This question, which forms the title of a leaflet circulated by the patriots of the Primrose League, “has often been asked” so the leaflet informs us, “through the last twelve months, especially by working men.” This increase in intelligent curiosity on the part of the working classes is very satisfactory, for in former times the British workman, as in the case of Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, was apt to be somewhat dull and unobservant on such points:
“A Primrose by a river’s brim
A yellow Primrose was to him,
And it was nothing more.”
But now it appears that the Primrose League is something more, and that the demand for further information has resulted in the publication of this explanatory leaflet. We learned that the Primrose League, so far from being devoid of principles, is the happy possessor of no less than four, which we will proceed to enumerate.
“The first principle is to uphold”— No, reader, it is not what you and I were both expecting. Like a clever tactician, the writer of the leaflet reserves to the last the true, real, essential motive of the League, and first introduces us to two highly respectable, yet merely preparatory, principles, which are calculated to throw some venerable dust in our eyes and pave the way for the acceptance of the real thing. “The first principle is to uphold Religion.” In these modern days, when, as the leaflet says, “bold bad man make a mock of all forms of worship,” the members of the Primrose League (the followers, be it noted, of the mild, good Baconsfield) feel it incumbent on them to stand forth and raise a protest. We will not attempt to dispute the fitness of the Primrose League to champion the cause of religion; so we bow the head in respectful acquiescence, and pass on to principle the second.
“Our second principle is to maintain the Constitution”; for under this constitution the people enjoy more “personal liberty” than in any other country on the face of the globe. The Primrose League is deeply enamoured of the liberty of the subject; and working men will doubtless be quick to perceive that by supporting the Primrose League they are helping to prolong the existence of the present admirable system of free competition, under which they enjoy such complete freedom that they are in no danger of being interfered with, even if they should take it into their minds—to starve. This is the constitution that has made England what she is, the “foremost among nations, powerful, independent, and free.”
The third principle is “to keep the Ascendency of the British Empire.” This looks more like business; we are now beginning to get clear of the respectable old buffer-principles, and come into proximity with the real thing at last. A critical reader might perhaps be tempted to enquire why other nations may not also be allowed to be “powerful, independent, and free,” instead of sacrificing those privileges in favour of the ascendency of the British Empire and insular consideration. “Look at the map of the world,” continues our leaflet, waxing eloquent in the warmth of it Jingoism; and seizing our atlas we learn with an imperial thrill of patriotism that “over a great part of Asia, Africa, and America, the whole of Australia and New Zealand, our Empress-Queen holds sway.” “Shall, we give up this glorious inheritance?” asks the leaflet. “No,” is the indignant answer; “let us rather bind our colonies closer to us in the bonds of mutual interest.” That interest is at stake in this matter we are not disposed to deny; but whether the interest be mutual or one-sided is a question of some importance, on which we can hardly take the word of the Primrose League.
From Jingoism to Capitalism is a natural and easy transition. We are therefore not surprised to find in the fourth principle the conclusion of the whole matter, the true and genuine raison d’étre of the Primrose League. “Last” (but not least), “we would preserve the Rights of Property.” The rights of property—that is the natural and appropriate battle-cry of those well-to-do gentlemen and ladies who feel a conscientious call to come to the rescue of religion and the British constitution. But even here they cannot make a candid avowal of their dominant principle without having recourse to subterfuges worthy of Mr. Pecksniff himself, who, by the by, would have made a fine specimen of a Primrose knight. “And this,” they continue, “we advocate in the interest, not of the few, but of the many.” The Primrose League is in arms not for the security of the rich man’s wealth or lands, but to save “the poor man’s deposit in the savings-bank,” “the tradesman’s stock.” Aye, and “the very tools of the workman.” We confess that our breath is almost taken away by this insight into the lofty piety and noble disinterestedness of an aristocratic organisation. There is no parallel in history for so complete an abnegation of self-interest on the part of a dominant class. They unhesitatingly rush to the support of a religion which supplies the poor with such an abundance of spiritual consolation as to render any material remedies superfluous. They courageously rally round a national constitution which is carefully framed for a perpetuation of social inequality. They pledge themselves to maintain the ascendency of the British Empire—i.e., the inferiority of other races. And, finally, by a supreme effort of unselfish heroism, they band themselves together to preserve those “rights of property” (or shall we call them rather “wrongs of usurpation”?) under which they themselves happen, by the merest coincidence, to enjoy a monopoly of the comforts and luxuries of life. “These are the principles of the Primrose League,” triumphantly concludes the leaflet; and our final reflection is that a more convenient set of principles has seldom been made to order for a very unprincipled class.
The Commonweal, November 6, 1886, p. 252