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- Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, Volume 1 - 1/81 -









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The speeches which have been selected for publication in these volumes possess a value, as examples of the art of public speaking, which no person will be likely to underrate. Those who may differ from Mr. Bright's theory of the public good will have no difficulty in acknowledging the clearness of his diction, the skill with which he arranges his arguments, the vigour of his style, the persuasiveness of his reasoning, and above all, the perfect candour and sincerity with which he expresses his political convictions.

It seems likely that the course of events in this country will lead those, who may desire to possess influence in the conduct of public affairs, to study the art of public speaking. If so, nothing which can be found in English literature will aid the aspirant after this great faculty more than the careful and reiterated perusal of the speeches contained in these volumes. Tried indeed by the effect produced upon any audience by their easy flow and perfect clearness, or analysed by any of those systems of criticism which under the name of 'rhetoric' have been saved to us from the learning of the ancient world, these speeches would be admitted to satisfy either process.

This is not the occasion on which to point out the causes which confer so great an artistic value on these compositions; which give them now, and will give them hereafter, so high a place in English literature. At the present time nearly a hundred millions of the earth's inhabitants speak the English tongue. A century hence, and it will probably be the speech of nearly half the inhabitants of the globe. I think that no master of that language will occupy a loftier position than Mr. Bright; that no speaker will teach with greater exactness the noblest and rarest of the social arts, the art of clear and persuasive exposition. But before this art can be attained (so said the greatest critic that the world has known), it is necessary that the speaker should secure the sympathies of his audience, should convince them of his statesmanship, should show that he is free from any taint of self-interest or dissimulation. These conditions of public trust still form, as heretofore, in every country of free thought and free speech, the foundation of a good reputation and of personal influence. It is with the fact that such are the characteristics of my friend's eloquence, that I have been strongly impressed in collecting and editing the materials of these volumes.

Since the days of those men of renown who lived through the first half of the seventeenth century, when the liveliest religious feeling was joined to the loftiest patriotism, and men laboured for their conscience and their country, England has witnessed no political career like that of Cobden and Bright. Cobden's death was a great loss to his country, for it occurred at a time when England could ill spare a conscientious statesman. Nations, however, cannot be saved by the virtues, nor need they be lost by the vices, of their public men. But Cobden's death was an irreparable loss to his friends--most of all to the friend who had been, in an incessant struggle for public duty and truth, of one heart and of one purpose with him.

Those who have been familiar with Cobden's mind know how wide was his knowledge, how true was his judgment of political events. The vast majority of those who followed his public career had but a scanty acquaintance with the resources of his sagacity and foresight. He spoke to the people on a few subjects only. The wisdom of Free Trade; the necessity of Parliamentary Reform; the dangerous tendency of those laws which favour the accumulation of land in few hands; the urgent need for a system of national education; the mischief of the mere military spirit; the prudence of uniting communities by the multiplication of international interests; the abandonment of the policy of diplomatic and military intermeddling; the advocacy, in short, of the common good in place of a spurious patriotism, of selfish, local, or class aims, formed the subject of Cobden's public utterances. But his intimate friends, and in particular his regular correspondents, were aware that his political criticism was as general as it was accurate. The loss then of his wise and lucid counsel was the greatest to the survivor of a personal and a political friendship which was continued uninterruptedly through so long and so active a career.

At the commencement of Mr. Bright's public life, the shortsighted selfishness of a landlords' parliament was afflicting the United Kingdom with a continuous dearth. Labour was starved, and capital was made unproductive by the Corn-laws. The country was tied to a system by which Great Britain and her Colonies deliberately chose the dearest market for their purchases. In the same spirit, the price of freights was wilfully heightened by the Navigation-laws. Important branches of home industry were crippled by prying, vexatious, and wasteful excises. And this system was conceived to be the highest wisdom; or at any rate, to be so invincible a necessity that it could not be avoided or altered without danger. The country, if it were to make its way, could make it only because other nations were servile imitators of our commercial policy, and, in the vain hope of retaliation, were hindering their own progress.

The foreign policy of Great Britain was suspicious and irritating, for it was secret, busy, and meddling, insolent to the weak, conciliatory, even truckling, to the strong. The very name of diplomacy is and has been odious to English Liberals, for by means of it a reactionary Government could check domestic reforms, and hinder the community of nations indefinitely. The policy of the Foreign Office was constantly directed towards embittering, if not embroiling, the relations between this and other countries. It is difficult to account for these intrigues, except on the ground that successive Governments were anxious to maintain political and social anomalies at home, while they were affecting to support 'the balance of power' abroad. The abandonment of intervention in foreign politics was the beginning of agitation for domestic reforms.

Perhaps no part of the public administration was worse than that of India. The great Company had lost its monopoly of trade in the Eastern seas, but retained its administrative powers over the subject races and dependent princes of India. Its system of finance was wasteful and oppressive. Its policy was that of aggression and annexation. In practice, the Government was irresponsible. Nobody listened to Indian affairs in Parliament, except on rare occasions, or for party purposes. The Governor-General did as he pleased. The President of the Board of Control did as he pleased. If the reader wishes to see how the former acted, Mr. Cobden's pamphlet, 'How Wars are got up in India' will enlighten him. If it be necessary to inquire what the policy of the latter might be, the disastrous and disgraceful Affghan War is an illustration. Never perhaps was a war commenced more recklessly. It is certain that when loss and dishonour fell on the English arms, the statesmen who recommended and insisted on the war tried to screen themselves from just blame by the basest arts.

The internal resources of India were utterly neglected. The Company collected part of its revenue from a land-tax, levied in the worst shape. In order to secure an income through a monopoly, it constrained the cultivation of certain drugs for which there was a foreign demand; and neglected to encourage the cultivation of cotton, for which the home demand was wellnigh boundless, and to which the Indian supply might be made to correspond. The Company constructed neither road nor canal. It did nothing towards maintaining the means of communication which even the native governments had adopted. It suffered the ancient roads and tanks to fall into decay. It neglected to educate the native gentry, much more the people. In brief, the policy of the Company in dealing with India was the policy of Old Spain with her Transatlantic possessions, only that it was more jealous and illiberal.

Against these social and political evils, and many others which might be enumerated, a very small body of true and resolute statesmen arrayed themselves. Among these statesmen the most eminent were the two chiefs of the Anti-Corn-law agitation. Never did men lead a hope which seemed more forlorn. They had as opponents nearly the whole Upper House of Parliament, a powerful and compact party in the Lower. The Established Church was, of course, against them. The London newspapers, at that time almost the only political power in the press, were against them. The 'educated' classes were against them. Many of the working people were unfriendly to them, for the Chartists believed that the repeal of the Corn-laws would lower the price of labour. After a long struggle they gained the day; for an accident, the Irish famine, rendered a change in the Corn-laws inevitable. But had it not been for the organization of the League, the accident would have had no effect; for it is a rule in the philosophy of politics that an accident is valuable only when the machinery for making use of the accident is at hand. Calamities never teach wisdom to fools, they render it possible that the wise should avail themselves of the emergency.

A similar calamity, long foreseen by prudent men, caused the political extinction of the East India Company. The joint action of the Board of Control and the Directors led to the Indian mutiny. The suppression of the Indian mutiny led to the suppression of the Leadenhall Street Divan. Another calamity, also foreseen by statesmen, the outbreak of the American Civil War, gave India commercial hope, and retrieved the finances which the Company's rule had thrown into hopeless disorder.

I have selected the speeches contained in these two volumes, with a view to supplying the public with the evidence on which Mr. Bright's friends assert his right to a place in the front rank of English statesmen. I suppose that there is no better evidence of statesmanship than prescience; that no fuller confirmation of this evidence can be found than in the popular acceptance of those principles which were once unpopular and discredited. A short time since, Lord Derby said that Mr. Bright was the real leader of the Opposition. It is true that he has given great aid to that opposition which Lord Derby and his friends have often encountered, and by which, to their great discredit, but to their great advantage, they have been constantly defeated. If Lord Derby is in the right, Mr. Bright is the leader of the People, while his Lordship represents a party which is reckless because it is desperate. The policy which Mr. Bright has advocated in these pages, and throughout a quarter of a century, a policy from which he has never swerved, has at last been accepted by the nation, despite the constant resistance of Lord Derby and his friends. It embodies the national will, because it has attacked, and in many cases vanquished, institutions and laws which have become unpopular, because they have been manifestly mischievous and

Speeches on Questions of Public Policy, Volume 1 - 1/81

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