Lord Salisbury's first speech as Prime Minister is not a bad one so far as it goes, but we doubt whether it will do him or his party much good. If his new Ministry is going to stake the fate of Conservatism at the next General Electron on the establishment of the Scotch Kirk the hopes inspired by their recent electoral victories will fade rapidly away.
The best thing that a wary Conservative leader could do for the Establishment is to avoid all attempts to make it the battle horse of a political party. If the Church were growing weaker there might be some reason for forcing on a fight, but as by universal confession the Church has of late years lived down and worked down much of the antipathy with which she was formerly regarded, every year gained before the final assault is delivered is a year to the good. Lord Salisbury, however, has decided otherwise. He insists upon precipitating the State Church battle all along the line, instead of employing his ingenuity in drawing sufficient red herrings across the track to pert the attention of Scotch Radicals from the Kirk. It is a mistake from the point of view both of the party and of the Church, but Lord Salisbury has made his choice, and he will abide by it.
With the exception of that false step Lord Salisbury speech was not unworthy of the occasion. It is quite inspiriting to see the leaders of the two great parties in the State vying with each other as to which is the most zealous in the work of Decentralization. Lord Salisbury condemned, and rightly condemned, the assumption that the Liberals have a monopoly of the question of Local Government Reform. This is a field in which the Conservatives may legitimately assert a natural claim, as well as for their defects as for their virtues. Lord Salisbury was perfectly correct when he explained the origin of our excessive centralization as follows:-
It was the result of the earnest and patriotic efforts of numbers of well-intentioned and earnest public servants. It was one of those evils which arose automatically. The constant efforts of Departments in London to gather to themselves all the power they could, the greater strength of the cultured forces of the metropolis over the divided, scattered, and comparatively feeble resistance of the provinces, resulted year after year in a concentration of power in this town, and a constant accumulation of duties upon the offices and authorities which this town contains, until at last the administrative offices in London; and still more the parliamentary machine which works them, staggered under the load that is placed upon them. They are unable to perform the duties which they have ambitiously concentrated upon themselves, and the body politic suffers by an ambition which you cannot blame, but which yet it is our duty to remedy and terminate.
It is the natural role, of the Conservative party to defend local liberties - and local abuses. In France the dominant Republicans insist upon maintaining the centralization condemned by the wisest of their number, because it enables the intelligence of Paris to lay down the law to the reactionary rurals. And we may depend upon it that sooner or later a similar line of cleavage will appear in English polities. The Reformer, impatient of delay, will insist upon strengthening the power of central Departments over the local authorities, while the Conservative will have a congenial task in insisting that localities shall be allowed to make fools of themselves if they please without interference from the central power. At present Liberals are all throwing up their caps for decentralization, local self-government, and a more or less veiled Home Rule. But as soon as these excellent ideas get translated into facts, they will discover that there is a good deal more to be said in favour of centralization than it is at present the fashion to admit.
The great problem before the nation is how to define the limitations which must be placed on the authority of local authorities by the Imperial Legislature. At present neither part has any idea of how to define the functions of the central power on the one hand or of the local governing authority on the other, and the only thing which is quite certain is that both parties will find much to try their faith in decentralization if once they take it up in earnest. How will the Nonconformists, for instance, relish the establishment and endowment of the Roman Catholic religion in most of the schools of Ireland, which is one of the most obvious corollaries of any system of Home Rule It is to be feared that they will like it as little as English Churchmen will like the equally mutable disestablishment of the Scotch Kirk which would result from allowing the Scotch to manage Scotch affairs in accordance with Scotch ideas. But whether we are Whigs or Tories we have got to make up our minds what are the limits within which the discretion of local authority should be absolute, and then resolutely to determine not to interfere although the local authorities act in a fashion which we know to be most opposed to sound principle and common sense. On the whole the Conservatives have the most to gain by giving the local authorities a free-hand, but Conservatives have so little faith in their own strength, and so abject a dread of allowing any representative body to do anything that might interfere with some of their superstitions or their interests that it is more than doubtful whether they will have have the nerve to take a resolute stand in favour of a principle which, logically applied, might, for instance, enable the corporation of Birmingham to become the sole landlord of the town.