LORD DERBY ON THE LABOUR WAR. L ORD DERBY, who really
ought to speak more, for his speeches increase light instead of obscuring it, occasionally attains his exquisite lucidity by narrowing too much his field of view. He has done that, we think, in his speech of Saturday at Bury, on the industrial conflict now raging throughout the world. He evidently thinks that the importance of this contest is exaggerated by opinion ; that strikes do not greatly signify while they affect all countries ; that the reduction of capitalists' profit injures them, but not the nation ; and that the Trade-Unions are pretty sure to perceive their own interest, and stop short of demands which will drive trade from our shores to other and cheaper countries. He thinks, in fact, that in spite of the incessant strikes, England is going to have a prosperous time. Those optimist views are no doubt, in part, correct. The effect of strikes on any one country is of course reduced by their universality, though it is not quite extinguished, there being always a chance, as has happened repeatedly under the Patent Laws, that the price of an article may be driven up everywhere till the public thinks it too dear, and resolves to do without it. Man can do without most things, and even some articles of " prime necessity ;" and when overtaxed or irritated by excessive demands, he does do without them. It is also true that capitalists can and do, by the aid of good financing, repair great apparent reductions in their rate of profit, and that up to a certain point this is no injury to the country. And, lastly, it is of course probable that the Trade-Unions, considered simply as Associations dealing in labour, will have intelligence enough to stop short of selling their article at prices which would greatly restrict trade.. But when all these concessions have been made, there still remains, apart altogether from the direct loss caused by strikes, a great range of possible danger from the industrial war which Lord Derby has not covered. The strikes, to begin with, are not universal. They may be said to be general, or even universal, among white men ; but Lord Derby wholly leaves out of sight the possible competition of Asia, where countless millions of workmen, quite as industrious, and for certain manufactures quite as deft as Englishmen, are rich on one-fourth of the wages the European now demands. The competition has hitherto been checked by the great cost of supervision ; but let Asia only produce competent foremen, which is not only possible but certain, and it would pay great capitalists to transfer all textile manu- factories, many foundries, and even some kinds of ship- building, to the banks of the Ganges, the. Indus, and the Yang-tse Kiang. Already the Bombay mill* vie with ours for the new African market, and the fight as yet can hardly be said to have commenced. That competition does not injure capital ; does not even, in the end, transfer it from England, for no man who succeeds settles in Asia. But it may fatally injure some exceedingly numerous classes of British artisans. At present they have the advantage of superior energy, courage in dealing with machinery, and trained skill ; but if they sell these their prerogatives too dear, they may find their labour market closed. An Englishman may be worth two Indians or Chinese, but he is not necessarily worth four. Again, though it is true that a low rate of profit for capital may not, under certain conditions, injure the country, there is a point at which it will injure it,— namely, the point at which capital will retire from the con- test altogether. There was more in the over-brief remark of Prince Bismarck upon that subject than was at first perceived. He bade the workmen beware, lest the capital- ists, weary of the contest, retired from it in disgust. He was laughed at for his prediction, but a partial strike of capital is by no means such an impossibility as it is the habit of labour leaders to imagine. Men will not put money into risky and fluctuating businesses in order to earn 5 per cent., still less put money and their own highly trained energies and accumulated knowledge, which should be worth high wages by themselves. Least of all will they put in money and energy in order to earn a poor interest and no wage, and be, in addition, exposed to infinite calumny and insult. We look upon this new element in the question as of immense economic importance. It is becoming a habit with labour leaders to denounce every large employer, merely as such, as a " bloated brute," gorging himself, like the ogre of a fairy-tale, on the blood and flesh of his operatives ; to con- • sider him a safe subject for libel ; and to hold him up on every occasion, often by name, as a just object of hatred and contempt. Employers are pretty tough, in the North more especially ; but they are growing more cultivated, which means, for one thing, more sensitive to opinion ; and they will not in the end bear to be pilloried every day in order to earn by the use of a most valuable faculty, that of organisation, less than they could make for their money while travelling, or studying, or asleep. If that torrent of obloquy continues, and the employer is to become what the landowner once was in France, the object of all popular hate and scorn, decent men with money will shrink from indus- trial enterprise as they now shrink from the few profitable trades which carry with them, like pawnbroking, something of social derogation. This very thing has happened in Ireland, where no man in his senses would now buy a great block of territory in order to improve it, and so become the object of the bitter hostility of the chosen leaders of the peasant class. Better 4 per cent. and peace from an investment in bonds than 6 per cent. from industry with every " industrial" regarding you as a deliberate bloodsucker of the poor. Of course the em- ployers will not retreat till they have tried all means, combination included, and some of our contemporaries, we see, strongly urge the adoption of that device, praising the Australian capitalists who have resolved to try it ; but have they thought how it will embitter the social war, how sharply it will divide class from class, how bitter the workmen will, if defeated, become against the capitalists, merely as such ? The great employer will be like a wealthy Jew in Germany or Russia, without the consolation that he is hated for his creed,—a position of itself sufficient to harden men into despots, exulting in the defeat of those who ought to be their comrades and their friends. We can imagine no more frightful injury inflicted on Great Britain than the general reluctance of the rich to engage in industrial undertakings—a " strike of capital," as Prince Bismarck put it—and we see serious danger of such a condition of affairs arising out of the shrinkage of employers' profits, and the growth of hatred towards them as a bloodsucking class.
And, finally, is Lord Derby quite convinced in his heart that " the Unions," by which he means the great body of skilled workmen, will stop short of demands which may end in expelling trade ? He will reply that they are in the main sensible people, with a good though imperfect knowledge of the conditions of their trades, and they will therefore act, speaking broadly, as sensible people would act,—that is, they will demand as high wages as the trade can afford, and no more. We entirely agree as to their sense, and concede also that they have often shown as much moderation as employers, or even more, and expect, as we said a fortnight since, to see them, if harassed by diminished work or too long intervals of idleness, dismiss their leaders. So long as they retain control of their own affairs, we have little fear of them, for if they make a mistake they can step back, as they have repeatedly done already. But we con- fess we have a lingering dread of their putting their affairs out of their own hands, either into those of Inter- national Committees, or into those of Parliament, and so taking steps which are either irretrievable, or are retrievable only after terrible suffering and loss. Lord Derby will doubtless read the Daily News' account of the rapturous applause which accompanied Mr. Matkin's speech to the Trade-Union Congress at Liverpool, and it will not increase his confidence in the workmen's moderation. Their best men were present ; yet though Mr. Matkin speaks more like a professor than an orator, and they were not carried away by eloquence, they enthusiastically applauded a speech which is from end to end penetrated with belief in State Socialism, in the resumption by the com- munity of all land, all mines, and all railways,—that is, in financial experiments so gigantic that they might easily end either in confiscations, which would drive away all capital, or in taxation so severe that British workmen could no longer compete in cheapness of production even with Continental rivals. Mr. Matkin evidently believed that if Parliament recognised the care of the workman as the sole end or the main end of human society, Parlia- ment could do anything ; and that is clearly the idea which is spreading fastest. If it prevails, we shall have gigantic experiments tried, a minimum rate of wages, for example, and may find, when the workmen regain their senses, as we quite agree with Lord Derby they are sure to do, they have recovered them just too late to save their trade, or to regain it except by submitting for years to tremendous reductions. After all, they are not so much wiser than the Americans, and the Americans have totally killed their own carrying trade, and nearly killed their own ship- building trade, by legislation declared to be in the direct interest of the working man. We will hope better things ; but it is quite possible that the workmen may insist on trying the experiment of an Eight-Hours Law, just voted by the Labour Congress, and may find that, while in many trades it does .little or no harm, it will in others, by arresting machinery as well as labour, bring business to an end. We have immense confidence in the average Englishman's sense, in his way of stumbling through difficulties and getting on in spite of mistakes ; but an Englishman possessed with an idea is not the average Englishman, but a being capable of making blunders by way of experiment which it is sometimes im- possible to repair. The workman may stop in time, probably will, for logic is not his snare ; but Lord Derby should recognise the possibility that he also may not.