Lord Morley Of Blackburn
( Originally Published 1907 )
LORD MORLEY is the only " double first " of his time. He is perhaps the only double first since Burke. Other men have won distinction in more than one field. Canning wrote verse. Disraeli wrote novels. Macaulay was an orator and a historian as well as a statesman. Gladstone discussed Homer as vehemently as he discussed Home Rule. Lord Rosebery has trifled as piquantly with letters as he has with politics. Mr. Balfour has spun cobwebs in covers as well as across the floor of the House. But of none of these can it be said that he was in the front rank alike of literature and of statesmanship. It may, with reserve, be said of Lord Morley.
That a man," wrote Macaulay, " before whom the two paths of politics and literature lie open, and who may hope for eminence in either, should choose politics and quit literature seems to me madness." I speak from memory, but I think he wrote that letter when he was smarting under his defeat at Edinburgh. The dictum must therefore be taken with reserve, for the grapes were sour. But we may be grateful for a decision that gave us a history which Macaulay himself compared with Thucydides' Peloponnesian War, and which posterity, if it has not ratified that verdict, has placed among the imperishable things of English literature.
Lord Morley, with the " two paths " open before him, came to a contrary decision. In middle age with a secure European reputation in letters, he rose from the editor's desk and took a commission in th( field. " He gave up to a party what was meant for mankind," and left " the harvest of his teeming brain " largely ungarnered. When I see him I seem to see a row of phantom volumes books that will never be written beginning with that Life of Chatham, the promise of which, made nearly twenty years ago, is still unredeemed. And I wonder whether posterity will endorse his decision as it has endorsed Macaulay's.
No man ever made a more dramatic entrance into office than he did. The announcement one morning that Mr. John Morley was the new Irish Secretary was the first clear indication of the most momentous departure in policy made in our time. It meant that Home Rule was the official policy of the Liberal Party. It startled the country then. If it could have foreseen all that it meant, it would have been startled still more, for it would have seen that it meant not merely a change of policy but a political revolution, the end of an epoch, twenty years of reaction culminating in the emergence of the spectre of Protection, and side by side with it the emergence into practical politics of social ideals which Lord Morley was wont to regard as the idle dreams of impatient idealists.
For Lord Morley belongs to the past. He looks out on politics with reverted eyes. He has, it is true, more than any other man the passion of the old philosophic Radicals for liberty and political equality. He sat at the feet of John Stuart Mill and wears the mantle of that great man not unworthily, though with a difference, for the disciple has less of the optimism of logic than the master. The spirit of the French Revolution still burns in him with a pure flame. Manchester, the Manchester of the mid-Victorian time, still speaks through him with unfaltering accents. He is the high priest of liberty the civil and religious liberty of the individual. He stands for a cause that is largely won; but, being won, still needs that eternal vigilance which is the price of liberty, to hold as well as to win. That is his task. He is the guardian of the victories of the past. He is not a pioneer. He points to no far horizons, and stands icily aloof from all the eager aspirations of the new time. He will have nothing to do with strange idols. The gospel of social justice, that, proclaimed by Ruskin and heard at the street corners, is penetrating into Parliament and changing the whole atmosphere of political thought, finds in him little response. He murmurs " Impatient idealists," and is still. For reward he has incurred that subtlest of all rebukes--the praises of the Spectator.
The world of politics is a world of action, of quick resolves, and firm and sudden movement. To hesitate is to be lost. Lord Morley has the hesitation of the man of thought. Hazlitt used to say that you could see the defeat of the Whigs written in the weak, fluctuating lower features of Charles Fox's face, just as you could see the victory of the Tories imaged in Pitt's " aspiring nose." So in the deep-set, contemplative eye and indeterminate chin of Lord Morley you see the man who inspires others to lofty purpose, rather than the man of action. In his study, alone with the past or the present, he hitches his wagon to a star and rides away into the pure serene. In a set speech, face to face with a great issue, he sounds a note of moral greatness, austere and pure, that is heard from no other lips to-day. But in the presence of a situation calling for immediate and drastic action from himself, he is like Hamlet, and laments the "cursed spite" that has brought him face to face with a world of trouble. To do great things one must have a certain fearlessness of consequences, an indifference to responsibility, a fanatical faith, or the gambler's recklessness. Lord Morley has none of these qualities. The gravity and apprehensiveness of his mind revolt against the irrevocable word and make decisive action an in-tolerable pain.
It is this perplexity of the will, so characteristic of the philosopher in affairs, that is perhaps the secret of Lord Morley's admiration for Mr. Chamberlain, for we all admire most that which we have not. He sees in him the quality of decisive action at its highest. Mr. Chamberlain never doubts, never hesitates. He risks his whole fortune on the cast of a die. He does not pause to think: he acts. He has no yesterdays, no moral obligations. Do the principles he has professed stand in his path? Then so much the worse for his principles. He discards them as lightly as the mariner disburdens his ship of the ballast in the hold. His days are not, like the poet's, " bound each to each with filial piety." He does not care what he has said: he only sees the instant strategy, and adopts it. Action! Action! And again Action! If it is necessary to burn his boats, he burns them on the instant. If it suits his purpose to change his coat, he changes it and is done with it. If his purpose can only be achieved by a war, then war let it be. No situation so obstinate but he will unloose it, " familiar as his garter," if in no other way, then with the sword. He is a horse in blinkers. He sees neither to the right hand nor to the left, only to the goal ahead, and to that he flashes like an arrow to the mark. He knows that the thing the people love in a leader is swift decision and dramatic, fearless action. " Right or wrong, act ! " Lord Morley, most in reflection, weighing all the delicately balanced factors, sees with wonder the whirlwind go by.
Nor is the dominion of reflection over action the only bar to the leadership of Liberalism which once seemed within his scope. For his reflection upon life is touched with an abiding melancholy which differentiates him from his masters, who saw in the triumph of reason and logic the solution of all the problems of society. He cultivates no such confident optimism, but seems to detect in modern life the odour of decay, to see our civilisation not lit by the auroral light and bursting to perfect and enduring forms, but passing into the twilight whither the gods have vanished. It is of the late Lord Salisbury that he sometimes re-minds one, though he has nothing of the grim acidity of that statesman. Lord Salisbury, it was well said, was " like the leader of a lost cause, resolved to fight on, though well assured that nothing but defeat awaited him." His deep-rooted scepticism about all the tendencies of what he called " our miserable life " was qualified only by the disposition to resist all change, not because the existing social order was good, but because it existed, and because his despairing vision saw nothing but deeper glooms ahead. It was the disposition to bear the ills we have rather than fly to others that we know not of. The ship was doomed and human effort an impertinence. Lord Morley's dejection is charged with a more active principle. It may be a losing fight in which we are engaged; but human effort after perfection is none the less not an impertinence but the highest duty. The ship may be doomed, but we can still steer it by the stars. With Empedocles he says :
Fear not! life still
A pessimistic philosophy is not inconsistent with the leadership of the Tory party, but to Liberalism it would be fatal; 'and even the Stoicism of Arnold which more nearly represents the attitude of Lord Morley would serve only as a check to dissolution. For Liberalism must be compact of dreams and inspired by " extravagant hopes."
Twenty-five years ago the future of British politics seemed bound up with three friends, the most powerful triumvirate of our time. Citizen Chamberlain provided the driving power and the popular appeal, Citizen Dilke the encyclopaedic knowledge of detail and affairs, John Morley the moral motive and the intellectual foundation. Together they could have moved mountains. But the combination, for various reasons, fell to pieces, and the great hope vanished in twenty years of dismal reaction. " The pity of it, Iago, O the pity of it." It is one of the two great personal tragedies of modern politics.
Of the three, Lord Morley alone remains in effective service, and upon him, the preacher of political liberty, the irony of events has placed the burden of despotic control over a vast subject people, dimly struggling towards freedom. It seems like a jest of fate a jest to show how far the stern moralist, the foe of the "reason of State," can resist the assaults of circumstance and of entrenched officialdom. It is too soon yet to judge of the result. The deportation of Lajpat Rai suggested that Lord Morley had begun to dig his own grave; but the victory of second thoughts ;till keeps him on the side of the angels. With ;mirage he may yet make India his title to rank among statesmen of the first class secure. And then his claim to a " double first will be established.
But whether success or failure awaits him, he cannot fail to stand out as one of the most memorable figures of our time. For he breathes into the atmosphere of public life the quality it most needs and most lacks the quality of a lofty and instructed moral fervour. It was that quality which made Victorian politics great. It is the absence of that quality which makes the politics of today so inferior in spirit if not in purpose. There is no one left who can use the stops of the great organ save Lord Morley, and he in these days uses them only too rarely. Twenty years ago a speech by John Morley was an event. I recall one great utterance of his in Lancashire as the most memorable speech I have heard. Its peroration, so simple and poignant, lingers in the memory like a sonnet. He was speaking of Ireland, and he closed, as I remember it, thus: " Gentlemen, do to Ireland as you would be done by. If she is poor, remember it is you who have denied to her the fruits of her labour; if she is ignorant, remember it is your laws that have closed to her the book of knowledge; if she is excessive, as some of you may think, in her devotion to a Church which is not the Church of most of you, remember that Church was her only friend and comforter in the dark hour. Gentlemen, the dark hour is past. She has found other friends, other comforters. We will never desert her."
You will catch that thrilling note in the oratory of Lord Morley at all times, for he touches politics with a certain spiritual emotion that makes it less a business or a game than a religion. He lifts it out of the street on to the high lands where the view is wide and the air pure and where the voices heard are the voices that do not bewilder or betray. He is the conscience of the political world the barometer of our corporate soul. Tap him and you shall see whether we are se at " foul " or " fair." He has often been on the losing side: sometimes perhaps on the wrong side: never o] the side of wrong. He is
True as a dial to the sun,
There is about him a sense of the splendid austerity of truth cold, but exhilarating. It is not merely that he does not lie. There are some other politicians of whom that may be said. It is that he does not trifle with truth. It is sacred and inviolate. He would not admit with Erasmus, that " there are seasons when we must even conceal truth," still less with Fouché that " les paroles sont faites pour cacher nos pensées." His regard for truth is expressed in the motto to the essay " On Compromise." " It makes all the difference in the world whether we put truth in the first place or in the second." This inflexible veracity is the rarest and the most precious virtue in politics. It made him, if not, as Trevelyan says of Macaulay, " the worst popular candidate since Coriolanus," at least a severe test of a constituency's attachment. It is Lord Morley's contribution to the common stock. Truth and Justice these are the fixed stars by which he steers his barque, and even the Prayer Book places Religion and Piety after them, for indeed they are the true foundation of religion and piety.
It is this severe loyalty to truth and justice that is the note of his writings this and a clarity and invigoration of style that give one the sense of a brisk walk on the moorlands. He is like the breath of winter—" frosty, but kindly." The lucidity of his thought is matched by the chasteness of his phrasing. He does not love what Holmes called " the Macaulay flowers of literature." He does not burst
Into glossy purples that outredden
But he is a well of English pure and undefiled a well whose waters have never served any growth save what was noble and worthy.
In personal intercourse he is singularly attractive. True, he has something of the impatience and hot temper that used to make his brother, " the Doctor," so formidable and delightful. But the lightning is harmless and soon over if you are good and discreet and then his smile makes ample reparation. It is the most sensitive smile I know. The famous smile of Mr. Balfour has more of the quality of the charmeur, but this has the same winning pensiveness without the elusiveness and uncertainty of the other. And there is one sure specific for banishing his frown. Insinuate into the conversation a delicate reference to literature and the sky clears magically. Then you discover where his heart really dwells and are admitted to the most intimate chambers of his thought. He is like one who has escaped from the prison of the present with all its fateful tasks to the free air where one may talk of the fathers that begat us and pass judgment upon all their deeds and words without the uncomfortable necessity of facing their problems and the peril of committing their errors.
He is not and could never be a popular politician. He is too eclectic, dwells too much apart for that. " I am not a gregarious person," he once said, and apart from his passion for music he has few popular tastes. But there is no man whose word carries more weight with friend and foe than his does. The old gibe at him about spelling God with a small " g " is no longer heard, for he has made men realise that there may be at least as much true religion in the spirit in which one doubts as in the most exact formulas of belief, and he has never divorced the chivalrous austerity of his teaching from the conduct of his own life. It was characteristic of him that when he lived on the top of the Hog's Back and kept a horse and trap to meet him at the station, he always walked behind the animal when it was going uphill. When men disagree with him they do so with searchings of heart, for he is " clear of the oak and the pine-scrub, and out on the rocks and the snow," and perchance his vision is most true. He brings to the consideration of politics that historic sense which is the most rare and valuable element in contemporary criticism. He seems aloof from the dust and heat of the conflict, watching the unfolding of a new chapter in the eternal drama of things, and making his comments, not in the spirit of one of the actors, but with the cold detachment of the Greek chorus. The alarums and excursions of politics, its subtleties and stratagems, do not appeal to him. He is not conscious of them, has not that celerity of mind that moves with ease amid the tortuous labyrinth. He is stiff and remote, irritated by the asperities of the game, scornful of its expediencies. His true place is with Burke on the back benches, applying the test of eternal principle to the momentary task, rather than with Walpole on the Treasury bench, seeking to make principles bend to the necessities of occasion, and basing his calculations on the foibles and follies of men.