Liberty and Liberalism
By Bruce Smith
Biographical Remarks on Arthur Bruce Smith (1851-1937)
by David M. HartBruce Smith was an Australian Barrister (a lawyer who is qualified to argue before a judge) and a Member of the Parliament of New South Wales when it was still a self-governing colony before it became one of the states in the federal Commonwealth of Australia (1901). He also went on to have a parliamentary career after Federation. I first came across Smith’s name while doing research on 19th century French free trade thought in the Mitchell Library (the State Library of NSW). One of the issues that had made the debates over Federalism so bitter in Australia was the fact that the state of New South Wales (capital of Sydney) was very pro-free trade, while the state of Victoria (capital city Melbourne) was very protectionist. Unfortunately for Australian economic history, the new Federal government adopted Victorian-style protectionism and free-trading NSW had to abandon its position if it wished to join the Federation. Thus for nearly 75 years, until deregulation became government policy again in the 1970s, Australia was a strongly protectionist nation. However, as a result of NSW’s strong 19th century free trade tradition the State Library had a very impressive collection of free trade writings in both the English and French languages, hence my interest in their holdings. It was while doing research on
Gustave de Molinari and other French classical liberals that I came across Smith’s book “Liberty and Liberalism”. Upon closer examination I realised that Smith was one of the very few (perhaps the only one) Spencerite liberals in the Australian colonies. As he says in his introduction, while doing research for this book he came across the writings of the English “Liberty and Property Defence League” which was a group of radical individualists and free traders who had among their members
Thomas Mackay and Auberon Herbert (whose books we have online at Econlib). Although he was not a member of the League, their guiding spirit was
Herbert Spencer. Smith came to share many of their ideas as the book will show. We present it online as part of our ongoing series of critiques of socialist thought.
David M. Hart
May 3, 2004
First Pub. Date
London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
The text of this edition is in the public domain.
Contemporary Review), March, 1887.
“The time has come when,
if this country is to be preserved from serious perils, honest men must enquire,
not what any one with whom they are invited to co-operate
may call himself, but
what he is, and what the
political objects are for which he would use the power if he had it.”
“A group of words, phrases, maxims, and general propositions, which have their root in political theories, not indeed far removed from us by distance of time, but as much forgotten by the mass of mankind, as if they had belonged to the remotest antiquity.”—SIR HENRY MAINE,
MANY and various circumstances have, of late, rendered it almost impossible to obtain anything like universally accepted definitions of the principal terms of political classification, which are in general use among the present generation of English-speaking communities. Great Britain has lately passed through the ordeal of two general elections, occurring in quick succession, and the kaleidoscopic results of those elections, among political parties, and among political leaders, have rendered that uncertainty of signification even more striking than it was before. In some of the British colonies, as might have been expected, a tolerably widespread use has been made of the political arguments and theories which have done so much service in the older community; and this especially applies in the case of the colony of Victoria, to the legislation of which, I shall, in the following pages, frequently refer for illustrations of my arguments.
It does not seem to be thought, or at least very clearly recognised, in any of such colonies, that those arguments
and theories, though originally capable of ready and consistent application in the case of Great Britain, which has a history, which has traditions, which possesses a less “advanced” condition of society, as well as institutions of a much less democratic order, should nevertheless have little or no bearing upon the affairs of younger communities, in which the whole circumstances of the people are upon a different footing. Strange to say, this anomaly seems to have been less realised in the colony of Victoria than in any other of such younger communities, notwithstanding the fact that, in it, there is no established church; that, in it, land (the chief subject of modern political theories) can be purchased from the State, at a price which would seem ridiculous to an English agricultural labourer; and that, in it, such restrictive customs upon land transfer and land disintegration, as primogeniture and entail, do not exist.
There is, I venture to think, no community in the world, not excepting the United States, in which the terms of political classification, now current in Great Britain, have less real application, than in the colony of Victoria, where every man already has an equal voice in matters political, irrespective of wealth, social status, or even common intelligence—where, in short (to use the words of the “Liberal” Press), “the working classes really run the political machine, where there is exactly the same freedom to rich and poor alike, and where the rich are for the most part recruited from the ranks of the poor, and have become rich by the labour of their own hands.”
However, since Anglo-colonials are, for the most part originally of Great Britain, it is but natural that they, or their parents before them, should have brought with them the traditional political terms of the mother country, though never so inapplicable. As consequences, however, of so doing, many persons, in the younger communities, have become involved in a maze of needless bewilderment, and
have filled their minds with, what Sir Henry Maine has aptly described, as “a group of words, phrases, maxims, and general propositions, which have their root in political theories, not indeed far removed from us by distance of time, but as much forgotten by the mass of mankind as if they had belonged to the remotest antiquity.”
*1 It is my purpose, in this chapter, to show, first, that the political party-titles, which are upon everybody’s lips in Great Britain in the present day, and in comparatively frequent use in the Australian colonies, cannot have, according to their proper interpretation, any application to the latter; secondly, that even if they were capable of such an application, the meanings which are being attached to them are wholly incorrect and misleading. In the particular colony, from which I have stated my intention to draw many of my illustrations, there is a powerful section of the Press, which designates itself “Liberal.” That section has hitherto assumed the function of classifying the various candidates offering themselves for Parliamentary election, and of promising success, or predicting failure, in the case of each of them, according to that classification. In the performance of this self-imposed duty, it has not always been content to adopt the political terms applied by the candidates to themselves, who should certainly be best qualified to speak concerning their own principles, but it has frequently denied, in a very positive way, their right to be placed in the category which they had themselves chosen. The reasons given by this section of the Press for these somewhat haphazard classifications have been anything but noteworthy for their soundness, and the confusion of meanings, which other circumstances have of late combined to produce, regarding the meanings of such terms as “Liberal” and “Conservative,” has been intensified rather than cleared up by these
bewildering attempts at local application. An illustration of this misuse of terms is afforded in the fact that, a few months previous to the time at which I am writing, the section of the Press in question strongly advocated the return of a particular candidate to Parliament, upon the ground that he was “a Liberal and a Protectionist,” and at the same time recommended the rejection of his opponent, upon the ground of his being “a Conservative and a Freetrader.”
Now, it is about as clear that one man cannot possibly be a “Liberal and a Protectionist,” at one and the same time, as it is that a sceptic, in theological matters, cannot be orthodox.
A mere glance at the history of the Corn Laws Repeal will show this conclusively; for that movement (the greatest of all battle-grounds for the principles of Free Trade and Protection), will prove that that repeal, but for the constant and persistent opposition of the Tory party in the House of Commons, and the consequent establishment of Free-trade, would have taken place some years earlier than it really did. It will show, further, that, in “all the divisions” upon the repeal of those laws, “the Government had the aid of nearly the whole of the Liberals, the opposition being almost entirely Tory,”
*2 and that, in the final division, 202 Liberals voted
for the repeal, and only 8
against it, while 208 Conservatives voted against the repeal, and only 102 for the maintenance of the old protective policy.
*3 Mr. Harris, in the work from which I quote, observes that “It was in Free Trade alone that Palmerston was a Liberal.” Quite apart, however, from the historical aspect of the movement, it is apparent that the principle of Protection is diametrically opposed to the spirit of “Liberalism,” inasmuch as the former depends upon the
imposition of an artificial restriction on importation, having the effect of curtailing the liberties of such citizens as desire to purchase, abroad, the particular class of goods so protected, in order that a positive benefit may be conferred upon a particular section of the community. The latter school of politics, on the other hand, depends, for the very derivation and ordinary meaning of its title, upon the principle of “freedom for the individual.”
If, by the term “Liberalism,” it is intended to convey that the individual should be made more free by the removal of class restrictions,—that being, I contend, the fundamental principle of the school—then “Protection,” as a policy, is wholly retrogressive, and contrary to the meaning of that term; and it is therefore absolutely paradoxical to speak of the two principles involved in the terms “Liberalism” and “Protection” being professed by one and the same person, at the same time. This single illustration is of great importance, when considered in connection with the colony from which it is taken. Victoria has consistently maintained for upwards of twenty years, a policy of substantial protection to local industries; and, throughout that period, the “Liberal” section of the Press has, as consistently, claimed that policy as coming unmistakably within the meaning of its party-title. So persistently, too, has this been contended for, that the bulk of the working classes of the colony have come, at last, to regard “Liberalism” and “Protection” as almost synonymous.
It has often been said that, if a falsehood is only repeated often enough, the teller of the story, in which the falsehood is involved, will, in time, come himself to believe in its truth. The above circumstance affords an illustration in which the
hearers also have become convinced by mere repetition.
Such an application of the term, as that above mentioned, points to a most marked misinterpretation, intentional or
otherwise, of the title “Liberalism,” by the very section of the Press, which professes to deal with public matters from its standpoint, and it is a noteworthy fact, as evidencing the absence of any deep-seated differences in political opinion, that throughout the last one or two general elections in Victoria, the terms “Liberal” and “Conservative” were the only two political party-titles used with any degree of frequency. In Great Britain, about the same period, a much larger number were brought into service, with which however, we are not now concerned.
If one looks for light regarding the local application of this term in the colony referred to, one fails to find it in the occasional definitions which are incidentally afforded. They all point to a sort of hotch-potch of ideas, and it is impossible even to get a clear meaning to attach to the term, even though one might be satisfied to overlook the fact of such a meaning being erroneous.
I have mentioned the “Liberal” Press of Victoria, or rather that section of the Press which professes “Liberal” principles, because of the prominent part which it assumes, and is, in fact, allowed to take in the settlement of the public affairs of that colony; and, further, because it exercises, in matters political, an immense amount of influence over the masses, which it has, unfortunately, and whatever may have been its motives, more often than not, so directed, as to intensify rather than allay any class animosity, which has arisen from other causes.
It is moreover to the same source, more particularly, that is owed the constant and persistent employment of the term, as well as the erroneous meaning which has come to be attached to it among the masses of the people in that particular colony.
That this constant use, or rather misuse, has had an appreciable effect upon party divisions in the past, whether inside or outside Parliament, there can be no doubt; but
that effect has not, I venture to think, arisen so much from the use of any sound argument in favour of its application, as to the facts that the term carries with it, in most minds, many favoured associations; and that the assertions regarding its applicability have been repeated for so many years,—an influence, sufficient in itself, to carry conviction to the minds of the majority of one’s fellow-beings.
One is much inclined to look for the motive for this really injurious practice of labelling undesirable things with desirable names: of advocating undesirable movements by attaching to them names, which carry conviction by their very associations. It is of course necessary to remember, and it would be well if the masses would only do so, that newspaper proprietors, like merchants and manufacturers, have to make their ventures pay; and just as the merchant and the manufacturer learn to import or make an article which suits the public fancy, and thereby meets with a ready sale, so the newspaper proprietor, unless actuated by purely philanthropical motives (which can scarcely be expected) deems it most advantageous to give to his subscribers matter, which is calculated to please, rather than to instruct. The Press, however, is by no means the only source of error in this particular; for I find colonial politicians, of comparative eminence, using the term in question, in senses wholly foreign to its original and correct signification, without, moreover, provoking any comment from their party associates.
Within a very short period of the time at which I write, I find a prominent “Liberal” member of the Victorian Legislature, characterising an Act of Parliament, for irrigation purposes, as “a pawn-broker’s bill.” “It was” he said” a
mean conservative measure; and the duty of the House was to
liberalise it, for there was,” he added, “no
liberality in it.”
This remarkable utterance points to a very popular interpretation of the term among many colonial politicians. Some time, indeed, before this, a Minister of the Crown, of the same colony, in speaking before his constituents concerning the same measure, then in prospect only, boasted that it was a proposal “which for
liberality and justice could neither be equalled nor surpassed.”
He then went on to say that the government, of which he was a member, would have power to ”
postpone the payment of interest” on
moneys advanced to the farming class for purposes of irrigation works. This was a course, which, according to the popular interpretation alluded to, would have fully entitled his ministry to the title “Liberal,” though it could be so applied only in the sense of a government being “liberal” to one section of the community, at the expense of the whole population, interested in the general revenue.
On another occasion, I find an ex-Minister of the Crown, also in the same colony, deprecating an alliance between the “Liberals” and the “Conservatives” on the ground that there was a sufficient number of the former to constitute what he termed a “straight” Liberal government.
On being asked by a fellow-member what he meant by a conservative, he replied, “a conservative is a man who
looks after number one.” Here again we find the same misconception at work—the word “Liberal” being interpreted as meaning one who is given to liberality
with the public revenue, and in favour of class interests—the “conservative” one who is opposed to such liberality.
I might quote many like instances, in the different colonies, to show that the true meaning of this term is a matter which gives little concern to the ordinary run of politicians, though meanwhile general elections are allowed to turn on it.
The result of these numerous misinterpretations which have been placed upon such political terms, and more
especially upon the particular one of which I am treating, by many public men, as also by an important and influential section of the Press, has been to lead to a complete neglect of the true principles which they respectively represent. And that neglect having continued, other and spurious meanings have been meanwhile attached to them by the masses of the people. It is of course a fact which everyone who has studied history must know, that all the great reforms, which have taken place during the last eight centuries of English history, have had the effect of conferring on “the people” (as distinguished from Royalty, and the aristocratic and monied classes) a large amount of individual freedom. As a result of that freedom, the people have been enabled to enjoy a great many more opportunities for worldly comfort and social advantages. They have been enabled to take part in political matters, and thus secured many liberties which formerly they were denied; and they have been enabled to combine among themselves, without fear of punishment, and thus secured higher wages, and a larger share of the comforts of life. All this, as I shall show hereafter, has been the combined results of many “Liberal” movements. On account of the absolute usurpation of power and privilege, by Royalty and by the aristocracy, at the time of the Norman Conquest, the progress of “Liberalism” has produced a long, uninterrupted, and concurrent flow of concessions to the people’s liberty. So long has this “horn of plenty” continued to shower these concessions and consequent advantages upon “the people,” that the working classes have been brought to believe no action of the Legislature can possibly be entitled to be placed in the category of “Liberal” measures, unless it is actually accompanied by some positive advantages for themselves. Thus, from the very nature of England’s early history, these benefits have invariably flowed from “Liberal” legislation; but, as I shall, I think, hereafter show, a time has been reached in that
history, (whether of England itself or of the English speaking race in our own colonies) when privileges of almost every kind have been abolished, so that every man, be he rich or poor, now enjoys “equal opportunities” with the possessor of the “bluest blood,” or of the largest bank balance.
That being so, the (what I would term)
aggressive function of Liberalism has been exhausted, and, with certain minor exceptions, it only remains for it to
guard over the equal liberties of citizens generally, with a view to their
preservation. This I regard as the proper function of Liberalism in the present day. The masses of the people, however, are still looking for
positive benefits, and their production or non-production by any legislative measure is still made the test of its being the “genuine article.” The masses, too, are prepared to apply the term, and to acquiesce in its being applied by others, to
any measure which promises to confer some advantages upon themselves as a class, even, there is reason to fear, though such a measure may, on the very face of it, involve treatment, injurious to the interests of the remainder of the community.
This I regard as the cardinal error of modern politics, and modern legislation; and, as a consequence of this error being so widely entertained, there are, I venture to think, becoming apparent, tolerably clear symptoms of a class struggle through the medium of the legislature, which must end injuriously to our best civil interests.
In the colony of Victoria, public life, has been greatly demoralised by this misconception. A candidate for parliament presents himself before his would-be constituents, and readily promises to give them anything they may want, and to secure an act of parliament for any and every desire to which they may think fit to give expression. He readily undertakes to ignore the rich man, and do everything for the poor one, make life easy—a paradise in fact—for the latter, and punish the former with
more taxation. Such a candidate is at once held up for the admiration and approval of the electors as a “Liberal.” Another aspirant, having some regard for his principles, ventures to say that he disapproves of class legislation; that he will do nothing calculated to unduly curtail the liberties of his fellow citizens, for the benefit of a section of the community; that he considers the good government of the country of more importance than selfish political party divisions, founded upon terms which have no meaning or application in the community. That man is immediately, and with as little meaning or reason, marked “Conservative,” and, as likely as not favoured with a few graceful epithets, directed at his motives.
This constant application, or misapplication of these two terms, and the “damnable iteration” to which they have been subjected, have given the particular words certain fixed signification, alike erroneous and dangerous; and it certainly seems as if the time had long since arrived when some effort should be made, if not to restore to them the meanings and bearings which they originally and properly conveyed, at least to endeavour to bring about a clearer and more correct understanding of the new significations which are to be attached to them in the future.
Let us turn now more immediately to the politics of Great Britain, and we shall find that though the institutions of that older community, would, with some better show of consistency, admit of the application of such party-titles to its national politics, nevertheless they are in the present day, even there, being perverted to significations, altogether foreign to those which were originally intended. The last two general elections in Great Britain may be said to have attracted more attention to the meanings of the terms “Liberal” and “Conservative” than perhaps they have ever previously received, and a consideration of the political incidents of the last two or three years, over which period
the change has been gradually taking place, is capable of affording abundant matter for reflection on the subject with which I am dealing.
Mr. Joseph Chamberlain’s, or perhaps, it would be more correct to say, Mr. Jesse Collings’ startling proposals, with which every student of current politics is familiar, seem to have necessitated the reconsideration by many old and experienced politicians of the very first principles of the political policy which they were being assumed to profess. This arose from their continuing to class themselves under political party names, to which a new generation, or the leaders of that generation, were endeavouring to attach significations alike novel and historically incorrect. Those particular proposals, which are of the most unmistakably socialistic character, were then, and have been since claimed to come, whether considered from an analytical or historical standpoint, within the definition of the term “Liberalism;” and so frequently and persistently has this been contended for, that many people, who had previously gloried in their connection with the school of politics, which that term originally designated, have been forced, in order to avoid misconception as to their principles, to either use some qualifying phrase, such as “Moderate Liberalism,” to better define their political creed, or to actually go over to the Conservative party. This influence, acting upon a good many minds, already more or less near the border-land of the respective party domains, has produced within the last one or two years only, some peculiarly kaleidoscopic effects in the political ranks of Great Britain. Such sound Liberals, even as Lord Hartington, Mr. Goschen, and others, were constrained, for the time being, to leave their political friends in the division on the question referred to—that of the allottments for agricultural labourers; claimed, as I have said, to come properly within the lines of “Liberalism.” The division to which I here refer, was that which took place
upon an amendment to the reply to the Queen’s Speech, immediately after the general election of 1885, and which was moved by Mr. Jesse Collings. The amendment turned upon the question of adding to the reply to the Queen’s Speech an expression favourable to the allottments proposals. The division resulted in the defeat of the Tory party; but the proposals were strongly denounced by Lord Hartington and Mr. Goschen, as also by Mr. Bright and Mr. Joseph Cowen, all being Liberals of the soundest order. Ere these pages leave my hands we are in receipt of the astounding news that this identical scheme has been adopted by the Conservative Government, now in power, and that there is every prospect of its being acquiesced in by the “rank and file” of that party. A more significant event even than that is the acceptance by Mr. Goschen (an admittedly sound Liberal) of the leadership, in the House of Commons, of the Conservative party. Such events as these must indeed be conclusive, as showing that party titles have entirely lost their meaning, and really involve no principles whatever. The measure referred to originated with the most “advanced” wing of the Radical party, was denounced by the most moderate of the Liberals, and within a few months is included in the Tory policy! The
Times, of 22nd October, 1886, observes—”It is right that the Tory party should become a moderate Liberal party, just as after the first Reform Bill, it became a Conservative party; but we doubt if either Conservative, or Unionist’s Liberals will be content to see it transformed into a Radical party, pure and simple.”
One of the most singular instances which I can mention, of the changed significations which are gradually being attached to such terms, is afforded by a quotation from a late publication, called “The Gladstone Parliament.” “Most of the measures,” says the writer, “which Mr. Bright advocated, have been passed, and Mr. Bright has
become a Conservative to all intents and purposes.” I leave to my readers to determine whether it is not more likely that the term “Conservative” has undergone a great change of meaning than that a great and ever consistent “Liberal” statesman, such as Mr. Bright, has changed his political principles. Almost the same thing has been said of Mr. Goschen, who is probably one of the most steadfast and consistent Liberals of his generation. Indeed, the “Liberal Press” of the colony of Victoria has paid a high tribute to the ability and constancy to principle of that statesman. “He is,” it has said, “in the very
front rank of English Liberals, and has proved himself a sterling administrator. He has always been of a scholarly temperament, a man thoroughly
conversant with first principles, and indisposed to sacrifice abstract right to expediency.” “Yet,” confesses the same journal, “he might count almost anywhere on
splitting the Liberal vote, and on getting the solid
vote of the Conservatives.” This is afterwards accounted for on the ground that (among other things), “he has often voted over the heads of the multitude,” and “never perfectly mastered the clap-trap and party cries of the British Philistine.”
The fact is, as will be admitted by all who know anything of the man’s career, he is an absolutely consistent Liberal who well knows the meaning of his party title, and the fundamental principles upon which it is founded, while the average elector, who contributed to his late rejection, is quite ignorant of that meaning or those principles.
Mr. Chamberlain lately said of Mr. Goschen, “Although he sits behind us he is very far behind, and I think that under a system of
scientific classification he is rather to be described as a ‘moderate Conservative’ than as a ‘Liberal.'”
The fact is the meanings of these terms are fast changing, and they themselves are being perverted to denote principles which were never contemplated either in their etymology, or by their originators. The following quotation from the
Times of 26th February, 1885, is peculiarly confirmatory of such a process. Speaking of the growing tendency to over-legislation in our own day that journal says, “This readiness to invoke the interference of the State between man and man, and to control by legislation, the liberties of individuals and the rights of property, is rapidly modifying the character of Liberal principles, as they were understood, even a few years ago.” Elsewhere the same journal says, “The march of time has obliterated most of the distinctions between Whig and Tory. People are beginning to enquire seriously what a political party means.” And again, it speaks of “The party badges which have long since ceased to denote any real difference of sentiment.”
On 4th March, 1886, the following passage occurs in a leader of the same influential organ, “Our actual party names have become useless and even ridiculous. It is absurd to speak of a Liberal, when no man can tell whether it means Mr. Gladstone or Sir Henry James. It is absurd to speak of a Radical, when the word may denote either a man like Mr. Chamberlain, or a man like Mr. Morley…. It is ridiculous to maintain a distinction between moderate Liberals and moderate Conservatives, which no man can define or grasp, and which breaks down every test that can be applied by the practical politics of the day.”
A much later proof of the want of clearness and certainty in the meaning of these two principle political terms is afforded by the division upon Mr. Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill. On that occasion we find some of the most prominent and eminent Liberals of the day—men like Lord Hartington, Mr. Bright, Mr. Goschen, and Mr. Trevelyan, as well as more “advanced” politicians of the Radical school, such as Mr. Chamberlain, completely breaking away from their party, on grounds of absolute principle. We find the difference of opinion so deeply seated, that at the general
election which followed the rejection of that measure, a large and formidable section of the Liberal and Radical parties actually allied themselves with the Tories, in their determination to vindicate, what they deemed to be, a vital principle of their school. Indeed, it is in the highest degree questionable whether the breach, which has thus been brought about, will be thoroughly healed for a considerable time, so strong has been the feeling, and so deeply rooted the differences of principle which have been thereby developed.
Who indeed could now say, under such circumstances, whether the Home Rule principle is or is not properly within the lines of Liberalism? Mr. Gladstone has claimed it as such, because, he contends, Liberalism means “trust in the people,” and the measure has for its object the enabling the Irish to “govern themselves.” Men like Lord Hartington, Mr. Goschen, and Mr. Bright, have expressed opinions equally strong in the opposite direction, showing at least the inconclusiveness of Mr. Gladstone’s definition.
I have before me a volume of political speeches, delivered by Mr. Chamberlain during the last few years, and a perusal of them affords endless illustrations of the confusing and bewildering complication which has been produced in the various attempts to modify and adapt to modern circumstances these older party-titles, without having; at the same time, a clear knowledge of the principles which they originally connoted.
“A Liberal Government,” says Mr. Chamberlain, “which pretends to represent the Liberal party, must, of necessity, consist of men of
different shades of opinion.” Speaking of the Conservative party, he says, elsewhere: “They have stolen my ideas, and I forgive them the theft in gratitude for the stimulus they have given to the Radical programme, and for the lesson they have taught to the weak-kneed Liberals, and to those timid politicians, who strained at the
Radical gnat, and who now find themselves obliged to swallow the Tory camel.”
“You cannot,” he observes, “turn over a page of the periodical Press, without finding ‘True Conservatives,’ or ‘Other Conservatives,’ or ‘an Independent Conservative,’ or ‘a Conservative below the gangway.'”
Speaking, under the significant title of “Tory transformation,” he draws attention to the fact that Sir Michael Hicks-Beach (the then Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer), had announced his government’s adhesion to a particular policy, “in terms which any Radical might approve.”
In another place the same authority says:—”The old Tory party, with its historic traditions, has disappeared. It has repudiated its name, and it has become Conservative. The Conservatives, in turn, have been seeking for another designation, and sometimes they come before you as ‘Constitutionalists,’ and then they break out in a new place as ‘Liberal Conservatives.'” Alluding to Lord Randolph Churchill, Mr. Chamberlain says: “The Whigs are left in the lurch, and the Tories have come over bodily to the Radical camp, and are carrying out the policy which we have been vainly endeavouring to promote for the last five years…. He (Lord Randolph Churchill) was a Tory-Democrat in opposition, and he is a Tory-Democrat in office.”
Who shall make head or tail of this medley of terms, or who shall or could possibly say what, if any, principles are involved in their application?
Some allowance should perhaps be made for the fact that in all of the sentences quoted Mr. Chamberlain was “abusing the other side,” but, even after making such an allowance, there remains a substantial residuum of truth in the charges of transformation.
During the most agitated period of the English general elections of 1885, there issued from the London Press a
volume entitled, “Why am I a Liberal?” which the
Times considered of sufficient importance to refer to at some length in one of its leading articles. A perusal of that volume will show how numerous and various, and how conflicting even, in their fundamental principles, are the definitions, offered by prominent statesmen and politicians in the present day, of the term “Liberalism” as a word of political classification. The author of the book determined (to use the words of the
Times) “to heckle as many of the Liberal chiefs as would submit to the process,” and, having so far succeeded in that determination, made public the fruits of his cross-questioning. He required “fifty-six reputed Liberals” to ask themselves for a reason for the political faith that was in them, and the result is certainly instructive, if only to show how “doctors differ,”—that is to say, how little unanimity there was among so many “professed Liberals” regarding the very principles upon which their party organisation is supposed to be based.
Let us first take Mr. Gladstone’s answer to this pertinent question. “The principle of Liberalism” he says, “is trust in the people, qualified by prudence…. The principle of Conservatism is mistrust of the people qualified by fear.” This, it must be admitted, is absolutely unscientific as a definition of a particular political policy; and, inasmuch as it makes use of, and depends upon words of such uncertain signification as “trust” and “prudence,” to both of which probably no two minds would attach exactly the same meaning, the definition itself affords no guide on the point which it professes to elucidate. Lord Beaconsfield certainly said in 1872, that “the principles of Liberty, of order, of law and of religion ought not to be entrusted to individual opinion, or to the caprice and passion of multitudes, but should be embodied in a form of permanence and power”; but this can scarcely be fairly interpreted as implying “mistrust” of the people. If,
moreover, we consider Mr. Gladstone’s definition in the light of his late Home Rule proposals, it would seem as if he had not, during fifty years experience of practical politics, seen the application of his principle of “trust” to the Irish people, until the element of “fear” had become an extremely prominent factor among his own party.
There is a passage in the same speech of Lord Beaconsfield, from which I have already quoted, in which that statesman might well be imagined to be addressing himself to the Home Rule question as a phase of Mr. Gladstone’s present-day “Liberalism.” “If,” says Lord Beaconsfield, “you look to the history of this country since the advent of Liberalism—forty years ago—you will find that there has been no effort so continuous, so subtle, supported by so much energy, and carried on with so much ability and acumen, as the attempts of Liberalism to effect the disintegration of the Empire of England.”
In any case Mr. Gladstone’s definition is useless as a test by which to gauge any future legislative proposal; and we may fairly infer that Mr. Gladstone’s eminently logical mind is not prepared with anything more accurate for the present.
Turn now to the definition offered by Lord Rosebery, which is even more vague, and more useless as a definition. “I am a Liberal” he says, “because I wish to be associated with the best men in the best work.” If such a sentence had been composed by any politician as little known as Lord Rosebery is well known, it is very doubtful whether it would have been deemed worth putting into print, not-withstanding its brevity. The author of the book, in which the definition is published, was evidently thankful for small mercies, for he has characterised it as a “magnificent sentence.”
If the “best men” all gravitate to Liberalism as Lord Rosebery understands it, there must surely be some good reason for their so doing; and that very reason involves the definition which Lord Rosebery was evidently at a loss to supply. It might fairly be deduced as a sort of corollary from such a proposition that inasmuch as Mr. Goschen has now dissociated himself from the Liberal party, he is therefore one of the “worst” of men. I shall, however, contend hereafter, that Mr. Goschen’s liberalism is based upon an infinitely surer and sounder foundation than that of Lord Rosebery. Mr. Chamberlain says “Progress is the law of the world;” and “Liberalism is the expression of this law in politics.” But what is progress? That is the whole question requiring solution. Mr. Chamberlain himself proposed a scheme of granting allottments to the agricultural labourer, out of estates to be compulsorily taken by the Crown at a popular valuation. Even such Liberals as Mr. Goschen and Lord Hartington, as I have said, condemned the scheme as tending towards “Socialism;” and most men of intelligence regard “Socialism” as a theory of society, the adoption of which would involve
retrogression. Who then shall judge between the author of this so-called progress, and those who otherwise regard it?
Mr. Joseph Arch begins his answer thus: “Because it was by men like Richard Cobden, John Bright, and other true Liberals, that I, as a working man, am able to obtain a cheap loaf to feed my family with.” What a host of anomalies such an answer suggests! Mr. Arch obviously intends, by opening his definition with such a sentence, to convey his belief that Liberalism has, before all things, produced Free Trade. But if that is correct, the whole Liberal party and the whole Liberal Press of the colony of Victoria, to which I have referred, are professing one policy and practising another; for “Liberalism” and “Free Trade,” are as I have also shown, regarded by those two interests as
absolutely contradictory. That party and that section of the Press would brand as a renegade any fellow “Liberal” who talked of a “cheap loaf” or of “the liberty to buy in the cheapest market.” And if they are right, what becomes of Mr. Arch’s definition?
I prefer to regard Mr. Arch’s position as the more correct; and he certainly displays a consistency of principle for, in a subsequent part of his answer, he says of the Liberals: “Their past service for the good of mankind has established my confidence in them…in the future they will confer upon the nation
greater freedom by just, wise, and liberal legislation.” It is obvious that “Free Trade,” by its very name, as well as by its nature, has, wherever it exists, added to the
freedom of citizens—yet it will be seen, these opposite and contradictory interpretations are occurring among “Liberals” themselves! One of those who were interrogated possessed a rhyming tendency, and his answer is quoted in this somewhat mystifying publication. He says:—
“I am a Liberal, because
I would have equal rights and laws,
comforts, too, for all.”
This definition, if such it may be called, is even more comprehensive than that of Mr. Chamberlain, for it practically defines Communism, under which, not only “rights and laws” should be equal, but “comforts,” too! which word includes everything calculated to make mankind happy—in fact, such a definition points to a general division! But, turning to another page, we find Mr. Broadhurst taking an entirely different view. He says Liberalism “teaches
selfreliance, and gives the best
opportunities to the people to promote their
individual interest.” “Liberalism,” he says, ”
does not seek to make all men
equal; nothing,” he adds, “can do that. But its object is to remove all obstacles
erected by men which prevent all having equal
“This, in its turn,” he continues, ”
promotes industry, and makes the realisation of reasonably ambitious hopes possible to the poorest man among us.”
It would be interesting to know what “promotion” our present “industry” would undergo if “equal comforts” were secured to all by a “liberal” government. It is not unlikely that the “equality” would be realised in our all having
none at all! Yet one other answer to this important question, and then I must leave the work, in which these interesting replies are contained, for a future chapter. “Liberal principles,” says another of the interrogated, ”
develop responsibility.” Some of the “liberal” legislation of Victoria would certainly not answer the requirements of this definition. Instance the Factories and Shops Act of that colony, by means of which shop-assistants have been relieved, through parliament, of the responsibility of helping themselves, as they might have done, by unanimity of action in relation to hours of work, and have had solved for them, by act of parliament, the truly difficult problem of determining which is the most suitable and wholesome portion of the factory in which to eat their meals! It is surely questionable whether this would come under the class of Liberalism which Mr. Broadhurst speaks of as “teaching self-reliance.”
One of the “fifty-six reputed Liberals” stated that he was a Liberal because that school of politics seemed to him to mean “faith in the people, and confidence that they will
manage their own affairs better than those affairs are likely to be managed for them by
Again I ask, who shall decide, among such a medley and contradiction of principles and definitions what Liberalism really means, when judged by this curious method? Yet it must have a meaning. Statesmen, politicians, newspaper writers must all mean something when they use the expression so frequently and so glibly. Yet those meanings seem
as various as the people themselves. And why? I think one of the chief causes is that the word is not used in its
historical sense; that instead of first ascertaining what the term means, and then using it in its true signification, men form their own ideas as to that meaning, and, as a consequence, the definitions are as numerous as the people themselves. I think, too, another of the chief causes is to be found in the fact that the advocates of the greater part of the socialistic legislation, which is becoming so popular in Great Britian, as well as in other European countries, constantly and persistently claim its inclusion among the Radical or “Advanced Liberal” programme of the immediate future. This is done, obviously, in order to avail themselves of the popular associations which those party-titles carry with them, and by that means secure for such proposals a reputation and prestige which they do not deserve.
Some of the most unmistakably socialistic measures, which are now being widely discussed in England, as matters of “practical” politics, have been included in a list of subjects lately published, with a preface by Mr. Chamberlain, under the title of “The Radical programme.” In this volume the author candidly admits that “Socialism” and “Radicalism” as advocated by him, and approved by Mr. Chamberlain, are synonymous. Mr. Chamberlain, too, in one of his speeches (April 28, 1885), says:—”Because State Socialism may cover very injurious and very unwise theories, that is no reason at all why we should refuse to recognise the fact that government is only the organisation of the whole people, for the benefit of all its members, and that the community may, aye, and
provide for all its members, benefits, which it is impossible for them to provide by their solitary and separate efforts.” And elsewhere, speaking of the advantages of local government, he says:—”By its means you will be able to
increase their (
comforts, to secure their
health, to multiply the
luxuries which they may enjoy in common.” This extraordinary extension of the meaning of the term is one of the most marked tendencies of the times in which we live; and I venture to characterise it as a distinctly retrogressive movement in politics, which, when the history of our generation comes to be written, will be found to constitute an undoing, as it were, of much that has been done for us, and concerning which we have hitherto prided ourselves, at former epochs of our national history.
Times, in August, of 1885, comments upon Mr. Chamberlain’s allottment proposals in the following trenchant passage: “The most striking political phenomenon of the present day is the extraordinary crop of schemes for effecting social and moral reforms by act of parliament, which is ripening, under the fostering warmth of an impending appeal to a new set of electors, by politicians who find their old cries somewhat inadequate. Those who will take the trouble to make a rough analysis of the matter which fills the columns of the
Times, will probably be surprised to find how large a proportion of it must be put down under the head of social legislation. The curious in such matters will further find that nearly all the proposals, now falling in quick succession on the public ear, imply a return to beliefs and methods, which it was the main boast of the Liberal party, in the days of youthful vigour which followed the first Reform Bill; to have exploded and discredited. A great part of its work consisted of clearing the statute book of well meant but abortive attempts to police men into morality, and to protect them into prosperity. It proclaimed the principles of individual responsibility, individual initiative, and private association for ends requiring combined action. The results of these principles are written in our material, moral, and legislative progress, during the last half century; but the watchwords have, somehow, lost their attractiveness, and we
are now busy with the work of reconstructing an edifice, closely resembling that which we so recently pulled down.”
The truth is, the reins of government, in the present day, are in very different hands to those which held them fifty years ago. No doubt the comprehensive rectification of the franchise which was effected by the Reform Bill of 1832, immediately placed the machinery of government under the control of a much wider class; but it will take many years, even one or two generations, to enable that wider class to fully realise the extent and capabilities of the power thus placed in its hands. Now, that the fact has been partially realised, it is easy to understand that those who possess the power, without perhaps the necessary amount of judgment to wield it wisely, should have forgotten the experience of the Liberal party acquired at a time when they had not begun to co-operate in that party’s doings. The Earl of Pembroke, in his admirable address on “Liberty and Socialism,” considers one of the chief causes of this erroneous interpretation to be “the transfer of political power to classes, whose inexperience in political science, and whose circumstances in life, render them peculiarly liable to be tempted to try to better their position by the apparently short and easy method of legislation.” Even at the present day, the democracy of England has not fully realised the dangers of which the political power they possess is capable, when selfishly and injudiciously wielded; and, as a consequence, they have not yet learned, by long possession, that much of the legislation, for which they are now crying out, has been already, even long since, tried, found wanting, and, as the
Times says, become “exploded and discredited.” In fact, as I shall show hereafter, the democracy is beginning to exercise its legislative strength in the very direction
from which it took our forefathers centuries to advance; with this only exception, that it is tending towards the handing over of individual liberty to the great god “Demos,” instead of the
King and the Nobles, who held it in days gone by, and from whom it required centuries of time, and rivers of blood to redeem it. I shall show in a subsequent chapter that the masses of Great Britain, as also of some of our colonies, in their failure to forsee and regard the
ultimate, as distinguished from the
immediate results of legislation, bid fair, in the short-sighted desire for class advantages, to build up, in and around the communities in which they are able to turn the political scale, a series of restrictions and curtailments upon personal liberty, which, if persisted in, must sooner or later render citizenship in such communities almost unbearable.
Now the mere change of meaning, in such terms as those with which I have been dealing, need not necessarily be an evil in itself, if only such a change could be made once for all, and such men, as were likely to be influenced by the mere application of the terms, were clearly and permanently impressed with these new meanings, and induced to change their position and party attitude in accordance with these altered significations. In such cases it would require only a short time to enable the various parties to again crystalise into compactness and definiteness. But, even if this were practicable, which it is not, the word “Liberalism” has a history, and its preceding synonyms (representing the same principles) run their roots far back into the past centuries of our mother-country’s growth and social development. As a consequence of this, the altered meaning which it is sought, for various reasons, to attach to the word “Liberalism” is likely to be, and of late has been, productive of endless confusion and social disturbance, since a very large proportion of politicians are wholly influenced, in their action, by party titles, which, in too many cases, they do not take the trouble to analyse.
In an old established community such as Great Britain, party-loyalty is, among many families, regarded as one of the
most sacred of traditions; and a party-title might therefore undergo more than sufficient alteration to lead to misunderstanding and social injury, before many of such a class would think themselves justified in breaking away from a traditional party-title. This hesitation would exist equally on the Liberal or Conservative side, so that, as a necessary consequence of such a change of signification, there must result, and really has resulted in our own day, a continuous support of, or opposition to measures, based on neither reason nor personal approval.
I propose, in the following chapter, to completely investigate the historical meaning of the term “Liberalism,” through the medium of those other party-titles which served, in turn, as watchwords for the same deeply-cherished principles. I propose also to show the bearing of those terms upon their respective contemporary politics; to explain their original and correct meaning, and, in subsequent chapters, to expose, as well as I am able, the spurious political creed, which, during the last few years, has, under cover of the good name, been sought to be foisted upon the less thoughtful of our fellow-men.
Finally, I shall show that the new doctrines, which are confidently spoken of as coming under the equivocal term “advanced Liberalism,” if not sooner or later checked by the influence of all lovers of wise and equitable government, are likely to completely undermine our freedom and our enterprise, as well as the deeper foundations of our social order and progress.
Contemporary Review, says: “That a machinery should exist, by which a party, without change of name, and indeed arrogating to itself the sole right to the old name, should be liable to have its internal character and its practical objects
suddenly transformed into something
essentially different from what they were understood to be before; that this should be done without any previous preparation by the natural and spontaneous growth of opinion within its ranks, is a thing which could hardly have been thought possible if it had not happened.”