AND FREE LANCE. « Let there be Light."
Observer, Volume 7, Issue 335, 9 May 1885, Page 12
AND FREE LANCE. « Let there be Light."
Satukday, Mat 9, 1885,
The prospects of peace have greatly improved during the past week. The Penjdeh dispute is to be referred to arbitration, and the boundary of Afghanistan is to be considered in London. This, if fully authenticated, means peace at least for the present. Peace is not indeed actually secured by it any more than war was actually inevitable a week ago ; but it is rendered highly probable. Of course, an arbitration where nations are concerned is not in itself of much value, except as an evidence that a peaceable solution of the question at issue is desired. And this is the whole value of Russia's present concession. It would not cost her an effort to repudiate an unfavourable award, or to ignore a submission to arbitration which did not promise to turn out to her advantage. A conference on the proper boundaries of Afghanistan is still less binding upon her. It in fact commits her to nothing but delay ; and it is just possible that delay is more valuable to her now than peace will be hereafter. Yet, in spite of these considerations, which should prevent any premature rejoicings over the certainty of peace, the concessions now made are valuable because they are significant. They do not indeed commit Russia to peace, but they are a fairly reliable evidence that she is not at present desirous of war. This is a hopeful sign, although it is no more than from the very first we had anticipated. We then said that Russia would not engage in a war because she was not ready for war. Subsequent events have appeared to indicate that in spite of Her unpreparedness she was drifting into a position from which there would soon be no retreat. It almost seemed as though she were about to be made the victim of her own game of brag. Yet it was hard to say at what point the power of giving way would be taken from her. So long as the English Government was so evidently anxious for peace as to be willing to accept any advances, so long it was safe for Russia to go on. Within the last few days it has become evident that events had nearly reached the point where advances might no longer "be received, and where, however pacific the Cabinet, the English nation would compel an appeal to force. With her usual astuteness Russia has appreciated the situation, and seized perhaps the latest moment when conciliation would have been accepted by the English people.
The reasons which at the first threatenings of war in Afghanistan we gave for the opinion that Russia did not mean to fight, but only to gain something by threats, hold good still. Last week we pointed out how vastly inferior were the resources of Russia upon the sea to those of Britain, and how certain she was to fail on England's own peculiar element. No doubt, this was more fully appreciated in Russia than elsewhere. Her statesmen must have ielt that in sending out a fleet she was sending out a forlorn hope, and that the mission of her cruisers, even in these seas, , was one quite as likely to end in failure as success. '.yElut her position by sea was - no worse than that by land after all. It is true that she was over-matched at evejcyjpoint on the ocean — that her regula* navy was inferior in every way to that * of Britain, and that her irregular nayy — .
her Cossacks of the ocean — were more than likely to find themselves overpowered ; but her position on land was likely in the event of -war to be even worse. A war in Afghanistan would have meant one in which both England and the native tribes would have been opposed to Russia. No doubt Russia has many agents in Afghanistan, and no doubt she has done something to set the Afghans against England. But hostility to England does not imply love for Russia. As the natives of the country invaded by Russia, the people of Afghanistan must have been or have soon become very hearty enemies of the invader. What then, under the circumstances, could Russia hope to do ? The answer may to some extent dej)end on the comparative estimate formed of Russian and of English troops — but the only reasonable answer will be — nothing. Russia could not get at the seat of war in force, while England could easily do so. Russia would depend for supplies upon a hostile country and a savagely hostile people, or else upon a transport service over many hundreds of miles of desert country. Her Afghan opponents would be at home and amongst friends, and her English oj)ponents would also be amongst a friendly pojmlation. Granted that Russian troops are dangerously near Herat, and that English troops are still far distant — when the question arises which can be more easily maintained, which more readily re-inforced and kept efficient for service, the answer must at once be the troops of England. Under these circumstances, we could never believe that Russia actually desired war. It was, indeed, possible that she might have found herself compelled to fight or to give way in a manner more hazardous even than fighting. This was the real risk, and with any Government less pacific than that of Mr Gladstone, it could scarcely have been avoided.
As matters stand, we are^far from certain that the changed aspeetjof affairs is a subject for unmixed satisfaction. "We believe that Russia parleys now because she feels unable to fight with any prospect of success. If she gives way and retires from her demands, she will do so for the same reason, and not from any respect to an arbitration. But next time a difference arises she will be prepared. Peace now will be utilised in preparing for war. Her railways will be extended, her communications strengthened, her means of transport rendered efficient and secure. In this way the war which is to come can be in a sense carried on in the midst of peace. On the other hand, England can do but little in this direction. She may, indeed, complete the railroad as far as the passes of the Hindoo Koosh, but England, whilst the raost warlike of nations when roused, is proverbially averse to military preparations during peace. The present Government will only too gladly seize the prospect of peace to discontinue the preparations for war as far as may be, and peace once secured, they will act as though the millenium had fairly set in. Such are the dangers of the position, and although war is an evil second to none but the surrender of honour and of liberty, we are by no means sure that even a present war might not in the end prove safer than a temporary peace.
The Assembly is not to meet, it appears, until the 11th of June this year. No doubt there were many reasons for delaying the Session as long as possible. Yet the practice is not a commendable one. Ministers are never in a hurry to meet Parliament, perhaps for the two-fold reason that its sittings entail much work upon themselves and not a little risk to their position. In the present case, both these reasons may have been operative to postpone the Session as long as it was possible to do so. Yet we hardly think there is more than ordinary grounds for apprehension on the part of Ministers. It is true that the Government last Session was rather profuse in promises, not all of which have been realized. It is true that no great or sudden revival of prosperity has followed upon the change of rulers in Canterbury and Otago. The leaps and bounds with which the Treasurer hoped to propel the colony along the high road to prosperity have as yet been mild in character and not very apparent in results. These things will furnish cause of complaint to some members, and it may well be they may furnish grounds of dissatisfaction to more. And there is much political danger in vague dissatisfaction. Open political opposition and strong denunciation are
not, as a rule, nearly so fatal to governments as this. Occasions will always arise for attack. No executive can fail to expose itself to these, and so long -as general confidence in them is maintained, they can weather such storms. But the moment that confidence is sapped, an early overthrow is nearly certain.
Yec we see no reason to imagine that as yet the Stout-Vogel Cabinet has suffered much in this way. Canterbury and Otago were the two districts most in need of a revival,, and so far as we can see, those districts are still confident that the present Government holds out the best prospect of realizing that hope. And in this they are probably right. The Stout- Yogel Government is indeed by no means an ideal Cabinet. It has not one but several weak spots in its constitution. Its nominal head is theoretical, rather than practical, and has so far failed to display the tact which manages men and attaches followers. Its Native Minister also is theoretical, and has in his short administration of Native affairs contrived to alarm many persons and to gain the confidence of few. Its Colonial Secretary is distinguished for the absence of conciliatory manners, unredeemed by the presence of any considerable abilities. Its Minister of Justice is in no way a remarkable man; nor is its Minister of Public Works in any sense a genius. As for the Minister of Mines, he may be a tribute to the importance of Otago, but he is by no means an intellectual buttress to the Cabinet. Yet, in spite of all these more or less weak points, the Government is in little danger. In the Colonial Treasurer it possesses an element of strength not easy to over-rate. He is as practical in his politics as the Premier and Native Minister are theoretical. He has the power of attracting followers which Mr Stout has not, and the tact to manage men which both the Premier and Colonial Secretary are eminently deficient in. He can find ideas for the Public Works Minister, administrative experience for the Minister of Justice, and, no doubt, will even have something to spare for the Minister of Mines. On the Treasurer, in a word, hangs the fate of the Cabinet in the coming Session, and if his health should hold out through the Session, it will probably hang safely enough.
It may be admitted that some questions of difficulty are likely to arise. The whole question of defence will form a subject on which there will be room for diversity of opinion. The Government will have to defend their action in various waj's ; but for the most part, we believe they will do so to the satisfaction of the public and the House. They have incurred large liabilities, indeed, and nrast have spent a good deal of .money without Parliamentary appropriation, but this will probably strengthen rather than weaken their position. The circumstances were such as to require energy and decision, and the public would have thought but little of a Cabinet which feared to go beyond the strict letter of the law when the safety of the Colony was at stake. The promised local Government reforms will afford a more crucial test of the Colonial Treasurer's influence with the House. So far as appears the Government will shrink from any very decisive measure on the subject. They will do as was done with the County Act, and leave it to the people to decide on the question of reform or non-reform. To our mind the expedient is a weak one, and its results will be disappointing Yet while unsuccessful as a measure of reform, it may very likely succeed as a measure to disarm opposition in the Assembly. A few members, indeed, will see through its weakness and denounce its pretentious failure to give reality and strength to local government in the colony. But to the majority it will probably seem a judicious compromise. To the old opponents of Provincialism it will be a relief, and to the many who know nothing from the lessons of experience, it may appear an ingenious solution of a difficult problem. There seems little reason to doubt that the financial situation will be decidedly better than last year, and this, whether rightly or otherwise, will strengthen the Cabinet. Native affairs, indeed, may be sharply criticised by some, but Native affairs are a sacred territory upon which Southern members do not care to encroach. Thus the Session, if not wholly without menace to the Government, holds out no very serious threats, and as we said before, if piloted by the experienced hand of the Treasurer, the Ministry ought to weather any impending storms.