Phineas Redux, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter 8

The Address

Before the 11th of November, the day on which Parliament was to meet, the whole country was in a hubbub. Consternation and triumph were perhaps equally predominant, and equally strong. There were those who declared that now at length was Great Britain to be ruined in actual present truth; and those who asserted that, of a sudden, after a fashion so wholly unexpected as to be divine — as great fires, great famines, and great wars are called divine — a mighty hand had been stretched out to take away the remaining incubus of superstition, priestcraft, and bigotry under which England had hitherto been labouring. The proposed disestablishment of the State Church of England was, of course, the subject of this diversity of opinion.

And there was not only diversity, but with it great confusion. The political feelings of the country are, as a rule, so well marked that it is easy, as to almost every question, to separate the sheep from the goats. With but few exceptions one can tell where to look for the supporters and where for the opponents of one measure or of another. Meetings are called in this or in that public hall to assist or to combat the Minister of the day, and men know what they are about. But now it was not so. It was understood that Mr Daubeny, the accredited leader of the Conservatives, was about to bring in the bill, but no one as yet knew who would support the bill, His own party, to a man — without a single exception — were certainly opposed to the measure in their minds. It must be so. It could not but be certain that they should hate it. Each individual sitting on the Conservative side in either House did most certainly within his own bosom cry Ichabod when the fatal news reached his ears. But such private opinions and inward wailings need not, and probably would not, guide the body. Ichabod had been cried before, though probably never with such intensity of feeling. Disestablishment might be worse than Free Trade or Household Suffrage, but was not more absolutely opposed to Conservative convictions than had been those great measures. And yet the party, as a party, had swallowed them both. To the first and lesser evil, a compact little body of staunch Commoners had stood forth in opposition — but nothing had come of it to those true Britons beyond a feeling of living in the cold shade of exclusion. When the greater evil arrived, that of Household Suffrage — a measure which twenty years since would hardly have been advocated by the advanced Liberals of the day — the Conservatives had learned to acknowledge the folly of clinging to their own convictions, and had swallowed the dose without serious disruption of their ranks. Every man — with but an exception or two — took the measure up, some with faces so singularly distorted as to create true pity, some with an assumption of indifference, some with affected glee. But in the double process the party had become used to this mode of carrying on the public service. As poor old England must go to the dogs, as the doom had been pronounced against the country that it should be ruled by the folly of the many foolish, and not by the wisdom of the few wise, why should the few wise remain out in the cold — seeing, as they did, that by so doing no good would be done to the country? Dissensions among their foes did, when properly used, give them power — but such power they could only use by carrying measures which they themselves believed to be ruinous. But the ruin would be as certain should they abstain. Each individual might have gloried in standing aloof — in hiding his face beneath his toga, and in remembering that Rome did once exist in her splendour. But a party cannot afford to hide its face in its toga. A party has to be practical. A party can only live by having its share of Garters, lord-lieutenants, bishops, and attorney-generals. Though the country were ruined, the party should be supported. Hitherto the party had been supported, and had latterly enjoyed almost its share of stars and Garters — thanks to the individual skill and strategy of that great English political Von Moltke Mr Daubeny.

And now what would the party say about the disestablishment of the Church? Even a party must draw the line somewhere. It was bad to sacrifice things mundane; but this thing was the very Holy of Holies! Was nothing to be conserved by a Conservative party? What if Mr Daubeny were to explain some day to the electors of East Barsetshire that an hereditary peerage was an absurdity? What if in some rural nook of his Boeotia he should suggest in ambiguous language to the farmers that a Republic was the only form of Government capable of a logical defence? Duke had already said to Duke, and Earl to Earl, and Baronet to Baronet that there must be a line somewhere. Bishops as a rule say but little to each other, and now were afraid to say anything. The Church, which had been, which was, so truly beloved — surely that must be beyond the line! And yet there crept through the very marrow of the party an agonising belief that Mr Daubeny would carry the bulk of his party with him into the lobby of the House of Commons.

But if such was the dismay of the Conservatives, how shall any writer depict the consternation of the Liberals? If there be a feeling odious to the mind of a sober, hardworking man, it is the feeling that the bread he has earned is to be taken out of his mouth. The pay, the patronage, the powers, and the pleasure of Government were all due to the Liberals. “God bless my soul,” said Mr Ratler, who always saw things in a practical light, “we have a larger fighting majority than any party has had since Lord Liverpool’s time. They have no right to attempt it. They are bound to go out.” “There’s nothing of honesty left in politics,” said Mr Bonteen, declaring that he was sick of the life. Barrington Erle thought that the whole Liberal party should oppose the measure. Though they were Liberals they were not democrats; nor yet infidels. But when Barrington Erle said this, the great leaders of the Liberal party had not as yet decided on their ground of action.

There was much difficulty in reaching any decision. It had been asserted so often that the disestablishment of the Church was only a question of time, that the intelligence of the country had gradually so learned to regard it. Who had said so, men did not know and did not inquire — but the words were spoken everywhere. Parsons with sad hearts — men who in their own parishes were enthusiastic, pure, pious, and useful — whispered them in the dead of the night to the wives of their bosoms. Bishops, who had become less pure by contact with the world at clubs, shrugged their shoulders and wagged their heads, and remembered comfortably the sanctity of vested interests. Statesmen listened to them with politeness, and did not deny that they were true. In the free intercourse of closest friendships the matter was discussed between ex-Secretaries of State. The Press teemed with the assertion that it was only a question of time. Some fervent, credulous friends predicted another century of life — some hard-hearted logical opponents thought that twenty years would put an end to the anomaly: a few stout enemies had sworn on the hustings with an anathema that the present Session should see the deposition from her high place of this eldest daughter of the woman of Babylon. But none had expected the blow so soon as this; and none certainly had expected it from this hand.

But what should the Liberal party do? Ratler was for opposing Mr Daubeny with all their force, without touching the merits of the case. It was no fitting work for Mr Daubeny, and the suddenness of the proposition coming from such a quarter would justify them now and for ever, even though they themselves should disestablish everything before the Session were over. Barrington Erle, suffering under a real political conviction for once in his life, was desirous of a positive and chivalric defence of the Church. He believed in the twenty years. Mr Bonteen shut himself up in disgust. Things were amiss; and, as he thought, the evil was due to want of party zeal on the part of his own leader, Mr Gresham. He did not dare to say this, lest, when the house door should at last be opened, he might not be invited to enter with the others; but such was his conviction. “If we were all a little less in the abstract, and a little more in the concrete, it would be better for us.” Laurence Fitzgibbon, when these words had been whispered to him by Mr Bonteen, had hardly understood them; but it had been explained to him that his friend had meant “men, not measures’. When Parliament met, Mr Gresham, the leader of the Liberal party, had not as yet expressed any desire to his general followers.

The Queen’s Speech was read, and the one paragraph which seemed to possess any great public interest was almost a repetition of the words which Mr Daubeny had spoken to the electors of East Barsetshire. “It will probably be necessary for you to review the connection which still exists between, and which binds together, the Church and the State.” Mr Daubeny’s words had of course been more fluent, but the gist of the expression was the same. He had been quite in earnest when addressing his friends in the country. And though there had been but an interval of a few weeks, the Conservative party in the two Houses heard the paragraph read without surprise and without a murmur. Some said that the gentlemen on the Treasury Bench in the House of Commons did not look to be comfortable. Mr Daubeny sat with his hat over his brow, mute, apparently impassive and unapproachable, during the reading of the Speech and the moving and seconding of the Address. The House was very full, and there was much murmuring on the side of the Opposition — but from the Government benches hardly a sound was heard, as a young gentleman, from one of the Midland counties, in a deputy-lieutenant’s uniform, who had hitherto been known for no particular ideas of his own, but had been believed to be at any rate true to the Church, explained, not in very clear language, that the time had at length come when the interests of religion demanded a wider support and a fuller sympathy than could be afforded under that system of Church endowment and State establishment for which the country had hitherto been so grateful, and for which the country had such boundless occasion for gratitude. Another gentleman, in the uniform of the Guards, seconded the Address, and declared that in nothing was the sagacity of a Legislature so necessary as in discerning the period in which that which had hitherto been good ceased to be serviceable. The status pupillaris was mentioned, and it was understood that he had implied that England was now old enough to go on in matters of religion without a tutor in the shape of a State Church.

Who makes the speeches, absolutely puts together the words, which are uttered when the Address is moved and seconded? It can hardly be that lessons are prepared and sent to the noble lords and honourable gentlemen to be learned by heart like a school-boy’s task. And yet, from their construction, style, and general tone — from the platitudes which they contain as well as from the general safety and good sense of the remarks — from the absence of any attempt to improve a great occasion by the fire of oratory, one cannot but be convinced that a very absolute control is exercised. The gorgeously apparelled speakers, who seem to have great latitude allowed them in the matter of clothing, have certainly very little in the matter of language. And then it always seems that either of the four might have made the speech of any of the others. It could not have been the case that the Hon. Colonel Mowbray Dick, the Member for West Bustard, had really elaborated out of his own head that theory of the status pupillaris, A better fellow, or a more popular officer, or a sweeter-tempered gentleman than Mowbray Dick does not exist; but he certainly never entertained advanced opinions respecting the religious education of his country. When he is at home with his family, he always goes to church, and there has been an end of it.

And then the fight began. The thunderbolts of opposition were unloosed, and the fires of political rancour blazed high. Mr Gresham rose to his legs, and declared to all the world that which he had hitherto kept secret from his own party. It was known afterwards that in discussion with his own dearly-beloved political friend, Lord Cantrip, he had expressed his unbounded anger at the duplicity, greed for power, and want of patriotism displayed by his opponent; but he had acknowledged that the blow had come so quick and so unexpectedly that he thought it better to leave the matter to the House without instruction from himself. He now revelled in sarcasm, and before his speech was over raged into wrath. He would move an amendment to the Address for two reasons — first because this was no moment for bringing before Parliament the question of the Church establishment, when as yet no well-considered opportunity of expressing itself on the subject had been afforded to the country, and secondly because any measure of reform on that matter should certainly not come to them from the right honourable gentleman opposite. As to the first objection, he should withhold his arguments till the bill suggested had been presented to them. It was in handling the second that he displayed his great power of invective. All those men who then sat in the House, and who on that night crowded the galleries, remember his tones as, turning to the dissenters who usually supported him, and pointing over the table to his opponents, he uttered that well-worn quotation, “ Quod minime reris ‘ — then he paused, and began again; ” Quod minime reris — Graiâ pandetur ab urbe “ The power and inflexion of his voice at the word “ Graia +af” were certainly very wonderful. He ended by moving an amendment to the Address, and asking for support equally from one side of the House as from the other.

When at length Mr Daubeny moved his hat from his brow and rose to his legs he began by expressing his thankfulness that he had not been made a victim to the personal violence of the right honourable gentleman. He continued the same strain of badinage throughout — in which he was thought to have been wrong, as it was a method of defence, or attack, for which his peculiar powers hardly suited him. As to any bill that was to be laid upon the table, he had not as yet produced it. He did not doubt that the dissenting interests of the country would welcome relief from an anomaly, let it come whence it might, even Graiâ ab urbe, and he waved his hand back to the clustering Conservatives who sat behind him. That the right honourable gentleman should be angry he could understand, as the return to power of the right honourable gentleman and his party had been anticipated, and he might almost say discounted as a certainty.

Then, when Mr Daubeny sat down, the House was adjourned.

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