TOPICS OF TIIE DAY.
THE COURSE OF EVENTS. llE would be a bold man who would assert with any confidence at the present moment that he could predict the course of political events. Nevertheless, it may prove useful to state some of the likelihoods and probable results of the forces now at work. To begin with, it is satisfactory to note the signs that a very difficult, and in some ways unprecedented, state of affairs is going to be met by the English people with their usual good. sense and moderation. Whatever may be their faults, the English have unquestionably a genius for politics, and leaders and followers alike, even when they seem most intoxicated by party rhetoric and party humbug, show a remarkable reserve of common-sense. From the orgy of "lies, chinned lies, and statistics" which are the staple food of a modern General Election they turn with surprising quickness to practical considerations and to the need of carrying on the King's Government. The screaming and yelling of charges and counter-charges just before the polls seems, indeed, to act as a kind of political purgative, and to leave them not with more clouded but with clearer minds than when they began the "heady" game of invective. We shall not inquire whether if a complete party triumph had been scored by either side these signs of moderation would have been so clearly apparent. It is enough to note that on the one hand the Times recognises that Tariff Reform cannot possibly be carried unless a far larger section of the population can be induced to vote for it, while on the other the Westminster Gazette sees that it will be impossible for the Liberals with their present majority to ride rough-shod over the House of Lords, or to continue to treat every man who happens to have a title as an equal mixture of haughty and cold-blooded aristocrat and drivelling noodle. The Westminster Gazette the other day actually quoted the admirable saying that there need have been no Civil War in America if the Abolitionists had denounced slavery rather than slave-owners, and applied the moral to current politics.
The first question which people are asking in regard to the probable course of events is,—What is going to happen about the Budget ? Here one thing at any rate is clear. If the new House of Commons sends the old Budget to the Upper House exactly as it was sent up in December, the Lords will pass it forthwith, and without any attempt at alteration. They never proposed to do more than refer the Budget of 1909 to the people. If, then, it is sent up to them again, that will be a sign that it has been accepted,—a sign which they will not in any way attempt to ignore. As to this there can be no question. What, however, still remains uncertain is whether the Government will be able to induce the new House of Commons to send up the Budget of 1939 in its old form. All depends upon the action of the Irish Members. If the Nationalists can be induced to sink their very strong objections to the Budget, then presumably the first thing that will be done will be to suspend the Standing Orders and pass the Budget verbatim and literatim. Will the Nationalists be induced to waive their objections to the Whisky-tax, the Licensing-duties, and. the Land- taxes ? We presume that it is in the main a question of price, and that before they consent they will require to blow the nature of the Home-rule Bill which they have been already promised on condition of the Irish vote in the English constituencies being cast for the Liberals. Probably Mr. Redmond and the majority of his col- leagues will in all the circumstances be inclined, though reluctantly, to consent to endorse the Budget. It is possible, however, that a fact which has not yet been quite realised by the English public may render it im- possible for them to do so. Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Healy will come back at the head of a, small but exceed- ingly important group of Independent Nationalist's,—a group which, in truth, owes its existence to the fierce opposition of Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Healy to the Budget, and to their denunciation of Redmondite subserviency to the Liberals. It is conceivable that this group, especially as it will have for its spokesman such a master of Parliamentary tactics and oratory as Mr. Healy, may by its denunciations of the wrongs done to Ireland by the Budget make it impossible for the Nationalists to vote with the Liberals on this point. In that case the Government may have to modify the Budget by dropping the Whisky-tax and the Licensing-duties, which would at once expose them to the enmity of the whole Temperance Party and probably cause a revolt, or else they will have to look to the Unionists to help them to do what is now admitted by all responsible statesmen to be a matter of necessity,—the securing of the immediate passage of a Finance Bill in the interests of the national finance. We feel quite sure that Mr. Ral four, the leader of the most powerful section of the House of Commons, both in numbers and weight, will not play a mere partisan game or adopt the role of the mischief-maker. 1[3 Will not try to score a party advantage by any action which would do injury to the nation as a whole, and herein he will have the support, not only of the bast part of his followers, but of all fair-minded and moderate men. It is quite possible, therefore, as the Observer noted last Sunday, that we may see the extraordinary spectacle of the Budget passed by the help of the Unionists. No doubt such a result would be galling to many Liberals, but in circumstances so unusual as the present it may be necessary for Mr. Asquith and his party to accept the position with the bast grace they can.
The only other way out of the difficulty for them, granted that they cannot depend on the Irish vote unless they make concessions on the Budget, would be one which may be mentioned, though we do not think it in the least likely to be adopted. Mr. Asquith might conceivably say that circumstances had forced him to the conclusion that it was impossible to pass two Budgets within six weeks of each other, and therefore what he proposed to do was merely to pass an Act authorising the action of the Executive in regard to the taxes that have been already collected, and to raise the rest of the money needed for the financial requirements of the country for the year 1909-10 by a loan. This would mean that taxation for 1909-10 would be levied at the rate of taxation for 1908-9, and that the whole deficit of, say, sixteen millions would be funded. The Budget for 1910-11 would be presented immediately after Easter, and would contain the taxes proposed for 1909-10, with some modifications. Such a course could be defended by the assertion that the Lords had only postponed the Budget for a year, and that " substantially " the same Budget as that just referred to the people would be brought in for 1910-11. As a matter of fact, however, when the Budget state- ment came after Easter it would be found that it had been very extensively modified to meet the views of the Irish and of the moderate section of the Liberal Party, which, owing to the smallness of the party majority, will certainly exercise a far greater influence in the new Parliament than in the old.
Here no doubt would be a way out of Mr. Asquith's difficulties ; but it is not one which we think he is likely to take. On the whole, we expect that what he will do will be to " square " the Irish as far as possible, and if he cannot succeed in doing this completely—for example, if he can only induce them to abstain from voting against the Budget, though not actually to vote for it—he will trust to the patriotism of Mr. Balfour and the Unionists not to put him into a minority. In this way he may run some risks in the first week of the new Parliament, but in all probability he will survive. Though the Irish Party will not be in a position to give him very strong support till the Home-rule Bill is pro- duced, and can be shown to be of a thorough character, he will just be able to "rub along." The constant criticism of the Independent Nationalists upon the dependent section of the party is, however, sure to have its effect. In any case, Mr. Asquith's Whips will find it very difficult to rely upon the Irish to keep daily working majorities for them, and this difficulty will be immensely increased by the fact that every time the Irishmen come over to Westminster at the call of the Liberal Whips they will render themselves liable to be brought into ridicule and contempt in Ireland by the O'Brienites. Mr. Asquith's chief reliance for working majorities will have to be placed upon the strong desire of Mr. Balfour and the Unionists not to put him out of office prematurely. Mr. Balfour will know that he cannot himself take office, and what he will therefore desire is to keep Mr. Asquith in for a year or a year and a half. No doubt in answer to all this earnest Liberals will point to the fact that on peva' they . have almost as big a majority as the Unionists had in 1900, and they will ask why they cannot do as much with this majority as the Unionists did with theirs. The answer is that the Unionist majority was a homogeneous majority, whereas the Liberal majority is made up of all sorts of hostile elements pulling different ways, and that even to bring it on paper up to the respectable number of over a hundred it is necessary to count in the O'Brienites, or at any rate not to count them among the Opposition. Many persons, and also, we note with interest, the Times, have been inclined to think that one of the possi- bilities of the situation may be the creation of a Moderate or " Centre " Ministry formed out of the moderate elements in both parties, a Ministry whose business it should be to carry on the affairs of the country for the present. The first charge on such a Ministry would be to make adequate provision for national defence, and in home affairs to endeavour to find a peaceful solution of some of the problems which are now distracting the nation. To begin with, as we recommend elsewhere, such a Ministry would appoint a Royal Commission to inquire into the whole Fiscal question, while as regards the Lords, they would attempt to bring about a reform of the Upper House which would be just and reasonable and fair to both parties. It is hardly necessary for the Spectator to say that a Ministry so formed, and. with such a policy, would have its heartiest support. We feel bound to say, however, in view of all the circumstances, that such a possibility seems to us distinctly too good to be true. Possibly if the Duke of Devonshire had been alive his great experience, and the confidence reposed in him by the country as a whole, would have enabled him to carry out the work proposed. Unfortunately, however, there is no one who can fill his place. Lord Rosebery no doubt might do the work ; but he has given no sign that he is willing to revoke the determination he came to some years ago to leave political, though not public, life. Lord Cromer, owing to his strength of character, high ability, and soundness of judgment, would make an admirable head of a moderate Administration, and in our opinion the country's interests would be perfectly safe in his hands. We are afraid, however, that though it is not in reality an obstacle, the fact of the very short apprenticeship that Lord Cromer has served in our political life would be made an excuse by many of our politicians for declaring that he bad. not had enough experience of English party politics to enable him to form a Centre Government and create the nucleus of a Centre Party. We fear, too, that Lord Cromer would himself be an abettor of those who raised such doubts, for he is as devoid of personal ambition and the desire to assert himself as he is strong in the sense of public duty. He would, we believe, require a very great deal of urging to under- take the kind of task we have set forth, and we regret to say that such urging is not likely to take place in the circumstances.
If for various reasons Lord Rosebery and Lord Cromer are ruled out as possible Premiers of a Centre Adminis- tration, we are obliged reluctantly to admit that the chances of its formation are not great. We cannot think of any other public men who would be fitted to preside over a non-partisan and non-party Government. All other available politicians are too much committed to one side or the other. No doubt the circumstances we have mentioned, would not prevent the formation of a Coalition Ministry for carrying on the national affairs, but that, it may be pointed out, is a very different thing from a Centre Ministry. In the case of a Coalition states- men are, as it were, lent by each party to do a certain piece of work, but they remain members of their respec- tive parties. Hence the short-lived nature of Coalitions. They are formed of incompatible, and therefore unstable, elements. In existing circumstances a Coalition Ministry could only come into being if and when the Liberals had made a strong effort to carry on the Government but without success, and the Unionists had also either failed to hold office or had shown that it would be impossible for them even to attempt to do so. As yet none of these things have happened, and therefore the talk of coalition is premature. Coalitions are like dictatorships,—by their nature counsels of despair. If we are asked to concentrate our forecast of what is likely to take place into a sentence, we should say that in all probability Mr. Asquith's Administration will jog on for the next year and a half or two years with very little power to do harm, but, we trust, with the necessary strength and courage to place the Navy in a position of irresistible force. Even if the Navy holds that position at the present moment, it certainly will not hold it in two or three years' time unless a great and serious effort is made by those to whom the government of the country is entrusted.