Page images
PDF
EPUB

Liberal legislation had been harassing and meddlesome. He has been described as an opponent of all war. But if his speeches against the Crimean War are examined, they will be found to involve a thorough acquaintance with the negotiations and a hearty assurance that British interests were not concerned in them. Bright would have been a much less formidable antagonist if he had not taken the trouble of mastering the case of his opponents. When, however, he came to set forth his own, he did not always accompany it with the reasons which had induced him to adopt it himself. If he sometimes appeared to declaim rather than to argue, it was not so much because his arguments were bad as because his declamation was good. He never spoke upon a topic which he had not previously investigated. He was neither hasty nor careless. But he was not given to abstractions, nor to details. His plan was to think the matter out, and then present his conclusions to others as clearly as he saw them himself. He seemed not so much an advocate as a judicial expositor, bringing home salient aspects of a controversy in a light which illustrated them on every side. He did not try to become a debater in the House of Commons. The cut and thrust of mere verbal fencing were not in his line. But he could appeal to the judgment as well as the conscience of great assemblies with a vigour and directness which lost nothing of their force because they assumed that on broad and general grounds of ethics and politics he and his hearers were agreed.

When Bright first came into Parliament, the agitation against the Corn-laws was in full swing, and Charles Villiers was conducting the movement in the House of Commons. Although some of Bright's greatest speeches were made in the House, his fame as an orator rests chiefly upon addresses outside. He never acquired, nor perhaps sought to acquire, a Parliamentary manner.

While he dealt in simple language with familiar themes, he could at times invest great truths and ideas with a splendour of diction peculiarly his own.

Unlike Cobden, he rather avoided detail, and preferred to bring generalities within the scope of his argument by a bold appeal to first principles for the confirmation of his case. He did not shrink, any more than Cobden, from setting himself against prevailing opinion. The Crimean War, and the Civil War in America, divided him sharply from the mass of his fellow-countrymen in the first instance, and from the middle as well as the upper class in the second. He could always command a hearing. But throughout his life, or at all events throughout the greater part of it, he was fighting against tremendous odds. The Corn-laws were repealed because the first Conservative statesman of the age was converted by the arguments of Cobden, and the spectacle of Ireland. The war with Russia proceeded to its worst without any apparent effect from Bright's unflinching opposition. Disraeli assisted Bright by absolutely refusing to take part in any agitation against the Northern states of the Union during the American conflict. Bright's influence was not immediate. Gradually both thinkers and practical men came round to see that he had been more prudent and far-sighted than the bulk of his fellowcountrymen. But he had not the power of impressing his views upon interested or indifferent opinion. No man could excite more enthusiasm, or provoke more hostility. If he had declaimed less, and argued more, he might have had a larger following, and come nearer to practical success.

He saw very clearly straight ahead. He overlooked in his onward course the difficulties and perplexities which encumbered the path of those who had to deal with political problems from day to day. He was too apt to be impatient of diplomacy and statesmanship, which are no doubt often pretentious and unavailing, but are nevertheless essential to the conduct of public affairs. The blindness of the policy which maintained the Corn-laws imbued Bright from his youth with the notion that a plain manufacturer understood the business of government quite as well as a Minister of State.

Russia : Negotiations at Vienna

House of Commons, February 23rd, 1855 I am one of those forming the majority of the House, I suspect, who are disposed to look upon our present position as one of more than ordinary gravity. I am one, also, of those, not probably constituting so great a majority of the House, who regret extremely the circumstances which have obliged the right hon. gentlemen who are now upon this bench to secede from the Government of the noble Lord, the member for Tiverton. I do not take upon me for a moment to condemn them; because I think, if there be anything in which a man must judge for himself, it is whether he should take office if it be offered to him, whether he should secede from office, whether he should serve under a particular leader, or engage in the service of the Crown, or retain office in a particular emergency

In such cases I think that the decision must be left to his own conscience and his own judgment; and I should be the last person to condemn anyone for the decision to which he might come. I think, however, that the speech of the right hon. gentleman is one which the House cannot have listened to without being convinced that he and his retiring colleagues have been moved to the course which they have taken by a deliberate judgment upon this question, which, whether it be right or wrong, is fully explained, and is honest to the House and to the country.

Now, Sir, I said that I regretted their secession, because I am one of those who do not wish to see the Government of the noble Lord, the member for Tiverton, overthrown. The House knows well, and nobody knows better than the noble Lord, that I have never been one of his ardent and enthusiastic supporters. I have often disapproved of his policy both at home and abroad; but I hope that I do not bear him, as I can honestly say that I do not bear to any man in this Housefor from all I have received unnumbered courtesies—any feeling that takes even the tinge of a personal animosity : and even if I did, at a moment so grave as this, no feeling of a personal character whatever should prevent me from doing that which I think now, of all times, we are called upon to dothat which we honestly and conscientiously believe to be for the permanent interests of the country. We are in this position, that for a month past, at least, there has been a chaos in the regions of the Administration. Nothing can be more embarrassing—I had almost said nothing can be more humiliating -than the position which we offer to the country; and I am afraid that the knowledge of our position is not confined to the limits of these islands.

It will be admitted that we want a Government, that if the country is to be saved from the breakers which now surround it, there must be a Government; and it devolves upon the House of Commons to rise to the gravity of the occasion, and to support any man who is conscious of his responsibility, and who is honestly offering and endeavouring to deliver the country from the embarrassment in which we now find it. We are at war, and I shall not say one single sentence with regard to the policy of the war or its origin, and I know not that I shall say a single sentence with regard to the conduct of it ; but the fact is that we are at war with the greatest military power, probably, of the world, and that we are carrying on our operations at a distance of 3,000 miles from home, and in the neighbourhood of the strongest fortifications of that great military Empire. I will not stop to criticize—though it really invites me—the fact that some who have told us that we were in danger from the aggressions of that Empire, at the same time told us that that Empire was powerless for aggression, and also that it was impregnable to attack. By some means, however, the public have been alarmed, as if that aggressive power were unbounded, and they have been induced to undertake an expedition, as if the invasion of an impregnable country were a matter of holiday-making rather than of war.

But we are now in a peculiar position with regard to that war; for, if I am not mistaken-and I think I gathered as much from the language of the right hon. gentleman-at this very moment terms have been agreed upon-agreed upon by the Cabinet of Lord Aberdeen ; consented to by the noble Lord, the member for Tiverton, when he was in that Cabinet ; and ratified and confirmed by him upon the formation of his own Government—and that those terms are now specially known and understood, and that they have been offered to the Government with which this country is at war, and in conjunction with France and Austria-one, certainly, and the

[ocr errors]

other supposed to be, an ally of this country. Now, those terms consist of four propositions, which I shall neither describe nor discuss, because they are known to the House ; but three of them are not matters of dispute; and with regard to the other I think that the noble Lord, the member for the City of London, stated, upon a recent occasion, that it was involved in this proposition—that the preponderant power of Russia in the Black Sea should cease, and that Russia had accepted it with that interpretation. Therefore, whatever difference arises is merely as to the mode in which that “preponderant power ” shall be understood or made to cease. Now, there are some gentlemen not far from me—there are men who write in the public press—there are thousands of persons in the United Kingdom at this moment-and I learn with astonishment and dismay that there are persons even in that grave assembly which we are not allowed to specify by a name in this Housewho have entertained dreams—impracticable theories—expectations of vast European and Asiatic changes, of severed nationalities, and of a new map of Europe, if not of the world, as a result or an object of this war. And it is from these gentlemen that we hear continually, addressed to the noble Lord, the member for Tiverton, language which I cannot well understand. They call upon him to act, to carry on the war with vigour, and to prosecute enterprises which neither his Government nor any other government has seriously entertained; but I would appeal to those gentlemen whether it does not become us-regarding the true interests and the true honour of the country--if our Government have offered terms of peace to Russia, not to draw back from those terms, not to cause any unnecessary delay, not to adopt any subterfuge to prevent those terms being accepted, not to attempt shuffles of any kind, not to endeavour to insist upon harder terms, and thus make the approach of peace even still more distant than it is at present ?

Whatever may be said about the honour of the country in any other relation involved in this affair, this, at least, I expect every man who hears me to admit—that if terms of peace have been offered they have been offered in good faith, and shall be in honour and good faith adhered to; so that if, unfortunately for Europe and humanity, there should be any failure at Vienna, no man should point to the English Government and to the authorities and rulers of this Christian country,

« PreviousContinue »