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Concerning General Elections
by [?]

Twice in succession has it befallen me to be privately busy in a backwater when the main stream was spuming and ramping with the great bore of a general election. I have been able to hear the swallows twitter at sunrise in serene unconsciousness of the crisis, to watch the rooks homing at twilight, as though the course of Nature were still the same, and to see the moonlight rippling over the sombre water at midnight in unaffected tranquillity. Myself was scarcely better informed of the tidal flood: stray echoes of speech, odd fragments of newspaper floated down to me, and at intervals some visitant from the greater deep held, like a sea-shell, the rumour of its sounding waters.

And, indeed, where shall we find a better metaphor for party-government than this of the tide, of the ebb and flow of political power–remorseless, inevitable, regardless of those who, tossed high on the stream, imagine they direct it? And in this metaphor the People must play Moon, like the clown in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But, as Juliet says:

O swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon.

The cause of this inconstancy has not escaped even the philosophers. The Whig and the Tory, rival lovers of Luna,–moonstruck ravers,–woo her with honeyed words and dulcet promises, and she inclines her coquettish ear–most of the month she is all ear–to the highest bidder. But when she comes to her full–and is all eye–then she perceives her swain faithless and empty-handed, and straightway she plights her troth to his clamorous and expostulant fellow, who dangles his untried promises before her disappointed vision. And the days pass, and she rises and sets; but lo! the bridal gifts linger still, and the horn of plenty is an empty trumpet, and, forgetful of her first lover’s failure, she turns to him again. And so for ever, in a fickle quest of fidelity, pathetic enough. Perhaps she–with the two strings to her bow–shares the just fate of coquettes, happy with neither; perhaps she were wiser to give herself to a single lover, and be rid for ever of these hesitancies. And yet, would she profit by the change? Endymion, the one youth whose beauty drew her from heaven, remained perpetually asleep. Is there not some profound significance in the ancient myth, some truth that would have pleased Francis Bacon, Baron Verulam (as the pedants will have us call the man who did not write Shakespeare).

But the philosophers, who have understood the levity of mind that underlies changes of Cabinets, have not always understood the numerical pettiness of the voting power by which the change is effected. Just as every philosopher is born a Platonist or an Aristotelian, so, as Mr. Gilbert sings, is every Englishman born a little Liberal or a little Conservative: even if his politics be not original sin, it is early acquired. Thus, then, the nation consists of two great camps–the Liberals and the Conservatives–which are practically fixed; standing armies that may be relied upon. A born Liberal may wax fat and kick at his ancient principles: a born Conservative may change his coat and turn Whig. But these exceptions are rare. For the most part men stick to their party and die as foolish as they were born–which is called consistency. Convinced sometimes against their will, they are of the same opinion still. Loyalty and obstinacy will look facts in the face and never blench, and every one remains truer to his social circle than to his private judgments. People’s politics are their prejudices at a masked ball, and the Conservatives will vote Conservative and the Liberals Liberal, through a cannonade of unanswerable cartoons. Apart from these two great standing armies, there is a shifting body of free-lances, guerrillas, Jacks-o’-both-sides, call them what you will–waverers who have too much conscience or too little, who are swayed by their reason or their pocket, or who are gullible enough to believe that the opposition will do better, or sportsmen enough to desire fair play and a chance for the other side, and who are found fighting now in this camp, now in that. The camps themselves are fairly matched: Rads and Tories–the sexes of politics–are as evenly created as men and women. They are like ten-pound weights standing on either scale of a balance. What, then, determines the oscillation this way or that? Evidently the miserable little half-ounce weight placed sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other. In fine,’tisthe tiny squadron of free-lances that wins general elections, the voters who think or who don’t think, or who veer to be with the majority. The Jacks-o’-both-sides rule England, even as the Parnell brigade ruled Parliament. To this floating population is it given to make or unmake Cabinets; theirs is the righteous indignation that sweeps the country like a new broom, and sweeps Ministries into limbo; to them is made the magniloquent “appeal to the country!” L’etat, c’est nous! might be the motto of this third party, were it but conscious of itself as a party.