Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Gladstonian Ghosts - "Retrenchment and Reform"

Who could have believed five years ago that we should ever have heard again, from any quarter more deserving of notice than the foolish and impotent Cobden Club, the almost forgotten cry of "Peace, Retrenchment and Reform" That it has become once more the rallying cry of the whole Liberal party is significant, as nothing else could be, of the extent to which that party has moved backwards during the last decade or so. So far from the Liberal party having been "permeated" with Socialism since 1885, everything that has happened since then has tended to weaken the progressive collectivist element in its ranks and to strengthen the reactionary individualist element. We bear nothing now of the well-meant if somewhat amateurish attempts at social reform which were popular with the followers of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain twenty years ago, nothing of "ransom" or of "three acres and a cow." As little do we hear or see of the Collectivist-Radical ideals of the early nineties, of which the Star and the old Daily Chronicle were once such vigorous exponents. Not only do the leaders of Liberalism care for none of these things, but those who professed such enthusiasm for them speak of them less and less. Mr. Massingham now-a-days appears to have eyes and ears for nothing but the diabolical wickedness of Imperialism. Dr. Clifford, once the rising hope of collectivist Dissent, is now too busy promoting sectarian anarchism to pay any perceptible attention to the "condition-of-the-people" question. It used at one time to be said that Mr. Gladstone's stupendous authority made it difficult for the party to become definitely Collectivist while he led it; but when he retired the new era was to begin. Well, Mr. Gladstone is dead; but where is the new era? Mr. Gladstone's place has been taken by men who have inherited all his obsolete prejudices only lacking his abilities; the "left wing" of the Liberal party on which so many hopes were built is weaker and less disposed to a forward movement than ever. The consequence is that since 1895 we have seen nothing but Ghosts ghosts of dead things which everyone thought to have been nicely nailed down and buried long ago. The South African War raised the ghost of Gladstone with his anti- imperial bias and his narrow nationalist philosophy. Then the Education controversy brought up the ghost of Miall with all the Dissidence of Dissent and all the Protestantism of the Protestant Religion. Lastly with the Fiscal Question has come to light the yet older and mouldier ghost of Cobden from whose shadowy lips issue the once famous formula "Peace, Retrenchment and Reform."

Since this dilapidated Manchester sign-post has now become the meeting point of all sections of the Liberal party, Radical and Whig, Imperialist and Little Englander, and since some of the leaders of Labour and even (strange to say) some of the Socialists are taking up their places in the shadow, it becomes imperative to ask what meaning exactly the words are intended to convey. With "Peace" I have dealt fully already, and have endeavoured to define the Socialist attitude towards it. But "Retrenchment and Reform" demand further examination.

No surer proof of the utter emptiness of what is called "Liberal Imperialism" can be advanced than the manner in which its leaders have joined in the demand for retrenchment. I can understand the position of those who manfully opposed the South African War; I can understand the position of those who manfully supported it. Both are honest and consistent and worthy of all respect. But surely there never was a meaner spectacle than this of eminent and influential politicians shouting vigorously with the Mafficking crowd while war is popular, and then, when the brief season of ultra-patriotic excitement is over, grumbling and whining when presented with the inevitable bill of costs. It is equally absurd and unworthy. If we want an Empire, if we want a strong foreign policy, if we want vigour and efficiency we must be prepared to pay for it. If we think the price too high, then, in heaven's name, let us be honest and admit that the Little Englanders were in the right all along. Do not let us court an easy but most contemptible popularity by swaggering as Imperialists, when what we really want is all the sweets of Empire but none of the burdens. That is what "Liberal Imperialism" seems to mean. Indeed Liberal Imperialism has proved nothing better than a fizzle. Three years ago we thought that there might be something in it. So far-sighted a reformer as Mr. Sidney Webb celebrated in a memorable magazine article "Lord Rosebery's Exodus from Houndsditch," expressing the hope then widely entertained that the Liberal Imperialist movement meant the final laying of Gladstonian Ghosts and the creation of a Progressive party alive to the needs of the new time. That hope is at an end. Lord Rosebery and his retainers have re-entered Hounds ditch with triumphal pomp and ceremony, and are now distinguishable from their frankly Gladstonian colleagues only by the greater fluidity of their convictions.

But expenditure on offensive and defensive armaments, though a most necessary item, is by no means the only item in our national accounts. We spend a great deal of money on education; we ought to spend more. We spend a great deal of money on Home Office matters factory inspectors and the like; again we ought to spend more. We want to spend money in a variety of other ways upon the improvement of the condition of the people. We want Old Age Pensions, we want free meals for school-children, we want some sort of provision for the unemployed, we want grants in aid of housing and other forms of local activity. How are we to get these things and yet retrench. Will not better education cost money? Will not more efficient factory inspection cost money? Will not Free Feeding cost money? Does not almost every kind of social reform mean increased expenditure? It is significant that the demand for "retrenchment," which is the Liberal cry in national affairs, is in local affairs the cry of the "Moderates," that is of the magnates and monopolists who wish to exploit the public. But Liberal or Moderate it is always a reactionary cry. If we are to do our duty by the people, we cannot retrench.

And indeed why should we want to retrench we I mean who profess ourselves Socialists? Our complaint is not that too much of the national revenue goes into the coffers of the state, but that too little finds its way thither. Too much of it goes to swell the incomes and maintain the status of a wealthy class of idle parasites. The more we can get hold of and use for public purposes the better. And the more we pile on taxation (always supposing we pile it on in the right place) the nearer we approach to the Socialist ideal. Retrenchment of public expenditure and the reduction of taxation to a minimum is essentially an individualist policy. The socialist policy is to pool the rents and profits of industry and devote the revenue so obtained to useful public work.

But, if retrenchment is an inadmissible policy for Socialists, what about reform? I can only say that I wish all such words as "reform," "progress," "advanced" etc. were at the bottom of the sea. They are mischievous because they lend colour to the vague idea which exists in the minds of so many "moderns" that if we keep on moving fast enough we are sure to be all right. It never seems to occur to people that something depends on the direction. What I want to know about a man is not whether he is "progressive" or "advanced" or "modern" or "a reformer," but whether he wants to do the same things that I want to do. If he wants to do the exact opposite the less "advanced" and "progressive" he is the better. When therefore amiably muddy-minded people talk about "Reform" all we have to ask them is, "What reform?" What did Cobden and Gladstone mean by "reform?" What do the present-day Liberals and Radicals mean by it? One thing is certain; neither has ever meant social reform the only kind that seems to me to matter; or, if the thought of social questions ever crossed their minds at all, at least neither has ever meant collectivist social reform the only kind that in my view can ever be effective. What the Liberals meant and mean, so far as they now mean anything at all, was and is political reform and political reform along certain defined lines.

The old Radical programme of political change is worn so threadbare that it is hardly worth discussing at this time of day. As however, in the general resurrection of Gladstonian Ghosts, which we are now witnessing, a very attentuated spectre of the Old Radical-Republican propaganda of the 'sixties seems disposed to put in an appearance, it may be worth while to say a word or two about it.

As to Republicanism itself it hardly demands attention in the twentieth century. No-one except Mr. John M. Robertson even professes to think it important. The S.D.F., it is true, still puts the abolition of monarchy in its programme of palliatives, but that I imagine is merely a comparatively harmless concession to revolutionary tradition. Doubtless hereditary monarchy is theoretically illogical; but the time has gone by when men deduced perfect theories of government a-priori from the Social Contract or the Natural Rights of Man. What we now ask concerning an institution is does it obstruct the execution of necessary reforms? Now no one can seriously maintain that the British Monarchy obstructs anything. The power of the Crown, such as it is, has, since the accession of the present Sovereign at any rate, been used almost entirely in the interests of genuine progress. Hereditary monarchy supplies us on the whole with a very convenient method of obtaining a representative of the nation who shall not, like a President, be the nominee of a political party. A great deal of national veneration and sentiment has grown up round the Throne, and it would be foolish to waste time in attacking an immensely popular institution which does no harm and has its decided advantages.

The old outcry against Royal Grants so dear to the heart of Mr. Henry Labouchere may be similarly dismissed. It was never likely to be popular with a people averse above all things to the suspicion of meanness ; and it has now become hopelessly obsolete, partly because of the general collapse of republican sentiment, and partly because people have begun to realise that it is a little ridiculous to get violently excited because the King is given a few thousands in return for certain services, some of which are decidedly important and all of which the nation really desires him to perform, while we allow landlords, capitalists and financiers to pocket many hundred times as much in return for no services whatsoever.

The question of the House of Lords appears at first sight a more serious one. But, when examined closely its importance is seen to be much exaggerated. In order to make out a case strong enough to induce us to turn aside from our more urgent tasks and spend weary years in agitating for the disestablishment of the Upper House, Radicals must show that the Lords are in the habit of rejecting measures of great intrinsic importance to the people at large and really demanded by them. Can they show this? I think not. The only measure of importance which the Lords have rejected during the last thirty years has been the Home Rule Bill, and a subsequent appeal to the people proved conclusively that the Lords were right in so rejecting it that the people of Great Britain were not as a whole really in favour of it, in fact that there was no such effective demand as there ought clearly to be before so great a change is made in the constitution of the realm. Even if the Radicals had the solid democracy at their back (as they certainly have not and are not in the least likely to have) it would still take some ten years to disestablish the Lords. On the other hand, if we have the democracy at our back in support of any particular reform that we want, it will not take much more than ten weeks to intimidate or circumvent them. The Lords are too acute and too careful of their own interests to resist for any length of time measures upon which Englishmen have once made up their minds firmly. As a matter of fact the objection to the House of Lords is not a reformer's objection but a Liberal partisan's objection. The existence of the Second Chamber, as at present constituted, undoubtedly hampers the Liberal party in its competition with the Tories, because the Tories can get more drastic measures of reform through the Upper House than they can. But with us to whom it is a matter of supreme indifference by which party reforms are carried this consideration need not weigh. It cannot of course be denied that the present constitution of the Upper House is a flagrant anachronism. The structure of our society is no longer feudal, and government by a hereditary territorial aristocracy is therefore out of date. Moreover there are practical disadvantages in the present system, since, though the Lords do not reject anything which the people really want, they do sometimes mutilate valuable measures in the interest of property owners. If therefore it be found possible without wasting too much valuable energy to introduce new elements into the composition of the Second Chamber, one would not refuse to consider the idea. This is in fact almost certain, to be done some day probably by the Tories anxious to strengthen the Upper House. The inclusion of elected representatives from the Colonies might be a very good way to begin.

With the Disestablishment of the Church the case is rather different. The abolition of hereditary aristocracy, though difficult and not particularly urgent, might be a good thing in itself. Church Disestablishment on the other hand would, I am convinced, be not only a waste of time and energy, but a most undesirable and retrograde step. Surely it is not for us Socialists to agitate for the desocialisation of national religion and for the transfer of what is now in effect national property to private and irresponsible hands. Moreover the denationalisation of the Church would be from a tactical point of view a most fatal step. I say this without reference to the question (upon which Socialists will hold all sorts of divergent opinions) of the truth of the doctrines of the Church of England or indeed of any form of Christianity or Theism. It has been often pointed out that the Church has shown itself more easily permeable by the Socialist movement than have any of the Dissenting bodies. Many reasons have been suggested to account for this, and no doubt there is an element of truth in all of them. Without doubt the Catholic and Sacramental system of theology blends more easily with Socialism than the Evangelical theology does. It is also unquestionably true that the feudal traditions which still linger in the English Church are more akin to the ideas of Socialism than are the Liberal and Individualist traditions of Dissent. But one of the most important causes of the more sympathetic attitude of the clergy of the Established Church is surely this, that the Church, being established and endowed, is responsible to the people and to the people alone, while the "Free" Churches are bound hand and foot to the wealthy deacons and elders on whose subscription they are forced to rely. Disestablish the Church and the rich subscriber will rule her with a rod of iron. Democratic priests will be hampered and harassed as democratic ministers are now. This, it seems to me, is not a result to which (whatever our religious views) we can look forward without anxiety. Whether "priestcraft" be a good or a bad force, it is without doubt an extremely powerful one ; and it is clearly the business of Socialists, whether Christian or Secularist, to see that, so far as is possible, it shall be exercised on their side. The sound Socialist policy is not to disestablish the Church of England, but to establish concurrently all religious bodies of sufficient magnitude and importance to count. Had this been done in Ireland thirty years ago, as Matthew Arnold recommended, had we, instead of disestablishing the Anglican Church there, established and endowed the Roman Catholic Church along side of her, how much less serious might our difficulties in that country have been!

As to the elective franchise and kindred questions they can hardly be regarded as any longer pressing. It would be a good thing, I do not deny, if our conditions of registration were simplified, but that is not a question upon which the people feel or can be expected to feel very keenly. No class is now intentionally disfranchised, it is only a matter of individuals. In other words, though there are anomalies and inconveniences in our electoral system, there is no longer any specific grievance. Women might perhaps have a grievance if any large number of them demanded the right to vote, but until this is so politicians cannot be expected to pay much attention to the matter. There is a stronger case for redistribution, but this (owing to the gross over-representation of Ireland) is generally regarded as a Conservative rather than a Liberal measure.

The only political reform that seems at all worth fighting for is the payment of members. This is really desirable and important, and should be pushed to the front when political questions are under discussion. For not only would it open Parliament more freely to the representatives of the workers, but it would also make the position of an M.P., a more responsible one. A paid representative, it may reasonably be supposed, would take his profession more seriously, and would at the same time be looked after more sharply by his constituents. We have on the whole quite enough gentlemanly and well-meaning amateurs in politics to whom legislation is a harmless hobby, and who are readily enough outwitted and captured by the keen and energetic representatives of finance who do take their business seriously and mean to win. Therefore if we are to have any political changes at all let us go straight for payment of members.

No comments: