William Morris. Commonweal 1888

A Triple Alliance

Source: “A Triple Alliance” Commonweal, Vol 4, No. 112, 3 March 1888, p.68;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The struggle for the elementary right of freedom of speech, of which the events of Bloody Sunday formed such a dramatic episode, is taking a new development. The police onslaught of November 13th, and the subsequent reactionary tyranny of the Government, came as a surprise on the genuine Radicals who took part in the proceedings of that disastrous and shameful day: and it can hardly be doubted that the orthodox Liberals were also surprised at it; but their surprise took the form of striking them dumb as well as deedless. Comment has been made in these columns on the dastardliness of their behaviour, which, all things considered, was not astonishing, as well as on its stupidity, which really was almost astonishing. For here had the Tories put a weapon in their hands of a like nature to that which they were using so eagerly in Ireland, and yet they let it tumble to the ground and lie there; thus practically admitting their real alliance with the very men they are formally contending with in the Parliamentary game. So much for Mr Gladstone’s British following, and, grievous as it is to say it, his Irish allies behaved no better. Here one has some right to be surprised: how could it be that they did not see the force of the argument ready to their mouths, ‘You Englishmen, you Londoners, have coerced and gagged Ireland, with the result that you are coerced and gagged; join you with us, as we will with you, to get rid of coercion and gagging altogether, or else you will suffer along with us'?

And moreover, in joining heartily in our protest they would have been even formally pushing their own cause; the meeting on Bloody Sunday was called to protest against the wrong done to an Irishman and Ireland, and every man in the bludgeoned processions was an enthusiastic Home Ruler. Yet no one spoke or stirred, except, to be fair, Mr Bradlaugh, mindful of his old struggles in the Square. It was left for the Socialists only, helped in the press by the professed democratic and workman’s paper, Reynolds, and the Pall Mall Gazette, which for the time at least became almost a Socialist journal.

Nevertheless, so flagrant was the case, so open was the intention to thrust forward the merest absolutism, so disgracefully unfair was the conduct of the courts that tried the ‘rioters’, and so savagely vindictive the sentences passed on them, that the conspiracy of silence has failed at least as far as London is concerned; and the Southwark election, which otherwise would have been a matter of little importance, showed, as is admitted on all sides, that the London workmen understand the subject of Trafalgar Square much better than their so-called ‘leaders’.

This fact has at last penetrated the numskulls of the orthodox Liberals, and it [is] said that the wily old politician who ‘leads’ them is going to contribute his ‘old stager’ wisdom to the debate on Trafalgar Square, which is (perhaps) to come off on Thursday: nay, that the very dissentient Liberals themselves have taken the alarm, and are meditating a little dishing of the Gladstonians.

Meantime, the meeting of Monday 20th, which was called to welcome Burns and Graham, became under these circumstances a demonstration of a triple alliance for freedom of speech between the Irish, the Radicals, and the Socialists. We are bound to hope that this alliance will give back Trafalgar Square to the people, and put the whole matter of open-air meeting on a better footing than it is at present; but it will only do so if the rank and file of the Irish and Radicals are determined to make a genuine alliance with their Socialist brethren, whatever the leaders may do: it is their business if they are in earnest in upholding freedom of speech throughout the country to look to it that the Liberals do not use it merely as a good electioneering cry for London, to be cast aside on the first opportunity. At the meeting of the 20th the Radical part of their audience were loud in their boast that they could win the right of free speech from the reactionists by the ballot box. So be it! They are certainly not prepared to win it by physical force or the threat of it; though for my part I must think that rather their shame than their glory; and also that it is impolitic to cry out to such an enemy as they are facing (if they are in earnest) ‘Do what you will with us, if we cannot out-vote you, you are safe’. However, let that pass; they are not prepared to carry the matter by force, and they think they can by voting. Well, then, at least let them vote hard and not soft; let them exact a pledge from every candidate to support the freedom of speech in Trafalgar Square and open spaces generally, and refuse to vote for anyone who will not give this pledge unreservedly, whether he calls himself Liberal, Radical, or Home Ruler. If they do less than this they may be sure of one thing, that the attitude of the Liberals when they come into power will be pretty much that of the Tories; and they will find after all that they will be driven to use force if they really want to speak out their grievances in public. For after all, it will one day be just as inconvenient to the Liberals as to the Tories that the people should claim what they want by means of public meetings, and whatever opinions the majority in the House of Commons may profess, the Executive will always do its best to silence the people, unless it is repeating parrot-fashion the words put into its mouth by its masters.

As to whether the mass of the Radicals are prepared to assert themselves, and will pluck up heart of grace to beard their leaders, from all that is past one cannot help being very doubtful about that. If they are not, they are exciting themselves very unnecessarily about getting rid of the Tories, who will in that case answer all their purposes quite as well. They may make use of the Liberal party to carry on democracy to the point when it must melt into Socialism; if they do not, they will be made use of to get a party into office, which, as far as any practical purpose is concerned, is composed of leaders who will not lead, and of followers who have got nothing to follow.