Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/December 1877/On the Comparative Stupidity of Politicians


WE owe an apology to a very respectable class of persons for the apparent, but we trust only apparent, and certainly involuntary, discourtesy of the thesis to which we invite attention. The late Mr. Mill, in a well-known passage, called the Conservatives the stupid party. We do not call them so, nor their opponents. All we venture to assert of both is, that in a universe of graduated intelligence they are not highest in the scale. The great majority of even prominent politicians have just the gifts which make a man conspicuous in a town-council or a board of guardians: physical energy, moral persistency, and ideas on a level with those of their fellows. Miss Martineau, in her very candid "Autobiography," has recorded her sense of the mental and moral inferiority of the political men with whom, during her period of lionizing in London, she was brought into contact, as compared with the men of letters, and still more with the men of science, whose acquaintance she made. She observed in the politicians a much lower type of mind and character, expressing itself even in a certain vulgarity of manners, the lowest point being reached in all these particulars by the Whig aristocracy of the day.

In the long prevalence of an aristocratic monopoly, diminished now, but not altogether done away with, and subsisting still in its effects even more powerfully than in itself, one of the special causes of the comparative stupidity of politicians in England may be discerned. But the evil is inherent in the very conditions of what are called practical politics. The real development of mind is to be sought in what Mr. Arnold calls its disinterested play in science and art. Discipline in the methods of research after truth, familiarity with the highest conceptions of the universe, delight in the most perfect forms of expression, whether they take the shape of literature or of the plastic and imitative arts, these are the feeders and purifiers of the mind. The artist, including the author as well as the sculptor, the painter, and the actor, and the man of science, live, so far as they are true to their work, in the society of Nature and of its great interpreters. They are constantly in the presence of their betters. The statesman lives habitually in the society of county and borough members; or, if we restrict our view to the intimate associations of the cabinet, of men little, if at all, above these intellectually. In other words, the finest mind is habitually in the presence of its inferiors, whose ideas and impulses are to it what his daily beer was to Mr. Justice Maule, the instrumentality with which he brought himself down to the level of his work. He must think their thoughts and speak their language. To be over their heads, to be, as a dexterous politician said of a great philosopher, too clever for the House of Commons, to have nobler and farther-reaching conceptions than they, is to commit the sin for which there is no parliamentary forgiveness. It is sometimes said that the House of Commons is wiser than any single member; a saying which, according as it is interpreted, is either an absurdity or a truism. It may mean, what is indisputable, that the whole is greater than the part, or, what is impossible, that the average is higher than the elements which raise it. The House of Commons can only be wiser than some particular member by following the guidance of some other member who, on that particular occasion, is wiser than he; that is to say, it is wiser than one of its less wise members. The saying, however, is intended to affirm the position that intellectual superiority is not the truest guide in politics, or, in other words, that politicians, in so far as they are successful, are comparatively stupid, a position which we are far from disputing. On the contrary, we affirm it as a truth of observation and experience, and are at the present moment doing our best to account for it. As regards the proposition itself, it means simply that the House of Commons knows its own mind, such as it is, and, whatever the worth of that knowledge, better than any single member of it; and as a rule the average member who is in sympathy with it will interpret it better than the member of much higher powers who is above its level. But it is only wiser than its wisest members in the sense in which the field may be said to be wiser than the farmer, or the ocean than the navigator; that is to say, in no intelligible sense at all. Like Nature, if it is to be commanded it must be obeyed, and the necessity of understanding it is, by confusion of thought, taken for its understanding of itself.

The inferior society in which politicians live, inferior in intelligence and cultivation, and the necessity of adapting their own thoughts and aims to those of the ordinary minds and characters they have to influence, brings about the decline and deterioration of men of originally fine endowments. It either prevents these qualities from developing, or stunts them where they have a certain degree of growth. Their "nature is subdued to what it works in, like the dyer's hand." This evil is in part qualified by another. It is chiefly the second-rate order of minds and characters that betake themselves now to politics in England—minds already on the level to which superiority needs to be reduced before it can be effective. For this reason, probably, whenever an occasion demands a hero in politics, he has been seldom found in the walks of professional statesmanship. The national crisis which asks for a deliverer finds him not among those who have been deteriorated and dwarfed by the ordinary work and associations of politics, but in a man who has lived among nobler ideas and associations, and cultivated a larger and more liberal nature. The practice of affairs is, no doubt, a discipline of some value; but nearly everything depends on what the affairs are. To manage the House of Commons, to get bills through committee, to administer a public office, does not seem usually to be good training for very difficult business. When a considerable emergency occurs there is almost invariably a breakdown of the departments. The true discipline of public business is to teach men readiness in action and fertility in resources. Its ordinary effect is to harden them in routine, which suits poorly enough even the common round and the daily task of business, and which is a hinderance, and which may be ruin when necessities, transcending precedents and rules of office, have to be encountered. The fact is, that the training of affairs, invaluable as it is, seldom bears its proper fruit, unless the affairs are a man's own, or when the consequences of failure are sure to come upon him in a rapid and crushing manner. The merchant or capitalist, whose ventures depend upon his personal vigilance; the engineer, who has to deal with overwhelming physical forces; the military commander, who has to contend at once with the not always benevolent neutrality of Nature and the watchfulness of human enemies, cannot afford to take things easily. Action is forced upon them; they must either succeed or conspicuously fail. In politics, usually, the state of things is entirely different. The demand is rarely made for heroic measures; the prudence which is taught is that rather which shuns difficulty and dreads failure, than that blending of caution and audacity which finds in the way of seeming danger the true path of safety. The education of practice in parliamentary politics is, therefore, for the most part, an education in the arts of inaction, evasion, and delay. The blame of doing nothing is usually less than the blame of doing amiss. A great writer, whose instinctive sagacity was often wiser than the elaborated reflections of more painful thinkers, embodied the characteristic weakness of political training in England when he made "How not to do it" the aim of our statesmen. Lord Melbourne's "Can't you leave it alone?" gave expression to the same paralysis of action in excessive caution and prudence. Politics of this sort will attract feeble minds and characters, or will enfeeble those naturally stronger. The oratory which they foster will be that of mystification, amusement, and excitement. Acquaintance with political philosophy or economic science will be felt to be wholly superfluous. Even that empirical knowledge of his age and country, and of the assembly in and through which he rules, which are essential to every practical statesman, will be little more than the charlatan's or demagogue's acquaintance with the foibles and passions of popular sentiment and opinion. The admiral who boasted that he brought his ships home uninjured from seas in which he had not encountered the enemy, and the Frenchman whose achievement it was to have kept himself alive during the French Revolution, represent the prevalent aims of modern statesmanship. A ministry exists to keep itself in existence; if the ship, without going anywhere or doing anything, can be kept afloat, that is held to be all that can be required. This fainéant policy does not require any high range of intellect. Men of the first order will seek careers which afford ampler scope to capacity. If they betake themselves to public life, which affords them no opportunity of great public work, there is danger of their devoting their energies to their own private and personal ends; or, merely to establish a character for "honesty" will often prove enough to repose on. A picture, a statue, or a poem, does not receive additional value from the fact that its author is a very pleasant and straightforward sort of fellow; but "honest Jack Althorp's" statesmanship rested entirely on this basis of character; and a late parliamentary leader has been commended on the ground that "there is not the making of a lie in him." A career in which character may be a substitute for capacity must, from the nature of the case, be pursued on a lower intellectual level than those in which intelligence and cultivation and general or special knowledge are absolutely essential.

The natural and almost necessary inferiority of politicians as a class is compatible with the unsurpassed intellectual and moral greatness of statesmanship of the highest class. Men are not wanting in the history of any country, least of all in that of ours, and they have representatives among us now, who have found or made work for themselves to do which taxes the very highest gifts, and in the doing of which the very humblest and most commonplace allies and instruments acquire a sort of transfiguration. Their appearance and exertions mark the high-water point in the national life, an epoch of brief but fruitful work, an epoch of civil heroism. But the languor comes after the exertion; and in such a period of languor we seem now to be plunged. Even the men who counted for much when they followed a great leader become mere ciphers when the figure which stood at their head is removed.

Apart from these singular cases of moral and intellectual ascendency, the gifts which make a parliamentary leader are just those which make a man popular in society. The cheerful animal spirits and vigorous gayety of temperament which characterized Lord Palmerston, or the amusing qualities of a public entertainer which marked Charles Townshend (not to seek for living illustrations), are what it most relishes—the qualities which make a first-rate host in a country-house, or an amusing diner-out in town.

  1. Condensed from Fraser's Magazine.