H.M. Hyndman

Further Reminiscences

Chapter XVIII
Henry Labouchère

I SUPPOSE a more cynical man than Mr. Henry Labouchère never lived. Some of his cynicism may have been put on, but I think that at bottom he believed that the great majority of mankind were actuated in their conduct by the lowest motives, and that the few who were not could only be in reality fools. In fact, so assiduously did he parade this view of life that I have heard men who knew him more intimately than I could claim to know him declare that this was merely his pose, and that it was a great mistake to imagine that his Mephistophelian disregard of all the higher human sentiments was really his sober opinion. All I can say is, I conversed at one time with Mr. Labouchère not infrequently; that, so far as I can remember, I never heard him attribute a good motive to anybody without qualifying this favourable estimate by a more or less satirical remark as to the person’s sanity; and that he certainly acted at important periods of his political life as if the whole thing was merely a game, and right and wrong had no meaning for him.

Even when he was going perfectly straight himself, and was both speaking and voting against his party, as in the case of Mr. Gladstone’s abominable Coercion policy in Ireland, he did his utmost, so Joseph Cowen used to tell me, to whittle away as far as possible in the tea-room the effect of his speeches and votes in the House. “I only speak and vote with you,” he would declare, “in this ridiculous minority against Coercion because nothing we can say or do will have any serious effect. You no doubt feel strongly about it, and so, in a way, do I. But I certainly should not care to risk the position of the party on the issue, and if there were any danger of our upsetting the Government by our protest, I should probably vote the other way.” To those who were really in earnest on the question of the Liberal repression in Ireland, this sort of talk was little short of infuriating.

In fact, Labouchère’s cynicism belonged to another race than the curiously mixed breed which now inhabits this island. We have not, as a rule, got the faculty of detachment. We cannot regard events in which we ourselves are taking part, or our own personalities either for that matter, as if we were looking down upon them from another planet. Labouchère could and did. He saw men as trees walking. They were mere mechanical puppets trapesing through their parts, big or little, for his amusement, and he himself was one of the company. True, Swift had in a much higher degree and, of course, with infinitely more imagination, the same power of inspecting mankind as if they were a lot of curious insects, whose bulk and intelligence he could enlarge or belittle at will; and other Englishmen have in a minor degree exhibited the same quality. But to do so was more or less of a mental effort. They were conscious of what they were doing. I do not believe Labouchère was. It came quite natural to him, and he encouraged and developed this inherited tendency. It was the Jew mind, still foreign and Asiatic in spite of centuries of encampment in Western Europe, which gave Labouchère his singular power of considering all the world as a stage and all the men and women as merely players.

The stories also he was fond of telling against himself were merely practical jokes perpetrated at the expense of the slow mental processes of us outer barbarians. Having no real outlet in public life for his genuine ability, he delighted to trade upon the credulity of his friends and admirers, to watch their puzzled expression, and to sum up in his own thoughts the full effects of his deliberate outrages upon their feelings. Having carefully excluded himself from all chance of high office by his biting jibes at the expense of the Royal family which rules over us, and still more by his half-jocular opposition to any increased payment being granted to its members for services whose value to the community he reckoned as a minus quantity, Labouchère became Labby – knowing very well all the time he could, if he chose, make very short work of those who considered him only in the light of a licensed buffoon.

To such a man the House of Commons was a palace of delight, a never-ending source of malicious enjoyment. More tolerant, if in a way more bitter, than his fellow-Jew Disraeli, he could not even feel contempt for the Tadpoles and Tapers of twelve hundred or five thousand a year, who carried on their quite childishly obvious intrigues around him. They were in politics for business: he was in politics for pleasure. And as these contending microbes of mediocrity amused him he was content just to poke fun at them without giving vent to any word of ferocious Juvenalian satire, a vein of which I always thought lay stored away at the back of his brain. And yet “Labby” was what is called a good party man. As far as he had principles at all they were democratic and in his queer way he acted up to them. Look through his votes in the House of Commons and you will never find one on what he jocularly called the “wrong” side. Of course, he knew perfectly well that the whole of our party antagonisms are merely the same sort of sham-fight as that which barristers, retained for this or that side in a case, wage in the courts with so much subsidised vigour. On that head he had no illusions whatever. I have heard him laugh at the mock heroics of faction leaders and scout the very idea that there were any real principles on either side. At most, the English parties gave evidence of tendencies, of the superficial struggle of two political forces with practically the same objects in view as to which should nominally guide a development that neither could control. Yet this same Labouchère backed the Liberals even when voting against them, and stood by Mr. Gladstone, whose verbose rhetorical periods and dexterous casuistry he mercilessly chaffed, even more fiercely in defeat than in victory.

And here I permit myself to recall pleasantly a very different character, Captain O’Shea – a much cleverer man than he ever had the credit for being. One day I went to call upon O’Shea on political business at the House of Commons. When he came out, we went down to the tea-room together. “I have just been listening,” said he, “to one of Gladstone’s great speeches, some of them say the greatest he has ever delivered. There he stood, his voice quivering with passion, his sentences pouring out in a red-hot flood, his face as pale as ashes, the tears pouring from his eyes – and his tongue in his cheek the whole time.” Now, was his tongue thus contemptuously adjusted? Labouchère believed it habitually was; but he regarded the Grand Old Man as a necessity under the conditions of that day and remained his follower when men of much greater standing in the party failed to understand the situation.

Returning for a moment to O’Shea, it is the fashion to say that Lord Randolph Churchill never met his match in the House of Commons. Of course, that is not true, for Mr. Gladstone himself more than once got much the better of him. But it is close enough to the facts to account for the popular impression. The man, however, who gave Lord Randolph the heaviest knockdown blow he ever encountered was this same Captain O’Shea, whom he was ill-advised enough gratuitously to attack. O’Shea’s reply is extremely good reading even today; but one sentence in particular engraved itself on my memory as I perused the speech the following morning, and I fancy, even now, I can hear the pleasing Irish accent in which it was rolled forth. “The noble lord, Mr. Speaker, is like an ancient shield. Looked at in front it is resplendent in its magnificence, its whole surface gorgeously ensculped upon, and its entire design most impressive. But turn it round, turn it round, Mr. Speaker, and what will you find? Brass, sir, sounding brass.” A very useful composite metal for any politician to possess a good stock of, and one of which certainly Mr. Labouchère himself had no deficient supply. But even the most censorious of Mr. Labouchère’s career as jester, politician, journalist, and newspaper proprietor cannot but admit that he stood fast to Home Rule, in spite of all his jests and quips outside the House of Commons, and that he did his very utmost to bring about an arrangement at the critical moment which, had it been successful, would have saved this generation from further discussion of a very prickly question.

At times “Labby” was an exceedingly disappointing person to meet. When I went with Jaurès to see him at his charming house in Palace Yard, I naturally expected to find, though I had never heard him use the language, a thoroughly good French scholar. Jaurès, I know, had the same anticipation. I have rarely heard an Englishman speak French worse. I have since wondered whether this was another of Labby’s jokes. It is told of Sala that when the company of the Theatre Français played in London, just after the downfall of the Commune, he began the speech he delivered, at the banquet given in honour of these celebrated actors, in the worst of English dog-French, and, very gradually improving both his intonation and pronunciation as he went along, wound up, to the astonishment of the French guests, with the latest phrases of fashionable French society given with the best Parisian accent. It may be, as I say, that Labouchère was playing it off in like manner upon Jaurès and me, though this surmise neither of us had afterwards the opportunity of verifying; but beyond all question the French of Labouchère as we heard it that day was the French of Stratford-atte-Bowe.

Worse than this, he treated us both to the sort of petty epigram on affairs of the day which might have been regarded as doubtful wit from a sixth-form public school boy with a reputation for second-hand cleverness. I was amazed. It was quite impossible to get any reason out of him. As one of his cigarettes burnt out he took another, lit that, and when we rose to go politely pressed us to stay a little longer. All this, except the cigarette-smoking, which was always interminable, was so exceedingly different from his ordinary conversation when alone with myself, that to this day I cannot but think that he put on this bad French and worse conversation for Jaures’s special edification. What induced him to do this I have not the remotest notion. Certainly, I thought he would have been pleased to make a good impression on a man who, however extreme might be his opinions, is one of the most eminent living Frenchmen.

Strange to say, also, my debate with Mr. Labouchère gave me the same idea of deliberate superficiality. The Socialists at Northampton were constantly heckling him and there was no love lost between them. He regarded the whole lot of them as “wasters,” and was good enough to express this view of them very clearly to me. However, by continual worrying, they at last, not at all by my wish, forced him into accepting a debate with me in which I was to speak first. The debate came off and the hall was crowded to suffocation. It was hotter and closer than St. James’s Hall on my second debate with Mr. Bradlaugh. I stated our economic, historic, and practical position as well as I could, and then Mr. Labouchère tumbled out upon us once more all the alleged impossibilities of realising a form of society in which co-operation should be universal and money exploitation unknown. How human nature was against it. Who would do the dirty work? How would the world be preserved from the ruinous effects of colossal human laziness? What would be the reward of ability? And so on and so on, with very little variation on the old Bradlaugh theme of years before. And so on and so on, I say. It was this, indeed, and more also.

It had been arranged that each speaker should have at his first effort a period, I think, of half an hour. But Labouchère took no account of that understanding. J’y suis j’y reste was his motto so far as his stay on that platform was concerned. Time was no essence of the contract with him, and as the chairman would not interfere and I could not, I thought he would never come to an end. What had been rather amusing became dull and even wearisome from repetition, and I know I do not overstate the case when I say that everybody present was at last consumedly bored. However, the audience stayed on and the discussion was finished up somehow. Of course all our people were quite certain Labouchère was immolated, and Labouchère’s adherents were equally convinced, I have no doubt, that I was even more completely destroyed. But my wife and I met him at breakfast at Dr. Shipman’s the following morning, and neither of the disputants, so far as 1 could detect, seemed any the worse for the fray.

Labouchère opened upon me as follows: “The fact is, Hyndman, you remind me of the man who had a hundred thousand horse-power martingale for winning at Monte Carlo. He spent all his own fortune on testing his system, persuaded his wife to risk and lose all hers, borrowed of every friend he had to the full extent that they would lend him, and lost all that. Finally, he was reduced to the last extreme of penury and was dying of want and actual starvation in a garret, when one of his associates who had stuck to him through all his self-inflicted misfortunes went upstairs to see him. The poor foolish fellow was at his last gasp and could scarcely utter a word. But he motioned to his old friend to come near him, croaked out to him hoarsely the words ‘:The system was all right,’ and died.” “That story, Labouchère,” said I, “you should have told last night.” I never saw him nettled before or after. But he did feel at that moment he had missed a chance.

The next time I was with him in Northampton was during the South African War, when a meeting of protest was to be held by the Radicals and Socialists of the town, at which Messrs. Labouchère, J.M. Robertson, and myself, were the speakers. I had just experienced the delights of facing a furious mob in Trafalgar Square, owing to the lack of any organisation beforehand on the part of the Radicals, to whom the management of the meeting was left, and I asked on my arrival who had charge of this particular gathering in the Town Hall. When I was told that the Radicals had undertaken the entire duties in connection with the demonstration, I felt certain trouble would come of it.

Sure enough it did. No sooner did the three of us get to the hall than we learned very speedily that it had been completely occupied by the Jingoes without a word or act of interference by the Radicals, who really were much the stronger party. So we never got a chance of being heard. Labouchère, who took it all very coolly, was escorted back to the George Hotel, where we were staying, by the police, and I found my way thither myself under the guard of our men of the SDF, who would have taken good care to maintain order had they been put in control from the first. These upsets of anti-war meetings were exceedingly unfortunate; for they gave a totally wrong impression as to the strength of the genuine feeling in favour of the war, and in Northampton encouraged the war party quite unduly.

Labouchère and I, after he had spent an hour with some of his leading constituents, sat up talking a great part of the night. This war in South Africa was the only subject I ever heard him really bitter about. He knew the financial rascality which underlay the whole business better than I did, and stood vigorously to his guns throughout, and almost up to the last. I say “almost” up to the last because I have never been able to understand how it was that, knowing all he told me on that occasion, and having much absolutely damning evidence in his hands, he gave way at last upon the Commission and allowed the principal malefactors to ride off scot free. Certainly, as we sat discussing the whole matter there at the George till the air was as thick as a London fog with the smoke of Labby’s cigarettes, I could not have believed that he would fail to push his view right to the end. But that is only one of the extraordinary personal incidents connected with that disastrous South African business, as I note elsewhere.

About this time there was a possibility that, abandoning Burnley, I should come south and fight Northampton as a Social-Democrat. There is not the slightest doubt there was a very good chance of success, with Labouchère friendly. Indeed, the Radicals being favourable to me, as a man who would follow on the Bradlaugh and Labouchère lines of reputation made entirely out of Parliament and directly in the face of bitter opposition and misrepresentation by both the buy-cheap-and-sell-dear factions, I could not well have lost. Labouchère knew this perfectly well, and in spite of his rank individualism gave me distinctly to understand, in private, the seat could be won if the Socialists put me forward; as Mr. Robertson was not a candidate capable of rousing enthusiasm, and Dr. Shipman was simply a good-natured local celebrity.

What followed was very funny, though not a little exasperating to those who understand what an excellent propagandist platform for Socialism might be made of the decadent House of Commons by any one fairly well versed in history and economics, possessed of some power of making an impression upon an educated audience, and not in the very least afraid of encountering prejudice, and even brutality, of the most ignorant type. The Social-Democratic Federation, however, had put forward as candidate a member of the party named Jones, who had done some good work at various times, was a good speaker, and had obtained enough local popularity to poll 1,250 votes at a previous election.

But Jones had “gone Jingo,” completely. That made success for him absolutely hopeless. But would he give up in my favour? Not he. Would the local Social-Democrats withdraw him? Not they. Political intelligence has never been an attribute of the rank and file of our party, and I, foolishly, did not care to take the matter into my own hands and push Jones aside as, undoubtedly, I ought to have done. So, though I had withdrawn from Burnley in order to leave a free course to Mr. Philip Stanhope, who had behaved well as an anti-war man – and he was thoroughly beaten in the Khaki election of 1900 by Mitchell notwithstanding! – I had not the chance of a fight at Northampton.

Not until the very last minute, that is to say. Then, barely three weeks before the polling day, our Northampton people actually woke up to the facts of the situation, Jones was induced to cease his obstruction, and they came rushing to me to stand. But of course the extreme anti-war Radicals had then made all their arrangements, which they could not in decency change; the time was too short for proper organisation; for me to poll an absurdly small vote would have been injurious to the party, and besides, I myself felt so sick of all this inconceivable fatuity, on the part of those for whom I had been working for so many years, that I should have declined to go forward, even if the prospect of victory had been much more alluring than it was. When the election was over, when I myself, who had certainly done as much as any man in or out of Parliament first to try to prevent and then to denounce the costly and disastrous infamy of the war against the Boers, was left still as a voice crying in the wilderness outside the House of Commons, I had another long chat with Labouchère.

I am bound to say he had much the better of me all round. In fact, I went in order to enjoy his sarcasm and satire at my own expense. I knew very well what was coming. The “wasters” of Northampton, and Socialists generally, came in, as I expected, for a scathing fire of chaff, and I myself did not escape his remorseless witticisms for being such a fool as to place any reliance upon such a hopeless crew. As I listened I had the uncanny sensation of having heard every word of it before, from a widely different source, and this indeed was really so. It is only fair to the Northampton Socialists, however, to say that, though they have proved themselves both then and ever since to be the most incompetent and provoking lot of blunderers in politics to be found from one end of Great Britain to the other, and that is saying a very great deal, they established in the Pioneer Boot Works, under the management of Mr. Gribble, by far the most successful co-operative business which has ever been set on foot in connection with Socialism in Great Britain. The profits, amounting already to two or three hundred pounds a year, go wholly and solely to the funds of the British Socialist Party, as they did formerly to those of the SDF. So Mr. Labouchère’s Socialist “wasters” of Northampton are not quite so incapable as he made them out to be, or as they showed themselves in politics, Gribble himself being one of those same “wasters” and a working man.

But the truth of the matter, of course, is that “Labby” knew next to nothing about working men, either as individuals or as a class. They stood outside the range of his inspection of humanity, except when he needed them for some personal service, annoyed him by inordinate and undue delay in the carrying out of some work he wanted done – as in doing up his house; when he asked them why they did not furnish the premises for themselves, as they evidently intended to stay there permanently – or at such times as he had to solicit their “vote and interest” to return him as member of Parliament to represent them! Competition was good for these necessary slave-ants. But for that they would develop colossal laziness and other bad qualities to an extent sufficient to rot out the planet.

Labby could no more conceive, democrat as he was in theory, that these inferior humans had the right, as well as the power, if they would but summon up their intelligence and call stoutly upon their courage, to stand on the same social level as himself, than he could believe that monkeys would rise up and thrust him from his seat. Human nature to him involved production for profit and eternal payment of wages by one class to another. He could not even see, still less comprehend, the crucial transformation from individual cobblery to factory bootmaking that was going on under his eyes at Northampton itself. Such were the strange limitations in the intelligence of an exceptionally clever, industrious, observant, and generally broad-minded man – in spite of his meaner qualities so amiably set forth by the editor of Truth – when dealing with the social conditions of his own day and generation.

My last talk with Labby was carried on in a curiously off-hand way. He had come to London from Florence, and was staying at Queen Anne’s Mansions, ferrying to and fro his own rooms to the offices of Truth hard by in Carteret Street. I met him as I went out of my door in Queen Anne’s Gate. That strange, mask-like face, skin-hardened and wrinkled, with its pair of shrewd, bright, quizzical-looking eyes showing out above, really gave me the impression its owner was pleased to see me. At any rate, as I wanted to learn his opinions upon things in general, I took it for granted he was. So we walked round and round that block of buildings between Dartmouth Street and the place where Rockefeller’s new Business Oil Palace stands, for the better part of an hour. What did he say? I declare I do not know. It was all very smart, and his summing up of Dilke’s characteristics and career was singularly acute, though, Dilke having passed away, I do not care to recall it; but the superficiality of the whole was so surprising that I could think of nothing else. It was something like the Dolly Dialogues done into political journalese. And that sort of light, off-hand writing, more or less French in its style, Labby was mainly responsible for making popular in England. It suited well the transition period into which he was born, and through which he lived, when men and women were deeply in earnest about things which did not in the least matter.

I regret now that the last time I was in Florence I did not send up my card to Labouchère’s villa and try to have a word with him. But Labby was the sort of man whom one thought never could die. Why should he? The processes of his being were sufficiently indurated to last for ever. He had no sympathies to rack his heart, nor cares to drain his pocket. I felt sure he would go on living till it suited me to go to Florence again. Old as he was, I shall always feel that he “handed in his checks” before his time, and I am sorry he did. That his daughter, whom I remember as a bright girl often, should be the Marchesa di Rudini sounds odd, but was no doubt satisfactory. Labby’s Semitic democracy was always of the aristocratic type. Why not?

Last updated on 1.11.2007