Harry Quelch 1903

Liberalism & Labour


Source: 1903 Liberalism & Labour, pamphlet with articles reprinted by Twentieth Century Press, 19pp.
Copied from Bishopsgate Institute Library http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/index.asp.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The following articles, which are reprinted by the courtesy of the Editor of Reynolds’s Newspaper, formed part of a series on the above subject recently appearing in that paper. Their reproduction in the present form has been asked for as a means of presenting in a concise form the general Socialist view of the relations between Liberalism and Labour.

Mr. Howell, who opened the series with an article opposing the formation of an independent working-class political party and in favour of the closest alliance between Liberalism and Labour, has essayed, in a closing article, to reply to what I have written. He declares, with some asperity, that my statements that “Messrs. Howell, Fenwick, and their colleagues are imbued with the idea of a middle-class Liberalism; capitalist Liberalism is their creed,” and further that “the whole of the political career of Messrs. Howell, Fenwick, Burt, Wilson, and the other Labour members appears to have had but the one object of showing that not only a Labour party, but Labour representation is unnecessary and useless,” are untrue, and that I am prejudiced, unjust, and so ill-informed on political and industrial history as to make my judgment on the matter worthless. But Mr. Howell does not well to be angry. The articles which he and Mr. Fenwick wrote were in defence of their adherence to Liberalism and the Liberal Party and in opposition to the formation of a working-class party which should be independent of the Liberals. Mr. Howell should not be angry because I take him at his word, because I assume that he means what he says and believes in the principles he advocates, and that his political career and that of his colleagues has been consistent with their professions – that the salvation of the working class is to be found in Liberalism, and that it is unnecessary and useless to form an independent party.

I thought, and said, that the object of his article was to support that view, but Mr. Howell says “there is not a word of truth in Mr. Quelch’s statements. The lives and conduct of the men mentioned give the lie to all such allegations. But Mr. Quelch is not more accurate in his political history. He speaks of England being ‘a century ahead in economic, social, and political development.’ Does he know that anything like enfranchisement of the people was not obtained until 1884–5, not yet 20 years ago? In the General Election of 1885, a dozen Labour members were returned, and their energies were devoted continuously to all matters likely to benefit the workers, many of them without fee or reward, only a few being paid by their Unions.”

If there is not a word of truth in my statements, I can only assume that Mr. Howell is really, then, not a Liberal, and in his arguments for Liberal-Labourism he was only “dissembling his love” for independence.

But even Mr. Howell shows more courage than prudence, and more trust in the ignorance of his readers than knowledge of facts, when he calls in question my statement that England was at least a century ahead of other countries in economic, social, and political development, and that this gave occasion for wonder that here we should have lagged so far behind in the political organisation of the working-class. To say nothing of her older political institutions, the great revolution of the latter end of the seventeenth century placed England in the possession of a political constitution to which France and continental countries generally did not attain until after the great French Revolution of over a century later. Even if Mr. Howell’s statement – that “anything like enfranchisement of the people was not obtained until 1884–5” – were correct, it would not affect my point, but simply give greater ground for wonder that more had not been accomplished in the intervening two centuries. But Mr. Howell’s statements are inaccurate. Really one who is so reckless in flinging about charges of lying and ignorance should be more careful not to lay himself open to the same charges. It was in 1867, not 1884–5, that Household Suffrage was carried, which, so far as the boroughs were concerned, was the largest approach to manhood suffrage that has yet been made, and which practically placed the balance of electoral power in the hands of the working-class.

Mr. Gladstone’s Franchise Bill of 1884 simply increased the number of rural voters as a counterpoise to the industrial voters whom capitalist Liberals have, not unnaturally, rather regarded with distrust and suspicion, and who have of recent years justified that distrust by their rejection of Liberal candidates. In 1872 the Ballot Act was passed; the General Election of 1868 was the last decided by open voting; and at the General Election of 1874 the Labour Representation League took the field with nearly a score of Labour candidates. Generally speaking, however, these were no more acceptable to the Liberals of that time than are Socialists to-day. It was the General Election of 1880 – not as Mr. Howell says, 1885 – which resulted in the return of a dozen labour members to the House of Commons. That now, 23 years later, we can boast no addition to the number seems to give some ground for the suggestion that they have done very little to justify their political existence, or to encourage in the electors a belief in Labour representation.

This is the point which Mr. Howell and his friends fail to grasp.

Although by the beginning of the latter half of the last century we had largely lost the enormous political start we had over other nations, and they were rapidly forging ahead, they were – notwithstanding the revolutions of 1848, in which our working-class movement was scotched by Mr. Howell’s political idols – barely abreast of us when Household Suffrage was passed in 1867. Then France was under the blighting sway of the corrupt Third Empire, while Germany and the rest of Western Europe were mainly a collection of petty autocratic states. In the 36 years which have intervened, a powerful independent working-class party with Socialist principles has grown up in France, a party which can make and unmake Ministries, and bids fair, before long, to be the controlling political force in that country; in Germany, a similar party has developed, which, in spite of the persecutions of “Iron Chancellors” and Kaisers, grows in strength from year to year, to-day forms one of the largest groups in the German Parliament, and has in its ranks a larger number of voters than any other party in the German Empire. In Italy, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, in every European country, the same development has taken place to a greater or less extent. In each, during the last 30 years, a strong disciplined working-class political party, independent of all bourgeois parties, fighting on definite Socialist principles for the emancipation of the working class, and already, in many instances, holding the balance of power, has been formed. In England we had twelve Labour members in 1880; in 1903, 23 years later, we still had, until the advent of Mr. Henderson, twelve, mostly, as were their predecessors, avowed adherents of the Liberal Party. Surely the moral lies here, that our failure to form an independent working-class political party, our lagging behind all other European nations in this respect is due to our attachment to capitalist Liberalism.



Last updated: 26 May 2021