TOPICS OF THE D.Y.
WE can recall no case on which Parliamentary discussion has taken a practical shape, and effected practical results, where the question raised was clearer and more definite, the arguments more ably laid before the House of Commons, or the consequences of the conduct adopted more plainly and intelligibly declared, than in the issue determined by the retirement of four of Lord Palmerston's colleagues from his Government within the first fortnight of its formation, and under circumstances of extreme hazard and inconvenience to very important national interests. Whatever other cause of regret last Friday's proceedings in the House of Commons may involve, they at least afford us the assurance that we have statesmen left of a courage which will not allow them to shrink from the popular imputation of cowardice—of high personal honour—and, as we believe the result will yet prove, of a political sagacity that can see beyond the present with its excitements, calmly abide the tur- bulence of the popular tempest, and, if public recognition never acknowledge their superiority, find in the sense of duty performed and temptation resisted the sufficient reward of an approving con- science. With the exception of Lord Aberdeen, all the dis- tinguished colleagues of Sir Robert Peel yet among us are com- paratively young men, or have, as in Sir James Graham's case, at least a prospect of many years of active life, and can well afford to wait for that turn of public opinion which in this country seldom fails to honour rectitude of conduct combined with tried talent in the service of the country, however strongly for a time the tide of circumstances, of intrigue, or of mere blind calumny, may flow against it. But, indeed, the tone of all speakers in the House of Commons on Friday hardly calls for any such exercise of fortitude on the part of the retiring statesmen. Whatever may be said in clubs and private gossip, where party dislike assumes a less abashed countenance than in the House of Commons, it seemed to be the prevalent feeling even of the Ministers retaining office, as it cer- tainly was of their leading opponents, that the three seceding Cabinet Ministers were retiring with the honours of war, while those who remained had by a cowardly capitulation thrown down the bulwarks of the fortress it was their duty to have defended, and were henceforth to be considered not as a garrison in pos- session, but as captives to serve the victorious enemy as hewers of wood and drawers of water.
But, important as the personal bearings of such a crisis are, in a country governed so much as ours is by the public estimate of the character of leading statesmen, its constitutional bearings are of infinitely higher importance ; and in the particular case before us, the immediate probable effect of the course adopted upon practical interests throws even the violation of an established constitutional principle into the background. And the singularity of the case is, that neither the Cabinet giving way to the House of Commons, nor the Tory leaders urging on the House of Commons, nor the independent Members pursuing their own objeots, attempted to deny or to conceal the dangerous consequences likely to follow the adoption of the course upon whioh they were agreed. Nor, with the exception of Mr. Disraeli's flippant and reckless effusion of mere personal ambition recently thwarted, and Mr. Drummond's harmless threat of the terrible reality he would infuse into the Committee's proceedings, was there a single attempt made by any person who has the ear of the House or the country to refute the argument, that the proposed inquiry could only avoid becoming mischievous by becoming useless. The House of Commons has thus, with a far clearer foreknowledge of the issue of its conduct than it usually can possess, with far less difference of opinion on the result of its proceedings than almost the slightest ordinary question elicits, entered deliberately upon a course which appa- rently, by its own acknowledgment, will terminate in national dis- aster and confusion, or will make the Commons of Great Britain the laughingstock of the world. Mr. Herbert's words no one re- futed. Those words will sound more and more ominously as week after week reveals the ground of knowledge on which he tit&red them ; and the report, if it ever appear should appear headed with the bold and perfectly intelligible warning—" I defy you to get at the bottom of any of these defects ; but, if you do, you do it at the risk of disorganizing your army, or of exciting the sensibility or shaking the confidence of your allies." And this danger can only be avoided, either by wholly abstaining from touching the military operations so long as they are pending, or by allowing charges to be made against officers in command, and forbidding them to urge in their defence what probably, in many instances, would constitute their sole and sufficient justification.
Useless, nnjnat, mischievous, unconstitutional,—these are the
epithets which a fair analysis of the speeches delivered in favour of the Committee would lead us to suppose accurately represented the feeling even of its supporters; which the most important men who are to act upon it do not hesitate to apply to it ; and which the whole House of Commons sanctioned by implication, when it submitted without indignant reclamation to Mr. Gladstone's taunt as to the difference the adoption of secret voting would produce on the result of the discussion. Such a taunt was an insult the itsabHouse of Commons would at no time endure, evfenitsfrorad fa- justivourite speakers, except under a general sense of nu ivingle for vengeance, and for knowledge, with no ce. A blind popular clamour, with no denfinleariteseannt—nfa how= the feeling is to be satisfied—the vague desire that something, any-
thing, should be done to prove the nation's non-participation In
the guilt and folly of what has occurred,—these are the feelings that enable the Derbyites to use the House of Commons as the instrument of their return to office. And for this end the " Conservative " party do not hesitate to sacrifice a fundamental principle of monarchical and of all good government, the clear de- marcation of the executive and deliberative bodies. Well may we repeat the epithets "useless, unjust, mischievous, unconstitutional." Useless it will be, because it will be imperfectly adapted and em- powered for gaining accurate information, and slow and impracti- cable in the devising of remedies. Unjust, because it will make itself the receptacle for all manner of complaints and charges against in- dividuals who will have no adequate means of defending them- selves, or even of knowing perhaps the charges and the persons who make them. Mischievous, because it must come upon dif- ferences of opinion between the French and English Governments, between the French and English Generals and Admirals, and be- cause no allied Government will submit to have its conduct thus canvassed by a committee of the representative assembly of a foreign nation acting with the consent of the Government of that nation ; moat mischievous too, if, avoiding that error through the management of the Government, it disgust our best officers, and bring the justice and sense of the House, whose authority is de- legated to it, into more general disrepute and contempt than al- ready attach to it.
" unconstitutional" is a word which has perhaps lost much of its ancient terror; yet few thoughtful persons but will acknow- ledge the force of Mr. Gladstone's remark, that, but for its ob- servance of the spirit of the constitution in its usages and prece- dents, the power of the House of Commons would long ago have become a centralized despotism, fatal to all those coordinate au- thorities and tribunals in whose vitality resides the true spirit of English liberty ;—we do not quote his words, but that was the meaning of his remark, and will at once show what weight he and his friends have a right to attach to their objection that the prd- posed Committee is unconstitutional. A Committee that is by its composition and mode of procedure unfitted for judicial inquiry, for the punishment of the guilty, or for instituting remedies, what else can it be in effect but a Committee of government ?—usurping the functions of the Executive in the highest and most delicate exercise of those functions, the practical command of the mili- tary forces, the selection and deposition of generals, the con- trol over pending military operations ? That the Committee would become all this, unless its tendencies were checked by that management to which Members of the House of Commons are delightfully sensitive, and of which certain of the Committee are experienced manipulators, is as clear to us as the result of any geometrical demonstration. So, we doubt not, it is to Lord Palmerston, who knows the House of Commons well. As for Mr. Disraeli, he has no particular mission to save the British consti- tution against the assaults of the country gentlemen whose support subserves his ambition, and whose present excitement promises him office at no distant period; and his friends are not so remarkable for perspicuity of intellect as to know that they are cutting their own throats as they swim down stream. Such, then, is our position. Our House of Commons has taken a step the results of which are only fairly to be de- scribed by a combination of the epithets "useless, unjust, mis- chievous, unconstitutional," on the alternative that its inquiry is to be seriously and vigorously pursued; or, on the other alter- native—that the inquiry will be a prolonged sham, under the clever management of Mr. Ellice, Lord Seymour, and that class—the House of Commons will earn for itself contempt and humiliation. It would be useless to attempt to assign, among the various per- sons who have contributed to this fix, the due degrees of blame. But, plainly, the main difficulty has arisen from the mode- by
• which the House elected to express its want of confidence in Lord Aberdeen's Administration ; and, plainly, Lord Palmerston ought not to have taken office without making up his mind whether he would at once carry out the decision of the House, or at once and boldly refuse to do so. If he shrank from the task of bending the House to his will, and equally shrank from the respon- sibility of dissolving Parliament, his capacity to form a Government on honest principles was no greater than Lord Derby's, and Lord Derby would have been the better choice under the circumstances. But we do not believe he was really under the alternative of giving way to what he avowed to be a violation of the constitution and highly inexpedient, or of at once dissolving Parliament. Lord Derby carried on the government with a majority of the House of Commons against him, when there was not a hundredth part of the excuse for such a temporary strain upon the constitution as present circumstances afford. And had Parliament really shown a determination to try a fall with him, after his display of an equal determination to preserve the rights of the Crown, the con- sequences would hardly have been worse than now. But, as he was reminded the other night, in words that must have carried a painful conviction of a disadvantageous contrast to his mind, Sir Robert Peel could persuade the House to rescind a vote, and Mr. Gladstone could persuade the House to continue a form of taxation against which popular feeling was aroused : only that these statesmen did not attempt to make light of the matters they were discussing, but supported a noble courage and a strong will, two essential elements of success in a popular assembly, by weighty reasons addressed to the knowledge, prudence, and good sense of a highly educated and experienced audience. The strong will and the weighty reasons were at least not displayed in the new Prime Minister's first attempt at leading the House of Commons; and the courage was not of that order which subdues opposition while it commands admiration and respect. From the moment of uttering that first speech, Lord Palmerston's position was lost—the House felt that they had not got a master; and what frankness, gravity, and a manly patriotism and self-reliance might have won from them, the old jaunty tone and easy assurance failed to win. We never doubted Lord Pal- merston's abilities, but we never had any confidence in his power to sway a great crisis. It wants far other qualties than cleverness and good-humour, even if they rise almost to genius, to lead a great nation in moments of excitement, disaster, and disappointment, to calm resolve and wise confidence in itself and its resources. In fact, Lord Palmerston has done nothing but irritate and prolong the crisis ; and now, little remains between us and a complete disorganization of Government, but the managing cleverness of the old officials on the Committee of Inquiry, and the late repentance of the House of Commons, preferring an indirect nullification of its own Committee to manfully acknowledging its mistake and rescinding its vote by refusing to nominate the Com- mittee. A jury-mast is better than nothing, and to this frail hope we must trust, and pray that some great military success may come in time before the Committee can do much mischief in the army before Sebastopol or in our relations with France ; and before it can earn from the Emperor of Russia, as it is too likely to deserve, the decorations he bestows on foreigners who serve his cause.