A celebrated work of one of our greatest politicians was entitled ‘Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents’. It might serve as a title for a politician’s discourse in almost any age. Discontents and dissatisfactions there will always be. It is the permanent lot of the politician to give voice to them and, by exposing their causes, to offer hope of their removal.
For that purpose political parties exist: to represent an explanation and a remedy, and to stand ready to put their beliefs to the test of practice whenever they are called upon to do so. Parties in the past have arisen to voice the discontents of whole classes in the state: they were the spokesmen of great interests or great masses who felt themselves to be unfairly treated or inadequately considered. Even the grievances of the smallest elements have been part of the stuff of politics; and it has been the boast of Western democracy that it could find a way for the will of the majority to prevail without suppressing the voice, or trampling upon the rights, of minorities. A good part of the contrivance of modern constitutions has been designed to protect the numerically insignificant.
The discontents of this present time are of a different sort. If they are not without precedent, they are such as have no recent parallel. In our age it is the great majority which groans under the tyranny of small minorities, and large and even preponderant masses of opinion find no corresponding voice or expression in the constituted political parties.
In the broad, unending stream of letters which flow in to Members of Parliament, in the great volume of sound which reaches them from those whom they represent and from the public at large, one note is recognisable above the rest by its insistent and characteristic repetition. ‘What can we do about it?’ is the refrain, when phrased as a rhetorical question; or else, in tones of greater resignation: ‘There’s nothing we can do about it.’
The Newton’s law of political dynamics, ‘the majority will always win’, seems to have been stood on its head. In the Britain of today the majority are convinced that they, the majority, will always lose, and that a minority of one sort or other, however untypical, will triumph. The present discontents, and the present dangers, are those of a public opinion which feels itself to be unregarded. What distinguishes the present case is that there is nothing sectional or local about the disregarded opinion: the cry ‘there’s nothing we can do about it’ is not that of a class or a region; it rises more or less uniformly from one end of the country to the other, from one end of the social scale to the other.
What then is this ‘it’, about which the great majority feel that nothing can be done, and indeed that nothing which they say will be heeded? ‘It’ is what is happening to Britain. Or rather, since that is too impersonal, too passive, ‘it’ is what is being done to Britain. People feel that without their consent, without (if possible) their knowledge, and certainly against their will, their own country is being taken and altered into what they do not recognise. This is not a repining at the inevitable changes of the outer or inner world: the resentment is not against lost empire, or new competitors, or the maelstrom of technological advance. It is against things more tangibly, more obviously and deliberately imposed and devised.
At an educational conference not long ago, one head teacher spoke about ‘the seemingly planned intention of eroding all forces of authority’, while another said ‘we know that the enemies of law and order would love to see the schools brought down, as far as their moral influence and prestige are concerned’. What those head teachers were describing is what millions of people believe they are watching, helpless and not so much unregarded as positively derided: the deliberate dismantling of the frontiers of decency, morality and respect, with a view to producing far-reaching and indeterminate alterations in society itself. They do not believe that these and other phenomena, such as the spread of drugs or the undermining of the universities, are simply reflections of a change taking place spontaneously and generally. They believe that intention is at work, and that it is the intention of a small and elusive but powerful minority. What they do not understand is that they, the majority, seem to find themselves without voice or representation in the face of a prospect which appals them.
At the same time two other great alterations are either taking place or projected, with the appearance of unanimity or acquiescence on the part of those in power. One is a change in the population of these islands which, now that the facts are becoming known, is admitted to be incomparably larger and more profound than any other in the nation’s history or experience. How something of this importance could have come about without consent or consultation or even prior notification remains a cause of astonishment to millions. It renders them fearful that other alterations, as large and as unwelcome in their effects upon Britain, might similarly come about without consent and without consultation; for the pattern has every appearance of being the same: a minority, perhaps a small minority, determines the question over the heads of the majority, and then the majority is presented with a fait accompli and told that it is good for them and that anyhow it is too late to argue about now.
Thus the normal process of political and party debate is suspended. It is impossible to overestimate the impact of this upon a country whose political life revolves around Parliament and where party has been the means of debating and deciding the great issues of the nation. Hitherto, as far back as political memory runs, the nation has been able, in the dilemmas which confronted it or the anxieties by which it was assailed, to incline towards one party or the other, and to find the alternatives personified and dramatised by the parties. It has been able to look to the opposition party, above all, to voice the most insistent of the nation’s apprehensions about the course of affairs.
All this is now changed. In just those questions which are of most crucial and lasting importance, debate and conflict between the political parties is conspicuous by its non-existence. Instead, the electorate find themselves confronted, at elections and between elections, by the bland front of open agreement or tacit connivance between the two great parties in the state.
We should be wise not to disregard, or make light of, the danger which such a situation holds for the whole principle of government by debate and by consent. For the individual Member of Parliament it creates a new duty and responsibility. He can no longer be a true representative in local or sectional concerns but claim, in anything beyond those, that merely by virtue of adherence to party he is playing his part in the political debate on behalf of the constituents who elected him. As the storm centre of politics has deserted the dead ground between the parties, so the Member’s personal responsibility has been elevated to the national plane, and he finds himself called upon as an individual, to perform a duty, and fulfil a function, which for the time being Parliament and party have collectively abandoned.