27 MAY 1905, Page 4


THE House of Commons is very much like a school. If the head-master is firm and plain-spoken, even though unpopular personally—" a beast, but a just beast," as the Rugby boy said of Temple—there will be little or no difficulty in keeping order, for the school will respect him. If, on the other hand, the master, though personally popular and able on occasion to fascinate the boys, is not perfectly straightforward with them, and gives the impression that he is tricky and subtle, and that what he says cannot be absolutely depended upon, there will always be a risk of disorderly explosions. When such an explosion takes place in a school, and its repu- tation for decency and good conduct is seriously com- promised, wise men do not lay all the blame on the boys. They may be annoyed at the occurrence of noisy scenes, and may feel that the leaders of the school have not done enough to prevent tumult and to support authority, but they do not fail to recognise that these are the sort of things which are sure to happen when the head-master either does not know his own mind, or does not make it clear to the school, or, again, gives any large section of the boys an excuse for saying that they are being tricked or humbugged. That is very much the position which thinking men have been taking up in regard to the scene in the House of Commons. They have no hesitation in condemning the disorder as a scandal, and as a grave injury to the reputation of Parliament, and they feel that more might have been done by the Leader of the Opposition to keep down disorder. At the same time, they realise that the House is certain to get out of hand if the Leader of the House acts as Mr. Balfour has been acting throughout the present Session. You cannot, as we have had frequent occasion to remark, build on a foundation of paradox without rearing a structure which will fall about your ears. Yet this is what the Prime Minister has been doing ever since the Fiscal controversy began. His whole attitude has been paradoxical, and he has reaped the inevitable result.

Let us consider as coolly and straightforwardly as we can the realities of the situation. In the first place, the one political question in which the nation is at present interested is the Fiscal question. What the country thinks about and cares about in the region of politics is the question whether we are to abandon Free-trade and substitute some form of Protection, or whether we shall continue on the old lines. But though this is now the essential issue in our politics, Mr. Balfour steadily refuses to allow the matter to be fully and fairly discussed in Parliament. If it is raised in the House of Commons, it is only on a side-issue, and every intellectual resource at his command is resorted to in order to evade a clear declaration by the Government on the Fiscal problem. He will not tell us whether his Majesty's Government is opposed to, or in favour of, the Chamberlain policy ; and when he sets forth what he calls his own policy, it is found to be so full of ambiguities that the plain man is utterly at a loss how to interpret it. The "half-sheet of notepaper," in fact, becomes a kind of magic mirror in which each man who examines it can fancy he sees what he wants. The Chamberlainite holds it at one angle, and finds a faithful, if somewhat dim, reflection of the Chamberlain policy. The Balfourite with Free-trade leanings holds it at a different angle, and sees a policy which he believes is consistent with genuine opposition to Protection. A position so un- certain — nay, equivocal — when assumed by the head of the Government and the Leader of the House is enough to demoralise an assembly which, like the House of Commons, after all feels, and has a right to feel, that it is chosen by the people of Britain, not merely to register Mr. Balfour's decrees, but to take a chief part in forming and controlling public opinion. Can we blame the House of Commons if a large section of its Members is fretted almost beyond endurance by the thought that their House is the only body in the country which is not allowed to discuss the Chamberlain policy freely ? While every petty club and debating society in the land may declare clearly for or against Protection, the House of Commons is forced to fight with shadows, and to proclaim understand it. the obvious falsehood that the question of Protection is not before the nation.

But this campaign of mystification and sham reticence is not enough for Mr. Balfour. He has added to it further complications and ambiguities which increase the exaspera- tion that his policy creates. Let us attempt to give in plain terms a history of the Edinburgh pledge. Last autumn Mr. Balfour told the country that the question of a Preferential system could not be decided by the country without two General Elections. First, there was to be a General Election at which the country should decide whether they would call a Colonial Conference to refuse or to accept, as the case might be, a scheme of Preference. If such a scheme were accepted by the Conference, it must next be submitted to the people, both of the United Kingdom and of the Colonies, at a second and universal General Election. That was not, in our opinion, a wise or a practical scheme, but at any rate it was one which was perfectly clear and intelligible. That policy held the field till only a few days ago. Mr. Balfour not only restated it himself on several occasions, but the Duke of Marlborough, speaking for the Government in the House of Lords, fully endorsed it. In fact, throughout the country it was held that a pledge had been given that two General Elections must take place before the country could be committed to Preference. And this view, though so generally adopted, never met with any correction or protest from Mr. Balfour. Now, however, we are suddenly told that, though Mr. Balfour sticks to what he said at Edinburgh, and does not in the least mean to go back on his pledge, there is a way round that pledge which will enable the country to be committed to Preference with only one General Election. Mr. Balfour finds, though he had forgotten it when he spoke at Edinburgh, that a Colonial Conference will meet " automatically " in 1906, and that this Conference cannot possibly be pre- vented, if it so desires, from formulating a scheme of Preference. But if it does that in the spring or summer of 1906, and a General Election takes place in the autumn of 1906 when the Colonial Conference scheme is before the country, only one General Election will be needed. When Mr. Balfour is asked whether such happenings would be consistent with his pledge not to introduce the Fiscal issue in the course of the present Parliament, it is suggested that his answer will be something of this kind : 'I shall not have placed the question of Preference before Parliament, though the Colonial Conference, provided it agrees, will have placed the question of Preference before the country,—a very different thing.' There- fore, though Mr. Balfour will have kept his pledge, the electors will nevertheless be able to have the question of Preference before them at the next General Election, and so the difficulty of the two Elections will be removed. This happy result will be brought about by the " automatic " Conference of 1906, which Mr. Balfour forgot when he spoke at Edinbugh. He could not, owing to his pledge in that speech, have summoned a Conference before the General Election, but he can postpone the General Election till the Conference which will assemble without any special summons from him has come to a conclusion. That is Mr. Balfour's position as we We leave our readers to judge for themselves as to whether Mr. Balfour's pledge is, in truth, kept in these circumstances. But we must point out that if Mr. Balfour is disturbed to find that the " automatic " Conference will prevent the keeping of his pledge, he can always keep it by dissolving Parliament before the Conference whose existence he had forgotten meets. Apparently, however, Mr. Balfour thinks that there is an easier way out of his self-created difficulty. He tells UB that the pledge is not in reality a pledge, because it was made voluntarily to his own supporters, and that his opponents cannot demand that it shall be carried out. We do" not know what Mr. Balfour's supporters will think of this line of argument, but to us it suggests a parallel with a not very pleasant episode in international politics. Under the Treaty of Berlin the Russians were understood to be pledged to maintain Batoum as a free port. In 1886, however, the Russians closed the port. When the British Government objected, and tried to make the Russians respect their pledge, the Russian diplomatists pointed out that it was quite a mistake to talk about pledges. No pledge had been given. The Emperor of Russia had only voluntarily expressed his resolve to keep the port open, and this voluntary and spontaneous personal declaration must in no way be confounded with a pledge. Our readers may remember the feeling of surprise—nay, indignation—with which this explanation was received. We doubt whether Mr. Balfour's explanation, when it is understood by the British people, will be any better liked.

If the British public were convinced that Mr. Balfour had got himself into this tangle merely through inad- vertence and carelessness in the wording of his Edin- burgh speech, they might be annoyed. at the spectacle of a Prime Minister taking his responsibilities so lightly, but they would not consider that the matter called for any grave censure. What, however, makes the whole difference in their attitude on the present occasion is the fact that it is perfectly well understood that the reason why Mr. Balfour has altered his mind and determined to abandon his pledge is to be found in the agreement which during the past few days has been made with Mr. Chamberlain. Mr. Chamber- lain, we all know, wants a Dissolution, and probably could bring it about if he were to insist on having his own way. Mr. Balfour, on the other hand, desires to postpone the Dissolution as long as possible. It appears, therefore, that the two leaders have agreed on the following compromise. Mr. Chamberlain gives up his demand for an immediate Dissolution, while Mr. Balfour gives up his policy of two Elections before the question of Preference can be put to the nation. At first Mr. Balfour's unluckily specific speech at Edinburgh seemed to stand in the way of the agreement. Some ingenious person, however, was able to point out that the " automatic " Colonial Conference which Mr. Balfour forgot at Edinburgh would get the two negotiators very easily out of their difficulty. If the Dissolution were postponed till the autumn of 1906, and the Conference met, as it would, "automatically" in the spring of that year, the pledge not to summon a Conference till after the General Election would have been kept to the letter, and at the same time an immediate appeal to the country could very properly be abandoned.

This is generally understood to be the true explanation of the situation. Since it was known on Monday night to the House of Commons, we can hardly wonder that the Opposition considered themselves tricked, and acted with that violence which, however much to be regretted, is liable to master men's minds in such circumstances. You cannot, as W3 have said above, expect either boys or men 0 maintain order and to act with self-respect if they are not treated with frankness, firmness, and loyalty.