E. Belfort Bax

Moral Book-Keeping by Double Entry

(25 August 1906)

Moral Book Keeping by Double Entry, Justice, 25th August 1906, p.4.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The imbecile, sottish mealy-mouthedness with which criticism of public men is carried on in the present day would be enough to raise the gorge of the healthy, honest-minded man of any other age. It has become an axiom nowadays that a public man, once he has attained a prominent or lucrative position, is, at least as regards the conduct of his public duties, morally unimpeachable. All criticism of that conduct, therefore, amounts simply to a criticism of his judgment. That his intentions are above all criticism is to be taken for granted. That is an axiom which no “serious” or “responsible” person thinks of disputing. In this way the path of every political, juridical, or bureaucratic evil-doer is made easy for him, Time was when the criminal law threatened his life or his liberty. That is long since in the barbaric past. Then only public opinion blasted his name. But public opinion has got ever tenderer with him. Now even public opinion is so sensitive that it shudders at the thought of calling him aught but a misguided brother,

Two recent circumstances have lately illustrated what is here said. One is the occasion of Mr. Chamberlain’s seventieth birthday, and the other is the debate in the House a short time ago on judge Grantham. In Mr. Chamberlain’s case Liberal papers, otherwise representing the political aims of Mr. Chamberlain as of the most direful import for the British nation and for the world at large, who are accustomed to picture him as politically perfidious and an unscrupulous demagogue, gush with congratulations and wishes of happy returns. Now, if the views expressed by these respectable Liberal organs on Chamberlain’s political career are only half true, no sophistry could persuade the unsophisticated, straightforward man, whose yea is yea and whose nay is nay, that he was anything other than a sinister influence in British political life, whose room in this vale of tears was not decidedly better than his company. He must, in short, be a wicked old man. Similarly with Mr. Justice Grantham. If he really allowed his political prejudices to bias his judicial pronouncements (since he is a grown man and not a child or a hysterical female) he cannot be, even personally, quite the white-robed saint such as the Liberal front bench, not less than his Tory colleagues, were anxious to represent him.

So it goes round in this world of politico-chivalric cant and moral book-keeping by double-entry. Leaving particular instances out of the question, it is quite evident that under the existing system of ethical judgments there is nothing to hinder any rogue who has the wits to work himself into a political position, or a judicial or bureaucratic career, from carrying on any rascality he pleases under the aegis of public opinion, if he does but play his game cleverly enough. The worst he has to fear is gentle reproof or at the very worst the remote (very remote) possibility of being superseded on the ground of his “errors of judgment.” His personal “honour” remains in any case untarnished.

Again, the manner in which the organs of public opinion abase themselves before the judiciary as a whole in this country, with bated breath murmuring the unsullied character of every occupant of the bench, is a crucial illustration of the “gentlemanly” humbug of which we speak. Why should every judge, because he is a judge, be a man whose honour is above suspicion? The sinless “tradition of the English bench” simply amounts to this, that English judges are paid an extravagantly high salary to keep them from accepting bribes. Being paid as they are, it would not be worth their while, in the general way, to risk the danger of exposure in accepting any bribe which in the ordinary course of business would be likely to be offered them. This does not, however, in itself, argue any exceptional probity on the part of these administrators of the law. If it suited these people we have no reason to suppose they would be less corrupt than any other judiciary in history. For the rest, we can see the shameless way in which they allow class-prejudice to bias their judgment in almost every case where the opportunity occurs. This cant about the judiciary, as about placemen and politicians in general, is pure class prejudice, backed in the case of the judiciary by the desire to evoke a halo of divinity in the popular mind around the person of the judge as an edificatory safeguard for the existing order of society. There is here an apparent attempt to make the function of judge a sanctification of the man, as the Catholic priest is supposed to be sanctified by his office. It is the part of the Social-Democrat to disabuse the popular mind of the notion that there is necessarily more moral weight to be attached to the utterances of a judge than to those of another man of like education, experience and bringing-up. The unctuous platitudes and conventionalities of the bench, on the contrary, are often enough to raise the gorge of every ordinary intelligent man.

What is urgently needed is a healthy honesty of criticism which does not spare the personal honour of the public man. To suppose that the administration or political action of a public man is never dictated by any other than honourable motives is a polite fiction which is getting perfectly insufferable. That a judge, an administrator, a higher functionary, an influential politician, may not be actuated by the lowest and vilest personal motives of aggrandisement for himself and his set is an absurd and impudent superstition invented by the privileged and governing classes to shield themselves, their friends and relations, in any nefarious enterprises they may undertake, under cover of straightforward administrative judgment or policy honestly conceived for the public welfare. But the classes interested have succeeded in getting the above canon established in English public life, assisted by that instrument for the protection of sufficiently cunning rogues, the law of libel. Everyone who has paid any attention to the subject knows the danger attached to speaking the truth anent a public man. To designate him by his true name, to call a spade a spade with regard to him is to render oneself liable to heavy penalties. To win a libel suit does not necessarily mean that the so-called “libel” complained of was not a fair characterisation. It may just as easily mean that the plaintiff in the suit is an exceptionally cunning rogue as that he is a much-maligned innocent. On the other band, to be defeated in a libel action is just as little evidence of the justification of the alleged libel, as it may merely argue that the plaintiff lacks the cunning necessary for success. Of both these propositions the courts have furnished enough illustrations.

We would like to think that the Labour Party, practically secure from their position in the House against the tricks of the law of libel, would drive the proverbial “coach and four” through current etiquette in the matter in question. It should be not more difficult than driving the same equipage through the proverbial Act of Parliament. There have already been one or two occasions when, some will think, they might with advantage have torn the mask off the conventional kid-gloved handling of the “personal honour” of mischievous public characters. Nothing can be more salutary than for men exercising public trusts to have to stand the racket, not merely of criticism that convicts them of errors of judgment, but that is prepared, if it thinks fit, to brand them as rogues.

It will be interesting to see whether the Labour Party, which is as yet not a definite Socialist Party, will attain sufficient independence to cut itself adrift from the old traditions of the sham warfare of the two recognised political parties, and adopt an uncompromising attitude towards the conduct of judges, bureaucrats, and statesmen, as such, not recognising the conventional distinction between the ethics of personal, and of public or official, life – not admitting that a man can persistently act harshly or unjustly in his judicial capacity; that a placeman can accept public money for which he gives no equivalent work; that a general can violate humanity for the sake of expeditiously crushing a weak enemy; or that a statesman can plunge his country into infamous wars with the intent of furthering the interests of financial gangs with which he may be connected, politically or otherwise – and all the time remain a man on whose “personal honour” there is no slur. But for the Labour Party thus to hold aloft the banner of a new public morality it will have to be led by those who, not being in a hurry for success as “practical politicians,” are not afraid to be sneered at by the public opinion of the hour as “mischief-makers.”


E. Belfort Bax


Last updated on 10.7.2004