Penny-in-the-Slot Politics

Winston Churchill

March 31, 1934

There is one aspect of modern life which has struck me very much lately, and which deserves anxious attention: the elimination of the individual. Everywhere, in every country, in every sphere of human activity, as civilization has spread its multiplying complications, the power of the machine has grown greater, the power of the man grown less; combinations, organizations of all kinds flourish and increase; individuals sink into insignificance.

I do not need to trace the operation of this fact in trade and manufacture. Vast and formidable combinations of labour stand arrayed against even vaster and more formidable combinations of capital; and whether they war with each other or co-operate, the individual is always crushed under.

The independent labourer, the man without an organization, gets neither help nor pity from anyone. The small trader is crowded out by the multiple shop or the co-operative stores. The independent manufacturer is overwhelmed by the combination, which in its turn is swallowed whole by some mighty trust.

These transactions are the inseparable concomitant of scientific and commercial development. Their result has been to increase the volume of production and improve the economic cultivation of the earth — and however we may lament the transition of stout-hearted independence into disciplined and regulated service we must admit that mankind, better clothed and better shod, is daily being conveyed by swifter, easier roads to a more abundant table.

But the individual must be all the more our care. At either end of the great machine stand the men — the millions who feed it, and the few who control it — and to preserve the rights and personalities of the one class and to curb the unforeseen power of the other must be one of the labours of the State in this twentieth century. Those who think — as opposed to those who follow, shout, or obey — must make it their care, unwearying, bold, intelligent, to assert the individual life of the man who is only a man, as against the man who controls some powerful engine and the men who have become merely some part of its mechanism.

Look into the political world; the same forces are at work. See how the combination grows, and the individual steadily diminishes. Twenty gentlemen formed into a Cabinet draw steadily to themselves the powers of some 600 more or less disorganized or submissive gentlemen, representing the mass of the nation.

The Private Member is, we are told, a public nuisance. He gets in the way of combination. He has got to go under, too. He is the small private trader when the big co-operative store comes along. The independent Member — the Member on whom the Whips cannot quite rely to hold his tongue and vote straight — no words are bad enough for him!

I think if my readers watch modern political life they will see how much less powerful men are than they were a hundred years ago. Perhaps it is because there are not such great men that the organizations have grown stronger — perhaps it is because of the organizations that the men have dwindled. At any rate, there is the fact.

At one period, the House of Commons possessed Pitt, and Fox, and Burke, and Sheridan — at another Peel, and Bright, and Disraeli, and Gladstone. We are not quite so well off now. But, on the other hand, Governments were never more stable and secure.

In the old days, when Administrations were formed, all sorts of difficult questions used to arise. Would Lord A accept the seals? Would Mr. B? And in that case, what would the Duke of C say? And if these were met, what would be the complexion of the policy on this or that matter?

The Minister whom the King had summoned spent an anxious week trying to make up his Government. No such difficulty confronts him today. Public spirit is so high. Everyone is ready to undertake some great office of power and profit under the Crown. The only cause for hesitancy is whether some greater might not be obtained by holding out.

My father, the late Lord Randolph Churchill, taught me to regard these matters from a very different angle. His view was that gradually a man came to represent something in the country, a certain association of political ideas, and that he could not surrender his personal freedom of speech and action unless he exerted in return, as a member of a Government, a proportionate influence on public policy.

That was why he refused for three weeks in 1885 to take office until his conditions were complied with. That was why he resigned from the 1886 Government on a matter of principle — a very unpopular matter, economy. Of course, we know now that all that sort of thing is very improper, and we know the misfortunes that overtook my father in consequence.

The new school of politics is quite different. There rises in my mind the vision of the good young man. His manner is polished; his sympathies are controlled, his political views are rigid; his convictions are beyond the reach of argument — he has no doubts or misgivings. He is a model of correctitude. His devotion to his country is second only to his devotion to his party leader. As a back bencher, he will never cause the Whips the least anxiety. As a Minister, he will not be likely to resign.

From the day he honours a constituency by allowing it to return him to the day when a grateful country votes him a statue, he regards the House of Commons, and English political life generally, exactly as if they were a department of the Civil Service in which he will win promotion by being smart and punctual, and giving satisfaction to his superiors.

That is the style that wins, and that is the path to success. But I think some patience should be shown to more intractable people, of whatever party, who insist in their awkward way of thinking things out for themselves, and on examining everything that comes before them with suspicious attention.

There is a kind of intolerant spirit now abroad which arises out of the growing power of party and other machinery — a spirit which resents individual opinion, which clamours for uniformity and political Test Acts. Its most extreme expression is to be found in the Labour Party, but official Conservatism, particularly in relation to India, has traveled far along the same road.

This spirit should be combated wherever it is manifest. Nothing would be worse than that independent men should be snuffed out, and that there should be only two opinions in England, the Government opinion and the Opposition opinion. It is only out of the clash and interplay of various and contrary ideas that the truth can be discovered. It is only when we look at questions from many points of view that we begin to understand them. A perpetually unanimous cabinet disquiets me. We do not want, as the late Lord Salisbury justly observed, ’pliant Ministers’.

Now, here is a very curious illustration of the tendency I am discussing. The Cabinet has become enormously powerful. It has absorbed the Royal prerogative, the functions of the Privy Council, and many of the privileges of Parliament. All sources of information are at its disposal. It is growing in power every day. But in spite of this, the Cabinet Minister is relatively a much less important person than even fifty years ago.

Why, often when some important Minister resigned in former times, the whole Administration tottered, if it did not fall. But nowadays there are at least a dozen Cabinet Ministers, whose names will readily occur to my readers, or at any rate whose names they can easily obtain by consulting any of the ordinary books of reference, who might resign or be dismissed in couples or in batches without the slightest difficulty being found in replacing them, or the smallest injury resulting to the Government of the day.

All the accretion of power to the Cabinet has gone to strengthen the machine, the organization, not the individuals who compose it. The machine has grown much stronger; but the control over it by those who are driving it appears to be greatly diminished. It almost seems as if the undertakings of the nation were so vast, as if the levers of the governing machine were so ponderous, that to move them is beyond human power.

So we are told at every turn that we must hand matters over to experts of all kinds. It reminds me of the machines in the railway stations and outside post offices. Put a penny in the slot, the machine does the rest. Well, we put our penny in the slot and nothing happens. And all we can do, so we are told, is to go on putting in pennies and being patient. The machine, again, has the advantage of the man.

Now a very good rejoinder could be made to this argument. It might be said that the suppression of the Private Member and the individual in politics is only what is happening to the small man in trade, and if in the latter case we get a more efficient service, why not in the former, too?

The cases are widely different. Commerce depends on combination; Parliament depends on personality; trade is based on agreement; politics on discussion. I believe that the influence of individual producers and distributors even in trade is healthy. But the influence of individual thought in politics is indispensable.

Nevertheless, the whole tendency of the age is against the personal element. Perhaps no man’s individuality is strong enough to stand the glare of modern life. Perhaps under our conditions the grand and heroic figures of the past would have withered into mere wire-pullers; or perhaps they were not such great men really in the past, no greater than we have today, and they only seem so because history uses rose-coloured spectacles of high magnifying power. But that supposition is too terrible to entertain.

I believe in personality. But the tragedy of the twentieth century is that the development of human beings lags far behind the growth of their undertakings. We live in an age of great events and little men; and if we are not to become the slaves of our own systems or sink oppressed among the mechanism we have ourselves created, it will only be by the bold efforts of originality, by repeated experiment, by free and continual discussion of all things, and by the dispassionate consideration of the results of sustained and unflinching thought.

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