“I do not like the prospect of affairs,” said Mr. Sidney Wilton to Endymion as they were posting up to London from Montfort Castle; a long journey, but softened in those days by many luxuries, and they had much to talk about.
“The decline of the revenue is not fitful; it is regular. Our people are too apt to look at the state of the revenue merely in a financial point of view. If a surplus, take off taxes; if a deficiency, put them on. But the state of the revenue should also be considered as the index of the condition of the population. According to my impression, the condition of the people is declining; and why? because they are less employed. If this spreads, they will become discontented and disaffected, and I cannot help remembering that, if they become troublesome, it is our office that will have to deal with them.”
“This bad harvest is a great misfortune,” said Endymion.
“Yes, but a bad harvest, though unquestionably a great, perhaps the greatest, misfortune for this country, is not the entire solution of our difficulties — I would say, our coming difficulties. A bad harvest touches the whole of our commercial system: it brings us face to face with the corn laws. I wish our chief would give his mind to that subject. I believe a moderate fixed duty of about twelve shillings a quarter would satisfy every one, and nothing then could shake this country.”
Endymion listened with interest to other views of his master, who descanted on them at much length. Private secretaries know everything about their chiefs, and Endymion was not ignorant that among many of the great houses of the Whig party, and indeed among the bulk of what was called “the Liberal” party generally, Mr. Sidney Wilton was looked upon, so far as economical questions were concerned, as very crotchety, indeed a dangerous character. Lord Montfort was the only magnate who was entirely opposed to the corn laws, but then, as Berengaria would remark, “Simon is against all laws; he is not a practical man.”
Mr. Sidney Wilton reverted to these views more than once in the course of their journey. “I was not alarmed about the Chartists last year. Political trouble in this country never frightens me. Insurrections and riots strengthen an English government; they gave a new lease even to Lord Liverpool when his ministry was most feeble and unpopular; but economical discontent is quite another thing. The moment sedition arises from taxation, or want of employment, it is more dangerous and more difficult to deal with in this country than any other.”
“Lord Roehampton seemed to take rather a sanguine view of the situation after the Bed–Chamber business in the spring,” observed Endymion, rather in an inquiring than a dogmatic spirit.
“Lord Roehampton has other things to think of,” said Mr. Wilton. “He is absorbed, and naturally absorbed, in his department, the most important in the state, and of which he is master. But I am obliged to look at affairs nearer home. Now, this Anti–Corn-Law League, which they established last year at Manchester, and which begins to be very busy, though nobody at present talks of it, is, in my mind, a movement which ought to be watched. I tell you what; it occurred to me more than once during that wondrous pageant, that we have just now been taking part in, the government wants better information than they have as to the state of the country, the real feelings and condition of the bulk of the population. We used to sneer at the Tories for their ignorance of these matters, but after all, we, like them, are mainly dependent on quarter sessions; on the judgment of a lord-lieutenant and the statistics of a bench of magistrates. It is true we have introduced into our subordinate administration at Whitehall some persons who have obtained the reputation of distinguished economists, and we allow them to guide us. But though ingenious men, no doubt, they are chiefly bankrupt tradesmen, who, not having been able to manage their own affairs, have taken upon themselves to advise on the conduct of the country — pedants and prigs at the best, and sometimes impostors. No; this won’t do. It is useless to speak to the chief; I did about the Anti–Corn-Law League; he shrugged his shoulders and said it was a madness that would pass. I have made up my mind to send somebody, quite privately, to the great scenes of national labour. He must be somebody whom nobody knows, and nobody suspects of being connected with the administration, or we shall never get the truth — and the person I have fixed upon is yourself.”
“But am I equal to such a task?” said Endymion modestly, but sincerely.
“I think so,” said Mr. Wilton, “or, of course, I would not have fixed upon you. I want a fresh and virgin intelligence to observe and consider the country. It must be a mind free from prejudice, yet fairly informed on the great questions involved in the wealth of nations. I know you have read Adam Smith, and not lightly. Well, he is the best guide, though of course we must adapt his principles to the circumstances with which we have to deal. You have good judgment, great industry, a fairly quick perception, little passion — perhaps hardly enough; but that is probably the consequence of the sorrows and troubles of early life. But, after all, there is no education like adversity.”
“If it will only cease at the right time,” said Endymion.
“Well, in that respect, I do not think you have anything to complain of,” said Mr. Wilton. “The world is all before you, and I mistake if you do not rise. Perseverance and tact are the two qualities most valuable for all men who would mount, but especially for those who have to step out of the crowd. I am sure no one can say you are not assiduous, but I am glad always to observe that you have tact. Without tact you can learn nothing. Tact teaches you when to be silent. Inquirers who are always inquiring never learn anything.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07