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Philip Snowden

( Originally Published 1907 )

IT was the eve of the General Election of 1900. The Khaki fever was at its height, and Liberalism at the lowest ebb of its fortunes. Nowhere was it lower than at Blackburn. For twenty years the capital of the weaving trade had been a stronghold of Conservatism, and now there was no Liberal with sufficient courage even to challenge it. Suddenly there appeared on the scene a stranger out of the West Riding. So feeble he seemed that he moved the foe to pity more than anger. He came limping into the lists on foot a pallid, hatchet-faced young man, small of stature, and leaning heavily on a stick, one foot dragging helplessly along the ground. His face was scored with the brand of suffering and bitter thought. He had, as the result of a bicycle accident lain twelve months motionless upon his bed, and had stolen back to the ways of men a maimed and stricken figure. He came unattended. There was no one to receive him save a few eager working men who had been preaching Socialism to deaf ears in the marketplace. There was no organisation to work for him. There was no money at his command. He seemed like David going out with his pebble and his sling against the hosts of the Philistines. It was the battle of " the one and the fifty-three."

Thousands of their soldiers leaned from their decks and laughed, Thousands of their seamen made mock of the mad little craft Running on and on ---

But that was at the beginning. Later on, as in the fight at Flores, soldiers and seamen had other work to do. By the end of the battle they were fighting for dear life.

For Philip Snowden wrought a miracle. That election will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. It was like a sudden wind stirring the leaves of the forest. It was a revival movement gathering momentum with each hour. Philip Snowden's name was on every lip, his sayings ran like rumour through the weaving sheds and the street. Men in their greasy caps, and carrying their " kits," hurried from the mills to his meetings, and sat as if hypnotised under the spell of revelation. He fought the battle absolutely single-handed, and he fought it with a dignity of spirit rare in politics. " Snowden is an Atheist " was chalked on a hundred walls. He ignored the slander. " Snowden was dismissed from the Excise " passed from lip to lip. Again he was silent. He was urged to tell the real facts, which were entirely honourable to him. " No," he said, " I have resolved to fight this battle on politics and not on personalities, and from that I will not move." In a fortnight, in spite of the crushing odds against him, in spite of the war fever, in spite of the Church and the brewers, wealth, influence, and the popularity of the two Tory candidates, he had shaken the Gibraltar of Toryism to its foundations. To-day he sits for Blackburn, the first member other than a Conservative who has represented the constituency for a quarter of a century.

I take Philip Snowden to be the typical Socialist in Parliament. He is the man of the idée fixe. You see it in the drawn face, the clenched mouth, the cold, uncompromising grey eyes. Other men of his party will yield a little to gain much. He yields nothing. He is the steady, relentless foe of society as it is constituted. He will have no half measures, nocoquetting with the enemy. His theory or nothing. He owes his seat largely to Liberal votes; but he makes no sign of recognition or thanks. Liberalism is to him as Toryism. Nay, it is more detestable than Toryism, because it is more dangerous to his aims. He stands for revolution a bloodless revolution, but still a revolution. Toryism, with its reactionary impulses, paves the way to revolution; Liberalism, with its moderate reforms, defeats revolution. Hence Toryism is in some sense a friend, while Liberalism, blunting the edge of popular demand, is the real enemy. And so when Mr. Snowden goes about the country, it is Liberalism which is the target of his bitterest attacks. He will acknowledge no good thing in it. He will take nothing from it with thanks, for its best gifts are only intended to make existing society tolerable, and he wants it to be intolerable.

One evening I was talking after dinner with a group of Liberal politicians and the conversation turned to the strength of absolute, uncompromising Socialism in Parliament. " Keir Hardie," said one, " calculates that there are ten Socialists in the House," We set ourselves to find them. Ramsay Macdonald? " Not a Socialist first, but a politician," said one. " Not a Socialist, but an Opportunist," said another. Pete Curran? " Not a Socialist first, but an Irishman," said a third. " Let John Redmond say ' Home Rule to-day; the Social Revolution to-morrow,' and Curran would follow the banner of Ireland." Victor Grayson? " The wine is too new in the bottle; give him time." And so the weeding-out went on., At each name some qualifying circumstance of sympathy or outlook was recalled. Only at two names was there no pause the names of Keir Hardie and Philip Snowden.

They are Socialists sans phrase. Others subscribe to the economic theories of Socialism. They alone live for them and for nothing else. Others join in the political fray; they stand aloof from what they regard as idle trifling: their eyes fixed on the ultimate goal. To them the House of Commons is not a place for petty skirmishes and paltry triumphs. It is a platform from whence to preach the Social Revolution. They will not prune the tree : they will uproot it.

Most men who go to the House of Commons, no matter what their views or their social rank, soon fall in with the spirit of the place. They share its common life and enjoy its social comradeship. Many of them, indeed, find the spirit of the place a solvent of principle. They find the virgin enthusiasm they brought with them from the country languishes in this atmosphere of geniality and compromise. The principle that was so clear on the platform, where you had it all to yourself, is not so unchallengeable here. The Tory with whom you have smoked a pipe down below is quite a pleasant fellow and in his way just, and the Liberal or Labour man with whom you had a chat on the terrace seems really an honest man misguided, of course, but still with a good deal of reason in him. The sharp lines get blurred, and black and white tend to shade away into varying tones of grey.

Philip Snowden stands aloof from all this tendency —lonely, unyielding, consumed with one passionate purpose. This House of Commons through which he moves with painful steps, what is it but the mirror of the social system that he hopes to see shattered?

Propputty, propputty, propputty " that's what he hears it say. He is in it, but not of it. He looks out on it with cold, bitter scrutiny. A faint, wistful smile flits across his pale face as he talks to you; but it is the smile of polite formality. It has no relation to the fierce fire that burns within, steadily, unchangeably, a fire that would consume you with the rest of the regime of wrong.

He is the stuff of which revolutions are made. I have not been in the House when he has spoken; but I am told that he has not been a Parliamentary success. It would be strange if he were. The House loves the atmosphere of sympathy: here is no sympathy, but bitter challenge. It loves light and colour and easy raillery, playing upon the surface of its purposes: here is nothing but fierce intensity, ruthless and implacable. But I doubt whether there is any man living to-day with an equal power of moving great bodies of men to a certain exaltation of spirit, of communicating his own passion to others, of giving to politics something of the fervour of religious emotion. He is doctrinaire and academic in the extreme; but he fuses his theories with an enthusiasm that burns at white heat. If ever there were a revolution in this country, I do not know who would be its Danton, but I should have no doubt as to who would be its Robespierre—not the Robespierre of the September massacres, but the Robespierre of the concentrated and remorseless purpose.

Constancy is a rare virtue in politics. There are few men of whom it would be safe to forecast their intellectual and political point of view ten years hence. But, whatever happens, Philip Snowden will be where he stands to-day. He will neither ask quarter nor yield it. He will fight his battle out on these lines though it takes all his life, and he has nothing to record but defeat. I am told that he will lose Blackburn at the next election because of his bitter attitude toward Liberalism. One thing is certain; he will do nothing to conciliate the Liberals.

He must be taken on his terms, if taken at all. Compromise is not in him. He is one of those rare men who live for an idea, and who have neither aim nor ambition outside it. He would wade through slaughter to achieve it; he would go to the stake rather than surrender the least fragment of it. If you want to realise the purpose and the passion of Socialism, he is the man to watch. He is worth watching as a study of intensity and idealism. He is still more worth watching as one of the potentialities of our national life, For if Socialism ever came to power and that depends largely on whether Liberalism is a sufficiently effective instrument of reform to keep it at bay it will be Philip Snowden who will be largely the architect of the new social structure.

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