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Skeletons At A Feast Post by :empowerism-now Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :1878

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Skeletons At A Feast

The other day the village was celebrating the birthday of its Labourers' Union in a manner which used to be reserved for the coming of age of the Squire's son, or for the Harvest Festival, in which the farmer might give thanks for the harvest, and the peasant, perhaps, for having been allowed to assist in winning it. I take a sort of pride in recording a staidness in the observance which I believe to be peculiar to the countryside in which I live. There was a service, with a sermon, in church, all persuasions uniting; then a dinner with speeches; then sports and dancing on the grass. Every stave of the Pastoral was announced and punctuated by the village band. "God save the King" closed all down at nine o'clock.

It was sober merry-making after our manner, yet one could feel the undercurrent of a triumph not difficult to understand. Not a man there but knew, or had heard his father tell, of how things used to be. Ten years ago those men were earning sixteen shillings a week for twelve hours a day; fifteen years ago they were earning twelve shillings; thirty years ago they were earning nine shillings; a hundred years ago they were on the rates, herded about in conscript gangs under the hectorings of an overseer. Now--and it has seemed to come all in a moment--the humblest of them earn their 36s. 6d.; the head men their 40s.; their hours are down to fifty for the week, with a half-holiday on Saturday; delegates of their kind sit at a board in Trowbridge face to face and of equal worth with delegates of their employers. All matters affecting their status, housing, terms of employment can be brought before the board; and beside that, and behind it, like a buttress, there is a Union, whose name recalls that other grim fortress to which alone in times bygone they had to look when old age was upon them. This new Union has been in existence here little more than a twelvemonth, but they know now that it has spread all over England.

They know more than that. They know that this plexus of organisations is not only social, but political; they feel that the estate of the realm which they stand for may soon become, and must before long become, the predominant estate. They feel the rising tide already lifting them off their feet. The elders are sobered by the flood; but the young ones taste the salt water sprayed off the crest of the wave and look at each other, laugh and cheer. If they rejoice they have good reason, knowing what they know; and if I rejoice with them, I think that I have good reason too. This time seven years ago I sang at length of Hodge and his plow; and looking back and forth over his blood-stained, sweat-stained and tear-stained history, I seemed to see what was coming to him as the crown of his thousand years of toil.

I look and see the end of it,
How fair the well-lov'd land appears;
I see September's misty heat
Laid like a swooning on the corn;
I see the reaping of the wheat,
I hear afar the hunter's horn,
I see the cattle at the ford,
The panting sheep beneath the thorn!
The burden of the years is scor'd,
The reckoning made, Hodge walks alone,
Content, contenting, his own lord,
Master of what his pain has won.

And so indeed it is. The peasant now has his foot on the degrees of the throne, and has only to step up, he and his mates of the mine, the forge, the foundry and the railroad--to step up and lay hand to the orb and sceptre.

If I had misgivings, and if those, when imparted to, were shared by an old friend of mine who still gives me six hours a day of his strength and skill when the weather and his rheumatics can hit it off together, I may say at once that though they were renewed in me by the late threat of the railwaymen arrogantly hurled at the only Government in my recollection which has made arrogance in asking almost a necessary stage in negotiation, they had been present for a long time--beyond Mr. Smillie's wild proposals of direct action, beyond the Yorkshire miners and the flooded coalfields; back to the day when electricians refused to light the Albert Hall, and Merchant Seamen refused passage to some politician or another because they didn't like his politics. One and each of those direct and unsteady actions made me shiver for the men with their feet on the throne's degrees. And now a Railway Strike, which has injured every one and will throw back the railwaymen and their Labour Party for many a year! If these things are done in the green wood, I asked my friend, what will be done in the dry?

He couldn't answer me but by asking in his turn questions which were but a variation of my own. He said: "Our people don't seem to understand anything but 'each man for himself.' The miners hold up the country for higher wages, and the country has to pay them; the railwaymen do the same, and the country must find double fares and high freight. They hit their own class hardest of all, because dear coal and high tariffs touch everybody. And they don't even help themselves, because directly wages are raised, up goes the price of everything. Now what I want you to tell me is how are they going to stop all that when they are the Government? For it will have to stop."

He is right: it will have to stop; but I don't see how the Labour Party is going to stop it. So far as I can make out, the Labour Party, as a responsible, political body, has no control whatsoever over the trade unions; and the trade unions, as such, none over their members. How, then, is one to look forward with comfort to the establishment of a Labour Government? It will take a readier speech than even Mr. Webb's, a more confident than even Mr. Smillie's to illuminate this smoke-blurred scene whereon we make out every trade union preying upon Mr. George's vitals (which are, unfortunately, for the moment our own vitals), and with a success so disastrously easy as to make any prospects of a return to sane, honest, dignified or just government almost hopeless! Mr. George is destroying himself hand over fist, and the sooner the better; but one does not want to see England go down with him. I am all for anarchy myself when once it is thoroughly grasped by everybody that anarchy means minding your own business. But we are far from that as yet. Anarchy at present means minding, and grudging, other people's business. Such anarchy is not government, but plundering with both hands.

My point, however, is that, if we are to have a Labour Government, it must be a Government of a nation, and not a class-affair. When the Duke said that the King's Government must be carried on, he meant the Government of King George or King William. Our present Prime Minister means the Government of Mr. George, which is a very different affair. In its way of simple egotism it is precisely the meaning of the trade unions, and can be shortlier put as "After me the deluge." And that won't do. We want neither autocracy nor anarchy; and just now the one involves the other.

(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: Skeletons At A Feast

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