William Morris. Commonweal 1888

The Skeleton at the Feast

Source: “The Skeleton at the Feast” Commonweal, Vol 4, No. 127, 16 June 1888, p.188;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The consolation dinner to Mr Jesse Collings was rather a comical business in so far as it was a party coddling-up of the poor well-intentioned feeble gentleman who got practically turned out of the society which he himself had planted and watered so carefully; and the speeches delivered at this queer celebration would afford amusement enough to a cynical man with a good memory for things nor worth remembering — to wit, the politics of the last three years. In days which people who have serious work on hand are forgetting speedily, Mr Collings manufactured a sort of stage landscape of a happy village, over which, as in other stage landscapes, shone a fatuous moon in the shape of three acres and a cow, a long way off: which (heaven knows why — or perhaps the election agents!) was so enticing to a great many members of parliament that rather than disturb it they gave an adverse vote against the then Tory Government and turned it out, it would seem to the great grief of Lord Harrington.

However, as might be expected, this beautiful scene became of little importance when the Outs had become Ins, and it was carried off to the lumber room — acres, cow and all. But again the Outs became Ins, and the new Ins with commendable prudence remembered that there would be another general election some day, and the votes of the field-labourers would then be of great importance to them; so they got up a new illusion scene, of which all that can be said is that it was somewhat more honest than the other in proclaiming itself an illusion; which, however, was not the reason why the Gladstonian Liberals turned their backs on it. Doubtless Mr Jesse Collings friends were right in asserting that the Gladstonians treated the whole matter from an electioneering point of view; and also doubtless their own impudence in implying that they were not at that very moment treating it in exactly the same way would be enough to stagger people not used, as unluckily we are, to parliamentary dodgers. Well, to go on with this stupid story, the Gladstonites turned Mr Collings out of the Allotments association, and the Rural Labourers League (how many rural labourers are there in it, I wonder?) received him into its bosom, and there he sat the other night hugging his grievance, and drinking in the flattery of the friends of the ejectors of the Irish, and the Scotch crofters, perhaps at that moment the happiest man in Britain; probably not much disturbed at the fact that a French nobleman, turned on for the occasion, told him pretty plainly that his three acres and a cow was all rubbish, and that wholesale emigration was the real remedy for the diminishing numbers of the English field-labourers, as well as for the discontent of the Irish ‘rebels'; while Mr Chamberlain promised him another ally, a Yankee Tory, one Mr Hurlburt, in his magnanimous hatred of the Irish peasant.

This is a scurvy story; and the worst of it is that I believe Mr Collings was once in real earnest in wishing to do a good turn to the English field-labourers; but parliament knocked all that out of him and at last has dragged him through the mud, and stuck a fool’s cap on his head, while it has been using his poor little foolish scheme, of making the field-labourers work double tides to pay their own poor-rates, for electioneering purposes, not heeding him or anybody else in playing its Bedlamite game.

To think of it, that while this banquetting flavoured with the keen amusement of the game aforesaid is going on, there are the field-labourers actually existing! Rubbing through life toward the workhouse and the grave on ten shillings a-week. Go through the lovely country now in this ‘leafy month of June’, and if you turn your thoughts from the mere beauty of the earth or the memories of past history which the external aspect of the old buildings help you to, can you, if you think of it, even if you are not a Socialist (if any one but a Socialist ever thinks about these things at all), help feeling that everything there is padlocked against the use of man — the men who have made it of use. These are the men whose forefathers built our cathedrals, wrote our poems for us, fought for our liberties (such as they are!), kept alive the history which links us to the past: and they themselves if they had had anything approaching to decent treatment would have done as much or more. And then look at them, working in their allotments if you please, pinched and heavy and vacant-looking, too poor to look anxious even; forbidden to think or to hope; losing all the arts of life which used to make their lives endurable; grown to be mere appendages to the great centres of population which will swallow up so many of them. To the parliament gentry at St Stephens, what are they? Votes, — otherwise inconvenient, and to be emigrated out of the way if possible. And will either of our factions or all of them together do anything to unpadlock the wealth of the land for them? Certainly not; it will not, nay, it cannot. It is they themselves, with their brethren of the towns to help, who must knock off the padlock — or else what will happen? Sir Henry James, at that dismal tragic-farce of a consolation banquet, spoke of ‘the danger in which our inexperienced democracy [O Lord! inexperienced!] stood at this moment’. What is the danger? He would say ‘disruption of the empire’, or some such twaddle; others would say ‘revolution’. Is it not rather ‘Starvation'? That is the skeleton sitting by the guests at the Whig feast.