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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 51

Chapter XIV. — Progress in Liberty

page 108

Chapter XIV.

Progress in Liberty.

A land of old and just renown
Where freedom slowly broadens down
From precedent to precedent.

Broadens slowly down! Alas, how slowly! English freedom, such as it is, is the resultant of more than eight centuries of struggle between selfish forces striving to supplant each other and to secure the mastery.

Kings, ecclesiastics, aristocrats, plutocrats, have happily never been able to form an enduring alliance among themselves, otherwise the sparse national liberties about which we sing such loud hosannahs would at this day be absolutely non-existent.

In the most primitive times the strong killed the weak and ate them. That was the age of cannibalism. Later, the conquerors made captives in battle and set them to labour for them. That was the age of slavery. By-and-by the slaves were permitted to retain some portion of their earnings for their own use. That was the age of serfdom. The fourth, or present stage of human evolution is wagedom. The producer's toil is treated as a chattel to be purchased in the cheapest market. He gets subsistence-money—no, not always that—while the non-producer revels in rent, interest, and profit. That is the gospel according to Bright. The fifth era of development, when co-operative industry shall supersede competitive or internecine production, has hardly yet dawned. It is in the womb of the future, and its heralds, like their precursors at every antecedent stage in the progress of the race, must look for nothing but misrepresentation, obloquy, and persecution.

page 109

There are practically four forms of government in the world—viz., Monarchy, Aristocracy, Oligarchy, and Democracy. In no country does any one of these forms exist in an altogether unmixed state. Russia is as nearly as possible an absolute monarchy, or one-man Government; but even the Muscovite despotism is" tempered by assassination." On the other hand, the United States Constitution, grandly democratic as it is, imposes many checks on the popular will, copied by its framers from the monarchical institutions of Europe. The English Government—it would be absolutely wrong to speak of the English constitution, for constitution there is none—is a cunning compound of monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and democracy, which produces the minimum of advantage and the maximum of disadvantage inherent in each system.

Let us consider for a moment how monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, and democracies are constituted. In every State there is a governing mind and an executive force. The executive force may, for practical purposes, be defined as the police, armed or otherwise. When an individual like the Czar of Russia or the Emperor of Germany obtains firm hold of overwhelming armed force, monarchy exists in its simplest form. But simple or mixed, it always strives to control the army.

Why do we see the Prince of Wales made a Field-Marshal; Connaught promoted to one of the most responsible commands in India; Edinburgh sent to command the Channel Fleet; to say nothing of the position of the Duke of Cambridge as Commander-in-Chief of the British army? The reason is obvious. These men never mean—indeed, could not be trusted by reason of their incapacity—to command against a foreign foe; but in the event of the English people resolving to rid themselves once and for all of the burden and disgrace of royalty, what easier for them than to take advantage of their military rank to stifle Republican aspirations in blood?

When a small number of families succeed in obtaining possession of the soil of a country along with control of the armed force, then an Aristocracy pure and simple is formed. England is the nearest approach that exists to a pure Aristocracy, and, as in the case of the monarchy, mark the anxiety of its members to obtain control of the armed forces of the page 110 State. Hardly by any chance can the most meritorious private soldier in the British army get beyond the rank of a non-commissioned officer. Hence the severe but just taunt of the first Napoleon, that our troops are a host of lions led by asses. And such is still the condition of the British army, military examinations and the abolition of purchase notwithstanding. But to officer the army is in the last resort to keep aristocracy alive.

Where a minority in a State—a minority that is neither monarchical nor territorially aristocratic—controls the disciplined force, then we have a pure Oligarchy. Such were the governments of Sparta, Rome, Carthage and the Italian Republics of the middle ages.

In modern England the distinctive element of oligarchy is plutocracy, which, unfortunately for public liberty, is but too often the humble handmaiden of monarchy and aristocracy. Successful merchants and manufacturers are but too frequently willing to barter their well-dowered daughters in matrimonial exchange for mortgaged acres and tarnished titles. Monarchy, aristocracy, and plutocracy in combination form a close Oligarchy or rule of the few, with aims sharply opposed to those of the Democracy or party of the people. At present this triple Oligarchy have everything pretty much their own way. They live by taxes, rent, interest, profit, and place.

"Still press us for your cohorts,
And when the fight is done,
Still fill your garners from the soil
That our good swords have won.
Still, like a spreading ulcer
That leech-craft may not cure,
Let your foul usance eat away
The substance of the poor."

But the chained lion of democracy, who lives by the sweat of his brow, has at last begun to think—to reflect on the miserable condition to which the superior cunning of the few has reduced the many. "The people at large," wrote the penetrating Aristotle, "may always quash the vain pretensions of the few by saying, 'we, collectively, are richer, wiser, and nobler than you.'" And the vain pretensions of the few the many will at last know how to quash. The many must learn to control the executive force in their own interests, as monarchs, aristocrats, and oligarchs have hitherto controlled page 111 it in theirs. In such a government kings, peers, and plutocrats can have no place. The three estates of the realm will then be reduced to one, viz., a democratic House of Commons—as in the time of the Commonwealth.

When the Long Parliament was expelled by the armed force and its treacherous chief the thread of political progress was rudely snapped; and ever since English public life has been destitute both of vigour and sincerity. But it is a long road that has no turning. Ideals like those of Vane, Hampden, Pym, Eliot, and Milton cannot finally be lost. The broken thread of seventeenth century Republicanism must be re-united with that of the nineteenth century. When an English Constitution comes to be framed, there should be no copying of the American, French, or Swiss Constitutions, with their monarchical reproductions of Senates and Presidents. What the far-sighted statesmen of the Commonwealth strove ultimately to establish was biennial parliaments, returned by the widest and most equal suffrage practicable. The House thus constituted was to elect a large Executive Committee for one year; this committee or Council of State to choose its own president monthly or otherwise, as it had a mind. By this means, good administrators, irrespective of party, could be secured, and the reprehensible idolatry of Grand Old Men prevented. The executive committee, forty-one in number under the Commonwealth, was divided into sub-committees for the different departments of State. These after deliberation, reported first to the full Council and then to the House, and if their policy was affirmed there was an end of the matter. If we had a Foreign Relations Committee, for example, like that of the United States, acting in a straightforward manner, instead of a conclave of Cabinet Ministers meeting in secret like a band of conspirators to involve the nation in iniquitous wars without so much as a pretence of consulting parliament, how different the financial burdens of the people to-day! In the Commonwealth parliament the figure-head was Mr. Speaker, and all commissions issued, and appointments made by the House were signed by him as nominal Chief of the State. By these simple arrangements the Republican Parliament of England combined simplicity and efficiency of administration in a manner never attained by any English Government before nor since.

page 112

And now by what means is the strong triple alliance of monarchy, aristocracy, and plutocracy to be overthrown by the toil-worn half-dazed giant of democracy? First, the giant must, above all things, attend to his political and general education. This task, his sore toil and grinding poverty render doubly difficult, but it is an imperative duty which, left undischarged, will be found an insuperable barrier to his emancipation. Were the giant but fully conscious of his rights and his irresistible strength, he would shatter the triple alliance of his enemies as easily as Samson snapped asunder the withs with which the Philistines had bound him. In order to grasp and retain the whole machinery of Government in his hand he has but to keep two objects steadily in view. He must possess himself of equal manhood suffrage and the land. These acquisitions are necessarily antecedent to all others. To the old watchwords of democracy," Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," Property must now be added. Liberty to starve or to be driven into exile is not a kind of liberty worth having.

It is at this point that Mr. Henry George's land gospel comes to be of such vital importance to the British democracy. It smites at the very root of aristocracy and monarchy. Give every man, woman, and child in the country an equal inalien-able interest in the national soil, and the feet of the democratic giant are at once planted on a rock. The whole earth is a natural monopoly, and cannot, therefore, become a true subject of free trade, much less of entail or strict settlement. Granted this—and it is impossible seriously to dispute it—the only question that remains is how to secure to each son and daughter of Adam an equitable share. The problem may be more difficult than Mr. George seems to think; but after all it is only a question of detail. In Russia the men of the Mir divide the land periodically, according to the number of mouths in the commune, and there is an end of the matter. But in England the population is vastly more urban, and such a primitive method of distribution might be found inapplicable; though M. Laveleye does not hesitate to recommend its gradual adoption, and the Highland Crofters Commission have (mirabile dictu!) just recommended something very like a communal tenure.

But the democratic giant need not harass himself too much page 113 with details. Suffice it for him to assert his equal right to the soil with the Westminsters, Portlands, Devonshires, and Sutherlands. Our Bramwells and Argylls have attempted in a feeble way to deny the doctrine of equal land rights; but they could not have taken up more dangerous ground; for if there are no natural rights, what remain but natural mights? If the Oligarchy have might on their side to-day, they cannot complain if the Democracy, feeling their strength, exercise their might of numbers to-morrow. Better secure exemption from all taxes, with a reasonable provision for widows and orphans, than run the risks of the French noblesse in 1789.

But in addition to Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Property, Faith—faith in God and Man—faith that the noblest aspirations of the soul will ultimately be justified by the severest revelations of science is needed for all abiding progress. The far-seeing and devoted Robespierre was right when he said:—"Atheism is aristocratic. The idea of a Great Being who watches over oppressed innocence and punishes triumphant crime is essentially the idea of the People." Mankind cannot live by bread alone. The new Socialistic Gospel, though an improvement on false and barren atheism, is, after all, only a gospel for beavers. It tells nothing of that "one far-off divine event to which the whole creation moves," which from the dawn of history has inspired all true religion and philosophy.

"Our little systems have their day,
They have their day and cease to be,
They are but broken lights of Thee,
And Thou, O Lord, art more than they."

The Norman Conquest found the English people well advanced in the essentials of a rude-liberty. They enjoyed much more equal land and suffrage rights than Englishmen do at this moment. With the introduction of feudalism in all its rigour they were reduced to serfdom. Before William the Conqueror, and his fellow-freebooters set a foot in England, they divided between themselves, on paper, every manor and every ecclesiastical benefice in the country, and the spoils were subsequently divided with scrupulous exactitude. Here was robbery, if you please. Not a word about compensation. And, singularly enough, the present race of landlords, who are so horrified at Mr. Henry George's proposal to put rents page 114 into the Exchequer instead of their pockets, make it their special boast that their ancestors "came over with the Conqueror." They glory in their descent from robbers. But Mr. George's objects are not at all to their minds, and no wonder. What their forefathers, real or pretended, did, was to take from the many and give to the few. That, indeed, was robbery pure and simple. Mr. George, on the contrary, though he would deprive no son or daughter of Adam of his or her natural stake in the bounty of Providence, would take their ill-gotten possessions from the robber few and restore them to the lawful owners, the lackland many. Mr. George's scheme is not one of robbery, but of confiscation in the original ety-mological sense of the word. Confiscation means the appropriation of the estates of robbers, traitors, and other felons to the uses of the fiscus or national treasury. It is in this sense that the American economist is a confiscator, and no other. He is not a robber. It is his landholding calumniators that are the robbers, and the inheritors of stolen property. They began at the Conquest by an act of universal robbery, and they continue the process under the very eyes of the people to this day.

An authority no less weighty than Sir James Caird has calculated that between the years 1857 and 1875 the landlords of the United Kingdom added to the value of their estates a sum, if capitalised, of £331,000,000 at a cost to themselves of £60,000,000! Here was a clean sweep in eighteen years of £271,000,000, for which these aristocratic lilies of the field did "neither toil nor spin." One moiety of this huge "find" was of course taken from the tenant farmers in the shape of uncompensated improvements, while the remainder was filched from the nation at large as "unearned increment."

Mr. Samuel Laing, M.P., a recent convert from Whiggery to Radicalism, and one of the greatest living authorities on railways and finance, has lately given us, in the "Nineteenth Century," a notion of the way in which "unearned increment" is created. £50,000,000 over market value, he tells us, have been paid to the landlords of the United Kingdom for the land taken for purposes of railway construction. The railways have at the same time improved real estate to the almost fabulous extent of £150,000,000 while relieving it of one page 115 half the rates! Here truly is robbery, if we had the trick to see it. A few hard concrete nuts like these given to the landlords and their friends to crack were worth bushels of abstract theories, however irrefragable in themselves.

At the head of the feudal system stood the king. He was in theory, and to a large extent in practice, the universal landlord. The Crown lands alone when Domesday Book was compiled consisted of no fewer than 1,442 manors. In Saxon times they were strictly national property, inalienably set apart to meet the expenses of Government. They were dissipated by the descendants of the Conqueror, and in some respects the results were not unfortunate. If kings had not been improvident, they would have had no need for national subsidies or parliaments to grant them. The extravagance of kings was the opportunity of the people. When the Commons voted any extraordinary supply they generally contrived, in exchange, to wring some small concession of liberty from the reigning tyrant. This is the history of English freedom, down even to the time of George III.

After the king came the royal vassals, or tenants in capite. The king was their immediate suzerain, to whom they owed homage, fealty, and military service. These royal vassals in the same way parcelled out their domains among less potent robbers, towards whom they stood in the relation of suzerains. By these means England was transformed into a camp, and what had been won by the sword was maintained by the sword, supplemented by the hardly less formidable weapon of feudal law. The Norman freebooters indeed elaborated a system of government so ingeniously compounded of violence and cunning, that to this day the mass of the people groan under it, while taught to believe that they are in the enjoyment of a "glorious constitution" that is the envy and admiration of the whole world.

The first great landmark in the development of English freedom is, perhaps not incorrectly, held to be Magna Charta. By that instrument the barons, spiritual and temporal, emancipated themselves from the arbitrary thraldom of the king. For the serfs, that is to say the great mass of the population, they did nothing except to stipulate that fines should not extend to the deprivation of their tools. Still, Magna Charta was a beginning. It was the first break in page 116 cast-iron feudalism, and foreshadowed, however faintly, the representative system of government.

Next appeared on the scene the great figure of Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, the founder of the House of Commons. In 1265 he summoned to parliament for the first time the representatives of towns, or, to put it otherwise, of moveable property. This was beyond doubt the introduction into the body politic of a new force—the force of numbers, or democracy.

But it was not till the communistic preaching of John Ball and the rising of Wat Tyler that the serfs began to raise their bowed heads. Tyler was treacherously assassinated and the insurrection suppressed, but the moral effect of the movement was very great throughout rural England. What Simon de Montfort did for the trading or middle class at the cost of his life was hardly surpassed by what Wat Tyler effected for the serfs by the sacrifice of his.

Another blow of a different kind was struck at feudalism in the reign of Richard II. The first peer by patent was created in the person of John de Beauchamp, Baron of Kidderminster. A territorial was thus changed into a personal dignity, and by this means land, to some extent, was stripped of the legislative power hitherto attached to it. At a later period it was decided that peerages were held merely in trust, and that absenteeism or poverty entailed, the former forfeiture of estates, the latter loss of dignity. Absenteeism and bankruptcy in these more enlightened days are no disqualification for the duties of a hereditary legislator, any more than "physical and moral incapacity" in a queen.

During the Tudor period, as has been already shown, the dial of national liberty went back many degrees; yet a new factor was introduced into politics. In the reign of the very worst of these tyrants, Henry VIII., the principle of the sovereignty of the people, as expressed by public opinion, first took root. Henry, Edward, and Elizabeth, by repeatedly changing the national faith, compelled the people to think for themselves in matters ecclesiastical. Discarding false opinion or superstition in religion, a large section of the nation was led to challenge false opinion or superstition in politics. The Puritan party—the political ancestors of the Radicals of today—slowly grew in numbers, resolution, and clearness of democratic aim.

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Their first great achievement was to wring from the king the Petition of Right, rendering illegal arbitrary imprisonment, billeting soldiers, martial law, forced loans, benevolences, and generally taxation without the consent of parliament. The second great and tragical blow struck by this new and incalculable power of public opinion was the trial and execution of "the man, Charles Stuart," for treason to the Sovereign People. The bruit of this unparalleled event is yet resounding throughout the world, and loosening everywhere the knees of tyrants.

When wilt Thou save the people, Lord—
Oh, God of mercy, when?
Not kings and thrones but nations;
Not chiefs and lords, but men.