William Morris. Commonweal 1887

Coercion for London

Source: “Coercion for London” Commonweal, Vol 3, No. 70, 14 May 1887, p. 153-154;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

It may be thought that the patriots who are so eager for the unity of the British empire that they want to use artificial means to make it more specially uncomfortable to live in one part of it than it is elsewhere, are taking unnecessary trouble; that the coercionists are such enthusiasts in the art of coercion that they are hunting it when they have already got it.

It is true that there is a pleasure in making a special and blatant demonstration of success, but it is a pleasure that has to be paid for by the opposition that the attempt to make it stirs up. The wise are contented with having the substance and letting the shadow take care of itself, especially if they have to fight for the shadow when they have got the substance peaceably and easily.

One is compelled by recent events to look on the subject from this point of view. Ireland is to have an extra dose of coercion, but London has already got enough for all practical purposes. A Bill is being put forward and opposed, with great fervour on each side, which, when it becomes law, will enable any two magistrates in Ireland to sentence any one who is brought before them and whose looks they don’t like to six months’ imprisonment. In London, any one magistrate has already got that power, and is on occasion not ashamed to exercise it.

It is perhaps worth while to tell over again a short story of the manner in which the coercion machine in London is set a-going, as it can be done in so much fewer words than the Langworthy case.

One Sunday there were, as usual, Socialist meetings going on in Hyde Park near the Marble Arch, during and after which various salesmen were proposing, as usual, to sell Socialist papers outside the park (selling inside being forbidden). The police had for some time past hustled and bullied, and even run in, these Socialist salesmen, although the sellers of other newspapers were not interfered with. On the occasion in question, after the Socialist meetings were over, the crowd, much increased by the news of the high-handed proceedings on former Sundays, poured out through the gate close by, being as a matter of course largely composed of mere Sunday strollers attracted to the Socialist platform — non-combatants, most of them, in the battle of opinion between Socialism and Bourgeoisdom. Well, these people, who would else have gone about their business quietly, were immediately set upon by the police a la Donnybrook, and a rough-and-tumble ensued, of the kind which the timid citizen of to-day looks at with pleasure — from a window, and in which you may find yourself half-throttled on the way to the police-station without being conscious of what has led you to that expedition, otherwise than that a policeman tried to knock you down and that you tried to stand upright: such an entertainment being obviously a good occasion for any one of an inventive turn to exercise his capacity for romance as a police-court witness.

The result of this police battue was a pretty good bag, although the police acted rather as the foreigner in Leech’s woodcuts, who shoots the foxes and the owls instead of the pheasants, and got hold of more of the above-mentioned non-combatants than Socialists. These ‘rioters’ being brought up before Mr de Rutzen, were prosecuted by the Government jackal Mr Poland, the farcical nature of whose opening speech no one, now Dickens is dead — more’s the pity — need attempt to render.[1] The farce was continued by various policemen giving what is facetiously called ‘evidence’, and more accurately ‘swearing the leg off an iron pot'; and Mr Rutzen, in virtue of his position, wound up with the grand joke of the whole entertainment by saying that since Mr Poland did not press the case as one of riot, he would treat it as a mere assault on the police, and would be so kind as not to send the accused for trial, but would — Fine them 10s. and caution them, thinks the unsuspecting ‘cultivated’ person, rejoicing in the security of property and person in this civilized and ‘free’ country. No — sentence them, two Socialists (one of whom had not been present in Hyde Park) and five non-Socialists, to six months’ hard labour!

This was the end of the first act of the farce called Justice’ in this happy land: though such a finish of the Hyde Park Sunday saunter might well be looked on by the luckless persons who were rash enough to try it as a tolerable tragedy in its way.

However, the farce is not done yet. The convicted persons may appeal to a bench of magistrates — if they can. That is, if they have money or friends with money; otherwise they must bear the six months’ torture of an English jail as well as they can; even if they have been convicted of assaulting the police when they were miles from the spot.

Two of the Socialists, our friends Williams and Pole (which last was the absent man), appealed at once and found bail; and two of the non-Socialists subsequently appealed, one of whom, at least, found bail. The other three must lie in prison for six months, unless Mr Matthews extends his ‘mercy’ to them — (a lawyer’s mercy!).

‘But why didn’t they also appeal?’ says the well-to-do inhabitant of a ‘free’ country. Because they must find bail for their appearance at Westminster on July 16th. Not so difficult, you think? Yes, but the bail must be liable to the expenses of the appeal if it is rejected, which in plain terms means that if an ordinary working-man is arbitrarily convicted by a magistrate and sentenced to such a terrible punishment as six months’ hard labour, no matter how preposterous the behaviour of the magistrate may be, the working-man cannot appeal. The rich man can defend himself, the poor man cannot.

This is the meaning of there being the same law for rich and poor, of justice never being sold in this country, and the like damned hypocritical twaddle. Justice is always sold in this country.

The answers to questions asked in Parliament have enriched the farce with other good jokes. Mr Matthews had the boundless impudence to declare again (for he has done it before) that he did not know what part the Government had taken in the prosecution — he is a useful article at the price certainly!

Mr Stuart Wortley refined on the Jorkins business in a manner that shows his fitness for office in the most satisfactory manner, and in short, the answers to questions on this matter illustrate the great leading farce of Parliament as well as need be.

It would be unfair also to leave off without complimenting the so-called labour representatives on their ‘masterly inactivity’ in this matter. Years ago, before the possibility almost of labour representatives was thought of, what an advantage their presence in the House would have been considered! What a row one would have thought such men would have made about such treatment as De Rutzen’s of men of their own order! — and now, mum is the word. A London middle-class member, Mr Pickersgill, and a Scotch landowner, Mr Cunninghame Graham, have taken upon them the duty of Messrs the Labour Representatives, who should have made the row — such a row that they ought by this time to be all sitting in the Clock Tower.

Space fails me as to the progress of the affair at Kennington, but it is all a part of this same Coercion Campaign; and no doubt it is well thought of by the magistrates to refuse protection to harmless citizens against hired roughs, since all Socialists are not athletes, and there is a double danger in carrying deadly weapons. The preposterous charge against a physically weak man, like our comrade Blackwell, of attacking the police violently, is seemingly the sort of thing that Socialists must expect to meet with at present.

In conclusion, grieved as we must all be at the torture to which innocent men are being subjected, no Socialist can help reflecting that these fools, Matthews, Poland, Warren, and Co., are doing good propagandist work for us. People generally have some idea of fair play, and the spectacle of such blatant injustice as has been recently exhibited, has to my certain knowledge moved to indignation people not particularly favourable to Socialism. It is still more important that the working-classes should have a further instance of what law means under our system — a cunning instrument for the oppression of the poor by the rich.

1. I don’t know, though; the author of ‘Cashel Byron’, though he wouldn’t do it with the richness of Dickens, might deal with such a case — why doesn’t he!