The Tyranny of Shams/Chapter IV
The reforms I have so far advocated have one peculiar characteristic. They are urgent, easy to grasp, indisputable in principle, and enormously advantageous; but they need international co-operation, and we are only just beginning to form those friendly international contacts which may lead to agreement. Hence it is that, although very contentious reforms have already been realised, these linger, as we say, outside the range of practical politics. But this very phrase reminds us at once of another fundamental irregularity of our life. The man who thinks a proposal dismissed because it is not within the range of practical politics illustrates admirably the indolence of mind which I am assailing. If a useful and economical device were put before him in his business-capacity, and he were told that his business had no room for it, he would at once ask what was wrong with the business. I am contending all through for the application of this progressive spirit to larger concerns than stores or workshops. If our political system, to which we entrust these large concerns, absolutely ignores some of our finest chances of profit, there is something wrong with the system. Our servants are not doing what they are paid to do.
As I have already briefly contended, our recent experience furnishes a very ghastly confirmation of this suspicion. The British Empire will survive the dangers that beset it, though it will be deeply impaired economically, for two fundamental reasons: the Allies have double the population of the Central European Powers, and they have, including in this respect the United States, far larger ultimate resources in material and money. The fact that we do eventually muddle through will, one fears, content the majority of our people, but the thoughtful patriot will ask two questions. How many hundred millions has our slowness in mobilising our resources cost us, by protracting the war? And what is likely to be the fate of the British Empire if, with a similar slackness, it has at some later date to meet a numerically equal and far more alert enemy?
Let me briefly recount the facts which show that our national business has been grossly mismanaged. Can any person look back on all the facts which are now public property and say that our soldiers and statesmen were innocent in not perceiving the grave possibility of war with Germany at any time in the last three years? That, however, will scarcely be said: the readiness of our fleet is a sufficient reply. We know further that the general character of the war was foreseen. England was to help France and Belgium, on French or Belgian soil. England’s co-operation on land was, as events have shown, vitally necessary. Yet the unpreparedness of Britain for a great continental campaign was entirely scandalous. No doubt there would have been a risk in openly enlarging the army or creating great stores of material. Germany would, in its unamiable way, have asked questions. Tender-hearted Members of Parliament would have denounced our provocative proceedings. But a preparation of plans, a census of our resources, a scheme for the immediate enlistment of the business-ability of the country and the full use of all our industrial machinery—these and a dozen other most important measures could have been taken in this country as safely and secretly as they were in Germany. Not only were they not taken, but the military preparations were actually relaxed. It has transpired, and is not disputed, that our great Arsenal was only partially occupied; and Mr. A. Chamberlain has publicly stated that Kynochs had for the year 1914—the expected year of war—a Government order two-thirds less than they are capable of executing in a week, and do now execute in a week.
The second fact is the remarkable failure to forecast the conditions of the war. If it be urged that a layman cannot judge how far such a failure is culpable, the answer is prompt: the German authorities, who had had no more experience of war than we, did forecast the conditions. Their minute and energetic elaboration of the whole scheme of the war contrasts extraordinarily with the sluggish and conventional ease of our authorities.
The third and gravest fact is our appalling and costly slowness in mobilising our resources when the war began. Six months after the outbreak of war I went over a very large engineering shop in the north. Out of hundreds of men only a score or two were engaged on war-material: and one of the two objects on which this mere handful of men were engaged has proved to be wholly valueless. At that time, and for months afterwards, the workers of Britain were encouraged in their easy ways, and the bulk of the manufacturers were encouraged to go on with their usual business, by official assurances that no greater effort was needed. When our disgusted soldiers sent us a message that, not “the weather,” but a scandalous shortage of ammunition and machine-guns kept them back, the Prime Minister, quoting the “highest available authority,” publicly declared this to be untrue. We were asked rather to admire the way in which we had dispatched the greatest expeditionary force known in history: as if the enormous progress of modern times did not make this superiority a matter of course. When criticism increased, we cried for the gag and the public prosecutor, and we garlanded the portraits of the very men who had disgraced us; and we agreed to the retention or promotion of incompetent men, on obvious party-grounds.
Happily one minister had the grit and patriotism to call to his aid a group of business-men, and the facts could no longer be concealed. Mr. Lloyd George admitted that since the beginning of the war, we had increased a thousandfold our production of munitions, yet were still far behind the Germans and far short of our needs; and at last, eleven months after the outbreak of war, we began to organise, or at least to ascertain, our resources. Again we loudly congratulated ourselves on our energy. We cried shame on all critics and pessimists and people who wanted more. We fancied ourselves in the character of Atlas, taking the whole burden on our massive shoulders, to spare our weaker Allies. But the sinister light which this late increase of output threw on the first six months, or more, of indolent incompetence was quite disregarded. We genially overlooked the fact that the delay of our advance was costing us nearly a hundred millions a month. We allowed less prominent affairs to be conducted with the same indolent insufficiency. The most absurdly inadequate measures were taken to control the prices of food and coal, and scarcely a thought was given to the tremendous economic problem which will confront us when the war is over, or to the means of recouping ourselves by a systematic promotion of our oversea trade.
In a word, the magnificent organisation and ordered national devotion of the German people make the conduct of England during the first year of the war seem clumsy, lazy, and full of danger for the future. For this the chief blame quite obviously falls on our statesmen. English soldiers have at least been second to none in the field: English artisans have, since the need was acknowledged, worked magnificently. It is the directing brain that was sluggish and incompetent. The magnitude of the sudden task does not excuse our rulers, nor does the very large service that was actually done—which I do not for a moment overlook—lessen the scandal. If a political machine does not know how to enlarge itself in less than twelve months to meet a new and very urgent task, especially a task that it ought to have foreseen, it is unfit to control our national destiny. Our governmental system has proved itself most dangerously and mischievously unfit to meet such a national emergency, and this catastrophic experience may encourage the reader to examine with patience the criticisms which I propose to pass on it.
Here again we submit to the tyranny of a largely obsolete tradition. When the story of the development of human institutions can be written with a detachment of which we are yet incapable, one of the strangest pages will be that which tells of the evolution of Church and State. From the early days when some exceptionally powerful warrior is raised on his shield and saluted as chief or king, and when some weird individual earns the repute of being able to control or propitiate the mighty powers of the environing world, government and religion steadily advance to a commanding position in the life of the people. The two men of power, the king and the priest, must have establishments in accord with their value to the tribe, and the palace and the temple rise in spacious dignity above the mean cluster of huts. Time after time the race turns to examine the tradition which has been so deeply impressed on it, and kings and gods are cast from their thrones; but new dynasties always arise. Of Rome, no less than of Thebes or Nineveh, it is the monuments of kings and gods that survive. Only a few centuries ago the European city consisted mainly of two institutions: the palace and the cathedral. The bulk of the citizens huddled in squalid fever-stricken houses beyond the fringe of the estates of their secular and priestly rulers.
The modern age, with its inconvenient questions and its bold speech, arrives. Commerce develops, and the palace and cathedral disappear in the forest of soaring buildings. When the roofs of the new commerce and the new commoner rise to a level with the roof of the palace or the cathedral, when men are no longer overshadowed by the old powers, the imagination is released. The divine right of kings goes in a fury of revolutionary flame: kings must henceforth rule by human right and answer at a human tribunal, which is more exacting and alert than the old tribunal. Yet the power of the dead tradition is amazing. In England men still bow reverently when the king addresses them as “my subjects” and talks of “my empire”: still crown every entertainment, spiritual or gastronomic, with fervent aspirations which would lead an ill-informed spectator to imagine that they regarded the king’s health as mystically connected with the health of the nation: still describe bishops and the heads of families which have been sufficiently long idle and wealthy as their “lords.”
These archaeological survivals are, no doubt, innocuous, if irritating. The more serious feature is that they help to make so many people insensible of the miserable compromises we endure in our reorganised State. They are part of that superabundant ash which clogs and dulls the fire of the nation’s life. The nineteenth century, rightly and inevitably, adopted a democratic scheme of public administration. It was seen that, if the king were not so close a friend of the Almighty as had been supposed, there was no visible reason why the destinies of the nation should be entrusted to his judgment: which was, as a rule, not humanly impressive. Luckily, certain nations had won the right to do a good deal of talking before the king came to a decision, or the right to hold Parliaments, and Europe generally adopted this model. The Parliament House now towered upward in the city, and it did the real business of directing the nation’s affairs. The king became a kind of grand seal for the measures enacted by Parliament. Some nations, the number of which is increasing, regarded the seal as a costly and avoidable luxury, and abolished it: some kept the king, with all his stately language and pretty robes and sparkling jewellery, and abolished the “lords”: some kept the king and the lords, but deprived them of real power. The English nation, which is famous for its common-sense, its audacity, and its ability, belongs to the last group. It invented that remarkable phrase, “self-government”: which ingeniously preserves the fiction that someone has a right to govern other people, yet conciliates the modern spirit by intimating that the people really govern their governors.
Into the extraordinary confusion of forms and formulae which has resulted from this compromise it would be waste of time to enter. Does it really matter that we allow our king to put on our coins a flattering portrait of himself, with an intimation that he rules as “by the grace of God”? He is quite conscious that he rules us—if his melodramatic relation to us may be called ruling—on the understanding that he never contradicts us. We are not now knocked on the head, except by an intoxicated patriot, if we refuse to stand while our neighbours chant their insincere incantation about his health: we go, not to the Tower, but to the ordinary law-court, if we mention his personal frailties; and the portentous seriousness with which he takes his robes and his formulae injures none, and amuses many. No doubt, slovenly mental habits are always to be deplored, yet these things are not in themselves important enough to be included in a list of serious reforms. What we do need to examine critically is this scheme of self-government by which we now manage our national affairs: very badly, it appears.
This political machinery is divided into two sections: municipal government and national government. The former, from which every element of “government” except the name has departed, need not be considered at length. It consists of groups of citizens who are understood to excel in public spirit and self-sacrifice, so that they devote a large part of their time to the unpaid service of their fellow-citizens. Every few years a man, of whom you had probably never heard before, calls to implore you, with a quite painful humility and courtesy, to allow him to discharge this self-denying function. The next day another man, of whom also you had never heard before, calls to inform you, in discreet language, that his rival is a spendthrift, a rogue, or a fool; and that he is the man to represent you with due regard to economy and with absolute disinterestedness. You probably refrain from voting for either, since you have not the abundant leisure of a libel-court. Your streets will somehow get paved, and your children schooled, and you will pay the bill. But you may discover after a time that the air is thick with charges of “jobbery,” or that some local councillor has been promoted to the higher and more lucrative political world on the ground of “many years’ experience of local administration.”
If you happen to live in the Metropolis, where the intelligence of the nation is clotted, so to say, you find municipal life even more complex than this. The eager rivals who solicit the honour of doing your work for nothing are divided into bitterly hostile schools. Each school spends hundreds of thousands of pounds in a periodical effort to convince you that the other school is going to swindle you. Each plasters the wall with repulsive typical portraits of its opponents, and you see yourself depicted as a weak and amiable, but small-witted, figure (or, perhaps, as a burly and very stupid-looking farmer), whose pockets are being picked. Each produces a most exact statistical proof that its opponents have actually picked your pockets, and that the “reds” or “blues” are the only people with a really disinterested desire to spend some hours every day in the gratuitous discharge of public duties. They spend great sums of money every few years for the purpose of securing this thankless burden and facing the vituperation of their opponents. You seek illumination in the press, and you find, in rival journals, a mass of contradictory statements and mutual accusations of lying. However, the system is thoroughly British in its encouragement of individual action and public spirit, and you overlook all the direct and indirect corruption it fosters.
What is a man to do? One can at least search very rigorously the credentials and the public action of the man who “solicits your vote,” and encourage the appearance of really independent and fine-spirited men and women. I have, naturally, described the broad features and general abuses of the system, but there are, of course, large numbers of men in it who are sincerely disinterested. In the main, however, municipal politics is tainted and complicated by the party-system of the large political world, and to this we may turn.
That section of the political machine which controls national affairs is obviously of the first importance. On its working rests the grave issue of peace or war; to it is entrusted, in the last resort, the great task of educating the nation; and through it alone can we secure any of those numerous reforms which are to undo the tyranny of shams and abolish so much avoidable misery and confusion. One ought therefore to be gratified to see how large a place politics occupies in the public mind, which is otherwise so little inclined to serious matters, and in the public press, which so faithfully mirrors the thought of the nation: to see how the prominent or eloquent politician surpasses in public esteem the greatest artist or scientist, and even rivals in popularity the prettiest actress of the hour: to see that four-fifths of our public honours are reserved for politicians and statesmen, and for those less gifted but more wealthy men who give them practical support. Unhappily, when one looks closely into this apotheosis of politics, one finds that its merit is merely superficial: that a very large proportion of the more thoughtful people in every civilised community look on politics with disdain, and that some of the more independent of our politicians confess that one must almost lay aside one’s honesty and ideals on entering the political world.
A series of grave struggles and threats of civil war in the first half of the nineteenth century inaugurated the present political phase in Europe. It transpired after Waterloo that the English parliamentary system, in which our statesmen took such pride, was a hollow and corrupt sham. A comparatively few wealthy landowners controlled the nation, and bought votes for their nominees. After some years of agitation the working men of the great manufacturing centres formed armies and threatened to force the doors of Westminster at the point of the pike. This elicited a system of restricted, but real, popular representation. Later enlargements of the franchise improved the system, and to-day some six or seven million adult males elect our legislators. Until recently this scheme was largely frustrated by the power of a non-elected House to suppress any measure which did not please a privileged minority, but this is now materially modified. Six million free and adult representatives of the nation appoint and control the men who make our laws, and direct the king how to act.
But in practice this admirable theory becomes a mockery and an illusion. It may be taken as a Euclidean postulate that out of six million people of any civilised nation four or five millions will be—shall we say?—somnolent: not from want of brain, but from want of constant exercise of it. A very earnest idealist of the last century, Mr. George Jacob Holyoake, proposed that, for the great efficiency of our political machinery, every elector should, before he received a vote, be compelled to pass an examination in political economy and constitutional history. Since few Members of Parliament, to say nothing of voters, would have passed the examination, the proposal was rejected, and the education of the voter was left to the interested political parties and to the press which supported them, or was supported by them. The result was that two rival organisations, roughly corresponding to the two attitudes of the modern mind toward new ideas (progressive and conservative), gradually increased in wealth and power until they were able to control the electorate and exclude from representation every finer shade of political thought. The machinery by which this is done does not leap to the eyes, as the French say, and the average elector proudly contrasts our political system with that of most other nations.
Candidly, we may take some pride in the contrast. The struggles and sacrifices of our fathers have won for us a system which is far superior to that which has hitherto prevailed in Russia, to the despotic medievalism of Prussia, to the grave insincerity of Spanish political life, to the confusion and occasional corruption of French or Italian politics, to the remarkable activity which precedes a presidential election in the United States. Our political life is relatively free from large corruption. I happened to be in New Zealand when the “Marconi Scandal” was agitating England, and I remember politicians of that progressive little land smiling at the word “scandal” and hinting that they were more adventurous. Some of our discontent is, no doubt, due to women-writers who magnify the evil in order to persuade us to enlist their refining influence. I do not, in fact, think that Mr. Belloc and Mr. Cecil Chesterton have proved some of the graver charges which they brought in their indictment of our “servile State.” It will need something more than a list of matrimonial connections to persuade us that Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Winston Churchill were in the habit of meeting, amiably and clandestinely, Mr. Bonar Law and Mr. F. E. Smith for the collusive arrangement of our laws.
Yet there is enough in the familiar criticisms of our political machinery to justify one in saying that the political sham is, even now, intolerable. What, candidly, is the procedure? A general election is announced, and two men call, or send agents, to solicit the honour of representing you in Parliament. In the district in which I write at the moment one candidate is a wealthy and muddleheaded Liberal: the other is a wealthy and (politically) equally muddle-headed Conservative. Neither of them has the remotest idea of representing my national wishes,—they would blush to be suspected of it,—and neither has ever spoken in Parliament; so I have never yet voted.
But I am an eccentric man. Let us take a normal case. You notice, as a rule, that during the few years before the election a wealthy man has been openly suffered, or directed from his party-headquarters, to “nurse” the constituency. Hundreds will cast votes for him solely because they fear a withdrawal of his subscriptions to their chapels and football clubs, and of his open-handed philanthropy. As the election approaches, another candidate appears. He also is, as a rule, a wealthy man, and he spends between one and two thousand pounds in disturbing the judgment and inflaming the emotions of the voters. Pictorial posters, which might have adorned the walls of some Pyrenean cavern in the Old Stone Age, are massed near the doors of some dark “committee room” or spread over the town. The brain struggles feebly with the contradictory statements of orators and journals. And on the day of the election the two wealthy rivals for the honour of printing M.P. on their cards, and the duty of voting as they are directed by their superiors, flood the district, although it has an excellent tram-service, with expensive cars and carriages, to take the tired working man to the poll.
Possibly one of the candidates is not a wealthy man, and you begin to speculate on the source of his thousand pounds, or even three hundred pounds. Very few voters do inquire, of course; most of them would be surprised to know how much a man spends in soliciting the honour of representing them—he has usually a great contempt for them—in Parliament. The more inquisitive voter, however, would discover that the poorer candidate is in a special sense the representative of a particular party, and he would touch the fringe of a peculiar and ingenious system. I happened one day to mention to a friend certain advanced opinions of a Member of Parliament. “That,” he said grimly, “will interest my father-in-law; he finances Mr. ——.” Through the party-organisation this wealthy and highly respectable manufacturer paid the election expenses and part of the income—Members of Parliament had not then a salary—of candidates or Members in various remote towns. The manufacturer, or the various manufacturers who do this sort of thing, will eventually be knighted or baronetted; their sons will have a chance of a secretaryship, or even of Cabinet rank. The secretly subsidised Member will go to Westminster, an automatic voter. In fact, since a candidate must generally have the sanction of the central organisation of one or other party before he can venture to solicit votes, even wealth does not usually relieve him of the party-tyranny.
What, then, is the party? It is not so much a creed as a wealthy and powerful organisation. Once it was a group of men who happened to have the same ideas. By a natural evolution of organisation—one sees the same thing in the evolution of Churches—it has become rather a machine for impressing those ideas on men. In a sense, it is an oligarchy. We must remember such facts as the dismissal of Mr. Balfour, and the powerlessness of Mr. Asquith to get rid of a certain Minister whom he disliked. The power of the front-benchers is not absolute. But on the whole the party is an aristocracy of wealthy men, titled men, and able men, which rules the country for a term of years. Its leading agents are the Ministers and Whips: the body of the party is an association for carrying out its will, and for adding the attractions of parochial entertainment and cheap club-life to the more austere cult of ideas. Its revenue is, to a great extent, secret; but the annual lists of honours reveal very plainly that it conducts an unblushing traffic in such things. The reasons alleged in the published list are often too ludicrous for words. Privately one can often ascertain the exact price.
With this wealth the party-aristocracy controls the electoral campaign and the elected Members. It has, further, at its disposal a large number of highly paid positions, or functions which lead to highly paid positions, or profitable little occasional jobs, or political pensions, or a Civil List (which is grossly abused), and so on. These it dangles before the eyes of impecunious or ambitious critics. Here are two facts within my slender personal knowledge of these matters. A very influential Socialist (my informant) was invited to a small dinner of the party-aristocrats and diplomatically informed that he might be useful in office: another drastic critic was assured by a Cabinet Minister, through a mutual friend (my informant), that nothing would be done for him until he ceased to criticise.
The system is, on both sides of the House, corrupt, demoralising, and intensely prejudicial to the interests of the country. We found its danger during the South African War, and we perceive it far more plainly to-day. What ought to be the brightest intellectual fire in the land is sluggish, choked with ash, served often with inferior material. The permanent departments of State which depend on it are correspondingly sluggish. In an emergency it—after a humiliating trial of its own ability—turns to business-men. Its whole tradition and procedure are abominable. Men who are poor and independent may bruise their shins on the doors in vain. Men of no ability are promoted, even to peerages and the Cabinet, because their fathers contributed much to the party’s purse or prestige, and they themselves will at least be loyal. Men who raise critical voices in the House are snubbed and suppressed: men who criticise outside are safely ignored. The ablest and the most sincere men in the party—men like Sir Edward Grey and Mr. Lloyd George—acquiesce in all this.
The electoral system and the procedure of the House of Commons are designed to protect this monstrous scheme. The large fee which is exacted of candidates and the very large sums which wealthy men are allowed to spend on elections intimidate able and independent, but impecunious, men. The election is spread over a week or two in order to give wealthy men, who may be relied upon to support the constitutional parties, an opportunity of voting in several constituencies, and in order that Ministers may give more aid to their weaker supporters. For the polling-day Saturday is avoided as much as possible, because on that day a larger percentage of the workers would vote, and they are apt to vote against the constitutional parties. Cars and carriages are permitted because the candidates of the workers will easily be surpassed in this well-known advantage by candidates of the great parties. Minorities are hopelessly excluded from representation, such as they would have under a system of proportional representation, because they would send to the House a number of independent Members who would disturb all the calculations of the Whip and all the tricks of party-government. Under a system of proportional representation it would be quite easy for some scores of able and earnest men to secure election at very small cost, by merely circulating declarations of their views; but this, or a grave increase of the Labour Members, would wreck the party-system, and therefore the most democratic of our orthodox politicians maintain all the abuses and injustices of our system.
The division of constituencies is further designed to protect this iniquitous and corrupt scheme. Universities, the City of London, and boroughs like Durham, Bury St. Edmunds, and Montgomery—each of which has a population of less than 17,000 souls—have an equal right to one unit of representation in Parliament with Wandsworth, the Romford division of Essex, or the Harrow division of Middlesex, each of which has more than a quarter of a million inhabitants. Eighty-three constituencies, most of them having a large proportion of the more intelligent workers, have a population of more than 100,000 each: forty-four constituencies have a population of less than 40,000 each. In other words, half the people of England and Wales elect 167 Members of Parliament: the other, and notoriously less intelligent half, elect 323 Members of Parliament.
From Gladstone downwards even our most “democratic” statesmen have acquiesced in these enormities of our electoral system; and they have meantime expended much eloquence on the injustice of the Prussian system, and have expressed ardent hopes for the emancipation of the people of Italy, or Bulgaria, or Persia, or some other remote land. Yet these features of our electoral scheme are retained solely in order to protect the party-system: to keep in the hands of a group, which is largely hereditary and is at all events a small and jealous caste, all the prestige and emoluments of the higher positions. Even the grave peril of a national catastrophe, owing to this restriction of power and responsibility to a group of moderate talent, does not shake their tradition. We shall, when this war is over, see them resist reform as energetically as ever.
Within the House of Commons itself a mass of old rules and customs are maintained for the same purpose. The hours of work are still arranged on the old supposition, that a Member of Parliament is a man who, with great self-sacrifice, devotes a large part of his time gratuitously to the service of his country. The most important work in the nation’s economy is relegated to the hours when every healthy man is disposed to rest and recreate himself: indeed, the more important the issue at stake, the more certain it is to be discussed during the worst working hours out of the twenty-four. One has only to glance at our legislators on their benches after dinner to realise the significance of it. The majority of them are plainly reconciled to the theory that the heads of the party have done the necessary work during the day: their business is to keep sufficiently awake to vote correctly.
The arrangement of business is not less iniquitous. The Ministry decides that certain measures of reform are needed, either in the interest of the people or in their own interest, and, since they have an assured majority of “Ayes,” the lengthy debate is almost superfluous. The passing of the measure has been secured in advance, or it would not be put forward. The rare event of miscalculation, and the still rarer event of independent action, need not be regarded. No Member is, even in these cases, influenced by the long and tiring speeches which are made about the matter. At one time the debates had a certain elocutionary elegance, at least; now they represent an unattractive sham-fight, and abuse is being increasingly substituted for rhetoric. The most paltry trickery is employed on both sides, because every man is aware that his speech is really addressed to his followers outside the House, and he must, in the House, rely on quite other devices than eloquence. Yet all this pseudo-gravity is lightened occasionally by sittings in which some measure of the greatest importance, but not introduced by the Government, is treated as flippantly as it would be in a humorous debate during a long sea-voyage.
If a man is instructed by his constituents to represent in the House some special need of theirs, or some public reform which has millions to support it, he finds that “the rules of the House,” or the rules of the oligarchy, will not allow him to introduce it. A very small fraction of the time of the House is granted for the discussion of such proposals; but the debate is farcical, and is often looked forward to in advance as such, because everybody knows what will be the issue, even if a majority of the House really favours the proposal. Measures of grave social importance, like women-suffrage, have been arbitrarily crushed by the oligarchs for thirty years,—as early as 1886 women-suffrage had 343 supporters on the benches,—and this tyranny and injustice of a few ministers have led to the most violent and bitter recrimination.
This is the political machinery to which we entrust the most delicate and momentous issues of our national life, and to which we have to look for the realisation of our most treasured hopes of reform. The impartial critic will not question that there are men in the political world as eager for reform as he, or that during the last half-century some excellent social legislation has been passed. These measures are, however, due in great part to a studied endeavour to retain or gain support in the country,—the Insurance Act, for instance,—and many of them—relating to the sale of cigarettes, to the admission of children into public-houses, to the flogging of procurers—are small sentimental reforms which occupy time that could be better employed. We think that we open a new epoch of civilisation when we give a very small pension to a very aged worker, but the problem of the roots of poverty or the abolition of warfare does not enter the party-programme. Our bishops enthuse over their success in inducing a complaisant Home Secretary to lay the lash on the backs of a sordid little group of criminals, and even offer to roll up their own lawn sleeves for the job; but they are indifferent, or hostile, when other people would induce our Ministers to amend those brutalities of our marriage-laws which tend to foster prostitution.
This political machine must be radically and comprehensively reformed before it can be a fit instrument for the reform of the nation. All the pyrotechnic distractions and gross irregularities of an election must be suppressed: all plural voting must be abolished: the comedy of cars for feeble voters must be forbidden: all indirect bribery, either of voters or candidates, must be rigorously punished. Candidates must put a simple and sober statement of their views and proposals before the electorate, and no further expense should be permitted. Some system of proportional representation and secondary elections should ensure that large minorities would not be entirely without representation. The election should be confined to one day, preferably a Sunday, and stripped of all melodramatic nonsense and occasion for corruption.
The party-system will, no doubt, long survive in English political life. Within twenty years or so the word “Conservative” will, as in other countries, pass out of use, and the Conservative elements will unite under the banner of “Liberalism,” in opposition to “Labour.” It is, of course, the dread of this issue which at present unites the constitutional parties in opposing reform. One can, by studying advancing countries, even foresee a next phase. The Conservative elements will unite in a “Labour” party against the Socialists; and in the dim future we may, like Anatole France, foresee a Socialist commonwealth established and an Anarchist party furiously assailing it.
But, though the party-system be retained (very much modified by proportional representation), this disgusting sale of honours and offices, this oligarchic tyranny over the House and the constituencies, will not survive. Reform of the electoral procedure will enable a large group of independent men—independent of the large parties—to enter Parliament, and the removal of the Irish and other Members, who concentrate on a single issue and are willing to traffic on other issues, will reduce the old majorities. I do not doubt that fresh complications will arise. The weakness of proportional representation is that it will certainly lead to a number of sectarian groups. “We Catholics” will, of course, return Catholic Members, ready to sell their votes on various issues in the interest of the sect; and the Baptists and Methodists, and so on, will be tempted to retort. We shall have a teetotal group, and a Puritan group, and an anti-wallpaper group, etc. We must hope that the sterner education of the electorate will secure that these trivialities do not endanger grave national interests. The dissolution of the old Conservative party will leave the Liberal party unable to defend its abuses; it will have no opportunity of collusion or retaliation. So we may have in time a political machine—a body of men, appointing their own leaders, soberly chosen by each 100,000 of the population, regarding Parliament as a grave national council, not a theatre for the display of wit and rhetoric—which will effectively carry out the will of an advancing people and enlist the interest of the most thoughtful.
I am in all this assuming that sex-barriers and privileges will be entirely abolished, but I prefer to discuss the position of woman in its entirety in a later chapter. It must be explained, however, that in taking 100,000 as a unit of representation, I am contemplating an electorate of thirteen or fourteen million voters. Something between a hundred and two hundred Members of Parliament are surely sufficient, and would make a much more practical and alert body than our present stuffy, sleepy, and overcrowded House.
It seems very doubtful if a Second Chamber, in any form, is a real social need. A House of “Lords” is, of course, an insufferable anomaly and medieval survival. It is amazing that this hereditary transmission of titles—and such titles!—and wealth has so long survived the stinging raillery that men like Thackeray poured on it long ago: it is still more amazing when we measure the intelligence and public spirit of our “lords.” Even if we weed out the less intelligent, or those whose interest in horses or actresses or theology is more conspicuous than their interest in the nation’s affairs, it is preposterous that such a body should retain the least control of a properly elected House of Commons. We may trust that before many decades all hereditary titles will be abolished, and this will demolish at once the name and the more offensive part of the character of the Second House. The idea that because one had a distinguished or fortunate or unscrupulous ancestor, or one has large estates or an American wife, one is fitted to control our legislators, is too ludicrous for discussion. It is sometimes pleaded that they “have a large stake in the country.” One may surely reply, not only that they would do well to have their large stake more ably represented, but that poverty has an even greater and more pressing right to representation.
As to the bishops, it is still more difficult to discover why they are allowed to control secular legislation. They have been chosen for certain doctrinal and administrative functions, partly because of their ability to discharge those functions, partly because they had a convenient income, and partly because they could command political or domestic influence. But even the men who have earned a mitre because they were admirably fitted to wear it, and could hold together a large group of clergy with conflicting doctrinal ideas, are not obviously qualified for the work of legislation. Their record in the legislative assembly is deplorable. They have for ages blessed our militarist and bellicose traditions. They have, in their own interest, resisted nearly every important social reform until recent years, and even now they display a keen social sense only when there is question of flogging a few score of perverts, or something of that kind. They have no place in a modern political system, and their presence in it is an anachronistic reminder of the time when they monopolised education.
Another element of our Second Chamber consists of men who have been promoted from the First Chamber, generally in order to watch the interest of their party, or made peers for public service or service to the party. The various creatures of the party are one of the abuses we have to correct. Even the others are of questionable value. Is Lord Morley more judicious, or more alive to the highest interests of the nation and the race, than the Right Honourable John Morley was? Does age give wisdom to Lord Gladstone, or did it enhance that of Lord Roberts? Is it not a fact that nine men out of ten adopt a sluggish and reluctant attitude in age, and are unfitted to deal with the proposals of middle-aged men? There is, at all events, occasion for very careful discrimination, whereas our present practice is to reward, indiscriminately, a supposed merit or a service rendered to the party with a seat in the “Upper” House.
The third class of peers calls for the same observation. Success in manufacture or finance or law, or a willingness to give large sums to the party-funds, is not an obvious qualification for controlling legislation. While these men are in the prime of their vigour and judgment the nation dispenses entirely with their services. We invite their cooperation in the national business when they are understood to be too old and inelastic to attend any longer to their less important commercial concerns. It is, in fact, impossible to frame a really impressive plea for a Second Chamber of any description. I venture to say that if an historical inquiry were made into the services rendered by Second Chambers since the beginning of the parliamentary system, it would be found that they have rendered little or no real service, while they have obstructed the work of reform in every land. Their record—the first thing we ought to consult—condemns them emphatically. If the Members of a Second Chamber are not elected by the people, they invariably consult class-interests: if they are elected, they, as one sees in Australia, are superfluous.
This political system is completed by the royal assent to Bills and the royal power to choose Ministers. The former is now an idle form: the latter is an intolerable abuse. If the people are self-governed, the leading agents in the Government are Ministers of the people, not of the king. The Members of Parliament ought to choose the Ministers. Kingship is a medieval survival, and it is inconsistent with a clear and practical conception of the nation’s business to retain these archaic forms and institutions. The trend of political evolution is visibly from kingdoms to republics. A “monarch” in the twentieth century is as anachronistic as a “lord”; an hereditary monarch is an outrage of modern sentiments. Once more, we need to test the institution by its historical merits or demerits.
Many people seem to regard our Constitution much as certain lowly tribes regard the mysterious stone which has dropped from heaven amongst them. Some even of our politicians display a kind of fetishistic terror if a measure is projected that seems to them to infringe or enlarge our Constitution. They brandish their spears before the idol and talk of shedding their blood in its defence. They are at times “Balliol Scholars,” or something of that kind, yet one would suppose that they were quite unaware how our Constitution arose, and what plain and indisputable right we have to revise and improve it. It is a sort of ancient mansion to which a modern owner has added billiard-rooms and workshops and a garage. But it has assuredly not the aesthetic charm of a medieval building, and this age of ours needs to reconsider, if not reconstruct, it. It will be a fine day for England when we have a Royal Commission sitting in judgment on our Constitution: calmly discussing, amongst other matters, the expediency of asking the throne to retire on half-pay, and all its parasites to retire on no pay.
I have already described the changes which are likely to occur in that large political structure, the Empire. The various regions of the earth which constitute it cling together on the understanding that we are quite insincere when we talk of them as our “possessions.” It is a federation of free nations, bound together by thinning ties of blood and by the advantage of a collective defence. When the military system is abandoned there will merely be a somewhat faded and amiable sentiment uniting the imperial fragments to each other more closely than to their nearer neighbours. One may hope that they will remain united, for a large empire is a good thing, if it has large ideals: it is a university of civilisation. But unless we purge our correspondence of archaic forms the “Colonies” may grow impatient. The Colonial of the third generation, and often of the second, has very little respect for England. Candid Australians would make some of our Imperialists tremble with concern. Our colonial “governors,” of course, report that loyalty is undiminished, because a few hundred families in Melbourne and Sydney press with undiminished snobbishness to their garden-parties. These ornamental nonentities ought to be withdrawn. Perfect sincerity in our relations with the Colonies will do most to maintain the federation. The splendid co-operation of Australia and Canada in the war has shown that we have little to fear.
India and Egypt form a special problem, complicated by the fact that, in their condition of dependence, they are large and nutritious fields for the employment of our sons. It would, however, be foolish to ignore the great change that is taking place in them. Hindus tell me that, when Lord Morley became Secretary of State, the advanced Nationalists sent him a private message to the effect that they would co-operate with a humanitarian like him; and he snubbed them. A very large proportion of them are beyond the stage of being impressed by durbars, and are impatient that the masses should be kept in that childlike state of mind. We set up a fictitious “Oriental imagination,” and try to make the Orientals live down to it. The example of China and Japan ought to have destroyed our illusions about “the East.” The difference is one of culture, which may at any time be changed. We shall have to deal more frankly and generously with Egypt and India, or else cease to rail at Prussian or Russian despotism.
However, Imperialism is not a grave or pressing problem. The Empire will run its destined evolutionary course. For us the grave matter is the corruption which clogs our political machine and the perverse tradition which prevents the multitude from seeing it. The awarding of honours and lucrative positions should be withdrawn entirely from politicians, because, even if we compelled them to publish accounts, they would still add to their resources or prestige by this inveterate traffic. The king might at least render us the service of purifying this department of national life: perhaps have a list prepared by the Privy Council and checked by independent inquiry. I remember how Sir Leslie Stephen told me that he shrank from being added to the inglorious list of mayors who had entertained princes or coal-owners who had financed elections or built chapels. This would cut one of the chief roots of our present political corruption, but we need to press for a thorough education of the people. It must realise that the political machine is dangerously clogged and sluggish: that its “democratic” character is a sham: and that its energy is wasted on measures which are insignificant in comparison with the mighty tasks of education, pacification, and industrial organisation which it ought to undertake.