My Discovery of England by Stephen Leacock
IV. -- A Clear View of the Government and Politics of England
A LOYAL British subject like myself in dealing with the government of England should necessarily begin with a discussion of the monarchy. I have never had the pleasure of meeting the King,--except once on the G.T.R. platform in Orillia, Ontario, when he was the Duke of York and I was one of the welcoming delegates of the town council. No doubt he would recall it in a minute.
But in England the King is surrounded by formality and circumstance. On many mornings I waited round the gates of Buckingham Palace but I found it quite impossible to meet the King in the quiet sociable way in which one met him in Orillia. The English, it seems, love to make the kingship a subject of great pomp and official etiquette. In Canada it is quite different. Perhaps we understand kings and princes better than the English do. At any rate we treat them in a far more human heart-to-heart fashion than is the English custom, and they respond to it at once. I remember when King George--he was, as I say, Duke of York then--came up to Orillia, Ontario, how we all met him in a delegation on the platform. Bob Curran--Bob was Mayor of the town that year--went up to him and shook hands with him and invited him to come right on up to the Orillia House where he had a room reserved for him. Charlie Janes and Mel Tudhope and the other boys who were on the town Council gathered round the royal prince and shook hands and told him that he simply must stay over. George Rapley, the bank manager, said that if he wanted a cheque cashed or anything of that sort to come right into the Royal Bank and he would do it for him. The prince had two aides-de-camp with him and a secretary, but Bob Curran said to bring them uptown too and it would be all right. We had planned to have an oyster supper for the Prince at Jim Smith's hotel and then take him either to the Y.M.C.A. Pool Room or else over to the tea social in the basement of the Presbyterian Church.
Unluckily the prince couldn't stay. It turned out that he had to get right back into his train and go on to Peterborough, Ontario, where they were to have a brass band to meet him, which naturally he didn't want to miss.
But the point is that it was a real welcome. And you could see that the prince appreciated it. There was a warmth and a meaning to it that the prince understood at once. It was a pity that he couldn't have stayed over and had time to see the carriage factory and the new sewerage plant. We all told the prince that he must come back and he said that if he could he most certainly would. When the prince's train pulled out of the station and we all went back uptown together (it was before prohibition came to Ontario) you could feel that the institution of royalty was quite solid in Orillia for a generation.
But you don't get that sort of thing in England.
There's a formality and coldness in all their dealings with royalty that would never go down with us. They like to have the King come and open Parliament dressed in royal robes, and with a clattering troop of soldiers riding in front of him. As for taking him over to the Y.M.C.A. to play pin pool, they never think of it. They have seen so much of the mere outside of his kingship that they don't understand the heart of it as we do in Canada.
But let us turn to the House of Commons: for no description of England would be complete without at least some mention of this interesting body. Indeed for the ordinary visitor to London the greatest interest of all attaches to the spacious and magnificent Parliament Buildings. The House of Commons is commodiously situated beside the River Thames. The principal features of the House are the large lunch room on the western side and the tea-room on the terrace on the eastern. A series of smaller luncheon rooms extend (apparently) all round about the premises: while a commodious bar offers a ready access to the members at all hours of the day. While any members are in the bar a light is kept burning in the tall Clock Tower at one corner of the building, but when the bar is closed the light is turned off by whichever of the Scotch members leaves last. There is a handsome legislative chamber attached to the premises from which--so the antiquarians tell us--the House of Commons took its name. But it is not usual now for the members to sit in the legislative chamber as the legislation is now all done outside, either at the home of Mr. Lloyd George, or at the National Liberal Club, or at one or other of the newspaper offices. The House, however, is called together at very frequent intervals to give it an opportunity of hearing the latest legislation and allowing the members to indulge in cheers, sighs, groans, votes and other expressions of vitality. After having cheered as much as is good for it, it goes back again to the lunch rooms and goes on eating till needed again.
It is, however, an entire exaggeration to say that the House of Commons no longer has a real share in the government of England. This is not so. Anybody connected with the government values the House of Commons in a high degree. One of the leading newspaper proprietors of London himself told me that he has always felt that if he had the House of Commons on his side he had a very valuable ally. Many of the labour leaders are inclined to regard the House of Commons as of great utility, while the leading women's organizations, now that women are admitted as members, may be said to regard the House as one of themselves.
Looking around to find just where the natural service of the House of Commons comes in, I am inclined to think that it must be in the practice of "asking questions" in the House. Whenever anything goes wrong a member rises and asks a question. He gets up, for example, with a little paper in his hand, and asks the government if ministers are aware that the Khedive of Egypt was seen yesterday wearing a Turkish Tarbosh. Ministers say very humbly that they hadn't known it, and a thrill runs through the whole country. The members can apparently ask any questions they like. In the repeated visits which I made to the gallery of the House of Commons I was unable to find any particular sense or meaning in the questions asked, though no doubt they had an intimate bearing on English politics not clear to an outsider like myself. I heard one member ask the government whether they were aware that herrings were being imported from Hamburg to Harwich. The government said no. Another member rose and asked the government whether they considered Shakespere or Moliere the greater dramatic artist. The government answered that ministers were taking this under their earnest consideration and that a report would be submitted to Parliament. Another member asked the government if they knew who won the Queen's Plate this season at Toronto. They did,--in fact this member got in wrong, as this is the very thing that the government do know. Towards the close of the evening a member rose and asked the government if they knew what time it was. The Speaker, however, ruled this question out of order on the ground that it had been answered before.
The Parliament Buildings are so vast that it is not possible to state with certainty what they do, or do not, contain. But it is generally said that somewhere in the building is the House of Lords. When they meet they are said to come together very quietly shortly before the dinner hour, take a glass of dry sherry and a biscuit (they are all abstemious men), reject whatever bills may be before them at the moment, take another dry sherry and then adjourn for two years.
The public are no longer allowed unrestricted access to the Houses of Parliament; its approaches are now strictly guarded by policemen. In order to obtain admission it is necessary either to (A) communicate in writing with the Speaker of the House, enclosing certificates of naturalization and proof of identity, or (B) give the policeman five shillings. Method B is the one usually adopted. On great nights, however, when the House of Commons is sitting and is about to do something important, such as ratifying a Home Rule Bill or cheering, or welcoming a new lady member, it is not possible to enter by merely bribing the policeman with five shillings; it takes a pound. The English people complain bitterly of the rich Americans who have in this way corrupted the London public. Before they were corrupted they would do anything for sixpence.
This peculiar vein of corruption by the Americans runs like a thread, I may say, through all the texture of English life. Among those who have been principally exposed to it are the servants,--especially butlers and chauffeurs, hotel porters, bell-boys, railway porters and guards, all taxi-drivers, pew-openers, curates, bishops, and a large part of the peerage.
The terrible ravages that have been made by the Americans on English morality are witnessed on every hand. Whole classes of society are hopelessly damaged. I have it in the evidence of the English themselves and there seems to be no doubt of the fact. Till the Americans came to England the people were an honest, law-abiding race, respecting their superiors and despising those below them. They had never been corrupted by money and their employers extended to them in this regard their tenderest solicitude. Then the Americans came. Servants ceased to be what they were; butlers were hopelessly damaged; hotel porters became a wreck; taxi-drivers turned out thieves; curates could no longer be trusted to handle money; peers sold their daughters at a million dollars a piece or three for two. In fact the whole kingdom began to deteriorate till it got where it is now. At present after a rich American has stayed in any English country house, its owners find that they can do nothing with the butler; a wildness has come over the man. There is a restlessness in his demeanour and a strange wistful look in his eye as if seeking for something. In many cases, so I understand, after an American has stayed in a country house the butler goes insane. He is found in his pantry counting over the sixpence given to him by a Duke, and laughing to himself. He has to be taken in charge by the police. With him generally go the chauffeur, whose mind has broken down from driving a rich American twenty miles; and the gardener, who is found tearing up raspberry bushes by the roots to see if there is any money under them; and the local curate whose brain has collapsed or expanded, I forget which, when a rich American gave him fifty dollars for his soup kitchen.
There are, it is true, a few classes that have escaped this contagion, shepherds living in the hills, drovers, sailors, fishermen and such like. I remember the first time I went into the English country-side being struck with the clean, honest look in the people's faces. I realised exactly where they got it: they had never seen any Americans. I remember speaking to an aged peasant down in Somerset. "Have you ever seen any Americans?" "Nah," he said, "uz eeard a mowt o' 'em, zir, but uz zeen nowt o' 'em." It was clear that the noble fellow was quite undamaged by American contact.
Now the odd thing about this corruption is that exactly the same idea is held on the other side of the water. It is a known fact that if a young English Lord comes to an American town he puts it to the bad in one week. Socially the whole place goes to pieces. Girls whose parents are in the hardware business and who used to call their father "pop" begin to talk of precedence and whether a Duchess Dowager goes in to dinner ahead of or behind a countess scavenger. After the young Lord has attended two dances and one tea-social in the Methodist Church Sunday School Building (Adults 25 cents, children 10 cents--all welcome.) there is nothing for the young men of the town to do except to drive him out or go further west.
One can hardly wonder then that this general corruption has extended even to the policemen who guard the Houses of Parliament. On the other hand this vein of corruption has not extended to English politics. Unlike ours, English politics,--one hears it on every hand,--are pure. Ours unfortunately are known to be not so. The difference seems to be that our politicians will do anything for money and the English politicians won't; they just take the money and won't do a thing for it.
Somehow there always seems to be a peculiar interest about English political questions that we don't find elsewhere. At home in Canada our politics turn on such things as how much money the Canadian National Railways lose as compared with how much they could lose if they really tried; on whether the Grain Growers of Manitoba should be allowed to import ploughs without paying a duty or to pay a duty without importing the ploughs. Our members at Ottawa discuss such things as highway subsidies, dry farming, the Bank Act, and the tariff on hardware. These things leave me absolutely cold. To be quite candid there is something terribly plebeian about them. In short, our politics are what we call in French "peuple."
But when one turns to England, what a striking difference! The English, with the whole huge British Empire to fish in and the European system to draw upon, can always dig up some kind of political topic of discussion that has a real charm about it. One month you find English politics turning on the Oasis of Merv and the next on the hinterland of Albania; or a member rises in the Commons with a little bit of paper in his hand and desires to ask the foreign secretary if he is aware that the Ahkoond of Swat is dead. The foreign secretary states that the government have no information other than that the Ahkoond was dead a month ago. There is a distinct sensation in the House at the realisation that the Ahkoond has been dead a month without the House having known that he was alive. The sensation is conveyed to the Press and the afternoon papers appear with large headings, THE AHKOOND OF SWAT IS DEAD. The public who have never heard of the Ahkoond bare their heads in a moment in a pause to pray for the Ahkoond's soul. Then the cables take up the refrain and word is flashed all over the world, The Ahkoond of Swat is Dead.
There was a Canadian journalist and poet once who was so impressed with the news that the Ahkoond was dead, so bowed down with regret that he had never known the Ahkoond while alive, that he forthwith wrote a poem in memory of The Ahkoond of Swat. I have always thought that the reason of the wide admiration that Lannigan's verses received was not merely because of the brilliant wit that is in them but because in a wider sense they typify so beautifully the scope of English politics. The death of the Ahkoond of Swat, and whether Great Britain should support as his successor Mustalpha El Djin or Kamu Flaj,--there is something worth talking of over an afternoon tea table. But suppose that the whole of the Manitoba Grain Growers were to die. What could one say about it? They'd be dead, that's all.
So it is that people all over the world turn to English politics with interest. What more delightful than to open an atlas, find out where the new kingdom of Hejaz is, and then violently support the British claim to a protectorate over it. Over in America we don't understand this sort of thing. There is naturally little chance to do so and we don't know how to use it when it comes. I remember that when a chance did come in connection with the great Venezuela dispute over the ownership of the jungles and mud-flats of British Guiana, the American papers at once inserted headings, WHERE IS THE ESSIQUIBO RIVER? That spoiled the whole thing. If you admit that you don't know where a place is, then the bottom is knocked out of all discussion. But if you pretend that you do, then you are all right. Mr. Lloyd George is said to have caused great amusement at the Versailles Conference by admitting that he hadn't known where Teschen was. So at least it was reported in the papers; and for all I know it might even have been true. But the fun that he raised was not really half what could have been raised. I have it on good authority that two of the American delegates hadn't known where Austria Proper was and thought that Unredeemed Italy was on the East side of New York, while the Chinese Delegate thought that the Cameroons were part of Scotland. But it is these little geographic niceties that lend a charm to European politics that ours lack forever.
I don't mean to say the English politics always turn on romantic places or on small questions. They don't. They often include questions of the largest order. But when the English introduce a really large question as the basis of their politics they like to select one that is insoluble. This guarantees that it will last. Take for example the rights of the Crown as against the people. That lasted for one hundred years,--all the seventeenth century. In Oklahoma or in Alberta they would have called a convention on the question, settled it in two weeks and spoiled it for further use. In the same way the Protestant Reformation was used for a hundred years and the Reform Bill for a generation.
At the present time the genius of the English for politics has selected as their insoluble political question the topic of the German indemnity. The essence of the problem as I understand it may be stated as follows:
It was definitely settled by the Conference at Versailles that Germany is to pay the Allies 3,912,486,782,421 marks. I think that is the correct figure, though of course I am speaking only from memory. At any rate, the correct figure is within a hundred billion marks of the above.
The sum to be paid was not reached without a great deal of discussion. Monsieur Briand, the French Minister, is reported to have thrown out the figure 4,281,390,687,471. But Mr. Lloyd George would not pick it up. Nor do I blame him unless he had a basket to pick it up with.
Lloyd George's point of view was that the Germans could very properly pay a limited amount such as 3,912,486,782,421 marks, but it was not feasible to put on them a burden of 4,281,390,687,471 marks.
By the way, if any one at this point doubts the accuracy of the figures just given, all he has to do is to take the amount of the indemnity as stated in gold marks and then multiply it by the present value of the mark and he will find to his chagrin that the figures are correct. If he is still not satisfied I refer him to a book of Logarithms. If he is not satisfied with that I refer him to any work on conic sections and if not convinced even then I refer him so far that he will never come back.
The indemnity being thus fixed, the next question is as to the method of collecting it. In the first place there is no intention of allowing the Germans to pay in actual cash. If they do this they will merely inflate the English beyond what is bearable. England has been inflated now for eight years and has had enough of it.
In the second place, it is understood that it will not do to allow the Germans to offer 4,218, 390,687,471 marks' worth of coal. It is more than the country needs.
What is more, if the English want coal they propose to buy it in an ordinary decent way from a Christian coal-dealer in their own country. They do not purpose to ruin their own coal industry for the sake of building up the prosperity of the German nation.
What I say of coal is applied with equal force to any offers of food, grain, oil, petroleum, gas, or any other natural product. Payment in any of these will be sternly refused. Even now it is all the British farmers can do to live and for some it is more. Many of them are having to sell off their motors and pianos and to send their sons to college to work. At the same time, the German producer by depressing the mark further and further is able to work fourteen hours a day. This argument may not be quite correct but I take it as I find it in the London Press. Whether I state it correctly or not, it is quite plain that the problem is insoluble. That is all that is needed in first class politics.
A really good question like the German reparation question will go on for a century. Undoubtedly in the year 2000 A.D., a British Chancellor of the Exchequer will still be explaining that the government is fully resolved that Germany shall pay to the last farthing (cheers): but that ministers have no intention of allowing the German payment to take a form that will undermine British industry (wild applause): that the German indemnity shall be so paid that without weakening the power of the Germans. to buy from us it shall increase our power of selling to them.
Such questions last forever.
On the other hand sometimes by sheer carelessness a question gets settled and passes out of politics. This, so we are given to understand, has happened to the Irish question. It is settled. A group of Irish delegates and British ministers got together round a table and settled it. The settlement has since been celebrated at a demonstration of brotherhood by the Irish Americans of New York with only six casualties. Henceforth the Irish question passes into history. There may be some odd fighting along the Ulster border, or a little civil war with perhaps a little revolution every now and then, but as a question the thing is finished.
I must say that I for one am very sorry to think that the Irish question is gone. We shall miss it greatly. Debating societies which have flourished on it ever since 1886 will be wrecked for want of it. Dinner parties will now lose half the sparkle of their conversation. It will be no longer possible to make use of such good old remarks as, "After all the Irish are a gifted people," or, "You must remember that fifty per cent of the great English generals were Irish."
The settlement turned out to be a very simple affair. Ireland was merely given dominion status. What that is, no one knows, but it means that the Irish have now got it and that they sink from the high place that they had in the white light of publicity to the level of the Canadians or the New Zealanders.
Whether it is quite a proper thing to settle trouble by conferring dominion status on it, is open to question. It is a practice that is bound to spread. It is rumoured that it is now contemplated to confer dominion status upon the Borough of Poplar and on the Cambridge undergraduates. It is even understood that at the recent disarmament conference England offered to confer dominion status on the United States. President Harding would assuredly have accepted it at once but for the protest of Mr. Briand, who claimed that any such offer must be accompanied by a permission to increase the French fire-brigade by fifty per cent.
It is lamentable, too, that at the very same moment when the Irish question was extinguished, the Naval Question which had lasted for nearly fifty years was absolutely obliterated by disarmament. Henceforth the alarm of invasion is a thing of the past and the navy practically needless. Beyond keeping a fleet in the North Sea and one on the Mediterranean, and maintaining a patrol all round the rim of the Pacific Ocean, Britain will cease to be a naval power. A mere annual expenditure of fifty million pounds sterling will suffice for such thin pretence of naval preparedness as a disarmed nation will have to maintain.
This thing too, came as a surprise, or at least a surprise to the general public who are unaware of the workings of diplomacy. Those who know about such things were fully aware of what would happen if a whole lot of British sailors and diplomatists and journalists were exposed to the hospitalities of Washington. The British and Americans are both alike. You can't drive them or lead them or coerce them, but if you give them a cigar they'll do anything. The inner history of the conference is only just beginning to be known. But it is whispered that immediately on his arrival Mr. Balfour was given a cigar by President Harding. Mr. Balfour at once offered to scrap five ships, and invited the entire American cabinet into the British Embassy, where Sir A. Geddes was rash enough to offer them champagne.
The American delegates immediately offered to scrap ten ships. Mr. Balfour, who simply cannot be outdone in international courtesy, saw the ten and raised it to twenty. President Harding saw the twenty, raised it to thirty, and sent out for more poker chips.
At the close of the play Lord Beatty, who is urbanity itself, offered to scrap Portsmouth Dockyard, and asked if anybody present would like Canada. President Harding replied with his customary tact that if England wanted the Philippines, he would think it what he would term a residuum of normalcy to give them away. There is no telling what might have happened had not Mr. Briand interposed to say that any transfer of the Philippines must be regarded as a signal for a twenty per cent increase in the Boy Scouts of France. As a tactful conclusion to the matter President Harding raised Mr. Balfour to the peerage.
As things are, disarmament coming along with the Irish settlement, leaves English politics in a bad way. The general outlook is too peaceful altogether. One looks round almost in vain for any of those "strained relations" which used to be the very basis of English foreign policy. In only one direction do I see light for English politics, and that is over towards Czecho-Slovakia. It appears that Czecho-Slovakia owes the British Exchequer fifty million sterling. I cannot quote the exact figure, but it is either fifty million or fifty billion. In either case Czecho-Slovakia is unable to pay. The announcement has just been made by M. Sgitzch, the new treasurer, that the country is bankrupt or at least that he sees his way to make it so in a week.
It has been at once reported in City circles that there are "strained relations" between Great Britain and Czecho-Slovakia. Now what I advise is, that if the relations are strained, keep them so. England has lost nearly all the strained relations she ever had; let her cherish the few that she still has. I know that there are other opinions. The suggestion has been at once made for a "round table conference," at which the whole thing can be freely discussed without formal protocols and something like a "gentleman's agreement" reached. I say, don't do it. England is being ruined by these round table conferences. They are sitting round in Cairo and Calcutta and Capetown, filling all the best hotels and eating out the substance of the taxpayer.
I am told that Lloyd George has offered to go to Czecho-Slovakia. He should be stopped. It is said that Professor Keynes has proved that the best way to deal with the debt of Czecho-Slovakia is to send them whatever cash we have left, thereby turning the exchange upside down on them, and forcing them to buy all their Christmas presents in Manchester.
It is wiser not to do anything of the sort. England should send them a good old-fashioned ultimatum, mobilise all the naval officers at the Embankment hotels, raise the income tax another sixpence, and defy them.
If that were done it might prove a successful first step in bringing English politics back to the high plane of conversational interest from which they are threatening to fall.