H.M. Hyndman

Further Reminiscences

Chapter XXI
Triumphant Bureaucracy

I THINK I can take credit to myself for having done as much, in conjunction with my fellow Socialists, to expose and hamper the policy of Mr. Asquith’s Liberal Administration as any man in this country, and if the Parliament men – Tories, Labourists and others – had performed their duty, inside the House of Commons, with only a fraction of the energy we displayed outside, the abominable measures which are now harassing and crushing our countrymen could never have become law. Speaking for myself, I have attacked and denounced the Liberal programme in speech and in print as vigorously and as frequently as I could, because I am firmly convinced, and everything that is going on now serves to prove I am right, that the system of costly, nominative and uncontrolled bureaucracy, general police control and wholesale political jobbery – to the victors the spoils! – forced upon this people by the Prime Minister, Mr. Lloyd George, Mr. Winston Churchill, Lord Morley, Mr. Lewis Harcourt and the rest of them, is the most corrupt and dangerous form of upper-class domination that has ever been attempted in Great Britain.

Though I have always held that capitalist Liberalism is the worst political enemy of the wage-earning masses, I was, I admit it with shame, led to hope, when the Liberals came into power, with their stupendous majority, that something advantageous for the people might be obtained from them. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman himself was a straightforward man, and his strong speech about the thirteen millions of our fellow-subjects who, according to his in nowise exaggerated estimate, are always living on the boundary-line of starvation, gave me the impression that some serious efforts might be made to mitigate, even under the arrangements of today, the frightful evils of our profit-mongering system.

The passing of the Old Age Pensions Act, naturally, tended to confirm this idea. Though it fixed the age for receipt of pensions a great deal too late, granted to the aged poor too small an allowance per week, had no economic significance whatever – seeing that a man or a woman of over seventy was already removed from the sphere of active competition in the labour market – and acted from the fiscal side as little more than a rate-relieving measure; yet it had – or so I was ready to think – a really benevolent intention at the back of it, and might be followed up by more thoroughgoing proposals in the interest of the working people. Moreover, Mr. Lloyd George, who was supposed to be the standard-bearer-in-chief of progress in the direction of genuine palliatives and “Social Reform,” had taken the right side at the time of the South African War, and had run considerable personal risk in his opposition to that disgraceful and inglorious campaign. We had all of us rejoiced at the pluck he had shown, when so many had been too cowardly to express the views they really held, or to oppose in earnest what they were induced to believe was the current of public opinion. It was possible, therefore, that, with such a leader as Campbell-Bannerman, the new President of the Board of Trade might, as Minister, follow up the bold course he had taken as a free lance in Opposition, and break with the miserable Liberal traditions of treachery to the people in the interest of the capitalist class.

We were soon undeceived. There is, of course, no more adequate test of the disposition of a President of the Board of Trade towards the wage-earners than his regard for the lives and well-being of British seamen, who are becoming a less and less proportion of the sailors serving under the British flag, as well as for those men of other nationalities who are employed on British ships. A rough and illpaid business, such as is life at sea, ought at least to be protected from avoidable dangers, even at some considerable loss of profit to the shipowners. That proposition would, in theory, be accepted by everybody.

Now it so happens that this very matter of the safety of the crews on board British ships had years ago been brought very prominently before the public, in consequence of one of the most dramatic incidents that has ever occurred in the House of Commons, and is still remembered. The man who was the hero of it was both a Capitalist and a Liberal. I was only in his company once, and then he seemed to me to be just an ordinary respectable specimen of the shrewd and lucky business man. But he and his wife had been horrified at the tales of coffin ships, worn out, ill-found and overladen, which were sent to sea by certain well-known firms in the north of England, in order to obtain the insurance money which the under-writers unwisely guaranteed.

He took the matter up in earnest, spared neither time nor money in verifying his facts, got up, as far as he could, a serious agitation against the coffin shipowners, and drafted a Bill enacting that no vessels should be allowed to go to sea which were laden so heavily as to bring them down below a certain line, calculated beforehand, and marked distinctly upon their hulls. Long he worked to no purpose. The shipowners were too strong for him, and had too much influence with both political parties. Men’s lives were of much less importance than high rates of freight, and now and then a judiciously manufactured windfall of insurance on a foundered ship. But this philanthropist of capitalism happened to be a member of Parliament, as well as a man of business and an agitator. After many disappointments, he got a good opportunity and moved his measure.

It was contemptuously rejected by the House of Commons. Then old Samuel Plimsoll – the thing is worth remembering as showing what even one man can do, who has a good cause and is not afraid to risk everything for it – then old Samuel Plimsoll rose to the occasion. He strode out on to the floor of the House and damned the whole of the members present as rogues and scoundrels, who deliberately doomed men to drown for the benefit of their friends the shipowners, sitting with them on Liberal and Tory benches. Of course, there were shouts of “Order, Order,” and Plimsoll himself was hustled out. But the whole country was roused by the facts he had adduced, and the protest he had made. The Tory Party then in power were absolutely forced by public opinion to make the Plimsoll Load Line, or the Plimsoll Line as it came to be called, compulsory.

That remained the law of the land for a generation. I never heard any objection to it raised from any quarter, other than from shipowners who wished to go back to the old sailor-sacrificing system. But those same shipowners were indefatigable. They never lost a chance of enforcing their view. They intrigued, they worked secretly, they bribed, they earwigged. All in vain. No President of the Board of Trade would listen to them.

But when the Liberal Party took office and Mr. Lloyd George was given the Presidency of the Board of Trade, the shipowners felt their opportunity was come. Why this should have been so I am not now able to say. But this I know, that there were rumours of a crucial change which would greatly benefit shipowners and raise the shares of shipping companies some time before any alteration was made. It was precisely the same state of things, in fact, as has lately been witnessed in the market for Marconi shares. And, sure enough, Mr. Lloyd George, as Liberal Cabinet Minister and head of the Board of Trade, did destroy the good work which had been forced upon the Tory Party by the independent Liberal, Samuel Plimsoll.

This was not done without protest. The whole waterside declared against the raising of the Load Line. I know of my own knowledge that it was pointed out to Mr. Lloyd George direct, and to the Liberal Cabinet as a whole, that this raising of the Load Line would inevitably entail the loss of hundreds, if not thousands, of sailors’ lives on the overladen vessels. Evidence of accidents of the most horrible character also, due to deck cargoes, and photographs of the ghastly results to the seamen, were forwarded to members of the Cabinet. It was likewise shown to the Ministry quite clearly that by this action of Mr. Lloyd George and the Board of Trade the shipowners would be saved an expenditure of £8,000,000 they would otherwise have had to devote to building new vessels; which, of course, would have given that amount of extra employment to British workers. The vast personal gains to the shipowners by the additional quantity of freight they would dump on their old craft were also recorded in full. No attention whatever was paid to all this weight of protest from men who knew.

The Load Line was raised, the sailors were sacrificed, and all is “good for trade.” How is it, however, that Mr. Lloyd George, the friend of the people, initiated this change? How is it the Liberal Party supported it? How is it the Tory Party did not oppose it? Why did the Labour Party acquiesce in it? And how does it come about that, from that day to this, the whole capitalist press has been in a conspiracy of silence about it, and has suppressed all discussion upon it?

Those questions seem to me to call for an answer.

Then, again, it may have been all right from the point of view of the dominant class to cozen the railway men into an agreement with the Railway Companies which was absolutely harmful to them, even at the certainty of serious trouble later. But the men themselves, as I found myself everywhere, whatever may have been the views of their leaders, did not look upon the matter from that point of view at all, and regarded the Liberal Party as having hypocritically taken the part of the Directors while posing as protectors of the employees.

But here comes in something which I confess seems to me quite inexplicable, except on the same ground as accounts for the raising of the Load Line and the annulment of all that was obtained by Samuel Plimsoll’s work and self-sacrifice. Railway men are killed to the number of many hundreds and maimed to the number of many thousands every year on our railways. The great majority of these accidents are easily avoidable, in fact would never take place if the rolling-stock were equipped with proper appliances. In the United States, where human life is supposed to be reckoned cheaper than it is here, automatic couplings on freight wagons are the rule. If automatic couplings were adopted here, it is universally admitted that these slaughterings and mannings would cease to occur. Why are they not made compulsory by the Board of Trade? Because that department is dominated by the railway interest on land, as it is dominated by the shipowner interest at sea. Human lives and limbs are cheap – there are plenty more where the others came from: automatic couplings are dear. And there are not fewer than a hundred Railway Directors sitting on both sides of the House of Commons as representatives of the Railway Companies in Parliament. So the Liberal Party with its majority of 270 burning, of course, with zeal to right the wrongs of the people, has never attempted in any way to prevent this butchery any more than the Tory Party did before it. And the railway men themselves still vote Liberal and Tory!

It is scarcely necessary to recall here how the official Blackleg Labour Exchanges were installed; how the colliers and the railway men were again cozened back into their penal servitude for life, with prices rising all along the line owing to the appreciation of gold and their wages raised very little if at all in comparison; how the troops and the police were used systematically on the side of the employers by the very same Ministers who were assuring the strikers of their heartfelt sympathy; how a bureaucracy was set on foot in order to reward Liberal agents and wirepullers all over the country, as well as Labourists who have been “really useful,” by well-paid permanent jobs under Government given without any test of qualification whatever. All this is well known. But the Insurance Act I myself have opposed from the very first, and as every word we Social-Democrats said about this iniquitous measure, and every prediction we made as to its effect is being verified as I write, I deal with it briefly from the point of view I have taken all along.

People are apt to forget that the German Insurance Act, from which the Act of Mr. Lloyd George and the Liberal Government is to all intents and purposes literally translated, was brought in and carried by Prince Bismarck with the avowed object of defeating the projects of the German Social-Democrats, and of keeping the German workers carefully regimented under Government and police control. I do not deny that the Act embraces certain advantageous arrangements for the people. But for this it could not have been forced even through the subservient Reichstag of Bismarck’s day. Its main object was, however, that which I state. I discussed the whole of its provisions, both before and after its enactment in Germany, here in London with my old friend Dr. Rudolph Meyer, Bismarck’s ablest private secretary. We both agreed that, although Social-Democracy had advanced too far in the Fatherland to be headed back by all the compulsion and deduction from wages and police control involved in the administration of the measure, it might for a time, by the additional power it placed in the hands of an unscrupulous Government and unscrupulous employers, lessen the rate of Social-Democratic progress. The whole measure, I repeat, was avowedly introduced and passed by Prince Bismarck, not simply to benefit the people, as has been alleged, but, by its contributory clauses, compelling the workers to pay their quota out of wages, and by the additional power it gave to the bureaucracy, in order to keep the entire German working class permanently under Government and capitalist control. It was “State Socialism” of the very worst and most tyrannical type, applied in part to social advantage. There is not, and there never has been, any dispute about this, and Liberals themselves were among the most bitter critics of the entire Bismarckian measure at the time. No wonder.

That a Tory Government in this country, imbued with the spirit of reaction but forced by circumstances to attempt something in the way of State Insurance, in order to stave off really serious demands for social reconstruction – that a Tory Government, alarmed at the growth of Socialism in Great Britain, should copy and adopt Prince Bismarck’s anti-Socialist methods, unsuccessful against Social-Democracy as a generation has shown them to be in Germany, is intelligible. Tory ministers might persuade themselves that in this direction, at any rate, lay the least danger for them and their party. But that a Liberal Government, with the largest majority ever seen in the House of Commons, should allow Mr. Lloyd George and two or three third-rate journalists to “convey” the whole of Bismarck’s discredited Act and force it through Parliament, almost without discussion or modification, would seem to be incredible if it had not actually taken place.

That the Tory Party and the Tory press should at first, with one accord, welcome this enormous extension of direct taxation of the workers for the purpose of vouchsafing to them very slender and, in many cases, wholly illusory advantages was, I repeat, quite natural. The facts that the Act would be extremely costly; that it would give their political opponents the opportunity for organising permanent official payment for their wirepullers out of public money from Land’s End to John o’ Groat’s; and that the administration of the Act, at its most awkward and unpopular stage, might quite conceivably fall to their lot, were overlooked. It cannot be denied, in short, that the Tories accepted the measure “in principle.” The Liberals have that against them all the time.

In this way it has come about that, in the United Kingdom, where hatred of the bureaucratic jack-in-office amounts, so to say, to a rational mania, all classes, but more particularly the working class, are now face to face with a direct, meddlesome, and irritating form of tyranny which is not only wrecking the Liberal and Radical Party, but is producing downright reaction in many directions. The Act, to begin with, entirely failed to give the benefits which its German original at least did secure to the people; and then Ministers – for Mr. Lloyd George is only one member of the Cabinet – have not secured proper medical administration for the most essential details of the scheme; while Trade Unions and even Friendly Societies, which not only promised but conferred far greater benefits upon their subscribers, will be injured by this compulsory Act. The country, even at the time of writing, does not understand fully what has been done.

The whole of the workers are being brigaded under the employers, after such fashion that every man among them is virtually placed at the mercy of a secret industrial police, and a far worse than the French description of livret, or than the enforced reporting of change of employment to the police as in Germany, has been forced upon our wage-earners. Even if all the benefits which Mr. Lloyd George claims for his pernicious Act were obtained (at the cost for administration alone of some £2,000,000 a year), they would be very dearly purchased at such a complete sacrifice of working-class freedom. All this was pointed out categorically to the Government time after time, long before the Act became law, and its inevitable effect upon the workers was clearly set forth. Is it not certain, then, that, though backed throughout by the Labour Party in Parliament, this Insurance Act, with its direct tax upon the lowest of wages, and its bureaucratic regimentation of wage-earners, was deliberately introduced not in the interest of the working but of the employing class? About this I have myself no doubt whatever. It is all of a piece with the raising of the Load Line and the establishment of the Labour Exchanges.

Yet when Mr. Bonar Law declared in favour of the Repeal of the Insurance Act, the only course which was in any way reasonable, he was speedily made afraid of the sound of his own voice, and wrote a letter the next morning asserting that his intentions had been entirely misinterpreted. It so happened a well-known man of business, who is also a Tory member of Parliament, was with me on a matter quite outside of politics two days afterwards. I asked him how it came about that such a strange blunder was made? The Act was bad as well as unpopular, and it was impossible to amend it without cutting at its very root. The fact is, he replied, the members of the old Unionist Cabinet, Mr. Austen Chamberlain, Mr. Walter Long, Mr. Lyttelton, and others, got round Mr. Bonar Law and persuaded him that to oppose the Act would be ruinous to the party. A good thing, I thought, if it proved ruinous to both parties. But that incident showed how near together the Tory capitalists and the Liberal capitalists are on this question; though, for the time being, the Tories are glad enough to use the feeling against the Act for political purposes.

On this point of the popularity of the Act my own experience goes for something. I was told that if I attacked the Insurance Act and showed up the Liberal Government and Mr. Lloyd George on public platforms, I should get very much the worst of it. It is not easy to intimidate me with that sort of rubbish. I determined, at any rate, to give the thing a good trial. I spoke to large meetings, free meetings, open to all, at, I think, nearly every big town in the country. I everywhere challenged questions and allowed discussion. Most of these meetings were overcrowded, and we had to turn people away. In Glasgow, a great Liberal city, the biggest theatre was so packed that the police had to come in and request some of the audience to go out; another smaller hall was crowded at the same time, and then there were still more people outside wanting to attend than were present. I certainly did not measure my phrases. I went at the Liberal Government and its Insurance Act root and branch. Nevertheless, it is the fact that not a Liberal or a Radical present took up my challenge.

I have never pretended that popularity or unpopularity is a test of the soundness or unsoundness of a proposal in itself. But it surely was a monstrous piece of injustice and despotic unscrupulousness that a measure of this character, got up avowedly on Bismarckian lines, should have been rushed through Parliament and forced upon the English people without any adequate discussion whatever. What the result of a Referendum upon it would be nobody now doubts. Yet, chaotic, and inquisitorial, and fraudulent as the Act undoubtedly is, men are being fined heavily for not complying with it, and a wholly irresponsible, irremovable, and caucus-appointed bureaucracy has us entirely in its grip.

What is more intolerable still, these political persons thus pitchforked into place, to serve their Liberal masters at the public expense, are virtually exempt from criticism, and acquire “vested interests” to the tune of millions sterling against this nation. Exempt from criticism, I say; for if any one attempts to deal with these nominated-jacks-in-office, and to expose their incompetence and blundering, it at once becomes a matter of political importance, and all the party machinery is brought into play. Naturally, the Government stands by its own. The Radical bureaucrat, or the Tory bureaucrat, for that matter, can do no wrong. So the subservient political majority in the House of Commons, for the time being, decrees. The press of both factions takes the same view of these tchinovniks who have been set over us in our despite. They must not be exposed by name, because, forsooth, “they cannot defend themselves.”

Thus, what with an unconstitutional caucus Cabinet, with amicable arrangements between the two front benches to play into one another’s hands as against the democracy, with plutocrats and trusts as powerful here secretly as they are in America openly, with corruption going on in Public Departments and Parliament to an extent of which the National Telephone and Marconi cases are mere samples, it is no wonder that even large numbers of “intellectuals,” who are not suffering under any sort of economic pressure, begin to look to democratic Socialism as a possible means of emancipation from as degrading a system of bureaucratic servitude as was ever forced upon any nation. The Germans, the worst part of whose methods we copy, do get some value for their militarist and bureaucratic tyranny. We virtually get none. Who would have believed a few years ago that the Liberal Party would have saddled us with a complete system of irresponsible bureaucracy, merely to maintain the prestige and cover up the ignorance of an unscrupulous Minister? I hope to live to see a complete upset of the whole bad business.

The following Sonnet of Wordsworth’s seems to hit off the position exactly:

It is not to be thought of that the flood
Of British freedom, which, to the open sea
Of the world’s praise, from dark antiquity
Hath flowed, “with pomp of waters, unwithstood” ―
Roused though it be full often to a mood
Which spurns the check of salutary bands ―
That this most famous stream in bogs and sands
Should perish; and to evil and to good
Be lost for ever. In our halls is hung
Armoury of the invincible knights of old:
We must be free or die, who speak the tongue
That Shakespeare spake; the faith and morals hold
Which Milton held. ― In everything we are sprung
Of Earth’s first blood, have titles manifold.

“In bogs and sands” is good. Bogs of Liberal intrigue and corruption; Sands of Tory ineptitude and cowardice!

Last updated on 1.11.2007