It is hardly necessary here to argue the abstract question of democracy.  All rational political systems that have ever been tolerated among men have been based ultimately on the expression of the popular will, and at the present time at any rate no party can be found that explicitly denies the doctrine of the people’s sovereignty.  During the last two elections the two parties were shouting against each other that “the Will of the People must prevail,” and the only point in dispute was whether the Will of the People was best represented by the Duke of Sussex or by his son-in-law, the Right Honourable James Blagg. 

It may, however, be worth while to define exactly what democracy is.  Votes and elections and representative assemblies are not democracy; they are at best machinery for carrying out democracy.  Democracy is government by the {16} general will.  Wherever, under whatever forms, such laws as the mass of the people desire are passed, and such laws as they dislike are rejected, there is democracy.  Wherever, under whatever forms, the laws passed and rejected have no relation to the desires of the mass, there is no democracy.  That is to say, there is no democracy in England to-day. 

Pure democracy is possible only in a small community.  The only machinery which perfectly fulfils its idea is the meeting of the elders under the village tree to debate and decide their own concerns.  The size of modern communities and the complexity of modern political and economic problems make such an arrangement impossible for us.  But it is well to keep it in mind as a picture of real democracy. 

The idea of representation is to secure by an indirect method the same result as is secured directly in such communities.  Since every man cannot, under modern conditions, vote on every question, it is thought that a number of men might combine to send a man to vote in their name.  Men so selected may then meet and vote, and their decision, if they are faithful representatives of the people, may be taken as the decision of the people. 

Under no circumstances would such a system work perfectly.  But that it may work tolerably, it is essential that the representatives should represent.  The extraordinary capacity of politicians {17} for tying themselves in inextricable knots of confused thinking was never better shown than in the current saying that a representative should not be a mere delegate.  Either the representative must vote as his constituents would vote if consulted, or he must vote in the opposite sense.  In the latter case, he is not a representative at all, but merely an oligarch; for it is surely ridiculous to say that a man represents Bethnal Green if he is in the habit of saying “Aye” when the people of Bethnal Green would say “No.” If, on the other hand, he does vote as his constituents would vote, then he is merely the mouthpiece of his constituents and derives his authority from them.  And this is the only democratic theory of representation. 

In order that the practice may correspond to it, even approximately, three things are necessary.  First, there must be absolute freedom in the selection of representatives; secondly, the representatives must be strictly responsible to their constituents and to no one else; thirdly, the representatives must deliberate in perfect freedom, and especially must be absolutely independent of the Executive. 

In a true representative system the Executive would be responsible to the elected assembly and the elected assembly would be responsible to the people.  From the people would come the impulse and the initiative.  They would make certain demands; it would be the duty of their representa-{18}tives to give expression to these demands, and of the Executive to carry them out. 

It must be obvious to everyone that these conditions do not prevail in England to-day.  Instead of the Executive being controlled by the representative assembly, it controls it.  Instead of the demands of the people being expressed for them by their representatives, the matters discussed by the representatives are settled not by the people, not even by themselves, but by the “Ministry”—the very body which it is the business of the representative assembly to check and control. 

It will be the main business of this book to inquire what is the force which not only obstructs but largely reverses the working of the representative machine, turning into an engine of oligarchy what was meant to be an organ of democracy. 

The detailed causes of this reversal will require some careful analysis; but if the thing which makes representative institutions fail here must be expressed in a phrase, the two words which best sum it up are the “Party System.”


We have just attempted a sketch of representative government as it ought to be, and the English people long believed that they had got, if not quite that, at least a decent approximation to it.  It was {19} their boast that without bloodshed or violent severance with the past they had as much of the reality of self-government as the most perfectly planned Republic could have.  In what degree this was ever true will form the matter of discussion later.  But undoubtedly it was widely believed.  Most Englishmen until very lately, if told that they were not self-governing, would have laughed in your face. 

But now a dim suspicion has begun to arise in the minds of at least a section of the people that this historic optimism is not quite as true as it looks, that the electors do not as a fact control the representatives, and that the representatives do not as a fact control the Government, that something alien has intervened between electors and elected, between legislature and Executive, something that deflects the working of representative institutions. 

That thing is the Party System. 

A method of government has grown up in our country under which the representatives of the people are divided into two camps which are supposed to represent certain broad divergences of opinion.  Between these two the choice of the election lies, and the side which secures the largest measure of support forms a Government, the minority undertaking the work of opposition. 

How this system arose, how it has changed, and how it actually works, will be subjects of future {20} consideration.  At present we are concerned with the attitude of the public towards it. 

First, it must be said emphatically that the body of public opinion upon which the Party System operates is in the main still honest and public-spirited.  Not to admit this would be to nullify the effect of all criticism of the evil which we are trying to expose; for, as we are all aware, the theoretic differences at least between policies proposed is considerable, and often corresponds to the difference of schools of political thought; and even if we regard the politician as a mere advocate, he does hold a different brief according to the side of the House on which he sits, and though this brief may be unreal to him, and though, as it is the object of this book to show, he may have, and probably has, no intention of making it the basis of action, yet it is often real enough to those to whose support he appeals.  Thus a Conservative leader must denounce the land taxes which the body of his followers in the country quite sincerely detest, and though, as they begin to suspect, he has no intention of repealing them, yet it would be childish to question the genuineness of the feelings which he is attempting to exploit. 

The Party System, which is a game (and a source of profit) to the politicians, is often a matter of deadly earnest to their honest backers in the country. 

There are still very many who believe implicitly and fervently in the reality of the conflict.  There {21} are Conservatives who are convinced that the Liberal Government is only prevented from dragging the nation through spoliation to destruction by the noble patriotism of the Conservative Opposition.  There are Liberals who look on Mr Asquith and Mr Winston Churchill as the tribunes of a people rightly struggling to be free, confronting with undaunted courage the frowns of a haughty oligarchy.  The old lady who, on Mr Gladstone being pointed out to her at the funeral of some public personage, remarked:—“Oh, I hope he hasn’t come to make a disturbance!” is still with us, and so is the enthusiastic and credulous Radical who believes that Mr Churchill has become an outcast from his order by bravely taking the side of the people. 

There is another kind of enthusiast who helps to keep the Party System going.  This is the man who earnestly desires some particular measure which one of the two parties has espoused, or (what comes to much the same thing) has an intense repugnance to some measure which the other party has espoused.  Thus many men, more or less indifferent to politics generally, think that Tariff Reform will benefit their industry, and accordingly vote for the party that advocates it.  Again, a man will often find his particular religion affected by legislation in regard to education or religious establishments, and will support the party identified with his views.  To the same class belong the militant teetotalers, and the Irish, to whom nothing matters but the cause {22} of their nationality.  Men of this type do not form a very large section of the electorate, but they are of importance at elections, and the politicians have to take them into account. 

Finally, there is the mass of ordinary voters, largely indifferent to political problems, yet at times keenly interested in politics.  How shall we define their state of mind? 

Perhaps the best parallel to the attitude of the general public towards politics is to be found in the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race.  Of the crowds that line the towing path every year from Putney to Mortlake there are few that have ever been to either University, have ever known anyone who has been to either, have even the remotest or most shadowy connection with either.  Yet they take sides enthusiastically, and would almost be prepared to shed blood for their “fancy.” Note that this is not a mere question of backing your judgment on the merits of the two crews.  Not one man in ten knows anything about that, and many are proud of always sticking to the same side year after year, of being always “Oxford” or “Cambridge,” whether their favourite colour wins or loses.  And just as they vehemently take sides with a University to which they have never been, so they take sides as vehemently with a party which they do not control and from which they can never hope for the smallest benefit. 

Such are the mass of the supporters of either party.  They derive their political opinions origin-{23}ally from some family tradition or some fanciful preference, but they back them with all the passion of sportsmen.  In a vague subconscious way they know it is a game, but they happen to enjoy playing the game. 

Nevertheless, there is a section of the public, not perhaps large, but certainly increasing, which is beginning to be uneasy about the Party System.  It is natural to men to wish to have voice in the government of their native land, and many are beginning to feel that they have no such effective voice to-day.  Laws which they detest are passed, passed easily by the consent of both parties, and they are powerless to defeat or even to protest against them.  Measures which they ardently desire and which they know that most of their neighbours ardently desire are never even mentioned.  Acts of the Government which seem at the very least proper subjects for criticism and inquiry are suffered without comment.  Scandals and blunders of which they have caught a glimpse are suddenly covered over and buried in silence. 

And along with the discontent engendered by these things goes an intangible suspicion that they are in some way the victims of a conspiracy.  Why, asks such a man, does not his own side follow up its advantages?  Why do his leaders unexpectedly spare their opponents at the very moment when these appear to be in their power?  How many honest Radicals were bewildered when the Liberal leaders joined with their rivals to stifle the inquiry {24} into the Jameson Raid!  How many honest Unionists have been puzzled by Mr Balfour’s hesitations and equivocations in the matter of Tariff Reform!  How many on both sides have felt somehow fooled and betrayed when they saw the wild agitation and counter-agitation of last year end in a meaningless “Conference”! 

It should be remarked, however, that those of whom we speak are generally very far from realising the full truth of their own suspicions.  That something is wrong they instinctively feel.  What is wrong they would find very great difficulty in defining.  They lay the blame now on one leader, now on another.  They hardly yet see that the evil is in the system itself.  Thus Radicals will say that Mr Asquith is too Whiggish, that he does not fully enter into the feelings of his party in regard to the House of Lords.  They do not realise that the whole Liberal Front Bench is as deeply interested as he in keeping the old game going in accordance with the old rules, and dreads as much as any Tory could dread any violent change which might suddenly alter the conditions and perhaps put a summary end to the contest.  Thus, again, enthusiastic Tariff Reformers condemn Mr Balfour as weak.  They fail to see that the real difficulty is not that he is weak, but that he is strong—strong in the traditions of party, the complex system of relationships and alliances that cover English politics like a net, much too strong to allow his hands to be forced by the Tory Democracy.  Men of all opinions {25} were puzzled, bewildered, and somewhat perturbed by the Conference, not knowing that it was but a more formal type of those thousand private Conferences between opposing leaders behind the Speaker’s chair and at dinner parties and social clubs which give their real direction to the politics and to the destinies of modern England. 


It is an error to suppose that the Party System was always the organised imposture which it is to-day.  There was a time when it had a meaning—nay, even within times comparatively recent it meant more than it means now. 

During the seventeenth century there was in England a definite conflict of political ideals.  The old conception of kingship was at war with the theory of Parliamentary Government; and the vital reality of the struggle was proved by the one infallible test, the fact that men were willing to fight and kill and be killed for their own ideal.  The war went on with varying fortunes until the Revolution of 1689, which marked the final triumph of one doctrine over the other. 

It is a great though a not uncommon mistake to suppose that that triumph was a triumph of democracy.  The Revolution took for its excuse indeed a democratic theory, simply because some excuse of the sort must be taken by anyone who attempts to put his political success upon a moral {26} basis.  There is not, and never has been, any moral theory of sovereignty conceivable that was not based upon the ultimate sovereignty of the community.  But neither in motive nor in practice was there a democratic force behind the Revolution of 1689. 

The Revolution of 1689 was not made by the people.  The populace of London and of certain prosperous southern towns may have been in favour of it, but the mass of ancient and rural and then numerically preponderant England was certainly against it.  The Revolution was made not only by but for a group of wealthy intriguers with an object in the main financial.  That group of men and their successors proceeded to enrich themselves at the public expense in every conceivable way.  Perhaps the best commentary upon the Revolution of 1689 is to be found in the enclosure during the century and a half which followed the accession of the House of Hanover of more than 6,000,000 acres of common land by the rich landowners and their satellites who had drawn the sword for “civil and religious liberty.”

What triumphed in 1689 and again in 1715 and 1745 was not the people but the Parliament.  The Parliament did not represent the people; indeed, it hardly professed to do so.  It was jealous of any publicity given to its debates, it gloried in the private possession of seats in Parliament by particular magnates, and perhaps the most signifi-{27}cant symptom of its character was the comparative effacement of the House of Lords. 

The Parliament, then, represented a narrow class, which had for its base the great landowners, but for its buttresses the merchants, and for its recruitment wealth in any form however gotten.  But it should be remembered that within this class there were real differences of opinion.  The political conflicts of the eighteenth century were therefore, compared with our own, real conflicts.  The Parliament might have little regard for the mass of the people, but it was powerful as against the mere Executive.  The fact that strong Ministers wore obliged to spend enormous sums in bribing the legislature proves that the legislature was able to control them, and, if not placated, to overthrow them.  Such direct bribery has now ceased, but it may be questioned whether this cessation is not due rather to the growing impotence of the House of Commons than to any increase in public virtue.  So again the conflicts of Pitt and Fox had this difference from the conflicts of rival politicians of the present day, that they extended to the sphere of private life.  The two men did not speak to each other.  They belonged to the same class, no doubt, for it was the only class possessed of any political power.  But they did not, like Mr Asquith and Mr Balfour, belong to the same set. 

The system of politics which lasted from the beginning to the end of the eighteenth century {28} was finally disturbed by two forces: The material powers created by the industrial revolution and the ideas generated by the Great Revolution of France.  The two combined produced the Reform Bill of 1832.  New wealth had been created by the new machinery, and this new wealth led to an extension in the class of the newly made rich, which gravely disturbed the old balance between the merchants and the mere landowners.  The newly made rich continued to be rapidly and effectually digested into the governing class; indeed, it was Pitt’s persistent policy to meet the new situation by a wholesale creation of plutocratic peers; but a sufficient margin of rich men remained outside the organism of the governing class to disturb the equilibrium, and hence the old representative system found itself in direct conflict with masses of the new wealth. 

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century there was something like a real struggle between the commercial and the territorial rich—a struggle that culminated in the fight over Free Trade.  To-day, not only has the struggle ceased, but the line of demarcation can no longer be drawn.  Nobles and gentlemen of the old territorial class are now deeply interested in commercial speculations of all kinds, not only as urban landlords but as speculators and directors.  On the other hand the newly made rich buy landed estates, county seats, and—what is more important than all—permanent legislative power {29} in the House of Lords.  At the present day the purchase of legislative power, which is the normal and shameful method of recruitment in the House of Lords, is almost invariably effected by men who have made their fortunes either in commerce or by money-lending.  It is rare to find a large landowner who is also a commoner entering the market and purchasing a peerage. 

We have to-day to deal not with a divided but with a united plutocracy, a homogeneous mass of the rich, commercial and territorial, into whose hands practically all power, political as well as economic, has now passed. 

During the whole course of the nineteenth century two processes have been going on side by side, the one patent to all the world and the foundation of much comment and speculation, the other almost entirely unobserved and unmentioned. 

The first is the extension of the franchise.  Step by step since 1832, more and more citizens have been admitted to vote for members of Parliament.  First the clerk or shopkeeper, then the urban workman, and finally the agricultural labourer became an elector.  This process should clearly have meant an increase in the power of democracy, and it has been practically universally assumed that it did mean this.  But in fact it is extremely dubious whether the mass of the people have as much political power to-day as they had before the process began.  Had the enfranchisement of {30} the people come suddenly there is little doubt that something like real democracy would have been achieved.  But it came by slow degrees, and there was time for another process to go on side by side with the widening of the franchise. 

That process was the transfer of effective power from the House of Commons to the Ministry, or, to speak more accurately, to the two Front Benches, Government and “Opposition.” There was no definite moment at which you could say that this was done, but it has been done very thoroughly by now.  Anyone who doubts this will find it easy to convince himself of it by glancing at the relations of the House and the Executive at the beginning of the process and at the end.  At the beginning the Government was dependent on the House; now the House is in a state of abject dependence on the Ministers and ex-Ministers, who arrange between them details of all policies. 

A very simple test will show this.  One of the most important historic powers of the House of Commons is the power of driving a Minister or Government from office.  That power was not only possessed by the early Parliaments of the nineteenth century, but was continually exercised; and Administrations, strong in reputation and in parliamentary support, were repeatedly overthrown by revolts of their own followers, and dismissed by the vote of the Commons.  So Wellington was overthrown in 1830, and Grey in 1834.  So Peel {31} was driven from power by the Protectionist revolt in 1845.  So Lord John Russell fell in 1852, and so in a few months afterwards fell the Ministry of Derby and Disraeli.  So the Coalition Ministry of Lord Aberdeen was defeated in 1855 by a vote of censure on the conduct of the Crimean War.  So in 1857 Palmerston was beaten on the Chinese War, and again in 1859 on the Conspiracy Bill.  So in 1865 the strong Ministry of Russell and Gladstone was overthrown on its Reform Bill by the rebellion of the Adullamites. 

If we take the year 1870 as the pivot year, we shall find that in the forty years that preceded 1870, nine Administrations which could normally command a majority of the Commons were upset by the independent action of members of that House.  In the forty years that have passed since 1870 only one instance of this happening can be mentioned—the defeat of Mr Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill of 1886.  There the circumstances were in many ways exceptional, and even that example is now nearly a quarter of a century old.  In the last twenty-four years not a single case of such independent action on the part of the Commons has occurred. 

Another illustration, if further illustration be needed, of the progressive emasculation of the House of Commons may be found by comparing its attitude in the matter of the Crimean War waged fifty years ago, and its attitude in the matter of the South African War waged only the {32} other day.  Both wars, whether wise or foolish, just or unjust, were undoubtedly supported by the bulk of public opinion both within and without Parliament.  Both wars were scandalously mismanaged.  But the Crimean War was fought when Parliament was comparatively free.  As soon as the details of the mismanagement began to be known in England there was a fierce popular agitation, and the popular voice was immediately heard not only in the Press but also in Parliament.  A Committee of Inquiry was demanded and refused.  But in spite of the opposition of the men in power the demand was carried in the House of Commons by a huge majority.  The result was that Lord Aberdeen had to resign and Lord Palmerston took his place.  Palmerston wanted to get rid of the Committee, but the House insisted, and he, powerful and popular as he was, was obliged to bow to its will.  All this was done, it must be remembered, not by the Opposition or the Peace Party, but by men returned to support the Government—men who thoroughly approved of the war and merely wished to see it efficiently conducted. 

In the case of the South African War there was plenty of grumbling in the country, and not a few sensational exposures of the incompetence and corruption which weakened our arms.  But within the walls of Parliament scarcely a voice was heard, and it certainly never entered the head of any Conservative member (or Liberal member either for {33} that matter) to take the strong step of driving out the men in power and putting better administrators in their place.  Indeed, the war was conducted invariably without consulting Parliament; and during the whole of its course financial scandals, quite openly talked of among the educated classes of this country, had no place in Parliamentary discussion.  The House of Commons had ceased to be an instrument of government. 

To whom, then, has the power of the House of Commons passed?  It has passed to a political committee for which no official name exists (for it works in secret), but which may be roughly called “The Front Benches.” This committee is not elected by vote, or by acclamation, or even by general consent.  Its members do not owe their position either to the will of the House or the will of the people.  It is selected—mainly from among the rich politicians and their dependents—by a process of sheer and unchecked co-option.  It forms in reality a single body, and acts, when its interests or its power are at stake, as one man.  No difference of economic interest or of political principle any longer exists among its members to form the basis of a rational line of party division.  Nevertheless, the party division continues.  The governing group is divided arbitrarily into two teams, each of which is, by mutual understanding, entitled to its turn of office and emolument.  And a number of unreal issues, defined neither by the people nor by the Parliament, but by the politi-{34}cians themselves, are raised from time to time in order to give a semblance of reality to their empty competition. 

That is the Party System as it exists to-day, and by it the House of Commons has been rendered null, and the people impotent and without a voice.