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A New Era in Public Opinion
Some Remarkable Changes in the Last Half-Century
(S684: 1910)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Published on page 377 of the 14 October 1910 issue of the London magazine Public Opinion. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S684.htm

    1. Perhaps in no subject of great political and social importance has there been so great and so steady an advance in public opinion as in what is generally termed the Land Question.

Land Reform

    When John Stuart Mill, in 1870, formed his Land Tenure Reform Association, the chief object of which was to secure for the people the "unearned increment" on land, he obtained but a small amount of support from a few advanced thinkers, and on his death the Association also ceased to live; and any fundamental alteration of our land system seemed beyond the sphere of practical politics.

    But in 1880-81 it revived; the Land Nationalisation Society was established, and its steady advocacy of a practicable and just system, by which the workers should obtain free access to the land, was so effective that in Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman's Parliament about a hundred members of the House of Commons were its avowed supporters; while the present Government's Small Holdings Act, together with the Land Taxation and Land Valuation measures, form admirable first steps towards its realisation.

Socialism and Poverty

    2. An almost equal advance has occurred in the view taken of Socialism, though, owing to the greater difficulty and more radical nature of the proposal, it is not so near to realisation. Fifty years ago, however, it was almost as difficult and dangerous to avow oneself a Socialist as an atheist; and not a single writer or politician of weight could be found to advocate it. The whole questions of poverty and unemployment were declared by all parties to be beyond the sphere of the Government's action, except to deal with them on the cold-blooded deterrent system of our still existing but moribund poor law.

    Now, both the present and the preceding Prime Ministers have declared repeatedly that the abolition of starvation, of degrading poverty, and of the unemployment of willing workers, are within the sphere of Government action, and that their intention is, by every means in their power, first to ameliorate and ultimately to get rid of these greatest and most disgraceful diseases of modern civilisation. This recognition of a public duty, for the first time in the history of civilisation, seems to me to mark the opening of a new era for humanity, and the possibilities for good of such recognition surpass any other change of opinion the world has seen.

Religious Toleration

    3. Next in magnitude is the change as regards toleration of religious opinions. Agnosticism, and even atheism, no longer render their advocates liable to fine or imprisonment, or, thanks to such men as Charles Bradlaugh and John Stuart Mill, even to any disqualification for high public services. Yet a vast mass of religious intolerance still exists among us.

Failure of Our Education System

    4. This intolerance is shown most clearly in the Education question. The uniform system of national education we have established has produced none of the great benefits which were anticipated by its founders, but which Herbert Spencer and other thinkers warned us it would not produce. It has not decreased unemployment, or poverty, or crime; and now, after nearly forty years of trial, we are beginning to find out that a nation cannot be truly and beneficially educated by a rigid and uniform system of mostly verbal instruction, formulated by a body of legislators who have never studied the principles of a real education, and make no adequate allowance for the enormous diversities of the children in economic condition, in physical or intellectual capacities, or in social and industrial requirements. Our educational system, like our poor law, is an absolute failure, and the people are only now beginning to realise the fact.

Our Solitary Prison System

    5. Another example of the bad results of rigid systems, applied by speculative officials and blindly enforced over a whole nation, is our terrible solitary and silent prison system, which has now been universally applied for more than fifty years, and the iniquity and horrible results of which are only now gradually being made known.

    It is one of the most cruel and ineffective modes of dealing with crime in existence; its whole tendency and effect is to manufacture criminals instead of reforming them; yet so enormous are the difficulties of changing such vast and long-continued systems that it may be another half-century before it is finally abolished. Public opinion seems dormant or paralysed before official misrepresentations and unfounded claims.

Our Lunacy Laws

    6. Our Lunacy laws are now, as regards individual liberty, as hopelessly bad as ever. Private asylums are still sources of profit to their owners, and unknown numbers of sane or quite harmless persons are confined in them, and often made insane by forced association with the mad. Here, too, public opinion is inactive and inefficient.

Militarism and the Lower Races

    7. In the vast subjects of militarism and the rights of the lower races there seems to be no advance in effective public opinion. The two subjects are closely connected, and the enormous increase of armaments in an ever-increasing ratio, together with the parallel increase of capitalism and the greed for wealth and power, render all attempts at real humanitarian progress more difficult than half a century ago.

Where Public Opinion Has Deteriorated

    8. Lastly, there are two subjects as to which there has been a decided deterioration of public opinion in the last half-century. The abolition of the Game laws and of the Death penalty were both advocated with more energy over the whole country then than they are now. The former were denounced with great power and frequency by Hugh Miller in his paper the Witness; while the latter was kept continually before the public by articles in periodicals, by lectures, and by discussions.

    Now, one rarely sees even a reference to them, and this sad lowering of public opinion is, I think, due fundamentally to the increase of individual wealth. This has led to game preserving on a larger scale; to the depopulation of rural areas and the undue increase of town populations; to exciting town amusements, and the enormous increase of periodical literature of a sensational or degrading type.

The Opening of a New Era

    On the whole, and as regards true civilisation and the elevation of human nature, effective public opinion seems to have been stationary or even deteriorating.

    But the great advances pointed out in my first and second paragraphs are so important and far-reaching as to indicate the opening of a new era in which the better instincts of the people will have opportunities for development.

    The recognition by Government that it is their duty to abolish poverty rather than to increase wealth must lead to radical measures of social and economic reform, which may, I think, be best summarised by the formula of--

    "Equality of opportunity from birth to manhood and womanhood for every British subject."

    I commend this to our advanced thinkers as a touchstone whereby to test all proposals for social or economic legislation.


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