“Words, words, nothing but words—and so often ungrammatical!”
SIR PHILIP GIBBSFebruary11926
Is Parliament In Its Dotage?
“Words, words, nothing but words—and so often ungrammatical!”
SIR PHILIP GIBBS
PARLIAMENTARY government has been through the most severe tests in its history in the past few years. In every democratic country it has had its persistent critics and there has been a tendency to condemn it as a failure and a futility. But if we were to do away with parliamentary government, what are we to accept in its place—Fascism or Bolshevism? Most people will agree with Sir Philip Gibbs that parliamentary government such as Britain’s and our own is the least of the evils. Sir Philip, writing for the Sunday Times (London), puts it this way:-—-
It must be frankly admitted that even the old Mother of Parliaments has lost some of her ancient prestige. The reopening of our own assembly no longer thrills the nation with any expectancy of great deeds or great speech. People permit themselves to scoff at it. There are many citizens in this country—shall I say millions? —who are careless whether Parliament reassembles or not. They expect nothing from it, materially, spiritually, or intellectually, except a sense of boredom, a periodical annoyance at the futility of its debates, a renewed contempt for its party game and intrigues. Words, words, nothing but words—and so often ungrammatical !
The man in the street asks how all this talk affects his own conditions. Does it alter by one jot the drudgery of his daily toil, or relieve him of any nagging cares of life on the poverty line? Does it alter anything, or do anything? He is very doubtful about it. The cabinet, no doubt, enveloped in the fragrance of the prime minister’s pipe, makes certain decisions which may slightly modify the burdens of taxation, or perceptibly increase them, and otherwise interfere with the laws of nature and economics, for good or ill. But the average citizen realizes that these decisions are undoubtedly cut-and-dried before they reach the House of Commons. “All that talking,” he asks, “what’s the good of it? How does it help?”
It is not even good talking for the most part. It is hardly good enough for the British Broadcasting Company. It would not be tolerated for half an hour in any suburban drawing-room with head-phones for the family. Oratory has died the death in the House of Commons.
Well, there is some truth in all that, but not much. At any rate, there is another aspect of truth which is worth considering. Happy is the country that has no history, says the philosopher, and one might say also happy is the nation when its Parliamentary debates are less exciting than its police-court news. We should be thankful rather than reproachful because the days are gone when the people of this country awaited the assembly of their representatives with passionate excitement because 'another stage would be reached in the long battle for liberty, and when some new victory might be won by noble champions against formidable powers of tyranny, intolerance, and cruelty. The boredom of Parliament is not a little due to the joyous fact that in this country at least the great battles have been fought, the great victories won.
That may seem like irony to the radical mind oppressed by the failure of civilization and with dark pessimism regarding our present state; but in spite of many troubles still afflicting us, we may as well admit that, thanks to parliamentary government, the old powers of evil have been fairly scotched, and, though not dead, have lost their old autocracy and terror in this nation of ours. Boys and girls are not hanged in batches for petty larceny, though there is a lot of unemployment. Liberty may be a little limited by the tax collector, and occasionally by the public prosecutor, but at least the pillory no longer awaits the man who writes something displeasing to the government. The political orator at the street corner may not get the ears of the crowd, indifferent to his eloquence, but
he doesn’t lose his own. It makes a lot of difference. The drama of parliament has dulled down because, for a little while anyhow, there is no tremendous conflict of ideas or passions in which the life and liberties of the nation are at stake, though I am afraid things may brighten up before long! May they be dull as ditchwater, should be the hope of all patriotic men.
On the whole this parliament of ours, with all its weaknesses, and futilities, and insincerities, to which all human institutions are subject, is the system most suited to our national temperament and ideas. We want no new Cromwell either from the Right or the Left to cut short those debates which most of us fail to read. Let them go on talking, these honorable members, even if they split a few infinitives or interrupt each other with vulgar abuse now and then. They are educating each other, and better than the sonorous eloquence-—fustian stuff really—of the
old orators is the quiet argument, the plain statements of facts and opinions, which are rather boring when taken in bulk.
With all its failings of the front bench and the party system, with its sham indignations and sham fights, the House of -Commons is still the national debating chamber in which all grievances come up for hearing, all opinions find expression, all conflicts find a way of compromise. Without this ventilating chamber, this sounding-board of words and ideas, we should lose our only safeguard against underground conspiracy, or open tyranny. Political passion would find its vent _ in other ways, by direct action and explosive rebellion. Intolerance would have no safety valve. Looking around the world to-day and seeing the decay of the parliamentary system, and its perilous results, we should, I think, find some consolation in our old allegiance to the “talking shop” at Westminster.
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