Page images
PDF
EPUB

If we

We have no more sympathy than Mr. Morley has with the wholesale abuse of which Walpole has been the object, as the shameless cynic and fountain of Parliamentary corruption. Revolutionary periods—the remark is as old as Thucydidesare never very favourable to political morality, or indeed to any other; and it may safely be asserted that, from the Restoration of Charles II. to the death of George II., the tone of public life in England had sunk to a lower level than it has ever touched either before or since. Walpole was neither above nor below the standard of his own age. The particular form of corruption, which consisted in buying men's votes in the House of Commons, naturally grew more common, as such votes became better worth buying. The Septennial Act doubled their value at a single stroke. A seven years' lease of a member was a political property for which an unscrupulous Minister would not hesitate to incur the very trifling risk that then attended bribery. Votes became a marketable commodity. But nobody can suppose that men like Marlborough, Godolphin, or Bolingbroke, were deterred from buying them by their superior political purity.

It is also quite necessary to remember that Walpole had great public objects before him in stooping to this ignoble traffic. The new dynasty had to be kept on the throne. Parliamentary government had to be consolidated. cannot allow that the end justified the means, we must at least allow that it excused them; and that bribery for the sake of great principles, and bribery for the furtherance of selfish personal interests, are two very different things. If Walpole combined both, all that can be said is that it was very difficult to separate the two. It is useless to pry too closely into the motives of public men, or to endeavour to ascertain exactly where patriotism ends and personal ambition begins. These are often so closely interwoven in the same man, that even he himself cannot always tell the one from the other. Walpole may have thought himself, and perhaps really was, indispensable to the new settlement. And in fact almost every delinquency which has been laid to his charge, whether by friend or foe, flowed from the necessities of his position as the Minister of an unpopular family which he was bound to maintain upon the throne by every means at his command. To

say

that it was his own interest to do so, is idle. Of course it was. He made their cause his own: and he could not have helped them without helping himself. There are, as Dr. Arnold has pointed out, men like Falkland, whose devotion to a cause is absolutely unselfish; who are ready to make the costliest sacrifice which man can make for the sake of an abstract principle, and to say with Cato, “successu non crescit honestum. Such men are few and far between, and Walpole was not one of them. He was not a man either to waste his energies on a hopeless cause, or to serve even a good one for nothing. He saw, no doubt, that Parliamentary government was the system of the future, and he preferred the rising to the setting sun. Most men do: and it is clear that he had no scruple about either breaking his word or sacrificing his consistency, if either stood between himself and the road which it behoved him to travel.

At the same time we must point out to Mr. Morley that there is a difference between buying individuals and buying boroughs, though he seems to see none.

When a man purchased a borough, he might be availing himself of a system which was very injurious to the public interests, but it involved no personal immorality. Nobody was bribed. The purchase of next presentations in the Church, an analogous system, may or may not be mischievous on public gounds. But it is not simony. The purchaser of a borough bought the right of presentation, so to speak; and whether he presented himself or a nominee, there was no dishonesty in the transaction. But the man who sells his vote sells his conscience. This is the theoretical difference, Practically, as few such men had any conscience to sell, no great harm was done.

Of the second charge against Walpole, namely that no great measure of reform is connected with his name, we accept Mr. Morley's explanation. The charge, indeed, is not quite fair, for his fiscal reforms were of great value. But his work in life was to complete the Revolution Settlement. That is the great measure by which his name will be remembered, and enough too. We have many great statesmen in our history whose names, though associated, it may be, with some glorious or famous policy, are wholly unconnected with any particular measure of the first rank. The names of Canning and Palmerston will occur to us at once. If a man's greatness is to be measured by the number of Acts which he places on the Statute Book, then Lord Liverpool, Lord Grey, and Lord Melbourne were greater men than either Pitt or Chatham. The modern rage for legislation, and its adoption as a test of statesmanship, are characteristic of the lower level of political thought which ·came in with a middle-class democracy. We are glad to see that Mr. Morley can rise above it. And when next he accuses Lord Salisbury of doing nothing—a most unjust charge, by the bye-we hope he will remember his own estimate of Sir Robert Walpole. Lord Salisbury's mission is the maintenance of the Empire, as Walpole's was the maintenance of the dynasty.

[ocr errors]

If any one says that the Empire is perfectly safe, or that the game is not worth the candle, he is only saying now precisely what the Tories said then of Walpole's Administration and the Revolution Settlement. They accused the Whig party of exaggerating, or even inventing, the dangers by which, as they declared, that Settlement was encompassed, in order to represent themselves as necessary to its security, and to bring odium on all who were opposed to them. The Whigs, so said their critics, used Popery and arbitrary power as bugbears to alarm the people; and as often as their foreign or domestic policy was called in question, the cry was at once raised that the Protestant Succession was in danger. And this brings us to the third great offence which the Tories imputed to Sir Robert. It was a favourite contention of Bolingbroke that, if the Government had any good reason to be afraid of a Jacobite insurrection, they had only themselves to blame for it; and that nothing could really have endangered the new Constitution but the means which had been taken to secure it. The system of proscription and exclusion, which had prevailed since 1714, had only inflamed the party spirit which it was intended to quell, and had forced into an attitude of hostility men whom a little conciliation and recognition would have converted into useful friends. The Whigs, in truth, had done what Lord Hartington ha careful not to do, and had made that appear the act of a party which should have seemed the act of the nation.

The fourth general count in the indictment, apart from the particular acts or measures to which we shall presently advert, was the load of taxation which it was said the Whig party had entailed upon the English people. The public had not got used to the National Debt as a permanent element in our fiscal system, and the interest they were compelled to pay not only was considered a great grievance, but also led them naturally to inquire for what object the debt had been incurred. The answer was, for the maintenance of a mode or government embodied in the person of Sir Robert Walpole, who supported himself by means of the artificial interest thus created, and had everything at stake in upholding it. Mr. Morley himself frankly describes the National Debt as "a pillar of the Hanoverian system. It was deliberately created for that very purpose.

When King William entered, immediately after the Revolution, on this great scene of action, the unencumbered condition of this nation, which has been hinted at above, was such, that he might have been supported in it, by good management, as profusely as he was, and even more effectually, by the revenue then subsisting by a land tax, by the excise on malt, and by some additional subsidies, all

of

of which would have been raised within the year. A scheme of this kind was prepared and offered. It was allowed to be practicable ; but it was rejected for a reason that appeared plausible in political refinement, and has proved most pernicious in its consequences. It was said that a new Government, established against the ancient principles and actual engagements of many, could not be so effectually secured any way, as it would be were the private fortunes of great numbers made to depend on the preservation of it; and that this could not be done unless they were induced to lend money to the public, and to accept securities under the present establishment. Thus the method of funding and the trade of stock-jobbing began. Thus were great companies created, the pretended servants, but in many respects the real masters of every Administration.'

Thus writes Bolingbroke to Marchmont in 1748. He had every opportunity of knowing the truth ; and even if we allow that he would not have scrupled to distort it for his own purposes, there is no reason to believe that distortion was. necessary here. An artificial interest was called into being, in order to prop up a system of government which the Tory party thought had much better have been left to the natural good sense of the English people and their innate love of civil and religious liberty.

Walpole, of course, was not answerable for the National Debt in the first instance. So far from that, he was the author of the. sinking fund by which it was to be paid off. But he represented the system in which it originated: he afterwards appropriated the fund to general purposes; and he opposed Sir John Barnard's scheme for reducing the interest.

The moneyed class, in fact, did not wish to have it paid off, nor did it suit the Whig book to pay it off. In so doing they would have been breaking the chain by which that valuable class of adherents was bound to them. This fact was well known to the Opposition, and in the hands of such skilful strategists there was little fear of its not being turned to good account.

Fifthly, we have to notice a charge which in the eyes of that generation appeared perhaps the most serious of all; the attempt, namely, of Walpole to make himself sole, or First Minister, or, in words often used at that period, to establish a perpetual dictatorship. The Constitution, it was said, knew nothing of First Ministers. There must be heads of departments of varying degrees of dignity and authority, but no one supreme over the others, The Opposition no doubt had precedent and usage on their side ; but Mr. Morley properly points out, what it requires only a very cursory acquaintance with political history to perceive, that in a fully developed system

of one.

of Parliamentary government, there must in the Ministry or the Cabinet be one supreme will. He might have gone on to show what must happen if there is not. If no such authority is claimed by any member of the Ministry, it will fall into the hands of the Sovereign. This is what actually bappened under George III. During the Ministry of Lord North we had just this government by departments, which the Tories desiderated under Walpole. Yet George III. was only doing what William III, had done before him ; and, to some extent, Queen Anne also. Walpole's contemporaries may reasonably have doubted which was the constitutional practice and which the violation of it. The fundamental idea, which underlay the new regime, was only very imperfectly understood by Englishmen in general down to the middle of the eighteenth century. It appeared to many that we had only got rid of an avowed absolutism to fall under a disguised one ; and that the new method, by pressing into the service of despotism the forms of liberty, was in reality more dangerous than the old

It is evident that the greater part of the British public, while understanding well enough what the Revolution was intended to pull down, never very clearly comprehended what it was designed to set up. It may be doubted indeed whether within the sacred circle of the Revolution families any distinct and well-defined ideal of Parliamentary Government existed. Like so many things in England, it was left to grow; and during the process misunderstandings were certain to arise. In the form which it finally assumed between 1783 and 1832 we had probably the nearest approach to what the authors of the Revolution would have regarded as the proper distribution of power between the Crown, the Lords, and the Commons. But that was not arrived at without a prolonged struggle, in which both parties were alternately to blame. We do not think, therefore, that much fault is to be found with the Tories for their protests against a First Minister, though Walpole was unquestionably in the right; and it was not long before one of his chief assailants was taking a leaf out of his book. In 1746, we find Chesterfield recommending just the same policy to Newcastle. Some public brand should be put upon Granville and his followers, the Finches turned out, garters properly disposed of, and you must be called for again; and upon your

When that day comes, and I think it cannot be far off,“ point de faiblesse humaine, point de quartier," I beseech you.' Dr. Johnson was of the same opinion. If he was in power,

he said he would turn out every man who dared to oppose him.

He called Walpole "a fine fellow. But still Vol. 171.–No. 341.

the

own terms.

N

« PreviousContinue »