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In the Gallery of the Commons

In speaking of any specific social experience it is always a question of how far one may pardonably err on the side of indiscretion; and if I remember here a dinner in the basement of the House of Commons—in a small room of the architectural effect of a chapel in a cathedral crypt—it is with the sufficiently meek hope of keeping well within bounds which only the nerves can ascertain.

The quaintness of the place may have contributed to an uncommon charm in the occasion; but its charm was perhaps a happy accident which would have tried in vain to repeat itself even there. It ended in a visit to the House, where the strangers were admitted on the rigid terms and in the strict limits to which non-members must submit themselves. But one might well undergo much more in order to hear John Burns speak in the place to which he has fought his right under a system of things as averse as can be imagined to a working-man's sharing in the legislation for working-men. The matter in hand that night chanced to be one peculiarly interesting to a believer in the people's doing as many things as possible for themselves, as the body politic, instead of leaving them to a variety of bodies corporate. The steamboat service on the Thames had grown so insufficient and so inconvenient that it was now a question of having it performed by the London County Council, which should be authorized to run lines of boats solely in the public interest, and not merely for the pleasure and profit of directors and stockholders. The monstrous proposition did not alarm those fears of socialism which anything of the kind would have roused with us; nobody seemed to expect that blowing up the Parliament buildings with dynamite would be the next step towards anarchy. There was a good deal of hear-hearing from Mr. Burns's friends, with some friendly chaffing from his enemies as he went on, steadily and quietly, with his statement of the case; but there was no serious opposition to the measure which was afterwards carried in due course of legislation.

I was left to think two or three things about the matter which, though not strictly photographic, are yet so superficial that they will not be out of place here. Several members spoke besides Mr. Burns, but the labor leader was easily first, not only in the business quality of what he said, but in his business fashion of saying it. As much as any of them, as the oldest-familied and longest-leisured of them, his manners had

"that repose Which marks the caste of Vere de Vere,"

and is supposed to distinguish them from those of the castes of Smith and Brown. But I quickly forgot this in considering how far socialism had got itself realized in London through the activities of the County Council, which are so largely in the direction of municipal control. One hears and reads as little of socialism now in London as in New York, but that is because it has so effectually passed from the debated principle to the accomplished fact. It has been embodied in so many admirable works that the presumption is rather in favor of it as something truly conservative. It is not, as with us, still under the ban of a prejudice too ignorant to know in how many things it is already effective; but this is, of course, mainly because English administration is so much honester than ours. It can be safely taken for granted that a thing ostensibly done for the greatest good of the greatest number is not really done for the profit of a few on the inside. The English can let the County Council put municipal boats on the Thames with the full assurance that the County Council will never be in case to retire on a cumulative income from them.

But apparently the English can do this only by laying the duty and responsibility upon the imperial legislature. It was droll to sit there and hear a body, ultimately if not immediately charged with the welfare of a state conscious in every continent and the islands of every sea, debating whether the municipal steamboats would not be too solely for the behoof of the London suburb of West Ham. England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, with any of their tremendous interests, must rest in abeyance while that question concerning West Ham was pending. We, in our way, would have settled it by the vote of a Board of Aldermen, subject to the veto of a mayor; but we might not have settled it so justly as the British Parliament did in concentrating the collective wisdom of a world-empire upon it.

The House of Commons took its tremendous responsibility lightly, even gayly. Except for the dramatic division into government and opposition benches, the spectacle was in no wise impressive. There was a restless going and coming of members, as if they could not stand being bored by their duties any longer, and then, after a brief absence, found strength for them. Some sat with their hats on, some with their hats off; some with their legs stretched out, some with their legs pulled in. One could easily distinguish the well-known faces of ministers, who paid no more heed, apparently, to what was going on than the least recognizable members unknown to caricature. The reporters, in their gallery, alone seemed to give any attention to the proceedings, but doubtless the speaker, under his official wig, concerned himself with them. The people apparently most interested were, like myself, in the visitors' gallery. From time to time one of them asked the nearest usher who it was that was speaking; in his eagerness to see and hear, one of them would rise up and crane forward, and then the nearest usher would make him sit down; but the ushers were generally very lenient, and upon the whole looked quite up to the level of the average visitor in intelligence.

I am speaking of the men visitors; the intellectual light of the women visitors, whatever it was, was much dispersed and intercepted by the screen behind which they were placed. I do not know why the women should be thus obscured, for, if the minds of members were in danger of being distracted by their presence, I should think they would be still more distracted when the element of mystery was added to it by the grille. Seen across the whole length of the House from the men's gallery the women looked as if tightly pressed against the grille, and had a curiously thin, phantasmal effect, or the effect of frescoed figures done very flat. To the imaginative spectator their state might have symbolized the relation of women to Parliamentary politics, of which we read much in English novels, and even English newspapers. Women take much more interest in political affairs in England than with us; that is well known; but it may not be so well known that they are in much greater enjoyment of the franchise, if the franchise is indeed a pleasure. I do not know whether they vote for school-committeemen, or whether there are school-committeemen for them to vote for; but they may vote for guardians of the poor, and may themselves be voted for to that office; and they may vote for members of the Urban Councils and the County Councils if they have property to be taxed by those bodies. This is the right for which our Revolution was made, though we continue, with regard to women, the Georgian heresy of taxation without representation; but it is doubtful to the barbarian whether good can come of women's mixing in parliamentary elections at which they have no vote. Of course, with us a like interference would be taken jocosely, ironically; it would, at the bottom, be a good joke, amusing from the tendency of the feminine temperament to acts of circus in moments of high excitement; but whether the Englishmen regard it so, the English, alone know. They are much more serious than we, and perhaps they take it as a fit manifestation of the family principle which is the underlying force of the British Constitution. One heard of ladies who were stumping (or whatever is the English equivalent of stumping) the country on the preferential tariff question and the other questions which divide Conservatives and Liberals; but in spite of these examples of their proficiency the doubt remained whether those who have not the suffrage can profitably attempt to influence it. Till women can make up their minds to demand and accept its responsibilities, possibly they will do best to let it alone.

When they want it they will have it; but until they do, it may not be for nothing, or even for the control of the members' wandering fancies, that the House of Commons interposes between them and itself the grille through which they show like beauteous wraiths or frescoes in the flat. That screen is emblematic of their real exclusion from the higher government which their social participation in parliamentary elections, and the men's habit of talking politics with them, flatter them into a delusive sense of sharing. A woman may be the queen of England, but she may not be one of its legislators. That must be because women like being queens and do not really care for being legislators.

William Dean Howells