The Spirit of Whiggism, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 3.

The Menace to England

It May be as well to remind the English nation that a revolutionary party is not necessarily a liberal one, and that a republic is not indispensably a democracy. Such is the disposition of property in England that, were a republic to be established here tomorrow, it would partake rather of the oligarchical than of the aristocratic character. We should be surprised to find in how few families the power of the State was concentrated. And although the framers of the new commonwealth would be too crafty to base it on any avowed and ostensible principle of exclusion, but on the contrary would in all probability ostentatiously inaugurate the novel constitution by virtue of some abstract plea about as definite and as prodigal of practical effects as the rights of man or the sovereignty of the people, nevertheless I should be astonished were we not to find that the great mass of the nation, as far as any share in the conduct of public affairs was concerned, was as completely shut out from the fruition and exercise of power as under that Venetian polity which has ever been the secret object of Whig envy and Whig admiration. The Church, under such circumstances, would probably have again been plundered, and therefore the discharge of ecclesiastical duties might be spared to the nation; but the people would assuredly be practically excluded from its services, which would swarm with the relations and connections of the senatorial class; for, whether this country be governed only by the House of Commons, or only by the House of Lords, the elements of the single chamber will not materially differ; and although in the event of the triumph of the Commons, the ceremony of periodical election may be retained (and we should not forget that the Long Parliament soon spared us that unnecessary form), the selected members will form a Senate as irresponsible as any House of Parliament whose anomalous constitution may now be the object of Whig sneers or Radical anathemas.

The rights and liberties of a nation can only be preserved by institutions. It is not the spread of knowledge or the march of intellect that will be found a sufficient surety for the public welfare in the crisis of a country’s freedom. Our interest taints our intelligence, our passions paralyse our reason. Knowledge and capacity are too often the willing tools of a powerful faction or a dexterous adventurer. Life, is short, man is imaginative; our means are limited, our passions high.

In seasons of great popular excitement, gold and glory offer strong temptations to needy ability. The demagogues throughout a country, the orators of town-councils and vestries, and the lecturers of mechanics’ institutes present, doubtless in most cases unconsciously, the ready and fit machinery for the party or the individual that aspires to establish a tyranny. Duly graduating in corruption, the leaders of the mob become the oppressors of the people. Cultivation of intellect and diffusion of knowledge may make the English nation more sensible of the benefits of their social system, and better qualified to discharge the duties with which their institutions have invested them, but they will never render them competent to preserve their liberties without the aid of these institutions. Let us for a moment endeavour to fancy Whiggism in a state of rampant predominance; let us try to contemplate England enjoying all those advantages which our present rulers have not yet granted us, and some of which they have as yet only ventured to promise by innuendo. Let us suppose our ancient monarchy abolished, our independent hierarchy reduced to a stipendiary sect, the gentlemen of England deprived of their magisterial functions, and metropolitan prefects and sub-prefects established in the counties and principal towns, commanding a vigorous and vigilant police, and backed by an army under the immediate orders of a single House of Parliament. Why, these are threatened changes — aye, and not one of them that may not be brought about tomorrow, under the plea of the ‘spirit of the age’ or ‘county reform’ or ‘cheap government.’ But where then will be the liberties of England? Who will dare disobey London? — the enlightened and reformed metropolis! And can we think, if any bold squire, in whom some of the old blood might still chance to linger, were to dare to murmur against this grinding tyranny, or appeal to the spirit of those neighbours whose predecessors his ancestors had protected, can we flatter ourselves that there would not be judges in Westminster Hall prepared and prompt to inflict on him all the pains and penalties, the dungeon, the fine, the sequestration, which such a troublesome Anti–Reformer would clearly deserve? Can we flatter ourselves that a Parliamentary Star Chamber and a Parliamentary High Commission Court would not be in the background to supply all the deficiencies of the laws of England? When these merry times arrive — the times of extraordinary tribunals and extraordinary taxes — and, if we proceed in our present course, they are much nearer than we imagine-the phrase ‘Anti–Reformer’ will serve as well as that of ‘Malignant,’ and be as valid a plea as the former title for harassing and plundering all those who venture to wince under the crowning mercies of centralisation.

Behold the Republic of the Whigs! Behold the only Republic that can be established in England except by force! And who can doubt the swift and stern termination of institutions introduced by so unnatural and irrational a process. I would address myself to the English Radicals. I do not mean those fine gentlemen or those vulgar adventurers who, in this age of quackery, may sail into Parliament by hoisting for the nonce the false colours of the movement; but I mean that honest and considerable party, too considerable, I fear, for their happiness and the safety of the State-who have a definite object which they distinctly avow — I mean those thoughtful and enthusiastic men who study their unstamped press, and ponder over a millennium of operative amelioration. Not merely that which is just, but that which is also practicable, should be the aim of a sagacious politician. Let the Radicals well consider whether, in attempting to achieve their avowed object, they are not, in fact, only assisting the secret views of a party whose scheme is infinitely more adverse to their own than the existing system, whose genius I believe they entirely misapprehend. The monarchy of the Tories is more democratic than the Republic of the Whigs. It appeals with a keener sympathy to the passions of the millions; it studies their interest with a more comprehensive solicitude. Admitting for a moment that I have mistaken the genius of the English constitution, what chance, if our institutions be overthrown, is there of substituting in their stead a more popular polity? This hazard, both for their own happiness and the honour of their country, the English Radicals are bound to calculate nicely. If they do not, they will find themselves, too late, the tools of a selfish faction or the slaves of a stern usurper.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:20