Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Last week (March 9, 1861)
Any one who has haunted the London Clubs during Last Week must have been struck by the manner in which Lord Derby’s friends and supporters are now discussing the chances of their return to power. They seem to entertain a very confident expectation that ere long they will be called upon to undertake once more the government of the country. If you ask for positive facts, you are told that the electoral organisation of the Liberals is so defective that power is slipping away from their grasp. Within the last few weeks they have lost some seats, and if the same apathy continues they will in all probability be still heavier losers. The truth seems to be, that parties—if indeed such a term as “party” can now be applied to any particular body of politicians—are pretty equally balanced, both within and without the walls of Parliament. There is a great indifference as to political discussions, for the simple reason that there is no question of domestic interest which just now attracts the sympathies or provokes the opposition of multitudes. The natural consequence is, that the gains at the elections belong to that part) which takes most pains with the details of the electoral machinery. Now, the Conservatives—let us still retain the term—have, beyond all doubt, directed a far more strenuous attention to the registration books than their opponents; and, in consequence, have been slowly creeping on until, at length, they have succeeded in reducing the not very considerable majority of the Liberals in the Lower House to very narrow proportions indeed. It is very true that henceforth the government of this country must be carried on by exceedingly small majorities in the House of Commons; but still there must be a majority upon which reliance can be placed, or else a Parliamentary Session is wasted in idle and inconclusive debate. Practically the government of the country must be carried on, and the Premier who fails to secure the numerical superiority on a division in the House of Commons must yield to the statesman who, by the ingenuity and industry of his adherents, has succeeded in fulfilling the requisite conditions.
As a mere party move, it begins to be apparent that Lord Palmerston and his friends should have brought in some kind of Reform Bill this year—not but that the country is sufficiently apathetic upon the matter. As long, however, as the Liberals had hoisted the flag of Parliamentary Reform, and until some measure of Parliamentary Reform was carried, the return to power of the Conservatives was well-nigh impossible. Lord John Russell with his own lips has made the admission which has freed Lord Derby’s position from its chief difficulties.
If the country just now cares nothing for further changes in our electoral system, why should not Lord Derby and his friends have their turn of power, just as well as those who go down to Chesham Place, or who do business at Cambridge House? There are no considerations, as far as internal politics are concerned, beyond those of private sympathy, which should induce us to give or to withhold support from the chief of either party.
This then, as far as the internal policy of the country is concerned, may be taken to be the leading feature in the history of Last Week—namely, a growing distrust in the stability of Lord Palmerston’s administration. The chief consideration which seems to modify this conclusion is, that continental politics may take, and probably will take, such a turn as will exclude from power any administration in which the Earl of Malmesbury would be the representative of the foreign policy of this country. If the inhabitants of these islands are in earnest upon any matter of public interest just now, they are so about the settlement of the Italian question. As far as we can assist in bringing about such a conclusion, we are resolved that Italian affairs shall be so resettled as that Italy may take her place amongst the great powers of Europe, even although such a termination of the struggle may not be entirely free from danger to ourselves. Such danger we are willing to confront, as believing on the whole, as far as our personal interests are concerned, that we have far more to gain than to lose from an independent Italy! and, far more than this, as men who are desirous that right should be done, and that beautiful country should at all hazards be freed from the tyranny under which it has so long groaned, whatever the consequences may be. As a practical corollary to this proposition we desire that this country should, as far as our military and naval preparations are concerned, be placed in a thorough state of defence, and that mainly with the view of keeping ourselves aloof from any complications which may arise.
Now, it is the general belief throughout the country that our desires upon these points will be far more efficiently represented by Lord Palmerston and his friends than by those who would support Lord Derby, should he again be called to power. On the whole, it seems the better opinion, that if the peace of Europe is maintained, the Liberals had best look to it sharply, or the government of the country may soon pass out of their hands. If, on the other hand, the thunder-clouds which are gathering here and there over the Continent of Europe—notably on its Eastern extremity—should burst, then, in all probability. Englishmen of all classes would unite in the support of the present administration.
The division of Last Week upon the vexata quæstio of Church Rates, after all, took place on the proposition of an independent member. For many and many a year past Sir John Trelawny has made this question his own, and has at length brought it to a point at which his proposals are annually approved by the Commons, and annually rejected by the Lords. There can be but one conclusion to such a state of facts. Here is the Jew Bill again in another form. The Peers were beaten upon that in the long run—not without loss of prestige, which in their case is pro tanto loss of power. An affirmative decision was at length literally torn from them, and so it will be with regard to this matter of Church Rates. What a trifle it is, after all, that has given rise to this disturbance! Upon a very accurate calculation it appears that a sum of £250,000 is annually collected in the form of Church Rates. Now, upon the very humblest supposition, if the enforced collection of the Rate were done away with to-morrow at the very least, £150,000 of this sum would still be paid by the persons who pay it at present, being hearty well-wishers to the Church. Thus, then, the country is divided into two parties—the whole constitution of the Church is annually challenged; the holes and flaws in the cuirasses of Churchmen are pointed out and discussed every year, and all for the sake of a sum which—regard being had to the interests concerned—is insignificant indeed!
Happily the question of Tithes was settled some twenty years and upwards ago—the endowments in land, which were the next great source from which the Church derived its revenues, have been placed under a satisfactory system of administration. At present, really nothing remains but to ascertain whether on the whole, for the sake of peace—and justice—it is not better to give up the questionable prerogative of wringing £100,000 per annum from reluctant hands for the support of the Church. There is not a penny of that money which is not given grudgingly, and in bitterness of spirit—ought this to be? Surely the Church is rich enough by her actual endowments, and by the devotion and liberality of her adherents—she can well dispense with such unfree-will offerings as these! What a coil is constantly made about the Maynooth Grant. Sound Churchmen tell us that it is a violation of their conscientious scruples when they are called upon, even indirectly in their quality of tax-payers, to contribute towards a fund for the education of the Roman Catholic Priesthood, but they will turn round and with their next breath attack the Dissenters for refusing to contribute towards the support of Ecclesiastical edifices, which neither they, nor the members of their families, ever enter for the purposes of worship and devotion. On the other hand, if the paltry revenue be not worth a struggle for its own sake, neither is the principle at issue of much value. The supporters of the Church Rates maintain that this is a question of whether or no we choose to make abnegation of our character as a God-fearing nation—of whether by a solemn act of the Legislature we will cut off the connection between Church and State. But how stand the facts? Was there ever in history a nation which did so consistently, so continuously, so conscientiously devote a large portion of its wealth to the purpose of Divine worship? This is true of all denominations of Christians in this country. Whether we speak of Churchmen, of Dissenters, of Roman Catholics, it matters not; on every side we have material evidence of their zeal in the matter of religious worship. Churches and chapels are built, and endowed. The old Ecclesiastical edifices of this country are maintained and repaired with little or no help from this miserable Church-rate fund. If more money was wanted to-morrow, more would be forthcoming. What, then, is the object amongst such a people of endeavouring to maintain the connection between Church and State in a forcible way, when they are ready enough to admit, and do practically carry out, the principle that every man should devote a portion of his earnings, and of his wealth, to the service of God? It is much to be apprehended that this last stand is made by zealous Churchmen rather to maintain a badge of superiority, or mark of especial distinction, than from any belief that by their obstinate and continued resistance they are at all helping to maintain the efficiency of the Church. Unless it be speedily settled, this question may still prove a serious embarrassment to Lord Derby and his supporters.
Whatever may be the interest felt in these internal matters, it is clear enough that they fade into insignificance by the side of those great events which are now passing on the Continent of Europe. These lend a colour to all domestic discussion—they affect the stability of the British Ministry—they are uppermost in the thoughts of all men. Upon the Continent of Europe we notice during Last Week the occurrence of two events of superior importance—namely, the promulgation of a Constitution by the Emperor of Austria, and the discussion upon the address at Paris, mainly with reference to the degree of protection which is to be henceforward afforded by the French Government to the temporal power of the Pope. Is the first a confession of weakness? Is it a symptom of returning strength? The promises made, and the engagements entered into by Francis Joseph seem fair enough as far as all Provinces of the Empire—save Hungary—are concerned. To the Chambers is conceded the control over the national purse. They are to determine the amount of the supplies—to apportion the manner of their collection, and to appropriate them to their several uses. If the two Chambers were only elected with a moderate degree of regard to the representative elements, this would be fair enough—for in our time, that man, or that body of men, which holds control over the purse, soon becomes the master. The Austrian Camarilla, and the Emperor himself, must have been painfully aware that the sceptre had departed from them before they agreed to sanction a measure which reverses the policy of the House of Hapsburg ever since the days when Joseph II. for a brief space endeavoured to inspire some notion of liberal government into the administration of the Empire. Old Francis—the father of Maria-Louisa—was as thorough - paced an old Tory as George III., or the late Sir Edward Knatchbull, or Colonel Sibthorpe. During the later years of his reign,—indeed it may be said from the Congress of Vienna onwards,—Prince Metternich was the real Vice-gerent of the Austrian dominions. The principles of his policy were re-actionary, and excusably so. Is there a man amongst us who could say that he would have thought and acted otherwise than the great Austrian Statesman, had he been a personal witness of the excesses of popular liberty such as were known in Paris at the conclusion of the last century—had he seen London twice in possession of a foreign foe—and every tradition of our national pride blown to the four winds? The misfortune was not that Prince Metternich was what he was, but that he lived longer than he should have done for his country’s welfare. Then came the revolution of 1848, and Felix Schwartzenburg, who was the incarnation of Metternich’s principles without his subtlety and discrimination. He obtained, though but for a moment, a false and dangerous triumph. He endeavoured, with the help of foreign bayonets, not only to restore the central despotism of Viennese bureaucracy, but to complete the work which had been begun even in the days of that ungrateful Queen, who owed the salvation of her crown to the Hungarians, and repaid them by an endeavour to sap and destroy their independence, and national existence. Schwartzenburg triumphed for the moment, and his triumph bore fruit in the ascendancy of the mother of the Emperor, and the fanatical Camarilla—ultimately in the Concordat. That Concordat has already cost Lombardy to Francis Joseph, and unless it be speedily rescinded, Lombardy is but an instalment of the purchase-money which he will be called upon to pay as the price of his subserviency to the Parti Prêtre. And the result of his bargain is that he has been driven to govern by the army. If you will violate the consciences of human beings, you must have a sufficiency of dragoons to back you up in the attempt. But dragoons cost money—many dragoons cost much money—and very many dragoons imply a national bankruptcy. Now Austria, in consequence of this attempt to govern by military authority, stands upon the verge of national bankruptcy; and it is under such conditions that Francis Joseph has summoned his first Parliament, and has announced for the first time his intention of endeavouring to become a Constitutional Sovereign. The situation is full of traps and pitfalls, and the spectator may well be pardoned if he is sceptical as to the result.
It should be remarked that this question of constitutional government for the other provinces of the Austrian Empire—save Hungary—stands quite apart, and must be considered apart from the complications which have arisen with regard to Hungarian affairs. Hungary declines absorption into the general body of the Empire. Hungary is a kingdom by itself, and refuses to be cast into the melting-pot. She consents to be united to Austria by the golden link of the Crown, but will not budge one inch further. Hungary has been Austria’s Ireland—but in her instance the Ireland of the Magyars will prove in all probability the superior both in military power and political influence.
The resolutions of the French Emperor will take their colour and bias from the events which may occur in Hungary during the next few weeks, and therefore we would for the moment direct attention to what is passing at the eastern extremity of Europe, as to the real point of sight. Just now Louis Napoleon stands between the Ultramontanes and the Latitudinarians of his Empire, like Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy—
He lets “I dare not” wait upon “I would,”
Like the poor cat i’ the adage.
He blames the Pope, but he protects him;—he has fought against the Austrian in Lombardy, but maintains the French garrison at Rome;—he keeps his fleet before Gaëta, and just withdraws it in time to ensure the destruction of the young Bourbon;—he delivers an address which is as displeasing to the Ultramontanes as to the Liberals of France. No doubt, but for his troops the Pope would commence his travels to-morrow, and yet the Bishop of Poictiers compares him to Judas Iscariot, and calls him by every ugly name which sacerdotal zeal can devise—and priests know how to rail when they take the matter in hand.
In our own House of Commons, whilst all this pother is on foot, we find that during Last Week the representatives of the British people have been engaged in an animated discussion as to the best means of reorganising the administration of the navy. That shows pretty well the tendency of public policy and public opinion in our own country. The continent of Europe is growing bayonets instead of corn—and England is building iron ships of war. Can the end of these things be peace?
In addition to this discussion we have had a dreary debate in the House of Lords, provoked by Lord Normanby, who (forgetful of the glories of his former days, when as Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, he rode about magnificently upon a white horse, and exercised the royal prerogative of mercy in a very summary way), now acts the part of the lean and slippered Pantaloon of Diplomacy. Lord Normanby, in his old age, had been appointed Chief of the Mission to the Court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and no doubt this was as easy and delightful a post as any man could desire for his declining years. When at Florence, Lord Normanby found it far more agreeable to maintain friendly relations with the reactionary party than to mix himself up with the leaders of the national movement. No doubt, being the accredited Minister of his Sovereign to the court of an independent Prince, he was quite right in avoiding the society and fellowship of those by whom the authority of that Prince was threatened. His position was one of the most strict and absolute neutrality, as far as Italian factions were concerned: his duty was, in these matters, simply to furnish correct reports to his own government. In place of this, Lord Normanby became a violent partizan on the other side, and committed, in fact, the reverse of the mistake which some years ago led to the summary and humiliating dismissal of Sir Henry Bulwer from Madrid by General Narvaez. Having done what he could do to bring discredit upon the British name by his actions in Tuscany, Last Week—it was on Friday last—he came forward in the House of Lords as the defender and palliator of the misdeeds of the various Italian Kinglets who have been recently displaced by the Italian people. He could say nothing to the purpose, for there was nothing to be said—but he wound up a very tedious speech by informing the House that the Italians cared very little for English sympathy. Let us hope that they will be as indifferent to the denunciations poured upon them by Lord Normanby in the presence of the English Peers as were the English Peers on Friday night.