An English Letter
LONDON, St. Valentines Day.
THIS has been a busy week, with the Big Three in conference in London (the Big Fourth alas, was not there), the first meeting of the League in St. James’s Palace, and a State opening of Parliament by the King and Queen, followed by a succession of most interesting debates. It is an advantage which the most ardent Republican will be willing to concede to ihe monarchical form of government, that it makes a much stronger appeal to the ritualist that is in most of us. When the King and Queen entered the House of Lords at noon on Tuesday last, and the lights, low while we were waiting, were suddenly turned on to their utmost brilliance, and what had been a blur of grays and reds became a blaze of pre-Raphaelite colors and textures, like a garden-border leaping in a twinkle from February into June; and when the jewels of the Crown and of the latest industrial coronet glittered antithetically like a beacon on Skiddaw criss-crossing with the glare of a foundry furnace—‘Tush, tush, man!’ the impatient Republican will exclaim; ‘call it a transformationscene at a Drury Lane pantomime, and have done with it.’ Well, it was rather like that, too. But apart from the theatrical glitter of the scene, and the surprise of the discovery that government is not always a dry-point engraving but can glow with color, one’s dominant impression last Tuesday was of riding on Mr. Wells’s time-machine back into the centuries. Perhaps you have to, with these stiff clinging robes, but the King did walk with the Plantagenet swing that we know so well from Shakespeare’s historical plays. And when he took his seat on the Throne, with Pursuivants and Blue-mantles and Heralds and all the rest of the Norman-French pomp and circumstance about him, with (on his right) the Lord Chancellor—Freddy Smith that was — looking like Wolsey, and Lord Curzon (on his left) holding up the Sword of State like Warwick the King-maker, and someone else carrying the Cap of Maintenance, whatever that may be, one expected blank verse at the least. It would have sounded quite natural had he begun, —
Made glorious summer by this sun of peace.’
Instead, he read the prose of the speech which his Ministers had written out for him. And such prose. It let us down with a bump from the middle of the fifteenth century to 1920.
A month ago, in those circles which talk so much politics that they have no time to think about them, there was a perceptible drop in the temperature whenever the United States was mentioned. She had been — well, not quite fair. She had imposed on poor tired Europe her own ideas of a settlement, with the implied understanding that she would help us to carry it through, and had then left us singing alone. These things were hinted rather than said among the polite, but the gutter press was shouting them with added expletives.
But since Lord Grey’s letter in the Times there has been a most welcome change. In the mirror that Lord Grey held up to American opinion we saw a startling resemblance to dominant political thoughts and prejudices here, and to read his letter was to make the discovery that the man on the other side of the glass door, who had been mocking us, was only our own reflection. The Senate of the United States does not care to commit itself in advance to armed interference in the affairs of Europe. Very well, but does the average Englishman? In France or Belgium, possibly; after all, they are so near. But what of Poland ? How many Englishmen have brought themselves to think of interfering to protect Poland against attack, or would be prepared to give an undertaking off-hand that they would fight for her independence? Nine out of ten would reply, if they were pressed, that what they would do would all depend on circumstances. The American political psychology is much the same. Or take the average Englishman’s attitude toward Russian affairs. If he declines to interfere, it is not because he personally would like that sort of government, but because he thinks, rightly or wrongly, that by interfering he would do more harm to himself than he could do good to Russia. What this country feels toward half Europe, the American Senate feels toward Europe as a whole. It is intelligible enough.
Very illuminating were Lord Grey’s observations on the long story of the
Senate’s jealousy of the President’s executive power, and very, very innocent his assumption that there could be no such rivalry under the English Constitution. Why, this struggle between the Executive and the people, as represented in Parliament, is the taproot of English politics; and the most amazing proof in our history of how dangerous the prerogative of the Executive in treaty-making can be is the fact that, up to the day before we went to war with Germany, the government had concealed from the people that, politically speaking, we had for seven years ceased to live on an island. That the decision to help France was right does not alter the fact that this unfettered discretion of the Executive is essentially undemocratic; and, in so far as the American Senate is now fighting for Americans the same battle that English Liberals have so often had to fight here, it has their sympathy. Why, even now, it is part of the Liberal party programme that the treaty should be revised immediately. What is the difference, for practical purposes, between that demand and the reservations of the Senate? Talk about America’s turning back the clock! The vast majority of Englishmen — so strong is the reaction from the war — are only too anxious to get back to their splendid isolation from European quarrels. Someone once said of political thought in America that in everything but trade-policy it is only stick-in-the-mud Manchester. But men of all shades of political opinion in England are now tumbling over each other to get back to Manchester. The Prime Minister wants to fight Bolshevism by bills of parcels — what is that but the old recipe of mid-Victorian Manchester? And Mr. Balfour only this week has been preaching that the state of the parish-pump is more to us, and perhaps to the rest of the world too, than the future of Azerbaijan. So now we understand.
An address that was once drafted, to be presented by certain distinguished people, began, ‘Conscious as we are of our infirmities—’ ‘No,’ said Lord Justice Bowen, ‘let it read, “Conscious as we are of each other’s infirmities."' The emendation hits off the misunderstandings of the last few months between England and the United States. But they are the same infirmities (or are they evidences of practical common sense?), and out of the consciousness of them may still grow a close partnership in democratic liberty.
Of course, there can be no effective League of Nations without the United States; and it would be ridiculous, if it were not so serious, that a dispute between the President and the Senate which really turns on domestic and constitutional points should obscure America’s real interest in the League and should have kept her from participating in this week’s Conference. The future of the League does not rest on the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of the Covenant, nor do the Senate’s amendments wreck America’s possibilities of service to its ideals. Let the United States come in, and we will take the risk of her backing out as a result of a vote in Congress when the emergency arises. France took that risk with England, and the new idealism should surely command as much faith as the old militarism. All Englishmen who matter now hold this view very strongly; and if they have hesitated to say it officially, it is because they were afraid of seeming to take sides in American internal politics. The meeting of the League in St. James’s Palace was almost pure Hooverism. It recognized that Europe is economically one, and it called a conference to formulate its problems and make recommendations. Longitude does not make any difference in the working of economic laws. If England is likely to suffer by the misery and economic helplessness of Eastern Europe, so will the United States. Mr. Balfour’s prescription of the parish-pump for brows overheated by laurel leaves is the same as Mr. Hoover’s, and England and the United States have an identic interest in preaching and practising economy, both public and private.
The idea that there is a natural opposition between borrowers and lenders is a most fantastic mischief-maker. Old Panurge knew better. ‘Be pleased to represent unto your fancy another world, wherein every one lendeth and every one oweth; all are debtors and all creditors. Oh, how great will that harmony be, which shall thereby result from the regular motions of the heavens. What sympathy there will be amongst the elements!’ And again, ‘May St. Bablin, the good saint, snatch me, if I have not all my life held debt to be as the union or conjunction of the heavens with the earth, and the whole cement whereby the race of mankind is kept together; yea, of such virtue and efficacy, that I say the whole race of Adam would very soon perish without it.’
Mr. Lloyd George’s power over the House of Commons grows rather than diminishes. Someone remarked that a debate which he winds up is not an argument but a massacre. The House of Commons does not like it. It can be happy under the tyranny of a pontifex maximus like Mr. Asquith in the days just before the war. But Mr. Lloyd George apparently does what he likes with the House: it lies down or stands on its head, just as he tells it, and until next morning, when it reads how foolish it has been and rebels again, it really thinks it has been behaving heroically in the process. I was one of those who thought that the Prime Minister would go Left after the war, and I still think that it was the natural direction of his mind and would have been the best policy in the interests of the country. I can imagine him as the ideal leader of a new party containing the best elements of the old Liberal Party apart from the Whigs, some Conservatives, and the more moderate elements of the Labor Party; and such a party under such a leadership might have governed the country for another twenty years.
The Conference has made an old man of everyone but Lloyd George. His energy is boundless, his mind is elastic and extraordinarily agile, his political arteries show not a trace of hardening. And yet, somehow, with all his genius and with all his demonstration of power, he gives one the impression that he is not quite a free man. I have heard it said that Lord Northcliffe, before the last General Election, wanted him to go to the country independent of both the two old political parties; and, if this be so, the advice does credit to his political insight. Lloyd George, at the end of the war, was perhaps the first man in our Parliamentary history who had so strong a position that he had something to give to both political parties and nothing of real value to receive from either of them. In the Liberal Party he was an explosive centrifugal force, and it is not to be wondered at, human nature being what it is, that the old fogeys of that party should have been shy of him. To the Conservative Party he offered the support of his enormous prestige just at a time when it would normally have been falling into disrepute, and of course it jumped at the chance. Equally of course, Mr. Lloyd George should have withheld the gift; and, if he had, he would have attracted men from all parties and would have been the leader of a coalition which he could have called by any name he liked, but which would, whatever its name, in fact have been a completely new party, instead of the leader of a party which, though called a Coalition, is really conservative. Lloyd George, as Disraeli did before him, is making a new thing of this Conservative Party, but he might have done so much more for all parties; and it is distressing at times — most of all when his rhetorical triumph seems most complete — to feel that all he is doing is to put the old wine into new bottles.
Long before these lines are read, Mr. Asquith will have taken his seat again in the House of Commons; but, except that the Parliamentary duel will be a little less unequal, one doubts whether he will make much difference. His mind has sterilized, and his chief service to politics will be to give dignity to parliamentary encounters, to lend his name to ideas of others, and to keep going the good-will of the great historic Liberal name.
The man of the immediate future is undoubtedly Lord Robert Cecil. He has ambition; he has, if not forensic eloquence, the Cecilian fluency, and a platform name and presence, and his fine idealism is governed by the political craft and the caution that are inbred. He has thrown himself heart and soul into the work of the League of Nations. Except that he is a hater of bureaucracy, has an almost American faith in individualism, and is a Cecil, he might call himself by any party name, and he has more of the essential stuff of Liberalism in him than most who wear the name. The Labor Party is interested in him, and he looks with interest upon it; for he sees the cracks in its structure, and in its larger and more moderate half, a potential ally of his own party. Mr. Lloyd George was right when he said this week that the choice is not between the Coalition and the older parties, but between one coalition and another.
If a rival coalition is ever formed, its most prominent member, if not its nominal head, will undoubtedly be Lord Robert Cecil.
There was a debate this week on the nationalization of coal-mines, which seems to have frightened the bourgeoisie, but should rather have encouraged it, as revealing the elements of disunion in the Labor Party. The scheme of nationalization advocated by Mr. Brace in the House of Commons was not nationalization at all in the old sense, but something very different. All that Mr. Brace wants the state to do is to act as broker between the old ownership and the new, which is really the ownership of the trade by the trade for the benefit of — well, this is not quite so clear, except that we are promised an increase of efficiency, a greater output, and some security against strikes. Mr. Brace labored the point that the scheme would promote efficiency in management, and that it was the very antithesis of bureaucracy. What the Socialist I.L.P. tail, which wags the Labor Party, thought about this anxiety to repudiate bureaucracy and its works, did not appear; but in fact, Marxian Socialism can never recover from the hatred which the war bred of the omnipotent state, and is dying fast in England. It was a striking fact that, while Mr. Brace insisted that his scheme would not create bureaucratic management, Mr. Lloyd George, who opposed it, insisted that it would.
Apparently, then, the criterion of a new proposal is whether it does or does not create a bureaucracy; and the fact is most significant of the trend of political thought. The new scheme has much greater affinity with Bolshevism than with Socialism, and still more with what is called Guild Socialism, which is essentially anti-bureaucratic in its inspiration. Broadly, it is true to say that in labor, as in other politics, there is a great revival of individualism and a growing distrust of the State. And this trade individualism obviously holds itself out to work with whichever of the older parties will give it most. Between the various schemes of copartnership and joint management and the orthodoxy of the Whitley Councils there is far less interval than between them and the old Marxian Socialism. And it is significant that the Labor Party is beginning to open its arms to the intellectual worker and to talk efficiency. If the income-tax goes up, the best recruits of labor in the future will come from the grain-workers who are making between two and three thousand a year. And for that reason the income-tax will probably not go up.
For an analogous reason one doubts whether the coal-miners will go on strike. An open strike would restore Mr. Lloyd George to his old war ascendancy, and could end only in disastrous victory for the nation and in disastrous defeat for the nationalizers. A more likely retort would be a fallingoff in output, a ca’canny strike. But this would discredit and weaken tradeunionism even more, perhaps, than an unsuccessful open strike.
Outside politics we are very dull. Why is it that the war has not stimulated artistic activity like previous wars? A tremendous fuss has been made of such poetry as the war gave us; but, after all, neither its volume nor its value was considerable. Painting has done a little better, but music has not had a wing fluttered by the war. As for the theatre — but that is a very old and a long story. Mr. Keynes’s book on the Economics of the Peace Conference is the best book of a bad season; but his trick of taking his hatred of Mr. Lloyd George out of Mr. Wilson is really too unfair.