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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LXII. - Political Currents and Eddies


IN the twenty years between 1860 and 1880, all true Britons, whatever their rank and callings, were as far asunder as are the North and South Poles from Keir Hardie Socialism and twentieth -century gospel of universal revolution in theology preached from the erstwhile orthodox pulpit of the City Temple, which has been endorsed, I feel sure, to the amazement and disgust of the majority of English operatives, by the Labour Conference held at Hull in January, 1908. The Liberation Society, indeed, in its blind hostility to the Church of England, baited its disestablishment policy by the suggestion that after life-interests had been exhausted and liberal grants of buildings and funds had, as in Ireland, been made to the dispossessed Episcopalians, there would ultimately be a heap of capital available for secular and popular purposes. This policy was accepted by the Welsh Labourists in its barefaced form, and they destined the plunder for education and the payment of salaries, as in the United States, to members of Parliament. It was a policy which had, in the plurality of election contests in England, to be carefully masked, because the full avowal of it would alienate Liberal Churchmen and scare away the candidates for whom the sturdiest Nonconformists had a very decided preference.

Faddists, theorists, and enthusiasts were held in check in the worsted district by the commonsense of an industrious, practical people intolerant of shams and wild dreams. Plutocrat and democrat of the native breed were at bottom both Conservative, and thoroughly agreed about the sacredness of private property, and the justice of giving full compensation and something over for land or heritages required for public or railway company purposes. However ready the plutocrat on a Liberal platform might be to promise going on with perpetual tinkering of the Constitution, he would, of course, be the last man to concur in projects which would rob him of his possessions or diminish the value of his securities and investments. His ambition was almost invariably from the beginning of his career to become owner of a landed estate, and many of his class attained that position, and left estates and baronetcies to their sons. Feudalism did not die, but transmigrated to the newly-enriched. Shopkeepers, small traders, and artisans sought to acquire a real property stake in their country before they took to invest in bank or railway shares, or in Consols or other stock. The thrifty workman had no peace of mind until he became owner of his house.

Trade-unionism had two sides, a fighting with capital side, and a benefit society or mutual assurance side to provide against want of work, or sickness, or old age. There were strikes and lock- outs in the worsted district between single firms and their operatives ; but I did not see anything like a general strike or lock-out. In the conflicts which did take place employers were, in my opinion, oftener in the wrong than the employed, who reluctantly spent union funds on a strike when driven to extremity by the greed and injustice of employers. Our operatives felt that while the strike was their best weapon of defence and offence, it was well to keep it as much as possible hanged up in terrorism, because the use of it was costly to the union funds, which were wanted for benefit society purposes. Our unions had then a local character and a spirit of independence in politics and trade affairs which agreed with the sturdy character of the people that formed them. The officials of these local unions were not glib-tongued agitators, but intelligent business men who kept accounts straight, and as soon as opportunity came used their connection advantages to start in some line of business as employers. Every good member of a trade union wished to develop into an employer or, at least, to have an independent career and a stake in the country.

While employers and employed, rich man and poor man, were ambitious to acquire real property, and held the same views regarding the rights of property, I rather think the instructive and genuinely patriotic conservatism of the masses was stronger than that of the wealthier and better educated classes, whether they called themselves Liberals or Conservatives. Our working people did not realise how conservative they were in their principles, habits, practices, and ambitions. They had been taught by Liberal politicians to dislike the Tories. The word "Tory" was one to be hissed at. But for all that, they retained hereditary respect for the "quality," and never forgot that it was Sir Robert Peel who gave them the free imports, which they called free trade, and that their out-and-out Tory neighbour, Mr Ferrand, advocated with all the strength of his vigorous nature the passing of the Factory Bill, which Mr Bright and Mr Cobden opposed on economic grounds. Because of the boon of cheap and plenty food they were always willing to give cheers for Cobden and Bright, but not at all disposed to follow their lead on all questions.

Mr Bright, because of his ancestral creed, concurred in the sending of a foolish Quaker embassy to Czar Nicholas, which made the Crimean war inevitable, by convincing the haughty autocrat of All the Russias that peace at any price would be the British policy, whatever might be that of France. He was sure of Austria's neutrality, and of the fetch and carry conduct of Prussia. Mr Cobden bitterly opposed British participation in the Crimean war, because he was plunged and lost in a wild Utopian dream of his own, little expecting the collision of armies and the war of tariffs which were fated to come. He believed that in a few years the doctrine of free trade in all its fulness would be accepted by all nations, and that as a consequence of that acceptance the world at last would enjoy a Golden Age for evermore. This visionary hope made the Manchester school of political economists careless about retaining the colonies as integral parts of the British Empire. Mr Bright, in a speech glorifying the United States, assumed that it would absorb the Dominion of Canada, and possess all from the North Pole to the Gulf of Mexico, and, I think, the Isthmus of Darien. He lived long enough to see the big wars on the Continent, as well as the Civil War in the United States, with the demoralisation which followed thereon. He saw the war of tariffs, and like the good patriot he ever was when freed from Utopianism, he set his face like flint against Mr Gladstone's mad proposal to give the Irish a measure of Home Rule, which they could soon and easily use for the disintegration of the United Kingdom, which would leave Great Britain open to attacks from Irish separatists and foreign enemies in alliance with them.

It was clear, from the way in which working men, who called themselves Radicals, and were so on reform and free trade matters, spoke of Lord Palmerston, both before and after his death, that they always had had unbounded trust in his conduct of foreign affairs, and that they had no confidence at all on that matter in the men whose names they cheered at public meetings, and for whose candidates they demonstrated noisily at election times, before household suffrage and the ballot put the electoral supremacy at their disposal. In regard to the colonies and dependencies which formed the outer and greater Britain, our working people were proud of them, and wished strongly that they should ever remain in unity of allegiance and citizenship with the Mother Country. They had close ties with these outer parts of the Empire, through sons, daughters, and friends, who went there and found themselves happier and more at home under the old flag than they could be ever under the Stars and Stripes of the United States, however many the openings and however high the wages that were to be had in that go-ahead country of boundless extent and resources, where, until after the Civil War, carpet-baggers, and swindlers, and syndicates, and combines had not vitiated pristine republican virtues and perverted constitution and institutions into instruments for running "machines" to benefit birds and beasts of prey by the defrauding of honest citizens, to the endless vexation of true patriots down to President "Roosevelt, the strongest of them all. Our working men went merrily into the Volunteer movement, regardless of the cold water thrown upon it by the peace-at-any- price dreamers of vain dreams.

When I first went to Bradford, I found the town represented in the House of Commons by Mr Wickham, a Conservative, and by Mr Titus Salt, a Liberal, who had too great a stake in the country to be really much of a Radical. Mr Salt, who found attendance at Westminster incompatible with the close superintendence of his big mill at Saltaire, soon resigned his seat, and was afterwards made a baronet. On his resignation, Mr William Edward Forster, manufacturer, in partnership with Mr Fison, was elected in his place. Mr Forster, who had in him the make of a broad-minded and truly patriotic statesman, was a representative of whom any constituency might well be proud, altogether apart from party considerations. It is as the man who had the fashioning and the piloting through Parliament of the first Education Bills for England and Scotland that his memory will be preserved in history. The Bills were drawn upon right lines, but Mr Forster had not the least idea of the huge cost to which they would lead under School Board and Education Department management, nor the least conception of how the new system in England and Wales would be abused to the purposes of sectarian attacks upon the Church of England schools. At the head of the Education Department, Mr Forster was the right man in the right place. He was, in Mr Gladstone's 1881 Administration, sadly misplaced when sent to Ireland as Chief Secretary. He soon sickened of Ireland, but got out of it without being assassinated.

The West Riding, before it was divided, had two members. The last two were Sir John Ramsden, owner of large estates in England by inheritance, and of an Inverness-shire sporting estate by purchase, and Sir Francis Crossley, one of the three brother - partners of the famous Halifax carpet- manufacturing firm. Sir Francis was a newly-made baronet, while Sir John's baronetcy dated back to 1680. On the West Riding being divided and two seats being given to each division, Sir Francis and Lord Frederick Cavendish, second son of the Duke of Devonshire, were returned for our Northern Division. I was present at the big meeting in St George's Hall, at which -- accompanied by Sir Francis, who was well known - Lord Frederick made his first appearance as a candidate. The play of "Lord Dundreary" had, a little before, been per- formed in that hall, with Suthern as the inimitable representative of the chief character. Now it so happened that, in the opening sentences of his speech, Lord Frederick, in nervous flurry, spoke so like "Dundreary" as to cause irrepressible laughter. He said that, on being asked to stand, he hesitated, because he thought an older and more experienced man would be a fitter candidate for such an important constituency. He then proceeded: "If I was then afwaid, what must be my feelings now when I see this magnificent woom cowded from the floor to the v-v-wewy woof?" He, that night, in his opening sentences, had a stammer in addition to the slippery lisping over certain letters. The burst of laughter put him on his mettle, and he made a clever speech which read very well in print. I often heard him afterwards, and wondered at the way in which, like Demosthenes, he had conquered his stammering, and got rid of his youthful "Dundrearyism." Sent to Ireland as Chief Secretary, in succession to Mr Forster, he had just taken the oath, when, crossing Phoenix Park in company with Mr Burke, the Permanent Under-Secretary, Fenian scoundrels beset and assassinated them. That tragic event, which sent a shock of horror, mingled with righteous indignation, through the whole British Empire, took place in May, 1882.

From the passing of the first Reform Bill to the coming of household suffrage and the ballot in Parliamentary elections, the two currents of Liberalism and Conservatism balanced each other over all England in a manner which Tories of Lord Eldon's type deemed to be utterly impossible, since they only trusted in feudal leadership, and had no faith in the wisdom of newly-enriched upstarts, and no true conception of the inherent caution and patriotic intuition of the common people. When Mr Disraeli cut the ground from under the feet of Lord John Russell and the Liberals who wanted to keep the franchise at much higher qualifications, by boldly digging down at once to household suffrage in the boroughs, he relied upon a spirit of Conservatism among the masses, the existence of which was quite as much doubted by Liberals as by the most Tory members of his own party. What happened when power passed from the middle classes to the masses was that the two main political currents became full of eddies and side-whirlings which were apt to confound the calculations of electioneering agencies. In our district, Liberalism was usually predominant, but it had ebbs and flows which, superficially looked at, seemed very perplexing. For instance, when Sir Francis Crossley died, the electors of the Northern Division gave Lord Frederick Cavendish a Conservative colleague. That, however, was nothing in comparison with the sweeping changes which afterwards took place, back and for- ward, in Parliamentary representation. All the twenty years I was in close touch with English politics, the masses of voters seemed to act consistently upon the principle of giving each of the two political parties a turn about of office. By plunging into the bog of Irish Home Rule, and by Majuba and Convention blundering in South Africa without which there would have been no Boer War Mr Gladstone threw power a great deal longer into the hands of the Unionists than on the turn-about plan of action they would otherwise have been thought justly entitled to.


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