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GIVE me the pleasure of a book,
With cheerful heart and cloudless brain,
A cooling breeze, and skies most bright;
So full of joy my life would be.
In careless ease there let me lie,
CHARLES T. LUSTED.
THE CLOSURE AND COMMON-SENSE.
OBSTRUCTION has triumphed the Education Bill is withdrawn: and the Opposition are now in the seventh heaven of joy and exultation. It is idle to minimise the fact. But if the party in power rightly appreciate its character, they may gain more by the lesson which it teaches than they can lose by the blow which it inflicts. That the most powerful Ministry of modern times should be compelled to abandon the most important measure of the session, after the second reading had been carried by a majority of nearly three hundred, is so utterly inconsistent with both the theory and the practice of parliamentary government as to point to the existence of some latent disorder in the system, which if not promptly removed may lead to its rapid dissolution. We spoke in our last number of obstruction as a serious danger. But it is rather the disease of which obstruction is the symptom that we have to dread, the parliamentary decay so eloquently referred to by Mr Balfour in the concluding words of his speech last Monday week, words which abundantly justify all that we have been saying in these columns for many months past with regard to the inevitable consequences of conducting the Opposition in the House of Commons on the principle now sanctioned by its leaders. "I deeply regret the evidence of parliamentary decay which last week especially, but in some respects all the events of this session, have begun to show. To those who love our traditions, to those who are careful of our fame, these incidents portend great
are ominous, I fear, of inevitable change. This is not the time at which the nature of these changes could be discussed, even if they could now be adumbrated." That we are probably on the eve of some great change, some "bloodless revolution," in our parliamentary system, has long been our opinion, and every session of Parliament seems to bring it nearer and nearer. But at present we are concerned only with the immediate evil now before us, the rise and progress of obstruction, and the remedies for which it calls. We do not acquit the Government of all blame for the fate of the Education Bill. Mr Balfour went at length into the nature of the "miscalculation" to which he pleads guilty; but he showed to the satisfaction of all reasonable men that it was due only to a misconception of the character of his opponents. He did not anticipate from them a method and degree of opposition setting at defiance all the comity of party warfare, and, as Mr Chamberlain says, "absolutely unparalleled in history"; and seems to have expected them to act as if they were gentlemen first and members of Opposition afterwards. Experience should have taught him better, and let us hope that the error will not be repeated. There may have been some little contributory negligence on the part of the Government. But it is but a feather in the scale compared with the real cause of the disaster. We are sorry to see the repetition of such scandalous misstatements on this subject as have appeared in organs of the press which we
had hoped were superior to all personal motives. The failure of the bill is hardly due at all to causes over which Mr Balfour had any control, unless he had chosen to adopt the plan of closure by compartments. It is futile to deny so palpable a fact as that the present state of business is due to the persistent obstruction of the Radical party, who themselves admit that as they have begun so they intend to go on. They make open boast of the obstructive debates which it will be in their power to raise on a multiplicity of questions at every stage of the Ministerial business, and they are now, unfortunately, in a position to take advantage of their own wrong, and to attribute to the incompetence of Ministers what is exclusively due to their own deliberate violation of the spirit of parliamentary government.
The scruples of the Government on the subject of the closure are to be respected, but we think they are misplaced. And, indeed, it is high time that the whole question was set in its proper light before the people, and that the country at large began to realise the conditions under which, in the absence of any such changes as Mr Balfour contemplates, parliamentary government seems likely to be conducted. Attempts are still made to represent the closure as a measure of exceptional stringency, to be kept in reserve for occasions of extra
elementary stage, and one of the chief promoters of its growth has been Sir W. Harcourt himself. He points to his own use of it in 1894 as furnishing an example for all future Governments. It is very likely that it may do so, but not in the sense intended by Sir W. Harcourt. His employment of it at all events was such as to drive the Opposition out of the House, and to produce what had not been known for near a century, "a secession"; nor should we be at all surprised if the session of 1894 came hereafter to be regarded as an epoch in the history of the closure, from which dates its practical recognition as part of the ordinary machinery of parliamentary procedure. Sir William Harcourt is horrified at the idea of it becoming "an ordinary diet." But we rather think that when the Muse of history comes to deal with this topic, she will name Sir William as the chef who first surfeited Parliament with this dainty dish.
But though both sides may try to shut their eyes to the real state of the case, and though the party in Opposition have been delivered of a good deal of virtuous indignation at the tyrannical conduct of the Government, that is no reason why the public should either delude themselves or help others to keep up the delusion. A new agent has been introduced into our system of parliamentary debate, from which it is highly improbable that it will ever be expelled, or even kept within such limits as the immediate sufferers from it naturally wish to see observed.
These just now happen to be the very men to whom we are indebted for the necessity of this innovation. It has its origin in the theory of divine right adopted by the Liberal party within the
last thirty years. The term has been used of late by both Mr Balfour and Lord Salisbury; but we ourselves called attention to this curious revival of an ultra-Tory doctrine by the extreme Liberal party at a much earlier period. The doctrine first began to sprout after the Reform Bill of 1832. The Conservative reaction of 1841 nipped it for a time; but it was not killed, and after 1846 began to grow again more steadily than ever. Successive Conservative failures-in 1852, in 1857, in 1865, and in 1868-to obtain a majority at the polling - booths naturally confirmed it, till on Mr Gladstone's accession to office in the last-mentioned year it had come to be generally believed that the Liberals were in the right, and that a strong Conservative Government in the House of Commons would never again be seen. doctrine of divine right was now therefore fully developed. people, we were told, had declared over and over again that they would have nothing to say to the Conservatives. The Liberals, of course, were only too ready to believe the flattering tale. The Conservatives had reduced the Franchise, and, if that move didn't answer, was it likely that anything else would ever have the desired effect? No! the people saw through them. The Liberals clearly had Providence on their side, and an indefeasible title to the government of the country, with all the good things appertaining to it.
Mr Gladstone fell-we need not repeat a thrice-told tale-and only five years after the political extinction of his rivals had been confidently predicted, they were seated in power with a compact majority of fifty, and the reproach of twenty
eight years was completely effaced. But the Gladstonian party then, as afterwards, would not accept the verdict of the country. They declared that the majority was not a genuine majority: that they themselves had been cheated out of office, with much more to the same effect; and on the strength of this assumption conceived themselves at liberty to treat the Conservatives as usurpers, or rather as filibusters, outside the pale of legitimate party warfare. The temper thus generated has never cooled. Obstruction was its natural offspring; and though in the scenes which now daily pass before us we are apt to forget the extreme violence of the opposition offered to Lord Beaconsfield, the seeds were then sown of all that has happened since: a new system of tactics was inaugurated, to which even Fox and Bolingbroke in their most malignant and intemperate moments would have scorned to stoop.
Obstruction, then, was the inevitable result of the conviction thus deeply implanted in the Liberal mind that they were the natural inheritors of political power in this country, and that no quarter was to be shown to those who endeavoured to rob them of it. From men who go into Opposition with these feelings strong upon them what else is to be expected? "No faith is to be kept with heretics"- a doctrine wrongly ascribed to the Roman Church-may rightly be imputed to the modern Radical. There was a lull in the system no doubt during the earlier part of Lord Salisbury's former Administration. The dismemberment of the Liberal party by Mr Gladstone's adoption of Home Rule was too complete to admit of any energy being displayed by
the section of it which remained in Opposition, during the first dark days of its humiliation and despair. The shock was too great. Both leaders and followers were stunned by it. They lay like the fallen angels: and even when they began to bestir themselves, their hopes lay rather in sowing dissension between the Liberal Unionists and Conservatives than in discomfiting the Government. When, however, they found that the union was invulnerable, they returned to their old tactics; and we must all remember the pertinacious obstruction which prevented Lord Salisbury's Administration from completing their scheme of local government. Obstruction had now taken its place among the regular recognised methods of party warfare.
On what might have happened if the Separatists had returned to power in 1892 with a majority of eighty or a hundred it is useless to speculate. What did happen was that they came back with so small a majority, and introduced measures of such profound constitutional importance, that they were driven to the use of the closure as "an article of ordinary diet." They fought with Home Rule or Disestablishment in one hand and the closure in the other. And though the Education Bill is not naturally so contentious a measure as either Home Rule or Welsh Disestablishment, the Opposition themselves have made it so, as they have done also the Agricultural Rating Bill, describing it as a "fiscal revolution." Sir William Harcourt, whatever he may say, cannot shuffle off the responsibility for having riveted the closure upon Parliament. When, being in office, he used it to carry measures which a majority
VOL. CLX.-NO. DCCCCLXIX.
of the British people condemned and when, being in Opposition, he lent himself to a species of obstruction of which the sole object was to prevent measures from being carried of which a still larger majority approved, - he was doing more than any one statesman of the day to saddle the House of Commons with an institution which would have shocked Sir Robert Peel and Lord John Russell, but which now seems to have become necessary to the transaction of ordinary business. It being the avowed aim of the Opposition to bar all legislation whatsoever, for fear it should redound to the credit of their rivals, new methods must be admitted for coping with this new development of the party system. And as the Radical Opposition, true to their theory of divine right, seem likely to continue these tactics whenever they are not in office, the only way which has yet been devised of carrying on the work of the Government in the teeth of such a determination must be accepted not only as permanent but as normal. At all events, the remedy must be kept in use as long as the disease lasts, and this is likely to be long enough.
This is the situation which we have to face; and the solemn warnings which have been addressed to the present Government on the subject by some who profess to be their friends only show a total want of power to appreciate it. It is useless to mince matters. The war between the Government and the Opposition is war to the knife, and if the one party chooses to push matters to extremity, so must the other. Ministers are told that they must be careful how they use closure by compartments now,