TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE PARLIAMENTARY COLLAPSE.
TIIE Autumn Session is over. No one of any sense or know- ledge of the world looked to it to take great practical resolves on more than one subject of importance, and perhaps od one or two others of some gravity, though occupying no great space in the public attention. But it was reasonable to expect that even in this short session Parliament should have exercised one of the most useful functions which Autumn sessions can discharge,—to express with force and clearness the expectations indulged by the country with respect to the future measures of Government, in good time seriously to influence their scope, and press on their state of preparation. Were it possible, an autumn session of a fortnight for this sole purpose,—to sound truly the note of popular anxiety as to the coming legislation of the business session,—would be a most useful custom, and one truly economical of both energy and time. It would enable Government to feel its way in the preparation of great measures, and to repair its deficiencies in good time. In former years this purpose was more or less really answered by autumn sessions. It so happens that they have been decennial for the last three decades. We had one in 1847, caused by the crisis of that year, in which Ireland's disaffection and Ireland's famine were the great subjects of painful interest. We had one in 1857, caused, again, by the financial crisis, in which the Indian Mutiny was the great subject of painful interest. The autumn session just elapsed has been rendered needful by the law limiting the employment of our Indian Army to Indian terri- tory. But it has coincided, as did the short session of twenty years ago, with a danger of the first magnitude in Ireland, and unfortunately also with various matters of importance, both at home and abroad, on which a lively and emphatic expression of the opinion of Parliament would have been of the first im- portance, by way of guidance to the Government and prepara- tion for the business session of next year. Yet the spirit of both Houses has been more than passive. It has been help- less. We have not got one good definite expression of public opinion out of either House on any subject whatever during the short session just concluded, unless it be the firm but moderate adhesion indirectly given to the Government with regard to the execution of the law at Manchester. On that point the House did indirectly,—and it was only right and delicate to Ireland to make its adhesion as indirect as possible without being indecisive,—sustain the action of the Adminis- tration. So far the House of Commons did its duty. But on all other points of moment, some of them of the deepest national interest, both Houses of Parliament have been as dumb and helpless as if they were tongue-tied. On practical remedies for the condition of Ireland it was not even desirable for them to say anything. The excitement caused by the recent trials and executions is too recent to admit of any impartial discussion. But Parliament discharges, or ought to discharge, other duties which are often quite as important as its legisla- tive or administrative duties,—and one very momentous one is that of realizing adequately for the nation the true depth and solemnity of any great crisis. The nation wants teaching through Parliament at least as much as it wants to exercise power through it. The sense of national responsibility and unity always ought to rise in intensity when Parliament assembles, and ought to be deepened by expressions of con- viction, tending to impress and educate the nation. The profound excitement which these Fenian trials and executions have produced in Ireland, and the profound unsettlement of the old habit of respea for law which the offences which led to them have produced in England, constitute really a most grave crisis in the history of the kingdom. It is impossible to imagine a situation of graver moment. Ireland has not only, for the fourth or fifth time since Catholic Emancipation, shown herself to be the despair of English statesmen, but for the first time she has begun to show us the &urger which she may cause to the stability of English institutions as well. All this wanted impressing gravely on the English people,— impressing, not by one or two statesmen, but by the concur- rent expression of serious anxiety from all parts of the country, both in the Commons and the Lords. Yet not a word has been said to realize truly for the United Kingdom the gravity of the situation,—not a word to prepare the country for a great effort, and if it be needful, even for a great sacrifice. And this is not a mere matter of sentiment. It is impossible for statesmen to deal adequately with such a situation as the present without a careful and earnest inculcation on the national mind of the great and perilous gravity of the situation. If Parlia- ment is indifferent, the nation will not be impressed. And if the nation is not impressed, Parliament will never set about a statesmanlike remedy in earnest. If Parliament abdicate its. purely didactic functions with regard to the state of Ireland, as it has done in this short session, nothing need be expected from its legislative efforts when it meets for work. Indiffer- ence, insouciance amongst the great majority of Englishmen and Scotchmen, has been the bane of our government in Ireland hitherto, and seems likely to remain so. It is this which makes the Times write so contemptuously of Irish affairs, and thereby aggravate them tenfold. If Parliament does not speak out as to the gravity of the situation at such a moment as the present, who can expect earnestness from the. nation f We hold it a most dangerous sign of the inca- pacity of the present Parliament for its duties that it has separated without discharging this most pressing and imme- diate of all its duties,—the duty of instructing the nation to- think with due gravity, and anxiety, and even intensity, about the relations of the sister islands.
But if Parliament has failed to form public opinion in relation to Ireland, it has no less failed in its duty with re- gard to public opinion on other affairs, of less importance- perhaps, but still very considerable importance, and, in some cases, of even more specific practical interest. We will not insist on the absence of any adequate debate on Italian affairs, for it may be said, not without some force, that Lord Stanley has so well expressed by his policy the best sense of Eng- land in relation to the French Expedition and the Conference,. that we cannot do better than leave matters in his hands. That is not, however, quite true. Had we had,—in relation to this new attempt of Napoleon to get Europe to endorse his view of the Temporal Power of the Pepe, and so to divide the odium of his dictatorial policy in Italy,—just such a debate as. we repeatedly had in 1859 and 1860, in relation to his attempt to break up Italy into the Federation of States contemplated at Villafranca, we should have enormously strengthened Lord Stanley's hands in the policy he has adopted. As it was, Mr. Horsman's able speech on the Address- was almost the only support given to Italy in the Commons, and Lord Stanley is, in the eyes of Europe, in no degree stronger for the meeting of Parliament than he was be- fore. Apparently, the English House of Commons take infinitely less interest in the affairs of Italy and the important proposal for a Conference, than they would have taken six or seven years ago, and England counts for less in consequence, in spite of the ability of her Minister. The expression of English feeling on this miserable Papal question should have been pronounced strongly at the very moment when the Conference was proposed, if it were to have its full effect. It is a great blunder to suppose that the Press has any power to supersede Parliament in these matters. The Emperor of the French well knows the difference between the voice of the English Press, which only registers the predominant opinion of the country, and the voice of Parliament, which only speaks strongly and decisively when that opinion is very near to the heart of the nation. He will probably augur,—and as far as we can see, correctly augur,—from the apathy of Parliament, that England has lost a good deal of the warmth of her former interest in Italian affairs ; that she does not care to counteract his policy now, half as much as she cared to counteract his policy in 1860. But there is no such excuse as may be derived in this case from Lord Stanley's lucid and vigorous action on Italian and Roman affairs, for the complete failure of Parliament to express its interest and its will in relation to certain domestic affairs which have been very prominent lately, and which needed mainly a Parliamentary demonstration for efficient treatment. Take, for instance, first, the disgraceful and disgusting exposure of the Workhouse infirmaries far and wide. We do not hesitate to say that the meeting of Parliament has not only not produced a good effect,. but has produced an evil effect on the public feeling in rela- tion to these matters. Compare Mr. Sclater-Booth's country speech on the eve of the assembly of Parliament, with his answer last week to Mr. Goschen, in relation to the Bedminster and Clifton Union infirmaries, and we say there is distinct evidence of a mind liberated from the fear of being called to account for the long arrears of official neglect, which have been accumulated by the Poor Law poard. When he spoke to his constituents he had a kee.nd lively sense of the shortcomings of the Board. When he curtly told Mr. Goschen that an inquiry at Bedminster and Clifton would be -unnecessary, he had apparently sounded the depths of Par- liamentary indifference, and composed himself again to sleep. The House of Lords has done even worse than the House of Commons in this. Lord Devon elicited last week little but a warning not to make the sick and bedridden paupers too decent and comfortable. Lord Houghton spoke as if the exposure of filth, meanness, and tyranny which we have had from one end of England to the other were almost a matter to be deplored, because by tending to introduce greater humanity, honesty, and comfort, it might render the Union infirmaries objects of less loathing than they now are. If it be the true object of Parliament to empty the Union infirmaries, why not apply torture directly at once to their bedridden patients Indirectly,- we do do so, and Lord. Houghton, though in his poems he is so compassionate to poor girls who sell violets in the streets of London, seems to approve. The demeanour of Mr. Sclater-Booth in the Commons, and the apologists in the Lords, clearly show that the meeting of Parliament on the very morrow of these disgraceful exposures, instead of stimu- lating the reforming zeal of the Poor-Law Board, has been calculated rather to damp it.
Bat worst of all has been the demeanour of the Lords and the indifference of the Commons on the subject of Education. It is well known that the Ministry are to introduce a Bill on this subject, and now, if ever, was the time to modify its provisions. Mr. Disraeli had already intimated, and the Duke of Marlborough, in his poverty-stricken' speech of Monday, again stated, that the present intention of the Government does not go beyond a cautious extension of the present Deno- minational system,—in other words, has nothing large about it, and will do no good in those poor, ignorant, and populous districts where education is most needed, because there is no one to set it on foot. We are greatly mistaken if the national opinion has not far outstripped the thin and meagre designs of Government. On every side we have had confessions of con- version to a large and comprehensive educational policy. The Voluntary sect has-given up its wretched crotchet in deference -to the clear expression .of the nation's will, and Radicals and Conservatives have alike expressed their anxiety to Bee that kind U-of intelligence developed in the working-classes of this country which has been seen to give such extraordinary elasticity to the power of the United States and Prussia in the moment of trial. Yet in the face of all this the Duke of Marlborough almost limits his concessions to the magnificent suggestion that the Government may probably be induced to help schools without insisting on certificated schoolmasters, and the House of Lords drops the subject, while the House of Commons never takes it up! The debate of Monday in the House of Lords is the greatest proof of the inability of the Peers to enter heartily into the political anxieties of the country and lead its counsels which we have yet seen. Grant that Lord Russell's motion may have looked like a party bid, still, it should have been vigorously used, with any needful disclaimer of party-purpose, to prompt and spur a reluctant Government out of its stupid lethargy. A hearty stimulus applied to its zeal now, before the detail of its plan had been settled, would have been worth many times the value of any criticism applied in February or March. Yet Parliament is now adjourned to the middle of February without a hint from either House of Parliament that the nation will not be satisfied with the contemptible modicum of concession announced by the feeblest Minister in the Cabinet on the greatest English question of the day. The Duke of Marlborough said he was quite incompetent to cope with so great a question as the appointment of a Minister of Education, and we agree with him, and argue a fortiori that he is still more utterly incompetent to cope with the far greater question of what such a Minister ought to do. No " certificated schoolmaster" could have been found to make a much narrower, more priggish, imbecile speech on this great matter than the noble Duke. If the Duke had himself been trained in that period when children are said to have owed their education wholly to Sunday schools, he could not have excelled the feebleness of his Monday's deliverance. And the House of Lords allowed that, and Lord Russell's vague speech, to go forth to the country, as all that they eared to say in view of the proposed Tory policy on educational reform.!
On every subject, then, on which an early and emphatic expression of. the nation's wish might have been expected to influence the coming session, and not only the coming session, but the ripening of national thought, this autumn sitting of Parliament has been a complete failure. It has been indifferent, lifeless, apathetic, in a word, pococurante. It would seem that the Commons, in view of their doom, are too selfish to think of anything but their "notice to quit," and that the Lords, being hopeless of directing the mind of the nation, are almost magnetized into imbecility. No more pallid, faded ghost of what a Parliament should be ever met at a crisis thick with the most weighty living interests, than the one which has just adjourned. It is the only prognostic we have seen at all confirmatory of Mr. Carlyle's dismal forebodings of a period when vivid political life shall cease, and "gibbering phantoms" shall idly chatter where statesmen once held the reins. It may be, we trust it is, a false prognostic. But no one can say that the Autumn Session has not been a miserable display of languor and apathy, where we expected energy and life.