliant nature was rightly chosen to play the part of blighted and patient bride.
And in scarcely any of Mr. Bright's speeches has this special political characteristic,—that his wrath against the higher class is with him the spring of his magnificent expression of love and pity for the people, rather than his feeling for the people the spring of his wrath against the higher class,— seemed to us so remarkable as in this great Birmingham ora- tion. We can never catch the half-religious zeal of Mr. Bright's political philippics without a passing glow of admira- tion, and yet the key of his eloquence always warns us that his heart is not so much fighting for his clients as against his foes. That is not true love of the popular cause that scarcely cares for any scheme far their bene- fit which is not wrung out of reluctant enemies. That is not pure love for the messes which measures their gain by the humiliation of the eminent. That is not the truest love for freedom which harps solely on the downfall of the oppressor. We take it that ours is a truer popular creed than Mr. Bright's, for we are not anxious, as he is, to sacrifice- the foreign influence of England, even in cases where a just and great cause cries to us for our aid, simply in order to diminish the Army and Navy " patronage " at the disposal of the aristocracy. We are not willing, as he is, to waste utterly the stores'of fine judgment and various thought in the edu- cated classes for our Legislature, simply that we may have the satisfaction of plucking the last vestige of privilege out of influential hands. We are not desirous, as he is, to get Parliament that shall as near as possible record the same decisions as the men of the nation would-vote if they could be assembled on Salisbury Plain, simply because such a Parliament would create a great disturbance in the upper strata of society, which is, says Mr. Bright, "precisely what we want." It seems to us that true love for the people will simply look to the good of the whole nation, without either hatred or love for any one section of it like the aristocracy,—will be anxious to estimate the true political worth alike of aristocracy, middle class, and working class with absolute impartiality, to use freely what is great in each of them, and guard against what is selfish or threatening with only one thought, the thought for the welfare of the whole State. Mr. Bright does not do this_ His heart is so absorbed in a life-long political enmity, that he thinks far less of obtaining the greatest possible. efficiency for the service of the nation, and guiding it to its highest ends, than of paying off the old grudges which the privileged classes have, often no doubt justly, incurred from the masses of the people. Both in the choice of political ends and the selection of political means, Mr. Bright's democracy subordinates his love for the whole nation to his hatred of one portion of it.
First, with regard to the choice of political ends,—compare only the almost malevolent and savage triumph of the first part of his speech over the downfall, as he thinks it, of the principle of assisting weak and oppressed nations against the aggression of mere unscrupulous invasion, with the noble passage in which he exults over the intervention,—for to all moral intents and purposes it is intervention,—of the North between the negroes and their oppressors. Speaking of the main- tenance of the "balance of power," which, as he has previously admitted, means, in its best form, only the duty of assisting weak nations against inexcusable external invasion,—he says with frantic delight, "I am very glad to be able to rejoice that this foul idol,—fouler than any that heathen tribe has ever worshipped,—has at last been cut down, and that there is one superstition the less which has its hold upon the Eng- lish statesman and the English people." Within ten minutes Mr. Bright was exulting in the war which is striking the shackles from the negro, and making him "a free man before his God." Why this difference of tone ? If there is deep moral justification for the invasion of the South it is only this, that the Southern revolution was a revolution in the name of slavery. If non-intervention is good when Austrians, or Prussians, or Russians are trying to establish political slavery, it must be equally good when the Southern Americans are trying to rivet social slavery. The true reason of the difference of Mr. Bright's tone is not in the principles, but in the exponents of them. Lord Palmerston and Lord Russell, who have uttered "cart-loads of rhetorical . rubbish," were guilty of defending the one principle. Men with no pretensions to aristocratic birth or training,—men of the people like Mr. Lincoln,—vulgar, middle-class men like Mr. Seward—have defended the other. The nation may not be guided to noble ends by an aristocracy. But let them get statesmen from the lower class to recommend those ends, and Mr. Bright will not grudge his praise. Next, in the choice of political means, see how Mr. Bright subordinates his lore for the nation to his hatred of a class in that nation. He speaks seriously, and we have no doubt candidly, of the mere right, not to 'practical political re- presentation, but to go up to the poll to deliver your vote, —as if that were the first right of man. What he asks for is not justice in legislation,—not a wise and prudent deliberative assembly,—not a fair representation of the various interests of English society in Parliament,—not, in short, the most obvious means to impartial arid well-considered government for the whole people,—but the right of each man to deliver his vote at the poll. That is the be-all and the end-all of his notion of political justice. Whenever that is denied it is "insultingly denied." "Representation is found in Italy, in Austria—even in almost all the German States— in the Northern States, in Belgium, Holland, France, Portugal, and Spain. It is found, as you know, all over the American continent; it is found also firmly settled as an institution in Australia. Englishmen everywhere but at home are received into the bosom of this great, permanent, undying constitution and safeguard for human and national freedom; but here they are slandered, they are insulted, they are reviled, they are shut out, they are invited to have a hundred ways of amusing themselves ; but if they stand at the House of Commons or at the poll, and see their richer brethren go up to the vote, they are not allowed to register their names in favour of principles for which their fathers before them have sighed in many a bitter hour of disappointment." Such is Mr. Bright's lan- guage about a piece of political machinery which, if it does not work for the highest political benefit of the whole people, is no more a right than it is a right to use a spinning jenny where you could have a power loom. If he had claimed for the working classes the right to be heard, and atten- tively heard, in Parliament, he would have claimed a right. But when he claims a particular mode of effecting this purpose as a right, — and that a mode which must deprive the whole nation of a large portion of the deli- berative efficiency of Parliament to satisfy the fanciful desire of the members of one class to appear to have equal weight with members of other classes at the hustings, though that apparent equality really amounts to the exercise of in- finitely greater weight,—he is in fact simply gratifying his spleen against the powerful under the form of a love for the weak. We ourselves desire no less ardently than Mr. Bright a reform that may give the energy of the North of England and the intelligent working class in all the large towns their fair proportional weight in Parliament. But we do not see any patriotism or any love for the people in asking that these things should be granted in a particular mode which must rob the nation of much at least of the variety of thought and culture which now distinguishes its deliberative assembly. Mr. Bright's love for the masses is, we doubt not, genuine. But it is altogether merged in the intensity of his antipathy to those who have been no doubt dangerous foes, but are quite capable of being made into permanent friends, and who have always been invaluable servants.