Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Mock diplomacy

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One of the anxieties of sincere and practical friends of the people is the ignorance of the law, and of the additions annually made to it, which prevails all over the country. The citizens are subjected to the law on the supposition that they all know whatever concerns them of the provisions of the law; and ignorance is never admitted as an excuse for any offence under the law. In consequence of the Lord Chancellor’s proposal that the statute law shall be taken in hand, in order that whatever is obsolete, or by any cause rendered useless, shall be thrown out, and the useful remainder then classified and consolidated, we have heard more than usual of late about the impossibility of any Englishman becoming acquainted, in the longest life-time, with the requirements of the law he is bound to obey. If the Lord Chancellor’s scheme were already accomplished (and no living man will see that event) few but professional lawyers and well-read gentlemen would know much more than they do now of the legal conditions under which they are living: and the hopelessness of this department of citizen education has led some of my friends (and I should hope many others), to consult and consider whether something cannot be done, in a homely and practical way, to keep the public up with the changes in the law which take place in every session of Parliament.

There are too many educated persons—men of leisure, even,—who satisfy themselves with listlessly glancing over the “Review of the Session,” which the lending newspapers present a day or two after its close. A few more may look over the “Abstracts of the Acts of the Session,” which appear in the “Annual Register,” and other chronicles of the time. But such reading takes little hold on the mind, unless some particular interest is connected with it. The question is, whether such an interest can be connected with it in the case of the occupied classes, who can only just spare time for picking up the news of the day as the session proceeds, and can have no clear idea at the end what Parliament has done or left undone. I have been asked whether it might not be a good experiment, growing into an established practice, for intelligent citizens, qualified for such an office, to collect their neighbours to a sort of lecture, or set of lectures, in the autumn, in which should be explained, in the fullest and clearest manner, all material alterations in the laws, or additions to them, since the year before. There must be gentlemen in every town well able to do this: and in the country the parson, the lawyer, the squire, the banker, and the head shopkeeper could surely manage it among them. They could tell the city gentry who are less acquainted with the popular mind, how eagerly every man listens to any account of the law which particularly concerns himself—how any new Game Act has such an interest in any sporting district that one may pick out the poachers in a crowded lecture-room by the keenness of their attention to any remarks upon it. In the same way a Drainage bill, Highway Act, Public-house Act, repeal of duties, or law for the regulation of labour, will bring an eager audience to hear about it in a neighbourhood in which it is applicable. It will not be denied that the order and comfort of society, and the social character of multitudes of the citizens would be prodigiously improved if, all over the kingdom, some cheerful and pleasant voice could, one day in the year, tell all listeners what vexations have been removed from laws which galled them, and what new rules have been made for their guidance and protection in their business, and their affairs of every kind. I leave this suggestion to those whom it may interest, only adding that if I were twenty years younger, there would be few things that I should like better than to assemble the villagers—all the men, and as many of their wives as could come,—under the great oak in yonder field, or in the school room, or in the church, and to inform them, with the sanction of the lawyer, of what the legislature has done, during the past session, for them and their fellow-citizens.

It will be alleged that this supposes too advanced a state of political knowledge in the people: and the only answer to this is that hearers otherwise very ignorant can yet understand and feel an interest in regulations affecting themselves. The fact, however, indicates the further duty of giving the commonest political information wherever, and by whatever means it may be conveyed. There is little fear of overrating the prevalent ignorance, while sectarian divisions prevent the teaching of the very elements of political history in our schools, so that the stories of the Spanish Armada, and the Gunpowder Plot, and the Commonwealth, and the Revolution of 1688 are slurred over, or treated in mere chronicle style; and while many ladies, and a few gentlemen, complacently declare that they “know nothing about politics,”—“take no interest in politics.” I remember the sort of shock that was felt when, not long after the Queen’s accession, a letter of inquiry appeared in a newspaper, and was copied into others as a curiosity,—whether the Queen was of the Whig or Tory party,—bets depending on it! It was a useful illustration of popular political ignorance. So was another letter of the same character, wherein the question was asked why women did not give their votes for members of parliament at the poll as men do, and when and where they do it. This was no joke, as might be supposed. There were evidences of its being sheer ignorance. I fear there are many such, daily thrown into the editors’ waste baskets in every newspaper office, in town and country. One of the most astounding instances of this sort of ignorance that I have met with was when the Prince of Wales a few years since came into my neighbourhood. Of course, he was made much of; and for some days everybody was running hither and thither, and looking abroad for “our future king.” Every touch of his whip, every buttoning of his coat, every turn of his head, was noted; and every step he took was followed, bodily or by the telescope. We heard of nothing all along the road, but “our future king;” and yet, when he was gone, a neighbour of mine, a leader at the Methodist prayer-meetings, a member of the Odd Fellows, and of the Temperance Society, in speaking of “our future king,” asked me whose son he was! Such an incident throws one out of all one’s calculations, and sets one adrift in a sea of perplexity. It is no great comfort that the same phenomenon is to be found under all forms of government. In France the peasantry voted, on the first occasion of universal suffrage, on suppositions of inconceivable absurdity, as—for the old Emperor: when told he was dead, then for the son; and when told that he was dead,—“then for the Holy Ghost.” Some of the Germans in the United States have cut as strange figures as this at many an election. But there is no consolation in this when we consider what a critical political period we are living in, and how tremendous is the danger from popular political ignorance in an age of increasing popular power.

The last few years, and even the last few weeks, have afforded striking illustrations of this ignorance in one particular direction.

There is no free country in which the middle class, on the whole intelligent and educated, and in possession of the franchise, should not understand enough of the origin of any political institution to appreciate its purpose and its function, even if unable to recite the story of its operations. Thus, every middle-class Englishman, every middle-class, Frenchman (in virtue of past representative institutions), and every American of any voting class, should be aware that kings had lost some of their power when they committed military affairs to generals, and how and why standing armies grew up, both as effect and cause of society ceasing to be military. The nature of Parliamentary Representation is, we may hope, fairly and generally understood in these countries; but what are we to say about the Diplomatic function, after what has recently passed before our eyes?

Citizens who have learned anything of their public duty ought to know very well how there came to be ambassadors at the courts of all countries. They cannot but know that the Pope once managed all the politics of Christendom, and that the first ambassadors, in the modern sense of the term, were great churchmen from Rome, who negotiated between the Pope’s quarrelsome children, the sovereigns of the civilised world. When the supremacy of Rome was over, the monarchs necessarily chose for the business of diplomacy men who were not only able, but so placed as to be free from the prejudices of lower men, and qualified by their largeness of view and of knowledge to consult on international affairs with foreign statesmen, and make binding arrangements with the differing rulers of various nations. Thus, while there have been diplomatists of many degrees of merit, the class holds a very high place in the ranks of civilised intelligence, and is characterised by high honour, discretion, and moderation of views and temper.

Further: any one who has considered more or less what these men and their business are, must be aware that the one conspicuous fact about them is, that they are the channel of communication between nations and their governments on matters of public policy. They exist for the express purpose of communicating with foreign rulers; and, however it may be with despot-ridden peoples, no others have any sort of right to address a foreign Power through any other channel than their own accredited minister at the court of that Power. One can hardly imagine such an excess of ignorant conceit as would lead individuals to press their private views on a foreign sovereign, or to pretend to speak for the nation to which they belong. One can hardly conceive of Englishmen or Americans neglecting to speak to their own sovereign through their own representatives in Parliament, and hiding from their own ambassador at a foreign court, to earn the contempt of that court by their pushing impertinence, or to mislead its counsels by the very audacity of that impertinence. Yet, as I write, some half-dozen instances within ten years occur to me, in most of which incalculable mischief has been, or may be, the inevitable consequence. It seems as if the instances were growing more frequent and more mischievous; and I shall therefore use no reserve in speaking of them as the disgrace to our time and its political training which all duly qualified citizens feel them to be.

At Easter, 1853, public sentiment in England (and everywhere else) was still throbbing painfully with the anguish caused by the usurpation of sixteen months before, and the cruel extinction of political liberty in France. It answered the purpose of certain intriguers to assume and proclaim that the indignation and disgust of the English about the usurpation, were hostility to the French people, with whom, on the contrary, they were heartily sympathising. The attempts at agitation on this ground were alarming to some members of the timid commercial class; and a considerable number of them in London went to work to declare our friendship towards our neighbours,—choosing for that purpose a method so objectionable as to rouse a wholesome general indignation. The errand was not properly to the French ruler; for the very ground of our sympathy with our neighbours was that he and they were not one. If our merchants had anything to say to the French government, they should have done it through our own government and its representative at Paris; and if their affair was with the people of France, they had no business in the Emperor’s presence. Yet they went to him, audaciously answering for the opinions and feelings of the people of England; and the Emperor was delighted, of course, with the opportunity of identifying himself with the subjects he had outraged, and appropriating the friendliness of sentiment which the people of England certainly never dreamed of entertaining towards himself. Most of us will remember the surprise and disgust excited by this move, and the vigorous denunciation of it in the House of Lords, and in newspapers of the time; the mockery at the court dinners accepted by the deputation, and the shame expressed that any gentlemen of our nation should put it in the power of the cynical usurper to smile at the lowness of political knowledge and constitutional spirit which may exist in England. But the immediate discredit was not the only mischief, nor the worst.

It was on Easter Monday, 1853, that these sapient and patriotic merchants of London made their obeisance at the Tuileries. Next February, the same movement was tried at another Court, creating less disgust perhaps at home, but much greater mischief abroad.

Any foreign sovereign, born and bred to the throne, is not only excusable for supposing any English applicants for an audience on affairs of national policy to be authorised by some great national party or opinion, but must inevitably proceed on such a supposition. It is only as national representatives that he can have any political communication with them. When, therefore, the three Quaker gentleman who waited on the Czar Nicholas on the 10th of February, 1854, listened to the Emperor’s prepared reply to their address, they ought not to have been surprised that it was altogether of a political character; nor should they have expected that he would receive and understand their explanations that they came only as moralists, though their theme was political. Those three men, and those who sent them, did an act which was not only ignorant in its conception, impertinent in its spirit, and audaciously unpatriotic in its carrying out, but fatal in its consequences beyond all estimate in all time to come. A sovereign, and especially an ignorant, narrow-minded, and egotistical sovereign like Nicholas, could understand the visit of these Quakers only in one way. He supposed them to be the representatives of the great body of English sentiment against the war; and the whole affair was from this point one great and disastrous bungle. He listened to them, imagining he was receiving an engagement from England not to go to war with him. They listened to him,—puzzled at the political character of his reply, but hoping at last that they had made him understand that they were not politicians. When he had introduced them to the Empress as good friends of Russia, they were charmed with admission to the domestic privacy of the man so much dreaded; and he, on his part, made himself easy when their backs were turned, in the supposed assurance he had received that he need fear no war with England. Before the mistake into which these ignorant meddlers had led him was cleared up to his mind, the mischief was done. He was at war with England; there had never been any reason why he should not be, if he chose to provoke it: his heart was broken; and sectarian zealots had a lesson, if they could but receive it, that private convictions and individual good intentions are no warrant for interfering in affairs of general policy on false pretences:—and it is a false pretence when any applicant appears before a foreign potentate as if the national diplomatic representative was not adequate to the business.

The practice of pushing and meddling in international affairs, and snatching at a gratification of vanity or of a partisan spirit, by coming between the Foreign Office and its work, had now become so mischievous that it was strongly denounced on this occasion: but it takes a long time to put down an abuse in which vanity and self-opinion are involved. All the world now pities the three Quaker gentlemen who went to St. Petersburg; but for a time there was a disposition among persons of little sense and bad taste to imitate them. I need not go fully into the story of the four (so-called) Liverpool merchants, who thought fit to address the Emperor of the French in a spirit highly offensive to their own countrymen. They undertook to comfort him about the harmlessness of our Volunteer movement. They got an answer from the Emperor, through his private secretary; and they got something else,—a repudiation by the merchants of Liverpool, and a lecture from the whole newspaper press of the country, one effect of which was to show the Emperor that he had spent his time in writing to persons too insignificant to deserve such notice.

Another recent incident has some amusing aspects; but it is on the whole highly vexatious, irritating, and injurious. I need not repeat here the story of Mr. Roebuck and Mr. Lindsay going to Paris, and on to Fontainebleau, to do our ambassador’s work for him, without leave, in the most important point of national policy now under discussion. It is not necessary to explain Mr. Roebuck’s weaknesses. We all know Mr. Roebuck’s ungovernable craving for notoriety, and his womanish inclination for scenes,—so repugnant to the taste of Englishmen, and especially to the English House of Commons. We have seen him work his way into the presence of an emperor before; and we are but too familiar with his sensation scenes in the House. The serious part of the case is that these things may not be known out of England,—and especially at Washington and at Richmond. It will soon be made clear to both that Mr. Roebuck is not much accustomed to success in his political projects, and that causes taken up by him, and left in his hands, are usually considered doomed. All that needs to be known about him will soon be known by all whom it concerns; and I need here only record my protest, as every fellow citizen of these amateur diplomatists has a right to do, against any trick of intrigue, or meddling, or mere vanity, by which the office of our ambassador at any foreign court is encroached upon,—by which any party at home is misrepresented, and any foreign sovereign misled, or subjected to impertinent intrusion and inquisitive speculation. Every citizen has a right to protest against any meddling of a foreign sovereign with the English parliament, and any intrusion on a foreign sovereign in the name of the English parliament. As for the act of intrusion being ventured upon by a man who has used such language as Mr. Roebuck has, repeatedly and publicly, of the Emperor of the French,—that may be called his own affair: and it is so; but it affects the estimate of the act generally, in the judgment of all honourable men. Whether the Emperor admitted him to his presence in ignorance or indifference about Mr. Roebuck’s former revilings, every honest Englishman thinks the request for an audience an act of meanness which he would not be supposed to countenance.

The practical question is,—what is to be done to put a stop to this practice of mock diplomacy? We have surely had warnings enough within ten years to induce us to consider and consult about a remedy. On the one hand, foreign courts may be advised of the true character of self-constituted diplomatists: and on the other, we may—not deter such pretenders by any appeal to a sense or a modesty which they do not possess,—but so foster the growth and spread of political knowledge and principle in our own country as to create a contempt and reprobation of mock-diplomacy which no one, however presumptuous, will have the hardihood to defy.