“These are the steady bulk of the community, insuring the peace of the district by their habits and opinions far more effectively than any vigilance of police or government. Yet, if they are indeed satisfactory, how low are the civic standards of England, how fallen the ideals and beauties of Christianity! No man that has dreams can rest content because the English worker has reached his high level of regular work and rare intoxication.”
One does not rest content; far from it. But the perpetual wonder is, not that “the lower classes are brutalised,” but that this brutality is so tempered with generosity and sweetness. It is not their crime that surprises, but their virtue; not their turbulence or discontent, but their inexplicable acquiescence. And yet there are still people who sneer at “the mob,” “the vulgar herd,” “the great unwashed,” as though principles, gentility, and soap were privileges in reward of merit, and not the accidental luck of money’s chaotic distribution.
THE WORTH OF A PENNY
A year or two ago, some wondered why strike had arisen out of strike; why the whole world of British labour had suddenly and all at once begun to heave restlessly as though with earthquake; why the streams of workpeople had in quick succession left the grooves along which they usually ran from childhood to the grave. “It is entirely ridiculous,” said the Times, with the sneer of educated scorn, “it is entirely ridiculous to suppose that the whole industrial community has been patiently enduring real grievances which are simultaneously discovered to be intolerable.” But to all outside the circle of the Times, the only ridiculous part of the situation was that the industrial community should patiently have endured their grievances so long.
That working people should simultaneously discover them to be intolerable, is nothing strange. It is all very well to lie in gaol, from which there seems no chance of escape. Treadmill, oakum, skilly, and the rest—one may as well go through with them quietly, for fear of something worse. But if word goes round that one or two prisoners have crept out of gaol, who would not burn to follow? Would not grievances then be simultaneously discovered to be intolerable? The seamen were but a feeble lot; their union was poor, their combination loose. They were cooped up within the walls of a great Employers’ Federation, which laughed at their efforts to scramble out. Yet they escaped; the walls were found to be not so very high and strong; in one place or another they crumbled away, and the prisoners escaped. They gained what they wanted; their grievances were no longer intolerable. What working man or woman on hearing of it did not burn to follow, and did not feel the grievances of life harder to be tolerated than before? If that feeble lot could win their pennyworth of freedom, who might not expect deliverance? People talk of “strike fever” as though it were an infection; and so it is. It is the infection of a sudden hope.