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In the mean time our statesmen have the greatest opportunities they have had for many years, and likewise the greatest duty. They have to guide the new voters in the exercise of the franchise; to guide them quietly, and without saying what they are doing, but still to guide them. The leading statesmen in a free country have great momentary power. They settle the conversation of mankind: it is they who, by a great speech or two, determine what shall be said and what shall be written for long after. They, in conjunction with their counselors, settle the programme of their party; the "platform," as the Americans call it, on which they and those associated with them are to take their stand for the political campaign. It is by that programme, by a comparison of the programmes of different statesmen, that the world forms its judgment. The common, ordinary mind is quite unfit to fix for itself what political question it shall attend to: it is as much as it can do to judge decently of the questions which drift down to it and are brought before it; it almost never settles its topics, it can only decide upon the issues of those topics. And in settling what these questions shall be, statesmen have now especially a great responsibility. If they raise questions which will excite the lower orders of mankind; if they raise questions on which those orders are likely to be wrong; if they raise questions on which the interest of those orders is not identical with, or is antagonistic to, the whole interest of the state, — they will have done the greatest harm they can do. The future of this country depends on the happy working of a delicate experiment, and they will have done all they could to vitiate that experiment. Just when it is desirable that ignorant men, new to politics, should have good issues and only good issues put before them, these statesmen will have suggested bad issues. They will have suggested topics which will bind the poor as a class together; topics which will excite them against the rich; topics the discussion of which, in the only form in which that discussion reaches their ear, will be to make them think that some new law can make them comfortable, that it is the present law which makes them uncomfortable, that government has at its disposal an inexhaustible fund out of which it can give to those who now want without also creating elsewhere other and greater wants. If the first work of the poor voters is to try to create a “poor-man's Paradise,” as poor men are apt to fancy that Paradise, and as they are apt to think they can create it, the great political trial now beginning will simply fail. The wide gift of the elective franchise will be a great calamity to the whole nation, and to those who gain it as great a calamity as to any.
I do not, of course, mean that statesmen can choose with absolute freedom what topics they will deal with, and what they will not. I am, of course, aware that they choose under stringent conditions. In excited states of the public mind they have scarcely a discretion at all; the tendency of the public perturbation determines what shall and what shall not be dealt with. But upon the other hand, in quiet times statesmen have great power; when there is no fire lighted they can settle what fire shall be lit. And as the new suffrage is happily to be tried in a quiet time, the responsibility of our statesmen is great because their power is great too.
And the mode in which the questions dealt with are discussed is almost as important as the selection of these questions. It is for our principal statesmen to lead the public, and not to let the public lead them. No doubt when statesmen live by public favor, as ours do, this is a hard saying, and it requires to be carefully limited. I do not mean that our statesmen should assume a pedantic and doctrinaire tone with the English people: if there is anything which English people thoroughly detest, it is that tone exactly. And they are right in detesting it: if a man cannot give guidance and communicate instruction without formally telling his audience “I am better than you; I have studied this as you have not," then he is not fit for a guide or an instructor. A statesman who should show that gaucherie would exhibit a defect of imagination, and expose an incapacity for dealing with men, which would be a great hindrance to him in his calling. But much argument is not required to guide the public, still less a formal exposition of that argument. What is mostly needed is the manly utterance of clear conclusions; if a statesman gives these in a felicitous way (and if with a few light and humorous illustrations, so much the better), he has done his part. He will have given the text, the scribes in the newspapers will write the sermon. A statesman ought to show his own nature, and talk in a palpable way what is to him important truth; and so he will both guide and benefit the nation. But if, especially at a time when great ignorance has an unusual power in public affairs, he chooses to accept and reiterate the decisions of that ignorance, he is only the hireling of the nation, and does little save hurt it.
I shall be told that this is very obvious, and that everybody knows that two and two make four and that there is no use in inculcating it. But I answer that the lesson is not observed in fact; people do not do their political sums so. Of all our political dangers, the greatest, I conceive, is that they will neglect the lesson. In plain English, what I fear is that both our political parties will bid for the support of the workingman; that both of them will promise to do as he likes if he will only tell them what it is; that as he now holds the casting vote in our affairs, both parties will beg and pray him to give that vote to them. I can conceive of nothing more corrupting or worse for a set of poor ignorant people than that two combinations of well-taught and rich men should constantly offer to defer to their decision, and compete for the office of executing it. Vox populi will be vox diaboli if it is worked in that manner.
And on the other hand, my imagination conjures up a contrary danger. I can conceive that, questions being raised which if continually agitated would combine the workingmen as a class together, the higher orders might have to consider whether they would concede the measure that would settle such questions, or whether they would risk the effect of the workingmen's combination. No doubt the question cannot be easily discussed in the abstract; much must depend on the nature of the measures in each particular case: on the evil they would cause if conceded ; on the attractiveness of their idea to the working classes if refused. But in all cases it must be remembered that a political combination of the lower classes, as such and for their own objects, is an evil of the first magnitude; that a permanent combination of them would make them (now that so many of them have the suffrage) supreme in the country; and that their supremacy, in the state they now are, means the supremacy of ignorance over instruction and of numbers over knowledge. So long as they are not taught to act together, there is a chance of this being averted; and it can only be averted by the greatest wisdom and the greatest foresight in the higher classes. They must avoid not only every evil, but every appearance of evil; while they have still the power, they must remove not only every actual grievance, but where it is possible every seeming grievance too; they must willingly concede every claim which they can safely concede, in order that they may not have to concede unwillingly some claim which would impair the safety of the country.
This advice, too, will be said to be obvious; but I have the greatest fear that when the time comes, it will be cast aside as timid and cowardly. So strong are the combative propensities of man that he would rather fight a losing battle than not fight at all. It is most difficult to persuade people that by fighting they may strengthen the enemy, yet that would be so here; since a losing battle — especially a long and well-fought one — would have thoroughly taught the lower orders to combine, and would have left the higher orders face to face with an irritated, organized, and superior voting power. The courage which strengthens an enemy, and which so loses not only the present battle but many after battles, is a heavy curse to men and nations.
In one minor respect, indeed, I think we may see with distinctness the effect of the Reform Bill of 1867. I think it has completed one change which the Act of 1832 began: it has completed the change which that Act made in the relation of the House of Lords to the House of Commons. As I have endeavored in this book to explain, the literary theory of the English Constitution is on this point quite wrong, as usual. According to that theory, the two Houses are two branches of the legislature, perfectly equal and perfectly distinct. But before the Act of 1832 they were not so distinct: there was a very large and a very strong common element. By their commanding influence in many boroughs and counties, the Lords nominated a considerable part of the Commons; the majority of the other part were the richer gentry, - men in most respects like the Lords, and sympathizing with the Lords. Under the Constitution as it then was, the two Houses were not in their essence distinct, they were in their essence similar ; they were in the main not Houses of contrasted origin, but Houses of like origin: the predominant part of both was taken from the same class, — from the English gentry, titled and untitled. By the Act of 1832 this was much altered. The aristocracy and the gentry lost their predominance in the House of Commons; that predominance passed to the middle class. The two Houses then became distinct, but then they