Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A foreign sneer at England


Old Hermits in town or country—in dim libraries or in the sunny mountains—are apt to profess to have outlived the possibility of being surprised at anything: but there is one thing which even old Hermits may be found wondering at,—as I can testify for one. The misleading power of a false analogy is curiously proved by certain incidents of our time: and the extent to which the mistake has spread, and the influence it has had on the temper of international intercourse, are facts which the most experienced observer need not be above wondering at.

In a passage of his political writings, De Tocqueville once said, in an incidental sort of way, that it did so happen that the view which England takes of any new phase of the world’s affairs, is always that which coincides with her own interest. Some two or three years ago this passage turned up in some political disquisition of the day, and we have since never heard the last of it. Reactionary parties in Germany repeated it to each other with a scornful laugh, when we were speaking as we ought, and not as Lord Russell did last autumn, on the Danish question. The Americans taunted us with it (before their own revolution was declared), in relation to the war in Italy. The French press quotes it against us in regard to our conduct in the Mexican business. The Confederates acted upon it in assuming, without doubt or misgiving, that England would support secession because she must have cotton; and the Federals reckoned on our help on the double ground of our need of corn, and our interest in an anti-slavery policy. We are now certain to hear the old story over again in connexion with the affairs of Poland. Everybody who may be disappointed at our not rushing to arms immediately on behalf of Poland, will quote De Tocqueville’s saying,—without its context, and without considering whether it is true,—that the convictions of England happen always to coincide with her interests; so that, as is usually added, nothing generous or lofty is to be looked for from England.

I will not dwell on M. de Tocqueville’s share in this characterisation of England. I might show, by presenting a letter of his to Mrs. Grote, published in his Remains, what it was precisely that he thought of us when his expressions took this turn. But my present business is with the remarkable extent to which a false analogy has misled shallow critics of English policy in many countries of the world.

The false analogy is in speaking of England as an individual, morally bound, as individuals are, to self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. The distinction between any government, responsible to the people governed, and an individual, responsible as a member of the human race, is lost sight of, and a wholly wrong view of international relations follows of course. This happens partly through the differences between some governments and others. For instance, where a nation commits the whole conduct of its policy to a single ruler, as in Russia, and yet more conspicuously in France under the Empire, the analogy is not altogether false. The Czar and the Emperor stand for the Russian and the French people: and in the latter case the representation is the most true, because the French people have chosen to commit their conduct and their destiny to a despot who acts upon his own ideas and from his own will. At the other extreme, again, the analogy is not altogether false. A self-governing people like the Americans, who constitute their own legislature and executive, can do what they please in any question of foreign policy, can take any side and act upon any notion that gratifies their passion, or fulfils their conviction of the moment. The case of a constitutional state like England is radically different. Britannia is all very well as a personification; but there is not in our islands any single mind judging of the world’s affairs, in order that a single will may take a part for its own gratification,—whether of conscience or imagination or interest.

When our neighbours speak of “England,” they are speaking of the government: and what is our government? It is a group of trustees of the interests of the nation, whose responsibility is to the nation, and whose sole duty is to act for the interests of the people they govern. It is happily true, from everlasting to everlasting, that a policy of justice and magnanimity is best for the interests of the nation; and therefore the policy of England has as wide a scope for generous and lofty action as that of any people whose master “makes war for an idea,” or any nation which rushes into conflict on behalf of an oppressed country: but it is impossible for a constitutional state to proceed as despotic and democratic governments do in adopting such an international course as some that the world has witnessed within five years.

We may find an illustration of the difference in the narrower range of social life. There are chivalrous knights in modern society as in the olden time. An unincumbered citizen may rush into many a conflict, and bear a share in many an enterprise which a family man cannot righteously engage in. A man with wife and children “has given hostages to fortune,” and has chosen what shall in the main be his course of duty. While he gives his countenance to the right on every occasion, and exerts himself to expose and defeat the wrong; while he sacrifices much of fortune and of repose on great occasions, and leads his family to do the same, he cannot virtuously desert them and their interest as his bachelor neighbour may sacrifice his own. When the whole family, of an age to judge of what they are doing, agree in a desire of self-sacrifice, well and good: and it is well and good when a nation entertains a conviction and a will which sanction a course of devotedness in its government. We have witnessed such a spectacle at home in our own day, when we went to war with Russia: and in such an hour the term “England” truly means, not the government usually so called, but the whole nation, acting and speaking as one man.

Four years ago we had experience of the way in which that policy of non-intervention was regarded, which brought up the somewhat careless analogy which at times misled De Tocqueville himself.

When the French people and their newspapers, in the spring of 1859, were exulting in their own moral grandeur in “going to war for an idea,” and contrasting the devotedness of France with the non-intervention of England, their cry was echoed in many directions. The Americans taunted us with excessive prudence; and the American correspondents of some of our leading newspapers, not only reported the popular contempt which surrounded them, but undertook to assure us that our course was wrong, and to foretell the day when we should repent of our backwardness to aid struggling Italy. To this I can add that personal friends of my own, in our own country, wrote to me at that time,—“Do tell me why we are not helping Italy as the French are. Do tell me why you yourself are not saying a word to help us on in fighting for that cause which we have always professed to honour. If ever there was an occasion for striking for the right, surely this is the one;” and so on.

I need not repeat here the various reasons, theoretical and practical, general and special, which I alleged, in reply, on behalf of non-intervention. I will refer only to the one we are at this moment concerned with:—that the government had to consider, not only its relations to Austria on the one hand and France on the other, but its obligations to the people of England. In the case of the late war with Russia, the highest interest of the English nation was concerned in checking the aggressions of Russia, and preserving the balance of power in Europe; and we then saw how heartily, and with what singular accord, the nation could embark in a war. But in the case of Italy, no such stake was involved; and no administration, and no sovereign, could be justified in subjecting the people of England to the calamities of war, either to gratify the sentiment of any portion of society at home, or to aid the Italians, who, if they were adequate to the new political existence they desired, would be able to obtain it for themselves. Experienced observers have no faith in a national freedom achieved by foreign arms; and so I said, adding that it was too Quixotic an enterprise for the English mind to join company in a war for freedom with the French who had allowed theirs to be extinguished at home. The case has already been illustrated by time and events. Americans, French, and everybody else, have long seen which was the truer and nobler policy. All the world admits now what the dispassionate and disinterested support of England has been and is to Italy; and what has come of the sacredness of the French promise to make Italy “free, from the Alps to the Adriatic,” and of the generosity which “went to war for an idea,” and came back bearing a booty of two provinces; and which has used its services, such as they were, in humbling, repressing, baffling, and irritating the people whom it presented to the world as its own protégé. I need not ask which is the morally nobler and the politically safer party,—the trustees of the British people who did their duty at home and abroad while giving their voice and their countenance to the right, or the French Emperor, with his violated pledges, his extortions, and his tyranny in blighting the fruits of the “idea” for which he sacrificed the lives of scores of thousands of his helpless subjects. If anybody has any doubt about which has been the best friend to Italy and freedom, let him ask the Italians, “from the Alps to the Adriatic,” and a good deal further. If he desires to appreciate justly the magnanimity which the French government claims as its distinctive quality, let him go and see what the effect of the conscription is on the rural population of France; let him hear what is said of the war in Italy in households which perforce sent out sons, brothers, fathers, who have never been heard of since—involuntary soldiers who were thrown unrecognised into the cholera pit, or into the trench dug for the dead after each battle. Let him go among the working classes, and witness a kind and degree of poverty unknown in England, and hear how the people like the process of providing the money with which the Emperor makes his magnanimous interventions, without the sacrifice of a single luxury of his own. While admiring the sublime in the aspirations of France after the glory of leading the nations in the path of freedom and civilisation, let him keep his eye also on the ridiculous in the case;—on the absurdity of such pretensions put forth in the name of a people who have permitted themselves to be stripped of the most ordinary liberties which are the essential conditions of civilisation. When the Italian war began, there was little to choose between the state of the Milanese or Venetians under the Austrian yoke and that of the French in their own capital and their own provinces: and to expect us English people to march anywhere, side by side with the French, to liberate a nation from repression by a despot was to propose that we should set ourselves up for a laughing-stock to the world. The world might fairly have laughed at us in such a case, though it could not laugh at the French. There was too much that was tragic mixed up with the absurdity to permit a laugh at the nation which had lost its own liberties, and was, on that very account, dragged out to confer liberty on another people.

When the supposed taunt of De Tocqueville is quoted against England, it should be remembered that the word “interest” may mean more things than one. It seems to be assumed that, in the English case, pecuniary interest was meant,—or some kind of material advantage suitable to “a nation of shopkeepers.” Whatever might be the kind of interest that De Tocqueville had in view, he would have agreed with any one who reminded him that certain other interests which are boasted of as an aim are by no means of a loftier character than that condition of popular welfare which British statesmen value as an absolute condition of national progress in intelligence and virtue. An arbitrary government which flatters national vanity with promises of “glory,” and with costly efforts to domineer over other states under pretence of leading the civilisation of the world, may be mistaken in supposing itself more lofty-minded than a neighbour who is averse from meddling where it has no business, and who cannot conscientiously inflict suffering at home for the sake of carrying aid to people who, like the Mexicans, have no claim, and who will probably be anything but thankful for the patronage. If it were put before the moral sense of the world which is the loftier “interest,”—that of an ambition restless for notoriety, and eager to engross the world’s gaze and move the fears of a continent, or that of a self-reliant disposition, ready for war when needed, but satisfied with peace and industry, as most favourable to the general welfare and progress,—I believe the moral sense of the world would pronounce the quieter “interest” to be the nobler of the two.

It was the fashion in America till lately to charge England with a passion for territorial aggrandisement; and this was the “interest” then meant. The charge was natural, because that temptation is the one most powerful with Americans: but the imputation cannot hold its ground against the facts. It is a good many years now since the First Napoleon made a mock of England for not “getting anything” in the settlement of Europe on his overthrow. He could not understand that England did not want anything but peace and stability of affairs in Europe. Here and there the supposition has gone on to this day that England is always scheming to “get” something; but the evidence of events is so little favourable to this notion that it has for the most part yielded to the view, that we care only for trade, as a means of wealth. It is true,—the Russian war remains to be accounted for, in this case: and the refusal to help the Confederates in America as the holders of cotton; and the neutrality which prevents our helping the Federals to put down their “rebels,” by which we might break up the blockade, and get the cotton, and avoid the risk of a war with the offended North. All this, and much more, is very unaccountable to our critics: and therefore our critics are for ever looking deeper and deeper for the reasons of our course. It is a pity that they do not see events in their natural aspect, and learn the policy of England from the acts and avowals of the government of a constitutional country, whose whole people speak through their government.

The “interest” of the nation, in the broadest and highest sense, is in fact the proper aim of what our critics call “England”: and the government of the day acts and speaks accordingly. It is the interest of every free nation that the safeguards of liberty, and the restrictions upon despotism, should everywhere be steadily maintained: and therefore England was ready and willing to go to war with the Russian aggressor in support of the Turkish empire. As often as a similar danger occurs, England will be found ready for war. But where the liberties of Europe are not involved, there it would be an injury to ourselves, and an offence to society generally, that we should put ourselves forward to meddle. The French suffer in reputation by the restlessness of their government, however that government may try to deceive them in the matter. Busybodies and domineering patrons are never popular; nor are they considered particularly wise or lofty-minded. Invaders of Mexico are less admired than people who respect other people’s territory and political independence. Schemers who undertake everybody’s business abroad—from making a canal in Egypt to making an armistice in America: from confounding the Pope at Rome to humouring the King of Madagascar—are apt to succeed in their first aim,—of keeping themselves before the world’s eye and mind; but they usually fail in every enterprise with which they have not a natural and righteous concern. Mexican expeditions fail in regard to “glory”: Suez canals are mere diggings in the sand which the waves of Time will efface: belligerents in a civil war resent the interference of a foreigner: and Christendom is irritated by the suspense in which the question of the Papacy is held, while all that is most sacred in the eyes of the Catholic world is trifled with to make a show of the power of the arbitrator.

There is more real power than that arbitrator will ever possess in the state which holds its own course, constant to its principles, frank in its practice, desiring to “live and let live.” The influence of such a state is more effective than moral pretension on the one hand, and military reputation on the other. While England holds such an influence, she is not concerned with the taunts of critics, who imagine that her frankness must cover perfidy, and who mistake her respect for other people’s independence for devotedness to her own gain. A good patriot can desire nothing better for Old England than that the views of her government should always coincide with the true interests of her people.

From the Mountain.