The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 68

The Prime Minister’s Political Creed.

The Duke, before he went to Matching, twice reminded Phineas Finn that he was expected there in a day or two. ‘The Duchess says that your wife is coming tomorrow,’ said the Duke on the day of his departure. But Phineas could not go then. His services to the country were required among the dockyards and ships, and he postponed his visit till the end of September. Then he started for Matching, having the double pleasure before him of meeting his wife and his noble host and hostess. He found a small party there, but not so small as the Duchess had once suggested to him. ‘Your wife will be there, of course, Mr Finn. She is too good to desert me in my troubles. And there will probably be Lady Rosina De Courcy. Lady Rosina is to the Duke what your wife is to me. I don’t suppose there will be anybody else — except, perhaps Mr Warburton!’ But Lady Rosina was not there. In place of Lady Rosina there were the Duke and Duchess of St Bungay, with their daughters, two or three Palliser offshoots, with their wives, and Barrington Erle. There were, too, the Bishop of the diocese with his wife, three or four others, coming and going, so that the party never seemed to be too small. ‘We asked Mr Rattler,’ said the Duchess in a whisper to Phineas, ‘but he declined, with a string of florid compliments. When Mr Rattler won’t come to the Prime Minister’s house, you may depend that something is going to happen. It is like pigs carrying straws in their mouths. Mr Rattler is my pig.’ Phineas only laughed and said that he did not believe Rattler to be a better pig than anybody else.

It was soon apparent to Phineas that the Duke’s manner to him was entirely altered, so much so that he was compelled to acknowledge to himself that he had not hitherto read the Duke’s character aright. Hitherto he had never found the Duke pleasant in conversation. Looking back he could hardly remember that he had in truth ever conversed with the Duke. The man had seemed to shut himself up as soon as he had uttered certain words which the circumstances of the moment had demanded. Whether it was arrogance or shyness Phineas had not known. His wife had said that the Duke was shy. Had he been arrogant the effect would have been the same. He was unbending, hard, and lucid only when he spoke on some detail of business, or on some point of policy. But now he smiled, and, though hesitating a little at first, very soon fell into the ways of a pleasant country host. ‘You shoot,’ said the Duke. Phineas did shoot, but cared very little about it. ‘But you hunt.’ Phineas was very fond of riding to hounds. ‘I am beginning to think,’ said the Duke, ‘that I have made a mistake in not caring for such things. When I was very young I gave them up, because it appeared that other men devoted too much time to them. One might as well not eat because men are gluttons.’

‘Only that you would die if you did not eat.’

‘Bread, I suppose, would keep me alive, but still one eats meat without being a glutton. I very often regret the want of amusements, and particularly of those which would throw me more among my fellow-creatures. A man is alone when reading, alone when writing, alone when thinking. Even sitting in Parliament he is very much alone, though there be a crowd around him. Now a man can hardly be thoroughly useful unless he knows his fellow-men, and how is he to know them if he shuts himself up? If I had to begin again I think I would cultivate the amusements of the time.’

Not long after this the Duke asked him whether he was going to join the shooting men on that morning. Phineas declared that his hands were too full of business for any amusement before lunch. ‘Then,’ said the Duke, ‘will you walk with me this afternoon? There is nothing I really like so much as a walk. There are some very pretty points where the river skirts the park. And I will show you the spot on which Sir Guy de Palliser performed the feat for which the king gave him this property. It was a grand time when a man could get half-a-dozen parishes because he tickled the king’s fancy.’

‘But suppose he didn’t tickle the king’s fancy?’

‘Ah, then indeed, it might go otherwise with him. But I am glad to say that Sir Guy was an accomplished courtier.’

The walk was taken, and the pretty bends of the river were seen; but they were looked at without much earnestness, and Sir Guy’s great deed was not again mentioned. The conversation went away to other matters. Of course it was not long before the Prime Minister was deep in discussing the probabilities of the next Session. It was soon apparent to Phineas that the Duke was no longer desirous of resigning, though he spoke very freely of the probable necessity there might be for him to do so. At the present moment he was in his best humour. His feet were on his own property. He could see the prosperity around him. The spot was the one which he loved the best in the world. He liked his present companion, who was one to whom he was entitled to speak with freedom. But there was still present to him the sense of some injury from which he could not free himself. Of course he did not know that he had been haughty to Sir Orlando, to Sir Timothy, and others. But he did know that he had intended to be true, and he thought that they had been treacherous. Twelve months ago there had been a goal before him which he might attain, a winning-post which was still within his reach. There was in store for him the tranquillity of retirement which he would enjoy as soon as a sense of duty would permit him to seize it. But now the prospect of that happiness had gradually vanished from him. That retirement was no longer a winning-post for him. The poison of place and power and dignity had got into his blood. As he looked forward he feared rather than sighed for retirement. ‘You think it will go against us?’ he said.

Phineas did think so. There was hardly a man high up in the party who did not think so. When one branch of the Coalition has gradually dropped off, the other branch will hardly flourish long. And then the tints of a political Coalition are so neutral and unalluring that men will only endure them when they feel that no more pronounced colours are within their reach. ‘After all,’ said Phineas, ‘the innings has not been a bad one. It has been of service to the country, and has lasted longer than most expected.’

‘If it has been of service to the country, that is everything. It should at least be everything. With the statesman to whom it is not everything there must be something wrong.’ The Duke, as he said this, was preaching to himself. He was telling himself that, though he saw the better way, he was allowing himself to walk on that which was worse. For it was not only Phineas who would see the change — or the old Duke, or the Duchess. It was apparent to the man himself, though he could not prevent it. ‘I sometimes think,’ he said, ‘that we whom chance has led to be meddlers in the game of politics sometimes give ourselves hardly time enough to think what we are about.’

‘A man may have to work so hard,’ said Phineas, ‘that he has no time for thinking.’

‘Or more probably, may be so eager in party conflict that he will hardly keep his mind cool enough for thought. It seems to me that many men — men whom you and I know — embrace the profession of politics not only without political convictions, but without seeing that it is proper that they should entertain them. Chance brings a young man under the guidance of this or that elder man. He has come of a Whig family, as was my case — or from some old Tory stock; and loyalty keeps him true to the interests which have first pushed him forward into the world. There is no conviction there.’

‘Convictions grow.’

‘Yes; — the conviction that it is the man’s duty to be a staunch Liberal, but not the reason why. Or a man sees his opening on this side or on that — as is the case with the lawyers. Or he has a body of men at his back ready to support him on this side or that, as we see with commercial men. Or perhaps he has some vague idea that aristocracy is pleasant, and he becomes a Conservative — or that democracy is prospering, and he becomes a Liberal. You are a Liberal, Mr Finn.’

‘Certainly, Duke.’

‘Why?’

‘Well; — after what you have said I will not boast of myself. Experience, however, seems to show me that Liberalism is demanded by the country.’

‘So, perhaps, at certain epochs, may the Devil and all his works; but you will hardly say that you will carry the Devil’s colours, because the country may like the Devil. It is not sufficient, I think, to say that Liberalism is demanded. You should first know what Liberalism means, and then assure yourself that the thing itself is good. I dare say you have done so, but I see some who never make the inquiry.’

‘I will not claim to be better than my neighbours — I mean my real neighbours.’

‘I understand; I understand,’ said the Duke laughing. ‘You prefer some good Samaritan on the Opposition benches to Sir Timothy and the Pharisees. It is hard to come wounded out of the fight, and then to see him who would be your friend not only walking by on the other side, but flinging a stone at you as he goes. But I did not mean just now to allude to the details of recent misfortunes, though there is no one to whom I could do so more openly than to you. I was trying yesterday to explain to myself why I have, all my life, sat on what is called the Liberal side of the House to which I have belonged.’

‘Did you succeed?’

‘I began life with the misfortune of a ready-made political creed. There was a seat in the House for me when I was twenty-one. Nobody took the trouble to ask me my opinions. It was a matter of course that I should be a Liberal. My uncle, whom nothing could ever induce to enter politics himself, took it for granted that I should run straight — as he would have said. It was a tradition of the family, and was a inseparable from it as any of the titles which he had inherited. The property might be sold or squandered — but the political creed was fixed as adamant. I don’t know that I ever had a wish to rebel, but I think that I took it at first very much as a matter of course.’

‘A man seldom inquires very deeply at twenty-one.’

‘And if he does it is ten to one but he comes to a wrong conclusion. But since then I have satisfied myself that chance put me into the right course. It has been, I dare say, the same with you as with me. We both went into office early, and the anxiety to do special duties well probably deterred us both from thinking much of the great question. When a man has to be on the alert to keep Ireland quiet, or to prevent peculation in the dockyards, or to raise the revenue while he lowers the taxes, he feels himself to be saved from the necessity of investigating principles. In this way I sometimes think that ministers, or they who have been ministers and who have to watch the ministers from the Opposition benches, have less opportunity of becoming real politicians than the new men who sit in Parliament with empty hands and with time at their own disposal. But when a man has been placed by circumstances as I am now, he does begin to think.’

‘And yet you have not empty hands.’

‘They are not so full, perhaps, as you think. At any rate I cannot content myself with a single branch of public service as I used to in old days. Do not suppose that I claim to have made any grand political invention, but I think that I have at least labelled my own thoughts. I suppose what we all desire is to improve the condition of the people by whom we are employed, and to advance or country, or at any rate to save it from regression.’

‘That of course.’

‘So much is of course. I give credit to my opponents in Parliament for that desire quite as readily as I do to my colleagues or to myself. The idea that political virtue is all on one side is both mischievous and absurd. We allow ourselves to talk in that way because indignation, scorn, and sometimes, I fear, vituperation, are the fuel with which the necessary heat of debate is maintained.’

‘There are some men who are very fond of poking the fire,’ said Phineas.

‘Well; I won’t name anyone at present,’ said the Duke, ‘but I have seen gentlemen of your country very handy with the pokers.’ Phineas laughed, knowing that he had been considered by some to have been a little violent when defending the Duke. ‘But we put all that aside when we really think, and can give the Conservative credit for patriotism as readily as the Liberal. The Conservative who has had any idea of the meaning of the name which he carries, wishes, I suppose, to maintain the differences and the distances which separate the highly placed from their lower brethren. He thinks that God has divided the world as he finds it divided, and that he may best do his duty by making the inferior many happy and contented in his position, teaching him that the place which he holds is his by God’s ordinance.’

‘And it is so.’

‘Hardly in the sense that I mean. But that is the great Conservative lesson. That lesson seems to me to be hardly compatible with continual improvement in the condition of the lower man. But with the Conservative all such improvement is to be based on the idea of the maintenance of those distances. I as a Duke am to be kept as far apart from the man who drives my horses as was my ancestor from the man who drove his, or who rode after him to the wars — and that is to go on for ever. There is much to be said for such a scheme. Let the lords be, all of them, men with loving hearts, and clear intellect, and noble instincts, and it is possible that they should use their powers so beneficently as to spread happiness over the earth. It is one of the millenniums which the mind of man can conceive, and seems to be that which the Conservative mind does conceive.’

‘But the other men who are not lords don’t want that kind of happiness.’

‘If such happiness were attainable it might well be to constrain men to accept it. But the lords of this world are fallible men; and though as units they ought to be and perhaps are better than those others who have fewer advantages, they are much more likely as units to go astray in opinion than the bodies of men whom they would seek to govern. We know that power does corrupt, and that we cannot trust kings to have loving hearts, and clear intellects, and noble instincts. Men as they come to think about it and to look forward, and to look back, will not believe in such a millennium as that.’

‘Do they believe in any millennium?’

‘I think they do after a fashion, and I think that I do myself. That is my idea of Conservatism. The doctrine of Liberalism is, of course, the reverse. The Liberal, if he have any fixed idea at all, must, I think, have conceived the idea of lessening distances — of bringing the coachman and the duke nearer together — nearer and nearer, till a millennium shall be reached by —’

‘By equality?’ asked Phineas, eagerly interrupting the Prime Minister, and showing his dissent by the tone of his voice.

‘I did not use the word, which is open to many objections. In the first place the millennium, which I have perhaps rashly named, is so distant that we need not even think of it as possible. Men’s intellects are at present so various that we cannot even realize the idea of equality, and here in England we have been taught to hate the word by the evil effects of those absurd attempts which have been made elsewhere to proclaim it as a fact accomplished by the scratch of a pen or the chisel of a stone. We have been injured in that, because a good word signifying a grand idea has been driven out of the vocabulary of good men. Equality would be a heaven, if we could attain it. How can we to whom so much has been given dare to think otherwise? How can you look at the bowed back and bent legs and abject face of the poor ploughman, who winter and summer has to drag his rheumatic limbs to his work, while you go a-hunting or sit in pride of place among the foremost few of the country, and say that it is all that it ought to be? You are a Liberal because you know that it is all not as it ought to be, and because you would still march on to some nearer approach to equality; though the thing itself is so great, so glorious, so godlike — nay, so absolutely divine — that you have been disgusted by the very promise of it, because its perfection is unattainable. Men have asserted a mock equality till the very idea of equality stinks in men’s nostrils.’

The Duke in his enthusiasm had thrown off his hat, and was sitting on a wooden seat which they had reached, looking up among the clouds. His left hand was clenched, and from time to time with his right he rubbed the thin hairs on his brow. He had begun in a low voice, with a somewhat slipshod enunciation of his words, but had gradually become clear, resonant, and even eloquent. Phineas knew that there were stories told of certain bursts of words which had come from him in former days in the House of Commons. These had occasionally surprised men and induced them to declare that Planty Pall — as he was then often called — was a dark horse. But they had been few and far between, and Phineas had never heard them. Now he gazed at his companion in silence, wondering whether the speaker would go on with his speech. But the face changed on a sudden, and the Duke with an awkward motion snatched up his hat. ‘I hope you ain’t cold?’ he said.

‘Not at all,’ said Phineas.

‘I came here because of that bend of the river. I am always very fond of that bend. We don’t go over the river. That is Mr Upjohn’s property.’

‘The member for the county?’

‘Yes; and a very good member, he is, though he doesn’t support us; — an old-school Tory, but a great friend of my uncle, who, after all, had a good deal of Tory about him. I wonder whether he is at home. I must remind the Duchess to ask him to dinner. You know him, of course.’

‘Only by seeing him in the House.’

‘You’d like him very much. When he is in the country he always wears knee breeches and gaiters, which I think is a very comfortable dress.’

‘Troublesome, Duke, isn’t it?’

‘I never tried it, and I shouldn’t dare now. Goodness me, it’s past five o’clock, and we’ve got two miles to get home. I haven’t looked at a letter, and Warburton will think that I’ve thrown myself into the river because of Sir Timothy Beeswax.’ Then they started to go home at fast pace.

‘I shan’t forget, Duke,’ said Phineas, ‘your definition of Conservatives and Liberals.’

‘I don’t think I ventured any definition; — only a few loose ideas which have been troubling me lately. I say, Finn!’

‘Your Grace?’

‘Don’t you go and tell Ramsden and Drummond that I’ve been preaching equality, or we shall have a pretty mess. I don’t know that it would serve me with my dear friend, the Duke.’

‘I will be discretion itself.’

‘Equality is a dream. But sometimes one likes to dream — especially as there is not danger that Matching will fly from me in a dream. I doubt whether I could bear the test that has been attempted in other countries.’

‘That poor ploughman would hardly get his share, Duke.’

‘No; — that’s where it is. We can only do a little, and a little to bring it nearer to us; — so little that it won’t touch Matching in our day. Here is her ladyship and the ponies. I don’t think her ladyship would like to lose her ponies by my doctrine.’

The two wives of the two men were in the pony carriage, and the little Lady Glencora, the Duchess’s eldest daughter, was sitting between them. ‘Mr Warburton has sent three messages to demand your presence,’ said the Duchess, ‘and as I live by bread, I believe that you and Mr Finn have been amusing yourselves!’

‘We have been talking politics,’ said the Duke.

‘Of course. What other amusement was possible? But what business have you to indulge in idle talk when Mr Warburton wants you in the library? There has come a box,’ she said, ‘big enough to contain the resignations of all the traitors of the party.’ This was strong language, and the Duke frowned; — but there was no one there to hear it but Phineas Finn and his wife, and they, at least, were trustworthy. The Duke suggested that he had better get back to the house as soon as possible. There might be something to be done requiring time before dinner. Mr Warburton might, at any rate, want to smoke a tranquil cigar after his day’s work. The Duchess therefore left the carriage, as did Mrs Finn, and the Duke undertook to drive the little girl back to the house. ‘He’ll surely go against a tree,’ said the Duchess. But, — as a fact — the Duke did take himself and the child home in safety.

‘And what do you think about it, Mr Finn?’ said her Grace. ‘I suppose you and the Duke have been settling what is to be done?’

‘We have certainly settled nothing.’

‘Then you must have disagreed.’

‘That we as certainly have not done. We have in truth not once been out of cloud-land.’

‘Ah; — then there is no hope. When once grown-up politicians get into cloud-land it is because the realities of the world have no longer any charm for them.’

The big box did not contain the resignations of any of the objectionable members of the Coalition. Ministers do not often resign in September — nor would it be expedient that they should do so. Lord Drummond and Sir Timothy Beeswax were safe, at any rate till next February, and might live without any show either of obedience or mutiny. The Duke remained in comparative quiet at Matching. There was not very much to do, except to prepare the work of the next Session. The great work of the coming year was to be the assimilation, or something very near to assimilation, of the county suffrages with those of the boroughs. The measure was one which had now been promised by statesmen for the last two years — promised at first with that half promise which would mean nothing, were it not that such promises always lead to more defined assurances. The Duke of St Bungay, Lord Drummond, and other Ministers had wished to stave it off. Mr Monk was eager for its adoption, and was of course supported by Phineas Finn. The Prime Minister had at first been inclined to be led by the old Duke. There was no doubt to him but that the measure was desirable and would come, but there might well be a question as to the time which it should be made to come. The old Duke knew that the measure would come — but believing it to be wholly undesirable, thought that he was doing good work in postponing it from year to year. But Mr Monk had become urgent, and the old Duke had admitted the necessity. There must surely have been a shade of melancholy on that old man’s mind as, year after year, he assisted in pulling down institutions which he in truth regarded as safeguards of the nation, but which he knew that, as a Liberal, he was bound to assist in destroying! It must have occurred to him, from time to time, that it would be well for him to depart and be at peace before everything was gone.

When he went from Matching Mr Monk took his place, and Phineas Finn, who had gone up to London for a while, returned, and then the three between them with assistance from Mr Warburton and others, worked out the proposed scheme of the new county franchise, with the new divisions and the new constituencies. But it could hardly have been hearty work, as they all of them felt that whatever might be their first proposition they would be beat upon it in a House of Commons which thought that this Aristides had been long enough at the Treasury.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43