William Morris. Commonweal 1887

A Note on Passing Politics

Source: “A Note on Passing Politics” Commonweal, Vol 3, No. 85, 27 August 1887, p. 276;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The Gladstonians are very naturally triumphant at the Northwich election, and the Tories as naturally have been attempting to explain away their defeat; which, however, taken in conjunction with the other bye-elections, does seem to an onlooker to mean the extinction of the Chamberlain party, the absorption into definite Toryism of Lord Harrington and a few other nobodies, and in short, the defeat of the revolt in the Liberal party against Mr Gladstone, who seems destined to have one more triumph before he dies. To some ardent Liberals the way seems so direct to Liberal victory that the Pall Mall Gazette urges the Gladstonians to force on a dissolution by means of obstruction at once. That no doubt would be good tactics for them if the party were really what the writer of the article in the Pall Mall seems to think it — a party with principles and a steady aim. As it is, one may be quite sure that they will attempt nothing so revolutionary or anti-respectable as that: their advent to power will come by a longer road, with many more turns in it. For the respectable part of them have no very burning desire to pass a real Home Rule measure, and indeed don’t think much about that or anything else except the mere party triumph. However, doubtless in the course of time we shall see a Liberal ministry in power again, with somewhat more pretensions to Radicalism than a ministry has had yet, and with the mandate to pass a Home Rule Bill. The said Bill will also, of course, be one of compromise; but we may suppose that it will do something to give the Irish question a little rest, though with its accompanying Land Bill it will not be so easily settled even temporarily, as some people seem to suppose. But a truce once made with the Irish troubles, what will the new Gladstonian government do next? That is the rub. It will be expected to do something and if it values its life must try hard not even to appear to do anything. To appear, I say, because, except as regard the franchise, the instrument of parliamentary democracy, there is no longer anything for that democracy to do. There may, and probably will be, a sharp fight in Parliament over the franchise, which will split up the party once more and give the Whig-Tories another innings but when that is over and the democratic sword sharpened duly, where will be the enemy to be smitten by it? Doubtless there will be a new Allotments Acts (sic), a Leasehold Enfranchisement Act, and other devices for dividing the power of our landlord masters without lessening it; and also doubtless some rubbish about perpetual pensions and the cultivation of grouse-moors and the like. But all this will be but using the newly-whetted democratic sword for cleaving a pat of butter instead of a helmetted head: it will be doing nothing. Nevertheless it will have an appearance of doing something and will lead to the death of more than one ‘Liberal’ ministry, if constitutionalism lasts as long; so that what between disgusting real democrats with really doing nothing, and terrifying respectability with seeming to do something, the Gladstonian party is likely to have a rough time of it, and may well pray for a continuance of the Irish quarrel, in which they have managed, after a deal of standing on alternate feet, to take up a position apparently not (to their thinking) too dangerous to constitutionalism.

Meantime, after all the Tory Government is not going to die tamely; they have plucked up heart to pass the Lords’ amendments to the Land Bill and proclaim the National League, and seem to be going to put their foot down probably because they perceive that their Chamberlainist friends are of no value to them and that they must play their last card of attempting to drive the Irish people into violent action, which might turn the respectability of Liberal party against Home Rule again. Fortunately they are probably too late once more; the mind of the ordinary person not pledged to the cause of reaction is getting used to the idea of Home Rule, and any outbreak on the part of the Irish that is not systematic will be looked on as a mere incident in the struggle.

Some measure of Home Rule is now certain; and all we socialists can hope is that it will not be too long in coming; for what we want now is a professedly popular government in power, which, face to face with the real question of the day — whether labour is to be free or the slave of monopoly — will not be able to deal with that question, because it and the parliament which has produced it are and must be essentially the guardians of that very monopoly.