the future of liberalism
The nineteenth century might be called the age of Liberalism, yet its close saw the fortunes of that great movement brought to their lowest ebb. Whether at home or abroad those who represented Liberal ideas had suffered crushing defeats. But this was the least considerable of the causes for anxiety. If Liberals had been defeated, something much worse seemed about to befall Liberalism. Its faith in itself was waxing cold. It seemed to have done its work. It had the air of a creed that is becoming fossilized as an extinct form, a fossil that occupied, moreover, an awkward position between two very active and energetically moving grindstones—the upper grindstone of plutocratic imperialism, and the nether grindstone of social democracy. “We know all about you,” these parties seemed to say to Liberalism; “we have been right through you and come out on the other side. Respectable platitudes, you go maundering on about Cobden and Gladstone, and the liberty of the individual, and the rights of nationality, and government by the people. What you say is not precisely untrue, but it is unreal and uninteresting.” So far in chorus. “It is not up to date,” finished the Imperialist, and the Socialist bureaucrat. “It is not bread and butter,” finished the Social democrat. Opposed in everything else, these two parties agreed in one thing. They were to divide the future between them. Unfortunately, however, for their agreement, the division was soon seen to be no equal one. Whatever might be the ultimate recuperative power of Social Democracy, for the time being, in the paralysis of Liberalism, the Imperial reaction had things all to itself. The governing classes of England were to assert themselves. They were to consolidate the Empire, incidentally passing the steam roller over two obstructive republics. They were to “teach the law” to the “sullen new-caught peoples” abroad. They were to re-establish the Church at home by the endowment of doctrinal education. At the same time they were to establish the liquor interest—which is, after all, the really potent instrument of government from above. They were to bind the colonies to us by ties of fiscal preference, and to establish the great commercial interests on the basis of protection. Their government, as conceived by the best exponents of the new doctrine, was by no means to be indifferent to the humanitarian claims of the social conscience. They were to deal out factory acts, and establish wages boards. They were to make an efficient and a disciplined people. In the idea of discipline the military element rapidly assumed a greater prominence. But on this side the evolution of opinion passed through two well-marked phases. The first was the period of optimism and expansion. The Englishman was the born ruler of the world. He might hold out a hand of friendship to the German and the American, whom he recognized as his kindred and who lived within the law. The rest of the world was peopled by dying nations whose manifest destiny was to be “administered” by the coming races, and exploited by their commercial syndicates. This mood of optimism did not survive the South African War. It received its death-blow at Colenso and Magersfontein, and within a few years fear had definitely taken the place of ambition as the mainspring of the movement to national and imperial consolidation. The Tariff Reform movement was largely inspired by a sense of insecurity in our commercial position. The half-patronizing friendship for Germany rapidly gave way, first to commercial jealousy, and then to unconcealed alarm for our national safety. All the powers of society were bent on lavish naval expenditure, and of imposing the idea of compulsory service on a reluctant people. The disciplined nation was needed no longer to dominate the world, but to maintain its own territory.
Now, we are not concerned here to follow up the devious windings of modern Conservatism. We have to note only that what modern democracy has to face is no mere inertia of tradition. It is a distinct reactionary policy with a definite and not incoherent creed of its own, an ideal which in its best expression—for example, in the daily comments of the Morning Post—is certain to exercise a powerful attraction on many generous minds—the ideal of the efficient, disciplined nation, centre and dominating force of a powerful, self-contained, militant empire. What concerns us more particularly is the reaction of Conservative development upon the fortunes of democracy. But to understand this reaction, and, indeed, to make any sound estimate of the present position and prospects of Liberalism, we must cast a rapid glance over the movement of progressive thought during the last generation. When Gladstone formed his second Government in 1880 the old party system stood secure in Great Britain. It was only a band of politicians from the other side of St. George’s Channel who disowned both the great allegiances. For the British political mind the plain distinction of Liberal and Conservative held the field, and the division was not yet a class distinction. The great Whig families held their place, and they of the aristocratic houses divided the spoil. But a new leaven was at work. The prosperity which had culminated in 1872 was passing away. Industrial progress slowed down; and, though the advance from the “Hungry ’Forties” had been immense, men began to see the limit of what they could reasonably expect from retrenchment and Free Trade. The work of Mr. Henry George awakened new interest in problems of poverty, and the idealism of William Morris gave new inspiration to Socialist propaganda. Meanwhile, the teaching of Green and the enthusiasm of Toynbee were setting Liberalism free from the shackles of an individualist conception of liberty and paving the way for the legislation of our own time. Lastly, the Fabian Society brought Socialism down from heaven and established a contact with practical politics and municipal government. Had Great Britain been an island in the mid-Pacific the onward movement would have been rapid and undeviating in its course. As it was, the new ideas were reflected in the parliament and the cabinet of 1880-1885, and the Radicalism of Birmingham barely kept on terms with the Whiggery of the clubs. A redistribution of social forces which would amalgamate the interests of “property” on the one side and those of democracy on the other was imminent, and on social questions democracy reinforced by the enfranchisement of the rural labourers in 1884 stood to win. At this stage the Irish question came to a head. Mr. Gladstone declared for Home Rule, and the party fissure took place on false lines. The upper and middle classes in the main went over to Unionism, but they took with them a section of the Radicals, while Mr. Gladstone’s personal force retained on the Liberal side a number of men whose insight into the needs of democracy was by no means profound. The political fight was for the moment shifted from the social question to the single absorbing issue of Home Rule, and the new Unionist party enjoyed twenty years of almost unbroken supremacy. Again, had the Home Rule issue stood alone it might have been settled in 1892, but meanwhile in the later ’eighties the social question had become insistent. Socialism, ceasing to be a merely academic force, had begun to influence organized labour, and had inspired the more generous minds among the artisans with the determination to grapple with the problem of the unskilled workmen. From the Dockers’ strike of 1889 the New Unionism became a fighting force in public affairs, and the idea of a Labour party began to take shape. On the new problems Liberalism, weakened as it already had been, was further divided, and its failure in 1892 is to be ascribed far more to this larger cause than to the dramatic personal incident of the Parnell divorce. In office without legislative power from 1892 to 1895, the Liberal party only experienced further loss of credit, and the rise of Imperialism swept the whole current of public interest in a new direction. The Labour movement itself was paralyzed, and the defeat of the Engineers in 1897 put an end to the hope of achieving a great social transformation by the method of the strike. But, in the meanwhile, opinion was being silently transformed. The labours of Mr. Charles Booth and his associates had at length stated the problem of poverty in scientific terms. Social and economic history was gradually taking shape as a virtually new branch of knowledge. The work of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb helped to clear up the relations between the organized efforts of workmen and the functions of the State. The discerning observer could trace the “organic filaments” of a fuller and more concrete social theory.
On the other hand, in the Liberal ranks many of the most influential men had passed, without consciousness of the transition, under the sway of quite opposite influences. They were becoming Imperialists in their sleep, and it was only as the implications of Imperialism became evident that they were awakened. It was with the outbreak of the South African War that the new development of Conservative policy first compelled the average Liberal to consider his position. It needed the shock of an outspoken violation of right to stir him; and we may date the revival of the idea of justice in the party as an organized force from the speech in the summer of 1901 in which Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman set himself against the stream of militant sentiment and challenged in a classic phrase the methods of the war. From the day of this speech, which was supposed at the time to have irretrievably ruined his political career, the name of the party-leader, hitherto greeted with indifference, became a recognized signal for the cheers of a political meeting, and a man with no marked genius but that of character and the insight which character gave into the minds of his followers acquired in his party the position of a Gladstone. This was the first and fundamental victory, the reinstatement of the idea of Right in the mind of Liberalism. Then, as the Conservative attack developed and its implications became apparent, one interest after another of the older Liberalism was rudely shaken into life. The Education Act of 1902 brought the Nonconformists into action. The Tariff Reform movement put Free Trade on its defence, and taught men to realize what the older economics of Liberalism had done for them. The Socialists of practical politics, the Labour Party, found that they could by no means dispense with the discipline of Cobden. Free Trade finance was to be the basis of social reform. Liberalism and Labour learned to co-operate in resisting delusive promises of remedies for unemployment and in maintaining the right of free international exchange. Meanwhile, Labour itself had experienced the full brunt of the attack. It had come not from the politicians but from the judges, but in this country we have to realize that within wide limits the judges are in effect legislators, and legislators with a certain persistent bent which can be held in check only by the constant vigilance and repeated efforts of the recognized organ for the making and repeal of law. In destroying the old position of the Trade Unions, the judges created the modern Labour party and cemented its alliance with Liberalism. Meanwhile, the aftermath of Imperialism in South Africa was reaped, and Conservative disillusionment unlocked the floodgates for the advancing tide of the Liberal revival.
The tide has by no means spent itself. If it no longer rushes in an electoral torrent as in 1906 it flows in a steady stream towards social amelioration and democratic government. In this movement it is now sufficiently clear to all parties that the distinctive ideas of Liberalism have a permanent function. The Socialist recognizes with perfect clearness, for example, that popular government is not a meaningless shibboleth, but a reality that has to be maintained and extended by fighting. He is well aware that he must deal with the House of Lords and the Plural vote if he is to gain his own ends. He can no longer regard these questions as difficulties interposed by half-hearted Liberals to distract attention from the Social problem. He is aware that the problem of Home Rule and of devolution generally is an integral part of the organization of democracy. And, as a rule, he not merely acquiesces in the demand of women for a purely political right, but only quarrels with the Liberal party for its tardiness in meeting the demand. The old Liberal idea of peace and retrenchment again is recognized by the Socialistic, and indeed by the whole body of social reformers, as equally essential for the successful prosecution of their aims. Popular budgets will bring no relief to human suffering if the revenues that they secure are all to go upon the most expensive ship that is the fashion of the moment, nor can the popular mind devote itself to the improvement of domestic conditions while it is distracted either by ambitions or by scares. On the other side, the Liberal who starts from the Gladstonian tradition has in large measure realized that if he is to maintain the essence of his old ideas it must be through a process of adaptation and growth. He has learnt that while Free Trade laid the foundations of prosperity it did not erect the building. He has to acknowledge that it has not solved the problems of unemployment, of underpayment, of overcrowding. He has to look deeper into the meaning of liberty and to take account of the bearing of actual conditions on the meaning of equality. As an apostle of peace and an opponent of swollen armaments, he has come to recognize that the expenditure of the social surplus upon the instruments of progress is the real alternative to its expenditure on the instruments of war. As a Temperance man he is coming to rely more on the indirect effect of social improvement on the one hand and the elimination of monopolist profit on the other, than on the uncertain chances of absolute prohibition.
There are, then, among the composite forces which maintained the Liberal Government in power through the crisis of 1910, the elements of such an organic view as may inspire and direct a genuine social progress. Liberalism has passed through its Slough of Despond, and in the give and take of ideas with Socialism has learnt, and taught, more than one lesson. The result is a broader and deeper movement in which the cooler and clearer minds recognize below the differences of party names and in spite of certain real cross-currents a genuine unity of purpose. What are the prospects of this movement? Will it be maintained? Is it the steady stream to which we have compared it, or a wave which must gradually sink into the trough?
To put this question is to ask in effect whether democracy is in substance as well as in form a possible mode of government. To answer this question we must ask what democracy really means, and why it is the necessary basis of the Liberal idea. The question has already been raised incidentally, and we have seen reason to dismiss both the individualist and the Benthamite argument for popular government as unsatisfactory. We even admitted a doubt whether some of the concrete essentials of liberty and social justice might not, under certain conditions, be less fully realized under a widely-extended suffrage than under the rule of a superior class or a well-ordered despotism. On what, then, it may be asked, do we found our conception of democracy? Is it on general principles of social philosophy, or on the special conditions of our own country or of contemporary civilization? And how does our conception relate itself to our other ideas of the social order? Do we assume that the democracy will in the main accept these ideas, or if it rejects them are we willing to acquiesce in its decision as final? And in the end what do we expect? Will democracy assert itself, will it find a common purpose and give it concrete shape? Or will it blunder on, the passive subject of scares and ambitions, frenzies of enthusiasm and dejection, clay in the hands of those whose profession it is to model it to their will.
First as to the general principle. Democracy is not founded merely on the right or the private interest of the individual. This is only one side of the shield. It is founded equally on the function of the individual as a member of the community. It founds the common good upon the common will, in forming which it bids every grown-up, intelligent person to take a part. No doubt many good things may be achieved for a people without responsive effort on its own part. It may be endowed with a good police, with an equitable system of private law, with education, with personal freedom, with a well-organized industry. It may receive these blessings at the hands of a foreign ruler, or from an enlightened bureaucracy or a benevolent monarch. However obtained, they are all very good things. But the democratic theory is that, so obtained, they lack a vitalizing element. A people so governed resembles an individual who has received all the external gifts of fortune, good teachers, healthy surroundings, a fair breeze to fill his sails, but owes his prosperous voyage to little or no effort of his own. We do not rate such a man so high as one who struggles through adversity to a much less eminent position. What we possess has its intrinsic value, but how we came to possess it is also an important question. It is so with a society. Good government is much, but the good will is more, and even the imperfect, halting, confused utterance of the common will may have in it the potency of higher things than a perfection of machinery can ever attain.
But this principle makes one very large assumption. It postulates the existence of a common will. It assumes that the individuals whom it would enfranchise can enter into the common life and contribute to the formation of a common decision by a genuine interest in public transactions. Where and in so far as this assumption definitely fails, there is no case for democracy. Progress, in such a case, is not wholly impossible, but it must depend on the number of those who do care for the things that are of social value, who advance knowledge or “civilize life through the discoveries of art,” or form a narrow but effective public opinion in support of liberty and order. We may go further. Whatever the form of government progress always does in fact depend on those who so think and live, and on the degree in which these common interests envelop their life and thought. Now, complete and wholehearted absorption in public interests is rare. It is the property not of the mass but of the few, and the democrat is well aware that it is the remnant which saves the people. He subjoins only that if their effort is really to succeed the people must be willing to be saved. The masses who spend their toilsome days in mine or factory struggling for bread have not their heads for ever filled with the complex details of international policy or industrial law. To expect this would be absurd. What is not exaggerated is to expect them to respond and assent to the things that make for the moral and material welfare of the country, and the position of the democrat is that the “remnant” is better occupied in convincing the people and carrying their minds and wills with it than in imposing on them laws which they are concerned only to obey and enjoy. At the same time, the remnant, be it never so select, has always much to learn. Some men are much better and wiser than others, but experience seems to show that hardly any man is so much better or wiser than others that he can permanently stand the test of irresponsible power over them. On the contrary, the best and wisest is he who is ready to go to the humblest in a spirit of inquiry, to find out what he wants and why he wants it before seeking to legislate for him. Admitting the utmost that can be said for the necessity of leadership, we must at the same time grant that the perfection of leadership itself lies in securing the willing, convinced, open-eyed support of the mass.
Thus individuals will contribute to the social will in very varying degrees, but the democratic thesis is that the formation of such a will, that is, in effect, the extension of intelligent interest in all manner of public things, is in itself a good, and more than that, it is a condition qualifying other good things. Now the extension of interest is not to be created by democratic forms of government, and if it neither exists nor can be brought into existence, democracy remains an empty form and may even be worse than useless. On the other hand, where the capacity exists the establishment of responsible government is the first condition of its development. Even so it is not the sole condition. The modern State is a vast and complex organism. The individual voter feels himself lost among the millions. He is imperfectly acquainted with the devious issues and large problems of the day, and is sensible how little his solitary vote can affect their decision. What he needs to give him support and direction is organization with his neighbours and fellow workers. He can understand, for example, the affairs of his trade union, or, again, of his chapel. They are near to him. They affect him, and he feels that he can affect them. Through these interests, again, he comes into touch with wider questions—with a Factory Bill or an Education Bill—and in dealing with these questions he will now act as one of an organized body, whose combined voting strength will be no negligible quantity. Responsibility comes home to him, and to bring home responsibility is the problem of all government. The development of social interest—and that is democracy—depends not only on adult suffrage and the supremacy of the elected legislature, but on all the intermediate organizations which link the individual to the whole. This is one among the reasons why devolution and the revival of local government, at present crushed in this country by a centralized bureaucracy, are of the essence of democratic progress.
The success of democracy depends on the response of the voters to the opportunities given them. But, conversely, the opportunities must be given in order to call forth the response. The exercise of popular government is itself an education. In considering whether any class or sex or race should be brought into the circle of enfranchisement, the determining consideration is the response which that class or sex or race would be likely to make to the trust. Would it enter effectively into the questions of public life, or would it be so much passive voting material, wax in the hands of the less scrupulous politicians? The question is a fair one, but people are too ready to answer it in the less favourable sense on the ground of the actual indifference or ignorance which they find or think they find among the unenfranchised. They forget that in that regard enfranchisement itself may be precisely the stimulus needed to awaken interest, and while they are impressed with the danger of admitting ignorant and irresponsible, and perhaps corruptible voters to a voice in the government, they are apt to overlook the counterbalancing danger of leaving a section of the community outside the circle of civic responsibility. The actual work of government must affect, and also it must be affected by, its relation to all who live within the realm. To secure good adaptation it ought, I will not say to reflect, but at least to take account of, the dispositions and circumstances of every class in the population. If any one class is dumb, the result is that Government is to that extent uninformed. It is not merely that the interests of that class may suffer, but that, even with the best will, mistakes may be made in handling it, because it cannot speak for itself. Officious spokesmen will pretend to represent its views, and will obtain, perhaps, undue authority merely because there is no way of bringing them to book. So among ourselves does the press constantly represent public opinion to be one thing while the cold arithmetic of the polls conclusively declares it to be another. The ballot alone effectively liberates the quiet citizen from the tyranny of the shouter and the wire-puller.
I conclude that an impression of existing inertness or ignorance is not a sufficient reason for withholding responsible government or restricting the area of the suffrage. There must be a well-grounded view that political incapacity is so deep-rooted that the extension of political rights would tend only to facilitate undue influence by the less scrupulous sections of the more capable part of the people. Thus where we have an oligarchy of white planters in the midst of a coloured population, it is always open to doubt whether a general colour-franchise will be a sound method of securing even-handed justice. The economic and social conditions may be such that the “coloured” man would just have to vote as his master told him, and if the elementary rights are to be secured for all it may be that a semi-despotic system like that of some of our Crown colonies is the best that can be devised. On the other side, that which is most apt to frighten a governing class or race, a clamour on the part of an unenfranchised people for political rights, is to the democrat precisely the strongest reason that he can have in the absence of direct experience for believing them fit for the exercise of civic responsibility. He welcomes signs of dissatisfaction among the disfranchised as the best proof of awakening interest in public affairs, and he has none of those fears of ultimate social disruption which are a nightmare to bureaucracies because experience has sufficiently proved to him the healing power of freedom, of responsibility, and of the sense of justice. Moreover, a democrat cannot be a democrat for his own country alone. He cannot but recognize the complex and subtle interactions of nation upon nation which make every local success or failure of democracy tell upon other countries. Nothing has been more encouraging to the Liberalism of Western Europe in recent years than the signs of political awakening in the East. Until yesterday it seemed as though it would in the end be impossible to resist the ultimate “destiny” of the white races to be masters of the rest of the world. The result would have been that, however far democracy might develop within any Western State, it would always be confronted with a contrary principle in the relation of that State to dependencies, and this contradiction, as may easily be seen by the attentive student of our own political constitutions, is a standing menace to domestic freedom. The awakening of the Orient, from Constantinople to Pekin, is the greatest and most hopeful political fact of our time, and it is with the deepest shame that English Liberals have been compelled to look on while our Foreign Office has made itself the accomplice in the attempt to nip Persian freedom in the bud, and that in the interest of the most ruthless tyranny that has ever crushed the liberties of a white people.
The cause of democracy is bound up with that of internationalism. The relation is many-sided. It is national pride, resentment, or ambition one day that sweeps the public mind and diverts it from all interest in domestic progress. The next day the same function is performed no less adequately by a scare. The practice of playing on popular emotions has been reduced to a fine art which neither of the great parties is ashamed to employ. Military ideals possess the mind, and military expenditure eats up the public resources. On the other side, the political economic and social progress of other nations reacts on our own. The backwardness of our commercial rivals in industrial legislation was long made an argument against further advances among ourselves. Conversely, when they go beyond us, as now they often do, we can learn from them. Physically the world is rapidly becoming one, and its unity must ultimately be reflected in political institutions. The old doctrine of absolute sovereignty is dead. The greater States of the day exhibit a complex system of government within government, authority limited by authority, and the world-state of the not impossible future must be based on a free national self-direction as full and satisfying as that enjoyed by Canada or Australia within the British Empire at this moment. National emulation will express itself less in the desire to extend territory or to count up ships and guns, and more in the endeavour to magnify the contribution of our own country to civilized life. Just as in the rebirth of our municipal life we find a civic patriotism which takes interest in the local university, which feels pride in the magnitude of the local industry, which parades the lowest death rate in the country, which is honestly ashamed of a bad record for crime or pauperism, so as Englishmen we shall concern ourselves less with the question whether two of our Dreadnoughts might not be pitted against one German, and more with the question whether we cannot equal Germany in the development of science, of education, and of industrial technique. Perhaps even, recovering from our present artificially induced and radically insincere mood of national self-abasement, we shall learn to take some pride in our own characteristic contributions as a nation to the arts of government, to the thought, the literature, the art, the mechanical inventions which have made and are re-making modern civilization.
Standing by national autonomy and international equality, Liberalism is necessarily in conflict with the Imperial idea as it is ordinarily presented. But this is not to say that it is indifferent to the interests of the Empire as a whole, to the sentiment of unity pervading its white population, to all the possibilities involved in the bare fact that a fourth part of the human race recognizes one flag and one supreme authority. In relation to the self-governing colonies the Liberal of today has to face a change in the situation since Cobden’s time not unlike that which we have traced in other departments. The Colonial Empire as it stands is in substance the creation of the older Liberalism. It is founded on self-government, and self-government is the root from which the existing sentiment of unity has sprung. The problem of our time is to devise means for the more concrete and living expression of this sentiment without impairing the rights of self-government on which it depends. Hitherto the “Imperialist” has had matters all his own way and has cleverly exploited Colonial opinion, or an appearance of Colonial opinion, in favour of class ascendancy and reactionary legislation in the mother country. But the colonies include the most democratic communities in the world. Their natural sympathies are not with the Conservatives, but with the most Progressive parties in the United Kingdom. They favour Home Rule, they set the pace in social legislation. There exist accordingly the political conditions of a democratic alliance which it is the business of the British Liberal to turn to account. He may hope to make his country the centre of a group of self-governing, democratic communities, one of which, moreover, serves as a natural link with the other great commonwealth of English-speaking people. The constitutional mechanism of the new unity begins to take shape in the Imperial Council, and its work begins to define itself as the adjustment of interests as between different portions of the Empire and the organization of common defence. Such a union is no menace to the world’s peace or to the cause of freedom. On the contrary, as a natural outgrowth of a common sentiment, it is one of the steps towards a wider unity which involves no backstroke against the ideal of self-government. It is a model, and that on no mean scale, of the International State.
Internationalism on the one side, national self-government on the other, are the radical conditions of the growth of a social mind which is the essence, as opposed to the form, of democracy. But as to form itself a word must, in conclusion, be said. If the forms are unsuitable the will cannot express itself, and if it fails of adequate expression it is in the end thwarted, repressed and paralyzed. In the matter of form the inherent difficulty of democratic government, whether direct or representative, is that it is government by majority, not government by universal consent. Its decisions are those of the larger part of the people, not of the whole. This defect is an unavoidable consequence of the necessities of decision and the impossibility of securing universal agreement. Statesmen have sought to remedy it by applying something of the nature of a brake upon the process of change. They have felt that to justify a new departure of any magnitude there must be something more than a bare majority. There must either be a large majority, two-thirds or three-fourths of the electorate, or there must be some friction to be overcome which will serve to test the depth and force as well as the numerical extent of the feeling behind the new proposal. In the United Kingdom we have one official brake, the House of Lords, and several unofficial ones, the civil service, the permanent determined opposition of the Bench to democratic measures, the Press, and all that we call Society. All these brakes act in one way only. There is no brake upon reaction—a lack which becomes more serious in proportion as the Conservative party acquires a definite and constructive policy of its own. In this situation the Liberal party set itself to deal with the official brake by the simple method of reducing its effective strength, but, to be honest, without having made up its mind as to the nature of the brake which it would like to substitute. On this question a few general remarks would seem to be in place. The function of a check on the House of Commons is to secure reconsideration. Conservative leaders are in the right when they point to the accidental elements that go to the constitution of parliamentary majorities. The programme of any general election is always composite, and a man finds himself compelled, for example, to choose between a Tariff Reformer whose views on education he approves, and a Free Trader whose educational policy he detests. In part this defect might be remedied by the Proportional system to which, whether against the grain or not, Liberals will find themselves driven the more they insist on the genuinely representative character of the House of Commons. But even a Proportional system would not wholly clear the issues before the electorate. The average man gives his vote on the question which he takes to be most important in itself, and which he supposes to be most likely to come up for immediate settlement. But he is always liable to find his expectations defeated, and a Parliament which is in reality elected on one issue may proceed to deal with quite another. The remedy proposed by the Parliament Bill was a two years’ delay, which, it was held, would secure full discussion and considerable opportunity for the manifestation of opinion should it be adverse. This proposal had been put to the constituencies twice over, and had been ratified by them if any legislative proposal ever was ratified. It should enable the House of Commons, as the representatives of the people, to decide freely on the permanent constitution of the country. The Bill itself, however, does not lay down the lines of a permanent settlement. For, to begin with, in leaving the constitution of the House of Lords unaltered it provides a one-sided check, operating only on democratic measures which in any case have to run the gauntlet of the permanent officials, the judges, the Press, and Society. For permanent use the brake must be two-sided. Secondly, it is to be feared that the principle of delay would be an insufficient check upon a large and headstrong majority. What is really needed is that the people should have the opportunity of considering a proposal afresh. This could be secured in either of two ways: (1) by allowing the suspensory veto of the Second Chamber to hold a measure over to a new Parliament; (2) by allowing the House of Commons to submit a bill in the form in which it finally leaves the House to a direct popular vote. It is to my mind regrettable that so many Liberals should have closed the door on the Referendum. It is true that there are many measures to which it would be ill suited. For example, measures affecting a particular class or a particular locality would be apt to go by the board. They might command a large and enthusiastic majority among those primarily affected by them, but only receive a languid assent elsewhere, and they might be defeated by a majority beaten up for extraneous purposes among those without first-hand knowledge of the problems with which they are intended to deal. Again, if a referendum were to work at all it would only be in relation to measures of the first class, and only, if the public convenience is to be consulted, on very rare occasions. In all ordinary cases of insuperable difference between the Houses, the government of the day would accept the postponement of the measure till the new Parliament. But there are measures of urgency, measures of fundamental import, above all, measures which cut across the ordinary lines of party, and with which, in consequence, our system is impotent to deal, and on these the direct consultation of the people would be the most suitable method of solution.
What we need, then, is an impartial second chamber distinctly subordinate to the House of Commons, incapable of touching finance and therefore of overthrowing a ministry, but able to secure the submission of a measure either to the direct vote of the people or to the verdict of a second election—the government of the day having the choice between the alternatives. Such a chamber might be instituted by direct popular election. But the multiplication of elections is not good for the working of democracy, and it would be difficult to reconcile a directly elected house to a subordinate position. It might, therefore, as an alternative, be elected on a proportional system by the House of Commons itself, its members retaining their seat for two Parliaments. To bridge over the change half of the chamber for the present Parliament might be elected by the existing House of Lords, and their representatives retiring at the end of this Parliament would leave the next House of Commons and every future House of Commons with one-half of the chamber to elect. This Second Chamber would then reflect in equal proportions the existing and the last House of Commons, and the balance between parties should be fairly held. This chamber would have ample power of securing reasonable amendments and would also have good ground for exercising moderation in pressing its views. If the public were behind the measure it would know that in the end the House of Commons could carry it in its teeth, whether by referendum or by a renewed vote of confidence at a general election. The Commons, on their side, would have reasons for exhibiting a conciliatory temper. They would not wish to be forced either to postpone or to appeal. As to which method they would choose they would have absolute discretion, and if they went to the country with a series of popular measures hung up and awaiting their return for ratification, they would justly feel themselves in a strong position.
So far as to forms. The actual future of democracy, however, rests upon deeper issues. It is bound up with the general advance of civilization. The organic character of society is, we have seen, in one sense, an ideal. In another sense it is an actuality. That is to say, nothing of any import affects the social life on one side without setting up reactions all through the tissue. Hence, for example, we cannot maintain great political progress without some corresponding advance on other sides. People are not fully free in their political capacity when they are subject industrially to conditions which take the life and heart out of them. A nation as a whole cannot be in the full sense free while it fears another or gives cause of fear to another. The social problem must be viewed as a whole. We touch here the greatest weakness in modern reform movements. The spirit of specialism has invaded political and social activity, and in greater and greater degree men consecrate their whole energy to a particular cause to the almost cynical disregard of all other considerations. “Not such the help, nor these the defenders” which this moment of the world’s progress needs. Rather we want to learn our supreme lesson from the school of Cobden. For them the political problem was one, manifold in its ramifications but undivided in its essence. It was a problem of realizing liberty. We have seen reason to think that their conception of liberty was too thin, and that to appreciate its concrete content we must understand it as resting upon mutual restraint and value it as a basis of mutual aid. For us, therefore, harmony serves better as a unifying conception. It remains for us to carry it through with the same logical cogency, the same practical resourcefulness, the same driving force that inspired the earlier Radicals, that gave fire to Cobden’s statistics, and lent compelling power to the eloquence of Bright. We need less of the fanatics of sectarianism and more of the unifying mind. Our reformers must learn to rely less on the advertising value of immediate success and more on the deeper but less striking changes of practice or of feeling, to think less of catching votes and more of convincing opinion. We need a fuller co-operation among those of genuine democratic feeling and more agreement as to the order of reform. At present progress is blocked by the very competition of many causes for the first place in the advance. Here, again, devolution will help us, but what would help still more would be a clearer sense of the necessity of co-operation between all who profess and call themselves democrats, based on a fuller appreciation of the breadth and the depth of their own meaning. The advice seems cold to the fiery spirits, but they may come to learn that the vision of justice in the wholeness of her beauty kindles a passion that may not flare up into moments of dramatic scintillation, but burns with the enduring glow of the central heat.
- I need hardly add that financial measures are entirely unsuited to a referendum. Financial and executive control go together, and to take either of them out of the hands of the majority in the House of Commons is not to reform our system but to destroy it root and branch. The same is not true of legislative control. There are cases in which a government might fairly submit a legislative measure to the people without electing to stand or fall by it.
- Probably the best alternative to these proposals is that of a small directly elected Second Chamber, with a provision for a joint session in case of insuperable disagreement, but with no provision for delay. This proposal has the advantage, apparently, of commanding a measure of Conservative support.