PARLIAMENT is a great thing, but it is not a cheerful thing. Just reflect on the existence of 'Mr Speaker.' First, a small man speaks to him—then a shrill man speaks to him—then a man who cannot speak will speak to him. He leads a life of 'passing tolls,' joint-stock companies, and members out of order. Life is short, but the forms of the House are long. MrEwart complains that a multitude of members, including the Prime Minister himself, actually go to sleep. The very morning paper feels the weight of this leaden regime. Even in the dullest society you hear complaints of the dullness of Parliament—of the representative tedium of the nation.
That an Englishman should grumble is quite right, but that he should grumble at gravity is hardly right. He is rarely a lively being himself, and he should have a sympathy with those of his kind. And he should further be reminded that his criticism is out of place—that dullness in matters of government is a good sign, and not a bad one that, in particular, dullness in parliamentary government is a test of its excellence, an indication of its success. The truth is, all the best business is a little dull. If you go into a merchant's counting-house, you see steel pens, vouchers, files, books of depressing magnitude, desks of awful elevation, staid spiders, and sober clerks moving among the implements of tedium. No doubt, to the parties engaged, much of this is very attractive. 'What,' it has been well said, 'are technicalities to those without, are realities to those within.' To every line in those volumes, to every paper on those damp files, there has gone doubt, decision, action—the work of a considerate brain, the touch of a patient hand. Yet even to those engaged, it is commonly the least interesting business which is the best. The more the doubt, the greater the liability to error—the longer the consideration, generally the worse the result—the more the pain of decision, the greater the likelihood of failure. In Westminster Hall they have a legend of a litigant who stopped his case because the lawyers said it was 'interesting.' 'Ah,' he remarked afterwards, 'they were going up to the "Lords" with it, and I should never have seen my money.' To parties concerned in law, the best case is a plain case. To parties concerned in trade, the best transaction is a plain transaction—the sure result of familiar knowledge; in political matters, the best sign that things are going well is that there should be nothing difficult—nothing requiring deep contention of mind—no anxious doubt, no sharp resolution, no lofty and patriotic execution. The opportunity for these qualities is the danger of the commonwealth. You cannot have a Chatham in time of peace—you cannot storm a Redan in Somersetshire. There is no room for glorious daring in periods ofplacid happiness.
And if this be the usual rule, certainly there is nothing in the nature of parliamentary government to exempt it from its operation. If business is dull, business wrangling is no better. It is dull for an absolute minister to have to decide on passing tolls, but it is still duller to hear a debate on them—to have to listen to the two extremes and the via media. One honourable member considers that the existing ninepence ought to be maintained; mother thinks it ought to be abolished; and a third—the independent thinker—has statistics of his own, and suggests that fourpence-halfpenny would 'attain the maximum of revenue with the minimum of inconvenience'—only he could wish there were a decimal coinage to 'facilitate the calculations of practical pilots.' Of course this is not the highest specimen of parliamentary speaking. Doubtless, on great questions, when the public mind is divided, when the national spirit is roused, when powerful interests are opposed, when large principles are working their way, when deep difficulties press for a decision, there is an opportunity for noble eloquence. But these very circumstances are...
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