Almost nine years have passed since Oscar Wilde was sent to prison at the Old Bailey for the offence of sodomy. He and his friends were not alone in their disappointment at the sentence because the judge, before waving the famous dramatist down to the Court cells, gave voice to his frustration that he was restricted to a sentence of only two years hard labour which was, he snarled, “totally inadequate” for “the worst case I have ever tried . . . a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men”.
The judge did not bother himself that to criminalise homosexuality as “hideous corruption” is a symptom of capitalism’s inhumanity. Nor did he muse on the corruption that was partly responsible for Wilde being in the dock before him. The dismay among Wilde’s supporters at his sentence was aggravated by the well-founded suspicion that he had been sacrificed – arrested, charged, tried, sentenced – to divert attention from somebody else. It was obvious that the beneficiary must have been someone the authorities were anxious to protect from exposure. Among what was then known as the uranian community it was an open secret that Lord Rosebery was as active a homosexual as Wilde. In fact the Marquess of Queensbury, who had obsessively persecuted Wilde in retaliation for his relationship with his son, had made it quite clear that if Wilde was not prosecuted he, Queensbury, would ruin Rosebery by denouncing him as another sodomite.
The nub of the problem was that Rosebery was not just a peer of the realm and therefore an aristocrat who was supposed nobly to set an example to the rest of us, but the Prime Minister in the Liberal government. Before Wilde’s trial the blackmailing pressure from Queensbury was so fierce that Rosebery – said to be brilliant, erratic and unpredictable but obviously also a mite fragile – was fearful and depressed to the point of being suicidal. Soon after Wilde was safely behind the cell door at Pentonville and Queensbury’s fire had been quenched, Rosebery’s health miraculously improved and, benefiting from the corruption endemic in capitalist politics, he could continue contentedly being Prime Minister along with his other distractions. It was his bad luck that he did not enjoy coincidental good health and high office for long because a month after Wilde’s trial the Liberal government was out of power.
There would not have been the same concerns about the man who – a couple of years ago – succeeded to the job of Prime Minister, once held so tenuously by Rosebery. Arthur Balfour is another with a reputation for unusual brilliance but he has never shown the slightest interest in attaching himself to a female or a male. So on that score, if not on others which should be of more interest to the working class, he is safe. Balfour is known as an aloof, self-satisfied man who is more comfortable in discussion of remote philosophical and religious abstractions – the less relevant the better – than in confronting the real world of poverty, disease, international conflicts. At Cambridge he spent what was called a “scandalous” amount of time watching or playing tennis and industriously built a reputation for idleness and for intolerance of anything he assessed as ignorance – but which may have been the very reality which he protected himself from.
To behave like that it helps to be an aristocrat with the proper blue-blooded connections. Balfour went to Eton, his father and his grandfather were Conservative MPs and, even more to the point, he was the nephew of the late Lord Salisbury, who succeeded to the Prime Ministership when Rosebery’s Liberal government was defeated in 1895. Some years before that Salisbury, while taking an avuncular lunch with Balfour, broached the subject of politics as a career for him along with watching tennis and taking part in pointless arguments. At the time it just so happened that there was a vacancy at Hertford, a parliamentary constituency where the selection of the MP was controlled by Salisbury because he owned the place. Balfour regards politics as a kind of amusing game – clearly overlooking the unamusing, devastating effect which political decisions can have on the lives of the useful, non-aristocratic, working people in society. He was sure he could fit in attending the Commons with his other strenuous activities so yes, he would give it a try. In due course he was elected as the Honourable Member for Hertford. Thus Balfour was another who has reason to be grateful for the power of political corruption.
That when it comes to the ruling class blood is thicker than water was demonstrated in 1878 when Salisbury, who was then Foreign Secretary, made Balfour his private secretary. In 1885 Balfour was elected as MP for East Manchester; a week spent among his supporters there he described as “loathsome but necessary”, which perhaps meant that he had to spend some time in the slums of Ancoats or Salford. This contemptuous attitude, which he usually managed to hide beneath a mask of elaborate courtesy, surfaced again when he sneered at the rising suburban and provincial Tories “with their vineries and pineries” and in his comment that an industrialist who had what he considered “civilised” tastes was “a rare avis”. All of this has been ammunition for those critics of Balfour who see him as a pretend politician who makes elegant speeches which do not contribute much to the question at issue – not that it mattered if they did. It fits in with the impression that he is an MP simply because it was the thing for a blue-blooded Old Etonian to do.
But in spite of his affected langour and detachment Balfour has handled some weighty ministries, so that not too many of his Conservative colleagues were offended when, as his uncle Salisbury ceased to be Prime Minister in 1902, Balfour moved smoothly into the job. It will not be the last time a politician has cloaked their rampant ambition beneath a show of disinterest. Edward VII had just been crowned and the South African War, with its nasty shocks for the British military, was at an end. In some senses it was an abrasive conjunction of events as the crowning of a new king encouraged some of the customarily stupid jingoism at a time when the Boer farmers had uncovered evidence suggestive that the global power of the British ruling class is in decline. On the Continent Germany is overtaking Britain, for example accounting for about 22 percent of world production of steel compared to Britain’s 15 percent. In manufacture the respective shares are 17 percent and 19 percent. How long will it be, before British capitalism regards Germany as a competitor too threatening to be assuaged by mere diplomacy? We are told that the Entente Cordiale, settled in April this year, is an instrument for peace as it re-assures France that there is a buffer against the ambitions of Germany. Another way of putting this is that the treaty lays out some of the issues over which the next war will be fought.
At home the work of Rowntree and Booth has illuminated the fact that the workers who cheered the coronation of the new king often did so from the depths of poverty. Booth’s study of the people in the East End of London found about 30 percent of them living below what he set as a ‘poverty line’. These are people whose means are barely sufficient for a decent independent life or, even worse, are actually insufficient for that life. Rowntree’s report on the people of York came to much the same conclusion; nearly ten percent of the people were found to be in ‘primary poverty’, with means insufficient to maintain merely physical efficiency, and another 18 percent are in the slightly more manageable ‘secondary poverty’. Unemployment, which is an aggravating factor in poverty, stands at ten percent of the working population. These problems, with the suffering they cause to the class who produce everything but own nothing of any consequence, are the very stuff of capitalism and Balfour, for all his supposed effortless intellectualism, has been powerless to affect them.
How long will capitalism endure? If it is still here in a hundred years, what will the socialists of the year 2004 look back on? They will review a century in which millions will have died in wars or through hunger or avoidable diseases. A century in which the contrasts of riches and impoverishment remain as stark as ever. Whatever progress will be made in the technologies of communication and production will have gone to further enrich the ruling class while merely reshaping the poverty of the workers. And all of this will have been governed by political leaders notable in history for only their corruption, deceit and impotence.