TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE POSITION OF THE GOVERNMENT.
NO impartial observer of current politics can review the position of the Government without coming to the conclusion that it is one of difficulty, if not, indeed, of danger. It is true that they still command immense majorities in the House of Commons, and that whenever the full voting force of the party is put in motion they can carry their measures or their Resolu- tions by overwhelming numbers. This, however, must not blind us to the fact that Governments apparently quite as strong in outward strength have fallen from internal weakness or internal dissensions, or from a kind of feverish confusion which has brought them to an end no one exactly knows bow or why. One recalls in such cases Matthew Arnold's famous description of the Roman Empire, and how it fell in spite of its outward strength and greatness. In spite of "each thew and limb " seeming " puissant and alive," its downfall was inevitable :—
" But ah, its heart, its heart was stone, And so it could not thrive."
We do not wish to attribute any particular stoniness of heart to the members of the present Cabinet. Their fault, indeed, is rather a kind of fatty degeneration of that organ ; but the effect may, we fear, be no less- disastrous. They are not thriving because they do not know their own mind ; or if they do know it, they have not the courage to act upon it, but accept as their motive for action, not conviction, but the belief that this or that measure or principle of legislation must be adopted because other- wise a certain section of their followers will break away from them and vote with the other side. That is an attitude of mind as fatal to moral health and strength as a heart of stone. It-cannot produce in the long run any- thing but weakness and confusion. A man who does a foolish thing when he is honestly mistaken may often carry through his foolishness without much injury to him- self. His zeal and his enthusiasm act as a kind of anti- septic and abate his folly. The man, however, who does a thing he knows to be foolish because he is pushed into it by others, and because he has not the courage to resist, is certain to come to- grief, and in the long run to give satisfaction neither to himself nor to those outside influences which he is obeying.
Lord Rosebery the other day warned the Government that they were in danger of offending simultaneously both of the camps into which their supporters are divided. They were not going far enough with the extremists to gain their loyal support, and yet going far enough with them to alienate the moderate section of the Liberal Party. Every day this fact is being brought more clearly into prominence. For example, the policy adopted in regard to old-age pensions has filled moderate Liberals with alarm, while at the same time it is scouted as a mockery and delusion by the Labour Party. Nor can we wonder that this is so. We see old-age pension proposals defended, not on their merits, but on the ground that it would not be safe to allow the Tariff Reformers to associate the cause of old-age pensions with Protection. A method of treating great social and political questions so fundamentally dishonest cannot but bring disaster to those who adopt it. Look, again, at the attitude of the Government towards land legislation. Bills like the Scotch Land Bill now before the House are spreading alarm among moderate Liberals throughout the country, not merely because they are predatory, but even more because they are thoroughly unpractical. Yet these proposals, though they alienate moderate support, by no means win the whole-hearted approval of the Socialist and Labour extremists. In the same way, we have little doubt that when the Government plan for dealing with the House of Lords is produced, it will be found to alarm moderate opinion profoundly with- out satisfying those who wish to see the House of Commons armed with the unchecked and uncontrolled powers wielded by the Convention in the French Revolu- tion,—a body, that is, whose mere Resolutions are at once clothed with the might and majesty of the law.
The mental feverishness and confusion of the Govern- ment, and their astonishing belief that a paradox is a good foundation upon which to build, are reflected in what we may call the physical condition of the Session. We are now in the first week in May, and the Whitsuntide Recess will be upon us in less than a fortnight. Yet the Govern- - ment have practically achieved nodegislative work during the present Session, except to finish the Budget and to obtain a second reading for the Scotch Land Bill and for Mr. Haldane's Army Bill. The latter measure is now to go into Committee, and is certain to encounter there opposition to, and criticism of, details which must, even though there is nothing in the shape of obstruction, occupy a very large amount of time. The Parliamentary prospect would thus not be a satisfactory one even though legislation were henceforth to take a normal and uninter- rupted course. Next week, however, the regular work of the Commons is to be put aside, and we are to be plunged into the most important Constitutional controversy which has perhaps ever occupied Parliament,—a controversy involving the status and rights of the Upper House, and the question of what checks and limitations should be placed by the people upon their representatives. Not only must such a discussion occupy a very large amount of time, but, what is still more important as regards public business, it is certain to occupy the attention of Parliament and of the nation so strongly as to eclipse all interest in other matters. Legislation only thrives and goes quickly when the mind of the nation as a whole is bent upon the work before Parliament. What likelihood is there, however, of the nation bringing its mind to bear upon the intricate and difficult problems raised by the proposals to abolish the Militia and establish a Territorial Army, or, again, upon the question of whether the State should introduce dual ownership into Scotland rather than establish a true peasant-proprietary, if the whole country is distracted by the attempt to settle the question whether it is wise or unwise to have an effective Second Chamber, or whether the House of Commons can be safely trusted to rule the nation without any check on its activities ? What should we say of the common-sense of the captain of a river steamer who ordered an overhaul of his ship of a critical and difficult kind, and when that overhaul was well begun decided that the moment had come for taking his vessel through a speciall, dangerous and difficult chain of rapids ? But this is in effect what the Cabinet have determined to do.
If the Government were bent upon immediate Dissolu- tion, their conduct might be explicable ; but those who know their mind in the Press, as undoubtedly the West- minster Gazette does, assure us that the idea of Dissolution is by no means contemplated, and that the Government are quite in earnest over their legislative programme. In that case, all we can say is that no body of men were ever more strangely mistaken in their diagnosis of the political situation. Perhaps the strangest thing about the whole strange business is that the Government themselves do. not seem to be in the least aware of their own difficulties and dangers. If one may judge from their speeches, they are, as a rule, perfectly self-satisfied. Should, however, any notion that things are not well with them cross their minds, they appear to be able to content themselves by the suggestion that it is all the fault of the House of Lords. Whether that is so or not we do not propose to argue now. What, however, we are sure of is that the country will not take it as an excuse for the mismanagement of public business. The nation will decide by the event. The Government were entrusted with the duty of preserving and maintaining our Free-trade system. They are the trustees of Free-trade. When the time for judging them finally comes, the nation will first of all want to know how they have discharged their trusteeship in this particular.