The British Muddle

I

THE cyclone that swept over British politics in December has changed the landscape of public life more completely and more startlingly than any election in living memory. Mr. Gladstone, referring to a furious attack on him which was being made by an ordinarily mild follower, once observed ‘there is no animal so dangerous as a mad sheep.’ It is certainly true that the most gentle and unadventurous of prime ministers has produced a convulsion without precedent in our political record. In a moment of astounding aberration, Mr. Baldwin led his triumphant party over a steep place in a wild stampede, and left inextricable confusion at the bottom. No political leader ever ran through such a handsome fortune in so short a time, disinherited his party so recklessly, or shattered his own reputation with such frivolous levity. He had a comfortable majority, three or four years before him, and the good wishes of all parties. His capacity for Government was untried, but his amiable character made him popular with the House, and his opponents were disposed to put the most friendly constructions on his first faltering steps in the office. There was a general desire that he should ‘ make good ‘ — not merely because of gravity of public affairs, but because there was no visible alternative in sight.

The Liberal party was still the hopeless wreck that Mr. Lloyd George’s disruptive activities had made of it during and after the war. It was broken into two factions which glowered at each other with mutual distrust. The main body, who remained loyal to Mr. Asquith, regarded Mr. Lloyd George as a deserter who had betrayed the party for his own personal ambitions and entered into a base bargain with the enemy, and who was nowanxious to return to his ancient allegiance only because the Conservatives, having used him for their own purposes, had turned him out into the street. The feeling in regard to him was illustrated by the action of the National Liberal Club in solemnly thrusting his portrait, which had adorned its walls, into a cellar of its palatial building.

As for the Labor party, it had neither the expectation nor the desire for office. It had made great strides in the election of 1922, owing largely to the chaos in the Liberal party which was sending the younger element in politics into its ranks in great numbers. But it was still in the adolescent stage, doubtful of itself and indisposed to face the stern realities of Government. Its main preoccupation was the annihilation of the Liberal party. That party was apparently in the last stages of dissolution, with its more reactionary element drifting into the Conservative ranks, and its radical element tending to take refuge with Labor. In time the situation would clear, the two-party system would be substantially restored on a new basis, Capital and Labor would be mobilized against each other, and Labor would be in a position to govern without the danger of entanglement with a third party.

In a word, the strength of Mr. Baldwin’s position lay less in his own ranks than in the indisposition of his adversaries to do anything to disturb him. He had nothing to do but to sit tight and enjoy unchallenged power. Perhaps it was the unusual security of his position which led him to his doom. He was so prosperous that he could afford to gamble. The shining goal, to attain which Joseph Chamberlain had vainly spent the last effective years of his life, could be won by him in a sudden sally. For three quarters of a century the ghost of Protection had haunted the slumbers and the daydreams of his Party. Again and again it had seemed about to assume corporeal presence, but it had always vanished—as ghosts are understood to vanish — at the cock-crow which announced that the Free Trade camp was awake.

But now there seemed an unprecedented chance of capturing the Free Trade position by surprise. The guardians of that position, if not asleep, were weakened by discussion and broken by factions; there was an unexampled prevalence of unemployment which could be easily attributed to the fiscal policy of the country, and the electorate, new and uninformed, was separated from pre-war traditions by a sort of geological ‘fault’ that had no parallel in history. Moreover, Free Traders had been lulled to security by the definite undertaking given by Mr. Bonar Law at the election in December 1922, and by the fact that when Mr. Baldwin had succeeded Bonar Law, last summer, he had sought to make Mr. R. McKenna, one of the most conspicuous Free Traders in the country, his Chancellor of the Exchequer. Nothing seemed more remote from the political horizon than the ancient spectre of Protection.

And because it seemed so remote it suddenly burst upon the scene. It is commonly supposed that Mr. Baldwin was the innocent victim of his own Die-Hards, who, having found by the success of their opposition to Mr. McKenna’s appointment that they could browbeat him, decided to press their advantage home and shove him ‘over the top.’ In the language of one of his wiser colleagues, who, like most of the more instructed members of the party, was opposed to the adventure, ‘Baldwin turned on the tap and then found he could not turn it off.’

There is no need to dwell at much length on the astonishing flood that followed. I do not think anyone in any party anticipated the dimensions of the catastrophe. It was nearly twenty years since the issue had been fought out and, in the conditions that prevailed, the utmost that the Free Traders expected was that the country would give an indeterminate decision which would prevent Mr. Baldwin making a grave breach in Free Trade traditions of the country. The first, effect of the challenge was one which might have been anticipated, which nevertheless Mr. Baldwin had apparently not foreseen. Mr. Asquith and Mr. Lloyd George fell into each other’s arms forthwith. Seven years had passed since they had been colleagues and they could say, —

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin’ auld lang syne.

It had been commonly supposed that nothing could bridge these angry seas. Mr. George had, after the fall of his Coalition, made desperate efforts to recover his place in the Liberal tabernacle, but the disgust for him was so deep that the attempts had been fruitless. His portrait still lay in the cellar of the National Liberal Club and, when he went to America in October, he seemed to have shot his bolt in English politics and to have no visible future. Before he reached home at the end of November, Mr. Baldwin had reunited the Liberal party and paved the way for his dramatic reëntrance upon the Liberal stage, all his sins forgiven, though not forgotten, all his strange political philanderings studiously ignored.

There had been widespread speculation as to what would be his opinion on the Protectionist ‘stunt’ so suddenly unmasked by the Government. No one knew and there is a suspicion that Mr. Lloyd George did not himself know until he saw how the land lay. It is no injustice to him to say that he is not a very stalwart Free Trader. The Free Trade position rests upon a theory, and Mr. Lloyd George prefers a case which rests upon an emotion and which can be stated in a resounding headline like ‘Make the Foreigner Pay.’ In the struggle with Chamberlain twenty years ago he was little more than a sharpshooter of the Free Trade cause, and I do not think his attachment to it ever went beyond the limits of opportunism. Much play was made during the election with a circumstantial story that Mr. Lloyd George had intended to return from America with a great Imperial Preference ‘stunt’ of his own, and that Mr. Baldwin’s move only anticipated that intention and, in anticipating it, blew it out of the water, leaving Mr. George with no alternative but to declare for Free Trade. This allegation, which occupied a large place in the Conservative press, was fortified with assertions the truth of which it is unnecessary to examine or accept, although it is not denied that Mr. George’s first week-end on his return was spent at Lord Beaverbrook’s country house in company with such stalwart Protectionists as Mr. Austen Chamberlain and Lord Birkenhead.

Whatever his perplexities may have been, they were resolved by the situation that confronted him in England and he promptly declared for Free Trade and was as promptly received into the Liberal communion again by Mr. Asquith. There was a deep undercurrent of opposition in the Liberal party to this sudden reconciliation, but the general feeling was that the extraordinary circumstances made it impossible to refuse to recognize so powerful a recruit in so great an emergency.

There was another important consideration which no doubt played a part in the matter. The official Liberal party was notoriously impoverished, while Mr. Lloyd George still had a well-filled war chest which had been enriched during the prosperous days of the Coalition. Once in the field, Mr. Lloyd George exhibited all his astonishing electioneering gifts and became easily the most picturesque figure in the fight, touring the country in a whirlwind campaign, speaking at wayside stations on his journeys, and through megaphones reaching audiences of quite unprecedented dimensions. How far he influenced the result is a matter of doubt. It is admitted that he sent many Liberal votes to Labor; but my own impression (and I am not prejudiced in his favor) is that he added substantially to the volume of the Free Trade tide. He is the master showman of politics and the public is attracted by the picturesqueness of his speech and appeal. But, apart from him, the current of argument went against the Protectionists. It was evident that it became swollen in the last two days and that, if the election had been delayed until after Christmas, the Protectionists would have sustained an even more crushing overthrow than that which actually befell them.

II

With the result of the election, the whole political prospect changed as if by magic. Protection, which had suddenly occupied the centre of the stage, now as suddenly vanished into its ancient disrepute. Instead a new problem occupied all minds. For the first time a House of Commons had been elected in which no Party had a majority of the votes and in which, therefore, no Party could govern without the consent of another Party to which it was more or less hostile. The two-party system had given place to the three-party system and, in doing so, had created difficulties which seemed to bring Government to a state of stalemate.

Both the Liberal and the Labor party in the election had supported Free Trade and together their sheer strength in the new House represented a majority over the Protectionists of nearly a hundred seats. But, though agreed on the specific issue of the election, the Liberals and Laborites were by no means a harmonious combination. They had fought against each other in the constituencies almost as fiercely as they had fought against the Conservatives, and many seats had been lost in consequence and had gone to the Protectionists by a minority vote. Labor is ‘the new boy’ in the political school. He has grown with astonishing rapidity during and since the war, has drawn enormously from the resources of the Liberal party, and by the election of 1918 had won from the Liberals the position of second

Party in the House. The latter were sterilized during the war, lost their prestige and fighting-appeal, and are now in danger of being crushed between the upper and nether millstones of Capital and Labor.

The main object of Labor throughout has been to promote this development, to get rid of the Party which occupies much of its own ground, and to restore the two-party system by the elimination of the tertium quid of Liberalism. For this reason Labor is, on merely party grounds, more hostile to the Liberals than it is to the Conservatives and has refused to have any electoral accommodation with them for their common advantage against the Conservatives. This attitude naturally arouses a spirit of retaliation on the part of the Liberals. The result is that the two Free Trade parties returned to the House with the undisguised sentiments of antagonists who have won a common battle, it is true, but who do not love each other any the more on that account. This put anything like a formal coalition between the two parties out of the question. Equally impossible was the idea of coöperation between either of them and the defeated Conservatives.

The latter, still numerically the most considerable Party in the House, would have been glad to enter into an unofficial alliance with the Liberals. Such an arrangement would have broken the disastrous fall they had sustained and would have allayed the panic which the prospect of a Labor Government had aroused in the minds of the propertied classes. Mr. Asquith, after years of opprobrium and slander, suddenly found himself regarded as the savior of society; the man to whom the comfortable classes looked as their defender against the threatened inrush of the red tide of Socialism. The Harmsworth Press, which had driven him out of office years before by an unparalleled campaign of calumny, now insulted him with flatulent praises and lectured him on his duty to save the nation from imminent peril. More responsible newspapers were no less eager to see him in office, backed by the support of two hundred and fifty stalwart Tory votes.

It was.an amazing turn of the wheel of fortune which had thus suddenly placed the control of the Parliamentary situation in the hands of the man whom his opponents had so long affected to regard as an extinct volcano. The temptation was promptly and brusquely put aside. Mr. Asquith had no intention of closing his career by becoming the tied servant of the ancient enemy who had just suffered defeat at the polls. Such a course he knew would be not only dishonoring to himself, but fatal to the Party with the fortunes of which his whole political career had been associated. If the Liberals accepted office as the nominees of the Carlton Club they would never recover from the blow. The immediate result would have been a landslide from the Liberal ranks to Labor. Everything that was vital in the Party would have turned with disgust from the spectacle of a nominal Liberal Government kept in office by Conservative votes, and the experiment would have left the Liberal party little more than a discredited faction kept alive by the crumbs that fell from the Tory table. The extinction of the Liberal party as an effective political instrument would leave politics a crude warfare between Capital and Labor.

The achievement of this result, as I have said, has been and is the undisguised aim of the Labor party, and, had Mr. Asquith chosen to take office with the tacit approval of the Conservatives, he would have pursued the course most agreeable to Labor. They would have said with a good deal of obvious truth that the fact proved their contention that the Liberal party was as much a Capitalist party as the Conservatives; that there was now no fundamental difference between them, and that the real issue of politics henceforth was between the possessing class and the working class. Mr. Asquith’s decision to enter into no bargain with the Conservatives has undoubtedly preserved his Party from dissolution, whether permanently or only temporarily depends upon the course of future events. It may be that, before many months are out, he will be back in Downing Street, with, possibly, Mr. Lloyd George once more his next-door neighbor. But in that case he will take office without bargain with or subjection to any other Party, having preserved the integrity and independence of his own organization unimpaired.

Assuming — as seems literally certain at time of writing — that, as the result of Mr. Asquith’s decision, the Labor party succeeds to power, a momentous landmark will have been reached in English political life. The accession of Labor to office had for some time been recognized as a possibility, even a certainty of the future; but no one anticipated that it was so imminent, and only the rash folly of Mr. Baldwin could have brought it about. The Labor party itself was content to wait and would, indeed, have preferred to wait until it could assume office with the reality of power which comes from the possession of a majority vote in the House of Commons. It is less than twenty years since it became a Parliamentary party at all, and it was only as a result of the elections subsequent to the war that it had assumed proportions of serious magnitude. It was much more concerned with consolidating its position at the expense of the Liberals than with undertaking the responsibilities of Government, and there was a strong movement within the Party against accepting office in circumstances which would limit its freedom of action and make its exercise of power entirely dependent upon the sanction of the Liberals. But to have declined power would have been a confession of weakness that would have greatly discredited the Party in the country, and Mr. MacDonald is wanting neither in courage nor astuteness. He has served a long apprenticeship to politics and has been one of the half dozen outstanding figures in the House of Commons for nearly twenty years past, distinguished alike for his powers of speech, his vast industry, and his wide range of political activity. He is essentially middle-class, handsome of feature, vigorous in body, and of unstained character. He is often truculent in utterance and his public bearing has a certain Highland gloom and aloofness; but in private life he is a likable and interesting companion and his opinions are generally more moderate than his manner of expressing them. His relations with Mr. Lloyd George in pre-war days were notorious and much too close for the approval of the more vigorous element of the Party. Indeed it is common opinion that the speech in opposition to the war, which he delivered on August 3, 1914, in the House of Commons, — a speech which made him almost a political pariah for years, — was believed by him to express the views which Mr. Lloyd George had held up to the previous day and which Mr. MacDonald supposed that he still held.

In accepting office, two courses are before Mr. MacDonald. He may use the opportunity for the purpose of propaganda in introducing proposals which the House may reject but which will serve as a bid for support in the country. This course would be tempting if he could command the dissolution of the House on defeat; but it is doubtful whether this right would be conceded, and whether the King would not exercise his prerogative of calling upon another party leader, presumably Mr. Asquith, to form a Government. In these circumstances it may be assumed that Mr. MacDonald will adopt the alternative course of pursuing a moderate policy which the Liberals will be able to support, of maintaining his Party in office as long as possible, and demonstrating to the country that Labor is an efficient instrument of government. In the field of foreign affairs, which must be the governing concern for a long time to come, he should occupy secure ground, for there is no visible difference of opinion between Labor and the Liberals on the main question of the restoration of peace, hostility to the Poincaré policy, the revision of the Treaty of Versailles, the political and economic independence of Germany, the resumption of the relations with Russia, and the conversion of the League of Nations from the shadow it is to-day into the reality it was intended to be.

If Mr. MacDonald falls, it will probably be on his internal policy. Mr. Baldwin leaves behind him the prospect of an enormous budget-deficiency, and between the task of providing for this deficiency and the need of fulfilling in some measure the promises of social alleviation which have been the chief stock-in-trade of the Labor party, Mr. MacDonald can hardly escape the formulation of proposals which may drive a sufficient number of Liberals into the Tory lobby to bring about his overthrow. The situation indeed is more incalculable than any in previous experience, with the possible exception of that produced by the election of 1885, when Gladstone made his historic Home Rule plunge.

III

The emergence of the three-party system creates a problem which can be solved only by new expedients. Left to the operation of past practice, there is before the country an endless vista of ministerial crises, followed by a swift succession of elections which do nothing to correct the mischief. Already the public is tired of elections, and a continuance of the present impasse would end in complete discredit of the Parliamentary institution as a vehicle of Government. It is idle to assume, as the Labor party assumes, that the elimination of the Liberals in a series of electoral battles is the way to a simplification of the position by the restoration of the two-party system on a new basis. That would mean political chaos for years to come, possibly eventuating in some form of Fascismo on one side, or of ‘ direct action’ on the other. Nor will any scheme of electoral reconstruction touch the problem. The anomalies of representation, or rather misrepresentation, under the existing system of election, are many and flagrant. A very large proportion of the seats in the present House of Commons is held by members returned by a minority vote, and there is nothing like the disparity between the total number of votes cast for the candidates of the several parties in the country as there is between the elected members of those parties. There is urgent need for the introduction of measures which will correct these anomalies and make the House of Commons more truly representative of the country. That this will be done by means of the adoption of the alternative vote, or Proportional Representation, — the Second Ballot has no friends, — may be taken for granted.

But these changes of electoral method do not touch the fundamental problem of a House of Commons composed of three parties, none of which commands a majority of the House. This situation, if left uncontrolled, can only leave Parliament in chaos and Government impotent.

Certain remedies seem obvious. It is clear, for example, that whatever the weight of precedent may be in such matters, no Government representing only a minority of the House can henceforth claim to dissolve Parliament on sustaining defeat. It is not less clear that the theory of Cabinet solidarity — a relatively recent and pernicious growth — must be modified. The folly or incompetence of one minister, on perhaps an insignificant issue, can no longer be held sufficient grounds for the resignation of the Government. Opinion, indeed, is strongly tending to the view that a ministry should resign only after defeat on a formal and direct vote of want of confidence. If these expedients are not adequate, it will become necessary for Parliament to be elected, as it is in the United States, France, and elsewhere, for a fixed term of years and compelled to carry on without the temptation to snatch a new verdict at the polls at what may seem to the ministry in power a convenient opportunity.

The psychological effects of these remedies would be important. It is not probable that, in the present temper of parties, there would be a tendency to formal coalition, for the word and the thing alike have been too deeply discredited by recent experience to invite experiment; but a new technique of Parliamentary relationship and a new atmosphere of party conflict would be evolved. Governments assuming office without a majority of votes and without power of gambling with an election would tend to pursue a policy which commanded a reasonable measure of support from one or another of the groups opposed to them. They would work under conditions which would modify the disposition of their opponents to unseat them on frivolous grounds, for the Governments that succeeded them would be subject to the same measures of retaliation, and the Party which became credited in the country with merely disruptive and incendiary tactics, or with the policy of making the Parliamentary machine unworkable, simply in pursuit of party ends, would incur a disrepute that would be reflected in the subsequent election.

British politics are in solution; but it is not impossible that the new mould into which events will shape them will be found to be a more efficient medium than that of the past. The genius of the British people for government, for adapting means to ends, and for preserving their ideas of liberty in the midst of changing circumstances, has been their most conspicuous merit in history. There is no reason to fear that it will fail in the presence of the new challenge with which they have been confronted by recent events.