The Spirit of Whiggism, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 6.

Results of Whiggism

The Tories assert that the whole property of the country is on their side; and the Whigs, wringing their hands over lost elections and bellowing about ‘intimidation,’ seem to confess the soft impeachment. Their prime organ also assures us that every man with 500L. per annum is opposed to them. Yet the Whig–Radical writers have recently published, by way of consolation to their penniless proselytes, a list of some twenty Dukes and Marquises, who, they assure us, are devoted to ‘Liberal’ principles, and whose revenues, in a paroxysm of economical rhodomontade, they assert, could buy up the whole income of the rest of the hereditary Peerage. The Whig–Radical writers seem puzzled to reconcile this anomalous circumstance with the indisputably forlorn finances of their faction in general. Now, this little tract on the ‘Spirit of Whiggism’ may perhaps throw some light upon this perplexing state of affairs. For myself, I see in it only a fresh illustration of the principles which I have demonstrated, from the whole current of our history, to form the basis of Whig policy. This union of oligarchical wealth and mob poverty is the very essence of the ‘Spirit of Whiggism.’

The English constitution, which, from the tithing-man to the Peer of Parliament, has thrown the whole government of the country into the hands of those who are qualified by property to perform the duties of their respective offices, has secured that diffused and general freedom, without which the national industry would neither have its fair play nor its just reward, by a variety of institutions, which, while they prevent those who have no property from invading the social commonwealth, in whose classes every industrious citizen has a right to register himself, offer also an equally powerful check to the ambitious fancies of those great families, over whose liberal principles and huge incomes the Whig–Radical writers gloat with the self-complacency of lackeys at the equipages of their masters. There is ever an union in a perverted sense between those who are beneath power and those who wish to be above it; and oligarchies and despotisms are usually established by the agency of a deluded multitude. The Crown, with its constitutional influence over the military services, a Parliament of two houses watching each other’s proceedings with constitutional jealousy, an independent hierarchy and, not least, an independent magistracy, are serious obstacles in the progressive establishment of that scheme of government which a small knot of great families — these dukes and marquises, whose revenues according to the Government organ, could buy up the income of the whole peerage-naturally wish to introduce. We find, therefore, throughout the whole period of our more modern history, a powerful section of the great nobles ever at war with the national institutions, checking the Crown, attacking the independence of that House of Parliament in which they happen to be in a minority — no matter which, patronising sects to reduce the influence of the Church, and playing town against country to overcome the authority of the gentry.

It is evident that these aspiring oligarchs, as a party, can have little essential strength; they can count upon nothing but their retainers. To secure the triumph of their cause, therefore, they are forced to manoeuvre with a pretext, and while they aim at oligarchical rule, they apparently advocate popular rights. They hold out, consequently, an inducement to all the uneasy portion of the nation to enlist under their standard; they play their discontented minority against the prosperous majority, and, dubbing their partisans ‘the people,’ they flatter themselves that their projects are irresistible. The attack is unexpected, brisk, and dashing, well matured, dexterously mystified. Before the nation is roused to its danger, the oligarchical object is often obtained; and then the oligarchy, entrenched in power, count upon the nation to defend them from their original and revolutionary allies. If they succeed, a dynasty is changed, or a Parliament reformed, and the movement is stopped; if the Tories or the Conservatives cannot arrest the fatal career which the Whigs have originally impelled, then away go the national institutions; the crown falls from the King’s brow; the crosier is snapped in twain; one House of Parliament is sure to disappear, and the gentlemen of England, dexterously dubbed Malignants, or Anti–Reformers, or any other phrase in fashion, the dregs of the nation sequester their estates and install themselves in their halls; and ‘liberal principles’ having thus gloriously triumphed, after a due course of plunder, bloodshed, imprisonment, and ignoble tyranny, the people of England, sighing once more to be the English nation, secure order by submitting to a despot, and in time, when they have got rid of their despot, combine their ancient freedom with their newly-regained security by reestablishing the English constitution.

The Whigs of the present day have made their assault upon the nation with their usual spirit. They have already succeeded in controlling the sovereign and in remodelling the House of Commons. They have menaced the House of Lords, violently assailed the Church, and reconstructed the Corporations. I shall take the two most comprehensive measures which they have succeeded in carrying, and which were at the time certainly very popular, and apparently of a very democratic character,-their reform of the House of Commons, and their reconstruction of the municipal corporations. Let us see whether these great measures have, in fact, increased the democratic character of our constitution or not — whether they veil an oligarchical project, or are, in fact, popular concessions inevitably offered by the Whigs in their oligarchical career.

The result of the Whig remodelling of the order of the Commons has been this — that it has placed the nomination of the Government in the hands of the popish priesthood. Is that a great advance of public intelligence and popular liberty? Are the parliamentary nominees of M’Hale and Kehoe more germane to the feelings of the English nation, more adapted to represent their interests, than the parliamentary nominees of a Howard or a Percy? This papist majority, again, is the superstructure of a basis formed by some Scotch Presbyterians and some English Dissenters, in general returned by the small constituencies of small towns — classes whose number and influence, intelligence and wealth, have been grossly exaggerated for factious purposes, but classes avowedly opposed to the maintenance of the English constitution. I do not see that the cause of popular power has much risen, even with the addition of this leaven. If the suffrages of the Commons of England were polled together, the hustings-books of the last general election will prove that a very considerable majority of their numbers is opposed to the present Government, and that therefore, under this new democratic scheme, this great body of the nation are, by some hocus-pocus tactics or other, obliged to submit to the minority. The truth is, that the new constituency has been so arranged that an unnatural preponderance has been given to a small class, and one hostile to the interests of the great body. Is this more democratic? The apparent majority in the House of Commons is produced by a minority of the Commons themselves; so that a small and favoured class command a majority in the House of Commons, and the sway of the administration, as far as that House is concerned, is regulated by a smaller number of individuals than those who governed it previous to its reform.

But this is not the whole evil: this new class, with its unnatural preponderance, is a class hostile to the institutions of the country, hostile to the union of Church and State, hostile to the House of Lords, to the constitutional power of the Crown, to the existing system of provincial judicature. It is, therefore, a class fit and willing to support the Whigs in their favourite scheme of centralisation, without which the Whigs can never long maintain themselves in power. Now, centralisation is the death-blow of public freedom; it is the citadel of the oligarchs, from which, if once erected, it will be impossible to dislodge them. But can that party be aiming at centralised government which has reformed the municipal corporations? We will see. The reform of the municipal corporations of England is a covert attack on the authority of the English gentry,-that great body which perhaps forms the most substantial existing obstacle to the perpetuation of Whiggism in power. By this democratic Act the county magistrate is driven from the towns where he before exercised a just influence, while an elective magistrate from the towns jostles him on the bench at quarter sessions, and presents in his peculiar position an anomaly in the constitution of the bench, flattering to the passions, however fatal to the interests, of the giddy million. Here is a lever to raise the question of county reform whenever an obstinate shire may venture to elect a representative in Parliament hostile to the liberal oligarchs. Let us admit, for the moment, that the Whigs ultimately succeed in subverting the ancient and hereditary power of the English gentry. Will the municipal corporations substitute themselves as an equivalent check on a centralising Government? Whence springs their influence? From property? Not half a dozen have estates. Their influence springs from the factitious power with which the reforming Government has invested them, and of which the same Government will deprive them in a session, the moment they cease to be corresponding committees of the reforming majority in the House of Commons. They will either be swept away altogether, or their functions will be limited to raising the local taxes which will discharge their expenses of the detachment of the metropolitan police, or the local judge or governor, whom Downing Street may send down to preside over their constituents. With one or two exceptions, the English corporations do not possess more substantial and durable elements of power than the municipalities of France. What check are they on Paris? These corporations have neither prescription in their favour, nor property. Their influence is maintained neither by tradition nor substance. They have no indirect authority over the minds of their townsmen; they have only their modish charters to appeal to, and the newly engrossed letter of the law. They have no great endowments of whose public benefits they are the official distributers; they do not stand on the vantage-ground on which we recognise the trustees of the public interests; they neither administer to the soul nor the body; they neither feed the poor nor educate the young; they have no hold on the national mind; they have not sprung from the national character; they were born by faction, and they will live by faction. Such bodies must speedily become corrupt; they will ultimately be found dangerous instruments in the hands of a faction. The members of the country corporations will play the game of a London party, to secure their factitious local importance and obtain the consequent results of their opportune services.

I think I have now established the two propositions with which I commenced my last chapter: and will close this concluding one of the ‘Spirit of Whiggism’ with their recapitulation, and the inferences which I draw from them. If there be a slight probability of ever establishing in this country a more democratic government than the English constitution, it will be as well, I conceive, for those who love their rights, to maintain that constitution; and if the more recent measures of the Whigs, however plausible their first aspect, have, in fact, been a departure from the democratic character of that constitution, it will be as well for the English nation to oppose, with all their heart, and all their soul, and all their strength, the machinations of the Whigs and the ‘Spirit of Whiggism.’

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53