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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

The Political Future of England

page 174

The Political Future of England.

As that of Nottingham is one of the most radical of English constituencies, so is the Honorable Auberon Herbert one of the most radical of English reformers: a political affinity which readily accounts for the former's choice of the latter to represent it in the British House of Commons. Democratic Nottingham, moreover, without receiving or even soliciting pledges on the point, appears to have cherished the belief, that, in the event of a proposed Parliamentary marriage-grant to any member of the Royal Family, their democratic representative would be found voting with the Noes. A matter, as it turns out, in which Mr. Herbert is unable to accommodate a doubtless small but decidedly demonstrative section of his constituents. With the rest of England's legislators—not even Mr. Fawcett himself at the last moment dissenting—he voted for the dowry of the Princess Louise, and, in nowise reluctant to render an account of his stewardship, met his disappointed Nottingham friends early in April last, and addressed them in defence of his reasons for voting as he done. Lying before us, in an issue of the Nottingham Journal, is a report of the speech he delivered on that occasion : a speech which has not, we believe, been reprinted in any Australian newspaper, and which, therefore, with a view to putting our readers in possession of its truly admirable contents, we are transferring to the pages of the Free Religious Press. The usual preliminaries having been gone through, Mr. Herbert said:

"My friends, I hope that you think I have done right in keeping the promise I made to you in coming to speak to you to-night on the subject of the Princess Louise's dowry. I always feel that whenever it happens that a member of Parliament gives a vote which goes against the feelings of his constituents, he owes it to his friends to come down and meet them, and to meet them face to face, and to tell them what were the reasons which induced him so to act, and there and then, like a man, to expect from their hands either censure or forgiveness. And now I am sure I shall not ask in vain for indulgence on one point. I have no doubt that in the course of my speech I shall probably say things which are sweet to some and bitter to others. I think that I shall succeed in setting the teeth of all my friends, whatever their opinions may be, on edge to-night before I have done speaking. But still I do believe that you will, out of your old kindness to me, grant me this favour, that, you will hear me patiently through, and then judge me. And now let me here say that I never can feel any resentment as to whatever may be your political conduct towards me. I will never quarrel with men for preferring their own principles to anything else. I admit, in the most decided way, that there is no such thing as good nature in politics. Politics are much too serious a business for that; and I would only wish you to cleave steadfastly to what you believe to be right, and not to care at ail how that may affect me or any other person. To give you an example of what I mean, let me say that there is no man in the House of Commons whom I respect more than Mr. Forster, yet I think that his constituents the other day did perfectly right when they passed what amounted to a vote of want of confidence in his conduct. I think they were perfectly right in preferring their own principles to the kindly feeling which they had towards him. Of myself I can only say that much as I think this present Government in many ways is worthy of page 175 our respect and support, I should not hesitate for a single moment in casting my own vote against them if I thought they were doing anything which I believed was not perfectly right for the interests of a country. And therefore I own I think it is only right that you should apply the same law to me as I have applied to Mr. Forster and to the Government, and that you should not hesitate to condemn me to-night—and I go so far as to say to turn me out as your representative—if ever 1 stand in the way of deep firm-seated conviction in your breast. We shall, I think, play the man by each other. I intend on every occasion to speak what I believe to be the truth to you, and I expect that you will act in the same unswerving manner towards me; and in that way I am sure we shall best fulfil our duty, and act rightfully towards our country. I am going very briefly to consider two arguments which were used by many of my friends against the granting of the dowry. One was what I will call the Parliamentary argument—it was the argument used in Parliament—and the other was that which was used outside. It was said in Parliament that we ought not to grant the dowry to this Princess, because dowries had only been given to compensate for what we call 'political marriages that is to say, that when a princess was married to a foreign prince her own tastes and inclinations were not consulted;, it was, in short, a political marriage, and therefore this sum of money was given to her as compensation for that happiness which it might be supposed she would lose by contracting such a marriage. Well, I asked myself, would such a plan work? and I saw that if we were to grant dowries only to our princesses for political marriages, the tendency of our doing so would be to encourage them to form these bad, unnatural, and, to my mind, hateful marriages; and that we should punish them or fine them for contracting a reasonable, sensible, and natural marriage. Well, there was another argument used outside Parliament, and that argument was this, that we ought not to make any national payments except in return for work done and services rendered. I do not think I am very far wrong when I say that that is the reason which generally fills the mind of this meeting. I have no hesitation in saying that I accept and agree with that principle. I think the principle is a right and a just principle; I think it is one for the country to adopt, and that a great deal of harm is done because we neglect it. But I was unwilling, and am unwilling, to apply that principle during the lifetime of the Queen to her and her children. I consider that we are absolutely free to make whatever arrangements we like with him or her who succeeds to her Majesty. I reject altogether the theory that the Crown lands are private property. I hold that they are the property of the nation. I hold that we may make what ever bargain we choose hereafter, with that person whom we may make chief officer of this country. I want to express this feeling to you—I don't know how many may share it—a feeling of gratitude towards the Queen herself. I have that feeling for two reasons; first of all, because the influence of her reign has been a good and pure influence; and secondly, because I know of no king or queen in history who has accepted as she has with the same readiness and the same loyalty those great popular changes, those great revolutions, which have placed power in the hands of the people. I say I feel grateful to her for her conduct in that matter. Now, my friends, let me look a little forward. I want to look at what comes after. There are some of us who will draw a long breath at the word 'after.' It is rather a dangerous subject for conversation. Shall we break off our conversation here? Shall we venture to have a little glimpse at the future, or shall we break up our meeting and go home and early to bed, like children who are afraid to go up a dark lane because it is said there is a ghost at the end of it. Well, if we are to look forward, we had better ask what is our present position? Our present position is this, that, as I understand it, and it seems to me a great misfortune, by our present system it is not allowed us to have a voice and a choice as to who is to step into the first place at the head of this nation. We live in days in which we have learnt to accept nothing unless we can page 176 reconcile it to sober reason and to clear intelligence; and I for one will take this opportunity of stating that I think it a great misfortune that there exists in this country no guarantee whatsoever that we should not have an extravagant, an idle, and a corrupt court. We possess no guarantee that a person who is totally unfit shall not be placed in the first place we have to give. I venture to say that for us who are a free nation, who for many years have been learning to govern ourselves, we on whose soil and in the air of whose country the free spirit of freedom and of self-government has been born and has been nurtured and has gone forth from us to teach other nations, I say it is an unfortunate thing for us that such a penalty and such a risk should hang over our heads, and that we should not take a step to free ourselves from a great and possible danger. I hate anything which approaches to scandal. I will not tread in the slimy and slippery paths of that. I will not join those who would hunt down a particular man who may not perhaps be very worthy of respect; but who may after all be better than we ourselves are, and who may have many temptations which we have not. I say that I cannot and will not do anything of that kind, but I place this matter on a broad and clear ground; I adopt it with you on the ground of principle, and I say that it is altogether a wrong and an undesirable thing that any man, be he whomsoever he may, should come to the throne of this country without first, securing the free consent and approval of this people. Some of my friends say that this means a Republic. I have heard some of my friends say 'Republic' is a very naughty word. I don't think we need be frightened at a word. But what I say to-night is this, that whether it means Republic, or not, I for one, do insist upon the right of this nation taking those responsibilities into its own hands, and deciding for itself what is right and whom it will place in its first seat. If the nation decide that we should have a King, well and good; the nation has taken the responsibility on itself. If it decide not to have a King, but to become a Republic; well, it also has taken the responsibility on itself, and I, for one, shall not venture to say it has badly chosen. My friends, what I am struck with in this matter is the way in which men reason but little when they are afraid. I find a great many of my friends cling very much to the present system, because they think it defends them from some great, terrible, and unknown dangers outside. It seems to them to be like the thin plank which divides the sailor from the howling sea outside him. But I would venture to say a word to you. You have seen on a calm summer's day a good ship lying on the waves, and then her painted figure head looking well enough; but when the storm came and the tempest descended in fury upon that ship, I want to know, did the crew look for assistance to the painted figure head? Was not their confidence rather given to the stout hearts which manned the vessel, and that pilot who stood at the helm and did the work. This I will venture to assert, that nothing which is unreal, and which men knew to be unreal, could have afforded safety or protection. There is only one real barrier in this country against dangers of any kind. There is only one barrier against violence or against unreason, or against disorder; there is only one barrier, and that is the intelligence and right feeling of the people themselves. To that I will trust; on that I will put my reliance, and when that fails, God help us all, for there is nothing left. I shall now venture very shortly to point out to you some of the advantages which would result from a change in our constitutional system. I think that if that change were to take the form of a Commonwealth or Republic we should gain a much greater impulse to deal with real evils which exist amongst us. I think we should get a great increase of force and energy to deal with that poverty, that crime, and that want which are great burdens to this nation. And I say that for this reason, because I think that men's minds would be carried in a simpler and more straightforward direction. What I notice now is this, that much of the force that there is in this nation is wasted. We are all broken up into parties. There is a party which wants to maintain the Established Church. There is a party which wants to remove the page 177 Established Church. There is a party which wants to remove the House of Lords. There is a party which wants to preserve it. There is a party which wants to preserve a monarchy. But what I want to notice is, that whilst we are split up into all these parties; whilst we have all these centres of difference and divisions, the real work of the country cannot be done. I believe that the real art of politics is to take out of our politics those unnecessary causes of difference, and to give us a simpler system, so that we may unite together; that we may merge all these parties and distinctions, and really set ourselves to do the one thing that is needful to improve the moral and social condition of the people. Well then, my friends, I cannot help noticing that any court system prevents us from looking to the standard of real and simple industrial life. To my mind simplicity of life seems to be closely allied to nobleness of life. And when you come to the pageantry, outward show, and outward glitter which always surround court life, you mislead the mind of a nation and carry it in a wrong direction. I never can take up our newspapers and read those wonderful descriptions, which sometimes fill whole columns, of some ball or court reception, and the kind of dress worn on the occasion—I say I never can read such rubbish without feeling that there is a fountain of folly playing amongst us, and making us more foolish than we need necessarily be. What we want to do is to bring out the earnest serious thought which is within this nation. We want to bring out only worthy objects of effort, and we want to teach every class in this nation that life does not consist in the dress which a man wears, or the carriage in which he rides, or the house in which he lives; but that life, in the noblest sense, consists in what he really is. I have spoken out on this subject frankly and openly to you, and I have done so because I believe that nothing is or ought to be sacred to an English Liberal. I believe we are bound to test and examine everything which concerns the prosperity of our country. And I have also been influenced by this feeling that to my mind this is the only hope of avoiding disorder and revolution. I believe that where free speech exists there violence and disorder can find no place. I believe violence exists only in sealed up, pent up, places. It is like the bad gases which form in your mines; down in the earth these gases are formed because they are apart from the fresh air and sunlight. And just so violence, disorder, and revolution exist because there is not perfect freedom and frankness of thought and speech. Moreover, of this I feel very sure, that for many years—years that are coming—there will be much that many of us will have to endure, and to endure patiently in this country. I cannot promise you a golden future immediately; I should be deceiving you if I were to do so. You cannot build up a country in a day; you cannot replace that which is bad by that which is good in a single hour. It is a long work, and it is slow work. And whilst we are rebuilding this country and making it a better and a purer place, it will require much forbearance and much patience at your hands. But I for one shall never shrink from asking you for that, if at the same time I speak always that which I believe to be the truth; if I never ask you to support and reverence that which is not really worthy of your support and reverence; and if I never place before you a sham in the place or a holy and real object of reverence. And now I would say, in the last few words I am going to address to you, that if you do wish to see that great change brought about in this country, I say let us work for it in that spirit which has distinguished any revolution apart from other revolutions in other countries. Let us have self-control; let us use the weapons of reason and argument; let us advance it by moral force; and let us avoid doing everything which can shock unnecessarily those who differ with us, and let us, I would say, try to avoid the use of harsh and bitter expressions. My friends, the longer I live the more I feel that violence never works sensibly to its end. If I look across at the picture of France at the present moment I see something which is unutterably sad, and what makes the picture of the country so sad to my mind is this, that unfortunately all the parties in that country seem to me to be ready to have recourse to violence. What I believe is this, that page 178 no victory which is won by violence can last. What violence crowns to-day, that violence will discrown to-morrow. Violence always contains in itself the seeds of its own destruction, and I can only say, that to me the one bright spot which I see on this world of ours—which has much that is dark and painful—is the supremacy of moral force. I believe that if we have only faith in moral force it must win at the last. Let us fight this battle with the weapons of reason and argument; let us have the strongest and most unfaltering faith in the belief that there is nothing in the world strong enough to resist moral force. I have only one word to say in conclusion, and it is this; just as we have already destroyed many an old custom, and many an honoured institution; just as we have entered into many a sanctuary and broken many an idol, so in this future which lies before us, if only we serve the same cause, if only our hearts are pure and our minds unselfish, we may advance, without any misgiving that our strength will not be sufficient for the work before us."

In reprinting Mr. Herbert's address, we have purposely disconnected it from the strong and even boisterous exhibitions of political feeling with which, as our readers will easily imagine, the delivery of it was accompanied. The hall of the Nottingham Exchange, it seems, resounded and again resounded with groans for all dynasties that have ever been, and anon with cheers for the English Republic that is to be; while the names of persons occupying the highest positions were unsparingly associated, now humorously and now seriously, with the most uncomplimentary allusions. Little, if any, importance need, perhaps, be attached to this. We know the length which political partisanship, under exciting circumstances, is capable of going; nor do we doubt that the famous midland town, her "lambs" and would-be "Reds" notwithstanding, is still tolerably well enamoured of the British Constitution as at present established. Divesting, then, Mr. Herbert's explanation of all such fortuitous adjuncts of political feeling, we make bold to say that it does him infinite credit, if, indeed, it does not indicate the inauguration among English politicians of a new and vastly-improved order of moral insight. Few, we should say, will refuse admiration to the masterly manner in which he deals with a confessedly difficult subject, and still less to his constant and earnest appeal to a code of social and political ethics which, if generally recognised and acted upon, would purge society of more than half its evils. Mr. Herbert, although decidedly Republican in his political sentiments, is for law, for order, for "the supremacy of moral force," and will countenance no change, no reform, whatever which is not to be accomplished by means of these. Mr. Herbert pays deservedly high tribute to the character and virtues of the Queen of England: yet monarchical institutions, as he feels, have a fearful progeny of evils to answer for, and must, as he says, in order to have continuance and stability, be more and more founded in the virtue, the justice, and the public usefulness, which can alone commend them to the growing intelligence and right feeling of the people, and deliver nations from the burden and the scandal of "an extravagant, an idle, and a corrupt court." Unimpeachable, too, is Mr. Herbert's political principle, that there should page 179 be no national payments made except in return for work done and services rendered; nor is our bold and sagacious seer in anywise doubtful of the eventual, if not speedy, dawning of the day when gilded shams of every order will be dethroned, and the respect of men will be reserved, not for persons of wealth and position, not for those who have and can exhibit, but for those who are and can do: for the brave and experienced hearts that man the ship, not for her "painted figure-head." But we need not particularise. We prefer that our readers should, apart from any comment of ours, "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" for themselves the admirable new "lesson for the day" we have submitted for their instruction.

J. P.