William Morris. Commonweal 1888
Source: “Radicals Look Round You!” Commonweal, Vol 4, No. 105, 14 January 1888, p.12-13;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
The Winchester election is, it must be admitted, a shabby text to preach from: given, a cathedral establishment, a military depot, a middle-class public school, a large class of the villa-dwellers, and a noble lord as owner of a greater part of the town, and the result of an election in such a place would seem to be certain — the return of the Tory candidate — even if he were not a local magnate, and his opponent a mere name: only an electioneering agent on the look-out for a job one would think could venture to encourage opposition to the winning colour under such circumstances. However, the Liberals have chosen to make a kind of test-case of this most trumpery faction-fight as to whether the tide is still continuing to flow back to them, as other bye-elections seemed to show it was doing, and, since it has gone against them so completely they are bound to admit, and really do admit the inference, that the tide has turned again, and the Tory ship has weathered the dangerous headland for the present. All this, which is but an affair of ‘ins and outs’, would be a matter of complete indifference to us if it were not that there is still a Radical tail hanging on to the official Liberal party, and that the Radicals have been making towards Socialism under the educational influence of the Irish rebellion, and the general force of circumstances which is driving them out of their barren negative position, and forcing them to consider whether there is any forward road for them except Socialism. To the Radicals one may preach a little from even such a contemptible text as the Winchester election, and ask them once more whether they are going to be dragged about through the mud by their Liberal allies, or are going to give free play to their aspirations towards the popular cause, and assert themselves as men who are sincerely trying to learn what is to be done to carry the country out of this shabby period of the rule of the dregs of the bourgeoisie, helped by the distinguished cowards, knaves, and fools, for whom no worse name can be found at present than that of ‘superior persons’ or ‘men of culture’.
I would ask them to note, then, that it did seem true towards the middle of last year that the Tory or Irish coercionist party seems to be losing ground, and that there did seem a chance of the Gladstonites shortly coming into power again, and victoriously ‘settling’ the Irish question; in which case the Radicals would have felt a glow of triumph, as feeling that after all it was a Radical victory rather than a Liberal one, and that they had led the whole of that constitutional party to the wished-for goal. This was the outlook then; but it is very different now; whatever the chapter of accidents may do in the future, the Tory Government is steady enough at present; that is really felt by everyone, and in the constitutional contest of ‘ins and outs’ the Liberals are not showing any signs of solicitude for their Radical allies, but are quite prepared to shake them off if need be; and, in short, we would seem to be further than ever from a Radical triumph. How has it all come about?
Let us remember that whatever it may be elsewhere, in this country the Government is always a genuine Government of the middle-classes; whatever is done is done for them, even though it may sometimes take the guise of helping the working-classes; and that only means helping such and such groups to manage the human machinery necessary to their welfare; most middle class men, ‘thoughtful’ or unthoughtful, never realize the fact that there is a working-class; the artisans or labourers that they may come across are to them but aspirants towards the middle-class, or failures from it, mere accidents of society in short. As long as this mood of the middle-class is undisturbed, as long as they are blankly ignorant of the composition of modern society, they can quite calmly divide themselves into two parties, Conservative and Liberal, or whatever else you may call them, it being, of course, understood that the greater part take no interest, or only a very languid one, in politics. But the events of the last five or six years, the change that has been coming over the commercial outlook, has made some inroads into this ignorance, and the Irish question, founded as it is on the further question ‘How are the Irish peasants to live?’ has also at last sorely shaken them, though at first it was looked upon as a mere political matter on which there might be difference of opinion between ‘respectable’ persons. As the English, Scotch, and Welsh working-men became educated into friendliness and sympathy with the Irish peasant, so the middle-class became educated into hatred of him. To them he is no longer now a romantic survival of past times of a rebellion made beautiful by distance, carrying about a preposterous sentiment of nationality never to be realized save as a flavour to a few old ballads sung to melancholy ancient tunes; he is a working-man asking for some of the property of the proprietary classes and not too nice as to the means by which to establish his claim. And as on the one hand, new development of the Irish question made it clear to the middle-classes that it was time not to play with progress any longer, so on the other the putting forward of it by Mr Gladstone gave them as opportunity for backing out with that ease and dignity which the British hypocrite manages to impart to the action of sneaking out through a back door. The upshot is the ‘Tory Reaction’, as real a reaction as any political reaction ever is. What has happened is this: amongst political middle-class folk, the clearer-sighted once-Liberals, who could see witherward things are tending, have, as aforesaid, taken the opportunity of Gladstone’s new departure to rat formally, leaving behind a group of Gladstonites whom habit and clinging to a vague shadowy habitual idea of principle keep in the ranks at present. That means breaking up the Liberal party; but there is more at the back of that. There is the great body of middle-class non-politicals, who include a great many ‘superior persons;’ these who usually have nothing to do with the political game are, nevertheless, an enormously powerful body; they form, in fact, what the newspapers mean when they speak of ‘the public'; and this ‘public’, which is fully equipped with votes, goes solid for the Tory reaction, and is, in fact, the central and really noteworthy part of it. This public has a blind and instinctive, but quite genuine hatred of the ‘other public’, the ‘lower classes’, whose misery it has made and lives upon: it usually only acts as a dead weight to keep them down, but from time to time takes vigorous action enough. It is the public which applauded Napoleon the Little and the Butchers of the Commune, smiled safe approval on the slaying of the Chicago martyrs, egged on the evictions of Irish tenants for the behoof of the shabby tyrants who rob their poverty, shut up Trafalgar Square, beat helpless prisoners in their cells, and makes the disgraceful pedant Stephen feel safe and comfortable on his seat of iniquity; it is the public which will make civil war inevitable as the claims of the workers rise, and are more distinctly formulated; it is, in short, the real danger to what of genuine society yet exists amongst us; the mass of blind wrong-doing led by ‘superior persons’ who know what is right and hate it, who have made wrong their right. Now it may be said, ‘surely the Tories could always rely on the support of this criminal class, how is it that it was thought last summer that the present Government was tending towards its defeat on the Irish matter?’ The answer is, the Tories were then only threatening coercion, and soft as the Gladstonites were fighting they seemed strong enough to deal with their political foes, considering the conversion of the workingmen, which at least on the Irish question, was going on. We did not believe that the threat of coercion would be seriously carried out; but it seems that the Tories had estimated the relative voting power of the working-class, and the above-mentioned criminal class, better than we had, and knew that they were safe, and accordingly started fair on their new career of Resolute Government, which will carry them who can say where, but in the meantime has gained them the enthusiastic support of the whole nonpolitical middle-classes. Let our Radical friends note that for the present, and until the times get ‘quiet’, these ordinary non-political people are turned into ardent politicians with one aim in view, the keeping down of the popular element amongst us, by whatever name it may be called, and that this support will keep the Tories in power for many a day, while all the political opposition they (the Tories) will meet with will come from a party pledged, it is true, to grant Home Rule in Ireland (a pledge which may be as easily evaded as other pledges have been), but so far from being pledged to help the whole people out of their misery, that they also, when events press hardly on them, will have to take obvious measures to keep the people down, and avail themselves of the support of that party of blind wrong-doing.
The Radical party is effaced from the Parliamentary record, because its education towards progress had been advancing. Let all true Radicals take advantage of that effacement by educating themselves yet further; let them set to work seriously to learn what those popular claims are which the Liberal leaders steadily refuse to consider, but which form the only politics worth attending to. It is true that if they do this they will soon find themselves Socialists and outcasts; but they will be recompensed for that when the time comes, as it soon will, when all distinctions of party will merge into the two camps, of the people and their haters, for they will then know clearly why they are on the right side, as they will have joined it consciously and not by mere compulsion. I believe that many Radicals are now taking this course, and I would encourage them to think that all these apparent Tory victories are only so many signs of the enlightenment of the workers of their own interests, and the consequent development of the middle-class hatred against them.