Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament/Leonard Henry Courtney

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2125647Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament — Leonard Henry CourtneyJohn Morrison Davidson



"Can rules or tutors educate
 The democrat •whom we await?"

IN Mr. Thomas Burt, the member for Morpeth, we had an excellent example of what the mine and the trades-union can do to form the mind and character of a legislator. Similarly, in Mr. Leonard Henry Courtney, member for Liskeard, we have an equally perfect sample of what an institution so far removed from the mine as the university, working at high pressure, can effect.

Mr. Courtney has been but a short time in Parliament, and I feel that it is consequently somewhat premature to take his political horoscope. He, however, entered the House so exceptionally well equipped for the discharge of his legislative duties, and has on the whole executed them so efficiently, that his claims to recognition as an eminent Radical cannot be overlooked. He is, beyond all question, a very able man, whatever his critics in or out of the House may say to the contrary; and, among the younger members of the Commons, I know no one whose future conduct will be better worth watching. He is one regarding whom it may be safely predicted, that, to use a Scotch proverb, he will speedily "either make a spoon or spoil a horn." His detractors say that he has already spoiled the horn, chiefly by want of tact.

He is accused of the unpardonable parliamentary offence of "lecturing" the House, instead of addressing it; and it must be admitted that the charge is not wholly groundless. Even those who are discerning enough to recognize his rare intellectual accomplishments and powers of close reasoning cannot endure this sort of thing. It is in human nature in such circumstances to call out—

"If thou art great, be merciful,
 O woman of three cows!"

In the debate on Mr. Trevelyan's motion in favor of the county franchise, the member for Liskeard told the House, with very little circumlocution, that it had degenerated, and that the members generally were nobodies. The inference, of course, was unavoidable that the speaker was somebody. Well, I readily admit both proposition and deduction, but "hold it not honesty to have it thus set down." The great majority of Mr, Courtney's colleagues, it is true, are mere rule-of-thumb legislators,, whereas his knowledge of politics is, by comparison, scientific. But the uninstructed are there to be persuaded, "educated" if you will, by the better disciplined intellects; and there is no surer test of genuine culture than the habitual exhibition of a tender regard for the feelings of the ignorant. Not that Mr. Courtney means it in the least. He is as little of a prig as any man I ever met,—a downright hearty good fellow, as true as steel to his convictions of what is for the public good, and without any fundamental egotism of character. In private he has not a particle of the "professor" about him; and, as this fact comes to be commonly recognized, it may be hoped the memory of his public forwardness will be effaced, and full justice done to his remarkable acquirements and good intentions.

Mr. Courtney, M.P., was born at Penzance in July, 1832. His father, John Sampson Courtney of Alverton House, was a native of Ilfracombe, where his ancestors had been settled for two hundred years at least. Courtney, senior, early in life took to banking, and has for half a century been connected with the firm of Bolitho, Sons, & Co., bankers, Penzance.

At an early age young Courtney was sent to the Regent House Academy, the chief school in the neighborhood; and from the first he displayed conspicuous talent. Latterly his studies were superintended by Dr. Willan, a private tutor. Then for a short time he was employed in the bank of Messrs. Bolitho, Sons, & Co.; but finally, in his nineteenth year, it was recognized that a university career would best suit his strong love of study and remarkable powers of application. Accordingly, in 1851, he was entered as a student of St. John's College, Cambridge; and in 1855 he graduated with honors which speak volumes in themselves. He was second wrangler and Smith's prizeman.

Needless to say, such honorable achievements were not long without their reward. He became a fellow of his college, and was speedily immersed in lucrative private tuition. His preliminary training had not been specially adapted to secure him such distinctions, and it is, therefore, impossible to withhold our admiration for the vigor of mind and body which enabled him to triumph so signally.

How far marked aptitude for mathematical studies is indicative of general intellectual superiority has, been the subject of much controversy. Lord Macaulay kept an exhaustive catalogue of senior wranglers who always remained juniors in every thing but mathematics, and Sir William Hamilton estimated the disciplinary value of the study at a very low rate. The truth, however, seems to be that the gift or knack which enables one man to manipulate algebraic quantities so much more readily than another may or may not co-exist in the mind with other, it may be, greater endowments. One thing only is very certain,—the process of intense ratiocinative specialization, to which wranglers must necessarily subject themselves, cannot fail to seriously dwarf their other faculties. Off their special topics the writings of great mathematicians have nearly always struck me as peculiarly bloodless and uninteresting, and it is no small praise to Mr. Courtney to say that he is an exception to this rule. In point of both reasoning and style, his contributions to "The Fortnightly," for example, and his reported speeches, bear but few traces of the depletory process to which I have alluded. This exemption may, to some extent, be accounted for by the fact, that, on completing his university curriculum, he broke vigorously into intellectual fields and pastures new.

In 1858 he was called to the bar by the Honorable Society of Lincoln's Inn; and in 1872 he became professor of political economy at University College, a post which he retained for nearly three years. During that time he acquainted himself with all the best writers on the subject, and became a warm advocate of the special views of John Stuart Mill. From Mill it is easy to see that he derived a great deal more than from the Alma Mater of which he is a senior fellow. With respect to the representation of minorities, and the female franchise more particularly, the mantle of the deceased philosopher has fallen on his shoulders. Mill was never at a university; yet it has been his part to fructify the intellects of such distinguished university alumni as Courtney and Fawcett. Without his influence there is no saying what they might not have been.

Oxford and Cambridge are in reality huge forcing-houses for the production of young aristocrats, maintained at scandalous cost, in no sense national institutions, and about the last places in the world where one would dream of going in order to acquire the art of thinking. Such exceptionally intelligent and public-spirited emanations as the members for Hackney and Liskeard are in reality rather a misfortune than otherwise. Their "fellowship" is a snare.

"The name of Cassius honors this corruption,
 And Chastisement doth therefore hide his head."

It is hardly too much to say, that if Oxford and Cambridge were erased from the map of England to-morrow, and the intellect of the country permitted to flow into freer channels, the political and general intelligence of the people would be elevated by the change many degrees.

Besides discharging the duties of the political economy chair at University College, Mr. Courtney has held several other appointments, which have necessarily extended the range of his intellectual vision. He has been an examiner in literature and history for the Indian Civil Service, and examiner in the constitutional history of England for the University of London. Since 1864 he has, moreover, been a "Times" leader-writer, with all that that implies.

When he left his seat in the gallery to take his seat on the opposition benches, he entered the actual arena of politics armed, so to speak, cap-a-pie. In addition, he had travelled much, and examined on the spot the working of the political machinery of many lands. He had visited nearly every European country, the United States twice, as well as Canada, India, Turkey, and Egypt.

His first attempt to force the gates of St. Stephen's was made at the general election of 1874, when he boldly threw down the gauntlet to that clever but unstable politician, the late Right Honorable Edward Horsman. Mr. Horsman won by the narrow majority of five votes. A somewhat acrimonious war of words followed, wherein Mr. Courtney had not the worst of it.

Towards the close of 1876 Mr. Horsman died; and Mr. Courtney and Lieut.-Col. Sterling entered the field, the former polling 388, and the latter 281 votes. Mr. Courtney's poll was the largest ever recorded for a candidate at Liskeard, and, coming as it did when Liberal fortunes were very low, did a good deal to re-invigorate the party in Parliament.

It remains to consider, however inadequately, a few of the more prominent questions with which Mr. Courtney has identified himself. He is now the chief advocate in Parliament of the representation of minorities and of women, or, to be more gallant, of women and minorities. Now, with regard to the question of minority representation, much may be said pro and con. Mr. Mill undoubtedly regarded Mr. Hare's scheme of "proportional representation" as a political discovery of the most important character, and any such opinion of Mill's is of course entitled to respectful consideration. But Mr. Courtney is so enamoured of "three-cornered constituencies" and "cumulative votes" that he positively refused to support Mr. Trevelyan's County Franchise Bill because it contained no provision for the realization of a "principle which would re-create political life, raising it out of the degradation which overlaid it." Mr. Courtney tells us we are about to be overwhelmed by the billows of a tempestuous democratic ocean abounding in unknown terrors. There is but one escape: we must all put out to sea in tiny "three-cornered" boats, on pain of universal political shipwreck. Was there ever so great faith seen in or out of Israel? One recalls the exclamation of the Breton mariner,—"How great, O Lord, is thy ocean! and how small is my skiff!" The danger to be apprehended is no less than the gradual extinction of the "independent member."

Now, apart from the fact that the independent member is generally a member who is not to be depended on, is it a fact that our experience of the actual working of the "cumulative vote" and of the "three-cornered constituency" has been so encouraging as to induce us to withhold the franchise from the county householder until the requisite number of "comers" and "cumulations" can be created? I chance to know the electoral circumstances, parliamentary and scholastic, of two important cities in the north,—the one returning three members to Parliament by the three-cornered artifice; the other, thirteen members to the school board by the cumulative process. In the former case the Tories, at the general election of 1874, managed to return their candidate, simply because no human ingenuity could, with the secrecy of the ballot-box to contend against, so evenly apportion the two votes of each Liberal elector among the three Liberal candidates as to keep the Conservative at the bottom of the poll. With an open vote, it was quite possible, though unnecessarily difficult; but under the ballot it was a preposterous game of blind man's buff",—the veriest ne plus ultra of legislative folly. The minority succeeded with a vengeance.

In the other case three school-board elections have taken place. On the first occasion the Radical ("Secularist") minority put up too many candidates, and returned none; next election they carried two, who found themselves powerless to influence the decisions of the ultra-orthodox majority. These two stood again, but as acquiescing in the ecclesiastico-educational policy favored by the mass of the electors, and lost their seats, as they deserved to do. An intelligent and active minority with a just cause was thus effaced. It would be very unsafe to found any argument on such slender data; but it is quite possible that the ultimate effect of minority representation, at all events in its present shape, may be found to have the very opposite effect of what Mr. Courtney anticipates. Its tendency appears to be to confirm majorities in erroneous opinions, while hopelessly discouraging right-thinking minorities from further propaganda. When once we have obtained something like true electoral majorities, it will be time enough to provide for the representation of minorities.

At the election of 1868, Lancashire, as Mr. Courtney has pointed out, with its included towns, returned twenty-two Conservative to eleven Liberal representatives; yet the Liberal vote was one hundred and four thousand strong, while the Conservative was only one hundred and two thousand. Suppose the distinction of town and county were abolished once and for all, and each shire or aggregate of shires were permitted to vote for a group of candidates in proportion to its electorate, on something like the old French system of scrutin de liste, would not that give a fairer chance to "independent members" and candidates "above mediocrity" than thoroughly artificial corners and cumulations? Let Mr. Courtney consider the matter; for certainly the minority-representation craze has landed him in strange seeming contradictions.

On the one day he opposed the enfranchisement of the count}' householder, and on the next he proposed to remove the electoral disabilities of women. He would plead, doubtless, by way of extenuation, that this was not a lowering, but an assimilation, of the franchise, and that he was not consequently compelled by consistency to encumber his bill with any three-cornered contrivances. But the point is all too fine; and the House showed its sense of the incongruity of the situation by recording a majority of a hundred and fourteen votes against the measure, as compared with eighty the year before, and this notwithstanding the fact that the member for Liskeard's arguments were most cogent. It is hardly necessary to observe, that, like all ardent advocates of female rights, Mr. Courtney is a bachelor. But there is one question with respect to which the most captious Radical can have nothing but words of praise to bestow on Mr. Courtney. Since he first entered Parliament he has never ceased, in season and out of season, to oppose with rare foresight the disastrous policy of which the upshot has been the serious and discreditable war with the Zulus. His fidelity in this matter ought never to be forgotten.

On the 7th of August, 1877, he moved the following resolution with respect to the annexation of the Transvaal:"That, in the opinion of this House, the annexation of the South-African Republic is unjustifiable, and calculated to be injurious to the interests of the United Kingdom and of its colonies in South Africa." "We had formerly agreed," he said, "not to carry our arms into the middle of Africa, and to allow the Dutch Boers themselves to go into the interior. We had reversed that policy. We had taken on ourselves the immense burden of administering the affairs of the Transvaal. We had made ourselves responsible for what that republic had done, and would have to take up its quarrels with the native chiefs. The cost would not be borne by the colonies, and would have to be borne by us at home. The vote of to-night was the first symptom of the considerable expenditure which the country would have to bear for many years in connection with this matter."

Most true! "The pity is 'tis true." I reproduce these words from Hansard, because they are an imperishable monument of Mr. Courtney's sagacity as a counsellor of the nation in the conduct of difficult affairs. He demonstrated that Sir Theophilus Shepstone had, with a high hand, violated both the conditions by which the Colonial Office sought to bind him in his dealings with the Transvaal. He had issued his annexationist proclamation without the sanction of the High Commissioner, and against the wishes of the Boers, who publicly protested against the outrage in the proportion of twelve to one. The subjugation of the Transvaal was perhaps the most treacherous act, the basest manifestation of our "spirited foreign policy;" and jet, alas! Lord Sandon, in the debate on Sir Charles Dilke's memorable resolution, was able to say with truth, "The honorable member for Liskeard has a right to raise the question of the Transvaal; but most of those opposite can scarcely do so with good grace. The annexation of the Transvaal was accepted generally by the two great political parties in the House."

Having done our best to restore the emancipated Roumelians to the hateful joke of the Sultan, it was perhaps fitting that we should seek to subject these brave Dutch republicans to that of the Empress of India. O tempora, O mores! I congratulate the member for Liskeard that in this infamous transaction his hands at least are clean.