Yet Again

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Author: Max Beerbohm

General Elections

I admire detachment. I commend a serene indifference to hubbub. I like Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, Balzac, Darwin, and other sages, for having been so concentrated on this or that eternal verity in art or science or philosophy, that they paid no heed to alarums and excursions which were sweeping all other folk off their feet. It is with some shame that I haunt the tape-machine whenever a General Election is going on.

Of politics I know nothing. My mind is quite open on the subject of fiscal reform, and quite empty; and the void is not an aching one: I have no desire to fill it. The idea of the British Empire leaves me quite cold. If this or that subject race threw off our yoke, I should feel less vexation than if one comma were misplaced in the printing of this essay. The only feeling that our Colonies inspire in me is a determination not to visit them. Socialism neither affrights nor attracts me—or, rather, it has both these effects equally. When I think of poverty and misery crushing the greater part of humanity, and most of all when I hear of some specific case of distress, I become a socialist indeed. But I am not less an artist than a human being, and when I think of Demos, that chin-bearded god, flushed with victory, crowned with leaflets of the Social Democratic League, quaffing temperance beverages in a world all drab; when I think of model lodging-houses in St. James’s Park, and trams running round and round St. James’s Square—the mighty fallen, and the lowly swollen, and, in Elysium, the shade of Matthew Arnold shedding tears on the shoulder of a shade so different as George Brummell’s—tears, idle tears, at sight of the Barbarians, whom he had mocked and loved, now annihilated by those others whom he had mocked and hated; when such previsions as these come surging up in me, I do deem myself well content with the present state of things, dishonourable though it is. As to socialism, then, you see, my mind is evenly divided. It is with no political bias that I go and hover around the tape-machine. My interest in General Elections is a merely `sporting’ interest. I do not mean that I lay bets. A bad fairy decreed over my cradle that I should lose every bet that I might make; and, in course of time, I abandoned a practice which took away from coming events the pleasing element of uncertainty. `A merely dramatic interest’ is less equivocal, and more accurate.

`This,’ you say, `is rank incivism.’ I assume readily that you are an ardent believer in one political party or another, and that, having studied thoroughly all the questions at issue, you could give cogent reasons for all the burning faith that is in you. But how about your friends and acquaintances? How many of them can cope with you in discussion? How many of them show even a desire to cope with you? Travel, I beg you, on the Underground Railway, or in a Tube. Such places are supposed to engender in their passengers a taste for political controversy. Yet how very elementary are such arguments as you will hear there! It is obvious that these gentlemen know and care very little about `burning questions.’ What they do know and care about is the purely personal side of politics. They have their likes and their dislikes for a few picturesque and outstanding figures. These they will attack or defend with fervour. But you will be lucky if you overhear any serious discussion of policy. Emerge from the nether world. Range over the whole community—from the costermonger who says `Good Old Winston!’ to the fashionable woman who says `I do think Mr. Balfour is rather wonderful!’—and you will find the same plentiful lack of interest in the impersonal side of polities. You will find that almost every one is interested in politics only as a personal conflict between certain interesting men—as a drama, in fact. Frown not, then, on me alone.

Whenever a General Election occurs, the conflict becomes sharper and more obvious—the play more exciting—the audience more tense. The stage is crowded with supernumeraries, not interesting in themselves, but adding a new interest to the merely personal interest. There is the stronger `side,’ here the weaker, ranged against each other. Which will be vanquished? It rests with the audience to decide. And, as human nature is human nature, of course the audience decides that the weaker side shall be victorious. That is what politicians call `the swing of the pendulum.’ They believe that the country is alienated by the blunders of the Government, and is disappointed by the unfulfilment of promises, and is anxious for other methods of policy. Bless them! the country hardly noticed their blunders, has quite forgotten their promises, and cannot distinguish between one set of methods and another. When the man in the street sees two other men in the street fighting, he doesn’t care to know the cause of the combat: he simply wants the smaller man to punish the bigger, and to punish him with all possible severity. When a party with a large majority appeals to the country, its appeal falls, necessarily, on deaf ears. Some years ago there happened an exception to this rule. But then the circumstances were exceptional. A small nation was fighting a big nation, and, as the big nation happened to be yourselves, your sympathy was transferred to the big nation. As the little party was suspected of favouring the little nation, your sympathy was transferred likewise to the big party. Barring `khaki,’ sympathy takes its usual course in General Elections. The bigger the initial majority, the bigger the collapse. It is not enough that Goliath shall fall: he must bite the dust, and bite plenty of it. It is not enough that David shall have done what he set out to do: a throne must be found for this young man. Away with the giant’s body! Hail, King David!

I should like to think that chivalry was the sole motive of our zeal. I am afraid that the mere craving for excitement has something to do with it. Pelion has never been piled on Ossa; and no really useful purpose could be served by the superimposition. But we should like to see the thing done. It would appeal to our sense of the grandiose—our hankering after the unlimited. When the man of science shows us a drop of water in a test-tube, and tells us that this tiny drop contains more than fifteen billions of infusoria, we are subtly gratified, and cherish a secret hope that the number of infusoria is very much more than fifteen billions. In the same way, we hope that the number of seats gained by the winning party will be even greater to-morrow than it is to-day. `We are sweeping the country,’ exclaims (say) the professed Liberal; and at the word `sweeping’ there is in his eyes a gleam that no mere party feeling could have lit there. It is a gleam that comes from the very depths of his soul—a reflection of the innate human passion for breaking records, or seeing them broken, no matter how or why. `Yes,’ says the professed Tory, `you certainly are sweeping the country.’ He tries to put a note of despondency into his voice; but hark how he rolls the word `sweeping’ over his tongue! He, too, though he may not admit it, is longing to creep into the smokingroom of the National Liberal Club and feast his eyes on the blazing galaxy of red seals affixed to the announcements of the polling. He turns to his evening paper, and reads again the list of ex-Cabinet ministers who have been unseated. He feels, in his heart of hearts, what fun it would be if they had all been unseated. He grudges the exceptions. For political bias is one thing; human nature another.

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Chicago: Max Beerbohm, "General Elections," Yet Again, trans. Evans, Sebastian in Yet Again Original Sources, accessed July 18, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=1GWD43JRXWADITX.

MLA: Beerbohm, Max. "General Elections." Yet Again, translted by Evans, Sebastian, in Yet Again, Original Sources. 18 Jul. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=1GWD43JRXWADITX.

Harvard: Beerbohm, M, 'General Elections' in Yet Again, trans. . cited in , Yet Again. Original Sources, retrieved 18 July 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=1GWD43JRXWADITX.