II — The New Era
What then, are the main, the special features of the new era, in which Conservatism must play a constructive part, or perish? There are two on which attention must be concentrated, because in importance, in their reach and power, they stand in a class by themselves.
First, Britain is now, electorally, a complete democracy. A new and tremendous element is this in the situation, particularly because the acquisition of political rights by women has flung into the seething pot of our political life a fresh and distinctive ingredient, has brought into the general pool, and given opportunity for the expression of a mental and moral outlook, a temperament and a tradition which are different (though to what extent and even in what respects might be matter of controversy) from those of the previous exclusively male electorate. However that may be, Conservatism, now and for the future, is face to face with democracy. Democratic electoral rights are, in a word, no longer a plank in political programmes, they are the medium in which the statesmanship of the future must work. This feature of the new era at last opens the way to the full operation of Conservative principles and, incidentally, makes it unnecessary even to mention Liberalism as a school of thought: for Liberalism, which had in the past so much to say about political freedom, has nothing to do in our era, when complete political freedom has been attained.
Secondly, the new era is one not merely of democracy, but of an educated democracy. Education is so gradual a process that its growth is easily overlooked. Yet, as in all continuous processes of growth, there are decisive moments when change is apparent. Last week the cherry was in bud, to-day it is “hung with snow.”
Such a decisive moment was the War. In a flash, the distance which Britain had gone along the road of education was revealed. The technical ability, the rapidity in acquiring new kinds of knowledge and in mastering new duties, the self-reliance, the self-respect, the power to accept responsibility, the spontaneous facing of sacrifice, the large grasp of the issues at stake, the firmness and fineness of temper, the general spaciousness of character and outlook displayed by the men and women of Britain meant, and could only mean, that the influences of education had penetrated deeply and strongly into their minds and character. The present writer, who on four fronts saw men under the most varying conditions of danger and of dullness, has never wavered in his conviction that it was largely to the extent to which the mass of the people had absorbed the benefits of some forty years of strenuous education that we owed our achievements in the War.
And the more the temper and psychology of our people are seen and studied, the more apparent becomes the fact that ours in an educated democracy. A habit of mind, alert, sensitive, receptive, has replaced one traditionally prone to be sluggish and prejudiced. And if alertness has brought with it a wholesome inquisitiveness into the validity of traditional points of view, sensitiveness has produced a rapid appreciation of principle; and receptiveness, particularly marked in all the qualities which may be grouped under the phrase “the social conscience,” has given a remarkable power of appreciating what lawyers call “the merits” of a question.
The change is so profound that only by a several mental effort can the new situation it has produced by envisaged. The Conservative Party must make that mental effort, and the even greater one necessary to think out all the reactions which must follow in the political life of the people. If it does not, how can it meet the instinctive trust of the people with a view of politics fitted for the new era?