Constructive Conservatism, #5

III — Problem and Principle

And the fundamental problem of this new era—what of it? Beneath the tangle of immediate anxieties—unemployment, the housing of the people, the agricultural emergency, the financial burdens of the State—is it possible to detect a master-problem which, while it remains unsolved, exercises a profound and malign influence upon the mental outlook and the material condition of the people?

If the analysis of the new era which has been attempted is in any degree correct, such a master-problem is not far to seek. For the mass of the people—those who mainly live by the wages of industry—political status and educational status have outstripped economic status.

The structure has become lop-sided. It is therefore unstable.

Until our educated and politically minded democracy has become predominantly a property-owning democracy, neither the national equilibrium nor the balance of the life of the individual will be restored.

To restore than balance is the master-problem of the new era.

The wage-earner has for long been attempting to solve the problem for himself. In the Co-operative movement, the Friendly Societies, the Savings Banks, and on their benefits side the Trade Unions, he has made a most determined effort to build up for himself (either by way of income to meet illness, unemployment, old age, or by way of capital) “something of his own” behind hum, and the large amounts of wealth thus accumulated show how strong and persistent the impulse has been. These organizations are, indeed, the outstanding economic and social achievement of the wage-earner; they have at once exhibited developed and tested his business capacity and his social sense, and in the steady devotion, hard work and unostentatious self-sacrifice shown in their management they have made a splendid contribution to the public life of the community. But the most remarkable proof of the wage-earner’s determination to become a property-owner is to be found in the success of the War Savings Certificates scheme. Despite the fact that unemployment insurance, health insurance, and old-age pensions were in either partial or full operation when it was introduced, the steady flow of his savings, in good times and bad, into War Savings Certificates shows how fully the wage-earner appreciates the security and economic freedom which the possession of private property gives.

Yet the effort, large and fruitful as it has been, has not in itself solved the problem. And it is not difficult to see why. In the first place, it has been made by the wage-earners as a separate, isolated class. Its national importance has been overlooked. The Liberal, concentrating his attention on political rights, has passed it by. The Conservative, though he has aided it, has certainly not considered it in its full bearing upon the social structure; while the Socialists has seized the opportunity thus given him to pervert the impulse behind it into an element in the view of life which he presents; he declares, that is, that ownership by the State is ownership by the people, implying that that means a property-owning democracy. In fact, of course, it does not. What everybody owns, nobody owns; and far from expressing the wage-earner’s ideal, Socialism makes it unattainable, while communal ownership, when obtained, neither interests nor influences a single human being. We have yet to hear of the man who, in the Great War, rushed to arms to preserve his share in the London County Council Tramways or in Battersea Park.

And the effort has been isolated in another sense. It has had no direct relation with the wage-earner’s life as a worker. It has had nothing to do with his work. His thrift effort and his work have, moreover, not only been carried on independently, but in two opposite moods. His mood is “Capitalist” when he saves; it is “Labour” while he works. And the mental confusion resulting from that opposition of moods has had startling results, of which the most amazing example is the large application of the funds of the Co-operative Societies to assist and support the Socialist movement.

But most vital of all, these intense and prolonged efforts have not altered the industrial status of the wage-earner. Whatever his savings may be in the Co-operative Society, or in War Savings Certificates, the wage-earner, as industrialist, has only the economic status of a machine; for his wages, as such, are, and can only be, part of the costs of production, occupying the same position as the expenses of running the machines of the factory or workshop in which he is employed. Small wonder, then, if the wage-earner’s isolated and barely recognised effort to become a property-owner has left, at the beginning of the new era, his own life and the whole social structure lop-sided and unstable.

It is these very efforts, however, which are largely responsible for the instinctive sympathy between the main body of the nation and Conservatism. Can it be doubted that the mass of the people feel that the only school of political thought which understands and is capable of solving the problem is the Conservative, and that it is for this very purpose (intuitively felt, indeed, rather than logically reasoned out) that the country preserves and approves Conservatism to-day?

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