TOPICS OF THE DAL
THOUGH a few Lords of Parliament may feel aggrieved by the du- ty of waiting on a Ministerial crisis, the English people gathered round their Christmas firesides may be honestly congratulated on the improved aspect of political affairs at the close of the year 1852, compared with the hopeless confusion and incertitude which characterized the opening of the year. Politicians, and those whose business it is to record and comment on public events, could then with difficulty evade a dreary feeling, akin to that with which one rises on a dull November morning and looks out upon an atmosphere dense with fog and presenting a cheerless blank of interesting objects. A Ministry that had never warmed the nation into enthusiasm, or kindled a steady attachment in its habitual supporters, was then feebly struggling out of existence, and men could only see for certain that it could not last much longer, without the slightest glimpse of hope or assurance to pierce through the chaos that was inevitably to succeed its fall. Only it was perceived that a period of chaos and confusion was necessary before parties could distinguish themselves, and range under proper principles and proper leaders again. Into such hopeless confusion had we been thrown by the break-up of " the great Con- servative party" under Sir Robert Peel, and the consequent acces- sion to office of a party which had neither a numerical superiority in the country nor an overwhelming array of Parliamentary talent. Undoubtedly, no position is more difficult than that of the leaders of a party traditionally progressive when the public mind is not made up as to the direction and degree of progress needed, and the leaders are not so advanced be- fore the public as to suggest an aim to public opinion which its own impulse fail.; to create. Moreover, the Whigs have not of late been celebrated for that administrative skill and in- dustry which at such times make up for the absence of a firm grasp of principles and an earnest advocacy of popular interests. In every department of Government—finance, colonies, foreign affairs, law reform, sanitary improvement—imperfect con- ceptions, inadequate measures, perverseness or imbecility, were con- spicuous, and were loudly complained of. But under ordinary cir- cumstances the public would have had in its own hands the remedy for this state of things, and would have insisted that the Govern- ment should be intrusted to men more vigorous, dearsighted, and generally capable. Now, however, the Opposition, whose consti- tutional function it is to take office when their adversaries become unpopular and lose the command over their supporters, had ren- dered themselves incapable of performing this function by their adherence to the principle of Protection, and by their avowed intention of restoring in one shape or other the prac- tical injustice of that system. By this conduct they had deprived themselves of all the distinguished official talent that formerly graced their ranks, and of any chance of holding office by popular sympathy. They were thus reduced to the most mis- chievous form which an: Opposition can take—unable to carry out their own principle, refusing to abandon it, and serving only to keep a powerless Ministry in office, from the greater dislike with which their own accession was contemplated. They had already acknowledged their consciousness of their real position by refusing to take the Government when itwas offered to them by the party in possession. So that the effective cause of the unsatisfactory state of political parties at the commencement of the year finally resolved itself into the attitude of the Opposition, wedded to a reactionary commercial policy, threatening to reverse Free-trade when their time came, but confessing themselves unable to strike the blow. Political conflict was in fact reduced to a pro- longed and irritating suspense, and an impatient endurance of a weak and do-nothing policy in dread of a reactionary move- ment, which, though inevitably fatal to its authors, would have been in a high degree mischievous and distressing to the coun- try at large. The events which have cleared away this state of things are well known. The result of them is, that at this moment the obvious solution is the selection of an Administration from the ablest men of all sections of opinion. Perhaps at no time in our history was there ever less reason why ability and experience should not be the main qualifications sought for in our Ministers ; and never certainly were the old landmarks of party so completely and notoriously swept away, as when a Ministry has chosen to go out on a Budget involving no principle, and their successors are proposed from the ablest Parliamentary opponents of that Budget, without reference to the parties to which they have formerly be- longed.
The future is indeed a blank ; but it must be esteemed no slight gain to have made our way to this blank with no 'damage to any- thing more valuable than Lord Derby's pride and Mr. Disraeli's ambition. On that blank the ablest intellect and the purest pa- triotism to be found among our statesmen have yet to inscribe themselves in distinct and legible characters. We will venture no Prophecy beyond this, that never was a clearer field for states- manship, never a people in a temper to render more hearty sup- port to a Government animated with desire to find out the work to be done, and possessed of the requisite talent and energy to do it. It may be fairly presumed that the party 'which has vacated office, having abandoned the only distinc- tive principle the profession of which held them together, Will not feel any irresistible reluctance to support a wise and national policy. And we say this with Lord Derby's parting burst of disappointed spite full in our recollection ; because we see
nothing in Lord Derby's personal character or past performances equal to sustaining an opposition based simply on personal prefer- ences. His will we do not in the least doubt, but we do hesitate to suppose that his followers are bound to him by insuperable ties of either gratitude or respect. Indeed, our fears for the immediate future refer much more to the absence of any definite policy in the Opposition than to the want of purpose and talent in the Govern- ment. Gradually, no doubt, issue will be joined on changes likely to be urgently enforced by the emergence of new demands of the popular will, however distant that issue may at present appear, and then will the legitimate functions of an Opposition come into play. Till then, such has been of late years the advance of public opinion on such questions as are of more immediate importance— law reform, colonial policy, sanitary improvement, relations with foreign governments and peoples—that to no measures that are likely to be introduced by any possible permanent Government is any but the merest personal opposition probable. , Last year at this time, we were most of us unpleasantly excited ; and anxious on a matter which is perhaps of more real importance I to us than any mere party question, or even than any question of commercial policy.. These decide how we are to exist as a nation. The state of our defences—of our means of resisting external ag- gression—concerns the very fact of an existence at all. Last year, I we thought it necessary with most journalists of independence and character to sound an alarm and to raise a voice of warning in the face of what appeared the most wilful blindness or the most stupid insensibility. Happily, public opinion has since that time become alive to the immense importance of securing this great and wealthy nation against either the dangers of regular war or the sudden assaults of burglarious brigandage. Official opinion has been made to feel that public opinion was in earnest, and has re- sponded to the call. The neglect of years cannot be repaired in a few months, but there is little doubt that we are at this moment far better prepared to give a proper reception to an enemy than we were at Christmas 1851, and that by this time next year we shall be placed in respect of defence upon the footing which should never be receded from, so long as the military powers of Europe maintain their formi- dable and threatening attitude. This year, indeed, we have lost one whose mere name was a tower of strength, and whose experience, old as he was, could at all times have been of invalua- ble service to us. But we should ill deserve to have the blessing of great men if their bodily presence were all the benefit we could. reap from them. Wellington has left us his deeds, his memory, his example ; and heartily as we trust that his sword will not be wanted, we as heartily believe that hands could be found to wield it worthily should the deprecated necessity arise. The final settlement of the commercial policy of the country— which has been kept open as a party question long after it had been solved as a scientific problem, confirmed by the assent of eminent statesmen, and demonstrated by the results of progressive experience—will set free the energies of the agricultural class from delusive hopes, and the efforts of their political representatives from idle aims and fictitious party combinations. Whatever available political talent has shown itself, or may hereafter show itself in their ranks, is not likely to languish for want of rational and definite objects. The landed interest, with the peculiar senti- ments natural and hereditary to it, is a most important element in our social structure ; and one of the most lamentable results of the last six years' chimerical agitation has been to deprive that in- terest of its proper function and influence in polities. This will now be remedied, unless the landed gentlemen and their tenants are blind to the plainest lessons of experience, and obey their re- sentments rather than their judgment. But we cannot believe them to be so destitute of good sense, and so little sensitive to the conduct of their leaders, as to go on for another six years the continued dupes of insincere professions and wilful ignorance of facts. Our apprehensions are directed to quite another quarter. The advocates of extreme changes in our constitution in Church and State are the parties upon whose wisdom, patriotism, and forbearance, the future of the next few years seems more critically to depend. They may throw us into the hands of a non-progressive Government for an indefinite period—they can- not, so far as human foresight may discern, advance their own theories in practice. The country is not ripe—however they may dislike to avow it to themselves—for vast organic changes. Pros- perous and contented, the nation would rather improve the work- ing of its present institutions than seek to change very largely their structure or principles. Now, gentlemen of "extreme opinions" have a wide and noble field before them for enforcing economy and efficiency in all departments of the state, for insisting on good men and good work. They have besides the freest scope for promulgating and illustrating their private or collective opinions. But they must not say, because we cannot have everything we want, we will have everything that we most dislike. There is a vast arena of political action on which all men may unite who have at heart the practical improvement of English so- ciety, and who agree that improvement consists in advances in material comfort, in intellectual cultivation, and in moral strength. To have for some years to come a Government which will honestly and ably devote itself to such achievements, is surely bribe sufficient to sections, cliques, and coteries, to merge all claims that would in- terere with so elevated an object, and to resolve to show the world that a Parliamentary Government is not yet reduced to an im- possibility and a laughingstock in this its last important refuge in -Europe.