Some Trollopian Politics

This is a post which I sent to Trollope-l in April 2009. I am transferring it to my blog because it is my hope to gradually build up my own archive of easily accessible writings which I have submitted (and will I hope be again) to the lists to which I belong. Many aspects of The Duke’s Children have already been covered in the previous discussion which Ellen has supplied. It seems absurd to go over this ground again, particularly the superb psychological analysis which Ellen herself has written. I am going therefore to concentrate on one aspect which was not covered very much, and is of particular interest to me. I want to discuss the book’s politics (or the politics in Chaps 1-15). I am not arguing that this is a major theme; it is undoubtedly present, but is not in the forefront of Trollope’s thought. However it connects to the rest of the Palliser saga and has deep implications for Trollope’s political instincts.    Now the key conflict here is between Palliser and Silverbridge. I wish instantly to take issue with any interpretation which just sees Silverbridge as fool or dolt (whatever his moral character). He may not be a great intellect – but then neither really is Palliser (intellect is not a sought after quality in Trollope’s politicians).    

The key passage with which I wish to start occurs in Chapter 7…     

“You can hardly as yet have any very confirmed political opinion. You are still young, and I do not suppose that you have thought much about politics.”   
Well, sir; I think I have. I’ve got my own ideas. We’ve got to protect our position as well as we can against the Radicals and Communists.”   
“I cannot admit that at all, Silverbridge. There is no great political party in this country anxious either for Communism or for revolution. But, putting all that aside for the present, do you think that a man’s political opinions should be held in regard to his own individual interests, or to the much wider interests of others, whom we call the public?”   
“To his own interest,” said the young man with decision.
“It is simply self-protection then?”   
“His own and his class. The people will look after themselves, and we must look after ourselves. We are so few and they are so many, that we shall have
quite enough to do.”   
Then the Duke gave his son a somewhat lengthy political lecture, which was intended to teach him that the greatest benefit of the greatest number was
the object to which all political studies should tend. The son listened to it with attention, and when it was over, expressed his opinion that there was a great deal in what his father had said.
I trust, if you will consider it,” said the Duke, “that you will not find yourself obliged to desert the school of politics in which your father has not been an inactive supporter, and to which your family has belonged for many generations.”   
“I could not call myself a Liberal,” said the young politician.   
“Why not?”   
“Because I am a Conservative.”   
 

 This passage is so full of interest that a full analysis would take many pages. However I want to concentrate on a few inter-linked points.
  

 I will start with Scott. I start here because Scott is the great template for novels which consider the way in which different generations adopt different political positions. It is there in his first novel Waverley, and continues to be a major theme possibly reaching its apogee in Redgauntlet. Now it is quite impossible that Trollope would not have been aware of Scott’s treatment of these issues; how he interpreted them or what he thought of them is a different matter. Being absurdly reductionist it is possible to boil Scott’s position down to a statement that different generations can have different politics, that it is right that each should do so, and that these politics can be incompatible but equally valid. I have just been reading Isaiah Berlin’s extremely brilliant Mellon lectures on The Roots of Romanticism, where he argues that is precisely in this that Scott, consciously or unconsciously following Herder, was a Romantic. Scott’s acceptance of different values for different times ‘shattered the monopoly, shattered the possibility that every age is as good as it can be, and is indeed advancing to an even better one’. Berlin continues…..    

‘If you look for the difference between Macaulay and Scott, you will find it precisely in this, that Macaulay really does believe in progress………….Everything can be explained in terms of its own causal forces. We are progressing.’    

Now if we translate these attitudes – which we can term as Enlightenment and Romantic ones – back to Trollope and the argument above we can very clearly see that both here, and indeed whenever we hear him, the Duke is fundamentally an Enlightenment/Macaulay man. There are a given set of values – which we might broadly term Utilitarian – and the Utilitarians were the heirs of the Enlightenment – to which all reasonable men must subscribe and towards which history is making steady progress……     

the greatest benefit of the greatest number was the object to which all political studies should tend   Silverbridge emphatically denies this….    

 “Well, sir; I think I have. I’ve got my own ideas. We’ve got to protect our position as well as we can against the Radicals and Communists.”    

 “I cannot admit that at all, Silverbridge. There is no great political party in this country anxious either for Communism or for revolution. But, putting
all that aside for the present, do you think that a man’s political opinions should be held in regard to his own individual interests, or to the much wider interests of others, whom we call the public?”   
“To his own interest,” said the young man with decision.<<   
 

 Silverbridge’s value system is thus completely at odds with his father. And if you accept his values then his politics are wholly logical. Indeed, far from being a fool to be Conservative, if his value system is accepted he would be a fool NOT to be a Conservative.    

 Now we must switch ground slightly and observe that as far as the general political climate of 1879-80, as against that of the 1850-70 period, Silverbridge
is more right than his father. There had been a decisive change – Asa Briggs and Cannadine whom we have read here [on Trollope-l], whatever their general inadequacies, as well as every other historian attest to this. The long-drawn out but terminal decline of the Liberal party had begun. Class conflict was on the agenda.It may well be that Trollope only vaguely understood this; we often have difficulty perceiving the political shifts of our own time correctly and
need the advantages of hindsight to so do – one reason Scott liked the historical genre.    

But accepting the facts of historical change is not the most interesting or essential part of the argument; this is, given that circumstances change, should values also change? And if values change are all values equally valid? Palliser stands for unchanging values, and, as far as I can understand him, so to a very great degree does Trollope. Silverbridge’s value system on the other hand is one which dictates that your political allegiances would change over time – if self-interest is key then you adopt the political position which will further that self-interest (or class-interest). It should be noted that this is wholly different to the definition of a Conservative which Palliser gives in The Prime Minister which basically revolves around the defence of the existing order because the existing order is a given good and in fact will tend once again to the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’ (Trollope rightly has some difficulties conveying quite how this should be so but it is a position which the right-wing consistently adopts).    

 I want to stress that this is not a right v left argument although it takes that particular form here. But it could quite as easily be reversed. Imagine that Palliser is a miner who is a traditional Liberal and his son a socialist. The dialogue could work just as well with a few specific alterations. No the central clash is about
values – what values are held, whether values should alter with time, whether contradictory values can be equally good given different circumstances.    

Let me return once more to Scott. In Scott it would be wholly possible for Palliser to hold his values, for those to have been appropriate to his time; for Silverbridge to hold his values, for those to have been appropriate to his time and for both to have had equal validity and been equally right. In Trollope this is not, in my reading, so. Trollope does adhere to eternal values; but he is deeply aware that they are under threat and that the world is changing – he just can’t cope with it.     

To some extent this post has been a commentary on and argument with Ellen’s comment that…    >>So I agree that when Silverbridge opts for the conservatives, we are to see the wrongness of the political judgement and Silverbridge’s callowness (he is simply rebelling against his father and emulating his older friend, Tregear who he instinctively feels has ideas in his mind), but I think that much more than
politics is going on in the Duke’s clash with his son.<<   
 

 What I am attempting to argue is that if we are to see Silverbridge as wrong – and I think we are – this is because of Trollope’s limited political understanding
and his rootedness in a certain set of values. To some extent we can admire him, as we admire his mouthpiece the Duke, because those values are inspirational (as is proved by the magnificent letter on the proper function of an MP in Chapter 15) and worthwhile. But as a model of historical or philosophical limitation they do prove Trollope’s limitations, especially when set against his great fore-runner. And I don’t think it is just rebellion or callowness –    

>>”To his own interest,” said the young man with decision<<    

 well that has a great deal to be said for it – it is just that my interests would definitely be opposed to Silverbridge and his heirs! From another angle after all is not Silverbridge espousing the class struggle?    

  

 

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