Jack Fitzgerald

These be your gods, O Israel
(The Liberal Party's Record)


Source: Socialist Standard, January 1906.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain
HTML Markup: Michael Schauerte
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


’Midst the rhetorical and literary boom of drums and clang of cymbals the long expected and suddenly happening resignation of the Tory Government takes place, and the Liberal party marches bravely forward to take up the burden, the troubles, the cares, the anxieties—and the salaries—of office. A great demonstration at Albert Hall where the Prime Minister adumbrates—as the Daily News so well puts it—the programme of the Liberal Party if it is returned to power at the election in January. The People’s advocate—Reynoldsshrieks in triumph at the Radical victory shown in the statement of the programme and denounces, beforehand, as traitors to the people, all those who either vote Tory or abstain from supporting the Liberals. This is what Republicanism appears to lead to. In addition, a clever campaign is being conducted by the Daily News on behalf of “Social Reform” versus “Tariff Reform”, that, while dishing up the ancient, hoary ideas of taxing the land and establishing small holdings, wisely refuses to have any discussion upon its proposals carried on in its columns. Some of their dupes might be enlightened even by one or two letters and that danger must be avoided. In the first article, however, it is clearly laid down that the way to remedy the evils admittedly existing—an admission forced from the Liberal Party by the Tariff Reformers—is by a series of wise and moderate measures in the direction above indicated. In face of these attempts to ensure the return of the Liberals to power in January as friends of the workers a brief survey of their career will be in order.

The names—Conservative and Liberal—were first adopted at the election of 1830. Previous to that the parties were known as Tory and Whig. Originally the Tory Party represented the Landlord class, the remains of the Feudal Barons, while the Whigs represented the new commercial class that had been steadily growing in wealth and power since the 15th century. The civil war of 1642-49 was the big outward evidence of the internal antagonism existing between these two classes, and although the ebb of the tide brought out the Restoration it could not alter or even more than modify the power the commercial class had won as a result of the struggle. Steadily the Whigs grew in power till the time of George III, when another temporary set back, followed by the American and Napoleonic Wars, took place. But it was not to last.

In 1830 the Liberals were returned to power with the largest majority on record, namely, 301, and they were in power in eight out of nine Parliaments up to 1865. The great Reform Bill of 1832 finally placed the political power in the hands of the plutocracy out of those of the aristocracy and completed the work for which the Liberal Party had existed. From this time onward the economic and social divisions between the aristocrats and plutocrats, blue bloods and traders, have been broken down, the last flickers of the struggle taking place over the Factories Acts, and to-day the trader is a peer like Lord Bass, and the aristocrat a trader like Lords Dudley, Penrhyn, Elvastone, etc. Whenever a new swindle is being floated on the Stock Markets, some titled person is asked to lend his name—for a consideration—to go upon the prospectus as a draw to the unwary or those “who love a Lord”. And this reaches high up the scale as well as low down. This combining of economic and social interests has obliterated all the real differences that at one time existed between the Conservatives and Liberals as political parties. Apart from the subsidiary struggle between the official agents of the capitalist class for the spoils of office, the only reason why the two parties are kept in existence is to gull the workers into the belief that they will materially better their conditions by returning to power—at one time, Liberals, at another, Conservatives. The advocates of Liberalism are just now detailing various actions of the Conservatives, when in power, against the workers interests—and they have plenty of material to use. For the moment, we may leave these advocates at their work while we take up the question of the claim of the Liberals to be the “Party of Progress”.

First, let us look at their record in industrial matters concerning the workers. They claim credit for having legalised combination among the workers in 1824. True! they were in office when the Act was passed, but the manner in which Mr Francis Place outside and Mr. Joseph Hume inside the House of Commons planned, intrigued and finally smuggled—there is no other word for it—the Act through Parliament, is unequalled in the annals of that edifice of trickery. In 1825, when the same Liberal Government, having woke up to what had been done, repealed the Act, the Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor stated they were unaware it had ever been passed! And we have clever politicians to-day, with not one-tenth of the ability and power of these two men, who imagine that, in circumstances vastly different, they will be able to get measures passed benefiting the workers without the capitalists recognising it!

When Lord Melbourne was returned in 1830, he appointed a Commission to enquire into the standing of the trade unions—then, of course, secret societies. The Commission consisted of W. Nassau Senior, professor of political economy at Oxford and Mr. W. M. Tomlinson, a lawyer. They advocated such terrible measures of repression that the Government did not dare to recommend them to Parliament, but put them in operation in detail. Thus, the Lancashire Miners and the Southwark Shoemakers suffered imprisonment in 1832, the Bermondsey Tanners in 1834, and in the latter year the notorious case of the Dorchester labourers also occurred when six agricultural labourers were sentenced to seven years transportation, and two of them were sold into slavery as soon as they landed in Australia. All the above for merely joining their Trade Unions! During this period a big agitation was going on among the working class against the fearful conditions of employment in the Mills and Factories, which conditions could only be described as hellish. The Liberals opposed strenuously every Factory Act that was brought forward on behalf of Women and Children, to say nothing of men. Cobden, Bright and Gladstone, deservedly the leading lights of canting hypocritical Nonconformity, turned their religion tenets to commercial account by demanding that, in the words of Jesus, the nation should suffer little children to go unto them that they might wring profit out of the hardly formed bones and tender flesh of children.

But all cant was not on their side alone. The philosophic Radicals of the Utilitarian school, while practically Atheists, were just as strong opponents of any restriction being placed upon the hours of labour of women and children, as the snuffling religious humbugs. Mr. Roebuck, for many years “Father of the House of Commons” and a member of this school, wrote to his wife in 1838 the following description of the interior of a cotton mill:

The place was full of women, young, all of them; some of them large with child, and obliged to stand twelve hours each day. Their hours are from five in the morning to seven in the evening, two hours of that being for rest, so that they stand twelve clear hours. The heat was excessive in some of the rooms, the stink pestiferous and in all an atmosphere of cotton flue. I nearly fainted.

Roebuck stood about six feet high and was well proportioned. Yet in 1844, six years after the above letter was written, he opposed the ten-and-a-half hours Bill and said the description of misery had been exaggerated, “take the women-of-all-work in London, compare them with the labouring girl in the factories and you will find that the condition of the latter is a sort of Paradise”!

Yes! the sort of Paradise in which a strong man nearly fainted upon the occasion of a short visit. And it was this sort of cant that was brought forward by the intellectual and industrial giants of the Liberal Party in opposition to the workers’ demands. The Tories, smarting under their defeat of 1832, supported the agitation for the Factories Acts, which did not directly affect them, and it was during their spell of power from 1841 to 1847 that the Act forbidding the employment of Women and Children in the Mines was passed (1842).

Not only were the Chartists prosecuted with the utmost rigor of the Law by the Liberals, but their treatment of Ernest Jones was particularly inhuman—a sample of the mercy one may expect who runs counter to the interests of the ruling class.

When the great Lock-out of the Building Trades took place in London in 1859-61, characterised by Sidney Webb as the greatest trade union struggle on record, the Liberal Government sent the Sappers to work on the Chelsea Barracks as blacklegs. The same Party opposed F. Harrison’s Bill to Legalise Trade Union Funds, but made up for laxity in this direction by sending the soldiers to Mold in Flintshire when the miners were out on strike in June, 1869, and shooting them down without even the formality of reading the Riot Act.

The Act of 1871 that was supposed to place Trade Unions upon a secure basis, was such a fraud, actually making the position of the worker worse than before, that the agitation was continued till in 1875 the Tories passed the Act that Trade Unions have existed under up to the present time. Still, something was done, as for instance the imprisonment of seven women in South Wales for shouting “Bah” after some blacklegs, and of some South London gas-stokers for merely preparing to strike. (1871.) It was during the same Government’s office that Mr. Plimsoll, who had for some years been carrying on an agitation on behalf of the Merchant Seamen, was thrown out of the House of Commons for calling certain Liberal shipowners “cold-blooded murderers” because they sent men to sea in rotten ships that could never reach their supposed destination, to gain the insurance money. The Load Line Bill—popularly known as the Plimsoll Line—was passed by the Tories in 1875.

Equally bad in the record of the “Party of Progress” in the political and intellectual as well as industrial fields. It is always claimed by the Liberals that they were the extenders of the Franchise and of intellectual liberties all round, but this is only a first-class example of the saying regarding the giving of a lie a start. A hardened old Whig like Justin McCarthy has to admit in his History of Our Own Times that the Reform Bill of 1832 “left the working classes almost altogether out of the franchise . . . It broke down the monopoly which the aristocracy and landed classes had enjoyed, and admitted the middle classes to a share in the law-making power”, and “this was all the more exasperating, because the excitement and agitation and success of the Reform Bill was brought about by working men.” Not only so, but, as stated above, the Liberals were returned to power in eight out of the nine Parliaments from 1830 to 1867, and returned upon the express promise to extend the franchise—only to show how consistently they can break promises. In 1866 Gladstone went out of office rather than accept a £6 franchise, which he said “would give the workers a majority, a thing neither he nor any of his friends ever intended to do.”

The cute old trickster, Disraeli, took the opportunity to score a popular triumph against the Liberals by introducing, and finally placing upon the Statute Book, a Bill for the £10 franchise which the bulk of the workers vote under to-day. The Property Qualification and Jewish Disability had been abolished under the same leadership in 1858. When Mr. Forster was piloting the Education Act through the House of Commons in 1871, he gladly accepted the help of the Tories to pass the religious clauses of the Bill, while he and his friends threw out the clauses of the Ballot Act, that provided for the payment of Election Expenses, in the same year.

Later in the ’80’s, when Bradlaugh wished to affirm, instead of taking an oath to a God he did not believe in, the Liberals threw him out of the House of Commons by physical force to show their love of intellectual freedom. Just now they are making all the capital they can out of the South African War, for which, by-the-way, they always voted supplies, but conveniently forget, that in 1882, Gladstone’s Government bombarded Alexandria and shot down the Egyptians, whom Gladstone himself described as “a people rightly struggling to be free”, in the interests of the Bondholders, whilst the worst Coercion Acts against Ireland were passed during this period.

It might be urged that all these facts are ancient history, and do not apply to present Liberals or affairs. Well! let us take the last period when the Liberals were in office, namely, from 1892 to 1895. They were returned upon John Morley’s famous “Newcastle programme”, which contained, among the items—“Old Age Pensions”, “One Man one Vote”, “Miners’ 8 Hours”, “Taxation of Land Values”, “Ending or Mending the House of Lords”, “Home rule”, “Payment of Members and Election Expenses”, etc.—a programme much more definite and “advanced” than that shadowed forth at the Albert Hall, but although in power three years, not one of these items became law. It is said, of course, that the House of Lords stood in the way, but many of the items are Budget matters which the Lords do not control, while it may be noted that Gladstone, appointed more Peers than any other Prime Minister. Moreover, when in 1871 the House of Lords threw out his Army reform Bill he took it to the Crown and had it signed and made Law in spite of them! If, with one Bill, why not with another. When Keir Hardie asked for half-a-day to discuss the Unemployed, the Liberals could not spare the time, yet shortly afterwards they spent half-a-day passing resolutions of sickening adulation to the Duke of York on his marriage. When the Tories brought in an Old Age Pensions Bill the Liberals opposed it and threw it out.

Nemesis, however, dogged their steps, and if they could not pass any of the above “Reforms” into Law, opportunities were given them to show their impartiality when called upon to take action between employer and employed.

In September, 1893, the Miners, working for the Tory, Lord Masham, at Featherstone, were on strike, and during a demonstration the soldiers were marched against them and fired upon them, killing two and wounding several others. Mr. Lowther raised the matter in the House of Commons on the question of who was to bear the expense of the troops being sent to Featherstone. In the course of his reply Mr. H.H. Asquith (Home Secretary) made the following remarks to the “Labour” M.P.’s.

Where are the men who made these statements? (that the soldiers had been sent to help the Employers) . . . it is a very easy thing to go about the country speaking to excited audiences where you are safe from refutation or reply; but it is a very different thing . . . to come here to the House of Commons . . . face to face with the Minister you condemn and fight the matter out. These gentlemen know as well as I do, and would admit it if they cleared their minds and tongues of cant, that there is no man in this country who would not have acted as I have done, and who would not have felt it his bounden duty to supply the Local Authorities with such a force as in their judgment was necessary to supplement the local resources at their disposal. (Hansard, vol, 17, pages 1725-1726).

The above extract effectually disposes of the statements made by Asquith’s friends that he did not send the troops to Featherstone. His own admission should be proof enough to the most hardened Liberal. Note also that not a single “Labour” member, then or since, repudiated Asquith’s statement that anyone one of them would have sent the soldiers to Featherstone if they held office—a splendid piece of evidence as to the position they occupy.

An inquiry commission was appointed and reported in January, 1894. It was pointed out that in this report the rifles used would carry three miles and kill, and it was therefore suggested that weapons of shorter range—say 200 or 300 yards—should be used in civil disputes as innocent persons were liable to be injured.

Mr. John Burns—not the Right Honourable then—said:

He could not agree with the point which had been raised as to the alteration of the weapons and ammunition to be used in the cases of civil riot; that would only alter the injury caused; some people might say ewhat about shooting down innocent people?’ They must take their risk of that. If innocent people attended affairs of this sort they did so at their own risk. He did not hold the Home Office responsible in this case. (Hansard, vol. 20, pages 1305-1306).

And yet we hear glib queries as to why an Office, that men of wealth and influence would sell their souls—if they had any—to obtain, is given to a working engineer! Let the above answer.

The price of this act—of treachery to the workers, of faithful service to his paymasters—is a seat in the Cabinet and £2,000 a year.

Note, moreover, Burns’ attempt to shift the responsibility of sending the troops to Featherstone off the shoulders of Asquith, after the latter’s own admission of the act.

One point, however, is logically taken by the assassin’s defender. Admit the right of the capitalist to have his wage slaves slaughtered when they revolt against their miserable conditions, and then the slaughtering may just as well be done by long range as by short range guns. Innocent people—three miles away—must take their risk of attending affairs of this sort! But the very admission of this right of the capitalist explains why both Tory and Liberal Press, from the Daily Mail to the Daily News have joined together in a chorus of congratulations to “Honest John” though the adjectival noun is rather early. Burns may be said to have got “on” before, to have got “Honour” of its kind—now, but there is not the slightest possibility of his getting “Honest” either in the near or ultimate future.

During 1894, a Liberal capitalist, Mr. C. H. Wilson, M.P., of the Wilson Steamship Company, Hull, had a strike of dockers occur at his wharves and brought in blacklegs to break the strike. The obliging Home Secretary (Asquith again) sent a gunboat to the scene of action—Hull—to protect the blacklegs and shoot down the dockers if they showed signs of being troublesome.

In 1895 the Liberals were defeated on cordite and have been out of office 10 years, but can any fair-minded person pretend in face of the brief account already given of their career during the 19th Century, that there is the slightest difference between them and the Conservatives as far as the workers are concerned? I think not.

It is for the working class to study and realise that while one section of the community—the capitalist class—own the means of life of the whole community, the remainder of the community are slaves to that section. Whatever label a political party or person may wear—whether Conservative, Liberal, Radical, Reform, Labour or any other—the one question for the working-class is “do they stand for the retention of a system allowing a small section of Society to exploit the other, the working class”? If so, no matter, with what qualification or modification, if any, then they are necessarily and inevitably the enemy of the exploited and must be so branded. Fine promises avail them nothing. In the words of Wendell Phillips, “WE NEVER FORGET”, but keeping the facts clearly in front of our fellow workers’ eyes march steadily to the goal of our Emancipation.