The Labour Unrest
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
The Labour Unrest
A REJOINDER TO MR. WELLS.
From SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE.
To the Editor of The Daily Mail.
Sir, — I have been reading with much interest and some sympathy Mr. Wells's statement as to the labour unrest. In it he adjures every citizen to use his own best thoughts in the matter. Let me record mine for what they are worth.
I never read any contribution of Mr. Wells's to sociology that I do not feel more mentally alive for having done so. His clearness of vision and energy of expression are stimulating. At the same time I usually rise in a dissentient frame of mind, and never more than now. The general impression which he has left with me — I am not talking of these articles alone — is that of a man who, wandering M an orchard, says, "I do not like that fruit tree. Its fruit is not of the best, neither is its shape perfect. Therefore cut it down and let us take our chance of getting a better one." That is not the voice of the genius of the British people. Rather would it say, "I do not like that fruit tree. Let us see how best we can improve it without damage of the trunk. It may be trained to grow as we wish it, but if it be destroyed all the past is wasted and we know not what we may get in the future." This latter is surely the voice of practical wisdom.
In this particular case one is left at the close with the alternative of either letting the tree of State be utterly cut down, or of so altering it that it becomes another sort of tree — such a sort as the world has never seen. But is the crisis so great as this? Is it not rather a phenomenon which has been periodical in our history and which, though I must admit that it is more general, is less intense than on many previous occasions of its appearance? Had Mr. Wells lived in the days of the frame-breaking riots, of the early trade union outrages, before the movement became constitution-al, and, above all, of the Chartist riots, he would have seen graver symptoms. And yet in each case the old tree with a little trimming and pruning grew as strong as ever. What is there now which should make us fear a more violent outcome? In the older days everything made for an explosion, since the whole weight of the State was pressing on the safety valve. Now, with an extended franchise, discontent can express itself in votes rather than in action. Those votes may lead to action, but they will do so in a gradual, orderly, and constitutional manner.
I agree with Mr. Wells that the working man has in many trades this excuse for his discontent, that prices have advanced in a greater ratio than wages. The same grievance applies to countless people who are not in the ordinary sense working men — to Government employees, pensioned officers, and others who have small, inelastic incomes, and are at the further disadvantage of having to keep up appearances in order to retain a place in their own class. It is deplorable that it should be so. The cause may or may not be greater output of gold, which has lessened its value as compared to commodities. Can we reduce that output? Such a remedy is unthinkable. Where, then, shall we find one?
Mr. Wells suggests that a cure be found in a commercial partnership between employer and employed. Such an arrangement would be unjust as excluding all those other classes who suffer from the same cause but would not be reached by such a remedy. But the scheme when viewed narrowly is full of flaws. It may well be adopted in a steady-going business which is in the nature of a monopoly, such as a gas company or a railroad. But how about the numerous concerns which have no profits, but only losses? Is the working man to have his full wages, plus a share of the profits when a concern is successful, but when it is unsuccessful his full wages still, while the whole loss falls upon the capitalist? Is that justice? He must surely take the rough with the smooth, and my belief is that the rough would just about equalise the smooth, leaving him nothing whatever. I have no positive statistics at hand, but it is my strong impression that if you pooled all the companies of the last ten years, and wrote off from the profits of the successful ones the dead losses of the failures there would be either no profits left or so little that their division would make no difference to the working man. A man is perhaps unduly influenced by his own personal experience, but I know that I have twice endeavoured to establish businesses, that they have cost me at least twenty thousand pounds, that I have never had a penny of interest from them, that all my interest from other sources never came near my losses, and that any working man who had stood in with me would have been out of pocket. I have no reason to think my experience exceptional. What becomes, then, of the scheme by which the labourer is to share with the capitalist in the products of his labour? It falls to pieces when you try to apply it.
Is there any remedy through Parliament? I do not see how Parliament can affect the large questions of supply and demand which regulate the price of labour. They could pass a Minimum Wage Bill, but if it were unreasonably high it would only have the effect of driving away the trade and turning an inflated wage into no wage at all. One thing Parliament could do. They could rescue the British workman from his present position of being unprotected in his competition against the cheap and sweated labour of the world. In that fact lies, in my opinion, the main reason of the stagnation in the rise of wages. This remedy has been placed before the proletariat by the first statesmen of the age, but they have allowed themselves to be confused by party politics and have rejected it. On their own shoulders lies the weight.
What else can be done? Mr. Wells thinks some solution could be obtained if our party system could be set aside. On this point he seems to me a little querulous. After all, as the Great Duke said, "the King's Government has to be carried on," and it is difficult to see how that could be done by the amorphous debating society of experts which he has outlined. In the competition of two parties to gain the votes of the people lies the surest way of getting the wants of the people attended to. Parliament may, as he says, be blocked by business, but such a measure of devolution as Irish local government must surely have the effect of clearing the ground afterwards for the consideration of internal social reform.
Apart from the question of wages, where I see no hope of save through a tariff, I agree with Mr. Wells that much good could be done by measures for the better housing of the poorer classes, especially in the country where the present state of things s i national disaster. When, if ever, the German cloud has been a dissipated and we can afford to relax our present high insurance a which absorbs so much of our Budget, this should surely be the first care of our rulers. I confess, too, that I am all on the side of land reforms. To my eyes the most beautiful manorial park or the fairest common is less pleasing than the same ground would seem with ten self-supporting farms upon it. We have not room in this little island for such luxuries, delightful as they are.
Mr. Wells is justly severe upon the idle rich, but does he not exaggerate the evils. Surely among the wealthy classes there is now more earnestness and personal service than in those hard-riding, gambling, three-bottle days of which we have read. The working man, as he sees the great motor pass him, knows well that of the thousand pounds which it cost the owner, five hundred or so went in wages straight into the pockets of his comrades. A greater austerity and economy among such owners would surely mean bad times in Coventry, Birmingham, and many another centre. I can see no cure for the labour unrest in such measures as that, but rather a danger of throwing fresh classes out of their employment.
Mr. Wells has indulged in prophecy, so I will venture upon the same very dangerous game. My reading of the future, then, is that this unrest will pass away into a cycle of repose, as every labour unrest has done before. The working man, being educated and intelligent, will realise that, he has many compensations in life. He will remember that at the present moment a good artisan often earns more than a clerk, a shopman, or a curate, and that a highly skilled workman may show a larger income than a member of the learned professions or an officer in the public service. He knows that the market varies with his own gifts, and that with sufficient energy and industry there is no position which he may not attain. I do not believe that there is any immediate danger of Mr. Wells or myself being forced to quit our manuscripts in order to work upon the face of a coal seam, nor do I dread any revolutionary upheaval. The working man will realise that he, like everyone else, is subject i to certain communal laws, and that his highest wisdom is to do nothing which may drive trade from the country and so wither the very root of his own branch of it.
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE.