A Book of Words – IX

“The Ritual of Government”

by Rudyard Kipling

I AM entrusted with a toast which you can easily see demands somewhat cautious handling; for I cannot hide from you that the Houses of Parliament are very largely political in their nature. This has not always been the case. When the Kingdom of Sussex was a sovereign independent State a few hundred years ago, the South Saxons regarded what we should call politics as much less important than piracy, navigation, trade, and sport. On the rare occasions when they interested themselves in politics, the Member for Lewes was as likely as not to record his vote against the hon. Member for Brighthelmstone with an axe or a sword. This method, though conclusive, was found to be wasteful, owing to the expense of repeated bye-elections. The survivors of the debates compromised at last on the counting of heads on a division instead of breaking them. There is much to be said for either plan. If you break heads, you at least discover what is inside them; if you count them, you have to take what is inside them on trust. If you take them on trust you get this whole business of politics as we know it to-day.But there were certain things which our ancestors dared not take on trust. Courage in war; wisdom in council; skill in administration, ability to sway men; wealth, and craft; were matters which they knew by bitter experience lay at the roots of their national existence. Therefore, when they found a man conspicuously endowed with one or other of these qualities they promoted him, regardless of his birth or antecedents, to the inner council of picked men which from time immemorial has stood next to the King in our Anglo-Saxon Constitution. In doing this our forefathers recognised several things which we, perhaps, overlook. Our fathers created the State. The State did not create our fathers. They knew that men would not work to the utmost for any ambition that is bound by the term of their own little lives, but some men will work for the permanence of their own houses, and for the honour of their sons who come after them. So they said: “Let the son of the picked man succeed to his father’s place in the council when his father dies”. They knew that the son of a picked man, if he is any good at all, is often very valuably equipped with the results of his father’s experience and observations, which he has absorbed unconsciously, in his youth, precisely as the son of a Thames pilot picks up marks and soundings.

If such a man were no good, our ancestors knew he would disappear more quickly from the assembly of the picked men than he would from an ordinary crowd, where the standard of success and the penalties for failure were lower. If he were neither good nor bad, but average, he was, by virtue of his position, independent; and our ancestors may have noticed that they were more likely to get unbiased judgement on a question of public policy from an average independent man than from a very clever one who had something to gain or lose by his answer. Achievement which benefits the kingdom; heredity which gives responsibility and incentive to renewed achievement; independence which inspires fearless advice — these things were vitally important when England was in the making: and surely we have in these things the beginning of the House of Lords. Generation after generation, that Assembly has been recruited from proven capacity in every walk of life to serve the needs of the day according to the standards of the day. The needs and the standards have changed, and to meet them the position of the House has changed too. One-quarter of the present peerage has been created within the last thirty years, since the old road to Rottingdean was shut. One-half of it has come into existence since the foundation-stone of Brighton Town Hall was laid by Mr. Kemp in 1830.

Yet, in essence, the House of Lords is what it was from the first—a body of democratic aristocrats, chosen after trial and observation out of an aristocratic democracy to guard the permanent life of the nation—that inner political life of the race which is very little affected by legislation. Now if aristocracy implies the wealth of inherited tradition, if heredity means the instinct of accumulated experience, then is the House of Commons, equally with the House of Lords, aristocratic and hereditary. Lest there should be any doubt in the matter, it has surrounded itself with an etiquette which would be extreme in a Spanish court; which exacts a deference which would be extravagant at the footstool of a Caesar. Yet it conserves to its members a toleration that would be noticeable in members of a club. There is nothing that a Member of Parliament may not do so long as he respects the written and unwritten laws of the House. This is an excellent tradition, for it is one thing to advocate the repudiation of the National Debt or the abolition of the Navy at sympathetic street-corners; it is quite another thing to explain how you would achieve your ends before an audience of your equals, who may or may not back your sentiments, but who would certainly call you to order if you put on your hat or took it off at the wrong time. This insistence on ceremonial at first sight appears rather a bore, but, when you have to listen to speeches, boredom is an excellent touchstone of character. It is not the actual fighting that tries a man’s nerves so much as the waiting and being ordered about between the engagements.

Then, again, our forefathers were compelled to struggle hand-to-hand against people or institutions that wished to have more power in the State than was good for anyone concerned. The result of these experiences left Englishmen somewhat disinclined to be governed by any class or body, even by their own representatives in Parliament. Up till now, the national idea has been rather to choose capable men and to permit them to govern on the tacit understanding that they were not to govern too much. I suspect, then, that the elaborate ritual and complicated procedure of the House of Commons has been designed by the sense of the House as a barrier against the joys of unbridled legislation. Specialists, like experts, are not unprejudiced. The shoemaker says that there is nothing like leather; the doctor believes that the knife is life; I myself have a bias in favour of the pen; and the legislator is always in favour of making laws for Law’s sake. In spite of our precautions the statute-books of our country are full of laws regulating almost every fact and relation of the Englishman’s life, from the clothes he shall wear to the wages that he shall earn. Most of these laws are dead and inoperative, but the Englishman is still alive and waiting, but not anxiously, for more laws to be tried upon him. Our candid friends tell us that our reluctance to accept law-making as the finest of indoor sports is due to our apathy, our bourgeois nature, and our lack of imagination. Has not someone said or written that our race has been contented to slink through the centuries with no higher object than that of avoiding trouble?

If the charge be true, then “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”. We hold to-day one square mile in every four of the land of the globe, and through our representatives we are responsible for the protection of one person in five out of the entire population of this little planet. May we not be excused if, so far, we have avoided trouble within these limits? May we not be forgiven if we have not exercised our imagination on our fellow-subjects. May we not plead that in the course of our development we have abated the pretensions and cooled the imaginations of kings, churches, armies, mobs, and their leaders? We cannot foresee what the future may send against us, but remembering who and what our fathers were, and trusting our instincts, we may face that future, if not with a light heart, at least with a steady one.