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CHATTER OR BUSINESS ?
In November 1788, three days before the meeting of Parliament, an anonymous pamphlet was published which considerably stirred and amused the town. It was entitled 'Anticipation; containing the substances of His M- -y's most gracious speech to both H-S of Pit on the opening of the approaching session, together with a full and authentic account of the debate which will take place in the H
of C- -s on the Motion for the Address and the Amendment. The author of the pamphlet, which very speedily passed through four editions, was the unfortunate Richard Tickell, who was the grandson of Thomas, Addison's protégé and eulogist, and who gave final expression to his disgust at human life by throwing himself out of a window of Hampton Court Palace. The pamphlet is entitled to an honourable place among the productions of perhaps the most brilliant period of English political satire, which towards the close of the eighteenth century includes the Pleasures of Literature, the Rolliad and the Probationary Odes, the works of Peter Pindar and the Anti-Jacobin, and which extended itself into the nineteenth in the New Whig Guide. The satire is still readable; its wit survived the occasion of it. Its author expresses the hope that the gentlemen from whose manuscripts he has copied verbatim will not be deterred by the fact that the speeches are printed before they are spoken * from delivering them with their usual appearance of extempore eloquence. There have been instances in our own time of speeches which have been faithfully delivered after their accidental appearance in print. Tickell's anticipations were, it is said, to a considerable degree realised. He had so accurately caught the modes of thought and the tricks of speech of contemporary Parliament men, that when the debate which he foreshadowed actually took place, many of the orators seemed really to be delivering what he had set down for them beforehand. In their nervous anxiety to avoid the mannerisms which he had signalised, they fell into them more and more hopelessly, and seemed to be parodying their parodist. The materials are copious, and the provocation is great to a similar satire now, if the satirist could be found; but the result would be unfortunate if it should confirm our present Parliament men in the oratorical habits
which they have acquired. An Anticipation of the approaching debate on the Address and Amendment which should set down for members what they ought to say, and the manner in which they ought to say it, and which should induce them to better the instruction given them, would do a public service. Passion might become reason, sophistry might be converted into logic, diffuseness might become succinct, sterility copious, languor force, and rusticity urbane. Violent methods have been proposed at different times for an abatement of oratorical and factious extravagancies. The proposal of the political projector in Laputa for mingling the brains of opposed partisans gave an acknowledged occasion to a jeu d'esprit in the New Whig Guide, the authorship of which is attributed to the late Sir Robert Peel, whose name is mentioned in the paper in a manner which somewhat confirms the supposition. The staid decorum which marked the maturity of the great Minister was not foreshadowed in any remarkable degree by the gravity and stillness of his youth; and one of the ablest parliamentary observers of the early years of the present century associates him with Mr. Canning in his rebukes of the flippant youth of the House of Commons, and contrasts their light impertinences with the manly dignity and straightforwardness of Mr. Frederick Robinson, destined to become a transient and perplexed phantasm on the public stage. The describer in the Nero Whig Guide of An Extraordinary Parliamentary Debate,' supposes the appointment of a Craniological Committee, the report of which recommends that with a view of procuring unanimity in this difficult crisis of the country, and of effecting a solid union of parties and persons on both sides of the House, a mutual interchange should take place between the several leading men of a part of their skulls, by which, as the report stated, there would be effected a union of organs, and of course of feelings and opinions, which could not but conduce to harmony by creating coincidence of temper and judgment between persons however opposite to each other they might have previously been.' Three eminent surgeons occupy the place of the three clerks at the table. Lord Castlereagh and Mr. Tierney are first submitted to the operation, and exchange occiputs. The result is that Mr. Tierney becomes candid and straightforward in temper, though perplexed in style, and Lord Castlereagh acquires lucidity of speech at the expense of trickiness and disingenuousness in argument. Corresponding operations are performed with corresponding results, among others upon Canning and Ponsonby, on Vansittart and Grattan, on Horner and Brougham, on Lord Palmerston and Lord Folkestone. Finally, Mr. Peel and Lord Althorp are paired off for an exchange of occiputs, but the hardness of Lord Althorp's skull prevents the operation being performed upon him, and Mr. Peel, putting the back of his head on again, resumes his seat in possession of his undivided brains. The satire is not very happily conducted,
for each speaker is made wholly to exchange characters with his partner, instead of blending his original with his acquired qualities. The art of surgery has made great progress during the past halfcentury, but we fear that such an operation as Swift and Sir Robert Peel suggested is not yet practicable. Otherwise, if Mr. Gladstone could make a partial exchange of brains with Mr. W. H. Smith, Lord Hartington with Lord Randolph Churchill, Mr. Goschen with Mr. John Morley, Sir William Harcourt with Lord John Manners, Sir Wilfrid Lawson with Mr. Chaplin, and Mr. Healy with Mr. Whitbread, the level of debate would be more uniform, parliamentary manners would be softened, and the extravagancies of partisanship abated.
Short of this heroic and for the present impracticable remedy, it is possible that some reform may take place. In the minds of most members of Parliament, and especially of most of the leading members, there is, it may be hoped, a sense of shame, reinforced by a healthy public indignation, at the transactions of the last session ; and a disposition to ensure that whatever may be the parliamentary character of the present year, it shall be as unlike as possible to its predecessor.
Eighteen hundred and eighty-seven was a year of chatter; eighteen hundred and eighty-eight will, it may be hoped, be a year of business. There is some danger lest a passing malady should be treated as if it were an organic disease, and that violent counteractives may be too ruthlessly applied. A false antithesis between speech and work is gaining hold of the public mind. Mr. Froude, in his brilliant work on the West Indies, pushes the matter, as is perhaps his habit, somewhat to an extreme. He regards the doers and the talkers as two distinct classes, separated by a gulf which neither of them can pass. The instances which he selects show a confidence in his theory which is courageous to the verge of audacity. Warren Hastings,' he says, 'wins India for us; the eloquent Burke desires and passionately tries to hang him for it.' The speeches of Demosthenes and of Cicero have passed into literature, but neither Demosthenes nor Cicero, Mr. Froude tells us, understood the facts of his time, and each of them mischievously misled his countrymen. Mr. Froude is on the side of the gods, and not of Cato, in preferring the winning to the conquered side. Burke did not succeed in hanging Hastings, but his speeches laid the foundation of the better government of India. Demosthenes and Cicero succumbed in the contest with the member for Macedon, as Horace Walpole calls Philip, and with Antony. But their speeches kept alive some flame of noble sentiment among their countrymen, and have been torches from which an enthusiasm for freedom has in all ages been kindled. Talk and work are not rivals. Debate is essential to the satisfactory conduct of business. Thought is the essential condition of wise
action, and clear thinking is impossible apart from articulate speech, which is as necessary to its distinct apprehension by the mind which originates it as it is to its conveyance to others. The great evil of our present parliamentary habits is not that there is too much eloquence, but that there is too little; not that discussion is in excess, but that there is scarcely any discussion at all. The debate is swallowed up in the speeches, as the wood in the old saying was hidden by the trees; and what is necessary is not to cut down the forest hut to clear it, to remove the jungle and the undergrowth, and to make paths through it leading somewhence and somewhither. A country in which popular government exists can be ruled only by the freest practice of the arts of public persuasion and discussion. Democracy was described, we think, by Hobbes, as an aristocracy of orators occasionally interrupted by the monarchy of a single orator; but the corrupt form of a democracy is an ochlocracy, and instead of a system of aristocratical or monarchical eloquence we have simply a shouting parliamentary mob. Almost every member of the House of Commons insists on having a speaking part. He is not content to be a walking or sitting gentleman, and the result is a confusion of inarticulate voices of which the Tower of Babel was but a feeble foreshadowing. The evil against which a struggle has to be made is twofold. It consists in the length of individual speeches, and in the multiplicity of speakers. When Lord Chatham made the longest speech which is on record against him, he was hailed by the crowd outside the doors of Parliament with enthusiastic cries of Three hours and a half! Three hours and a half!' as if, Lord Chesterfield observed, any human being could speak well for three hours and a half. Lord Brougham's eight hours “improving' was then still in the womb of time. It is perhaps the greatest feat of longiloquence on record in our Parliamentary history, though near approaches have been made to it in our own time.
There are few speeches of five hours which would not have been better if they had been compressed into two, and few speeches of two hours which would not have been improved if they had been restricted
The impulse of self-display is at the bottom of most of these extravagant demands on parliamentary time and attention. The end is sacrificed to the means, and the House of Commons is in danger propter loquendum loquendi perdere causas. Hume somewhere contrasts the eagerness with which people gathered to Athens from all parts of Greece to hear a speech of Demosthenes, with the preference which the House of Commons sometimes showed for the acting of old Cibber to the debates of the evening. But to enter into rivalry with the theatre is not the business of Parliament; and an orator who in our day should pit himself against Mr. Irving in attractiveness would mistake his function, and in succeeding he would only accomplish splendid failure. The longiloquence of indi
vidual speakers is however of necessity the fault of but a few. Still it is a depraving example, and leads men to eke out the poverty of their own matter by extracts from blue-books. A member who has sense and knowledge for ten minutes, prefers to be foolish and ignorant in twenty. Probably in the last session of Parliament this evil attained greater dimensions than it has ever reached before, to the great waste of the public time, and to the ruin of the health of many members. The House of Commons, it has been computed, during the session of 1887, sat 274 hours, or more than eleven days, after midnight. It is a partial compensation for this fact that there were 485 divisions, consuming 120 hours, or five days, in walking through the lobbies. It is probably owing to this peripatetic exercise that the strength of members was in some degree maintained. One evil, while in part aggravating, in part compensated the other. But it must be remembered that neither the Speaker nor the Chairman of Committees can take part in the divisions. Mr. Peel's position is more trying than that which the authors of the Rolliad commiserated in one of his least distinguished predecessors.
There Cornwall sits, and oh! unhappy fate
He stands gazing at the turbid flood of talk which flows past him voluble to eternity. The result of this merciless torture of dripping words was that midway in the last session Mr. Peel became completely exhausted, and was obliged to absent himself from the House for four days, and that it has taken him a considerable portion of the recess to recover from the perfectly gratuitous and wantonly imposed fatigues of the session. What those fatigues were is apparent from a statement made by the leader of the House, who had his full share of them. Mr. Speaker and Mr. Courtney had to listen, each of course relieving the other, to 11,468 speeches. No one will contend that this amount of talk is not immeasurably in excess of the work done; and, as a matter of fact, the speeches were made not by the responsible doers but by the irresponsible talkers. The followers of Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Parnell made 7,300 of these speeches; the Conservatives and the Liberal Unionists made only 4,100, though there are in round numbers 390 Unionist members in the House and only 280 Gladstonians and Parnellites. For every ten speeches made by supporters of the Government, who form four-sevenths of the House, twenty-nine speeches were made by Gladstonians and Parnellites, who form three-sevenths of it. Lord Salisbury truly denounces this as killing work. He has been censured for saying that