British History - The Salisbury Ministries - Socialist influences - The new Trade Unionism - Municipal development - The fin de siècle--Ireland, Parnell and the Liberal interlude.
( Originally Published 1922 )
THE Industrial Revolution,' a term invented by Arnold Toynbee in the later years of Queen Victoria, was generally adopted by economic historians to describe changes in England during the reign of George III and his immediate successors. But the Industrial Revolution never came to an end, and never can come to an end, so long as men go on making inventions, and every new form of economic life begins to be replaced by another, almost before it has itself taken shape.
In the last thirty years of the nineteenth century it was apparent that great changes were taking place in the economic structure, - besides the mere increase in population, wealth and trade, which the later Victorians in their sense of secure prosperity had come to regard almost as a law of nature. The greater industries were passing out of the hands of single ' employers ' and family groups into the control of joint-stock companies, served by great industrial managers at high salaries, a class almost unknown in the first half of the century. Small businesses were being amalgamated, and. the area and influence of competition were being restricted.
Incidentally this growth of joint-stock companies brought into existence a very numerous class of persons drawing part of their incomes from investments in industrial ventures in which they were not themselves employed. Such persons of all classes were unlikely to welcome the revived Socialist attack on capital, which the numerically small class of direct employers might have found it harder to resist alone. On the other hand, the big amalgamated business often attained a position and outlook leading it to come to terms with the big Unions, and to take an intelligent interest in the conditions of life of its employees.
Parallel to this amalgamation among the firms, the Trade Unions in the larger skilled trades were becoming national instead of local. Local disputes were frequently dealt with by the national organisation of the trade in question, and if necessary were supported from its central funds. The Trade Union Congress had become a British institution of the utmost respectability. On the other hand, since their legislative victory of 1875,1 the various trades had no common policy to pursue. It was an era of ' sectionalism,' and the Labour movement as a whole was scarcely self-conscious. There were a few miners' representatives in Parliament, but no Labour party.
In the early 'eighties Trade Union policy was still very pacific. The big Unions had won most of what they had set out to win, and were more interested in the management of their sick and old age benefits than in new worlds to conquer. Trade Unionists took little account of the Labour movement, which includes unorganised labour. This attitude of mind was attacked in 1886–7 by Tom Mann and John Burns, coming forward as leaders of the 'New Unionism,' and roundly accusing the `aristocracy of labour,' such as their own Amalgamated Society of Engineers, of ` selfish and snobbish desertion ' of their less fortunate fellow-workmen.
The main object of the New Unionism was to assist and to organise trades where unionism was weak unskilled labour, trades which were ' sweated,' and those in which women's and children's labour competed with that of men. The new feature of the time was that these efforts received a good deal of sympathy from other classes. It was recognised by many that the immense improvement in the general lot effected since the ' hungry 'forties ' had not brought equal benefits to all, and that housing in the slum districts was a problem which society had still to face. The old laissez faire doctrine that the State had hardly any function save to keep order, had quite passed away. Undermined in theory by Carlyle, Ruskin and even Mill in his later days, it had proved inadequate in practice.
The old Socialist Engels, a friend and compatriot of Karl Marx, but well acquainted with English conditions for nearly half a century, wrote in 1885, admitting that organised trades and skilled workmen were very much better off than before, ' but as to the great mass of the working people, the state of misery and insecurity in which they live now is as low as ever, if not lower. The East End of London is an ever-spreading pool of stagnant misery and desolation, of starvation when out of work, and degradation physical and moral when in work. And so in all other large towns, exception made of the privileged minority of the workers.
Engels was overstating the case, but there was a big case to state. Not only Socialists but society as a whole was becoming interested in the inquiry into the state of the ' submerged.' From i 884 onwards, Commissions on Sweated Trades. and on Housing, sometimes with the Prince of Wales as Chairman, examined depths hitherto unplumbed. Investigation was the watchword of the hour, and the results were not consoling. It was the era of Canon Barnett and ` Settlements,' when University men of good will came to live where they could see for themselves how their fellow-citizens throve. Charles Booth's scientific study of the London poor, poured out in volume after volume over a series of years, did much to enlighten the world and to form opinion. His analysis, based on a wider and more detailed collection of facts than had ever before been made, showed in 1891 that some thirty per cent., or over a million and a quarter out of the four million three hundred thousand Londoners, fell habitually below the ' poverty line,' with disastrous results to health and industrial efficiency as well as to human happiness. Charles Booth put the demand for old-age pensions on a scientific basis.
The fight against sweating, bad housing, neglect of children and aged persons, and all the problems of poverty had to wait for some of its most signal victories till the new century, but the ground was chosen and the battle was joined with success in the last decades of Victoria's reign.
The first skirmish of the New Unionism was the successful strike in 1888 of the London girls employed in making lucifer matches, one of the most dependent and helpless sections of labour, who could never have won their fight unaided, or in a hostile social atmosphere. Friends pleaded their cause in the newspapers, and subscriptions from the public pulled them through. Next year there was a pitched battle between vaster forces. The unorganised mass of London dock labourers who struggled with each other for precarious jobs at the dockyard gates, had the courage to strike for six-pence an hour. So widely had the spirit of the New Unionism spread that with the help of a ` sympathetic strike ' of the powerful Stevedores' Union, they held up the trade of the Port of London for ten weeks, and won the victory under the leadership of John Burns.
Neither the dockers nor the match-girls would have had a chance, if public opinion had not been largely on their side, ready even to subscribe to their funds. The result of these successes, so consonant with the spirit of the. new age, was the formation of many more Trade Unions among unskilled hands.
The great County Council Act of 1888 gave a whole armoury of new weapons to the ' municipal socialism ' which was attempting to improve the conditions of life. Salisbury's second Ministry, though its personnel was Conservative, was dependent on Liberal Unionist support. As that was still uncertain,1 it was all the more needful to make concessions to Liberalism in the Cabinet policy. Coercion in Ireland was yoked with democratic reform in Britain. Although the ' Tory democrat,' Lord Randolph Churchill, committed political suicide by resigning office on grounds that the public considered inadequate, he had had a great effect in continuing the ' education ' of the Conservative party towards broader views and more democratic methods. And the loss to Radicalism in the Cabinet occasioned by his fall, was for a time balanced by the influence which Chamberlain exerted from outside on the plans of the Government. With the highly organised Birmingham democracy moving under his direction, he seemed almost to hold the balance of power between parties in the State.
Mr. Ritchie's great measure of 1888 established rural self-government by County Councils,2 and enlarged the existing machinery of urban democracy by turning all towns of over 50,000 inhabitants into county boroughs.
The administrative problem of London outside the old City boundaries, which had been shirked by the legislators of 1835, was dealt with in a Radical spirit by the Act of 1888. The new London County Council, to the chagrin of some who had had a hand in creating it, at once became the representative and agent of millions of Londoners who aspired after better conditions of daily life. The popularity and energy of John Burns of Battersea gave him success as the first apostle of a London patriotism distinct from pride in the old ' City,' while the intellectual leadership of the Fabian publicists, and the organisation of the ' Progressive ' party formed ad hoc, helped London to take her place beside the foremost cities of the Empire in municipal progress, while she remained Conservative in Imperial politics.
All over the island, the last two decades of the century saw an immense extension of municipal enterprise. Baths and wash-houses, museums, public libraries, parks, gardens, open spaces, allotments, lodging-houses for the working classes were acquired, erected or maintained out of the rates. Tram-ways, gas, electricity and water were in many places municipalised. The self-governing towns of England became employers of labour and producers on a great scale. It has been largely owing to ' municipal socialism ' of this kind that the death-rate and the figures of infant mortality have fallen and that some real progress has been made in the amenities of life.
Sir William Harcourt, himself a Whig and a lawyer of the old school, startled the House of Commons by saying ' we are all socialists now.' The joke had an element of real meaning which made the saying proverbial. And a few years later Harcourt himself, as Chancellor of the Exchequer for the short-lived Liberal Ministry, passed a ' socialistic ' budget that laid heavy death duties on the heirs of the wealthy, to pay the ever-increasing bill of social reform and Imperial defence.
Yet neither Sir William Harcourt nor any large section of the community were ' socialists ' in the sense of wishing to abolish private capital and enterprise irr ordinary trading concerns. Only a small but active body in the British Trade Union world was beginning to adopt the full programme of Karl Marx.1
Socialism may be said to have been invented in England by Robert Owen and some of his later contemporaries. But it had declined for many years in the island of its origin. The revival of British Socialism was preceded and in some sense prepared by the vogue of a different doctrine, that of the American Henry George in his Progress and Poverty (i 879), which dealt with rent in much the same way that Marx dealt with private profit. In the year 1881 H. M. Hyndman founded the Social Democratic Federation to preach the Marxian gospel in earnest. It made headway, but not very rapidly, in the British Trade Union and Co-operative world, which had already achieved so much in a very different spirit from that of Marx. Indeed, the German leader suspected both those movements as successful rivals to his own speculative system of amelioration.
Meanwhile the idealism which was abhorrent to the true Marxian materialist was upheld by the poet and artist William Morris, whose Socialism in the pleasant News from Nowhere was partly a continuation of Ruskin, partly an imaginary vision of what the Middle Ages might have been like without the Church. It is a rebellion hardly more against capitalism than against the ugliness of modern city life. It looks as much backwards as forwards, as much to art and beauty as to politics.
The third current of fin de siècle Socialism, and the most important, was the Fabian doctrine, specially connected with Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb. The Fabian Society was founded in 1883. Its name recalls a Roman general whose motto was ' slow but sure.' Eschewing revolution, and intent on the actualities of England at the end of the nineteenth century, Fabians exonerated Socialists from the heavy obligation of reading Karl Marx. Without dogmatising as to the ultimate future of industrial organisation, they preached practical possibilities, here and now municipal Socialism and State control of conditions of labour. Equally far from Marx and Morris, they left the New Jerusalem alone, and sought to impregnate the existing forces of society with collectivist ideals.
The Fabians became experts in bringing electoral, journalistic and personal pressure to bear on local bodies and on the Liberal or Conservative government of the hour, somewhat after the methods of action of Francis Place, but with the added power of the democratic franchise. By the end of the century it is in Fabianism that we find the nearest approach to a body of doctrine directly affecting the laws and administration of the time, like the doctrines of Bentham and Mill in the past. The Fabians were intelligence officers without an army there was no Fabian party in Parliament but they influenced the strategy and even the direction of the great hosts moving under other banners.
The social movement of the time had its effect upon the religious bodies. Cardinal Manning, in his old age, helped to negotiate the terms of the London dockers' victory. General William Booth's Salvation Army preached the Gospel to the submerged ' of Darkest England. Like the Wesleyans of the eighteenth century, the Salvationists sought out the neglected and least promising members of society. But the modern evangelists, though by no means ashamed of ` enthusiasm,' developed also an earthly paraphernalia of shelters, workshops and emigration agencies. General Booth was of the opinion originally formulated by the secularist Robert Owen, that environment makes character.
The activities of the National Church were more and more directed to work on similar lines, in the poorest districts of the great cities. ' Environment ' gave a new character to the opinions of many of the clergy. In slum surroundings they learnt to think very differently from their predecessors of Miss Austen's time, who had lived between the rectory and the manor-house. Many of the new clergy in the towns developed socialistic sympathies.
Nevertheless, for all these new religious efforts, and the earnest attempt to evangelise the lower strata, the part played by religion in the life of the upper and middle classes, and of the better-to-do working class, was less remarkable at the end of the century than it had been when Queen Victoria came to the throne. The decline of Nonconformity was not the only symptom. Everyday thought was decidedly more secular in tone. This was partly due to intellectual movements, to the Darwinian theory and Biblical criticism at work in an age when everyone was being taught to react. But it was also due to the number of other interests in life which now competed with religion. Where the Bible had been almost the only book for many households, there was now the daily paper, the cheap magazine and novelette, and, for the minority who cared for such things, the best literature and science in the world in cheap editions. Formerly entertainments and organised excitements had been rare ; but now there was the football match with its democratic ' gate,' the music-halls, and a thousand appeals of every kind to the popular attention.
The modern English, as soon as they had a good thing, had the means to make it common. The Gilbert and Sullivan songs might be heard in any parlour where there was a cheap piano. Football and cricket, both as games to be played and as spectacles to be watched, spread from upper-class public schools through the Universities to the democracy at large. One excellent new activity of man, mountain climbing, begun in Switzerland chiefly by some Fellows of Cambridge colleges in the middle of Victoria's reign, was by the end of the century beginning to open the rock climbs of England, Wales and Scotland to a larger fraternity. In the 'nineties the ` safety ' bicycle with pneumatic tyres abolished the dangers and discomforts of the high-wheeled bicycle of the former decade. Before motor-cars in the new century swept the unfortunate ' push-bike' off the high road, it had been a principal means of popular enjoyment, had opened out country places to the city dweller, and had profoundly affected the social customs and outlook of more than one class of society, particularly of the women, to whom it gave a new freedom. The bicycle seemed the symbol of the changing fin de siècle. For good and for bad, the standards of Victorian ` respectability ' were beginning to crumble. The balance maintained between tradition and democracy, which had been the essence of the Victorian age, was giving way. Literature was retreating before journalism, or was being absorbed in it.
The government all this while might be called Conservative, but change was never more rapid, nor the advance of the equalitarian spirit more observable. It was due, not to political propaganda, but to environment and conditions of life. A profound transmutation was in process towards a more mechanical and a more democratic world, the world of the great city instead of the country village, a world expressing itself more through science and journalism, and less through religion, poetry and literature. In a hundred years' time it will be possible to speculate as to whether the change has been mostly for good, or mostly for evil. But in so far as men have any real knowledge and understanding of the past, it is probable that opinions on that subject will be neither unaminous nor confident.
The epoch of Lord Salisbury's two Ministries and the two Jubilees of Queen Victoria was above all else an age of prosperity at home and peace abroad. But it failed to solve the Irish question.
If our own generation, taught by much unhappy experience, had had the Ireland of Gladstone and Salisbury to deal with, it would perhaps have found the solution. But the Liberals of that day would not reckon with Ulster, nor the Unionists with the rest of Ireland. The British had had no recent experience of race hatreds and historic feuds in their own island. Henry VIII had settled the Welsh question, and the statesmen of William and Anne had settled Scotland. Having no first-hand knowledge of these terrible things, and very little historical knowledge or imagination, our people could not understand why the Irish tenant farmers were so unlike the British tenant farmers, who never shot landlords or houghed cattle ; and why the Presbyterians of Ulster were so unlike the comfortable nonconformists of England.
The only real hope would have lain in an alliance of British statesmen to settle Ireland, as an urgent Imperial problem, objectively considered apart from our home politics. But this proved impossible. Our two-party system showed off all the defects of its qualities, and artificially excited passions which the Irish question in its nature was only too well calculated to arouse.
The Unionism that had triumphed at the election of 1886 was largely inspired by indignation against crime, from the Phoenix Park murders down to the cruel outrages on animals which Englishmen particularly dislike, and the terrorism that sought to destroy the springs of all independent action. It was barbarous work indeed, but it was the means by which Liberal and Conservative governments, from 1881 onwards, were driven step by step to abolish the evils of the old Irish land system. During their two decades of power the Unionists moved as fast in that direction as Gladstone himself, although he had begun the retreat. But the Unionists resented deeply the character of the pressure to which they yielded, the semi-warfare of the Land League and the Plan of Campaign and this indignation affected, if it did not actually determine, the attitude of half England to Home Rule.
Parnell, though he had opposed the more murderous and futile crimes of the Irish American societies, had in i 880 and 188 I countenanced the boycotting and terrorism of the Land League as the only possible means, in his opinion, of making the British Legislature move on behalf of the oppressed tenantry. Unionist opinion never forgave him for this and sought to bring it home to him retrospectively, now that Gladstone proposed to make him in effect the ruler of Ireland. Yet after 1886 he was less interested in the agrarian question than in Home Rule, and he knew that its electoral chances would be gravely compromised by a renewal of Irish crime. He therefore opposed the renewal of methods of sedition and terrorism and regretted, though he could not prevent the agrarian Plan of Campaign launched in December 1886.
The Plan of Campaign was met by the Conservative Crimes Act, and a protracted battle began between the Irish peasants and Mr. Arthur Balfour, who now rose to the front rank of politics as Chief Secretary. Into that conflict, fought without gloves on both sides, the Irish Parliamentary party was necessarily drawn, with the English Liberal party in its wake. Irish members spent much of their time in prison, and a good deal of the rest on Liberal platforms in Great Britain. Parnell for his part was now the cautious statesman, while Mr. Gladstone was the enthusiastic protagonist in a great agitation.
At an early and critical date in this struggle, The Times published in facsimile a letter, purporting to bear Parnell's signature, in which he was made to express partial approval of the Phoenix Park murders. The letter, if genuine, would have killed the Home Rule movement in Britain. Nearly two years later the document was proved to have been forged by a needy Irish journalist named Pigott, and to have been accepted with-out scrutiny as to its origin. The Royal Commission of three Judges before whom this damning revelation was made, had also to inquire into and report on the general connection of the Parnellite party with crime in Ireland, an inquiry in which it was really impossible to isolate the judicial from the political issues. But the detection of so gross a forgery, designed to ruin Parnell, overshadowed everything else in the popular mind, and the prospects of Home Rule at the next General. Election began to look bright.
No one can ever tell what chance there was of a solution of the Irish question by that generation of men, nor whether Civil War or Settlement would have resulted from a decisive majority for Home Rule at the polls. The question was never put to the test, owing to the downfall of the Irish Chief.
In 1890 Parnell had been fifteen years in public life. In that short time, himself starting from nothing and with no extraneous aid, he had created a party known by his name, united the Irish nation on his policy, held up the British Parliament, made and unmade Ministries and won the greatest British statesman of the age to devote his whole energies to carrying out his plan. The goal seemed already in sight. Suddenly the bolt fell, the prospect was eclipsed and the structure was shattered.
For close on ten years Parnell had been living with another man's wife. At length a divorce suit was brought and no defence was possible. Mr. Gladstone, for purely political reasons, decided that his ally must for a while retire from the Irish leadership, otherwise, in the then state of English feeling, he believed that a catastrophe would ensue at the approaching election which would ruin the Home Rule cause. Gladstone, now over eighty, knew that his own time was short, and that another defeat would be final. Parnell, so he decided, must make his bow to the English sense of propriety and morals, and then it was probable he would soon be able to return forgiven.
Till that moment Parnell's actions, unswayed by sentiment or passion, had been based on cold calculation of the chances and forces in the field. Neither good nor evil fortune had ever seemed to move the man set apart from his fellows. Yet all the while fires had blazed beneath, and now they burst out in wild destruction. He had always disliked and despised the English, perhaps, through some atavistic ` complex,' all the more because he had English blood and a good deal of English character mixed with other elements in his mysterious being. What business had they with his private life ? He would not take off his hat to their hypocrisies, and sue for their pardon, no, not if it would save the Irish cause and the work of his life from ruin.
He held to the leadership, was disowned by the majority of the party, held on and fought, the Celtic nature or some-thing yet more fundamental in him flashing out at last, in a baresark fight against men and gods. The Roman Church joined the fray against the ' black Protestant.' Ireland and the Nationalist party were rent from top to bottom into factions of Parnellites and anti-Parnellites. Next year he died, but his death could not at once heal the breach, could certainly not restore in England the prestige of the Irish party.
So at the General Election of 1892 the majority over the Unionists of Liberals and Irish Home Rulers combined was too small to do the work. Gladstone formed his fourth Ministry ; but when his second Home Rule Bill,1 having passed the lower House by thirty-four votes, was sent up to the Lords, it was thrown out, and the country felt relieved or indifferent.
Next year Gladstone retired from public life, which had so long centred round him. He had taught Englishmen to think nobly, and foreigners to think nobly of England. He had kept our parliamentary institutions in the forefront of all men's thoughts. He had done, perhaps, more than any one man to adapt the machinery of State to modern and democratic conditions. His achievements lay thickly scattered over many pages of our history, and if his failures were great too, the last and greatest of them has added immensely to his fame. The comparison with the all-successful Bismarck is one from which his memory has less to fear now than in the first years after his death, when Bismarck's structure seemed founded safely on the rock of force.
At the next General Election the Liberals were overwhelmingly defeated. The chiefs of Gladstone's succession quarrelled with each other over the defeat, and Lord Rosebery soon resigned the leadership. For the remainder of the century Salisbury ruled the country without serious challenge.
Salisbury's third Ministry, in which the Liberal Unionists took their share as Ministers of the Crown, lasted until his death. It was marked in Ireland by an attempt at conciliation. Home Rule was below the horizon and the Unionists hoped to prevent its rising again by settling the agrarian question. Mr. Gerald Balfour, who now held his brother's former place as Chief Secretary, aspired to ' kill Home Rule by kindness,' a policy continued by Mr. George Wyndham after him. The Irish landlords were bought out on a great scale. Democratic local government was extended to Ireland and was worked with success. With the help of Mr. Horace Plunkett and his co-operative schemes in which men of all parties lent a hand, a new era of prosperity set in. The agrarian problem was being solved. The ' kindness ' was real and practical. Whether it had ' killed Home Rule,' the next century would reveal.