The Mockery of “Freedom”
The recent General Election was not entirely devoid of colour. Apart from the favours that varying schools of opinion adopted, there were the miniature cascades of leaflets in blue, yellow, green, orange, and other colours, which descended through our letter-boxes each day. Among them was one of a delightful lemon-yellow, bearing the leaded caption, “The Road to Freedom.” It informed us with Spartan brevity that Great Britain was the freest country in the world. We were spared the encumbrance of definitions or comparisons, but were brought up against realities at once by the poser : “How did we get this freedom? ” Then followed the answer: “We got it almost entirely through the work done by the Liberal Party.”
You recognise the style, of course. Apart from the little word “almost,” there is a refreshing sweep about a statement like that, which convinces everyone—except those who know the facts.
“But the facts are given overleaf!” Are they? Pray let us examine them. The pamphlet says :—
“Here are the four main stages by which we have obtained political freedom. (1) The Reform Act of 1832—passed by a Liberal Government; (2) The Reform Act of 1867—first introduced by Gladstone, 1866; finally passed 1867, when Disraeli was Prime Minister, and when Conservatives were in office, but passed by the Liberal Members who were still in a majority in the House of Commons. (3) The Reform Act of 1884—passed by a Liberal Government; (4) The Reform Act of 1918—the first steps were taken by Mr. Asquith in 1916, and the Act was passed when Mr. Lloyd George was Prime Minister of a Coalition Government. The Liberal Party also secured secrecy for the act of voting by passing the Ballot Act in 1872.”
Now we will call some more evidence. We shall perhaps appreciate how useful a little word like “almost” can be. In the interests of space we shall have to condense, but the authorities given can be consulted at any public library.
No. 1. The Reform Bill of 1832 left the working class almost entirely out of the franchise; it broke down the monopoly which the aristocratic and landed classes had enjoyed, and admitted the middle class to a share of the law-making. This was all the more exasperating (to the workers) because the excitement and agitation for the Reform Bill were in great measure that of working men.—(Justin McCarthy : Short History of Our Own Times, p. 17.)
No. 2. The Reform Bill of 1867. The £1O Borough Franchise was passed by the Tories in 1867 and was opposed by the Liberals. Gladstone’s solicitude for the working class having the franchise may be gauged by his attitude towards the £6 Franchise proposed in 1866. Writing to Mr. Horsfall, Manchester, on Aug. 8th that year, he said : “I do not agree with the demand either for manhood or household suffrage.”—(Mr. Gladstone: A Study, by L. J. Jennings, p. 245.)
The same work, on p. 22, records Mr. Gladstone as uttering the following :
“Changes that effect sudden and extensive transfer of power are attended by great temptations to the weakness of human nature; and however high our opinion may be of the labouring classes, or of any other class of the community, I do not believe that it would be right to place such a temptation within the reach of any of them.”
From 1832 to 1867 the Liberals had a majority in most of the nine Parliaments of that period, but although repeatedly pledged to give the workers a share in the franchise they broke their promises time after time. —(History of Our Own Times.)
No. 3. The Reform Act of 1884 did little more than extend the franchise given to householders, etc., in 1867, from the boroughs to the counties.—(Any Encyclopaedia.)
No. 4. The Reform Act of 1918. This is a gem : “The first steps were taken by Mr. Asquith in 1916,” says the pamphlet; about the same time as he was conferring the inestimable “liberty” of conscription upon us, we presume. No details are given, but surely credit should have been claimed for giving the vote to Service men. Much was made of this colossal advance, at the time, but there appears to have been a conspiracy of silence on the point since. The reason may be that, as so few of them could use it then, self-bestowed bouquets were quite safely in order, whereas now it is somewhat dubious as to whether it exists at all.
“It dates from March of this year, when the Admiralty decided to fall into line with the War Office, and to withdraw from the Navy, as had already been done early in 1922, from the Army, the privileges accorded originally during the 1918 election …. and to revert to the pre-war rule in this respect.”—“Daily News,” 24/10/24.
But as the whole Act was passed by the Coalition Government, the credit must be diluted under the “almost” clause. The remainder of the pamphlet claims credit for the benefits and liberties conferred upon the workers by Education and Industrial Freedom, i.e., freedom of combination. The following facts may be helpful in assessing the value of the Liberal Party’s efforts in those directions.
The anti-combination laws evolved during the 56 years of Whig rule, 1714 to 1770, were consolidated by the Tories in 1799. In 1824 Francis Place and Joseph Hume pushed through an Act permitting combination. In 1825 the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, and Lord Eldon, the Lord Chancellor, obtained the repeal of the Act, declaring they were quite unaware such an Act had been passed.—(Footnote, p. 94, Webb’s History of T.U.).
In 1830 the Whigs took the name of Liberals, and Lord Melbourne appointed two Commissioners to enquire into the standing of Trade Unions. These in their report advised such repressive measures that the Government dared not bring them before Parliament. It was the Liberals who prosecuted the Lancashire miners (1832) for threatening to strike; the Southwark Shoemakers (1832) for picketing; the Bermondsey Tanners (1834) for leaving their work unfinished ; who were guilty of the blackest crime on record against Trade Unionism when they sentenced six Dorchester labourers to seven years’ transportation to Tasmania for the appalling offence of forming a Trade Union, the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers.—(Sydney Webb’s History, T.U.)
“After a good deal of opposition on the part of the Whig Ministry of that day, backed as it was by the major portion of the manufacturing classes, and after much delay, the men were ‘pardoned,’ and ordered to be liberated. But …. the men had been hastened out of the country, and …. literally sold as slaves at £1 per head ; and even when they were pardoned, some of them did not hear of their pardon until years after¬wards. . . . ”—(Geo. Howell’s “Conflicts of Capital and Labour.”)
Yes ! The Liberals have ever been great lovers of liberty. The bitterest opponents of the Factory Acts were Liberals. The venomous persecutors of the Chartists were Liberals. The deadliest enemies of combination on the part of the workers were Liberals. When, in 1869, Frederick Harrison drew up a Bill legalising Trade Unions, the Liberal Government opposed it. They passed one themselves in 1871, and shortly afterwards seven women were sent to prison for shouting “Bah” after a blackleg in South Wales, and some London gas-workers were sent to prison for preparing to strike. This under Gladstone.—(History of Trade Unionism.)
The draft of the Ballot Act of 1871 contained a clause authorising payment of election expenses. Rejected by a large Liberal majority.—(History of Our Own Times.)
For several years Mr. Plimsoll had urged the Liberals to pass an Act to prevent the sending of rotten ships to sea for the sake of the insurance, whereby numbers of sailors were deliberately murdered. On one occasion when he pointed out several Liberal shipowners guilty of this practice, he was thrown out of the House of Commons. The first Bill introducing the load line, called the Plimsoll Line, was passed by the Tories in 1875.—(History of Our Own Times.)
When Bradlaugh was returned for Northampton and declined to take the oath in their form, the liberty-loving Liberals refused to let him sit; on one occasion employing ten policemen to throw him out.— Gladstone period, 1884-1886 (History of Our Own Times). It was the Liberal Asquith who had the troops despatched to Featherstone in 1893, resulting in the killing of two innocent people and the maiming of others.
But need we go on? More recent history you already know. D.O.R.A., of blessed memory. National Registration (precursor of Conscription in spite of explicit denials at the time), the brutal suppression of conscience and opinion during the war; these, and more, were the work of the Liberals.
Freedom ! Liberty ! ! Read their record. The only liberty they have known is the liberty to exploit labour. Have we omitted anything from their rotten record? We have—piles of evidence. We have even omitted to mention they were a capitalist party. Is it necessary to add this now? Why, in their earlier days they were capitalism, as distinct from the Tory landed interest. The plague spots of Sheffield, Ancoats, Lanark, Cradley ; the industrial wens of the Black Country, the Potteries, the chemical districts, the mining areas; these are the heritage of the Liberal Party. A generation or so ago they re-christened Liberty. They called it by a French name—laissez faire—let alone. That was their idea of liberty, “Let us alone.” The slogan of the Manchester school : Starve, sweat, bludgeon, oppress and exploit, but let us alone. Men were stunted, crippled and crushed; women brutalised in mines and factories; children taken from workhouses and “apprenticed” to industrial exploiters; but—laissez faire; let us alone.
Fortunately, there are other conceptions of Liberty; other conceptions of Freedom. For us they are not mere mellifluous phrases to which are offered high-sounding apostrophies at election times. To us they are not thin abstractions floating gossamer-like over a sea of blatherspite. We visualise real freedom as belonging to a time when the whole people have free access to Mother Earth; when the whole people are free from the incubus of a parasitic class ; when the whole people socially own their means of living; when development shall be free from the shackle of selling, and production free from the necessity of profit. Freedom will then lose its capital letter. It would be the normal, not the sum of a few piffling, fraudulent reforms.
It remains but to remind you : “who would be free, himself must strike the blow.” Put not your trust in people of any party who are going to get freedom for you. Join with us in the Socialist Party and get it for yourselves.
W. T. H.
(Socialist Standard, March 1925)