THE DANGERS OF POLITICAL APATHY.
IT is said that the chief feature of the contest at Lewisham is a profound indifference on the part of the constituency as to the result of the election. Lewisham is practically a suburb of London, and the Conservative victory there in 1886 was on so great a scale, that it is very natural, for Conservatives at least, to think that there is no more chance for the Home-rule candidate there than there would be in the City of London. Nor do we suppose that there is much more chance. Even in 1885, when the Liberal Party was undivided, Lord Lewisham carried his election by more than a thousand ; and in 1886, after the split, he carried it by more than two thousand. If in a great Conservative suburban constituency like that, the Home-rule Party should come at all near to success, we should indeed think that a great reaction against the Unionists had set in. This, however, is not to be feared. But it is to be feared that the tremendous victory of 1886 will render the Unionists of Lewisham languid, and too confident that no exertion on their parts is needed ; and this would practically result in a very great reduction of their majority, and a very great encouragement to the Gladstonians. We should regret this on every account. The number of rural contests in which the Gladstonians have triumphed has already spread great discouragement on the Unionist side ; and if in the great city and suburban constituencies, where a Unionist return is practically certain, every effort is not made to keep the ascendency we have won, the discouragement will go still further. The state of the case appears to be this. Neither town nor country cares very much about the Irish Question. The constituencies are weary of it, and seem unable to realise how very great and far-reaching a con- stitutional question it involves. But in the rural constituen- cies the excitement has been kept up by the interest of the rural labourers in the allotment question, in the promise of Parochial Councils, and in the general struggle between Mr. Gladstone, whom they justly regard as having enfranchised them, and the Tories, who, though they at last concurred in the enfranchisement, concurred in it reluctantly and late. In the great urban and suburban constituencies, on the other hand, while a like apathy on the Irish Question prevails, there are no political controversies which interest them deeply to substitute for it. The Conservatives may and do shout for Lord Salisbury, but they do not look up to him with the grateful sense of enthusiasm with which the Radicals regard Mr. Gladstone. Besides, as Lord Salisbury is already at the head of affairs, there is not the same eagerness to succour and sustain him, that there might be if he had to be brought back from Opposition to the head of the State_ The consequence may only too probably be that there will be a good deal of coolness about the election, that the total poll will fall off greatly, and that it will fall off even more among the Unionists than among the Gladstonians, who will naturally do their best to justify their attack upon the seat. It is in constituencies in which Unionism and Conservatism are most deeply rooted that there will be most danger of supineness and indifference. And yet it is. exactly in these constituencies that we ought to look, and not to look in vain, for those demonstrations of the popu- larity of the Unionist cause which the rural districts no longer afford us. If the county constituencies often declare against us, and the urban constituencies are ton indolent to reply by declaring emphatically in our favour, we shall have little chance of carrying the General Election. Yet it seems certain that it is far more difficult to get con- stituencies which believe in the Government to proclaim their belief in it with emphasis, than it is to get con- stituencies which believe in the leader of Opposition to proclaim that belief with emphasis. In demonstrations of that kind, the " Outs " have always a most sensible- advantage over the " Ins." And if the approaching struggle were a mere question between the " Outs " and the " Ins," we should hardly care to take a very eager part on either side. We suppose it is not, on the whole, disadvantageous for each party to have its turn in Opposition and in Office, in the respon- sibilities of criticism and in the responsibilities of adminis- tration. Responsibility renders the Radicals less disposed to destruction, and renders the Tories more willing for Re- form. But in the present case a great deal more is at stake than any issue of that limited kind. Unless the Unionists can realise that all the political traditions and consti- tutional forms under which our democratic institutions- have been developed are at stake, they do not understand, for what they are fighting ; and a party that does not understand for what it is fighting has no right to win.
Nothing can be clearer than that a democracy which has not lasted for more than six years, and has not even gauged its own power, will be gravely imperilling its future by destroying and recasting the traditional habits and principles of its political life before it has even accus- tomed itself to the discharge of the most elementary duties_ Whatever may be the merits of Mr. Gladstone's proposal, it was the rashest of all courses to launch it, as he did, on the people of these islands at a time when half of the constitu- encies were only just entering for the first time on the exer- cise of political responsibilities, and had not even realised for themselves the sort of institutions under which they live. What the Unionists hold is, that a reconstruction of the conditions under which Great Britain and Ireland have been united for the last ninety years, is, at the very least, one of the most difficult and responsible of tasks ; and that if it involves, as it appears to do, not only the re- construction of the political institutions of the last ninety years, but the reconstruction of the political institutions of these islands for all the centuries in which they can be said to have had any sort of popular life, it is not only one of the most difficult and responsible of tasks, but one which it is sheer madness for a raw and quite untrained democracy to undertake at all. If this be so, to let apathy and indifference creep upon us on the very eve of what might well prove to be a disastrous adventure of this kind, is not mere political negligence, but the most criminal political default, the kind of default for which great States are very fortunate if they do not pay with their lives. It may be very hard to realise that the fate of a single by-election of the kind which is just about to take place at Lewisham, can be of first-rate importance to the destiny of this country. Yet when we observe how greatly one election influences another ; how obvious it is that the issues of the elections held in the first few days of a General Election determine in a great degree the results of those which follow; how vast is the effect of example on the constituencies of this country; and how apt even by-elections are to encourage those who win at them till they fight better, and to discourage those who lose till they fight worse,—it becomes a political obligation of the highest kind to strain every nerve at a time like the present to raise even Con- servative victories into great Conservative triumphs, and to do all in our power to turn the tide of battle which has lately been running so strongly against us. Apathy is no mood for a crisis like the present. At such a moment, indif- ference is worse than a sin of omission ; it is political levity, it is almost political cynicism. If we are worsted in the great conflict after doing all that it is in our power to do, the fault is not ours. But if we allow a number of elections to result worse than they need result, as a consequence of our apathy, we shall be in part responsible for a defeat that may transmit its evil consequences to our posterity for many generations, perhaps even for many centuries, to come. To think lightly of by-elections at such a time as this, is to prepare for losing the pitched battle of which the latest by-elections are the popular auguries and omens.