Articles

LONDON LETTER

Flickering Lamps Of Liberty

BEVERLEY BAXTER May 15 1949
Articles

LONDON LETTER

Flickering Lamps Of Liberty

BEVERLEY BAXTER May 15 1949

LONDON LETTER

Flickering Lamps Of Liberty

BEVERLEY BAXTER

AS MOST people know there is a vast city called London which is the capital of England, but within its precincts there is a magic square mile which is called The City of London. Every day a great multitude of workers swarms into The City, performs a day’s work, and then pours out again to suburban or country homes. At nighttime it is deserted save for a few prowling cats, a brigade of night watchmen, and the few hundreds who live there because they have pubs, restaurants or shops.

The City governs itself, having a lord mayor, t wo sheriffs and a council of aldermen. Not only does it govern itself but it has its own police force, quite separate from the metropolitan force under the home secretary. If the King wants to come into The City he cannot do so without being challenged. The lord mayor meets him at the Temple Gate, just outside the Law Courts, and, being satisfied that His Majesty has no evil intent, hands over his sword to the King as a gesture of confidence and loyalty. Duly touched by all this the King gives back the sword to the lord mayor and all is well.

Fleet Street is within the magic square mile, so are the ancient Inns of Court which gaze upon the sluicing, rambling Thames. So is St. Paul’s with its towering dome, and, farther on, you will find in the very heart of The City such famous institutions as the Bank of England, Lloyd's, the Mansion House and crowded buildings which are occupied by the ancient guilds.

History hangs like a heavy mist over it all, and if ghosts walk at night they must make a goodly company in that part of London. Dr. Johnson with his black servant lived there, eating at the Cheshire Cheese, denouncing the English .and praising the Scots, but never leaving London if he could help it. Thackeray had rooms up four (lights of stairs which he described as his kingdom within a kingdom. That kindliest of essayists, Charles Lamb,

whose goodness of

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spirit shines like one of the candles which used to delight his fancy, was born in a humble house near the Inner Temple.

Dick Whittington is buried in The City, the eternal example of the selfmade man—he not only became three times lord mayor of London but acquired great wealth. The imagination of Charles Dickens was inflamed by wandering in the worst-planned and most fascinating square mile in the world.

I was pondering these things recently because I had to propose the toast at a banquet to the lord mayor, sheriffs and aldermen of The City of London. It was the first annual dinner of the old Aldersgate City Club since 1939. Actually the lord mayor was ill, but his place was taken by Sir George Wilkinson who was lord mayor from November, 1939, to November, 1940, during which he saw nearly half The City destroyed by incendiary bombs.

In his speech Sir George recalled how in 1940 the Toronto Telegram had informed him that its readers had started spontaneously a fund for the relief of Britain’s air-raid victims and that $20,000 had been collected. But that was only the beginning. Something like $3 millions was eventually raised by the Telegram readers. It would have warmed your hearts if you could have heard the applause of the diners. To an exile like myself it is always good to hear praise of one’s kinsfolk.

Let me assure you that I was not wholly unsuited to the task of proposing the toast to the corporation for, in fact, I am a city liveryman. The ancient guilds, formed hundreds of years ago to protect the standards and the standing of skilled craftsmen— they were the forerunners of trade unionism—are perpetuated today by city companies that preserve many of the old traditions. Thus I am a liveryman of the Honorable Company of Stationers, and was once informed (although I have never verified it) that as a stationer I am privileged to wear a bayonet and cannot be arrested for drunkenness within the precincts of The City.

In the jargon of today what does all this add up to? What are traditions but crumbling monuments that clutter up the roadway in a streamlined age? Why this nonsense about the lord mayor riding in a golden pantomime coach or challenging the King at Temple Gate? In a world of creeping common sense what can these postur-

ings mean and what are they worth?

For an answer turn back just a moment to the reign of Charles I. Five members of the House of Commons had spoken and voted against the King’s demands which would have ended the authority and dignity of Parliament. When the King heard of it he rode to Westminster with a squad of troops to arrest the men who dared to defy their sovereign, but the birds had flown. They had been taken on a barge down the river and delivered to the freemen of The City, who promised to hide and protect them.

Filled with wrath the King entered the debating chamber of the Commons and demanded from Mr. Speaker Lenthall the names of the five members. With the respect due to the King, Mr. Speaker knelt on one knee before him and then uttered these immortal words: “Sire, I have no eyes to see and no tongue to speak save as I am directed by this House whose servant I am.”

“Liberty—and Death”

Today in the corridor that leads from the public lobby to the members’ lobby there hangs a painting depicting that scene where men chose liberty and even death rather than submit to tyranny.

Again and again the guilds defied authority. Thus did The City become a kingdom within a kingdom, having its own representatives in Parliament specially privileged at each opening ceremony to sit upon the government front bench whatever government was in power. But after the next general election in 1950, unless the Conservatives win, there will be no more special City M.P.’s. The Socialists see no need to perpetuate empty symbols.

As a Canadian I come from a country where freedom is as natural and unquestioned as the air which one breathes, a country which because of its youth looks forward and is not deeply interested in the past. Yet it took 3,000 years for man to find freedom, 3,000 years of thought, of sacrifice, of struggle, of prayer and of martyrdom.

In ancient Greece they debated democracy and held that it was the highest achievement open to man—but they also sawthat democracy, because of its character, might well prove its own worst enemy. Aristotle declared the foundation of a democratic state was liberty, which meant that the people would govern and also consent to be governed. He argued that the poor ought to have more power than the rich since there were more of them (a prognostication of universal franchise) and that it should be the right of every man to live as he liked, “since he is a slave who must live as he likeç«,

not.” (I suspect that the authors of the American Declaration of Independence had studied Aristotle.)

Pericles took at once a more fervent but also more cynical attitude. He said that the art of governing a democracy was to persuade the people to do what the government wanted them to do, while allowing them to believe that they did it of their own initiative. Yet even that utterance, which sounds like something from Shaw or Wilde, acknowledges one thing: the people must be made to feel that they are free; without that, democracy was nothing.

Yet look at the map of the world today. If Sir Edward Grey could say in that fateful August of 1914, “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” what words would he use if he were alive now? In Central and Eastern Europe the lamps have not only gone out but have been thrown away because the despots believe they will never be wanted again. Tyranny is on the throne, a tyranny more blackhearted and subtle than even Caligula or Nero inflicted upon the Romans, for the modern tyrant has learned how to destroy the souls as well as the bodies of men.

The most disturbing consequence of all this—and it is gravely disturbing— is that people deprived of liberty can lose their longing for it. Like many of the slaves in the American South who were terrified of freedom the people of today look to centralized authority to solve their problems, blueprint their lives, and take away the very element of personal decision. Undoubtedly the carnage and chaos of two World Wars have done much to bend the spirit of man, but at what point will it break?

Bread and Circuses

I know that in this modern, troubled world a government must take greater powers over the lives of the people than ever before, but can the aggrandizement of the bureaucratic state and the development of a freedom-loving democracy grow side by side, or will one crush and destroy the other?

“Give the people bread and circuses,” said the Emperor Augustus, and when his reign was over Rome had descended into flabbiness. “Give the children milk,” says modern Socialism, “give them meals, give the people free medical treatment and dental treatment, give them wigs and water bottles, give them pensions, give them a decent burial at a reasonable nrioe. However, since all these things cost money, we, the Government, will take toll from your wages, your investments, even

your savings if you have enough of them, and will tax your amusements and your indulgences. Further, we will exercise the right to direct you into forms of work regarded as essential to the needs of the nation. Where’er you walk the spectre of the State walks with you, and after a time you will feel strange and timid if you do not feel its bony fingers on your shoulder.”

Like many other serving men I experienced that feeling when we heard the whistles blow and the bells chime at 11 o’clock on the morning of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. The war was over—but now we would have to face the perils and uncertainties of civilian life.

For four years I had been fed, watered, bedded, disciplined and paid by the Army. There were no worries except those presented by the enemy, and there was always a higher authority to give orders which he, in turn, got from a still higher authority.

But what about peace? To be hired and perhaps fired, to know the haunting shame of discouragement, to marry and have a family—and then to lose one’s job! Many of us in the war years had lost faith and almost lost interest in human liberty. Our lives had been ordered for us and any other life seemed puzzling and discouraging.

That is what is happening in the world today. As Walter Lippman once wrote: “People ask for manacles to

hide the trembling of their hands.”

We saw when the Nazis came to power the beating up of the elected members of the Reichstag and the bloody persecution of the Jews—in other words the sentencing to death of what was left of liberty in Germany— and no man raised a hand. Where was Germany’s Gromwell, where was her Mr. Speaker Lenthall, where were her guilds to give sanctuary to the oppressed?

It took centuries piled on centuries to give liberty to mankind, yet in less than two generations it has been destroyed in nearly half the world. And even among the nations where it has not been destroyed men and women are asking whether there are not better things than liberty and if it does not demand more of men than they should be asked to give.

Like Mephisto tempting Faust, the creed of totalitarianism asks for your soul in exchange for a “cradle-to-thegrave” policy in which you pay not, only the premiums but the amount assured.

What price freedom? The market is sluggish; there are many sellers but few buyers. ★