TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE SOUTH MOLTON ELECTION. THE Gladstonians have every reason to congratulate themselves on their triumph in North Devonshire. The South Molton election has resulted in a complete somersault of the constituency, which now gives a majority of 1,212 for the Gladstonian candidate, Mr. Lambert, where in 1886 it gave a majority of 1,689 for Lord Lymington. It is true that the Gladstonians cannot yet say, " As in 1885, only more so," for in 1885 the then united Liberal Party achieved a majority of 2,001 over the Conservatives ; but the majority is quite great enough to satisfy them that there is no longer any deep-rooted distrust in the South Molton constituency, if there ever was any, of Mr. Glad- stone's policy. The poll, too, though not as heavy as in 1885, was much heavier than in 1886. The total poll in 1885 was 7,849 ; in 1886, 6,393 ; in 1891, 7,232,—so that, as the Gladstonian papers justly say, the result appears to be much more due to the return of dubious followers of Mr. Gladstone to the ranks, than to the falling away of convinced Unionists. But whether this flowing back of the tide is due to general or to local causes, or to both combined, it is impossible to say with any certainty. It is probable that if Lord Lymington had fought the election in person, he might have carried it, though probably by a greatly reduced majority, for the loyalty to the family of Lord Portsmouth is very hearty in North Devonshire. It is probable, again, that if a careful eye had been kept on the register in the interests of the Unionists, the Gladstonian majority would have been very much reduced ; but so far as we can judge, the two causes which together decided the election were the returning admiration for Mr. Gladstone personally as the author of the Reform Bill of 1885 rather than for his Irish policy, and the impression produced by Mr. Lambert's long and careful canvas of the constituency, of the personal merits of the particular candidate. It is hardly possible that a con- stituency which vibrates between a majority of 1,600 against Irish Home-rule in 1886, and 1,200 for it in 1891, can have any very earnest conviction on the subject at all. They may and probably do think that the issue as regards Irish policy is very much less important than the Liberal Unionists hold it to be, and consider Lord Lymington's elevation to the Peerage a capital opportunity for re- asserting their loyalty to Mr. Gladstone, and declaring their liking for Mr. Lambert, without inflicting any humiliation on the most popular family in the division. We believe that in this, as in other county elections where the Unionist cause has been worsted, the main issue as regards policy has had exceedingly little to do with the result. The ex-Minister and the local candidate have found favour in the eyes of the electors, not because the latter care at all seriously for Irish Home-rule, but because they have persuaded themselves that the matter is more or less insignificant, and is not of sufficient weight to alienate them either from the Minister who secured them their franchise, or from the local candidate who has won their regard. We do not see that it matters a farthing whether it was the boot- makers of Crediton or the agricultural labourers of Exmoor who turned the scales against the Unionists. It may have been either or both. What concerns us is, that the constitu- tional objections to Home-rule in Ireland have not really been grasped ; that this appears to the electors a matter of comparatively small interest; and that the earnestness and enthusiasm of the venerable leader of Opposition have resumed their sway over the rural electors wherever a very popular local candidate has not been found to make a stand for the Union. And it must be added, that no doubt the permanent leaning of the English democracy to give the Opposition an innings, whenever they are not positively revolted by the proposals of the Opposition leaders, must count for a good deal in the apparent reaction. The political apathy to which most Englishmen are liable, tends clearly in the direction of " turn and turn about," as a rough and obvious, if a coarse and hand-to- mouth sort of justice. Clearly we must acquiesce frankly in the defects of democracy, as we have availed ourselves fully of its merits. The greatest of these defects is its inability to judge a policy for itself, apart from confidence in the adviser whom it fixes upon as being, on the whole, the most capable of inspiring confidence, and of imparting his con- victions to the people. And the next of its great defects is its much greater capacity for getting dissatisfied with the existing Government, than for finding any other with which it would be content. Democracies have very imperfect means, and know that they have very imperfect means, of judging political measures, and the consequence is, that they get discontented with their immediate adviser much sooner than they become conscious of any clear reason why they are discontented with him. In both his Governments —that of 1868 to 1874, and that of 1880 to 1885,—Mr. Gladstone became conscious that he was tottering long before he fell. In his third Administration, he remained in power only half-a-year. Now it is Lord Salisbury's turn to feel that he is tottering, and he must not only feel it, but feel that there is very much less obvious reason for his tottering than there ever has been for the tottering of any other Government since 1868. He has succeeded in his Foreign policy ; he has done a great deal more than the most sanguine Unionist hoped in Ireland ; he has passed certain very useful and popular measures in England ; there is not a single department of government in which he has brought down upon himself the censure of calm and moderate men. If he should be defeated at the General Election, no one could say that he was defeated because he had misled the people, and committed them to a policy which had turned out as unfortunately as Mr. Gladstone's Irish policy turned out in both his first two Administrations, and as his Egyptian policy turned out in his second Administration. The pendulum has swung back, if it has swung back, without any visible reason,—because the people are still dissatisfied, and think they may as well try another change. We say " if the pendulum has swung back," because we are by no means sure that the General Election will follow the lines of the by-elections, though it is far from improbable that it may. At all events, it will not so swing back in the great towns and cities. There Lord Salisbury is sure of finding a hearty support ; and Mr. Gladstone, if he returns to power with a Scotch majority decisively in his favour, with an embarrassing Irish Catholic majority, led by the Bishops in Ireland, and with no majority, but at best a strong minority in England, will have his satisfaction subdued by seeing London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham, with the Home Counties and all the great suburban constituencies, ranged decisively against him,—a formidable popular warning of the am- biguousness and instability of his victory. Wherever wealth and intelligence are greatest, there Mr. Gladstone will find that his policy is condemned. Indeed, were not Ireland gravely over-represented in Parliament, it is pretty certain that he would have no victory at all.
With such political conditions as these, the Unionists of course cannot be satisfied, since they must look upon it as a great calamity to have Ireland thrown back once more into the old chaos of 1885-86, and her people agitated once more by the prospect of violent and sweeping changes. But though Unionists cannot be contented with the probability of so serious an unsettlement, they may well feel satisfied that Mr. Gladstone's policy can never be carried, though a great deal may be done to nullify for a time the good effects of Mr. Balfour's administration. With London and Lancashire and the most important of the Midland constituencies de- cisively on our side, there is no reason for discouragement; indeed, there is every reason for confidence as to the ulti- mate result. We may have a fall, and the pain of seeing a great deal of our best work undone ; but even if we have a fall, we shall not be utterly east down, and the reaction will come sooner next time than it has come this. No Home-rule Bill can pass without the disclosure of plans which will provoke the utmost dissatisfaction even among Gladstonians themselves, and that disclosure will neces- sitate a second dissolution, and a second dissolution under circumstances much more favourable to the Unionist Party than the dissolution of next year. All we have to do is to bide our time, to make our full influence felt in the country, and not to allow victories of caprice like that at South Molten, to dishearten us for a great demonstra- tion of Unionist conviction next year. Whether that demonstration shall be immediately successful or not, it will command ultimate success as surely as the popular demonstration for Reform in 1865 secured the ultimate success of that Reform, even though in the interval a Conservative Government had come into office and become the nominal patron of that Reform.