A GENERAL SURVEY OF RECENT POLITICAL PROGRESS. By Edward Dicey, C.B.
O find any single phrase which could adequately describe the tendencies of human thought, policy, and statecraft during the last quarter of the 19th century is an obvious impossibility. But the nearest approximation to such a phrase would probably be to employ the phrase “ Conservative reaction ” as characterizing the period in question. This phrase, if used not in the way the expression is commonly employed, as referring to party politics, but in a wider sense, expresses a general phase of mind in most, if not all, the self-governing countries of the world, which, for good or bad, has of late years influenced their State policy in a uniform direction. To put the same idea in another, and perhaps simpler, manner, it may be said that the spirit of the times was progressive during the first three quarters of the 19th century, and unprogressive, if not reactionary, during the last quarter. The course of human affairs is not regulated by fixed laws, such as those which govern the rise and tall of the tides. It is therefore idle to discuss the exact date at which the movement in favour of progress reached its apogee, or the date at which reaction set in. But men whose memories extend over half a century will probably agree in saying that in Great Britain, as in all other countries where the conditions of public life are at all similar, the ideas which commended themselves to public approval in the first-named of these periods lost their sway during the years that have come and gone since the ninth edition of the Encyclopcedia Britannica first saw the light of day. The International Exhibition of 1851 formed the high-water mark of the progressive movement, though at the time it was commonly regarded as the commencement of a new and better era, in which wars were to cease, the progress of science was to ameliorate the fundamental conditions of human existence, and free democratic institutions were to unite the nations of the world in bonds of amity and goodwill. During the quarter of a century which followed the World’s Fair in Hyde Bark, the belief in the progress of humanity retained its ground. Up to 1870, or even later, the creed of Liberalism was held, or at any rate professed, by the great majority of thinking men in all countries, and in consequence its prestige continued long after the fervour of belief had passed away. The course of events had for many previous years been gradually undermining popular faith in the efficacy of democratic institutions, or of the discoveries of science to modify materially the lot of mankind upon the earth. Then, again, the doctrines on which the system of Free Trade was based had not succeeded in commanding general assent; or, to speak more correctly, the results which its adoption was regarded as certain to produce had not been realized. Moreover, the working classes throughout the Old World and the New had had their faith in parliamentary institutions severely shaken by the fact that the general organization of society, in so far as labourers and artisans were concerned, remained much the same under democratic institutions as they had been under aristocratic or oligarchical rule. vii