Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Election

THE OTHER DAY as I was going out upon my travels, I came upon a plain so broad that it greatly wearied me. This plain was grown in parts with barley, but as it stood high in foreign mountains and was arid, very little was grown. Small runnels, long run dry under the heat, made the place look like a desert—almost like Africa; nor was there anything to relieve my gaze except a huddle of small grey houses far away; but when I reached them I found, to my inexpressible joy, a railway running by and a station to receive me.

For those who complain of railways talk folly, and prove themselves either rich or, more probably, the hangers-on of the rich. A railway is an excellent thing; it takes one quickly through the world for next to nothing, and if in many countries the people it takes are brutes, and disfigure all they visit, that is not the fault of the railway, but of the Government and religion of these people, which, between them, have ruined the citizens of the State.

So was it not in this place of which I speak, for all the people were industrious, wealthy, kind, amenable, and free.

I took a ticket for the only town on the railway list whose history I knew, and then in a third-class carriage made entirely of wood I settled down to a conversation with my kind; for though these people were not of my blood—indeed, I am certain that for some hundreds of years not a drop of their blood has mingled with my own—yet we understood each other by a common tongue called Lingua Franca, of which I have spoken in another place and am a past master.

As all the people round began their talk of cattle, land, and weather, two men next me, or rather the one next me and the other opposite me, began to talk of the election which had been held in that delightful plain: by which, as I learnt, a dealer in herds had been defeated by a somewhat usurious and perhaps insignificant attorney. In this election more than half the voters—that is, a good third of the families in the plain—had gone up to the little huts of wood and had made a mark upon a bit of paper, some on one part, some on the other. About a sixth of the families had desired the dealer in herds to make their laws, and about a sixth the attorney. Of the rest some could not, some would not, go and make the little mark of which I speak. Many more could by law make it, and would have made it, if they had thought it useful to any possible purpose under the sun. One-sixth, I say, had made their mark for the aged and money-lending attorney, and one-sixth for the venerable but avaricious dealer in herds, and since the first sixth was imperceptibly larger than the second it was the lawyer, not the merchant, who stood to make the laws for the people. But not only to make laws: he was also in some mystic way the Persona and Representative of all the plain. The long sun-lit fields; the infinite past—Carolingian, enormous; the delicate fronds of young trees; the distant sight of the mountains, which is the note of all that land; the invasions it had suffered, the conquests it might yet achieve; its soul and its material self, were all summed up in the solicitor, not in the farmer, and he was to vote on peace or war, on wine or water, on God or no God in the schools. For the people of the plain were self-governing; they had no lords.

Of my two companions, the one had voted for the cow-buyer, but the other for the scribbler upon parchment, and they discussed their action without heat, gently and with many reasons.

The one said: "It cannot be doubted that the solidarity of society demands that the homogeneity of economic interests should be recognised by the magistrate." The other said: "The first need is rather that the historic continuity of society should be affirmed by the momentary depositaries of the executive."

For these two men were of some education, and saw things from a higher standpoint than the peasants around us, who continued to discourse, now angrily, now merrily, but always loudly and rapidly, upon the insignificant matter of their lives: that is, strong, red, bubbling wine, healthy and well-fed beef, rich land and housing, the marriage of daughters, and the putting forward of sons.

Then one of the two, who had long guessed by my dress and face from what country I came, said to me: "And you, how is it in your country?" I told him we met from time to time, upon occasions not less often than seven years apart, and did just as they had done. That one-sixth of us voted one way and one-sixth the other; the first, let us say, for a moneylender, and the second for a man remarkable for motor-cars or famous for the wealth of his mother; and whichever sixth was imperceptibly larger than the other, that sixth carried its man, and he stood for the flats of the Wash or for the clear hills of Cumberland, or for Devon, which is all one great and lonely hill.

"This man," said I, "in some very mystic way is Ourselves—he is our past and our great national memory. By his vote he decides what shall be done; but he is controlled."

"By what is he controlled?" said my companions eagerly. Evidently they had a sneaking love of seeing representatives controlled.

"By a committee of the rich," said I promptly.

At this they shrugged their shoulders and said: "It is a bad system!"

"And by what are yours?" said I.

At this the gravest and oldest of them, looking as it were far away with his eyes, answered: "By the name of our country and a wholesome terror of the people."

"Your system," said I, shrugging my shoulders in turn, but a little awkwardly, "is different from ours."

After this, we were silent all three. We remembered, all three of us, the times when no such things were done in Europe, and yet men hung well together, and a nation was vaguer and yet more instinctive and ready. We remembered also—for it was in our common faith—the gross, permanent, and irremediable imperfection of human affairs. There arose perhaps in their minds a sight of the man they had sent to be the spirit and spokesman, or rather the very self, of that golden plateau which the train was crawling through, and certainly in my mind there rose the picture of a man—small, false, and vile—who was, by some fiction, the voice of a certain valley in my own land.

Then I said to them as I left the train at the town I spoke of: "Days, knights!"—for so one addresses strangers in that country. And they answered: "Your grace, we commend you to God."

~Hilaire Belloc

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