William Morris. Commonweal 1887

Practical Politics at Nottingham

Source: “Practical Politics at Nottingham” Commonweal, Vol 3, No. 94, 29 October 1887, p. 349;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The orthodox Liberals have had a great field day at Nottingham under very brilliant circumstances, all things considered; the democratic portion of the population of England, Scotland, and Wales, and it is even hoped the voters in general who have any claim to be considered Liberals, are prepared to accept Home Rule for other people though they have scarcely begun even to think of it for themselves. This acceptance of Home Rule for Ireland by everybody who could ever possibly accept it, is so universal that there are no shades of opinion on the subject; the unspoken (nay, sometimes the spoken) word when people meet now is, ‘You are a Home Ruler and a beast!’ You are a Unionist and a rascal!’ Argument is at an end, and people, dog-sick of the question, would be much relieved if it were possible for a thousand champions a-side to meet on Wimbledon Common, or some other suitable place, and there fight it out to the death like Clan Chattan and Clan Quhele of old days; but since civilization and the natural desire to best one’s opponent at no expense to oneself forbids such a proceeding, all people are looking forward with disgust to the long spell of parliamentary tactics, which will on this occasion as on other similar ones in modern times, take the place of ‘point and edge’ with small advantage to the public generally.

Such a condition of things was, I repeat, most favourable to the occasion, which was certainly made the most of. Mr Gladstone exhibited himself for the worship of the faithful, which was poured forth on him in the most abundant measure, so that he must have thought it worth while indeed to be a statesman. He exercised the art of oratory if not to the fullest, yet at least as far as need be; the art, I mean, which consists of spinning out two or three sentences of meaning into speeches getting on for two hours long, so that the audiences mostly were thoroughly delighted. Indeed, those of them who had memories capable of resisting the wear and tear of five or six years might have employed the leisure which the great man’s flow of speech-words afforded them in blessing their stars and their leader that it was not they but their adversaries this time who were trying to wield the great net of Coercion, with the certainty of their knocking themselves into the water with it. Some of them might also have remembered the roars of joy with which pure Liberal meetings received the news of their present ally Mr Parnell’s arrest and imprisonment; and probably Mr John Morley was now and then pensively thinking of the evening, when before the electors of Westminster in 1880 he put down his foot on Home Rule in such a clear, brief, and convincing speech, that everybody in the hall, except a few grumblers and Irishmen, shouted for joy.

However, let pardon be given to those who have changed their opinions in the right direction, and let us hope that such changes will be common during the next few years among political men. It is at least satisfactory to see that Mr Gladstone is doing no backsliding in this Irish matter, that he who is exceedingly slow to perceive that the enemy must be attacked in front has at last seen it. All that he has to do now is to set his political wits to work to get rid of the Tory majority in the house before some portion of his men, the really anti-Radical part, who much outnumber the Radical, swing in the other direction, and carry him along with their impetus. Don’t let him dally with the crisis as he dearly loves to do, like a too artistic angler, who having a good fish on his line plays him showily to show his art, and loses him in the end.

Well, the Irish Question disposed of, what other schemes of reform had this enthusiastic multitude of delegates and notabilities, sitting in the good town of Nottingham, where, forsooth, they might have some rather serious thoughts suggested to them by the locality and its industries. I remember I was there some six years ago, and trade was booming then. I was told, I don’t know with how much truth, that an ordinary twister-in, or lace-weaver, could earn 6 a-week; prosperity was great, and the horrible redbrick blue-slated shanties of a prosperous Midland town were effacing the last remains of the beautiful crocus-meadows, for which the town was once famous; and any hints I ventured timidly to give as to how long this prosperity might last, were received with the contempt which prophecies deserve. Whereas, now it would seem by the weekly trade reports as if the population, high and low, would soon be reduced to living on taking in each other’s washing.

Well, as to the reforms to be taken in hand after the carrying of Home Rule, the Liberal Conference at Nottingham has been what its members call bold indeed: venturing to go in for disestablishment of the Welsh Church; the abolition of plural votes, by means of having all the elections on one day, shortening the period of residence which qualifies a voter; free education (important this, at any rate); local option (this also important — for the vote); London government, allotments for labourers ie., permission to them to pay their own poor-rates); and what is called ‘free-land’ — ie., all obstacles removed which might stand in the way of Mr Wynans or his like buying up all England to turn it into a deer forest.

All this, which is heralded in the Liberal newspapers as an ‘advanced programme’, in all the dignity of extra large type, is indeed quite as far as anyone could have expected the Liberal Party to go as a body — ie., with the leave of Mr Gladstone and its other bosses; and one must admit that most of these reforms will have to be done, whether they greatly matter or not. But it is not much wool for so great a cry; and when one thinks that this is received as an ‘advanced programme’ with a regular flourish of trumpets by the party which considers itself the popular party, in righteous opposition to the Tories or reactionists, one cannot help noting how much of an accident it has been that the Liberals have been driven to make peace with Ireland, and that Home Rule once gained the Liberal Party will have performed its functions to the very end, and must either make its exit or must go about with the brains knocked out of it. And that all the more as the Tory Party is quite capable of dishing the Liberals on all these great reforms, and probably will do so.

And meanwhile the trades unions are crying out for a Labour Party, have declared for land nationalization, and have their faces turned towards Socialism; and all over the country workmen are asking themselves why they are in a position of inferiority to those who do not work. The authorities in London are as afraid to let workmen speak their minds there as the Irish authorities to let the Irish speak, and a terrible winter of misery and want of employment is opening out before us.

Of all these things the Nottingham delegates took as much cognisance as though they were living in another planet. These things, since they concern the daily life and happiness and misery of the working classes, are, forsooth, ‘not within the scope of practical politics’.

Query — What are practical politics? Answer — Vote-catching for election time, so that we may be in and you may be out.