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7: The Talking Shop

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Author Topic: 7: The Talking Shop  (Read 3 times)
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« on: January 24, 2023, 03:59:14 am »

The "Talking Shop", as the English call their Parliament, is the only place the public may visit where ruling is going on. Londoners have never been so addicted to sightseeing and peep-shows as they are at present. The Zoo is packed, the Tate is packed, and the House of Commons is only a fraction less popular. On a fine summer's day a dense queue of what George Orwell called "proles" stand, loll, sit, and lie for hours to get in and have a look at the M.P.s spouting. There are no doubt a substantial number of provincials, but it is a working-class crowd, and it is as a sight that these people regard the Talking Shop. The English are the most unpolitical of any nation. They regard what is going on in such a place as this with a bland detachment, as if it had nothing to do with them.

Going there, as I did, to see a Member, with whom you have an appointment, you do not queue. You pass inside; all you have to do is to say to the policeman standing in the doorway that you have an appointment with such and such an M.P. No papers, no passes, are necessary.

It is perfectly easy to get into the House of Commons! If you wanted to blow it up, and were an "educated man", you would walk up to the St. Stephen's entrance, say to the policeman, "I am lunching with Colonel Jones." (Pick a Colonel: policemen always like a Colonel, though Lord Winterton would do just as well, policemen like lords—they respect them.) The constable will pass you in at once and if you have mentioned a lord, he will probably touch his helmet. If a proletarian, you cannot do this, of course. The policeman would not believe you—he would know Colonel Jones would not lunch with you. He would begin bullying you and might end up by arresting you and so discover the infernal machine in your pocket. I am afraid if you are a proletarian and want to blow it up you must take your place in the queue.

But if your accent is good and you are adequately well-heeled, this police constable is the only person to whom you have to address a word. Having negotiated him, the bomb ticking away in your pocket and your heart going pit-a-pat too, you would pass inside the building, enter a long gallery lined with statues—of M.P.s of long ago, in tights (looking like Shakespeare). You march along this in a business-like way and you then emerge in a large and lofty hall, like a railway station, lighted by a circular glass dome. (I think—anyway it is daylight.) Here is where you would have to be careful. A ribboned official, in I suppose police uniform, stands in the centre of the hall. He knows all the Members by sight and by name. He would know you were not a Member, but that would not worry him—there are lots of visitors and other people moving to and fro. Since he is a very busy functionary he would in all likelihood be talking to somebody. He would only notice you if you showed signs of hesitation, and that only if momentarily disengaged.

If embarked on the deadly though ridiculous errand we have supposed, it is necessary to walk straight across this hall, as quickly and unconcernedly as possible. If stopped, say you are a visitor—do not mention Colonel Jones or Lord Winterton—they might be passing across the hall at that moment, which of course would be fatal as you would be led up to them. On the other side of this hall you enter a busy corridor. Almost immediately you will encounter a convenient lavatory, but there is a better, less frequented, one a little further on, down one flight of stairs. You go in, deposit your bomb, and leave by the same route. If the policeman at the St. Stephen's entrance should recognize you and say for instance, "Wasn't Colonel Jones there, sir? I saw the Colonel go in, sir," you just say, "Yes, I saw him, thank you. We are lunching outside." You can then get your taxi, settle comfortably down in it, and, perhaps, a terrific roar apprising you of the success of your mission, out of the rear window observe your time-bomb rock the Talking Shop, blowing all the M.P.s up into the air—just as you are entering Whitehall, or driving into the little park between the Horseguards and the Palace.

But let me give you a piece of advice, should it by any chance occur to you to commit this outrage. Spare yourself the pains. If you regard the Parliament as being not only a Talking Shop but a Power House, you are quite mistaken. Put your bomb away, my dear sir. Parliament has altered a great deal since the days of Guy Fawkes and Catesby. You would not be blowing up what you fondly supposed was there: nothing in fact but what amounts to a large theatrical company. The play is called "Crisis". But there is no crisis. The plot is the conflict in a free democracy between the Lefts and Rights. But there is very little difference in what the Rights want and what the Lefts want—and there is no democracy.


If a bona fide visitor, as I was this lively June afternoon, upon reaching the large hall (assuming he is not yet acquainted with the M.P. he has come to see) identifies and addresses himself to the uniformed official who stands in the centre, he must tell him which M.P. he desires to see. Comfortable seats are provided: he is directed to take his place on one of these, and when the Member he is waiting for comes into the hall, the official sees him, shouts his name, and looks at the visitor. I know this part of it because I went there myself; as I failed to contact my man's secretary, I took my place among those awaiting the arrival of some legislator, as friends, relatives, or as clients.

Were it your first visit, as you watched and waited, no doubt you would experience, not necessarily a thrill, but a lively curiosity. You would wonder where the actual Chamber was situated. If you were moderately innocent, it would be the same sort of sensation as being behind the scenes at a Plaza de Toros. One of these openings out of the big hall where the official shouts is where the arena is. It would not provide a kick equivalent to being (as a tourist) in a waiting-room at the Lubianka, say, knowing that somewhere in the building men were being tortured. But still it would be a kick. Under the same roof with you is the place where life is weighed out daily in little packets for fifty million people. It is not really the place where the weighing is done, you would not know that. As you sat there you would say to yourself that to take a few steps off there to the left, or to the right, would bring you to a door. You would push the door, and you would find yourself between two crowds of glaring M.P.s, rushed at by officials, denounced on all hands as an outrageous intruder. At your first visit, before you became privy to the reality and were delivered from the grip of the imagination and its intensified dream-imagery, you would be conscious of an electric and oppressive nearness to something that was going forward the other side of the wall.

The imaginative excitement of the newcomer to this place is at least one hundred years out of date. The moment the visitor is in the presence of this assembly, as a watcher from the gallery, he must, I think, recognize the fool his imagination has made of him. There is nothing electric once he reaches the source of his sensations. The English Parliament is a voting-machine, not a talking-machine. Most of it remains sheepishly silent all the time—except at times when all present are allowed to act as an incoherent chorus. Since in the nature of things at present it always votes the same way, the physical presence of all these people sitting there is quite pointless. They are lectured to, or argued at, by the same handful of people hour after hour and day after day. Even when the two sides are technically evenly matched, there is no necessity for more than a half-dozen vocal members on either side. The fact that this voting-machine takes a human form is principally a concession to the anthropomorphic tastes of the crowd. They like to come in and see a lot of people sitting there. A few hundred unemployed men would serve the purpose just as well, i.e. to fill up, and would be far more economical. As to the committees they are not seen. The power has left this assembly completely and is elsewhere. This shadow of a Gemot, like the "constitutional monarchy" and numerous other fossil institutions, deceptively preserved, and painted over to simulate life, cannot be denied a talismanic usefulness. But, at the same time, they act as blinds.

To illustrate the manner in which the voting-machine works, the Lefts very naturally did not like the powers still enjoyed by the Upper House. The House of Lords, as we know, is a non-elective Senate, a thing which at the most should be a phenomenon like the Beefeaters: instead of that it is a fossil institution imperfectly extinct. The Lefts put into the Parliamentary Machine a measure they named "The Parliament Act". It came out, after a brief delay, duly stamped and ready for the Statute Book. The Commons has become a machine-for-stamping-bills. It is a machine that alters the laws of the country at will and with remarkable velocity.

Before continuing, let me answer a criticism which I foresee, namely that I am treating the present socialist monopoly of power as if it were always to be with us. It is true that by the time these words are printed there may be a new parliament, the numbers on Left and Right more evenly matched. But anyone is badly mistaken who believes that the eggs can be unscrambled, or that the so-called Tory Party ever would or can act again as anything but one of those fossil relics of which I have spoken—very useful to the Left since it obstructs the formation of an authentic Opposition. Mr. Churchill, landscape-painter and war-historian, too old for active leadership, is the very perfect symbol of this token-Opposition. And even if the English People returned him to power, he would only take power as a stooge of the Left.

Now to return to the Parliament Act: that measure decrees that after December the eleventh (1949) the Peers can no longer oppose, but must approve, the Steel and Iron Bill—which is the legislative pièce de résistance of the Left. Things like the Parliament Act go through as slickly as if the Parliament were made of plastic instead of flesh and blood. The Lords, meanwhile, will not be liquidated. If they were it might occur to someone to create a real senate, instead of this comic relic. That is the secret of the retention of this medieval waxworks. Also socialists like to end up as a "Lord". (For there are joys as well as jobs for the boys.) It is the one advantage England will always have over Russia—you end "a noble".

I feel sure that if any initiative remained to these latter-day parliament-men their life in this comfortably-appointed club would have the effect of a narcotic. What it was all about would become more and more dreamily uncertain, the facts of life would become more and more remote, everything reduced to a debating point or a wisecrack.

The accommodation in the new Chamber, in comparison with that which was destroyed by a bomb, is very inferior. Let us suppose that the visitor, after witnessing the Speaker's Procession, gazing at the Mace (which, in a light-hearted moment, a former Minister, named Beckett, ran away with) he goes up to a gallery seat, gazing down for the first time at the legislators at work. He will see that nothing is done to impress him. Everything is as undramatic as possible. If you think of a caricatural cricket match, with a run or so every half-hour, bowling unlimited, with only token batting to enable the bowler to perpetuate his gentlemanly bombardment—a match in which the majority of the fielders lie down and watch the batsman and the bowler, with a periodic chorus of "Oh, well played, sir!"—or to show we are socialists now, a massive proletarian bellow: such a game as that would approximate to the parliamentary tempo. Like the Members themselves, the visitor will soon grow fatigued by what, in all likelihood, will be the unrelievedly mercenary subject-matter. And the fact that they call each other "honourable", or "gallant", or, I think, "honourable and learned", will help very little after about twenty minutes.


In my own case I had what I laughingly call business to transact with one of the very many charming gentlemen who have condemned themselves to this waxwork existence. At lunch we discussed the matter which had brought me there, and then went out on to the handsome terrace, the Thames running strong and yellow just beneath its parapet. There is no division, on the terrace, between "the other place", the term used to indicate the House of Lords, and the Commons, only a gap in the line of chairs and tables. A couple of peers sat where the Lords' tables were and among the H. of C. tables, on the other side of the gap, a communist M.P. was drinking orangeade with a man and woman friend.

My host's attitude is, I gather, that a communist provides comic relief. This lightheartedness may be misplaced. It depends how easy you find it to forget how big the Russian Army is, and how near, since President Roosevelt arranged for it to occupy Brandenburg. There are, I believe, no communist peers. Several are as-good-as, and a bishop or two of the same colour as the "Red Dean" of Canterbury. The two peers airing themselves were right-wing, last-ditching lords, who had thrown out the Steel Bill for pecuniary, not for ideological, or for caste, reasons. They were not even Catholics. A seedy pair—right-wingism does not pay. Not content with being symbolic of Rightism by birth these two shortsighted men made things worse by acting Right. As businessmen, had they had better judgement they would have been growing fat on Labour rather than getting skinny defending Capital, in Rome doing as the Romans do.

It was peaceful to sit on this almost deserted terrace, the pink-yellow water swelling nearly on a level with one's feet, the white gulls floating past on it. If the County Council Building across the water conceded nothing to beauty it might, all things considered, be far worse. Meanwhile excursion steamers on their way to Windsor Castle and I dare say Hampton Court, or river buses, barge their way along with full loads of people this sunny afternoon, the fingers of the passengers pointing at us—the three communists, the two peers, three or four other lawgivers and myself.

My M.P. went off to see the Sergeant-at-Arms about a seat for me, for I thought I might as well hear the opening of the Steel Bill business—you could call it a debate if you liked. The peers had sent the Steel Bill back to the Commons with about sixty amendments. All of these, except a few insignificant ones, would be chopped off and thrown away, one by one, then the Bill would be returned to the Lords, who would hug it until December the eleventh, when, as I explained just now, it automatically becomes law. The Rights, or their leader Mr. Churchill, promise to stop it, or wipe it out, if they win the Election. Since the Lefts, were they desirous of doing so, could pass a Bill through to destroy the whole of London, or, for that matter, atomically to blast the whole island (England, Scotland and Wales), there being no one with the power to stop them, there was very little point for me or for anybody else to go up and watch the proceedings, but I thought I would have a look at them all.

I was now sitting at the far end of the Terrace, far from Stalin's boys and the two old lords. I was sitting with a dreamy Celtic Member, to whom I had been made known. He sat perched upon his chair like a bag of discontented bones precariously balanced, with a quizzical, anxious, countenance. He was revolving something dreamily in his mind. He was thinking of Steel.

I knew he was thinking of Steel, because various people came up, sat down, and talked to him about Steel. Question time had started in the House, and very shortly the Steel and Iron question would be outlined by the Minister. The principal Ministers, Leftist and Rightist, had very sensibly gone on holiday. They felt as I did about these proceedings—in fact the Rightist chief, the Leader of the Opposition, seldom comes near the place even when in England. He devotes himself almost exclusively to painting pictures and writing books, which, as I indicated just now, gives the measure of his sentiments about the House of Commons in our time. All the rest of these honourable gentlemen could with advantage follow suit.

The M.P. with whom I sat was, I gathered, against the nationalization of the Steel and Iron Industry, and all that that entailed. This last giant transfer from private ownership to state ownership troubled him, one could see. He was a gentle and moderate man, who belonged, I learned, to that gentle and moderate party which had prepared the way over many years for the very immoderate statist-principles which were now approaching realization. It is always doctrinaire libertarianism that ushers in despotism, in classical political theory. For Aristotle this was an automatic matter of cause-and-effect. Even the present government is composed, with few exceptions, of liberals—liberals taking liberalism to its logical conclusion. It would be foolish to think we could escape the periodic despotism to which human society is subject. Despotism is a human norm. So, with the best intentions these good men are preparing an instrument of oppression. This, of course, may never be used oppressively (just as the atom bomb may never again be used in war). But there is so slender a chance that some evil man will not be forthcoming to use such an instrument as the total power involved in state-socialism oppressively that we really may dismiss the idea.

It was a melancholy experience to be sitting there with this uneasy, puzzled, liberal-minded man who felt himself drifting out of the liberal Victorian daydream (still potent in the province which always sent him back to parliament, and in which his thinking remained embalmed)—drifting into a hard-boiled world that had none of the familiar features of the libertarian past to which he belonged. He was too gentle to say anything about that side of it. He just knit his brows, slightly wrung his rheumatic hands and spun a little theory which disguised the reality. It had something to do with its being impossible to check, once nationalization had been pushed through the voting-machine upstairs, the success or unsuccess of the stewardship of the Steel Board. The fundamental question he would never face of course: namely, would it be a good thing or a bad thing to consummate the absolutism of a state-system. Perhaps it would be too boringly obvious.

However, when I said unexpectedly, "Would not the concentration of all power in the hands of the State be a bad thing?" he turned round towards me immediately with a charming twisted smile and brilliant eyes and answered, "Oh, that is of course the basic issue".

I was amazed at this readiness. But next moment a man sat down at the table with a sheaf of papers and my liberal friend began to expound his cherished theory. His gentle face was anguished, his eyes glittering and remote, as he argued his case with much dexterity (and this may, for all I know, have been at this great turning point the strategy to be used by his party). As the man with the sheaf of papers went away I should have liked to have asked him: "Why put up an argument that is certain to draw you deeper and deeper into a dialectical bog. Why not say all the time that what is proposed—what is decreed—will result in state-absolutism, which is at least as obnoxious, as the liberal sees it, as royal prerogative or caesarian power? It would involve the extinction of what is left to us of our democratic liberties. Why not say that? What is the use of saying anything else? Bear witness, brother, and, as a party, die!" But if I had expressed myself in this way he would only have smiled charmingly and half-deprecatingly, as if I had made a rather feeble attempt at a joke. For you do not remain a Member of Parliament if you allow anything too real to establish itself in your consciousness, and all Members of Parliament only wish for one thing—to remain Members of Parliament.

After a time my kind host returned, having arranged for a seat. He accompanied me upstairs, and then he left me, for he himself was speaking a little later: and I may add, without flattery, that he spoke with remarkable skill and vigour. I looked down upon him, a stockily foreshortened figure, holding his paper, and in the voice-transmitting agency above my head his voice rattled in my ear pugnaciously and is now embalmed in Hansard. He at least had some fun. He was a speaking M.P. A young Leftist of great ability, in better times he would have made an outstanding parliamentarian. He may yet be a Minister.

It was Question Time when I took my seat, and the official answers were being rattled off, followed by the lame protests or reiterated enquiries: usually almost before the last word is out of the mouth of the questioner the next answer comes rattling out, and one's mind takes a hairpin bend and spins off in the opposite direction. Mine bounced from Seaside Boarding Houses to the Daily Worker. Then the Steel Bill business started. The Minister, moderate and reasonable—even detached and most accommodating—proposed turning everything over to his Party (for steel, as everyone knows, means, directly or indirectly, everything). When the Steel and Iron Bill becomes law, it will transform England forever into one vast Concern in the hands of a political oligarchy. There will be no appeal against these overlords, for no new checks are contemplated, and such checks as exist will be swept away. The very Trades Unions as an effective instrument will go. Such are the fruits of permanent Crisis.

At this opening stage the Opposition took the line that Steel experts should be appointed to the Steel Board, when nationalization came—accepting nationalization as a fait accompli. The mind of the Opposition appeared to be full of the question of how many posts it could secure. That was all. From time to time Mr. Churchill bursts out in his old-fashioned way about freedom and so on, words which for him have long since lost their meaning. But his party does not indulge in rhetoric: it confines itself to securing a share of the control. And only his party was present on this occasion.

There will be no word breathed by His Majesty's Opposition about the undesirability of too much power. Rightists as much as Leftists would acquire as much power as Stalin tomorrow if that were feasible—all were absolutists under their skins—and the Opposition apparently assumes that everybody knows this, so it never mentions power.

In the last analysis, Opposition as much as Government seem to argue that a new absolutist world is imposed on them anyway, which is of course quite correct. My host, for instance, had asked me if I had considered the philosophy of the Atomic Bomb—and from the dramatic way he peered at me over the luncheon table I could see he regarded it as a pretty difficult philosophy to refute. (I was, as a matter of fact, in complete agreement with him, and had no desire to confute him.) From the "pike and gun" and "infallible artillery" of the seventeenth century we had moved onwards, in the twentieth century, to what might be called Atomic Absolutism. What this young politician described as "the philosophy of the Atomic Bomb" is the philosophy, in one degree or another, of every person in that House, whatever his party. It is the fatalism ensuing upon consciousness of a Power so overwhelming that it makes nonsense of the old humanist values.

The main impression I took away from that curious place was the oppression of almost a doctrinaire fatalism—or if you like, the determination not to be oppressed, but to construct a new scale of values within this framework. With the release of such powers as those among men, where was the use in talking of les nuances? All must be Black, or White—power or no power: all-power or slavery. The philosophy of Atomic Fission is not, I am afraid, worked out to its logical conclusion by these people, nor made explicit as I have done here. None are frank, it would be far better if they were. The trouble about the English methods of make-believe and the employment of the fossil-structure is that when suddenly they emerge into the glare of reality they are quite unprepared and deeply astonished; though in the artificial twilight in which they prefer to live they have been moving steadily (and one would think deliberately, if one did not know them) towards some frightful climax.

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