페이지 이미지
PDF
ePub

success with which his tricks are executed. I am well aware that to the orthodox Ministerialist who takes his views day by day from the Times, or one of the halfpenny organs of his Party, the attitude of the majority of Liberals towards Mr. Balfour seems to be the outcome of mere political spite and envy. It is inconceivable to these gentlemen that the Prime Minister should ever have done anything to deserve the criticisms and censures of his opponents, and even whilst they are pouring their vitriolic sarcasms upon Lord Rosebery or Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, they are bursting with indignation at the audacity of those who venture to disparage Mr. Balfour. Fair play is a jewel, and, after all, even a Liberal politician is entitled to claim it for himself. Writing from the Liberal point of view, I venture to explain the reasons for the bitterness with which most Liberals regard the recent performances—successful performances, I freely admit—of the Prime Minister. They are not angry merely because he clings to office with an almost desperate tenacity, though they feel both anger and contempt when they consider the means which he employs to keep himself in place. Their chief cause of complaint against him is that he has employed, and is continuing to employ, an authority that came to him in 1900 by something like an accident, in order to do violence to the wishes of the country. This charge is laughed to scorn by the Ministerial advocates in the Press. They pour contempt upon the idea that the bye-elections, unexampled as they are, furnish any real index to the opinions of the nation, and they snort their ridicule at the notion that Mr. Balfour has outrun the mandate of the present Government in his recent efforts at legislation. Yet when a politician so deservedly and generally respected as Sir Edward Grey accuses the present Government of having ‘grossly deceived' the country, one would think that Mr. Balfour's friends would be better advised if they were to try to defend him instead of sweeping past his accusers with an air of lofty

scorn.

What is it that lies at the root of the intense bitterness of the Opposition towards the Government at the present moment ? It is the fact that the majority which Ministers obtained in 1900, and upon the strength of which they are now living, was obtained by false pretences. The fact is, of course, denied by the Ministerialist apologists, but in denying it they raise a clear issue which demands a thorough investigation. No one can dispute the assertion that the 1900 Parliament was elected upon one issue alone. It was elected upon the declaration, which unhappily proved to be unfounded, that the war was at an end. Ministers appealed directly to the electors to give them a majority in order to enable them to settle satisfactory terms of peace. If this had been all, sensible and fair-minded Liberals, though they must still have resented the gross injustice of the falsebood which represented every Liberal as an enemy of his own country,

and a friend of his country's enemies, would hardly have been in a position to complain of the recent acts of the Administration. But this was not all, and no amount of special pleading on the part of the Ministerial advocates in the Press can alter the aspect of the crucial fact of the 1900 election. This was the declaration, repeated more than once by the two most important members of the Government in the House of Commons--Mr. Balfour and Mr. Chamberlain-and echoed eagerly by their whole herd of followers, that the issue before the electors was confined to that raised by the war, and that all other questions were specifically excluded. The words of Mr. Balfour and Mr. Chamberlain, in which this position was set forth, have been quoted so often that I need not quote them again here. They are so clear and precise that if they had referred to any other question than one of politics, the men who used them would not for a moment have dreamed of attempting to repudiate their pledges. But they have been repudiated, apparently on the ground that the standard of honour in politics is not that which is acknowledged either in private life or in ordinary business. Having obtained their majority by means of a specific pledge, Ministers have, ever since, deliberately disregarded that pledge, and have been content to plead the undoubted fact that they have a majority in the present House of Commons as a justification for all their actions. When the terms of peace in South Africa were at last settled, and not settled without the active assistance of certain members of the Opposition, Mr. Balfour and his colleagues went on to carry out a programme of their own without the smallest regard for the declarations they had made when they appealed to the country in 1900. The Education Act was certainly not before the electors in that year; but this did not hinder them from carrying it, in spite of the protests of some of their own party, and notoriously in defiance of the wishes of a great body of the electorate, many of whom had voted for them on the question of the war. We are told, of course, by the Ministerial apologists, that it is ridiculous to suppose that a Ministry is to be debarred from introducing measures, in the value and virtue of which they believe, merely because those measures were not put before the country at a General Election. Up to a certain point this contention is unassail.able ; but it can hardly be maintained in face of the fact that the electors were expressly told by the chief members of the Administration that in voting, as they were urged to do, for Ministerial candidates in the midst of a grave national crisis, they were voting for them upon one issue, and upon one issue only. It is still more difficult to maintain it when we remember that Liberal electors were appealed to for their support on the clear understanding that by voting for Ministerialists on the question of the war they would not be regarded as abjuring any of their opinions on matters of domestic policy. Yet Ministers have acted ever since they obtained a renewal of their tenure of office as though the vote of 1900 was given to them as a vote in favour of Tory principles in general.

This, I imagine, is what so cool and moderate a disputant as Sir Edward Grey meant when he deliberately charged Ministers with having deceived the country. It is this which has done more than anything else to create the almost unexampled bitterness that now prevails in the political world, and that led to the painful scene in the House last month when the Prime Minister was absolutely refused a hearing by the Opposition, and was reduced to the painful humiliation of having to sit down unheard. The Licensing Bill is, in many respects, a more gross violation of the pledges given by Ministers in 1900 than the Education Act. There is no question as to its not having been before the electors in 1900. There is equally no question as to its not having been in the mind of its author, the Prime Minister, until the result of the Rye election warned him that his party was in danger of losing one of its most valuable assets, the support of the licensed victuallers and the brewers. It was brought in, as a matter of fact, in order to redeem the promise which he made in a panicstricken moment, in replying to a deputation of those interested in the drink traffic. If the Bill had merely fulfilled the promise then given it would not have been so obnoxious as it was, not only to the Opposition, but to all who recognise the fact that our greatest social evil is intemperance, and our worst national enemy the liquor monopoly. Unfortunately, Mr. Balfour, having undertaken to touch the question raised by the action of magistrates who put the interests of the community before those of the licensed victuallers and their over-lords the brewers, seized the opportunity of bringing in a Bill which not merely dealt with a few cases of undoubted hardship, but sought to put the whole licensing system upon a new footing. Here again he forgot altogether the conditions of the 1900 election, and the pledges upon the strength of which he and his party had gained their majority. He brought in a measure which in its original form would have been an effectual bar to any real reform of the licensing system, probably for a generation to come. He refused to listen to the appeals made to him by the bishops and by many on his own side of the House to modify his scheme so far as to enable the community, at some future date, to reassert its full power of control over a traffic which everybody recognises as furnishing one of the gravest social problems of our time. It is not necessary to discuss here the details of the Bill, or the almost criminal recklessness with which it destroyed the greater part of the power that the nation, through the magistracy, has hitherto possessed in dealing with licenses. The broad fact remains that it gave the license-holders, or, rather, the brewers who hold them in bond, something perilously like a practical freehold in their licenses. It was hardly a party question which was thus raised. Though the licensed victualler is proverbially conservative in opinion, there are many sincere friends of licensing reform on the Conservative benches. The Church, though it has not taken the place which might have been hoped for in the struggle against the evils of the present system, has again and again attested its devotion to the cause of temperance. There were many, therefore, in his own party, who objected to Mr. Balfour's proposals, whilst the avowed temperance party in the country was roused by them to a fury of indignation. When the debates in Committee on the Bill began, a month ago, strenuous efforts were made by the reformers on both sides of the House to amend the obnoxious measure. There was nothing in the nature of what is known as 'obstruction.' Even Mr. Balfour has felt constrained to acknowledge this. Yet before the Bill had been more than a day or two in Committee the Prime Minister announced to the House that he proposed to force it through by the most drastic of all the weapons in the hands of the Government, that which is known as closure by compartment.'

There is no more difficult question, and none which an opponent of the Ministry of the day finds it harder to deal with, than that of the abuse of the closure. Both sides have used it in turn, and I am afraid it can hardly be denied that both have abused it. But the ordinary closure is one thing, and closure by compartment another. The classic instance pleaded by Mr. Balfour and his friends in defence of his action regarding the Licensing Bill is that of the Home Rule Bill of 1893, to which closure by compartment was, in the end, applied by Mr. Gladstone. Yet no one who recalls the facts as to the Home Rule Bill can fail to perceive that there is no analogy between it and the case of the Licensing Bill. The House of Commons pressed forward and carried the Home Rule Bill in obedience to a direct mandate from the electors of the United Kingdom. Home Rule was the question, the only question, that was placed before them in 1892, and Ministers and their supporters had behind them the voice and the opinion of the nation. Who can pretend that this was the case with the Licensing Bill ? Not only was it never spoken of or thought of at the General Election of 1900, but, as I have shown, it was one of those measures expressly excluded from consideration by Mr. Balfour himself when he made his appeal to the electors in 1900. The Home Rule Bill was opposed by methods of obstruction gross and palpable, and carried to lengths never known before, nor was it until more days had been spent in Committee upon it than hours had been devoted to the Licensing Bill that Mr. Gladstone was constrained to adopt the drastic remedy of closure by compartment. To profess that his action afforded à fair precedent for that of Mr. Balfour last month would be ridiculous. Yet it was on this precedent that Mr. Balfour relied when he put a mechanical gag on the debates in Committee on the Licensing Bill, and succeeded in forcing it through that stage without anything in the nature of adequate discussion. Men

new

have blamed the Opposition because, when he rose to move the application of the gag, they refused to allow him to speak, and treated him to such open contumely as has hardly fallen to the lot of a Prime Minister before. For once his charm of manner and his dexterous tactics availed him nothing; and he succeeded in carrying his resolution only by the brute force of his majority—the khaki majority of 1900. I confess that I cannot bring myself to apologise for the bitterness displayed by the Opposition on this occasion. Yet, so strong is truth, even when crippled and gagged, that Mr. Balfour found himself compelled to make one important and far-reaching concession to the opponents of the measure whilst it was in Committee. This was the provision that at the end of seven years

all licenses shall come to an end, and shall only be renewed on such terms as the authorities may determine. For some regulation of this kind temperance reformers, not of the fanatical class, have been striving for years, and it is just possible that, in spite of the liquor trade and of Mr. Balfour, a germ of good may be found to exist even in the Licensing Bill of 1904. At any rate, it is clear that the licensed victuallers, who received it in the first instance with acclamation, are beginning to realise the fact that the chief benefits to be derived from it will be reaped not by themselves but by the brewers who hold them in bond.

Whilst war, open and unrelenting, has been the state of things in the political world as a whole, it can hardly be said that peace has prevailed within the borders of the Ministerial camp. The deposition of the Duke of Devonshire from his old place at the head of the Liberal Unionist wing of the Ministerial party has been followed by the formation of a Unionist Free Trade Club, to which most of the 'men of light and leading' in the Party have somehow or other gravitated. In succession to this has come in turn the conversion of the old LiberalUnionist Council into a branch of the Tariff Reform League, under the presidency of Mr. Chamberlain. That gentleman, with unconscious humour, has described his capture of the Party 'machine'as having transformed it from an oligarchy into a republic. Presumably his use of the word oligarchy is meant as a sly hit at the Duke of Devonshire, whose past services to the Unionist cause do not seem to have left any lasting impression upon the men who profited by them, and who is now treated with contumely by the writers and politicians who were at his feet two years ago. Why the Liberal-Unionist Council should have ceased to be an oligarchy, and should have become a republic by the installation of Mr. Chamberlain as its president in place of the Duke, it is not easy for an outsider to understand. The ' republic,' however, is clearly even more at the mercy of the Party wire-pullers than the oligarchy,' and the proceedings on the 14th of July, when the Liberal Unionists met to transfer their allegiance from mere Unionism to Unionism plus the taxes upon food, furnished a brilliant triumph for the dexterous manipulation of the machine.

« 이전계속 »