Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Gladstonian Ghosts - Dedication

My dear Jepson,

If (with your permission) I dedicate this essay in political criticism to you, it is because I know that, though you parade it less, your interest in the science of politics is fully as keen as my own. In point of fact there is no- one whose judgment in these matters I would trust more readily than yours. You are a philosopher; and the philosopher's outlook in politics is always clear, practical and realistic as contrasted with the thoroughly romantic illusions of the typical party man. That, by the way, is why Mr. Balfour, the philosopher, has in the domain of parliamentary and electoral strategy hopelessly outwitted Mr. Chamberlain, the "man of business and busy man" to quote his own characteristically poetic phrase.

As a philosopher you are able to see what no "practical statesman" on either side of the House seems likely to perceive that social and economic politics are the only kind of politics that really matter, and that the "chicken- in- the-pot " ideal of Henri Quatre is after all the primary aim of all statesmanship. Three centuries of anarchic commercialism have left us a legacy of pauperism, disease, famine, physical degeneracy and spiritual demoralization, which in another century will infallibly destroy us altogether if we cannot in the mean time destroy them. And I think you share my impatience when our Radical friends insist on discussing Irish Home Rule, Church Disestablishment and the abolition of the House of Lords, as if such frivolities could really satisfy the human conscience faced with the appalling realities of the slums.

When therefore I speak of your interest in politics I am not thinking of that rather exciting parlour game which they play at Westminster during the spring months. In this you probably take less interest than I ; for I must confess (not altogether without shame) that the sporting aspect of politics has always fascinated me. You, on the other hand, have Bridge to amuse you; and, when you are brought to the bar of the Nonconformist Con- science on this count, you may fairly plead that any man who played Bridge with the peculiar mixture of ignorance, stupidity, criminal laziness and flagrant dishonesty with which the Front Benches play the game of politics, would infallibly be turned out of his club and probably cut by all his acquaintances.

It may seem surprising that, taking this view of contemporary party warfare, I should have troubled to write a book in criticism of it. To which I can only reply that the parliamentary bridge- players are unfortunately staking on their pastime not their own money but my country's interests; so that the incidents of the game become important despite the frivolity of the players, and it seems to me that we are on the eve of a turn of luck which may prove not only important but disastrous.

I suppose that we are not unlikely to have a General Election within the forthcoming year; and many indications appear to point to the probability of a sweeping Liberal victory. I want you to consider carefully what a Liberal victory means for us and for all serious reformers.

A Liberal victory means one of two things; either six years of government by the Whigs or six years of government by the Nonconformists. There is no third alternative, for neither the old destructive Free-thinking Radicalism of the late Charles Bradlaugh and the al- most extinct Secular Society, nor the new sentimental High Church Radicalism of my excellent friend C. F. G. Masterman and his associates of the Common- wealth has the slightest hold on any section of the electorate that counts politically. If you doubt this, it is because you did not follow Masterman's campaign at Dulwich as closely as I did. Vehement Catholic though he was, he was forced to accept all the political shibboleths of Nonconformity on pain of certain annihilation ; yet, even after he had gone to the very verge of what his conscience would permit to conciliate his sectarian masters, this did not save him from a crushing defeat. An excellent candidate, an eloquent and effective speaker with real civic enthusiasm, he met the same fate which overtook Bernard Shaw at St. Pancras, when he stood for the L.C.C. And that fate will continue to overtake all who rely on Radical support without first making their full submission political, theological and moral to the Vatican of Dissent.

The Radical wing of the Liberal Party has degenerated into a political committee of the Free Church Councils; even the Liberal League cannot get on without making some acknowledgement of Nonconformist authority. But the "Imperialist" section is of course less absolutely under the control of Salem Chapel than its rival; is it fundamentally any more progressive?

It is pathetic in the light of subsequent events to read again the admirable article (to which by the way I am indebted for the title of this book) contributed by Mr. Webb to the Nineteenth Century three years ago. Mr. Webb was so simple-minded as to suppose that Lord Rosebery's talk about "national efficiency" really meant something, and that "Liberal Imperialism" was a genuine attempt to form a party of progress free of Gladstonian tradition. Sancta simplicitas! We can see now clearly enough that the Liberal Imperialists were for the most part mere squeezable opportunists with all the effete prejudices of the Pro-Boers minus their sturdiness of conviction, men who wished to snatch a share in the popularity of the South African War, but had not the slightest intention of abandoning a single Mid-Victorian nostrum, which could still be used to catch a few votes. On the Education Bills, Tariff Reform and Licensing, they have Gladstonised, Miallised, Cobdenised and Wilfred- Lawsonised with the best. And now that the Fiscal Question seems likely to drive back into the ranks of the Liberal Right " such men as Lord Goschen and the Duke of Devonshire the very men who were frightened to death of Mr. Chamberlain's " Socialism " as far back as 1885 all hope of reform from that quarter is at an end. A " Liberal Imperialist " government means Lord Rosebery orating nobly about nothing in particular, Lord Goschen and the Duke of Devonshire acting up to their self-constituted function of " drags upon the wheel," and Sir Henry Fowler once more sitting heavily on all enlightened municipal enterprise in the interests of piratical monopolists. I see that the Whigs are already crying out for " Free Trade concentration," which will I imagine prove an excellent excuse for doing nothing for the next half decade. And yet, I fear, we shall have to accept the Whigs as the lesser of two evils. At least their offences will in the main be negative, while the victory of the Nonconformists means a period of legislation so disastrous that you and I and all advanced reformers will be obliged to cling to the House of Lords as our only bulwark against the appalling flood of reaction. For some time the Nonconformists have been clamouring for the repeal of the admirable Education Acts of 1902-3. They have now begun to clamour for the repeal of the Licensing Act as well. Now, quite apart from the merits of these measures, it is as clear as daylight that all progress will be impossible if every government devotes its time and energies to repealing the measures of its predecessor. This disastrous precedent will be but the first-fruit of a Dissent-driven ministry. Meanwhile our refreshments, our amusements, even our religious observances will be subjected to silly sectarian taboos. Social reform will be hopelessly neglected, while we may have to face a revival of the foolish agitation in favour of Church Disestablishment which even Mr. Chamberlain's marvelous genius for electioneering could not persuade the country to take very seriously in the eighties.

"The Whigs are a class with all the selfish prejudices and all the vices of a class ; the Radicals are a sect with all the grinding tyranny and all the debasing fanaticism of a sect." Those words are as true to-day as they were when Lord Randolph Churchill spoke them nearly twenty years ago. Indeed all that has happened since has tended to make the Whigs more selfishly "class-conscious" and the Radicals more debasingly sectarian.

It may be retorted that the Tories are no better equipped for the art of statesmanship. I assent; but I say that on the whole they are less positively dangerous. For one thing the very cloudiness of their political outlook renders them to a great extent amenable to skilful and systematic pressure from genuine reformers. It is often possible to get them to pass good measures without knowing it, as Mr. Webb and Mr. Morant are supposed to have induced them to pass an Education Bill which would have been rejected with unanimity by the Cabinet, the Conservative Party, the House of Lords and all three Houses of Convocation, had its real excellence been perceived by those bodies. Also the Tories have not always in their pockets that dilapidated bundle of red herrings (the Church, the Lords, etc), which the Radicals produce periodically whenever the electorate has to be deluded. But, when all has been said, it must be confessed that there is little to be hoped from the Tories just now. They had their chance in 1895, when they came into power on the cry of "Social Reform." Had they fulfilled their pledges then, we should never have had to face the terror of a Gladstonian resurrection. But they failed ; and the great Tory revival which Randolph Churchill inaugurated has ended in a pageant of fashionable incompetence above, and frivolous Jingoism (inexpressibly disquieting to serious Imperialists) below, the wires being pulled vigorously meanwhile by the unclean hands of Hebrew Finance a sight that would have made Churchill sick at heart.

There remains the Labour Party which I discuss fully elsewhere. Here I will only say that, while I believe that the only hope for England and the Empire is in Socialism, I confess that, if I am to trust to Socialists as I see them at present (outside our own Fabian Society) I feel the hope to be a slender one.

To conclude: if you and I vote (as I expect we shall) for Tory candidates at the next election, it will not be from any admiration for the present government, rather it will be from a very natural fear lest a worse thing befall us. I have written this book for the same reason; it may be taken among other things as a word of advise to my fellow- citizens to weigh carefully, before re- cording their verdict on their present rulers, the respective merits of the frying pan and the fire.

The warning, I think you at least will agree with me, is by no means superfluous.

Yours sincerely,


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