The Prospects of Anglo-Saxon Democracy

ENGLISH opponents of democracy have long been accustomed to quote American experiences in support of their case. ‘The Government of the people by the people,’they tell us,’is a pretty phrase. But what does it really mean? Look at the United States, which has never been burdened with a hereditary chamber, which knows no distinctions of rank, and elects the chief of the nation every four years. There are all the forms of self-government. How much is there of the reality? Get behind names, look at facts, and what do you find? Municipal corruption, the power of rich corporations, the omnipotence of the political machine, the misguidance of the electorate by the press. There is no government by the popular will, because there is no popular will to govern.’

How much of this indictment is true, Americans can judge better than an Englishman whose experience of their country has been too brief to make him an instructed observer, and too pleasant to leave him, perhaps, a wholly unbiased critic. But certain things must strike even a casual visitor to the United States who keeps his eyes open and takes any pains to sift the opinions which he encounters.

For example, coming from England, he can hardly fail to be impressed with the outward signs of a widely diffused prosperity, and the absence of those marks of abject and hopeless distress which stare him in the face whenever he walks the streets of an English town. He may be fully on his guard against superficial appearances, but he can hardly resist the impression that, whether because of its government, or in spite of its government, or in entire independence of the character of its government, the United States has somehow secured for a great mass of human beings the material basis of a healthy and happy personal life.

When, returning to his own country, he hears poverty and destitution ascribed exclusively to inborn defects of character, and declared to be curable by no change of institutions but only by the elimination of worthless stocks, he is confirmed in any skepticism which he may previously have felt as to this convenient method of saddling the sufferers with the responsibility for their wretchedness. At the same time, if he talks much to American men conversant with affairs, he will soon be disabused of the notion still prevalent on this side of the water that even thoughtful Americans are possessed of a cocksure confidence in the perfection of their institutions. In this respect what he learns cuts both ways. It confirms his impression that democracy in America has yet to make itself a reality, but it strongly suggests that the chief condition of success, the awakening of the popular mind, is in process of realization.

As a matter of form, democracy consists in the dependence of government on the machinery of the ballot-box. As a matter of substance, it consists in the effective control of legislation and administration by the popular will. The condition of such control is that there should exist a popular will, and this can only be if there is a generally diffused interest in public affairs, a wide sense of civic responsibility, and a tolerably clear conception of the common good.

How far it is possible to realize these conditions the future alone can decide. They can never be achieved once and for all by any specific political reform. They can be maintained only by the continual effort of the ablest and most public-spirited men. The dictum of Mill, that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, applies to the entire working of democratic institutions. They can be maintained only at the cost of continual exertion.

After the supreme effort of the Civil War it is probable that many of the ablest men in the United States took a rest from public affairs and let things slide. It would seem that they have discovered their mistake. To be convinced of sin, the churches teach, is the beginning of a new life, and politically it would seem that America is convinced of sin. That is to the onlooker the surest augury of hope.

Both in America and England the immediate problem confronting an awakened democracy is economic in character. But it presents very different aspects. In America it is essentially a problem of the control of colossal wealth which, through the political machine, and acting on the plastic material of the immigrant and the colored vote, constantly threatens to strangle public life. In England the Free-Trade system has arrested the economic tendency to monopoly, but has not sufficed to solve the problem of poverty. In fact, while America has to deal with her rich, England has to deal with her poor.

In one sense the problem is the same, for it is that of diverting from anti-social purposes and turning to social account the immense augmentation of wealth that modern industry places in the hands of those who exercise financial control. But in England the trouble is that, from whatever cause, the mass of the working classes are unable to secure that share of the constantly increasing wealth of the nation which would enable them to respond to the fuller requirements of civilized life. The rise in the general standard of comfort, which proceeded slowly but steadily until the close of the last century, has been checked by the serious increase in the cost of living. Though money wages have risen, the most careful statistics place it beyond doubt that ‘real wages’ are on the average lower than they were ten years ago. They show also that a considerable percentage of working people in regular employment is actually unable week by week to earn a sum which, after paying house-rent, would suffice to keep an average family of five persons in a sufficiency of food, clothing,and fuel for the maintenance of full health and vigor. When casual labor and seasons of irregular employment are taken into account, it is probable that quite thirty per cent of the laboring population finds itself at one time or another in this condition.

The further rise in prices in the present year brought matters to a head, and a series of strikes broke out in the summer, which were generally successful in redressing the balance to a certain extent. But to show how modest are the present ambitions of the English working class, it may suffice to say that the closest investigation of the measure of a ‘living wage,’as above defined,—that of Mr. Seebohm Rowntree, — goes to show that at present prices it can hardly be less than between twenty-three and twenty-four shillings a week for an urban laborer, while the wage for which many of the unskilled laborers were striking was only one pound a week.

Much has been attempted during the last five years to remedy economic distress. For the most‘sweated’ industries wages-boards have been established, which have fixed minimum wages for menand women-workers. So far these boards have touched only the fringe of the question; and while the minimum has been fixed in some instances low enough, but far above the ordinary rate previously paid, it still remains to be seem what the ultimate economic effect will be. Meanwhile a pension system caters for the aged, and has materially reduced the percentage of pauperism; and a great scheme of insurance against sickness and unemployment has occupied Parliament throughout the present year. This scheme, however, puts a considerable burden both on employer and employed, the contribution of the state being less than one fourth of the whole; and many people fear that the relief and security it will bring will be paid for by an undue increase of the burden on insufficient wages.

It is the actual insufficiency of remuneration and the lack of hopeful outlook for the mass of weekly wage-earners that are exercising the minds of the mass of the working class, and rendering them comparatively indifferent to the political changes which are proceeding apace.

For in point of form the United Kingdom is, after a long period of stagnation, and even of reaction, again making rapid strides toward pure democracy. The attempt of the House of Lords to regain its power ended in its complete downfall. The limitation of its veto to a period of two years was a revolution which for the first time made the Commons of England really master in their own house. Yet such was the absorption of the country in industrial questions, and so generally diffused was the opinion that the veto was an anachronism, that the change went through in the end without a serious struggle and with scarcely a flutter of public opinion.

Yet the effects of the change are being felt at once through the whole arena of political controversy. Home Rule for Ireland immediately became practical politics. The old passions which that controversy aroused hover, the mere ghosts of their former selves, upon the scene, and the success of the measure to be introduced this year will depend entirely on the skill of legislators in handling some of the undoubted difficulties of detail which surround the adjustment of relations between two countries so distinct in character but so closely united by geography.

But alongside of Home Rule other democratic measures are pressing. The payment of members of the House of Commons, once held as a dream of extreme radicalism, has become an accomplished fact, and now, in place of further tinkering with the qualifications for the ballot, the Prime Minister has announced a bill establishing what is virtually manhood suffrage for the next session. This is a measure which the House of Lords may be relied on to throw out, but under the new Constitution it will be passed into law, unless unforeseen circumstances cut short the life of the Ministry before the present Parliament is dissolved. Along with manhood suffrage the question of women’s franchise will be raised, and the point which is now really in debate is not whether women shall have the ballot, but whether it shall be extended to all women at once, as to all men, or whether some of the limiting qualifications abolished for men shall be reenacted for women, so that the entire sex shall not be enfranchised at a stroke. It is thus clear enough that the elaboration of the machinery of democracy, which has been arrested since the last great extension of the suffrage in 1884, has been suddenly resumed, and is being swiftly and, to all appearances, smoothly executed.

The cumulative effect of these changes, if they are carried into law, should, according to ordinary rules of probability, be very considerable. It is not that — apart from women’s suffrage — any new class remains to be enfranchised. Since 1884,and even since 1867, the franchise has been wide enough to secure to the working classes any specific measure upon which they had unanimously agreed. But the complications of the governing machinery have been so many that democracy, even if successful in a frontal attack, has frequently been defeated in detail. In the first place the mere electoral machinery, in spite of the broad basis of the suffrage, has given an immense handicap to property. Owners may vote in every constituency in which they have property, and, in consequence, a considerable number of divisions are carried regularly by a non-resident vote. These qualifications will be swept away. Residence will become the sole basis of the franchise, every man will possess one vote only, and as between the different parties quite a number of divisions which have hitherto provided safe seats for the representation of material interests will now be thrown open to equal competition.

Then, the registration laws, with their complex conditions and the length of residence required, have indirectly disfranchised large numbers of artisans and even of professional men, who have frequently to move with their work, while the business of registration, being largely in the hands of the party machines, has been a stronghold of the influence of money in politics. Lastly, the absence of remuneration has militated against the entry of men without private means into Parliament. The changes now in course of being effected will establish for the first time the conditions of a thoroughly democratic House of Commons.

It may seem to Americans that at most this is only to bring English democracy to the point at which American democracy has long stood. But there is a material difference. No American institution has powers which, either by law or custom, approach those which the British House of Commons has long enjoyed, and which are now completed by the assertion of its formal supremacy over the House of Lords. The House of Commons not only has the powers of Congress and a state legislature in one, it also controls the executive,and when it passes a law it means it to be carried out. I would not contend that it is always successful. The courts havegreat powers of obstruction. The Civil Service, staffed by irremovable and very able officials, is often but feebly controlled by the Cabinet Minister who is the nominal chief of any one of its great departments. But when all is said, a House of Commons that means to have its way can get its way, and if the democracy can control the House of Commons it will have an organ of high efficiency. It will have as a matter of course powers which in the United States could only be gained by the difficult and doubtful method of securing a series of constitutional amendments. It is thus, in fact, possible that within a few years the United Kingdom may become a more effective democracy than any great state, with the exception of Australia.

This is possible. But let us glance for a moment at the forces operating on the other side. Politically more and more democratic, England remains socially a very conservative country. Class distinctions remain a very real force, which makes its mark on elections and on government. It is still difficult for ‘new’ men without connections to win their way to the front. It is thought something of a triumph for one of the very ablest brains on the Liberal side to have gained, after three years in Parliament, the most insignificant office on the fringe of the Ministry.

What is more serious is that the great bulk of the Press is in the hands of the conservative interests, and but for the handful of wealthy men of great public spirit, whom one may count on the fingers of one hand, there would in fact be no effective presentation in journalism of Liberal and democratic opinions. There is not in London a single penny morning paper which supports either the Liberal or the Labor party. If a Liberal leader shows any weakness in the cause of his party, far from becoming an object of criticism, he at once figures as a statesman and a patriot in the mass of the papers that are read by his fellow countrymen next day. If he is strong and determined in democratic measures, he becomes the centre of a whirlwind of newspaper denunciation. Behind the Press are the more subtle influences of Society; and the Civil Service, while equally capable and honest, is in the main to be reckoned with as a permanent influence on the Conservative side.

Under such influences as these the political machine moves slowly, and of late there have been symptoms that a portion of the working classes, on the very eve of changes that may give them the victory, have lost faith in its efficacy. I have referred above to the immediate causes of the outburst of labor disputes which have been the feature of a year of great industrial prosperity and which, according to all indications, are by no means at an end.

The new movement is sometimes spoken of as Syndicalism, and is in some slight degree inspired by that French conception. The French workingmen have found that Parliamentary Socialism gives them very little. In the matter of dealing with a railway strike, for example, there was not, they saw, much to choose between a Socialist Minister and an ordinary middle-class Republican. They have accordingly turned away from Parliamentary action and cherish the hope, little likely to bear good fruit, of arresting the whole movement of industry by a general strike.

It is not likely that the idea of a general strike has had any influence worth considering on the minds of English trade-unionists. The only thing approaching to a general stoppage was the railway strike of last summer, a renewal of which is half threatened as I write. But the railway strike arose out of quite specific grievances peculiar to the railway servants, in which a great part of the public on the whole sympathized with the men; and if it could produce a widespread dislocation of industry, this is because the railway men could not obtain redress without stoppage, not because the working classes as a whole were ready to enter into a concerted plan for effecting an industrial revolution.

In fact, Syndicalism in England is simply a reversion to older methods, dating from a time when Labor was destitute of political influence. It represents the volcanic effort of unorganized or ill-organized work-people to do for themselves what the skilled engineers, spinners, miners, and other artisans have already done, namely, to secure by collective bargaining a fuller share in the fruits of industry. Emotional and fitful in its character, the movement breaks out readily into strikes to which the more stable and highlyorganized unions rarely resort. It depends on immediate success, and the conditions this year were favorable to success. Its difficulty is to maintain whatever ground it wins, for its material is hardly that of which stable organizations are formed, and when the victory is won its members are apt to think that all is over but the shouting. In particular it cannot withstand seasons of bad trade and slack employment, and the last great movement of the kind, that of 1889 and 1890, crumbled away in the lean years that followed hard upon that crest of industrial prosperity.

Nevertheless the revived movement is a real if not a very stable force. It must be reckoned on the side of both the hopes and the anxieties of democracy in England. Of the hopes, because it is all to the good that people should revolt against such conditions of labor as have been faintly indicated above; it is better that they should strike out against them, even if they strike blindly, than that they should forever acquiesce; for at least it proves that the spirit is not altogether dead within them. Of the anxieties, because the strike movement cuts across the political evolution which is making us a democracy and may conceivably arrest it before its work is done.

Strikes of unskilled and ill-organized masses mean disorder, and disorder throws the government against the strikers and destroys a coöperation which is urgently needed for the completion of political reforms. A railway strike, in particular, raises questions not only of the maintenance of order, but of the supply of necessaries to the great urban populations. In August the Government handled the difficulty in a way which called out the greatest enthusiasm on the part of the Press and of the material interests in general, but caused no little anxiety to those concerned for the peaceful and harmonious development of democracy. Troops were employed not only ubiquitously but ostentatiously. Encounters took place and lives were lost, the innocent, as is universally the rule in such case, suffering with the guilty.

Such things are applauded for the moment, but there is nothing of which the working classes retain so tenacious a memory. If the trouble is to come all over again, it is difficult to forecast the possible consequences. At the lowest there may be a complete break-up of the understanding between the forces of Liberalism and Labor, on which the entire progressive movement that I have briefly sketched has depended. On the other hand, if the recrudescence of trouble is to be avoided, it must be by the discovery of more drastic methods of improving the economic conditions of the poorer workers than any which have yet been devised.

The two evils which press on from thirty to fifty per cent of the population are low wages and irregular employment. What Parliament has done, and is doing, is to mitigate certain of the consequences of these evils, as by providing for old age, by assisting in provision for sickness, and so forth. But it is not directly combating the evils themselves if we except the three or four extremely ‘sweated’ industries in which the minimum wage is now established by legal authority. We may fairly say that the problem of the future of democracy in England depends on the possibilities of operating with success on these fundamental conditions of industry. This is what is meant by saying that the problem in England is one of poverty, whereas in the United States it is rather a problem of wealth.

In each country this standing economic problem is crossed by certain others which in the two cases are widely different. In the United States there is the color problem and that of the white immigrant. From the first of these we in England are free. The second, though at times figuring largely in the Press, is not in reality serious. On the other hand, all our domestic development goes forward under a shadow of which Americans are happily unconscious. Our revenues are exhausted in military and naval preparations. The proceeds of expanding revenue flow into the War Office and the Admiralty, and it is with difficulty that social reformers snatch something on the way for purposes of Old-Age Pensions or National Insurance.

The European situation does not improve. The peace movement elicits plenteous abstract affirmations of the wickedness of war and the blessings of the peaceful settlement of disputes, but there is never a gun the less in any European armory. The total contempt for international right has been sealed, not by the Italian raid on Tripoli, but by the general acquiescence of the European governments in a proceeding from which none of them had anything to gain. The general sense of insecurity is necessarily enhanced. It becomes useless to talk confidence in the good faith of nations if it is at any moment possible for one power to seize the territory of another on less than a week’s notice, with barely the pretence of a quarrel, and with not so much as the proffer of any alternative satisfaction of such grievances as could be collected. With the action of Italy we seem to be back in the middle of the eighteenth century and the seizure of Silesia, with the difference that in place of small standing armies we have the entire nation in every Continental country ready and trained to arms. As long as this situation remains, military exigencies dominate policy, and military exigencies are not favorable to democratic development.

In England matters have so far improved that the ‘scare’ which went to absurd lengths two years ago has died down. But we are still entangled with Continental alliances which serve no palpable interest of our own, and are dictated by the desire for support against the supposed menace of Germany. We are still in presence of an exceedingly active party which seeks to impose universal military service, and we are still regulating our naval expenditures, not by standards of our own, but by the budgets of another power. It is this last condition which directly cripples the work of government in applying the public revenues to the urgently needed work of social reform. The total expenditure of the country has increased from £113,000,000 in 1900-01 to £154,000,000 in 1910-11, excluding expenditure on revenue-producing departments. The expenditure on the Army and Navy has increased during the same years from £51,200,000 to £68,300,000. It is this constant increase which hamstrings measures for the internal development of the country, and cripples every effort to alleviate the widespread misery of the masses. A single illustration will suffice.

In the scheme of National Insurance against sickness it is necessary to raise the equivalent of ninepence weekly for every insured person. Of this the state is only able to contribute twopence. Threepence has to be taken from every employer and fourpence from every workman (threepence from an insured working-woman). With difficulty a remission has been secured for those whose weekly earnings do not exceed nine shillings, and reductions where the wage is less than fifteen shillings. But even so the difference falls on the employer, and there remains a tax of sevenpence, paid by employer and employed between them, on the employment of any man for one week. That this is a direct tax on industry which may have serious reactions on the regularity of employment is obscurely felt by many, and openly urged by a few employers. But the answer to all objections is financial. The state is expending up to the limits of its present capacity, and the limits are set by the demands of the Army and Navy.

Whether the Government will be able to find means of relieving employers of this tax seems to depend not so much on anything that may happen here as on the question whether the German government, wrestling now as it is most honorably with the chauvinistic elements of its own population, will maintain or increase the existing rate of naval construction. The main lines of the British budget are laid down in the German chancellery. There was never a more fatal success than that first Dreadnought, which set the snowball of naval construction rolling.

Thus the permanent prospects of democracy in England are interwoven with those of Europe as a whole. England is not as free as the United States to work out her own salvation. Her progress depends for one of its conditions on the return to saner methods in international relations, a return which she may assist but cannot of herself control. But for this element of uncertainty, it would seem by no means too sanguine to predict that the internal difficulties which have been briefly referred to would adjust themselves.

There is on the whole in England, as in America, a certain strengthening of the sense of common responsibility, and an increased readiness to search out and eradicate the causes of suffering and of public evil. And these are the psychological conditions which, after all, lie at the root of the whole matter. The mere machinery of democracy is nothing. It is of value only as it avails to express the spirit of a people; and if that spirit is set on vain things, on amassing wealth which it has not the taste or judgment to spend, on the acquisition of territory which it does not need, or on the unreal shows of military glory, then neither the ballot-box nor the party machine will help it. But if it cares for things of more humdrum sound but more vital meaning, to combat disease at its source, to make of the city a home of beauty and comfort for the people instead of a home of dirt and din, to secure for every willing worker a fair share of the fruits of his work, and to provide out of the surplus for those who have fallen by the way, then it has a will that is worth expressing, and the forms of political democracy give it the means of realization. We can make no predictions in sociology, but in both countries it is fair to say that there exist the conditions which make such a democracy possible.