THE CONDITION OF ENGLAND by C. F. G. MASTERMAN
"...whether we are getting on, and if so where we are getting to."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
FULL NAME: Charles Frederick Gurney Masterman
BORN: 25 October 1874, Wimbledon DIED: 17 November 1927, London, aged 53
AGE WHEN THIS BOOK WRITTEN: About 34
"I'VE got to a time of life," says the hero of a modern novel, "when the only theories that interest me are generalizations about realities." There are many contemporary observers who do not require advancing years and a wider experience of life to concentrate them upon so serious a study. It is not that they deliberately turn towards consideration of the meaning and progress of the actual life around them. It is that they cannot – with the best desire in the world – escape from such an encompassing problem. To those the only question before them is the present: the past but furnishing material through which that present can rightly be interpreted, the future appearing as a present which is hurrying towards them – impatient to be born. They ask for fact; not make-believe. With Thoreau, "Be it life or death," they will cry, "We crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business."
The following pages offer an attempt to estimate some of these "realities" in the life of contemporary England. The effort might appear presumptuous, demanding not one volume but ten, the observation, not of a decade, but of a lifetime. I would plead, however, that any contribution may help in some degree the work of others in a more far-reaching and detailed survey. The right judgment of such an attempt should be directed not at its completeness, but its sincerity. In my former work as a critic and reviewer it was this test alone right judgment of such an attempt should be directed not at its completeness, but its sincerity. In my former work as a critic and reviewer it was this test alone that I sought to apply to similar estimates of today and tomorrow. It is to this test alone that I now venture to appeal.
"Things are what they are. Their consequences will be what they will be. Why then should we seek to be deceived?" The custom of mankind to live in a world of illusion endows Butler's magnificent platitude with something of the novelty of a paradox. For many generations – perhaps since man first was – we have succeeded in believing what we wished to believe. The process has gone so far as to have excited a kind of reverse wave. We are supposed to wish to believe what we believe. We identify diagnosis with desire, and think that the prophet of evil is secretly rejoicing over the impending calamity. We are convinced that no man would assert that certain events are going to happen if he did not wish them to happen. If an observer anticipates a victory for Tariff Reform he is supposed to be weakening on Free Trade. If he proclaims a decline in religion he is deemed to be little better than an atheist.
I have no doubt wrongly estimated and anticipated events of the present and future, and gladly acknowledge the personal and tentative character of each particular assertion. I should like, however, to think myself free from the charge of disguising polemic as observation. I should like, in a word, to think that no one would be able to ascertain, merely from the following pages, whether their author was advocate of Free Trade or Protection, Socialist or Individualist, Pagan or Christian.
Portions of some of these chapters have already appeared – in substance – in the pages of The Nation, and I am indebted to the proprietors of that journal for permission to reproduce them. The book has been completed under circumstances of haste and pressure, for which I must ask indulgence. I would have delayed its publication until further leisure was possible, did I see any opportunity of that leisure being attained. But any one who has chosen to embark upon the storm and tumult of public affairs, must henceforth reconcile himself to the limitation of other interests to odd corners of time and short holidays avariciously husbanded. If I had delayed a study of modern England to a less hurried and more tranquil future, I might have found that it would be a very different England which I should then be compelled to examine.
C.F.G. MASTERMAN Easter, 1909
AUTHOR'S PREFACE TO NEW & POPULAR EDITION
IN the very kindly reception which this book received on its first appearance, two strains of criticism were noticeable. On the one hand it was urged that the assertion of impartiality must of necessity be an affectation, that no man could be engaged in the conflict of thought and action amongst political, religious and social questions today, and at the same time summarize, as if entirely aloof, the varying records of success and failure. And here, indeed, I must confess that with the best will in the world, I have not been able altogether to disguise sympathies and antipathies. Internal, no less than external, criticism might reveal that the author was by no means (for example) an advocate of Tariff Reform, or a believer in the possibility of a human society finding stability or satisfaction on a "naturalistic" basis. I can only plead that I have done my best to prevent my prophecies and estimates being guided by my personal desires; and that to some extent this has been recognized by those who have roundly denounced my estimate of the ideals which they have at heart as well as I.
The second and more general criticism detected a note of pessimism which was deemed to be a pose or an exaggeration. I was not myself conscious of this melancholy outlook. Much of the following pages will be found to reflect optimistic views and hopes: as, for example, my summary of middle-class life and ideals of suburban London, and my appreciation of the progress and future of organized Labour. But, in any such survey as this, criticism must always be more vocal than appreciation; and I can believe that the cumulative effect of this criticism may produce an unintended sense of blackness and despair.
I am not pessimistic as to the future of this "Sceptred isle". Who could be pessimistic who had traced the history of a hundred years, and compared the England of 1811 with the England of today? I believe there are possibilities as yet undreamt of, for the enrichment of the common life of our people, and that in another century men and women – and children – may be rejoicing in an experience better than all our dreams. I am not pessimistic, but I am anxious, as I believe all the thinking men of today are anxious, when they realize the forces which are making for decay. This book was written in rather an arid time of transition, when in politics the Conservative Party had been rejected by the people, and their successors had not really been approved. The struggle was continuing – as it seemed – on the old political lines, tangled in the controversies of the Victorian Age. These controversies indeed demand settlement; but if politics had been confined to these controversies alone, politics would have failed to meet and to satisfy the vital demands of today. We can be glad that we have seen a change. The "Condition of the People" problem now occupies the dominant position. Every political party has realized that Social Reform, on broad and generous lines, is an inevitable condition of future progress. And those who tended a "little bonfire" in the darkness can now rejoice to see that "the whole skies are aflame".
Before that conflagration has burnt itself to ashes, great changes will have come upon the world.
But – in the large issue – amid a people of such vast prosperity and comfort, the voice of anxiety should never be entirely stifled. It is "in all time of our wealth", no less than in "all time of our tribulation" that Christendom has been taught to pray for the mercy and pity of God.
C.F.G. MASTERMAN July, 1911