Finest Hour 137, Winter 2007-08
Cohen Corner – The Untrodden Field in Politics
As spokesman for the reforming Liberal Government of 1906, Churchill made the case for the “Minimum Standard” and the Welfare State: “Science, physical and political alike, revolts at the disorganisation which glares at us in so many aspects of modern life It is false and base to say that these evils, and others like them, too many here to set forth, are inherent in the nature of things…”
By Winston S. Churchill
A student, Ryan Walsh, wrote us for Churchill’s essay “The Untrodden Field in Politics,” published 7 March 1908 in The Nation. Ryan could not find it in the official biography and numerous other works he consulted. There is a reason. As we learned, the piece never subsequently appeared, not even in The Collected Essays of Sir Winston Churchill. The Woods Bibliography had it as C34 and Ronald Cohen’s Bibliography of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill has it under “letters to the editor” as G109, explaining that it appeared in the column “Politics and Affairs.” We appealed to Mr. Cohen for assistance and in due course he sent us the complete text, reproduced with care and accuracy from the 1908 original. He wrote: “You may have confidence in the capitalization and punctuation, both of which may appear odd from time to time.” We publish this unusual piece for the first time in 100 years, exactly as transcribed from pages 812-13 of The Nation of 7 March 1908, with thanks to Ronald Cohen and with grateful acknowledgement to the Churchill Literary estate and to Winston S. Churchill for permission to reproduce it in these pages.
SIR,—It is a year ago since your enterprise was launched. During the weeks that are gone, THE NATION has maintained a position of sober but unflinching Radicalism, and has steadily acquired a true political significance. The period has been highly favourable to the discussion of large basic questions, and not unfavourable to the progress of social thought. When a Liberal and Radical administration is actually in being, when adventurous and extensive legislative proposals are being canvassed and debated in the country and in Parliament, when any proposal for reform, however Utopian, is received with a measure of sympathy and interest, all parties and all persons are forced to turn their minds to these dominant domestic topics. Even the most conservative of mankind are compelled to address themselves to purely social issues. The more active, earnest, or embittered the opponents of Liberal and reconstructive ideas become, the more they are constrained to descend into an arena which we have smoothed and sanded, and engage with weapons and upon ground of which we have made the choice. The consequences of this concentration of many different and conflicting forces upon home questions, far reaching and to some extent incalculable, as they would in any case be, become all the more striking in contrast with the period of foreign and colonial activity to which they have succeeded. They comprise a complete change in political values, in the point of view from which public men judge and are themselves judged, and in the style and language of Parliamentary debate and party tactics.
This considerable revolution has been intimately connected with Mr. Chamberlain’s Fiscal propaganda. Until the year 1903, the whole enormous force of the Conservative Party had been continuously exerted in allaying discontent among the masses of the people, in counselling patience, and in extolling the established system of society. Conservative working-men were exhorted to contrast the good conditions prevailing in Great Britain with the evils of foreign lands, to compare the standards of wages and comfort with those of forty or fifty years ago, and to seek relief from any hardships and restrictions incidental to their daily life in the contemplation of the glittering spectacle of Imperial power beyond the seas. The Liberal Party, on the other hand, had been accustomed to dwell on the reverse of the medal, and to urge with varying success the sufferings and the injustices of the poor. The irruption of the Tariff Campaign produced automatically a violent shifting, amounting relatively almost to a reversal of these positions. The Conservative Party, through all its organs and from all its platforms, began to raise the cry of discontent and fundamental change. The very forces which had previously restrained, now became a vehement forward impulse. The poor were reminded of their sufferings. The mass of the nation were urged into active protest. On all sides we heard it proclaimed by persons of high rank or substantial wealth, that England was being ruined, that the rewards of industry were unevenly and unfairly distributed, that unemployment was rife and increasing, and that nothing short of an economic revolution would repair the social balance.
In its first beginnings, the defence of Free Trade naturally took the form of correcting extravagant assertions made with the object of showing that British trade was actually or relatively in decline; and Liberal speakers were everywhere occupied in presenting long files of reassuring statistics to anxious and inquiring crowds. In the upshot, a good many people have made up their minds, among other things, that British producers have no difficulty, in spite of hostile tariffs, in placing their exports; that British consumers and producers alike enjoy the advantage of a rich and varied home market, over which a moderate range of prices prevails; that fluctuations of enterprise and employment are less frequent and less violent than in the great Protected States; and that, after making all conceivable allowances for dissimilarity in conditions, the general standards of life and labour in the British Isles are improving and not inferior. But although the imminent danger, as it seemed, of a reversion to a Protective Tariff imposed this task, and although the facts established are true and salutary, the defensive role of moderator was not congenial to a democratic and Radical Party, and cannot but be out of harmony with its essential character. This discordance, inevitable though it was, transient as it has been, was in itself sufficient to carry Socialism from the regions of obscure philosophy to a permanent place in actual politics.
In proportion as the peril of reaction into a capitalist tariff became more remote, the progressive forces were able again to resume their forward march. The strange perversion of Tory politics still continues, and the influence of wealth is daily exerted to prove—and with great success—how uneven is its distribution. But Radicalism is back again in the collar. The forces grouped around the present Administration, and upon which it depends, are now strong enough, if boldly commanded, not only to ward off the dangers of Protection, but at the same time to urge forward the social march. And no one who serves the cause of progress need regret the assistance which its traditional opponents, from whatever motives, are now giving it. Unexpected and unnatural as the pressure of Tory-voiced discontent may be, it is susceptible of a useful and effective application to the purposes of social reconstruction. The blow which was aimed to throw, and nearly threw, the democratic engine off the line, has in glancing become itself a contributory impulse, and never before was the available driving power so great, and the available resisting power so inert. Now, if ever, is the time.
While these curious changes have been occupying the attention of the party world, a not less important modification has been consummated in the internal conception of the Liberal Party. It has not abandoned in any respect its historic championship of Liberty, in all its forms under every sky; but it has become acutely conscious of the fact that political freedom, however precious, is utterly incomplete without a measure at least of social and economic independence. This realisation is not confined to our islands. It is taking hold of men’s minds as it never has before, in every popularly governed State. All over the world the lines of cleavage are ceasing to be purely political, and are becoming social and economic. The present majority in the House of Commons is pervaded by a social spirit, which is all the more lively and earnest because it has yet to find clear-cut and logical formularies of particular expression. A great body of opinion is slowly moving forward, conscious of possessing in its midst a vital truth, conscious, too, of the almost super-human difficulty of affording to it any definition at once sufficiently comprehensive and precise. It is for this reason that no hard and fast line can be drawn between the varied elements which constitute the strength of the present Government upon any ground of political theory. No true classification can be made in the abstract between Liberals and Radicals, or between Radicals and Labour representatives. It is only when confronted with some concrete fact that clear decisions can be taken. And hitherto most of the issues that have arisen have only served to demonstrate the general solidarity.
It is in such a situation, party and national, that the movement towards a Minimum Standard may well take conscious form. It is a mood rather than a policy; but it is a mood which makes it easy to perceive the correlation of many various sets of ideas, and to refer all sorts of isolated acts of legislation to one central and common test. Two clear lines of advance open before us: corrective, by asserting the just precedence of public interests over private interests; and constructive, by supplying the patent inadequacy of existing social machinery. It is this latter work which has lately attracted an increasing measure of attention diroughout the country.
Science, physical and political alike, revolts at the disorganisation which glares at us in so many aspects of modern life. We see the curse of unregulated casual employment steadily rotting the under side of the labour market. We see the riddles of employment and under-employment quite unsolved. There are mighty trades which openly assert the necessity of a labour surplus— “on hand” in the streets and round the dock gates—for the ordinary commercial convenience of their business. And they practise what they preach. There are political philosophers who complacently resigned themselves to the doctrine of the residuum. There are other industries which prey upon the future. Swarms of youths, snatched from school at the period in life when training should be most careful and discipline most exacting, are flung into a precocious manhood, and squander their most precious years in erratic occupations, which not only afford no career for them in after life, but sap and demoralise that character without which no career can be discovered or pursued. Thousands of children grow up not nourished sufficiently to make them effective citizens, or even to derive benefit from die existing educational arrangements. Thousands of boys are exploited in depressing men’s wages, and are discharged when they demand such wages for themselves. The military obligations of foreign nations take two or three years from the life of every man, and ought thereby to give the dwellers in this island a mastery in peaceful craftsmanship over the whole world. All this inestimable advantage runs thriftlessly to waste. The army system is itself to a very large extent a pauperising machine, nicely calculated to take the best years from the lives of its servants with the minimum obligation to the State.
It is false and base to say that these evils, and others like them, too many here to set forth, are inherent in the nature of things, that their remedy is beyond the wit of man, that experiment is foolhardy, that all is for the best in “Merrie England.” No one will believe it any more. That incredulity is one of the most noteworthy features in the evolution of public opinion to-day. The nation, which is greater than either party, demands the application of drastic corrective and curative processes, and will crown with confidence and honour any party which has the strength and wisdom necessary for that noble crusade.
We are already in battle on more than one point in this large field. The Licensing Bill comes to grips not only with the excessive consumption of strong drink, but with the unwarranted assertions of private interest. The Trade Disputes Act is a charter to Trades Unionism, and to all the social insurance that Trades Unionism involves. The Land Acts, some past, others on the anvil, open to the people a new sphere for enterprise and exertion, and tend to afford a healthy stability to the Commonwealth.
But the future offers larger hopes and sterner labours. We have to contemplate the serious undertaking by the State of the elimination of casual employment through the agency of Labour Exchanges, and the scientific treatment, in every conceivable classification, of any unabsorbed residuum that may exist. The House of Commons has unanimously approved the institution of Wages Boards in certain notoriously “sweated” industries,” [extra closing quotation marks are as printed] and this principle may be found capable of almost indefinite extension in those industries which employ parasitically underpaid labour. We have to seek, whether through the acquisition of the railways or canals, or by the development of certain national industries like Afforestation, the means of counterbalancing the natural fluctuations of world trade. We have by an altogether unprecedented expansion in technical colleges and continuation schools, to train our youth in the skill of the hand, as well as in arts and letters, and to give them a far greater degree of discipline in mind and body. We have to make that provision for the aged which compassion demands and policy approves.
It is certain that as we enter upon these untrodden fields of British politics we shall need the aid of every moral and religious force which is alive in England to-day. Sacrifices will be required from every class in the population; the rich must contribute in money and the poor in service, if their children are to tread a gentler path towards a fairer goal. A fiscal system which prudently but increasingly imposes the necessary burdens of the State upon unearned wealth will not only be found capable of providing the funds which will be needed, but will also stimulate enterprise in production. And thus from many quarters we may work towards the establishment of that Minimum Standard below which competition cannot be allowed, but above which it may continue healthy and free, to vivify and fertilise the world.
It is because the influence of THE NATION may be powerful to aid and further these causes, that I send you my good wishes and congratulations to-day.—I am, Sir,
Winston S. Churchill