G.K.’s Weekly, 31 October 1931.
The most outstanding mark of the modern world, which is its startling stupidity, is sufficiently summed up in the fact that the public can be daily confronted with some sentence like this: “In the hour of peril, in a time of abnormal national need, we must put Country before Party.” It can be said; it can be said again; it can be said again and again; it can be printed in gigantic letters like a child’s alphabet on papers or posters. And amid all those millions of voting, newspaper-reading, compulsorily educated and completely silenced wage-slaves, there is not one human voice raised to reply, “Then I suppose in normal times we should put Party before Country.” Nobody seems to be able to think his way an inch beyond any statement that is made to him. This statement, which is being incessantly made to him, has a perfectly obvious meaning in mere logic and the language of men. It means (if it means anything) that there is always, and at any given moment, a perfectly self-evident truth about what is best for the country; with which we all agree, but about which, nine times out of ten, we wantonly pretend to disagree.
But if there is such a truth, a man is a traitor if he disregards it at any time. If there is such a self-evident solution, he is bound to apply it at once in normal times, and not wait till the last moment, to play the belated hero or the penitent thief theatrically in abnormal times. And if there is not such a self-evident solution, then the whole appeal becomes stuff and nonsense. If men do honestly differ about what will save the country, what the devil is the good of bawling at a man to save his country, in a way which he thinks will ruin his country?
The Party is either a real thing or an unreal one. If it is a real thing, it consists of men who believe their Party can alone save their Country, especially in time of peril. If it is an unreal thing, nobody should tolerate it for a moment, or let it weaken the Country in the smallest degree, even in time of peace. In either case, the tag I have quoted is perfectly transparent trash; yet everybody everywhere has seen it, and hardly anybody has seen through it. In the old Party System the worst things were the things that were “Above Party”. The Eye-Witness, the predecessor of this paper, insisted long ago that the worst work was always done when the two Front Benches were agreed. In the present case, the converse is also true. At the very moment when all the plutocratic demagogues are telling us to “Else Above Party,” they are indulging in an entirely new and unprecedented riot of party spirit, not to say party spite.
Nothing is more strange or more melancholy about this Election than the return of all the stale and stagey tricks of party controversy, which we hoped had been killed by the War, and which really were for many years stunned by the War. It was some time before men who had seen trenches and battle lines could talk quite so boisterously about the battle line of the Conservative Party, or fall into the disgusting vulgarity of talking about a candidate ‘going over the top.’ But the return of all this ragged old masquerade is very manifest in the present Election. There were certain persons whom I did devoutly hope had been killed by the War; though probably not in the War. There was, for instance, the Picturesque Parliamentary Reporter. He was always a good Party Man; that is, he was an exceptionally bad man, even among the members of his party. He was not only a bad man; he was in the most emphatic sense a bad sportsman. He had no notion of rejoicing in equal chances, or giving any opponent a fair chance. Though hired to describe a sham-fight as a fight, he had no notion of fighting; and still less of arguing. His only idea was to enquire carefully which of a dingy row of professionals were of his party and which of the other party; and then describe all the former as beautiful, graceful, eloquent and victorious, and all the latter as hideous, hunchbacked, stammering and staggering to their fall. Well, this vicious fool is back in all his glory; though his descriptions are less often of Parliamentary and more often of platform politics. His meaningless mechanical apparatus of praise and blame can still be used, and can still be quite as easily reversed. One of the many commercial advantages of writing, ‘Mr. Henderson struggled as best he could to stammer forth some feeble retorts to the flashing, piercing and polished satire of Mr. Thomas,’ is that it is obviously just as easy to write (at another time or even for another paper) ‘Mr. Thomas struggled as best he could to stammer forth some feeble retorts to the flashing, piercing and polished satire of Mr. Henderson.’ Almost all the controversy of the Election turns on this artless trick: and I doubt whether Distributists as such can get much out of such a bag of tricks.
One side promises nothing and we have no notion what it will do. The other side promises everything and we have no notion how it will do it. I can understand a distributist voting for the Ministry, if he thinks there is a wild chance of a lurch towards Communism; or for the Opposition, if he thinks there is a nearer danger of a new slump into the Servile State. But Distributism itself can hardly defeat both its vast and widely advertised rivals at such short notice in any electoral field. The business of the Opposition will begin when the new Ministry begins; and especially our business, who will be in any case in Opposition even to the Opposition.
Between the world and us there is a deep division of morals; that is why I can only stand aside from the three mobs, and write this melancholy note on the decay of manners. There is something almost more melancholy than a decay; and that is a relapse. In this Election we have relapsed into the worst manners of the worst time of Parliamentary falsity and folly, and lost the memory of that faint lull in the noise that followed the great silence of the soldiers. I am like a foreigner looking on at a cricket match; with just enough knowledge of it to know that it is not cricket. I can watch men going back to the old game of party politics; and note that they are no longer even playing the game. I can only hope that when all the politicians have left off promising everything, they may begin seriously to do nothing. Then, when all the political programmes have been scrapped, we may begin to talk politics. And they are a part of morals.