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The Decline of English Politics

ISSUE:  Winter 1938

It is a matter of common observation and comment that throughout the past decade the interest of the English people in politics has been declining. Indeed, to any person of middle age, who remembers how his elders recalled the homeric battles of the second half of Queen Victoria’s reign, and who himself saw the great rights of the late ‘nineties and of the present century prior to the Great War, it is sufficiently obvious that the political consciousness of England has suffered some benumbing process. The writer looks back to his own boyhood and youth in London, and to the days of his early manhood in the industrial North, and it seems that the central and essential life of England was then political. The enormous controversies concerning Ireland, education, South Africa, the disestablishment of the Welsh Church, extensions of the franchise, the limitation of the powers of the House of Lords, tariff reform, the development of taxation for the specific purpose of financing social services—these mighty battles rent our English air with their tumult. The newspapers filled their columns with the reports of political speeches. Political leaders were known by their names and by their personal mannerisms, to every man in the street. Political meetings were occasions of thrilling excitement. General elections moved the very souls of men.

Never shall I forget the scene upon election night in a certain London constituency, just at the close of the South African War. The Liberal member, who had attacked the Government for its war policy, seemed certain to lose the seat, and there was profound anxiety in our hearts. He was an Irishman who had supported Irish Home Rule, and all the forces of imperialistic fervour and all the fever of hatred for “little Englanders” had been turned against him. He had previously won several contests in that constituency, but this time his black and orange colours had seemed swamped by the blue and white of the Unionist and Imperialist candidate. We stood packed in a vast crowd and saw the latter gentleman driving to his committee rooms. He was stylishly dressed. His top-hat was set at a rakish angle, his face was flushed, he was smoking a large cigar—the veritable image of confident expectancy. His supporters roared a welcome as the carriage made its way amidst the throng. But gradually the noise faded away. A silence growing more tense with every moment fell upon the crowd. The moment was approaching when we should know.

Suddenly above the Liberal committee room a poster appeared. The result I Our man was in, with a majority of fourteen votes! A storm of cheering broke out, but subsided when another poster was seen, announcing that a recount had been demanded. For another two hours the crowd stood there, the very air electric with their anxiety; but at length another poster was hoisted. We were in by nineteen votes. Our member came on to the balcony, and at that moment a band, concealed somewhere for the purpose, began to play the air of a then well-known song: “What do you think of the Irish now?” We went mad! The Member raised his hand for silence. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said. “I thank you. I would rather be right with a few than wrong with many.” We roared our cheers, we sang songs, thousands of us, for an hour afterwards. Some of us went off to the Unionist committee rooms. They were dark and deserted, and we stood before them and laughed aloud in the joy of our triumph.

Such scenes were common in those days. They no longer happen. Our politicians have no magic. The quality of political debate has sadly declined. Pure politics is no longer news as it once was. The newspapers do not report the Parliamentary proceedings as a sacred duty—most of them give but a tabloid summary of what occurred at Westminster on the previous day. At any time between my seventeenth and thirty-fifth birthdays, I could have given you at a moment’s notice the names of all the cabinet ministers in office at the time. Most of my friends could have done the same. Today I could not name more than three or four offhand, and I think there is none of my friends who could do much better. In the old days a constituency at election time was positively ablaze with the rival colours. Nowadays, it is quite possible to walk through an English town a few days before an election and to find few visible signs that the inhabitants are aware of what is going on. Crowds of people no longer listen quietly to long expositions of policy. The platform is more suspect than the pulpit. Neville Chamberlain is Prime Minister, and looks and speaks like an undertaker. With the exception of Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, there is in current politics scarcely a figure that excites interest. And Lloyd George and Winston Churchill are getting into years. Moreover, nobody believes in either of them.

The symptoms are before our eyes. It is the diagnosis that is more interesting and important; and in order to provide that, we must call to mind the origins of the modern political controversy in England. The initiation of parliamentary democracy was understood as the solution of a concrete problem, the persistence of which threatened the wealth and safety of the country. It was not clearly apprehended that the extension of the political franchise could never in itself actually destroy the hidden disease which lay at the silent roots of modern England, but could only produce a movement which must ultimately disclose the nature of that malady with painful clearness. Yet, so absorbing was the task of spreading political freedom, so vivid were the controversies which it awakened, that there was a general failure to observe the basic unreality of the issues. I am not accusing the great political leaders of the nineteenth century of charlatanism. I mean merely that the conflicting principles with which they were engaged were alike the products of a single anterior condition; that Liberalism and imperialistic Conservatism were both being driven through a process in which they were bound at length to reach a common exhaustion, their conflicting aims unrealized. The culmination of that process has now been reached. The English people have not agreed upon an analysis of the present situation, but they have sensed a collapse of genuine controversy, a common palsy of political purpose. This is the thesis which I propose now to develop.

It must be understood that political democracy came to birth in England only with the passing of the First Reform Bill in 1832, and we shall presently recall the precise causes which produced that signal effect. There is still, in some quarters, a lingering illusion that democracy had Oliver Cromwell for its parent. But what Cromwell and his henchmen thought of democracy and a universal franchise is not in doubt. Ireton regarded it as “fundamental” that Parliament should be elected only by landowners and manufacturers. “Where is there any bound or limit set,” asked Cromwell, “if men that have but the interests of breathing shall have voices in the elections?” Milton was no democrat. Even Richard Baxter hated “the democratic forms,” and poured scorn upon the idea of the “ignorant and ungodly rabble, . . . fetched from the dung-cart to make our laws.”

What the Parliamentary rebellion of the seventeenth cen-tury accomplished was to give to certain economic classes represented in Parliament a greater share of governing power. They set a limit upon the rights of the Crown, which the Crown never regained, and they thus helped to complete the destruction of a certain direct relation between monarch and people in which not a few students claim to find the essential democratic spirit.

Parliament took charge of the nation, because it consisted of the people who owned the country. But so long as the basic rural economy of England remained undisturbed, there was no national consciousness of self-contradiction. The nature of the living community was unchanged. The social forms immediately experienced by the masses of people were traditional, and men still had something of status, of recognized place and relation within a social whole. And for lengthy periods in the eighteenth century there was no serious economic dearth, such as brings dangerous thoughts to men. Thus the old system, with its placemen, its corruption, its pocket-boroughs, and its complete freedom from any ideas of political responsibility to the masses, remained almost unquestioned. For if the squire went to Parliament because he was a big man in the county, and if he bought another seat for his eldest son, what had Dick, Tom, and Harry to do with that? That was the way the country was governed. How the parish was carried on was another matter. Squire and parson were people who knew your name, and knew, moreover, the local customary rights. They and you belonged together, and everyone knew it. There were no explosive elements in such a system, so long as there was a moderate sufficiency of food and no such thing as popular education.

Political democracy in England derives from the revolutionary economic and the resultant social changes which shattered that old England forever, and it was introduced as the only conceivable alternative to a revolution of violence. The Industrial Revolution was altering the whole social form, destroying the traditional community, introducing new relations between men, producing new social classes. As the new industrial enterprises attracted capital, and the countryside fell into comparative neglect, the towns began to spread themselves obscenely, and hordes of people entered them, unclassed, decommunalized, mere drifting human digits. The relation of capitalist entrepreneur and contractual proletarian gradually became dominant, and a new England was born: capitalist industrialism was its governing power, and the English people, together with the new machines, were the instruments of its purpose.

The new urbanized populace had fallen under a strange obedience. Parliament, unreformed, was as far as ever from their joys and sorrows; but squire and parson were no longer close at hand. The people were defenceless against the industrialists and the economists. And they were suffering. The men who tramped into Manchester, only to be shot down at Peterloo, were conscious of physical and spiritual wretchedness beyond endurance. The attempt to administer England by the old methods proved exasperating in the new circumstances, and the wisest people knew that danger was threatening. Lytton Strachey, writing of the early 1820’s, in “Queen Victoria,” observes that “the mighty still sat proudly in their seats, dispensing the ancient tyranny; but a storm was gathering out of the darkness and already there was lightning in the sky.”

It is unquestionable that the fundamental motif of the turmoil was economic. The battle for the repeal of the Combination Laws, the actual reasons given by the popular leaders for their political aims, and a dozen such considerations, prove that the English crowds were not agitated by an abstract philosophical conviction in favour of their own enfranchisement. They desired to resist the effects of the new economic system, and they were taught that to secure political status was the first necessary step toward that end. The passing of the First Reform Bill heralded a long series of advances which constituted one side of England’s parliamentary history during the remainder of the century. But capitalist industrialism, operating a machine production, had two strings to its bow. It could fight a rear-guard action against the advancing forces of political democracy, not seriously troubled by reverses in the political field so long as it could remain accepted as the established economic method. Moreover, it could tolerate pressure toward higher wages and better working conditions, and could even at length submit to taxation for social services, so long as it could continue to extract from world trade a profit secured in reality by its refusal to allow the English workers the power to purchase the equivalent of their production. And it is to be remembered that by neither of the two great Parliamentary parties of the nineteenth century was the system of capitalist industrialism called in question. Its acceptance was regarded as orthodox both by Conservatives and by Liberals.

The main controversial tension of a very brilliant period was thus provided. The Liberal forces were concerned for the establishment of democratic political rights, the improvement of the worker’s lot, his better education, and eventually his protection in unemployment and old age. But they conceived this development as taking place within the accepted economic system. As against Marx’s philosophy of capitalism, they were hopelessly unrealistic and wrong. As against his philosophy of man, they were splendidly right in holding that man is not entirely helpless under any system. Yet they did not perceive the final issue; or if they did, they left it for some subsequent generation to face—and we are that generation. Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain in his radical days, John Morley, Lloyd George in the earlier half of his career, were, each in his own Avay, genuine advocates of the common man, seeking to remove from his shoulders unfair burdens, to undo the fetters of privilege, and to secure equality of opportunity everywhere.

The other party, Conservative and Imperialist, certainly offered opposition to these aims, though from time to time, when in power, they stole the Liberal thunder and actually passed measures of enfranchisement and of social betterment. Normally, however, their interest in home politics was in preserving a status quo, the disturbance of which they always feared would eventually raise the dreaded, unspoken final question. Upon the whole, they considered that the capitalist economic system, which was now the basis of national life, would be safer if the people were kept in their proper place. But they saw, too, that even the preservation of the Liberal policy required more than the Liberal method. If a policy of social amelioration were going to be pursued within the framework of the capitalist system which the Liberals accepted, then the main condition of the preservation of the system must be respected. There must be colonial and imperial expansion; and there must be a great armament sufficient to protect British commercial interests throughout the world and to prevent any jealous power from attempting to hinder that control of markets which was vital to England’s economic existence.

If to the Liberals belongs the praise for generous idealism, to the Conservatives must be given the praise for stark and honest realism. Their claim was completely logical. If only by expanding production could the economic system continue, then perpetually expanding markets were necessary. And toward the close of the century it was becoming apparent that there were other nations who felt, with growing acuteness, precisely the same necessity. Consequently, the two causes could be arrayed with a convincing appearance of a vital opposition, calling for real choice, offering alternate philosophies between which there could be no compromise. Upon the one hand the Liberals wanted greater political liberty, better educational opportunities for the workers, larger and more varied social services. Upon the other hand, the Conservatives wanted more battleships and bigger regiments. The Liberals attacked the “grandiose imperialistic dreams” of the Conservatives. The Conservatives attacked the “unrealistic and unpatriotic economies” of the Liberals. They fought for possession of the public purse. When the Conservatives were in power, it was always likely that there would be a war of colonial expansion. When the Liberals succeeded them, there was retrenchment in the army and navy, and expenditure upon the assumed welfare of the people. Of course, both sides were right, given the undertaking to retain the capitalist system. But for the Liberals, the system would probably have been wrecked by revolution. But for the Conservatives, it would have suffocated itself. To be candid, neither party could afford to be completely honest. The Liberals could never say how small an empire they really wanted, and the Conservatives could never declare how little they really desired to do for social reform; and each party sought to distract attention from the skeleton in its own cupboard, by exposing that of its rival.

It may seem strange that with the alternation of Conservative and Liberal governments there could be continuity and coherence in foreign policy; but there is no revelation of hypocrisy in the fact that the rival parties generally found it possible to pursue one broad line of conduct with respect to the powers of Europe. For it happened that an identical foreign policy was requisite for the two disparate domestic programmes. Briefly, the aim of British diplomacy was a European peace based upon a balance of power. The Conservatives desired this in order that England might, without costly and perilous distractions, continue to build up her commercial empire and her world trade. The free-trade principle gave to England, in the van of industrial development, an immense tactical advantage, for at that particular stage she could hope for success in all markets while she herself need fear nothing from the exports of other nations. The Liberals desired peace in order that the resources of the country might be devoted to the pursuit of political and social reform. With the exception of the tangled episode of the Crimean War, the Liberal and Conservative Governments of England contrived for a whole century to keep the country out of European conflicts.

The last great undertaking of Conservative imperialism was the South African War, and it was soon clear that something had happened in Europe which would in future disturb the comfortable arrangement whereby England could preserve European peace while she extended her sway in other continents. A new, menacing factor was appearing in the world, and it was destined to bring to an end that chapter of political history which we have described. Europe disapproved of the South African adventure, and said so in unmistakable terms. But if this meant that other European countries were now desirous of maintaining peace with their neighbors only in order that they might grow rich by colonial exploitation and world trade, it was clear that the external European peace was but the veil of a rivalry which must inevitably threaten disaster, so long as these conditions remained.

The capitalist industrialism which was accepted by both political parties in England was destined to bring each of them into a blind alley. The end for which it operated was a sum of money, which would be re-invested in the expansion of the productive process. The inevitable result, hastened by the development of the machine, was that areas which had once consumed the products of British industry became rivals in production, and therefore rivals for the consuming markets of the world. In the early years of the new century, the effects of this were being felt in English industry, and Joseph Chamberlain, who had long deserted the radical cause for the banner of Imperialism, attempted to grapple with the problem. The solution he proposed was “tariff reform”—the simple idea being that British demand would thus be available for British production; our markets would be defended from foreign competition, while we could hope that in our colonial empire we should eventually find the necessary markets for that “surplus” of goods which we could not afford to distribute to our own people. He never faced the fact that the profit derived from that “surplus” would seek investment: that whether it was invested within or without the Empire, it would swell the productive capacity of the world, and, so long as capitalism reigned, would create an ever-increasing pressure upon the markets of consumption. He probably never understood that for most countries, at any rate, capitalism was utterly inconsistent with industrial and financial self-continence.

His proposals were dramatically and overwhelmingly rejected at the historic general election of 1906, when the Liberals were swept into power with a huge majority, and remained to govern England until the Great War. They embarked upon a notable programme of social amelioration. There was, at that time, a tremendous enthusiasm for social betterment in the land. It was a period of intense political fervour, and many innocent souls believed that the Kingdom of Heaven was round the next corner. Yet all was not well. From time to time great bodies of workers engaged in strikes, and it was under a Liberal Government that I myself first saw the fixed bayonets of soldiers at the London railway stations, during a railway strike. And all over the country Labour was preparing a political assault. The Liberals at first regarded the few Labour Members of Parliament merely as valuable allies. Only gradually did they learn that a new political force was arising, and they then became bitterly resentful when they understood that Labour declined to accept any alliance. But at the height of the Liberal achievement there were signs of increasing dissatisfaction amongst the very classes the Liberals had claimed to benefit.

The political future was uncertain, the vital factors of the situation were still undiscerned, when the Great War intervened. To attempt to analyze the orgins of that catastrophe in the light of the emergent economic pressure would take me too far from my subject. Certainly economic causes were active, but they were not then of sufficient weight to have produced so vast a human collapse, had other incitements not been present. The all-important consideration is that Europe emerged from the war with its secret, growing disease unchecked. The naive provisions of the Peace of Versailles that were designed to secure economic advantages for the allies and handicaps for the defeated powers, were utterly inadequate to deflect the operation of a process in which all alike were concerned. And as the resultant reality was disclosed, there fell upon English politics a sense of unreality. The very ground of the long party controversy had disappeared. The past battles took on the appearance of a sham fight; and for the future the grim issue now appearing must disallow importance to any line of policy which ignored it. Men might chatter at Westminster, parties might join in coalitions, personal antagonisms might now and again create a stir, but until the one dominant issue had been faced, there could never again be any genuine significance, or even the appearance of it, in our political debate. For the accepted ground beneath all debate for the past century had been the economic and social order inaugurated by the Industrial Revolution, This had been as much the foundation of Liberal social reform as of Conservative imperialism. And that order was now being threatened, upon the world stage, by its own logical results. Already the ominous shadow of Communist Russia was darkening the sky.

The Conservatives were embarrassed by the fact that, as a result of the capitalist method, the opportunities of commercial and industrial expansion were shrinking. Production was surpassing the measure of consumption allowed by that method, which had now become virtually universal. The statistics arriving from Geneva constantly proved that the world-supply was already outrunning the world-demand. The word “Imperialism” disappeared from our political vocabulary, because “Imperialism” had never meant in England anything more than larger trade. The Conservative philosophy simply subsided before the realities of the human situation. Not the most barefaced political adventurer could claim that we must preserve the necessary expansion of our trade, when that trade was diminishing daily by a process of self-frustration. Nor was it even possible to arouse anger against successful rivals. There were no successful rivals. The only thing Conservatives could do was to attempt to preserve the new status quo, to cease from pretending to have a philosophy, and to persevere grimly in maintaining the position. They talked nonsense about “economic blizzards” and said prayers for fair weather.

Meanwhile, Liberalism practically disappeared. This phenomenon has been laid to the account of the personal manoeuvres of Mr. Lloyd George during and after the war. He may have precipitated the event, but it was bound to come. The work of political emancipation was complete. Every adult person in the country had the right to a parliamentary vote. Large social services had been inaugurated, and it was already, before the war, doubtful how much further the Liberal mind could make progress in that direction. But the capital fact was that political enfranchisement, while it had secured many relative advantages, had done nothing in principle to solve the problem created by the Industrial Revolution. A century had passed, and half the wealth of England was now owned by about one twentieth of the population. But now that economic disaster had overtaken the world, how could money be found for more social services? The Liberal attempt to redress the social and economic balance from within the accepted economic order had failed, and Liberalism had nothing more to say. It remains today a wraith, an echo of bygone days, represented by a few diminishing cliques. It was the great party in which I received my political education. It will never rise again.

The hopes of “progress” were now centered upon the Labour Party. We have to remember that Parliamentary Labour was a composite body, consisting chiefly of Trade Union officials and of members of the Independent Labour Party. The former were completely undogmatic and were concerned chiefly with the interests of Trade Unionists. The latter were willing to be called Socialists, but they were not definitely Marxian and most of them were romantics of the school of William Morris, though not a few claimed to derive their views almost entirely from the New Testament.

The rise of Labour had come with tremendous emotional power. When Philip Snowden first won his seat at Blackburn, the official announcement of the result at the Town Hall was greeted by thousands of cotton weavers in the Market Square singing, “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow”; and everywhere the new propaganda was clothed with ethical passion. Even the respectable and stodgy Trade Unionists were swept along in a current of hope. But English Labour was never entirely unanimous upon the one vital and all important question of whether the economic solution was to be found within or without the capitalist industrial and financial order. Keir Hardie and Philip Snowden were professed Socialists. So, indeed, was Ramsay MacDonald. But the Parliamentary Party never accepted the Socialist name, and their immediate policy was never more than a vague extension of the line of Liberal advance.

They came into office, at length, forming more than one Government; but they never had a parliamentary majority and had to depend upon the support of the jealous and angry Liberal rump. However, it is very doubtful whether, even with a majority in the House of Commons, they would have attempted any great advance, for it was their misfortune to arrive at the moment when genius and resolution of the highest order were required to make decisions at one of the supreme turning points of history; and their leader was the verbose, well-meaning, and totally indecisive Ramsay Mac-Donald. Labour was submitted to two occasions of searching test.

The Great War, which was to cement the classes of England in fellowship, was followed by a period of industrial bickering, culminating in the General Strike of 1926. It was an event of portentous significance. It might conceivably have proved the breaking-point at which the renunciation of the capitalist order would become effective. Since the injustices against which the coal-miners had first struck were the cause of the whole struggle, and the Archbishop of Canterbury had been cheered in the streets for his support of the miners, there was considerable sympathy with the General Strike. But there was also fierce condemnation of it on the part of all who feared the prospect of fundamental change. If Labour intended to go beyond the Liberal intention and aim a blow at the capitalist system, now was the opportunity 1 But what would Labour put in place of the demolished order? Was it strong enough to control the whirlwind, if it were unloosed? Exactly to what would the Party be committing itself? It had no answer to these questions. A Liberal lawyer rose in the House of Commons and made a long speech to prove that the General Strike was unconstitutional, and Labour decided that an unconstitutional revolution would be an ungentlemanly proceeding. The strike was called off. The capitalist order was not to be destroyed by direct action.

A few years later came the second determinative test. A Labour Government was in office, and England was in the depths of the economic slump, with over three millions of unemployed and a vast expenditure upon the dole and public relief. The powers of finance, to some extent cosmopolitan—it is still believed that the pressure came largely from America—made it plain that unless the Government ruthlessly cut down its expenditure upon the relief of human distress, it would look in vain for further financial credit. Philip Snowden was Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was a romantic Socialist with a mid-Victorian conception of finance and monetary policy, and he bowed before the storm. The question was whether the Labour Government would defy the world power of finance, proceed with its humanitarian programme, and discover the necessary instrument in a new monetary philosophy. It flinched before the task. The rank and file, indeed, were for defiance, but few of them understood the gigantic problem. Ramsay MacDonald threw them over, and behind their backs went into coalition with the Conservatives to form a “National Government.” Once again official Labour had declined to make a fundamental attack upon the system. The Labour ranks went into Opposition, enfeebled, disheartened, and bewildered. The gospel of the status quo was accepted by the nation, and in its dim light England confronted a world growing daily more difficult and dangerous.

There is no reality remaining in the party warfare, and the situation, once accepted, must damp all political enthusiasm. Threatened by world peril, the nation is advised to be content with its present spurious “prosperity,” and the cheap newspapers and the cheaper politicians are pretending that we are “recovering.” Serious thinkers know that the causes of our improved trade are adventitious and impermanent, and that the future is full of doubt. But there arises as yet no leadership capable of grappling with the basic reality. That reality is the world-exhaustion of the economic and social movement which emerged from the Industrial Revolution. There is a menace facing all the nations of the earth, and we are primarily concerned with our immediate safety. We are disposed to make the most of the passing hour, grasping at the security of the moment.

This is the controlling consideration of our new foreign policy. It is this that causes us to lead the League of Nations one day, and abandon it the next; to lecture Mussolini one moment and to leave him a free hand immediately afterwards; to revile Russia at some seasons and to befriend her at others; to see Italy building up her influence in Spain and the Mediterranean and to hesitate to speak clearly, for fear of what a hasty word might provoke. The preservation of the status quo is our only plan—not the old, proud position of confidence and constructive purpose, however worldly and greedy that may have been; but the new position of clinging frantically to what we have, fearful of any disturbance lest we may at any moment lose everything. We linger in this twilight. There is no voice of national authority, pointing a path to the new morning. The only thing we can do is to build a mighty navy and prepare our youth for the storm and terror that hover upon the not distant horizons. We have discovered that, at least for the moment, this plan eases our economic burdens. And Labour, prattling innocently about its next election programme, has accepted the status quo of the twilight, has agreed to the armaments policy, and has thus declared its acceptance of things as they are. Yet the day may return, even though it bring thunder at morning. Perhaps reality has not departed forever. Outside the boundaries of official politics new ideas are stirring, neither Communist nor Fascist. There appears, too, to be an awakening Christian intelligence, entirely unwilling to accept the situation. The only hope is that the forces of creative and humane sanity will accumulate with sufficient rapidity to reshape our public policy before the storm breaks. It may even come to pass that to England, which a century ago led the world upon the high road to a morass, will be given the task of discovering another and better road.


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