IN the last number of the Fort-nightly Review I ventured to discuss the quality of the Opposition in the House of Commons, and found it “feeble”—unable, with few exceptions, to take effective advantage of the opportunities so plentifully offered by the Government during the Autumn Session. In the present paper I propose to subject the Ministry to a similar test and judge them from the same standpoint of the patient listener, who has no political expectations and no private interests to bias his impartial judgment. In this case one can soon dispense with the word “feeble.” What faults the Government have, as a Government, feebleness is not one of them, and still less do its individual members deserve that unflattering epithet. Their faults spring rather from overweening self-confidence, vitality and recklessness. They dare do anything—and more— that becomes a Ministry, except make a straightforward, immediate appeal to the country in their quarrel with the House of Lords. But, after all, if they had resigned when their Licensing Bill was rejected by the Upper Chamber, many of them would not have qualified for their pensions as ex-Cabinet Ministers, for they could not show a full three years’ tenure of office. And men do not become super-men when they rise to the highest places in the State.
It is true that the strength of the Cabinet is tempered by conspicuous weakness in one particular department. For some inscrutable reason the Home Office has had more than its share of indifferent Ministers in the last fifty years, but Mr. Herbert Gladstone excels them all. As an example of extreme flaccidity his letter to the Roman Catholic authorities at Westminster in respect of the Eucharistic Procession—first officially sanctioned and then officially vetoed—stands unrivalled, and his performances as Minister in charge of the Miners’ Eight Hours Bill were the despair of his side. The earlier proceedings in Grand Committee upstairs were, of course, screened from public view, but in the Report stage and Third Reading his lack of grip and his inability to present his case tersely were almost painful to witness. The Home Secretary knew his subject well enough; what failed him was the power of expression, and his frequent explanations were often more obscure than the points originally in doubt. The name of Gladstone, of course, is a valuable asset to the Liberal Party in the country, where the ineradicable belief in the Horatian maxim Fortes creantur fortibus et bonis is the main secret of the vitality of the hereditary principle. But is there not scope for irony in the spectacle of a Radical Government declaring its fiercest war upon the hereditary principle, as it is illustrated in the House of Lords, when itself bestows not merely seats in a Chamber but important offices of State upon “their fathers’ sons,” and even waives the usual political apprenticeship in certain cases in order to keep the old names in the firm? If the presence of some members in the Ministry indicates, as it does, that Radical careers are open to Radical talents, there are others who are living witnesses of the active survival of paternal and patronal influence.
Nevertheless, the Cabinet is strong in men and its strongest figure is Mr. Asquith. That is as it should be. The Prime Minister of the day should invariably be the strongest man of his party; it is almost always a misfortune for the State when he is not. Since Mr. Asquith took over control from the hands of a predecessor immeasurably his inferior—despite all his virtues—in intellect and force of character, he has filled the stage at Westminster in something of the old Gladstonian manner. It is always a pleasure to see the Prime Minister take the floor, for the House knows that the Government case will be put just as well as it can be put. Mr. Asquith is a master of the art of exposition. After hearing him no one has any excuse for not grasping the salient points of a measure. When lie talks it is business; things get forward; something is done. His voice and manner are most persuasive; if occasion calls he can rise to a high level of dignified eloquence; he has an unerring eye for the weak points of his own case as well as those of his opponents; he can gather up his party behind him, as he sweeps along, and carry the dullest and heaviest over almost any obstacle. In a word, he is the leader of his party and not its follower. He is always well ahead in judgment. Nor is he like the late Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who was for ever at the mercy of a sentimental or humanitarian phrase, and belonged by instinct to the Little England School of Radicals, with whom the Ministerial Benches are packed, though just now they are receiving very little encouragement. Mr. Asquith has no natural affinity with these. He knows them for what they are—arrant mischief-makers and troublers of the peace. It always seems to me that Mr. Asquith tosses with a singularly sparing hand to the Radical pack behind him the particular morsels which they love, and that these are received with glad surprise. And when he repeats, as sometimes he must, the Radical shibboleths and the Teetotal shibboleths and the shibboleths of the Universal Friends of Man, when he puts the case of the Passive Resister, as though convinced that the distinction between rates and taxes were really worth a good man’s support, one cannot help thinking with what gusto Mr. Asquith would expose the sandy foundation on which he had been building, if that were to form part of his official duties.
Mr. Asquith has enormously strengthened his reputation as a Parliamentarian. His handling of the Licensing Bill—apart, of course, from the demerits of that swollen and unwieldy measure—was admirable, and he showed himself as good-humored and amenable to requests from the other side as was compatible with a fixed determination to drive the Bill through according to the schedule. Again, in the matter of the ill-fated Education compromise, the Prime Minister’s speeches were models of conciliatory language, and the dignity of the speech in which he conducted its funeral was superb. And yet what could have been more hopeless than an attempt to rush such a Bill through Parliament in the last few days of an exhausting Session, before even the negotiators had agreed among themselves as to the school figures upon which the compromise was to rest? For all that the failure did no harm to the reputations of the Prime Minister or of the Minister of Education. On the contrary, it actually did Mr. Runciman good. The attempt was made with so much honesty of purpose, the negotiations were so sincere, the give and take on both sides was so genuine, and the ordinary partisan view was so rigidly excluded from the interviews between the Archbishop and the Minister, that the House of Commons was almost ashamed to attack the scheme. Mr. Runcintan was so reasonable and yet so strong and firm in his speeches he listened with so much patience to the extremists; he was so anxious to bring off his miracle and restore educational peace that the House felt genuinely sorry when the inevitable end came, even though every day that passed, while the fate of the Bill hung in the balance, confirmed the uneasy conviction that the plan would not do, and that even if carried in Parliament it would soon break down in the country.
Of the Foreign Secretary everyone speaks well, so well indeed that Sir Edward Grey might be well advised to imitate Polycrates and drop a ring over the terrace into the Thames. Unionists repose in him the same unreserved trust that they place in Lord Lansdowne, and everyone rejoices at the welcome change which has lifted foreign politics out of the perils of party controversy. Sir Edward Grey never speaks unless absolutely compelled: Mr. Haldane, on the other hand, is always ready to fill a column on the shortest notice. He looks the sleepiest man in the Cabinet; he is, in fact, the most alert. How he gets through his work is a marvel to ordinary mortals. No Minister attends the House more assiduously; he even goes to “another place” when the Lords are debating Army matters, and listens impassively to Lord Crewe’s uneasy and halting speeches on military affairs or to the well-coached replies of Lord Lucas. Mr. Haldane is always ready to assist a colleague; but he gets very little help in return. Some of his colleagues are ready enough to blow the trumpet and sound the drum on behalf of the ever popular Navy, but for the Army—not a word. In fact, it is credibly reported that one of them was quite prepared, if need be, to take the War Office and reduce the army estimates by five millions simply by the drastic method of lopping off more regulars. The Territorial Army is Mr. Haldane’s own creation, and his exertions on its behalf in season and out of season, his speeches here, and there and everywhere, his cheery optimism in the face of the gloomiest prognostications, his readiness, his entreaties, his cajoleries even, his laborious days and sleepless nights, will receive one day the generous recognition that is now withheld. We could wish, it is true, that Mr. Haldane were not quite so copious, that when he rises and begins “tuning his voice and balancing his hands,” it were not quite so certain that he would exhaust his theme, but that is a small point. He has done the work that no one else could have done; he would have done it even better but for some of his colleagues; and he is all the better statesman because he is such an indifferent partisan.
Mr. Lloyd George was in abeyance during the Autumn session. He had had his innings while the Old Age Pension Bill was before the House, and his turn will come again with the much-vaunted Free Trade Budget. The Chancellor of the Ex-chequer is supposed to be budgeting night and day, evolving schemes wherewith to produce missing millions from his safe, cudgelling his brains for brilliant ideas, ransacking the ages to discover how other financiers have overcome a gigantic deficit which remorselessly grows from week to week. No doubt there is much exaggeration in this. Certainly, Mr. Lloyd George has never shown himself a serious—or if serious, an intelligent—student of history. When he permits himself an allusion to the past, or to the contemporary affairs of a foreign country, he usually blunders badly. Accuracy is not his foible, though it is useful in a financier. But the fact is that there are several Lloyd Georges in the short stature of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. There is the acknowledged master of all the vocabulary of political vituperation — the irresponsible attorney abusing an inconvenient witness. There is—on rare and special occasions—the idealist of the Celtic fringe lifting up his eyes to his native hills—the hills over which rises the road to London—and uttering rhapsodies in Welsh. There is the violent Nonconformist, the tireless enemy of the Church which taught him his letters. There is the cool administrator who brought together the railway managers and their servants and bade them in the name of the State settle their quarrel and come to terms. There is the author of the Patents Act, an Act justly lauded, but involving a principle so simple and so obvious, that we should rather condemn the blindness and dilatoriness of the Governments, which left such glaring folly so long untouched, than praise the sapience of a Minister who put the crooked straight. And again it is the very Minister who performed the wildest contortions in honor of the Goddess of Free Trade who passed the Patents Act and has enabled the new Port of London Authority, with Board of Trade sanction, to levy a duty on goods entering and leaving the Thames. His present task is to demonstrate that the resources of taxation under a Free Trade system are not exhausted, and that he can raise the millions he requires by special class taxation without laying the slightest burden upon the shoulders of the working-classes. The measure of his success will be the measure of his condemnation. Now and then, when he has found himself in serious company, Mr. Lloyd George has essayed to wear with dignity the gorgeous but heavy robes of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But he finds the strain too great to be borne long. He is glad to escape from their smothering weight, to be himself and at his ease, and when addressing the mass meetings most congenial to his oratorical style, he has told them with a wink that he has his eve on the rich man’s hen roost, and that he is composing a pretty tune for Midas to sing on the rack. Indeed, he and his partner, Mr. Winston Churchill, are going about using language which does not differ one iota in intention from that of Mr. Victor Grayson, when he calls for a knife to slit the bursting money bags of the rich. As a Minister in the House Mr. Lloyd George assumes his most taking manner and wears an engaging smile; he can turn on the springs of sentiment and make the fountains gush; he has the skilful orator’s trick of playing with his audience. And his words drip plausibility.
He seems to have entered into a working partnership with the President of the Board of Trade, who is playing, with flamboyant success for the moment, the historic role of the young scion of an aristocratic house turned ardent demagogue. Mr. Churchill is the new friend of the toilers. The Pulchellus of the Cabinet is the People’s Winston. He watches very warily every movement in the Labor Party. He listens to catch every sound that rises from beneath. Every breath of popularis aura, however faint, wakes a responsive string in the Aeolian harps stretched across his windows at the Board of Trade; the dawn of every new Socialistic idea makes this modern Memnon vocal. Mr. Churchill shares all the arts of the demagogue with Mr. Lloyd George and has advantages of social status denied to his present partner and future rival; he has mighty ambitions and immense capacity; he works like a tiger; and he has not only shot a rhinoceros— he has assumed its hide.
Mr. John Burns remains what he was,
An honest man, close-buttoned to the chin,
Broad-cloth without and a warm heart within.
His appointment to the Cabinet was designed to please the working-classes and did please them; now, after three years, Mr. Burns is chiefly a source of strength to the Ministry with their middle-class supporters, because of the resolute and courageous stand which he has made against the enormous pressure brought to bear upon him from the extreme Radical and Socialist wings of the party. The President of the Local Government Board deserves the thanks of the community for the vigor of his onslaught upon corruption in the lower departments of local administration, upon the ruinous extravagance of the outdoor relief system known as Poplarism, and upon the insidious new shibboleth of the Labor Party —the Right to Work. It is an open secret that the Cabinet was sharply divided on the question of what to do for the unemployed. Some of Mr. Burns’s colleagues would cheerfully have flung him to the wolves. And though he won the day last October, when the Prime Minister cast his aegis over him and paid him a most generous but well-deserved tribute in the House of Commons, the struggle will be renewed, and, if the Ministry endures, it will be highly interesting to watch Mr. Burns’s fate. He is a “bonny fighter,” and Parliament has no more exciting spectacle to offer— from a purely gladiatorial point of view—than a duel between the President of the Local Government Board and his implacable foes on the Labor Benches, especially Mr. Keir Hardie and Mr. Will Crooks. They openly cast off the gloves: they shout imprecations between the blows in the old Homeric fashion; and they pound away amid the cries of their excited partisans till the staidest members forget their dignity and swell the din.
It is difficult to write impartially of the Chief Secretary for Ireland. His name has come to be associated so continuously with failure—despite his Irish Universities Bill— that his opponents are prone to “damn hm at a hazard.” He is by temperament an optimist, but his disappointments are manifestly telling upon him. The iron has entered his soul and begun to fester. He is losing his old suavity; there is a harsher note in his voice: he sits on the Treasury Bench as though crouching for a spring. He flings his answers across the floor with a gesture of impatience. But when he goes down into the country and lets himself go—O di boni, quam teter incedebat, quam truculentus, quam terribilis aspectu. His rhetoric positively rasps and grates. And yet all this violent wrath is for the sake of peace and brotherhood and mankind! That he has done what he considers his best in Ireland no one can deny. He has striven with might and main to appease the Irish Nationalists. Mr. Redmond and Mr. Dillon freely acknowledge his good intentions, but they either will not or dare not interfere with Mr. Ginnell and his friends. And the inventor of the “hazel policy” told Mr. Birrell to his face in the House of Commons a few weeks ago that he and the cattle drivers would go on making the facts in Ireland, and the Government could frame their laws to suit them.
It was so rare a piece of fun
To see the sweltered cattle run.
The fate of the Irish Land Bill it would be folly to predict. It is a grandiose measure, like most of the Government Bills, and provides, in addition to its land-purchase clauses, for the transplantation of large numbers of Irish tenants from the congested districts to the grass lands which are to be broken up in order to provide them with holdings. Whether the latter are economic or not, Mr. Birrell admitted that he did not greatly care. The admission was typical of the Radicalism of which he is one of the chief exponents.
Mr. McKenna promises to be a much greater success at the Admiralty than he was at the Education Office, his tenure of which is chiefly remembered by his supremely fatuous remark that he came to bring, not peace, but a sword. The Radicals were exultant when this eager economist was sent to the Admiralty; now they are inclined to look upon him, in their favorite phrase, as “a lost soul,” for instead of giving them a drastic, reckless reduction of expenditure, the First Lord has become an enthusiast for the superb machine of which he has supreme control, and is now patriotically jealous of its perfection. The Postmaster-General, Mr. Sydney Buxton, arouses neither enthusiasm nor animosity; he is a typical example of the sound party man and painstaking administrator. Mr. Harcourt, the Sir Visto of the Cabinet, and decidedly the most ornamental figure on the Treasury Bench, is a neat speaker, who takes trouble to throw a touch of distinction even into an answer for question time, and is the first Minister for many long years to take a real and active interest in the beautification of London. But the lesser lights of the Cabinet have been completely outshone of late by one of the Under-Secretaries, who has assuredly earned the next vacant place that occurs in the charmed circle. This is Mr. Llerbert Samuel, Mr. Gladstone’s lieutenant, and, one would imagine, about as uncomfortable a junior as the Earl of Elgin found Mr. Winston Churchill. Mr. Samuel was specially deputed by Mr. Asquith to take his place as Minister in charge of the Licensing Bill when affairs of State caused his absence, and he performed the duties with very marked ability. The Children’s Bill, which he also skilfully piloted through the House, was literally child’s play compared with such difficult questions as time limit and monopoly value, and though his speeches were carefully prepared beforehand, he followed the best speakers on the Opposition side with absolute confidence, and where he could not answer, boldly attacked. Mr. Samuel, however, contrives to arouse animosities to a very marked degree. He not only strikes hard—no one minds that—he irritates. He is antipathetic to many members of the Opposition, who find it hard to listen to him in patience. It is not so much what he says as the decidedly “nasty way” he says it; and he has a peculiar sleekness of manner which is in curious contrast with the hardness of his voice. Nevertheless, Mr. Herbert Samuel is already a force in the House of Commons, and is one of the most valuable men in the Ministry.
Another Minister who won decided laurels over the Licensing Bill is the Solicitor-General. Sir Samuel Evans possesses the gifts of lucidity and perfect good temper. He was always ready to explain legal points, and to “do it again” it required, as it often was. He assumed no air of legal infallibility; he was generally willing to concede the verbal amendments which mean very little, but give such intense gratification to the member who moves them; and where he resisted he resisted strongly but graciously.
Dr. Macnamara, who was presumably sent to the Admiralty because he knew too much to go to the Education Department, has not had many opportunities. Mr. Masterman has resolutely held his tongue since his promotion; had he been a private member, his speech on the Runciman Bill would have been well worth listening to. Colonel Seely sets his colleagues an almost daily object-lesson in the art of responsive elocution which Sir Edward Strachey in especial would do well to imitate. Sir Hudson Kearley has just shown a rare example of self-abnegation by resigning the Parliamentary Secretaryship to the Board of Trade and becoming the Chairman of the new Port of London Authority, at the same time declining to take the salary attached thereto. The remaining Under-Secretaries have done nothing to call for mention, either for good or ill.
The Ministry’s weakness in the House of Lords is so marked that the strength, not alone of numbers, but of intellect, on the other side seems almost brutal in comparison. Of course, the Lord Chancellor is an exception. Lord Loreburn is an imposing figure in the Upper Chamber, though even yet he has not learnt the “nice conduct” of a full-buttoned wig. His tact is perfect, His speeches, on the rare occasions when he makes a party speech, are admirable. That with which he closed the Licensing debate saved the dignity of the Government, which would have sunk below zero had it not been for the extraneous allies they found in the Bishops and on the Cross and Opposition Benches. But the Ministerial Bench is helpless. Lord Wolverhampton and Lord Ripon are no longer able to bear the heat and burden of the day. And though Lord Morley of Blackburn is probably the finest intellect in the whole Chamber and his magnificent speech on Indian Reforms was worthy of a great Imperial Senate, the tale of his year increases and he confines himself to his own Department. Lord Carrington is the soul of breezy and inconsequential good humor, but no one takes him very seriously even on his pet subject of small holdings. Lord Fitzmaurice is no match for his brother opposite. And as for Lord Crewe, who leads the House, he is always—as Lord Rosebery once said in mordant phrase, the graceful butterfly gyrating on its pin. Lord Rosebery himself ought to be leader, but the gap between him and his quondam associates is now unbridgable. The tabernacle he set up is dissolved. Jachin and Boaz are broken pillars. And so Lord Rosebery is doomed to his cross bench.