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17. 17 Queen, Prince and Ministers

PUBLIC LIFE IN AUSTRALIA is impaired to some extent by the almost entire absence of respect for the privacies of official life and for the persons of those in power. The press, partly stimulated by its jealousy of prominent rivals for the common ruler public opinion and partly by its own rivalries in the race for news, invades the Cabinet and the office of Ministers to subject their occupants to peremptory cross-examination. The passion for equality which sways the multitude contains a spice of envy which encourages the belittling of even those whom they are delighting to honour. The crowd always retains to itself the privilege of chastising its gods in times of adversity while worshipping them in days of prosperity. The tendency to create legends and personal myths still remains among them and popular leaders while they are popular can do no wrong in the eyes of their admirers. But these are never free from acid criticism while they are Ministers and suffer as do all their tribe from the pettinesses, intrusiveness and impatience of those who surround them. The process is not infrequently injurious to the transaction of executive business of a purely local and internal character. It is always injurious when it is intercolonial in aim or farseeing in intention. To govern with a reporter at the elbow, to find all confidential discussion difficult and sometimes impossible, and to be treated at all times more as a servant of the press interviewer, of the casual caller and of the department-trotting member than as a servant of the public, is to handicap the Governments which are censured for their want of success on occasions when it is forbidden by the conditions under which they are compelled to work. Colonial Governors are to a considerable degree protected by their social position and the formalities which surround them, though they are strictly constitutional sovereigns who reign without governing. The Premiers and their associates who actually govern and are chosen by the people to preside over their destinies for longer or shorter terms, are without this shelter and if weak soon accept the position of heads of departments obeying the instructions which they receive from day to day from the journals


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of their party or other irresponsible agencies appearing for the time to convey the mandate of a public opinion, while imperfectly instructed and under the influence of a transient wave of opinion. Public life in the colonies suffers and must continue to suffer until the decencies of official procedure are formulated, its reticences appreciated, its burdens recognised and those who bear them, while bearing them, are treated in their public capacity with the consideration which high and important responsibilities and the national interest demand.

Public life in Great Britain possesses such protections and indeed a foreign policy would be impossible without them. The existence of a social hierarchy and the prestige of the sovereign render aristocratic distinctions real, and place those who occupy whether by birth or ability the foremost places in public affairs, within triple lines of fortification, title, tradition and usage, reinforcing and expressing the innate British reverence for order and degrees of quality. The instinct of the mass of the community is supported by the astute use made by the nobility and all official classes of the mystery with which those in authority are shrouded. Even the well-informed confine their criticisms to the circle of their friends in their own class, and maintain before the rest of the nation an imperturbable air of veneration for the powers that be and credulity as to their qualifications absolutely foreign to their private judgments. The thoughtful do this out of regard for the office in spite of the person who holds it, while the Conservatives exploit all the fables and loyal fictions of the hour for their own party purposes. These attach principally to the Throne and its hereditary supporters though in a minor but very useful way it still attaches to the Ministry of the day, especially if allied with the Tories. But the legitimate, natural and necessary reverence paid to eminence of station and function do not suffice for the Court party. Their feelings, as a rule genuine, run away with their judgment. Their eyes are blinded by awe and wonder. They respond at once to the suggestions which underline all ceremonial that something exceptional and transcendent is transpiring because of its unfamiliar apparatus of conventional approach. They cannot see clearly what is happening or who[m] they are regarding and repeat with bated breath the most ridiculous legends with implicit faith and unreasoning enthusiasm. This snobbishness, as it is termed in its paltrier phases, pervades English society from top to bottom and though not in the majority of cases as base or trivial as it appears at first sight, and often redeemed by true


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patriotic acceptance of a person as symbol of a people and its history, remains today a potent factor in every sphere.

The Royal family are the chief objects of this cult and the practice of idealization proceeds in their case naked and unashamed. The Queen's popularity which suffered a long eclipse during her retirement blazed out again at the Jubilee and still more resplendently during the [Boer] War, when she became more and more a national emblem. Advancing years and many sorrows had told mentally even upon her remarkable health and vigour, but it was the fashion everywhere to speak as if her faculties were absolutely unimpaired and as if she continued to discharge the political duties of her station with the same vigilance and energy as thirty years before. When she received the Australian delegates to the Imperial Conference of 1887 she stood to receive them, her large clear blue eye undimmed and her voice as she read her reply, ringing and resonant within its moderate compass. She was then an elderly lady but in no respect superannuated. It was obvious then that she knew little of the delegates except what she was told at the moment and only said to any of them what Lord Knutsford first said to her. In 1900, though she still took her daily drive in all weathers and seen at a distance in her carriage seemed marvellously well-preserved, on a nearer view it was plain her great age was having its natural effect upon her. She received the Australians sitting, her voice was low and indistinct, she was partially deaf, requiring to be reminded in a loud voice of who they were and her eyes were lost to sight behind large clumsy spectacles of great power but with which she could only read the largest writing. With limbs and senses failing her, it was only reasonable to assume that her intellect also suffered. She smiled upon the delegates but this time not royally as in 1887 but with the weakness and weariness of an old woman. She remarked to Deakin that she remembered his previous visit though as Mr Chamberlain's loud tones reminding her of the fact were perfectly audible to him and to his colleagues and their wives around him, he was unable to join in their chorus of amazement in the anteroom at her astounding memory. Although he told them that he had heard Mr Chamberlain informing her of the circumstance, they were as deaf to him as they had been while perfectly able to hear his admonition themselves and repeated the story with ecstasy then and afterwards. Those of the Queen's household to whom they at once recounted it, though perfectly aware of the routine in such matters, gravely concurred that her capacity approached the miraculous. The incident was significant as bearing upon the trustworthiness


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of apparently unimpeachable evidence in regard to Her Majesty from educated persons accustomed to public ceremonials. It seemed highly probable that whatever part she played in the politics of Great Britain at this time must have been small and confined to few matters. She must have been absolutely dependent upon her Premier who in his turn from advancing years, sorrows and infirmities was scarcely the fittest, though doubtless the most suitable counsellor for his very aged Queen.

The Prince of Wales was of course older, stouter, balder and more florid than in 1887. He also appeared more mature in that the speech he made at the Empire League Dinner was, considering the narrow limits within which he was free to move, perhaps as good an utterance as could have been expected from a Prince. Whether prepared for him or not, it was delivered as if it were his own in a natural manly way. The Princess Mathilde, no mean critic, confessed to De Goncourt that she found him the frankest of royal personages and it did seem as if his straightforwardness, tact and good humour entitled him to a share of the great popularity he enjoyed since his recovery from typhoid, recently refreshed by the failure of Sipido's attempted assassination in Belgium. Apart from his regular discharge of the dreary round of social functions with amiable consistency and the kindliness invariably displayed towards all his associates whether creditable or discreditable [in] character, there was not a feature of his career which could be made public without detriment to the popular idea. A genuinely good-natured George IV, always in bad company and not too proud to borrow from the shadiest nouveaux riches, he was yet surrounded in England with an atmosphere of reverent admiration almost amounting to worship by a society in which he was distinctly below the average in morals and ability; and absolutely deified by many of the middle class who were unaware of and the masses who ignored his protracted devotion to the idlest, poorest and most unintellectual pleasures. The Duke of York was a still more commonplace edition of his father and his wife reported to be but little more individual than that palest of pale personalities, the altogether artificial modiste the Princess of Wales. Negative virtues among the women and ordinary vices among the men of the Royal Family seemed to exhibit a marked deterioration from the relatively very high standard set in conduct and character and governing capacity by the Queen and the Prince Consort, who appeared like Titans among Pygmies when contrasted with their children and grandchildren.

Great Britain is buttressed by a hierarchy whose influences are


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almost entirely without parallel in all those great communities of hers which are springing up across the seas. If we suffer from the absence of the restraints, decorum, respect and courtesy which [are] visible in the mother country, at least we enjoy a freedom from many insincerities and formalities that have lost their meaning. In the future the closer our relations grow, these unlikenesses may be expected to balance and correct each other. At present the loyalty of the people of the Empire who live remote from the British Isles is probably more personal and more fervent than that of the British Islander and this inevitable enchantment lent by distance is likely to continue, unless shattered as it was in America by the wilful hostilities and blunders of the powers now revered, a consummation which under modern Constitutional government seems very improbable. The future of the Empire in this connection appears to be with the Tory democracy for the next term in which political prevision appears to be worth attempting.

Lord Salisbury reaped the benefit of the forces generated by Disraeli and revived by Randolph Churchill but he sowed himself no seed of any fertility in any field. His great abilities and high type of character were marred in statesmanship by feebleness of will, or rather lack of courage in great affairs. He was by nature cynical, sceptical, caustic and reflective. A man of science by taste, he would probably have discovered nothing except the errors of his contemporaries even in that field. He clung, if not with fervour, with tenacity to all that was, considering it quite a secondary consideration whether it proved good, bad or indifferent. The thing that was, because of its existence, was sacred in his eyes and to be defended against all comers. With uncommon intellectual power, considerable critical skill, a personal character above reproach and gifted with fine flashes of observation, his function in public affairs was that of a brake. It was his resistance to Gladstone, and above all to Home Rule, which made him and kept him Premier. His speeches contained indiscretions enough to have ruined a dozen Cabinets in the colonies but scarcely shook him in the estimation of his countrymen. As a man who constructed nothing and opposed all innovation, he was in their eyes a ‘safe man’ and therefore the idol that middle-class Philistinism most loved to rest upon. But for his birth he would never have been a politician at all and in truth it was not the field for which he was best fitted, and but for his rank and family, he would never have been Premier. Upon social and general questions he was


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hopelessly out of date and out of touch with his time and its needs. At the Foreign Office he was a timid, slow, conciliatory and pacific master, adopting a policy which pleased the bulk of the nation because it was timorous, unadventurous and procrastinating. The apostle of tradition, while nominal leader of the nation he was really reluctantly dragged at the heels of his more progressive colleagues, his hand being forced in most cases by the march of events. A dignified figure with a spotless private history and many noblenesses of disposition, he was well-qualified to retain the confidence of the Queen to whom his devotion was unfeigned and absolute. Perhaps it was because the Australians saw so little of him while in London and never heard him mentioned as a factor in regard to their own measure, that they were enabled to suppose him to be rather the titular than the active head of the Cabinet and to credit the reports that he simply continued to hold office for the sake of his sovereign and his party, interfered as little as possible with his colleagues and looked anxiously forward to the retirement to which his years, his domestic bereavement and his long service entitled him.

The second member of the Cabinet, the Duke of Devonshire, was still less qualified than his chief for the public part he had been called upon to play. The average guardsman with the tastes, courage, manners and ideas of his class, he was pitchforked into politics in order to preserve him from less creditable pursuits. He admitted to Deakin that he still enjoyed life and all the amusements to which he had devoted his youth. He had sacrificed himself on the altar of public duty as unwillingly as Lord George Bentinck and without achieving such a success. His indolent nature, phlegmatic disposition, slow-moving mind and dull though common-sense speeches would have been fatal to any man not the heir of a great Dukedom. He was body and soul and every inch of him the English country gentleman with his love of out-of-door sports and pre-eminently racing added to the love of gambling and gallantry of a deliberate and regulated kind which belonged to his ancestors. His library at Devonshire House consisted of official publications and statistics apparently never opened. His great collections of famous pictures inherited from more cultured ancestors were said to be without charm. He kept up his castles and country seats, subscribed to and fought for his party in politics and spent most of his time in London, because he conceived it to be his duty to do so. In a sense therefore his life was that of a martyr though he contrived to extract a great deal


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of more or less innocent amusement by way of distraction. He was absolutely without affectation, conceit or pretence, a shred of imagination, a hint of poetry or a touch of oratorical art. Honourable according to his creed, loyal beyond reproach, manly in every thought and act, a grand seigneur in whom the pride of race served as a constant spur to the doing of distasteful things, he was yet as unfitted as an upright well-meaning man could be to preside over the Educational interests of his country. There must have been some thousands and probably tens of thousands of men available with far superior qualifications for the post, but owing to the aristocratic system supreme in England, this best of cross-country squires ruled perhaps the most important of all government departments for years because he was a great peer by birth and a great magnate by inheritance. Could the sarcasm of Swift [have] devised a more telling commentary upon modern wisdom?

According to the current gossip of the Clubs the momentous visit of the Queen to Ireland [in 1900] was not proposed by her Ministers and was received by them with some anxiety. The story went that it was first communicated to the Duke of Devonshire who happened to be visiting Windsor when the project was first conceived, and he was charged by Her Majesty to submit the proposal to the Premier so that he might be prepared to advise her upon it, on his next visit to the Castle two or three days later. But when the Duke left in the afternoon it was to resume the lessons in the new game of Bridge, which he was either just receiving or practising at his own home; and with such an important occupation, it was of course impossible for him to travel a few hundred yards to Arlington House to acquaint Lord Salisbury with so trifling a matter. Next morning he was late and next afternoon [had] another engagement at some sports. In the evening Bridge again engrossed his attention, and so the whole proposal passed out of his mind. Lord Salisbury's presence of mind when his deliberate judgment upon the plan was at once asked by his Royal Mistress alone saved the situation; and perhaps his assent to a step upon which he had wit enough to see that the Queen was bent was only obtained because he was unable to find time to foresee difficulties, and obliged to approve on the spot. True or not, such incidents must be perfectly possible while the fortunes of an Empire are forced upon nobles like the Duke of Devonshire.

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