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Why I Voted for Mr. Gladstone. IV. (S454: 1892)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: One of eight invited replies to an inquiry, and printed in the Nineteenth Century issue of August 1892. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S454.htm


    [[p. 182]] I gave my vote to a supporter of Mr. Gladstone for reasons which seem to me so cogent and so unanswerable from the standpoint of Liberalism, that it is a constant source of wonder to me that so many of my scientific friends, who, years ago, were advanced Liberals, are now found among the supporters of a Conservative Government. I will endeavour to state, as briefly as possible, what these reasons are.

    Mr. Gladstone has recently informed us that for many years past he has become more and more convinced that liberty is a good thing in itself, quite irrespective of the good or evil results we may hope or expect that it will produce. This was the teaching of John Stuart Mill and other pioneers of progress, and it has always seemed to me [[p. 183]] that it constitutes the fundamental principle of true Liberalism. Believing, then, in this great principle of individual and social liberty in all matters that do not injuriously affect the well-being or the liberty of others, I feel bound to advocate the removal of all legal restrictions which cannot be shown to be essential to a well-ordered social state; and especially to favour the grant of full powers of self-government in local matters to the successive grades of organised communities which make up the United Kingdom, such as parishes, towns, counties, and nationalities.

    Coming to the special case of Ireland, I believe that the infallible and only test of good government is general contentment combined with physical well-being. The people of Ireland are now, and have always been, discontented with our government of their country, a government which has never, till recently, even pretended to be for the good of the Irish. I believe that the only way to satisfy their just and proper desire for self-government, and to blot out the memory of centuries of oppression and misrule, is to grant them that measure of Home Rule which the Liberal party, under Mr. Gladstone, is prepared to concede, and which the Irish people are prepared to accept. To give this is the logical outcome of two great liberal principles--that liberty is not only a good thing in itself, but that with fair play and in the long run it always produces good results; and, that government, to be just and beneficial, must be founded on the freely expressed consent of the governed.

    An objection may be made that these principles would compel us to give, not partial, but absolute freedom to the Irish people if they desired it. I reply, that undoubtedly it would do so; but, in the first place that demand has not been yet made by the same large majority and with the same earnestness with which local self-government has been claimed; and, in the second place, with nations as with individuals, self-preservation is the paramount consideration, and a completely independent Ireland might easily be conquered by a continental Power and made the base for an attack upon us. As we can hardly suppose that a large majority of Irishmen would desire to become subjects of France or Germany, this demand for complete independence is not likely to be seriously made.

    A more practical objection is that, on what have been here laid down as Liberal principles, we should give to Ulster the same freedom to choose its own form of government which we are prepared to give to Ireland. To this I reply, that I certainly would give this freedom, either to Ulster or to any clearly defined portion of Ulster, if demanded by at least a two-thirds majority of its population. The present attitude of a portion of Ulster is, however, almost wholly due to religious antagonism, and to what Liberals believe to be an altogether unfounded dread of some form of religious persecution. But in order to meet the objections and allay the fears of the northern Irish [[p. 184]] Protestants, it seems to me that it would be both just and politic to include in the Home Rule Bill a proviso, that if at the end of five years any clearly defined portion of Ireland, such as a county or two or more contiguous counties, demanded by a two-thirds vote of its population to become an integral part of Scotland or of England, that demand should be granted. I am myself convinced that when the time came no such demand would be made; but, as a matter of justice and consistency, as well as of policy, the option should be granted.

    Next in importance to considerations of justice and good policy in giving Home Rule to Ireland, I would place the consideration that such a measure would form a first step--perhaps even a necessary first step--to the adoption of a similar measure of Home Rule for Scotland, Wales, and England, thus freeing the Imperial Parliament from the oppressive weight of local legislation, and opening the way to the possibility of an ultimate federation of the whole Empire. It is only by successive steps that so vast a reform of our constitution can be effected, and the proposed Irish measure would be the first and the easiest of those steps.

    Leaving now the Irish problem, with its vast possibilities of beneficial development in the legislative machinery of our constitution, I look to the Liberal party for those immediate and much-needed reforms which are implied in its principle and motto of 'trust in the people.' Such are: the arrangements necessary for all who are qualified to record their votes with the minimum of inconvenience; facilities for enabling the workers to be represented by men of their own status and their own choice; the abolition of plural voting; and, most important of all, the establishment of parish councils, with ample powers to preserve all public rights, to regulate the liquor traffic, and especially to acquire land wherever needed for cultivation or for dwellings, for recreative purposes, and for the creation of new roadways and footpaths giving access to river-banks, woodlands, and pleasant rural scenery.

    To the Liberal and Radical parties, and to the working men representatives of the future, I look for reforms in those numerous cases in which the landed, the official, and the professional classes have vested interests in evils or abuses. Among such much-needed reforms are the thorough simplification of law proceedings, with free redress for everyone who has suffered injustice or injury; the complete abolition of the game laws, with all their demoralisation and law-created offences; the thorough purification of our streams and rivers, and the utilisation on the land of the manurial refuse now poured into them; the abolition of compulsory and official vaccination, with its cruel tyranny to parents, and its ghastly risks of propagating diseases far worse than smallpox, such as syphilis, cancer, and leprosy; and, lastly, a thorough reform of our land system, so as to secure for [[p. 185]] the people the surplus value which yearly accrues to landowners through the growth of population and by the energy, skill, and labour of the community; while, by throwing open the land to the use of all who require it, the primary and greatest cause of the misery and want which still abounds among us may be removed.

    Some of these reforms are, it is true, outside the Liberal programme, and are not even contemplated by many members of the Liberal party; but it is, nevertheless, only by means of those measures to which Mr. Gladstone and the entire Liberal party are already pledged that they will be rendered possible in the not distant future.

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