15 MAY 1880, Page 4


SIR WILLIAM HARCOURT'S defeat at Oxford will cer- tainly be regarded by a great number of people as proving the inconstancy and insignificance of popular opinion. We ourselves did not expect that defeat. We were quite pre- pared for a considerable number of Sir William Harcourt's former supporters leaving him in the lurch on the present occasion, but we believed that the loss would be more than made up by the number of electors who always sway towards the side of the existing Government, unless it has done something to excite strongly their dissatisfaction. In the present case, this seems to have been a miscalculation. Those who voted in favour of Sir William Harcourt in April only because it was the best way of turning out the Tories, and who re- versed their vote last Saturday because their previous vote had done its work, and because by reversing it they could best show their decided personal distaste for Sir William Har- court as a politician, were not nearly balanced by those— if there were any such—who came over to the side of the existing Government simply because it was the existing Government. Either the people thought the Government already so strong in popular support that it needed no such adhesions, or the personal antagonisms excited by Sir William Harcourt's rattling political volleys were more numerous and serious than usual. At all events, the antago- nist whose great "liquid" resources he had himself vaunted, overcame him on this occasion, and the Home Secretary is left politically homeless, to wander about and seek where he may lay his head. We regret this apparent fluctuation of Oxford opinion, partly because it is certain to be misinterpreted as a proof of popular vacillation on issues of principle ; partly because it seems ungrateful to an orator of extraordinary brilliance, whose ridicule, though it has been only a secondary force in dissolv- ing the superstition respecting the popularity of the late Government, has yet been second only to Mr. Gladstone's ear- nest and eloquent conviction ; and lastly, because it will cause serious inconvenience to the new Administration. But though on all these grounds we regret what has happened, we are not sure that, If properly taken to heart, this vexation may not bear good fruit in the end. In the first place, it is an additional illustration, of which we have had so many lately, of the different principles which seem to govern a general election and bye-elections, and should teach us not to suppose that in dropping elections of this kind, it is the great party-issue, so much as the personal feeling towards the candidate, which decides the doubtful votes. In the next place,—and this is much more important,—it shows how much popular distrust the most brilliant orator may excite, if he relies too much on his wit, and too little on his deeper political convictions. We do not in the least underrate the power of such political ridicule as Sir William Harcourt's. It is a very great power of its kind, and a very rare one. But it is a power wholly of the negative kind, and it is by no means true, as Sir William Harcourt himself has more than once been the means of proving to us, that ridicule is the test of truth. At one time, just before Sir William Harcourt was made Mr. Gladstone's Solicitor-General in the last Administration, it seemed a matter of some little doubt on which side of the House that great power of raillery would ultimately be used. The compliments with which at that time Sir William Harcourt used to over- whelm Mr. Disraeli, were not less marked than the caustic irony with which he treated the Liberal Government. And though, after some vibration, the pendulum at last settled down into official Liberalism, there was no want of indica- tions that very slight influences, whether of attraction or repul- sion, might have resulted in a decision of the other kind. Now, we do not believe that the doubts which so many good Liberals once entertained as to the strength and tenacity of Sir William Harcourt's political principles were the main causes of the personal defeat inflicted on him last week at Oxford. But we do believe that when the electors see that a man who might ultimately have settled down either in one direction or the other, is the wittiest and severest of all the scourges of the opposite party, they are better dis- posed to inflict upon him a personal defeat, than they would have been to inflict such a defeat on any other member of the Government, either one more deeply convinced in his own mind of the principles with which he is identified, or one less disposed to ride rough-shod over the opponents amongst whom he might not impossibly, by no very great change of external circumstances, have been enrolled. Sir William Har- court's rather easy-going political faith is, no doubt, closely associated, in the people's minds, and not erroneously asso- ciated, with his very trenchant political invective. The vivacity and play of fancy needful for the most effective assault, go better with that kind of political creed of which, —to use an effective mechanical metaphor,—the balls turn easily in their sockets, than with a creed of anything like grim tenacity of conviction. We can see in the case of Lord Beaconsfield, whose earlier style of attack has been very much Sir William Harcourt's model, how much advantage a politician gains by being able to enter easily into all points of view, though choosing for the moment only one. The mere habit of earnestness, the mere attitude of mind which is fixed on given ends, and is bent on doing all that can be done to remove the obstacles to those ends, though it may often lend itself to indignant passion, does not promote, but by its monotony rather excludes, that turn for lively varia- tions on the opinions of your opponent out of which the best satirical hits emerge. Hence we do not much wonder that Sir William Harcourt was selected as the one member of the Government on whom it was not entirely inappropriate to pass a different judgment personally, from that which had been passed upon him when he was chiefly the representative of a party. In April, Sir William Harcourt fought Mr. Gladstone's battle. In May, it was known that Mr. Gladstone's battle was triumphantly won, and Sir William Harcourt was then con- sidered as fighting his own. Some, at least, of the electors probably intended him to feel that while they trusted the party with which he was identified, they had real mis- givings about himself. And those misgivings we have our- selves not unfrequently shared, both before and since the political crisis of 1874, and especially, we may say, during his very illiberal support of the bad Public Worship Act. There will be no harm done, if Sir William Harcourt takes the hint, and remembers for the future that, greatly as his wit and eloquence are admired, he is trusted more as the colleague of Mr. Gladstone than he is trusted for his own sake. Doubtless another seat will soon be found for him, and when he obtains it, he will fill it all the better for be- lieving that, profoundly as Liberals appreciate his personal gifts, they value them only so far as they are strictly subordi- nated to Liberal ends, and animated by a Liberal spirit.