A Commentary (Apr 1929)
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596 ] A Commentary The Criterion: A Literary Review, 8 (Apr 1929) 377-81 Thoughts on a General Election Everyone who cares for civilization must dread and deplore that waste of time, money, energy and illusion which is called a General Election. No country pays so heavily for this undesirable luxury as Britain. In France political changes occur so frequently as to be indifferent; in America the recurrence of the malady is arranged every four years, and is rendered comparatively harmless by the fact that the results are usually known a year or two beforehand. But in Britain an election is still, more or less, what it pretends to be: its results cannot always be predicted. All that can be predicted this year is the usual waste of time, money and energy, a very small vote in consequence of the increased number of voters, and the return, known to Dryden, of “old consciences with new faces.”1 The Literature of Politicians Once upon a time there was supposed to be a sort of gentlemanly accord, even occasionally a union, between politics and literature. That was in the days before politics had been associated rather with the principles of cricket – even that jolly political game has vanished. The terms between politics and literature were so amiable that the statesman at least made some attempt to preserve the elements of prose style. Perhaps British statesmen once had more leisure, time to re-read their sentences, and even look up their words in a dictionary. Mr. Lloyd George was always a busy little man. But it is no relief to turn from his periods to the dreary sermons of Mr. Ramsay MacDonald. And if we proceed from bad to worse, we arrive at length at the prose style of Mr. Winston Churchill. Beyond a certain point, degrees of inferiority are indifferent; and in this sense there can be nothing appreciably worse than the style of Mr. Churchill’s recent reminiscences in The Times newspaper.2 There may even be reason to fear that the Home Secretary, and perhaps all future Home Secretaries, may be so busy censoring English prose that they will have no time to study the art of writing and speaking it.3 [ 597 A Commentary (Apr 1929) In our ideal Platonic Republic, of course, the country would be governed by those who can best write and speak its language – those, in other words, who can best think in that language. The Politics of Men of Letters Meanwhile, in spite of Monsieur Benda, men of letters will go on worrying about the principles of politics.4 They are in fact the only men who do worry about its principles. Mr. Bernard Shaw and Mr. H. G. Wells, though birds of the same nest, do not always agree; and the pair of them seem to have little in common with Mr. Wyndham Lewis (not D. B. Wyndham Lewis).5 Yet they are all worried about politics, and they all incline in the direction of some kind of fascism. Mr. Wells’s fascism, it is true, is disguised behind the violent caricatures which he has drawn of Mussolini, and we do not suppose that he would be as well received in Italy as Mr. Shaw.6 But it is merely that Mr. Wells, during his afternoon naps, still dreams of Liberalism; while Mr. Wells, in his morning hours, makes hasty blue-prints of a really efficient administration.7 The aging Fabians, like the solitary artist , are more and more sympathetic towards some kind of autocracy. This tendency deserves very serious consideration, for owing to the writings of these authors and others, it will become the instinctive attitude of thousands of unthinking people a few years hence. It will be sympathetic to the workman who does not want a vote which he shares with the young women on the street corner. At present, it is a natural attitude for the restive intellectual, and has considerable justification. There are qualifications to be drawn, however, before it is too late. The extreme of democracy – which we have almost reached – promises greater and greater interference with private liberty; but despotism might be equally despotic. There is a difference between democracy and self-government. In complete democracy , everyone in theory governs everyone else, as a kind of compensation for not being allowed to govern himself. The advantage of overt dictatorship is that the authority has to take the responsibility for its own actions; whereas under democracy it can always...