A FAMOUS editor in London used to say to young foreign correspondents going out to their first assignments: “If you go to Bagdad start your story with how you are sitting in a café, with a camel waiting outside the door and a fat perspiring Turk at the next table whisking the flies off his head while the dust rises from the sun-baked street. Then your readers will know that you are actually in Bagdad and not writing from the British Museum.”
I n pursuance of that policy I now inform you that I am writing this letter in an English country house 100 miles from London. In spite of the month of March intruding itself the English winter is putting up a tough Teutonic defense. The sky is leaden; the undulating farmlands soggy with wet cold and there are even a few misguided snowflakes fluttering to their doom in the damp embrace of the earth.
It is Sunday morning and we, that is, my host, hostess and myself, have had a British breakfast in the servants’ quarters. Lack of staff has closed the main portion of the old Tudor house. Yesterday, in company wit h half a dozen M.P.’s of sharply contrasted political opinions, I left London for Bury St. Edmunds, where a vigorous and even heated by-election is being held. For the pust 10 days M.P.’s have been making the journey to argue the case for the Government Candidate or, in the case of the Independents, to plead the cause of the rival Candidate.
Political feelings run high in this part of the world. They always have. Charle* Dickens stayed at the “Angel” here when he was a reporter and was so interested in the election at Sudbury, near here, that he afterward made it a model for the famous by-election at Eatanswill in which the Hon. Samuel Slumkey, of Slumkey Hall, and Horatio Fizkin, of Fizkin Hall, near Eatanswill, fought their epic battle of the polls.
The “Angel” is still here. Driving in the black-out last night I had it pointed out to me, but as the visibility was about one foot the glimpse was not an enlightening one. It is a pity that Mr. Pickwick is not here for the present fight. It would have entertained and instructed him.
At any by-election anywhere the visiting M.P. assures his audience that the eyes of the nation and even of the world are on the particular contest, it is a harmless exaggeration, grown respectable through long usage. The curious thing about the Bury St. Edmunds affair is that the statement is categorically true. If the Government were to lose this fight the reactions would be felt in every country in the world. A government defeat would almost certainly force Churchill to hold a General Election at a time when he needs all his concentration for the Second Front and for the thousand problems of inter-Allied association.
It is a strange story and it started at Skipton in Yorkshire, where the Commonwealth Party won the seat from the Tories. Perhaps I had better explain that when Churchill formed his Government in 1940 it was a National Coalition embracing the Tories, Socialists and Liberals, a sort of “one for all and all for Churchill” proposition. A political truce was declared in the constituencies in the name of national unity and the existing membership of Parliament, elected in 1935, was pegged. That is, if a Tory M.P. died or resigned he would be succeeded by a Tory who would not be opposed by the Socialists or Liberals. The same applied, of course, to M.P.’s of all three Parties.
A Party truce is an admirable thing in an hour of emergency but hard to sustain when the emergency has passed. In 1940 the dragon’s breath of invasion
was on our cheeks and political differences were forgotten in the sheer elemental challenge to the nation’s existence.
But nearly four years have passed since then and they have taken their toll of the patience and tolerance of the people. No other country, not even Germany, has been so harnessed to the war machine as Britain. Under the edicts of Westminster there is hardly a home that has not felt the rough hand of official interference. Neither sex nor youth nor age have spared the men and women of this country. The family as an institution has practically ceased to exist.
Laws that are made for the millions must always strike harshly and stupidly on some individuals. It cannot be otherwise. Men who are doing valuable war work are whisked away to another part of the country to do something not half as important. A girl who is a bus conductor in her home town where she knows every street is sent to a bus route in another town where she knows nothing. These are the inevitable blunders of an improvised bureaucracy and do not alter the fact that on the whole the mobilization of man and woman power is efficient and fair. But the exasperation does not end with the older people. All of us in Parliament have boys in our constituencies who • have studied as Air Force or Sea Cadets from 14 to 16 years of age so as to be trained when they come of military age, and are now sent to work in the mines.
CHILDREN are more sensitive to injustice than their elders and these boys ask us if this is their reward for voluntarily training to be ready, when other boys of the same age did nothing but have a good time? But the nation must have coal and all we can say to the youngsters is that they will be soldiers of industry, and other such comforting platitudes.
Exasperation, like jealousy, grows with what it feeds upon. It has nothing whatever to do with the will to fight on to final victory. That is taken for granted, like the weather and the income tax. But there is a strong desire to kick someone in the shins, and in this case “someone” is the Government.
Nature abhors a vacuum. The Party truce created a vacuum in the constituencies. Sir Richard Acland Bart, M.P., saw his chance and took it. He would give, political expression to all this exasperation. Together with J. B. Priestley and a few other doctrinaires he formed the Commonwealth Party. Sir Richard himself was elected to Parliament as a Liberal and should, of course, have gone back to his constituents and offered himself for re-election as a Commonwealther. But he is a young man and youth has no time for the niceties.
The policy of the Commonwealthers is that everyone should have enough and nobody too much. This was heartily endorsed by Edward Hulton, the publisher, who inherited a vast fortune from his father; by Priestley who makes thousands of pounds a year from his writings and by Sir Richard Acland who inherited his title and estates from his father. Unfortunately the idealists fell out. It is said that they found each other rather trying, and Priestley and Hulton withdrew.
Sir Richard stayed in the field, however, and made a spectacular renunciation of his estates, proclaiming that no man should hold more of the earth’s surface than he needs. He gave his lands to the nation, with the full approval of his wife.
This was indeed a noble gesture and it won respect for him even from his critics.
Subsequently it was divulged that Sir Richard had
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retained eight rooms of his country house for the lifetime use of himself and his wife. Thus he has no rents to collect, no rent to pay and no death duties to worry about. His gift to the nation was still substantial but it was not an act of undistilled virtue as it seemed at first.
Sir Richard formed a sort of political circus of ardent young men and women. At the by-election in Skipton they ran a young Army lieutenant as their candidate against a rather elderly Tory. Their cry was, “We want youth at Westminster.” The gospel of the supreme value of inexperience and the sanctity of political unripeness was preached with passion.
The young one got in. The Government and the Tories were very angry.
Cobbler’s Son Wins
Then there came the by-election at West Derby. The 25-year-old Marquess of Hartington, son of the Duke of
Devonshire, was put up for the Government. The Commonwealth Circus arrived in full force. To support youth? Not at all. They threw their energies, their zeal and their money into the ring to aid the middle - aged Alderman White, the son of a cobbler. The Alderman won by an immense majority. The poor little Marquess lay knocked out on the canvas. The cobbler’s son had secured a majority of more than 5,000.
Commonwealth was jubilant. It had got youth in at Skipton and kept youth out at West Derby. Sir Richard dilated his nostrils. He was beginning to feel the intoxication of power. Just before Mr. Churchill delivered his war review to the House of Commons the victor of West Derby took his seat. The House was grimly silent except for the plaudits of one or two Independents. Churchill glowered and refused to smile.
And then came Bury St. Edmunds. The sitting Member, Colonel Hedgers, was on a train that ran into a stationary truck. He was among the dead. True to the Party truce a Tory was nominated in his place, a Major Keatinge,
landowner in the district, a soldier in this war and a forthright speaker. Would he be opposed? Mrs. Corbett Ashby answered that question. She said she would run as an Independent and the representative of a United Progressive front. She was, of course, for Churchill. All candidates who run against Churchill’s candidate declare their loyalty to the Prime Minister.
Sir Richard Acland sounded the trumpet. “All hands on deck at Bury St. Edmunds,” he shouted. But there was a slight dilemma. Having declared his zeal for youth at Skipton and having defeated a 25-year-old at West Derby he did not quite know what to do with Mrs. Corbett Ashby who was 61. Even for a political contortionist this was a problem.
Mrs. Corbett Ashby solved the problem by saying that she would accept the help of Commonwealth but not adopt its policy. After a moment’s quick thinking Acland agreed with enthusiasm. On this basis he could not lose. If she won—then he would say it was because of Commonwealth’s assistance. If she lost—it would be because she liad rejected Commonwealth’s policy.
So the battle began.
The Government, thoroughly alarmed, sent its strongest speakers from Westminster. It was quite an honor to be included on the team and 1 was humanly pleased to be selected. But the Independents were also mustering their full strength, including Goliath White fresh from his victory over the boy David at West Derby.
The Communists sent a speaker to address meetings for Mrs. Corbett Ashby but shrewdly she put him to address envelopes.
Our side had one great advantage. Included in this rambling constituency is the racing town of Newmarket. Now there is nothing racing men like better than ÍE stayer and Mrs. Ashby is that. Seven times she has run for Parliament and seven times she has failed to get her nose in front. Therefore Newmarket has written her off. What is the use of staying if you never win?
But how would the villages vote?
Last night I drove to Higham, a village which has 400 electors, all on farms. I arrived at the local hall to find a chairman who rejoiced in the name of Barclay. He is one of the Banking Barclays and it turned out that he owns the village. Every farm there is on his estate.
Mr. Barclay is therefore a feudalist and nothing much has happened to Bury St. Edmunds since Saint Edmund was buried there, thus giving the place its name. But Mr. Barclay is a good feudalist and looks after his tenants. Therefore, being uncontaminated by progress, Higham will vote solidly for Barclay, the Government and the Tory Party.
LTnfortunately at nearby village Cordon England, of airplane fame, is the feudal lord and a good one. He is a rebellious Liberal and I am afraid that his misguided tenantry will vote against us. Fortunately there tire more Tory feudalists than there are others and we ought to do well in the Steppes.
Whatever happens, there is no constituency of which it can be said in more sincerity: “This is the voice of
England.” The people are as English as the apples which are so plentiful that my host for the week end (the father-inlaw of Major Keatinge) was distributing them in pails to the local village children.
And if you think this was a mere electioneering device you do not know Mr. Burell. He has been doing this for years. With adventitious vulgarity, however, I could not let the occasion pass, and insisted upon making a speech to the rosy-cheeked children,
urging them to tell their parents and relations to vote for Major Keatinge. They said they would. I hope they do.
For those of us who went there to speak for Major Keatinge, I can report that except for the train service, which is quite abominable, the arrangements for our hospitality were beyond praise. We were given high tea at the county club, followed by a glass of port, and after our meetings we were driven to our various hosts, who were putting us up for the night.
* * *
Back in London.
It was 1.45 yesterday afternoon when Mr. Burell’s chauffeur drove me to the local station. He has been in the service of his master for 47 years, having graduated from a stable boy.
The train was due at 1.52, but it did not arrive, and I found myself the only being as far as the eye could see.
Here was peace. Here was content. A Flying Fortress flew lazily among the clouds. A cat appeared and brushed his fur against my trousers. Northern Ontario could not have seemed more remote.
But there was no train. At last, seeking human company, I saw a signal box and entered into conversation
Maclean's Magazine, April 15, 1944
with its occupant. And this led to an important discovery.
“Who is going to win the election?” I asked.
He looked for some time at the levers in front of him. He took his time preparing his reply, for there is lots of time around here. Then he made his immortal answer:
“I don’t know,” he said.
At last I had found him—the man who is the mainstay of the Gallup Survey. And then the train ambled in. * * *
The voting took place yesterday. I am sitting in the library of the House of Commons waiting for the result, anxious to get this letter off and almost as excited as if I were the Candidate. Yesterday in the London “Evening Standard” I predicted that our man would win by more than 2,500 votes. Was I a fool to prophesy? The Americans call it “leading with the chin.”
* * *
Our horse has won. And the majority is just over 2,500. If you will excuse me I shall go to the smoke room and join in the general rejoicings.
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