British Critic Avers House of Commons’ Influence Has Passed to the Press
A. G. GARDINERSeptember11921
Twilight of Britain’s Parliament
REVIEW of REVIEWS
British Critic Avers House of Commons’ Influence Has Passed to the Press
A. G. GARDINER
A.G. GARDINER, whose “Prophets, Priests and Kings” and other studies of contemporary British
publicists are admittedly amongst the est of this sort of literature, writes in the Atlantic about the transference of actual power from the members of the House of Commons to the men who control the destinies of the big newspapers. He tells the names of England’s “paper bosses”. His article reads in part: “It is a fact of universal admission that the prestige of the British Parliament has not been at so low an ebb in living memory as it is to-day. We should have, I think, to go back to the time when George III. in his pursuit of personal government, packed the House of Commons with his creatures, to parallel the disrepute into which the present Parliament has fallen. The House of Commons has lost its authority over the public mind and its influence upon events. The press has largely ceased to report its proceedings, and the scrappy descriptive summary has taken the place of the full-dress verbatim reports with which we were familiar a few years ago. This is no doubt largely due to the revolution in the press which has replaced the sober seriousness of the past by a tendency to keep the public amused with sensation and stunts. But the fact does reflect the public sense of the decadence of Parliament.
“Just at the moment when the representative House is at last based on the broadest possible franchise, when the suffrage is universal and women have the vote, we are confronted with the spectacle of a House of Commons so negligible as to be almost beneath contempt, and so mute and servile that, by comparison, the hereditary Chamber stands out in contrast as the guardian of public liberties and free institutions.
“If we seek to discover the causes of the decline óf the Parliamentary institution the most general conclusion will he that it is an incident in the convulsion of the war. There can, of course, be no doubt on this point. It is the war that has shaken the pillars of Westminster and left the governance of England more chaotic and indeterminate than it has heen for two centuries. But while this is undoubtedly true, it is also true that for some years before the war there had heen tendencies at work which had heen undermining confidence in Parliamentary government. The transfer of power from the educated middle classes to the mass of the people, while a just and inevitable development of the democratic idea, was productive of results which were not wholly salutary. The appeal ceased to be to an instructed community, which could be reached by argument, and passed to the millions who had neither the taste nor the time for the consideration of affairs, and became interested in them only .when passion was aroused.
"The development enormously enhanced the power of the demagogue in politics. It made the appeal to reason more difficult and the appeal to violent emotion infinitely more profitable. And
the change in the seat of power was accompanied by another change, which intensified the demagogic tendency. The press became aware of the big battalions and set out to exploit them. An enterprising youth named Harmsworth, having discovered, by the success of Answers and similar erudite publications that what the great public wanted to know was how many acres there were in Yorkshire, how many letters in the Bible, how far the streets of London put end to end would reach across the Atlantic, and so on, determined to apply the spirit of this illuminating gospel to the conduct of the daily press. His triumph was phenomenal. In the course of a few years the whole character of the English press was changed. It passed mainly into the hands of a few great syndicates, with young Mí'. Harmsworth, now Viscount Northcliffe, as the head of the new journalistic hierarchy. It fed the public on stunts and sensations. It debased the currency of political controversy to phrases that could be put in a headline and passed from mouth to mouth. The oldfashioned newspaper, which reported speeches and believed in the sanctity of its news-columns, went under or had to join in the sauve qui peut. Parliament was treated as a music-hall turn. If it was funny, it was reported; if it was serious, it was ignored. With the exception of a few papers, chiefly in the provinces, like the Manchester Guardian and the Scotsman, the utterances of serious statesmen other than the Prime Minister were unreported. The Midlothian campaign of Gladstone, which used to fill pages of the newspapers, would today be dismissed in an ill-reported half-column summary devoted, not to the argument, but to the amusing asides and the irrelevant interruptions.
“All this profoundly affected the Par-
liamentary atmosphere. The power outside the House was no longer a vigilant influence upon events within the House. The statesman ceased to rely upon his reasoned appeal to the facts. He found that the way to dominion ever Parliament was not by argument on the floor of the House, but by making terms with the great lords of the press outside, who controlled the machine that manufactured public opinion. Long before the war Mr. Lloyd George had appreciated the changed circumstances and taken advantage of them. A press man was much more important to him than a Parliamentary colleague or a prince of the blood. He might forget to reply to an archbishop, but he would never forget to reply to a journalist. His acquaintance among the craft was more various and peculiar than that of any politician of this day or any other day. There was no newspaper man so poor that he would not do him reverence and entertain him to breakfast. While his former colleague, Mr. Asquith, studiously ignored the press and would no more have thought of bargaining with Northcliffe and Beaverbrook for their support than of asking his butler to write his speeches, Mr. George lived in the press world, knew every leading journalist’s vulnerable point, humored his vanity, and gave him a knighthood or a peerage as readily as his breakfast.
“By these ingenious arts, which I have had the pleasure of watching at pretty close quarters for twenty years past, he built up that press legend of himself which has been so invaluable an asset to him. It has not only enabled him to establish his own political fortunes; it has enabled him tp destroy the political fortunes of one set of colleagues after another—unhappy gentlemen, who did not know the secret doors of Fleet Street and found themselves frozen out of the
public affections by a mysterious wind that emanated from they knew not where.
“It may be worth while to mention the chief figures of the press bodyguard with which Mr. George has displaced the authority of Parliament and made himself more nearly a dictator than the country has seen since the days of Cromwell. They are really very few, but between them they influence the opinion and control the news-supply of nineteen twentieths of the people of the country. They are Lord Northcliffe, whom he made a viscount; his brother, Lord Rothermere, whom also he made a viscount; a third brother, Sir Leicester Harmsworth, whom he made a baronet; Mr. George Riddell of the News of the World, whom he made Lord Riddell; the manager of the Times, Sir Stuart Campbell, whom he made a knight; the manager of the Mail, whom he made a knight; Sir H. Dalziel of the Daily Chronicle and Pall Mall; Sir William Robertson Nichol (also made a knight), who, as editor of the British Weekly, keeps him right with the Nonconformist public; Sir Edward Hulton, the owner of a great group of papers in London and Manchester (a baronetcy for him); Lord Beaverbrook of the Daily Express, who was given a peerage for engineering the overthrow of the Asquith ministry.
“There are others, but these are the leaders of the claque through which Mr. George rules England and, in larger degree than any man living, the continent of Europe. It is a great achievement. The press lords have so indoctrinated the public mind with the Lloyd George legend that it is doubtful whether they themselves can destroy their own creation. Lord Northcliffe, disappointed at not being chosen, as part of his contract, to represent England at the Peace Conference, has tried to destroy it, but has found that he did his work too thoroughly to undo it easily. The public has become so attached to the legend that they find it hard to surrender it until the press can agree upon a new legend to put in its place. That will not be easy, for no other man living has anything approaching Mr. George’s genius for manipulating the press, and he has had five years of power in which to consolidate his hold upon the machine of government and to establish his friends in all the strategic positions of influence.
“But side by side, with this transfer of real power from Parliament to the press, there has been another tendency operating to discredit the House of Commons. This tendency has no doubt been aggravated by the disrepute of Parliament itself. It is the idea of direct action. The Labor movement, just when it seemed to have the control of Parliament within its grasp, developed a school which aimed at repudiating Parliament altogether, or, at least, at subordinating it to the exercise of direct industrial power outside. The view of the leaders of this movement was that Parliament was an institution which, however democratic its basis, became inevitably the instrument of the capitalist interests, and that the realities of government must pass to the organized industrial classes before Labor could get justice or achieve the aims it had in view. Between the mutually destructive ideas of possessing Parliament and dispossessing Parliament, Labor has temporarily lost its way. The
rank and file of the movement, I think, is still overwhelmingly in favor of a Parliamentary system: Imt the intellectual
energy is largely behind the new school of thought, and the discredit that has fallen upon the present Parliament has strengthened the motive of direct action. The result has heen disastrous both to Labor and to Parliament. The cleavage of polities tends more and more to be between Lahor and Capital, with the latter in control of Parliament and the former increasingly disposed to make its power felt outside by the interruption of ti e processes of industry.
"The insurgent disposition of the advanced section of Labor is aggravated by the subservience of the press to the money interest. The present condition of journalistic production makes it practically impossible for newspapers to he run in the interests of the men; and the conviction that both the press and Parliament are against them gives impetus to the preachings of direct action.
“Another consideration that has helped to make Labor distrust Parliament is its own failure as a Parliamentary factor. There are some seventy Labor members in the present House of Commons; but it is notorious that they are as a whole, the least efficient body in the Chamber. The fact is due to two things. While it is the intellectual who
dictates the abstract policy of the party, it is the mass of the party that nominates and elects the members; and it is the practice to send to Westminster trade-union secretaries of third-rate ability and generally without either political training or Parliamentary instinct. Nor is this the only handicap. They are deprived of all independent action, and enter the House committed to a certain collective course on any given issue, regardless of what the debates may reveal. All this has made Labor a singularly negligible influence in the House, and has increased its disposition to distrust an instrument it has failed to use.
“And there is another cause of the decline of the Parliamentary institution. I do not think it can be doubted that it is not to-day attracting the best intellectual and moral material of the country to the extent to which it attracted it a generation or two ago. The pushful and clever lawyer is still there in abundance; but the great public-spirited citizen, who entered Parliament, not for what he could make out of it, but from a disinterested passion for the commonwealth,—the man of the type of Cobden and Bright—has disappeared. No first-rate Parliamentary figure has emerged during the past twenty years, with the exception of Mr. Churchill, a mere swashbuckler of politics.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.