Hyndman May 1915

Cromwellism without a Cromwell

Source: English Review, xx (May 1915), pp. 204-14;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

A clever lady whom I knew well in Melbourne some five and forty years ago once wrote me a charming letter, here at home, the closing words of which were: “And pray, my dear Mr. Hyndman, do not be so dreadfully Republican. If one King is so bad, what must a Committee of them be?”

The idea of a Committee of Kings struck me at the time as grotesque, not to say humorous. Little, however, did I imagine that I should live to see my friend’s conception realised in this island. Nevertheless, it is. The Monarchy here is virtually in Commission, the House of Commons is reduced to the level of a “Bed of Justice,” kept up to register Cabinet decrees, and the people are deprived of all control over their own affairs. Thus, the United Kingdom, with India and the Crown Colonies, is at the mercy of a self-chosen Board of Autocrats, no two of whom are in full agreement on any subject. Our subservience to the Trade Union of Lawyers is becoming so complete that we scarce have pluck enough left to chalk up on the walls, after the manner of the French, “A bas les avocats!” and then run away. In the course of a few months we have surrendered, with a light heart, the democratic work of seven centuries to a group of politicians who in July last had certainly lost the confidence of the nation – politicians who landed us in this terrific war (which they now admit they knew to be coming) without anything like adequate preparation. A Committee of Kings, indeed!

The situation would be ludicrous if it were not so dangerous. Yet at present nobody cares. Public interest is so concentrated on the events of the war that proceedings which, at any other time, would arouse a fury of popular indignation, are almost disregarded. We grumble a little at this or that high-handed action, tampering with our hard-won freedoms; but the country as a whole is so apathetic, and has become so careless in matters of crucial import, that we are drifting into irresponsible tyranny at home, as we drifted into the greatest war of all time abroad, without any security either for upholding democracy, or for obtaining efficiency. Nothing quite like it has been seen in our history. Even the Lord Protector himself could not reduce the House of Commons, so long as it remained in being, to the depth of servility to which it has descended at the beginning of the twentieth century. When, in spite of his threats, that ancient Assembly persisted in claiming the right of criticism, and the privilege of interference, he at least had the decency to avoid, for once, even the appearance of hypocrisy; he turned the whole of its members out by force of arms and locked up their own House against them. If Mr. Asquith would imitate old Oliver, and openly, instead of secretly, appoint a group of Major- Generals to run his lawyer-made rule, we should at least know where we really are.

People at large have no idea how far we are going, or are being driven, since public discussion in Parliament has been in abeyance and both the capitalist factions are at one. Nobody can tell us precisely what the law is, at the present time, in regard to personal and private liberties, which we have all of us believed from our childhood to be absolutely indefeasible. The Defence of the Realm Act, the Amendment to the Defence of the Realm Act, Orders in Council, Local Orders by military authorities, suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, interference with trial by Jury, and so on, make such chaos of the Statute Book that even capable lawyers are at a loss to know where we stand.

One of the most important measures of those submitted to the House of Commons for approval was not even distributed to members, and narrowly escaped being carried on the strength of what was contained in a single uncertified copy in manuscript. This recalls Lord Randolph Churchill’s remark, when a similar trick was tried many years ago. In that instance, an amendment was copied in pencil on a sheet of paper by one of the leaders on his own side, and handed down to him, as valuable information, while he was speaking. Lord Randolph continued his speech and glancing at the communication, said: “Things have come to a pretty pass in this House, when important amendments have to be discussed on dirty little bits of paper.” Then, screwing up the note into a ball he flipped it at the mover, and so disposed of the matter. Official personages have been pretty much the same in all periods; but nowadays they make the war an excuse for bureaucratic domination on a scale which is not even justified by a “dirty little bit of paper.”

Since England entered upon war without due preparation, our rulers were bound to take some exceptional action if the nation was to defend itself adequately against an unscrupulous and treacherous attack, and to bear its share in the common policy forced upon the Allied Powers. Great Britain was of one mind on this point. No one complained when the Government, acting, as it averred, in the national interest, took control of the whole of our railway system. On the contrary, people felt that this extension of official authority was unavoidable, when troops and supplies and munitions had to be rapidly rushed to the Front. All criticism was suspended and the Government had a free hand. Its arrangement to protect the interests of the shareholders by guaranteeing them their dividends passed quite unchallenged, even by the workers on the railways, who themselves had no such assurance of good treatment.

Unfortunately, this assumption of the national administration of railways was not accompanied by a wide conception of the real problems of land transport. The Government itself being unable to survey the whole field of action, the old chaotic system of freight haulage by the separate companies and the trucks of private firms was continued; with the result that the railways were soon blocked. This caused a wholly unnecessary shortage of coal in the great cities, which played right into the hands of the coal merchants and distributors. Hence great hardship, not only to the poor in their homes, but to the children in the schools, whose buildings could not be properly warmed. Even such a commonplace reform as what has been called “pooling the waggons,” namely, treating all trucks for freight haulage, those belonging to the companies and to private persons alike, as belonging to the whole railway combination, in the joint interest of the entire community, was not even considered, until the National Workers’ Committee pressed it upon the Government. Hence, for months on end, empty waggons, many of them of very heavy tare, which might have been conveying necessary and remunerative freight, were being hauled hither and thither quite empty. This waste and obstruction went on, I say, for many months, and only quite recently a Commission was appointed to co-ordinate and simplify management, which admitted that the silliest mistakes had been made. The railways, in short, are now nationalised, or rather bureaucratised, under most expensive and antiquated methods; and when the war ends all this will be used as an argument against the useful and beneficial reorganisation of the entire system of national transport.

Our already vast irresponsible bureaucracy was, in fact, still further extended, without any possibility of instituting adequate public control, or of introducing really modern plans of conveyance. Unless great care is taken, so soon as the war is over, we shall again have all the drawbacks of monopoly wedded to all the disadvantages of competition in our national transport, and this at a moment when the pressure of German goods upon our own and the world market will call for the complete transformation of our industrial and distributive methods to meet it effectively. We are, as usual, attempting to muddle through with a haphazard Committee of Kings in regard to one of the most important portions of our national economy.

It is much the same with shipping. Obviously, the nation required that a large number of vessels should be at its disposal to convey troops to the Continent, to bring them from our Colonies and from India to the seat of war and Egypt, to keep up a constant stream of supplies for the Army, and so on. Equally clear was it that the Government could only obtain these ships by commandeering as many as were needed. We start with the nationalisation of railways, we proceed to the nationalisation of shipping. No fewer than 1,500 steamers were thus commandeered. Excellent. Nobody again raised a word of objection. We all assumed that when exercising its authority the Government would take steps to avoid any abnormal rise of seaborne freights against the nation, by national action on behalf of the people. Not a bit of it. What was the result? We were elated, and justly elated, at the complete success of our Navy (which, by the way, the Independent Labour Party, many Radicals, and even the Labour Party did their best to reduce to danger-point before the war) in bottling up the German North Sea Fleet, in destroying German commerce destroyers, and in securing for ourselves and our Allies the entire command of the sea. But, the more successful we were in sweeping enemy vessels from the ocean, the more successful were we also in sweeping food out of the stomachs of the British poor. The irony of unconscious ineptitude was never, surely, better displayed.

Freights mounted up by leaps and bounds. Coal which had been carried from Newcastle to London by sea for 2s. 6d. to 3s. 6d. a ton before the war, now cost, for similar service, from 10s. 6d. to 13s. 6d. a ton. From Argentina, similarly, rates of freight for wheat ran up from 12s. 6d. to 60s. or more a ton. Yet, when the Premier and other members of the Committee of Kings were challenged on this matter, and were requested to use their autocratic power to reduce the stupendous profits of the shipowners, by further national action on behalf of the people at large, the old doctrine of “supply and demand,” which had been thrown overboard with glee by the Government in the matters of sugar, of indigo, of wheat (in India), etc., was quoted against us with chop-licking relish. What is more, so powerful is the Shipping Ring, and so skilfully are its funds applied in subscribing to the needs of both the great political factions, that there is very little chance of any attempt being made to deal adequately with this vast Trust, organised as it is against the interest of the entire community. The people may work hard and fight hard and the poor may starve hard, but our Government giveth to its chosen shipowners the increase. Nay, the national credit is used to lessen the amount paid for insurance, in order that this increase may be the better insured!

The control of railways and the commandeering of shipping were long steps to take towards the constitution of a supreme bureaucracy of Class-State-Socialism, dominated by a Government which assuredly had no popular mandate for any such action. But the next move was in the direction of a complete abandonment of that very same private enterprise, and supply-and-demand principle of economics, which the Prime Minister and his colleagues still, nominally, adhere to. In this instance, Parliament has authorised the Government to take in hand, administer and organise all the factories and workshops which may be considered necessary, with the object of hastening the manufacture and supply of essential equipment and munitions for the troops. This, to use vulgar language, is a “very large order.” So large that the Government itself had not even in mind the man who should be selected, as a sort of sub-dictator-in-chief, to carry out this unprecedented undertaking. Advertisement was suggested as the best means of obtaining a competent autocrat of industry. Something in this style, I suppose:-

“George V. R. et I. Wanted a sober and sagacious man of wide business experience and great powers of organisation to manage the industries (or such part of them as may be necessary) of the United Kingdom. Apply in writing, with copies of references and personal character from last place, to the Right Honourable David Lloyd George, M.P., Chancellor of the Exchequer, Marconi Buildings, 11 Downing Street, Whitehall, S.W. N.B. – Some knowledge of military methods advisable.”

Since this notification was unissued, it appears that a thoroughly able manager has been duly appointed. He may be a very Carnot of organising faculty, a Kitchener for push, but it is quite certain he has never in his life had any direct experience of the management of factories. His administration has not been rendered more efficient by the further nomination of an Advisory Committee, and the surrender by the Trade Union leaders of much of what they have gained for the workers in the last seventy years.

Now, I believe the people of this country are absolutely determined to fight this war to a finish. But it is just those of us who believe that the Government has leaned too much to Haldane’s Germanophilism, on land and on sea, who most strongly object to the measures now being taken to ensure efficiency and victory. Yet no body of people in any class have tried to hamper our rulers in regard to any of the industrial changes which have seemed necessary. For my part, as a Social-Democrat, I am confident that National Collectivism and National Bureaucratic Administration during the war will, sooner or later, help on the development of Co-operative Democratic Socialism when we return to peace. Meanwhile, the establishment of some sort of order, even under the management of the Class-State, is better than the perpetuation of competitive anarchy controlled by capitalism and companies. But, at the same time, we must keep a tight hold upon those democratic principles, which, however seriously they may be misapplied or checked in action under our present queer, out-of-date constitution, unquestionably underlie our whole political system. The people as a whole, I repeat, do not yet understand what a complete revolution has been made in their political and social affairs within the past few months. It would be well that they should begin to take account of this very important transformation. We are fighting side by side with the French, at any rate, in order to uphold the rights of democracies against the last military caste left on the planet, and to secure the independence of small nationalities. If we imperil our own freedoms while fighting for the liberties of others, the disillusion and the danger will be great indeed.

Far be it from a Social-Democrat, of necessity a philosopher, a collectivist, and a man of peace even at the price of war, to cavil at the use of the nation’s resources under national management for the protection of the realm. But why should nearly all the burdens of this new bureaucracy fall on the producers, from the Dan of the Insurance Act even unto the Beersheba of compulsory abstinence? For this is only the beginning of the business, even if, for the sake of the suggestions of the name just used, I touch first upon the most recent phase of Cromwellian compulsion. Ours is a Teetotal Administration. “So they say!” – as the Mohammedan Guard at the Palace replied to the old Czar Nicholas I. when, on Easter Day, the Emperor addressed his Moslem subject with the time-worn greeting “He is Risen.” However that may be, it is clear that, following hard upon the example of notoriously temperate Russia, our rulers are all eager to close the poor man’s public-houses by force of Parliamentary enactment, or Order in Council. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is strenuously engaged in sawing off the branch on which the balance of his Budget depends, in order to convince us of his earnestness in this matter. Nay, more, he avers, with all the solemnity of the Nonconformist conscience in high office, that the delay in the supply of the munitions of war, for which his colleague and fellow-abstainer, Lord Kitchener, so well and truly yearns, is due to the drunkenness of the munition-makers. Further, he gives the impression in his talk with the Shipbuilders’ Federation that alcoholism – always among the workers, of course – is seriously on the increase.

Thereupon a sudden thought – advertised beforehand by the United Kingdom Alliance – strikes him. Let the decree go forth from the Lawyer-Kings in Council, with their hereditary Monarch in the ante-chamber, that all Britain shall be sober whether Britain likes it or not. And the House of Commons with one accord shall say “Amen.” But the common folk declare that this charge of universal sottishness brought against the people is the most outrageously false imputation ever made upon the workingmen of this country; that no German at home, or pro-German in England, had ever so traduced and insulted the mass of Englishmen, Scotchmen, and Welshmen who make the wealth of our nation. As they farther tell us, so much overtime is being worked in the factories, in the effort to comply with the demands of the War Office, that, unless the managers take the same sort of care of the men as the Krupp directors under official supervision do, nervous breakdown will be quite common; and, so far from drunkenness being the general cause of inefficiency, only a small minority of wage-earners now suffer from this vice, in itself chiefly the outcome of poverty and excessive strain. All which is indisputable and capable of proof. So, then, we have citations from Mr. George’s speeches to show that he never meant what he was generally taken to mean, and that in reality he only says quite a few of the workers are given to drink. But is the whole country, then, to be knocked off alcoholic liquors because a minority of men and women are apt to take more than is good for them? Hard cases make bad law. To subject the vast majority to despotic regimentation, by reason of the shortcomings of the few, is foolish tyranny. Why, instead of attempting the impossible, at the dictation of a set of well-to-do fanatics, who never knew what starvation or physical overwork is, does not the Government see to it that good sound beer and other drinks are supplied, that public-houses become hostelries for the public instead of mere bars for the supply of alcohol, and that adulteration should be punished as a crime? That is one of those mysteries which cannot be explained.

This attempt upon the workers’ liberties – upon the freedom of the class that is doing most of the fighting and all the production – though it has roused more feeling than all the rest put together, is but the most recent of a whole series of tyrannical enactments. Who would have believed a few years ago, for example, that any English Government would dare, without authority from Parliament, or any notification as to what was being done, to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act? and that, this having been decided upon, the Judges should be instructed not even “to state a case,” in order that the matter might be argued publicly in Court? Yet that is precisely what occurred in the case of the unfortunate man Dove, master of a steam-trawler on the south-east coast. On returning to port he accidentally ran down one of our submarines. There was not a tittle of evidence from the first to show that this was anything but a pure accident, or that Mr. Dove was in any way to blame, even for carelessness. Yet “the authorities” took for granted that the collision was brought about on purpose, that Dove was acting in the interest of the King’s enemies, and that he had no defence of any kind. He was therefore haled into custody, bail was refused, he could get no satisfaction under writ of Habeas Corpus through his counsel, and the poor fellow might be in gaol to this hour but for the intervention of Lord Parmoor and the House of Lords. This confession is not a little humiliating to a democrat and a Socialist who has always been opposed to any non- elected Assembly. But so it is.

To that reactionary House, also, is due the revival of trial by jury, which had been suppressed for certain cases under the original Defence of the Realm Act. As showing, likewise, what monstrous injustice might be perpetrated if Habeas Corpus and Trial by Jury were both removed from the list of our legal protections against arbitrary rule, it turned out in the end that the Government had no case at all against the man Dove. Not a single charge was formulated against him when he was brought from gaol into Court, and he was, of course, discharged without, so far as is known, any compensation whatever being paid him for his illegal and wholly unjustifiable incarceration. We may all find ourselves in his case if vigilance is relaxed for class legislation was never so pronounced as now; and never, for good reasons as well as bad, was the public more apathetic about its own rights. Attacks on individual freedom, which cannot be beneficial either to the individuals or to the community, are now, indeed, quite common; but few of these are dealt with as they ought to be. Much, too, is being done and more attempted, under direct military law, of which the public hears nothing; and it is impossible to obtain the local enactments by which such petty tyranny is fostered. When, some time before the war, Mr. Winston Churchill suggested the organisation of military districts under military men of high rank, in imitation of Cromwell’s instalment of Major-Generals, as the supreme authorities throughout England, people laughed. But that is the regime under which we are, to a large extent, actually living to-day. The military order for the regulation of women of loose life at Cardiff is only one out of many instances of high-handed action to justify which no law, nor even any Order in Council, can be cited.

Quite recently, large schools have been commandeered throughout the country for hospitals by the War Office, though there are plenty of empty private houses much better suited for the purpose which could be adapted at a fraction of the expenditure considered necessary for the luxury of German officers at Donington Hall. So it goes.

Where military men cannot very well act, the police are called in. Thus Jim Larkin’s brother gets a month’s imprisonment because, being boycotted by employers, he goes to his work under another name. I have no sympathy with Larkin’s anarchistic opinions, but an Act of Parliament or an Order in Council which supports this sort of injustice towards a man who is unpopular with the capitalists is tyranny. Then it is assumed that a proportion of the wives of soldiers will use their payments and allowances for strong drink. All soldiers’ wives are, therefore, placed by order under police superintendence – the very worst sort of supervision for soldiers’ wives possible, no matter how capable the constables may be in the performance of their ordinary duties. This rouses serious opposition. The order is, in consequence, allowed, so it is said, to lapse. But, as a matter of fact, such inquisitorial and objectionable interferences may be revived anywhere at any moment, and in some places they are still going on.

Again, if there is one point on which public opinion has advanced more than another during the past thirty years, it is upon the employment of children in industry. Even in Lancashire, a genuinely strong democratic Government would be quite safe in putting an end to the halftime system; though, to their shame be it said, most of the fathers and mothers in that county support this sweating of their offspring, because it brings them in more money, and they themselves underwent similar treatment. But now the local educational authorities in the agricultural districts are being permitted to set back the clock in this matter by allowing young children to work in the fields in place of adults at ridiculous rates of wages. So far, no adequate opposition has checked this deadly attack upon the vigour of the next generation.

It would be easy to multiply instances of the way in which our liberties are being unnecessarily infringed, not for the public benefit or to ensure public safety, or even to increase our effectiveness as a nation in the tremendous war we are waging. From the incompetent and foolish meddling of the Press Bureau to the wholesale opening and, in some cases, the using and publishing of private letters in the cabinet noir of the Post Office, we are at the mercy, not of one powerful and capable if obnoxious dictator, but of a series of petty despots and jacks-in-office, who take advantage of the truce in party politics, and the general desire not to embarrass the Government to imperil and attack our ancestral liberties in every direction. We might all be ready to put up with a Cromwell for a time, if only we could make sure that he could be quietly removed when he had done his work. But to acquiesce in the present rule of a set of nominated Committees, with all sorts of unrestricted powers under the supreme Committee of a Cabinet, which was not elected for the wholly unforeseen and enormous work that it has in hand, is simply to create an inefficient and dangerous Cromwellism, minus the Cromwell, from which we shall find it no easy matter to free ourselves when the German military combination is crushed and peace is proclaimed.