POLITICS AND PRINCIPLES
Israel Mattuck, 18 October 1931
May I begin with a word of personal explanation? I feel myself confronted this morning with one of the most difficult tasks that I have ever attempted. The difficulty lies partly in itself, partly, too, in the fact, which I cannot and would not ignore, that some people think emphatically that nothing connected with politics should be mentioned in a place of worship. Holding, however, a different view, I feel it my duty to discuss the political issues which should now agitate the minds of men and women. And I may not use my own inadequateness and circumstances as an excuse for avoiding the task. In spite of them, the congregation has given me its confidence, and I owe it such help as I can give to clarify the issues of the election for an attempt at a religious judgement. In this task, I have one advantage. It is complete freedom for party affiliations. Though I shall, like all others, be affected by the results of the election, I have no interest in the fortunes of any political party out of attachment to it. I am not concerned with party politics; so that I may claim to combine a whole interest in the nation's well-being with no interest in any party's fortunes.
Politics and Principles
The general election puts before the nation a temporary and a permanent issue. The temporary one is "By whom and on what principles shall the present emergency be handled." The permanent one is "By whom and on what principles shall the economic and social life of the nation be regulated when the emergency is over?" The regulation may amount to reconstruction.
Though the present emergency is naturally uppermost, it must not be allowed to conceal the fact that the issues involved in the election call also for the longer view. The contending parties ask for more than temporary power, they want it for five years. But not even the most pessimistic believes that the emergency will last that long. Long before the end of that period the nation will either have triumphed over its difficulties or be crippled by them.
There is obvious reason for conflict between the two issues for those who do not hold the vehemently partisan point of view which clamours always for "my party". Let me say in passing that this point of view has been the bane of democracy. It destroys the capacity for judgement in accordance with the principles of right and justice, which are the basis and justification of political democracy. If an election is a contest for sectional advantages, it is no better than a dog fight for a bone. And if it merely for the possession of power, it is a tug of war, unlike, however, the tug of war in sport in that the pull of the contest falls on human lives. Too much party in politics has reduced it to a game, whereas for democracy it is a serious part of its life. Democracy means government by principles.
In the present circumstances, it is difficult to apply principles because of the possible conflict between the long and the short view.
This possible conflict between the permanent and the temporary elements in the election issues gives further support to those who were against a general election before the temporary emergency had been conquered. The present difficulties call for emergency measures almost regardless of principles. I share with the ancient Rabbis a feeling for religious realism. Though they believed that the Law was divine, yet said they, all the laws might be violated when life was in danger. I am not prepared to say that when the nation's life is in serious danger, it is legitimate to violate any and all social or moral principles, but it is legitimate to think first of the practical measures that will overcome danger, as drugs that should be normally avoided may in disease become necessary.
One effect of a general election at this time is to deprive any political group of the right to claim a more national character than any other group. It was, I felt, a triumph of democracy when two months ago leaders of the three political parties joined together to sink party differences in an effort to work out a solution for urgent problems. By that act Parliament, the chief of democratic institutions threw off the reproach of ineffectiveness to meet testing difficulties. But the position has altered, and the country has been thrown back to the old political conflict mitigated only by the fact that a few political leaders have changed sides. Neither the Labour Party on the one side nor the Conservative Party on the other have yielded anything to the present emergency. What credit there is in the situation belongs to a few like Mr MacDonald who have shown themselves ready to follow the way which they believed to be right though it led them away from their party. These few, however, are not enough to substantiate a claim to being "national". It is only fair to the opposition to admit that they, too, mean to further the nation's well-being by national policies.
The issue between the two sections cannot be solved by an adjective. So far as the temporary situation is concerned, there is probably general agreement that the present government is best suited to deal with it, chiefly for one reason. And that is that it will maintain and strengthen the confidence of other countries in the financial stability of England. The distinction implied by this attitude in foreign countries may not be justified. The leaders of the opposition have said that they, too, recognise the importance of a balanced budget. And they have shown that they mean it. But their methods which invoke an interference with private wealth are not only suspected of futility but hatred for themselves by those who make and unmake credit. Put bluntly, it means that France and America, the financiers of those countries, will not trust a Socialist Government, and the loss of their confidence would undoubtedly mean great material harm to this country.
We may, and do, regret that there should be this need for consideration of the views in other countries. It is all the more regrettable because these other countries have not shown any effective social idealism. In social legislation, which aims to overcome the evils of poverty and social weakness, England has gone a goodly way while some of the others have not even made a beginning. But a fact remains a fact though regretted, and justly regretted. The danger to England in the loss of confidence is none the less real, or serious, because it is the confidence of those who have ideas we do not like or lack ideals which they ought to have. The best interests of the nation demand that the danger be avoided.
The permanent issues in the election call, however, for judgement on the basis of principle. The social services whose future fate may be involved express a principle of social reform. The widow's pension is not merely a charity gift to her from the tax payer but a recognition of a social right. And I mention the widow's pension partly because it is as good an illustration as any, and partly because it was introduced by a Conservative Government, a fact which gives it a kind of universal approval. These things make for a better social order.
And it is among the chief aims of practical politics to produce a better social order. That statement would, I know, not be accepted by all. But I hold it among the functions of religion, the special service it can render at the same time to political democracy and social advancement, to make man realise that politics must mean social reform. There can be, perhaps it would be more correct to say, there must be differences of opinion as to what are the best political ways to a better social order, but among those who accept the belief in the Kingdom of God there must not be any difference of opinion about the duty of politics to work for its coming. That is an idea which democracy has brought with it along with its descent from those who taught that God requires governments to pursue righteousness and justice.
The better world means a social order in which poverty and its attendant evils will be minimised, if not completely eliminated. That will not be its only excellence - it will mean, too, greater spiritual, moral, aesthetic excellence in men and in the human race. But the elimination of poverty must hold an important place in the work for the better world. It can be achieved only by society as a whole. It is one of the consequences of our highly complicated industrial organisations that the poor man cannot always, or perhaps even most often, himself fight against his poverty. Unemployment gives a principal proof of this inability. The causes of poverty in so far as they are not individual weakness can be removed only by adjustments in the social organisation. That is where politics comes in. it represents society in action. A general election expresses the will of the people in relation to social aims. A vote can be a man's contribution toward the better world.
There is no room in this conception of politics for the class struggle. That is where the way of eliminating poverty by religion differs from the way of communism. While communism insists on the class war, religion would bring the better world by transcending conflict and eliminating the motives that lead to it. This general truth has a special application just now. I fear that the general election threatens to intensify the class struggle. Political divisions in this country have for a long time tended to conform to class divisions. The dominating political parties have increasingly been identified with the two nations of which Disraeli spoke. The growth of the Labour Party has indicted and stimulated a growing class consciousness among manual workers and others near them in economic status. The practical end of the Liberal Party gives further evidence of the same tendency. It has been squeezed out by the pressure of the two classes on either side of it.
I conceive it to be a great gain that the working classes have been roused to aspirations for a better life. In aspiring discontent lies the force that makes for advancement. But I deem it an evil to make the fulfilment of that aspiration the cause for the class hatred and conflict. The blame does not lie altogether on the working classes. It must be shared by other sections of the nation, some of whom must have a specially heavy portion of it because they were in a position to avoid it and did not. In the effort for the better world, the interests of the poor must come in for chief consideration. That is obvious if the better world means the elimination of poverty. Such consideration is, however, quite different from the philosophy of Karl Marx with its insistence on the class struggle.
The issues of this election must, therefore, be also judged in relation to the ideal of a better world. That itself is a principle involving still other principles. It is not only right, but necessary, to ask "Which side offers the better way to the better world." The question, I realise, is always difficult to answer. This time it has been made especially difficult because while one side has stated its policy, the other asks for a "doctor's mandate"; while one asks only for trust in the honesty and competence of its leaders, the other asks that and approval of the policies the leaders will be expected to carry out. But difficult as the question is, we must, I feel, individually make up our minds in which way lies the better hope for social progress.
This analysis leads to a clearer view of the possible conflict to which I referred at the beginning - that consideration of what is best in the present emergency may lead to a conclusion opposite to that produced by the desire to promote effectively the gradual evolution of society toward a better state. The conclusion may be the need of choosing between those who could best meet the present emergency but could not be depended upon to look for permanent social progress and those who would be depended upon to do that, but might not be equal to overcoming present difficulties. It may be a choice between future social good and present economic safety. The difficulty exists for those who want to use what power democracy gives them for the promotion of a better world, in the consciousness that the better world will not come without radical changes in the present one. They may have to choose between those whom they would trust to promote the better world best whom they cannot feel equal to the present emergency and those whom they would trust for a better handling of the present emergency but not trust for the promotion of a better world. Fortunately not all the electors are in danger of being confronted with such a dilemma. But where it exists it presents a serious difficulty for those who take seriously the political responsibility which democracy lays upon the individual.
There is another possibility of conflict for the individual between his material interests and social ideals. The two may always pull in different directions, but just now they may pull in violently opposed directions. This conflict is present for those who share the socialist's desire for a better social order without sharing the class interests of most socialists. A socialist government at the present time may damage the country's credit with the financiers at home and abroad, and with the governments of other countries. And a loss of credit would entail serious consequences on the economic life of the country affecting adversely the economic positions of individuals. The choice becomes, therefore, extremely difficult, necessitating a degree of objectivity that does not fall short of heroism.
The best has been made impossible by circumstances, the choice must be between second bests - only second bests are offered for choice. It would, I think, be going beyond my province to suggest any solution of the problem for those who are confronted with it. It would be tantamount to giving advice how to vote - whereas I feel my duty limited to a discussion of the principles which should guide the individual in his decision.
Neither aspect of the election issues may be ignored. It is obvious that the present crisis must be earnestly considered. But even then more than present facts come in.
It will not do to think of the present crisis as a temporary disturbance of our economic organisation. Its duration argues against such a view, the depression, as evidenced by unemployment, has now lasted several years, changing only by increasing intensity. Moreover, some of the causes which produced it are permanent, precluding the consolatory thought that it will soon be over. The opportunity which some of us see in the present crisis for a real push forward to a permanently better world lies in the enforced realisation which it brings of the permanent factors which make for a worse world. We hope for social progress at the end of the emergency, not only because the destruction it has wrought makes change easier, but much more because we believe that a growing number of men will realise the need for change.
But radical changes come with least hardship and suffering in strength, not weakness. The one is the method of evolution, the other of revolution. But often in the effective method of evolution lies the prophylactic against revolution.
Because of my belief in the necessity for social evolution, I appeal to you to think now of political issues with a social outlook rising above all party, class, or selfish interests. Whatever the outcome of such a thought, it is in itself a contribution to the advancement of the nation in social good.