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The Voter and the Two Voices

The real evil of our Party System is commonly stated wrong. It was stated
wrong by Lord Rosebery, when he said that it prevented the best men from
devoting themselves to politics, and that it encouraged a fanatical
conflict. I doubt whether the best men ever would devote themselves to
politics. The best men devote themselves to pigs and babies and things
like that. And as for the fanatical conflict in party politics, I wish
there was more of it. The real danger of the two parties with their two
policies is that they unduly limit the outlook of the ordinary citizen.
They make him barren instead of creative, because he is never allowed to
do anything except prefer one existing policy to another. We have not got
real Democracy when the decision depends upon the people. We shall have
real Democracy when the problem depends upon the people. The ordinary man
will decide not only how he will vote, but what he is going to vote about.

It is this which involves some weakness in many current aspirations
towards the extension of the suffrage; I mean that, apart from all
questions of abstract justice, it is not the smallness or largeness of the
suffrage that is at present the difficulty of Democracy. It is not the
quantity of voters, but the quality of the thing they are voting about. A
certain alternative is put before them by the powerful houses and the
highest political class. Two roads are opened to them; but they must go
down one or the other. They cannot have what they choose, but only which
they choose. To follow the process in practice we may put it thus. The
Suffragettes--if one may judge by their frequent ringing of his bell--want
to do something to Mr. Asquith. I have no notion what it is. Let us say
(for the sake of argument) that they want to paint him green. We will
suppose that it is entirely for that simple purpose that they are always
seeking to have private interviews with him; it seems as profitable as any

other end that I can imagine to such an interview. Now, it is possible
that the Government of the day might go in for a positive policy of
painting Mr. Asquith green; might give that reform a prominent place in
their programme. Then the party in opposition would adopt another policy,
not a policy of leaving Mr. Asquith alone (which would be considered
dangerously revolutionary), but some alternative course of action, as, for
instance, painting him red. Then both sides would fling themselves on the
people, they would both cry that the appeal was now to the Caesar of
Democracy. A dark and dramatic air of conflict and real crisis would
arise on both sides; arrows of satire would fly and swords of eloquence
flame. The Greens would say that Socialists and free lovers might well
want to paint Mr. Asquith red; they wanted to paint the whole town red.
Socialists would indignantly reply that Socialism was the reverse of
disorder, and that they only wanted to paint Mr. Asquith red so that he
might resemble the red pillar-boxes which typified State control. The
Greens would passionately deny the charge so often brought against them by
the Reds; they would deny that they wished Mr. Asquith green in order that
he might be invisible on the green benches of the Commons, as certain
terrified animals take the colour of their environment.

There would be fights in the street perhaps, and abundance of ribbons,
flags, and badges, of the two colours. One crowd would sing, "Keep the
Red Flag Flying," and the other, "The Wearing of the Green." But when the
last effort had been made and the last moment come, when two crowds were
waiting in the dark outside the public building to hear the declaration of
the poll, then both sides alike would say that it was now for democracy to
do exactly what it chose. England herself, lifting her head in awful
loneliness and liberty, must speak and pronounce judgment. Yet this
might not be exactly true. England herself, lifting her head in awful
loneliness and liberty, might really wish Mr. Asquith to be pale blue.
The democracy of England in the abstract, if it had been allowed to make
up a policy for itself, might have desired him to be black with pink spots.
It might even have liked him as he is now. But a huge apparatus of
wealth, power, and printed matter has made it practically impossible for
them to bring home these other proposals, even if they would really prefer
them. No candidates will stand in the spotted interest; for candidates
commonly have to produce money either from their own pockets or the
pasty's; and in such circles spots are not worn. No man in the social
position of a Cabinet Minister, perhaps, will commit himself to the
pale-blue theory of Mr. Asquith; therefore it cannot be a Government
measure, therefore it cannot pass.

Nearly all the great newspapers, both pompous and frivolous, will declare
dogmatically day after day, until every one half believes it, that red and
green are the only two colours in the paint-box. THE OBSERVER will say:
"No one who knows the solid framework of politics or the emphatic first
principles of an Imperial people can suppose for a moment that there is
any possible compromise to be made in such a matter; we must either fulfill
our manifest racial destiny and crown the edifice of ages with the august
figure of a Green Premier, or we must abandon our heritage, break our
promise to the Empire, fling ourselves into final anarchy, and allow the
flaming and demoniac image of a Red Premier to hover over our dissolution
and our doom." The DAILY MAIL would say: "There is no halfway house in
this matter; it must be green or red. We wish to see every honest
Englishman one colour or the other." And then some funny man in the
popular Press would star the sentence with a pun, and say that the DAILY
MAIL liked its readers to be green and its paper to be read. But no one
would even dare to whisper that there is such a thing as yellow.

For the purposes of pure logic it is clearer to argue with silly examples
than with sensible ones: because silly examples are simple. But I could
give many grave and concrete cases of the kind of thing to which I refer.
In the later part of the Boer War both parties perpetually insisted in
every speech and pamphlet that annexation was inevitable and that it was
only a question whether Liberals or Tories should do it. It was not
inevitable in the least; it would have been perfectly easy to make peace
with the Boers as Christian nations commonly make peace with their
conquered enemies. Personally I think that it would have been better for
us in the most selfish sense, better for our pocket and prestige, if we
had never effected the annexation at all; but that is a matter of opinion.
What is plain is that it was not inevitable; it was not, as was said,
the only possible course; there were plenty of other courses; there were
plenty of other colours in the box. Again, in the discussion about
Socialism, it is repeatedly rubbed into the public mind that we must
choose between Socialism and some horrible thing that they call
Individualism. I don't know what it means, but it seems to mean that
anybody who happens to pull out a plum is to adopt the moral philosophy of
the young Horner--and say what a good boy he is for helping himself.

It is calmly assumed that the only two possible types of society are a
Collectivist type of society and the present society that exists at this
moment and is rather like an animated muck-heap. It is quite unnecessary
to say that I should prefer Socialism to the present state of things. I
should prefer anarchism to the present state of things. But it is simply
not the fact that Collectivism is the only other scheme for a more equal
order. A Collectivist has a perfect right to think it the only sound
scheme; but it is not the only plausible or possible scheme. We might
have peasant proprietorship; we might have the compromise of Henry George;
we might have a number of tiny communes; we might have co-operation; we
might have Anarchist Communism; we might have a hundred things. I am not
saying that any of these are right, though I cannot imagine that any of
them could be worse than the present social madhouse, with its top-heavy
rich and its tortured poor; but I say that it is an evidence of the stiff
and narrow alternative offered to the civic mind, that the civic mind is
not, generally speaking, conscious of these other possibilities. The
civic mind is not free or alert enough to feel how much it has the world
before it. There are at least ten solutions of the Education question,
and no one knows which Englishmen really want. For Englishmen are only
allowed to vote about the two which are at that moment offered by the
Premier and the Leader of the Opposition. There are ten solutions of the
drink question; and no one knows which the democracy wants; for the
democracy is only allowed to fight about one Licensing Bill at a time.

So that the situation comes to this: The democracy has a right to answer
questions, but it has no right to ask them. It is still the political
aristocracy that asks the questions. And we shall not be unreasonably
cynical if we suppose that the political aristocracy will always be rather
careful what questions it asks. And if the dangerous comfort and
self-flattery of modern England continues much longer there will be less
democratic value in an English election than in a Roman saturnalia of
slaves. For the powerful class will choose two courses of action, both of
them safe for itself, and then give the democracy the gratification of
taking one course or the other. The lord will take two things so much
alike that he would not mind choosing from them blindfold--and then for a
great jest he will allow the slaves to choose.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton