A Week in the Future, by Catherine Helen Spence

Chapter vi

Friday

Government and Laws

This was the day which I meant to devote to London, under the guidance of Mr. Oliphant. It was, indeed, a different London from that which I had seen in my childhood — before our family sailed for Australia — and even more different from what it had been on my visit to England in 1865–6. What losses people must have made; what fearful collapses of wealth in individuals and corporations must have taken place, in the transformation of the mart of the world into the mere capital of a small but vigorous nation! It was to me pathetic to see the diminished shipping in the Thames. No doubt other ports had a larger share of what trade remained, but the dominant fact was clear enough, that all countries in the world depended more on internal resources, and much less on foreign supplies than in the days of London’s pre-eminent glory. Such countries as through their vast extent could provide for their people the produce of various latitudes, had even less foreign trade than England. Russia, and the United States, and Australia, had this wide range of climate, but even England had largely extended her list of products.

Where there had been large warehouses in the city were now co-operative stores, and many Associated Homes were made out of bonded stores and other great buildings, no longer needed for merchandise.

All my old recollections has been of London encroaching on the country, and stretching out its myriad arms, and seizing here a common, there a heath, here a sheltering wood, there a cultivated field. Now the fields and vegetable life had their innings against encroaching bricks and mortar and human swarms. Great nests of rookeries had been pulled down where population had been thickest and most wretched, and planted with trees or laid out in grass. No longer was there a street or home in London out of reach of an open space. Even little children could walk as far as to get to a park or large square, where there was fresh air to breathe and plenty of greenery to look on. There were new streets laid out with the homes of the period, and so broad that there was room for trees along each side of the street. The underground railway had fallen into disuse — there was plenty of space above to run all the necessary trains. Omnibuses were no more, the tramcars were no longer drawn by horses. The most fashionable part of the day no longer called out the luxurious carriages with beautiful horses and liveried servants, in which the rich and the titled had driven in Hyde Park. Nor did Rotten Row afford the sight of yore. Horses were costly luxuries which few could afford, but cycling was the favorite exercise of the young and a very useful means of locomotion for all ages.

The street traffic, of course, was enormously reduced, for London only contained as many inhabitants as it did at the beginning of this century — about a million — and to this number I learned, to my satisfaction, that Paris and New York had also been brought.

The nineteenth century was commonly spoken of as the age of great cities, the twentieth was extolled as being the age of dispersion. Provincial towns, perhaps, took more stand, as compared with London, than of old, but yet London was the seat of legislation, the centre of Government, the heart of the kingdom still. I was glad that no fancy for symmetry, no passion for decentralisation had carried the political capital out of the grand historic London. I was also pleased to see that most of the old buildings — civil and ecclesiastical — that were beautiful in themselves, or memorable in history, had been carefully preserved in their original form. The Tower, St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, Westminster Hall, still stood as they had stood for centuries. The finest of the old churches had been preserved, though others had been reconstructed into homes.

Time fails me to tell of the surprising transformation of London. The river still flowed with all its ancient majesty, and more than its ancient purity, and there were landmarks, here and there, to convince me that this was really the great city; but the destruction of the slums and the reconstruction of the better streets made it most bewildering to me. The railway stations still stood where they were. How I regretted I could not take the Great Northern Railway and see for myself what had been done with the land of my birth.

“Stands Scotland where it did?” I asked my patient though often somewhat amused guide.

“I believe it does,” he said smiling.

“If, as you say, the wealth or prosperity of a country depends on its fertility, Scotland must be far behind England!”

“Scotland and England are one, and it is not only fertility of soil and kindliness of climate, but the ingenuity and industry of its inhabitants that bring prosperity to a country, and Scotland has these.”

“And what of Ireland?” I asked.

“Ireland is still very much of a dairy and cattle-breeding country. England depends on her for much of her butter and cheese and beef supply. She grows rye and flax of better quality than we can in England, and, in some manufactures and in many handmade articles, the Irish excel us. Ireland is poor in minerals, no doubt, but the reclamation of bog land and the increase of production has been marvellous since the pacification of the country, and the flow of capital as well as of steady industry on to the land.”

“There is then no bitterness left between England and Ireland? It seems too much to expect after so many centuries of misgovernment and misunderstanding.”

“There is free interchange of products and a perfectly friendly feeling between the sister isles,” said Mr. Oliphant. “The Irish have their parliament, at least their popular house in Dublin. The Senate which sits in London has the representatives of the four provinces into which Ireland is divided, who have an equal voice with the ten representatives for England, two for Wales, and four for Scotland.”

“Are your Parliaments elected annually according to the Charter, so many points in which you have carried out, or triennially like the Australians, or septennially as in England of old? Then you have your President to elect also. I hope that is not as exciting a matter as it used to be in America!”

“The President is elected once in six years, but that not by direct election. The Lower House is elected for three years, and is rarely dissolved till that term has expired, so that for a long time the Presidential election and the Commons election have been simultaneous. The President is elected by delegates from two hundred communes.”

“Can a President be re-elected?”

“He may serve two terms. Our third President was chosen a second time.”

“Were not people afraid to do this, lest it should become as permanent as royalty?” “He was extremely popular.”

“If he dies in office?”

“There is no new election; he provides for a successor in that case, as also in case of serious illness or incapacitation for public business.”

“Oh! I understand, as the Americans did. But you call this a Commonwealth out of compliment to the movement of the seventeenth century, I suppose.”

“I think it was rather to distinguish between ourselves and the great transatlantic English speaking Republic.”

“Why not call your President Protector, and keep up the distinction?”

“He does not protect us or the Commonwealth. We protect ourselves. We did not like that title.”

I have already learned in the course of general conversation, that the President of the Commonwealth of Great Britain and Ireland, in the latter part of the year 1987, was a man who had worked his way up through commercial and provincial experience to the highest position in the country. He was a descendant, through his mother, of an eminent savant of my own day, but his father had belonged to the Artisan class. The probable successful candidate for the next term of office was a Guelph, a direct descendant of the Royal Family, who had made his mark in the new social order, and was now a leading member in the House of Commons. Royalty had ceased in England for nearly eighty years, but there were many descendants of the Empress Queen, as she was generally called, scattered over the world, and many of them in leading positions.

All the commercial and provincial assemblies were gratuitous, but both the Senate and the members of the House of Commons were paid for their services. But the modest salary of the President, and the allowance for the legislature, were no great strain on the industry of the people. As the legislature was paid, Mr. Oliphant told me that of course the sittings were held in the best part of the day — the morning. I told him that the Victorian paid legislature used to sit in the evening, which he said was exceptional.

I went into the House of Commons first. The building was the same but as the number was smaller, the great hall had been shorn of its vast proportions, and looked to me dwarfed, but it was easier to hear what was said. I listened to a debate and heard some good speaking, especially from Mr. Albert Guelph, but no impassioned eloquence. The minority of the day had their seats in the house; Mr. Guelph was at the head of the Opposition.

The question raised was as to immigration and emigration, and it was one which occasionally cropped up. In spite of the difficulty of obtaining employment in a society so thoroughly organised, where each man had his niche, and each niche its man, there was a tendency for people from the poorer continental countries, such as Germany, Russia, and Scandinavia, to turn to England. To allow free access to all-comers, who might take all risks and compete with the advanced society and bring down the standard of living, was dangerous. But yet I could not help sympathising with the feeling of the minority that something would be lost if a heavy poll-tax were imposed, or even the stronger measure suggested by Mr. Guelph. England had reached her old pre-eminence by being open to all-comers. A larger mixture of races than any continental nation possessed, had evolved a composite character with many of the best qualities of each, which liberty had strengthened by its being the refuge for the oppressed, where the most despotic Powers in Europe could not touch their political refugees. The dingy glories of Leicester Square were at an end, but Leicester Square had been a great factor in the triumph of free thought, free speech, and free action all over the civilised world.

The motion brought forward proceeded from what represented the Conservatives — England was to be kept for the English, and the English to be kept in England. So long as emigration and immigration were fairly balanced, things were to be as they were, but if immigration exceeded departures by 10,000 in one year, a heavy poll-tax was proposed. If, on the other hand, the emigration exceeded the arrivals by as many, an equivalent fine on departures was to be levied. This did not include travellers who only visited foreign countries, or visitors from the continent or from old colonies, who each had passports which did not allow them to settle or find employment. I was sorry to see the passport system in full swing in the twentieth century, but I was told that nothing else could have prevented England from being swamped by cheap labor at any time during the reconstruction and afterwards.

Emigration, in my time, had been looked on as the best and safest outlet for redundant population, and had indeed veiled for two or three generations the inexorable law of population from the average British intelligence. Now the idea seemed to be that of the Psalmist:

Dwell in the land, and there thou shalt be fed.

This bill was only in its second reading, and the debate was adjourned till the following week, when, of course, I could not know the issue.

There was much more State regulation and inspection than I had been used to, and the only parallel I could see approaching to it was the State legislation of the Western States of America; but this in England also was very much done by the provincial and communal bodies, so that the higher powers were relieved of much of the detail of administration. The nation, however, had Bureaus of Science, of Agriculture, of Meteorology, and seemed to make it its business to collect and formulate, and then to disseminate, all the information received, and all the discoveries made from year to year.

The patent laws were changed so as to encourage invention, but as invention now-a-days was the fruit, not of a man’s whole time, but of his abundant leisure, it was generally thrown into the common stock, though it was in every inventor’s power to keep it for his own profit, or to sell it to someone who could make practical use of it.

In the Upper House there was a debate on a proposed extension of the Patent Law to ten years instead of five, but that was lost. The members of this Senate were older and few in number compared with the other. The President lived in Buckingham Palace during his term of office, and was fairly accessible. His wife was rather a homely woman, and, therefore, was not a leader of fashion.

The criminal statistics of the country were eminently satisfactory. Offences against the person were even rarer than those against the property, and these — owing to the industrial education of the people, and the openings for earning an honest livelihood, were wonderfully few. The elimination of the gambling spirit from business and from pleasure had removed many of the temptations to dishonesty.

Drunkenness, which though not punished by law either in the nineteenth or in the twentieth century, is at all times a fruitful parent of crime, was reduced so much by the temperate habits of a well-to-do and intelligent people, that this alone swept three-fourths of the cases out of the trial lists.

The Associated Homes with their gentle but continuous pressure have all but extinguished the drinking habits of old days, when hospitality and good-fellowship seemed to demand the liberal flow of intoxicating liquors to guests in the private house, or at the poor man’s only drawing room, news room, and social club — the public-house.

The large amount of crime directly or indirectly traceable to illicit intercourse between the sexes was also minimised, if not stopped by the normal early marriages, which not only struck at vice, but the small families struck at poverty — another fruitful parent of crime. As illegitimate children had the same claims on the father as children born in wedlock, human-nature being what it is, marriage was preferred by the woman, and not objected to by the man. The mournful population checks of the past — cannibalism, infanticide, war, pestilence, and prostitution — were only spoken of as matters of history. The old Malthusianism of the past, which delayed the marriage of the prudent and thoughtful, while the reckless and improvident multiplied all the more, had resulted in the survival of the unfittest. This was especially noticeable when sanitary laws were better understood, and humanity and philanthrophy were eager to save the lives of the sickly and the defective, but took no steps to check their parenthood.

The neo-Malthusianism, of which I had barely heard, had, since my career had ended, taken hold of the world, beginning with the middle-classes, but rapidly embracing the more prudent and sensible of the artisan class, and gradually penetrating down to the lower class — the old so-called proletariat. It was by the severest restriction of charity, and by efforts — hitherto unparalleled — for the reclamation to industrial life of the more hopeful, and the younger of the class of tramps, vagrants and loafers, that these were at last forced to see that other people would no longer work to keep them in idleness. Whether these people possessed property, or not, now-a-days the old title of proletariat was no longer applicable, for they no longer produced large families.

Again out in the streets of London. It was unavoidable that much which Mr. Oliphant spoke of as real progress, should, to me, look like decay. There was not the tremendous rush and bustle I had been used to. The glory had gone off Regent-street and Old Bond-street, and many other fashionable streets in the West End. I missed the gaily set-out shop windows. I missed the jewellers’ shops — the exquisite articles in silk, and lace, and furs, which only the wealthy could buy, but which all classes could admire.

Some trades stood their ground, and were carried on apart from co-operative stores, such as photography and dentistry, which both had expanded. There were comparatively few lawyers and doctors, and the clerical profession, as a means of livelihood, was conspicuous by its absence, but that large subject must stand over till Sunday.

“Two Chinese cities surpass it in population, and New York is considered more commercial, but it is rather difficult to calculate the wealth of a country where there are so few large accumulations, and where capital is not floating about in the hands of brokers and lent to nations, but employed actively in industrial undertakings. As a rule, a man’s money goes with his work as a share of the concern. This makes a double bond to attach the workman to his industry, and gives to employment a permanence quite unknown in the preceding century.”

Savings, I found, were made for old age and for the contingency of death while children were too young to provide for themselves. They were made in several ways, characteristic of the new society, in obtaining the freehold of the home, in not drawing out the dividends from the co-operative factories, but gaining a credit on their books, and in assurance societies proper, which dealt more in annuities after a certain age than in a lump sum at death.

Everyone having a margin over and above necessary expenditure, there was always some degree of inequality of wealth between those who spent and those who spared, but the gains of capital were small as compared to its proportion to labor in olden times, and capital was no longer what it had been, the arbiter of nations, the greatest power in the world socially as well as economically.

It is still powerful as increasing the powers of the human instrument incalculably, but it had settled down through its wide, almost universal distribution, to be a very cheap commodity.

The year’s turn-over of money was really larger than it had been, for the population, but it no longer moved in such masses.

Mr. Oliphant thought New York was a richer city than London, and that one Australian city did not come far short of it.

The paper currency, which was national, like the railways, was based not entirely on gold, but on the State property in land and railways as well. The production of gold, which had been stimulated during the last years of the old régime, by its steady appreciation in value, had become smaller and smaller. A bi-metallic basis was introduced into most of the European nations as a stop-gap, but that was not satisfactory, and finally, other solid security was taken. So far as Mr. Oliphant and I could reckon it, the average income of the twenty-five millions of people inhabiting the Commonwealth of Great Britain and Ireland, a people, it must be remembered, of adults, employed productively in much larger proportion than in the nineteenth century, was nearly double what it was in the palmy days of free trade and unrestricted competition, when the enormous incomes of the millionaires were thrown into the balance. The purchasing power of money was in many directions less, and in some more. The length of the working life was the main factor in this extraordinary wealth.

I saw the inside of a jail, and of a lunatic asylum on this busy Friday. Harmless lunatics, after attempts for a cure had failed, often returned to their homes and were employed to the utmost of their capacities, chiefly out of doors. Criminal lunatics, such as those suffering from homicidal mania, were put to painless death. Those who had dangerous paroxysms, were kept safely and treated kindly, but employed during their lucid intervals.

Moral lunatics, or the residuum, which forms the permanent criminal class, were treated in much the same way, only that their work was of greater value, though it was conducted under costly inspection. One of the factors in national wealth was the comparatively small number of their failures.

The electric light, as I have already said, had superseded gas, both for domestic and street illumination. I saw London, both by daylight and by this effective substitute. The cleanliness of the city, its freedom from smoke, the open spaces, the liberal planting of trees, made it a very different city from the London of my recollections, but I began, as the day wore on, to feel at home in it. Yes, this was the place I really wanted to see most. I had made a right choice of the location for my short week. It was the central heart of the Commonwealth, it was, too, the ancient capital of all the daughter states which had been a-building so long. Here were preserved the archives, undestroyed, dating from before the Norman Conquest, which recorded the long growth of civilisation, liberty and orderly Government, which had been transplanted, with some modifications, to the ends of the earth. The mother-city of the van had not lost her historic glory through throwing off her surplus population.

Had England lost much in losing the great mixture of races, in educating power, or in her own national character? My friend thought the Englishman still equal, if not superior to the Anglo–Saxon of the Western or the Southern Hemispheres.

The English-speaking communities were still mindful of the fatherland. War having ceased all over the world, the alliance for peace or war which was held to be the main colonial bond in the nineteenth century was not needed; but the feeling between England and her daughter States, including the great Republic of America, was of the friendliest. Literature and laws, manners and customs, history and traditions were identically similar.

I felt more tired of this day’s work than of any of the preceding, perhaps I now felt the accumulation of fatigue, carried over through taking in so many new ideas day after day.

There was a dance at the Owen Home every Friday evening, to which about twenty guests were invited — to add to the normal contingent of dancers. The children came in for one half-hour before going to bed; the grown people kept it up till nearly eleven. The dances were mostly new to me, and I thought graceful as well as decorous, and the music — like all I had heard in this newer England — admirable, and all furnished by the habitués of the music room.

I could not, however, sit out the whole series of dances, but retreated to my own room to write down what had struck me most of the day’s sights and sounds. I note that even when I intend to keep to a certain department — such as politics and criminal law — the social question continually invades it. I never was very much of a politician — even my strong feeling in favor of what is called Hare’s system of voting, which my nephews and nieces used to call Aunt Emily’s fad, was less because it would give more equal representation to political parties than because it would strike at the root of the anti-social and immoral tendencies of the majority vote.

I have always believed that people might be a great deal happier than they are, if they only managed their lives better, and if they did not make laws and follow customs which sacrificed the sick and the poor to the strong and the rich. Here, in the new society, the intelligent pursuit of happiness was the avowed object of all, and my curiosity as to the result of such an unusual pursuit was ever alert, and my kinsfolk — half amused, but wholly interested, were eager to satisfy me.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30