Bonar Thompson: Vox Populi Vox Dei

1845-1945, Historical Work / Wednesday, March 16th, 2022
This essay by Bonar Thompson first appeared in The Black Hat Volume 1 Number 2 (October 1930). Thompson writes about his time as a Conscientious Objector prisoner, his disdain for the crowd and his praise for the individual in Hyde Park Orator Illustrated.

Vox populi vox dei. It is more often the voice of the ventriloquist. The war lords, press lords and money lords pull the string and the figure works.

“The people is a beast of muddy brain” wrote Campenella nearly 400 years ago “that knows not its own strength. Confused and stupefied by bugbears vain, with its own hands it ties and gags itself; gives itself death and war, for pence doled out by kings, from its own store.”

Thomas Hardy wrote of “the pathetic people plodding on” while G. K. Chesterton, in a famous poem, has written of “the secret people of England who have not spoken yet.”

For my part I think it extremely unlikely that they have any wish to speak. They wish to be left alone.

Only on one occasion have I ever known the people of this country united in one cause for one purpose and speaking with one voice. That was during the war of 1914 / 18. Out of a population of 47 millions there were 6,000 registered Conscientious Objectors, who refused to bow the knee to the Temple of Mars. These men were insulted, abused, hounded into prison; many of them narrowly escaping with their lives. In the great heart of the people there was no place for them. They were outcasts in the land of their birth. The people themselves were glad to offer their lives upon the altar of militarism. They allowed themselves to be bullied, hectored, and lectured by the Bottomleys and the Blatchfords, while the Press raved about “Roping them in”, “Rounding them up” and “Combing them out.”

“Join the army and see the World” meant for thousands of them joining the army and seeing the next world. One enthusiastic recruiting orator, addressing a vast mob in Trafalgar Square, informed the crowd that thousands of their comrades were dying in the trenches, and concluded by saying “Won’t you join them?” Scores of young men enrolled on the spot. Towards the end of the conflict there was such a shortage of fighting men that there was talk of calling up the Old Age Pensioners and combing out the Infant Schools, while outside Willesden Cemetary a huge placard bore the inscription “Wake up, England!”

At the close of the amazing business there was much bellowing and trumpeting about a “revolutionary situation” developing. Millions of men had grown so accustomed to killing that, finding themselves denied the “fruits of victory,” they turned in a fury upon their respective governments, and for four or five years the world was troubled by insurrections, uprisings and abortive revolutions. In 1917 a vast change took place in Russia, where a handful of determined men led the masses from Czarism to the Dictatorship of Bolshevism. Since the death of Lenin, that country has been plodding its way steadily into Capitalism, and in 1930 we learn that it is fitted up with the latest modern improvements — a Secret Police, food queues, unemployment, and a rigorous prison system for those who wag their tongues too freely in favour of Freedom, that romantic fetish, of which, according to Mussolini, the world has grown sick.

The worship of machinery, mass production, and the general regimentation of the patient masses, point clearly to the growing development of Russia in a Capitalist direction. There are three classes in that happy land — the peasantry, who instead of praying to Saints, bow and cross themselves before a statue of Lenin, thus fortifying themselves for the toil which is their common lot on earth; the Civil Service bureaucrats of the Communist Party, who have naturally a vested interest in Communism and hold on like leaches to their jobs; and the Krassin Class, who visit Europe, dine with kings, quaff the champagne cup, and send their daughters to Oxford. The Revolution has devoured its children and sent into exile its most brilliant leader. The fallen Dictator is now begging for admission at the doors of every bourgeois country in Europe. Strange what an enthusiasm this man has developed for Liberty now that he is no longer in the saddle!

In the meantime the “pale, pathetic people” of Western Europe have plodded from one phase of government to another, without much appreciable improvement in their living or working conditions.

The rise of a new and independent party in England during post war years has not brought the rare and refreshing fruit as yet within the grasp of the masses. Most of the leaders are average men, and average men, however worthy they may be, are not the stuff from which great progressive schemes evolve.

All human advancement is the work of exceptional men, the thinkers and the doers of the world, who care nothing for rule or rote, precedent or custom, but go boldly on as their business and desires dictate. It is, perhaps, just as well that the people are never consulted in great affairs — except at Election times with tongue in cheek — for the people are never in favour of change. There is no reform, no progressive measure of any kind or description that has not been strongly opposed by what Ibsen called “the damned compact majority.” The first man to carry an umbrella was laughed at as he passed through the streets; the first woman to ride a bicycle was hooted by the mob; the first motor-car was stoned; the first railway-train was denounced as an invention of Satan.

The extension of the school age; abolition of overtime; a shorter working day; have all been strenuously opposed by the majority of working people. Politically, their intelligence is below zero, and in matters calling for considered judgement, their opinion is of no value whatever.

Yet in spite of these grave defects, they are kindly, patient, and more free from snobbery than any other class. An atmosphere of friendliness prevails among them, so that one always feels at home in moving and mixing with them. Possessing little, they are the most hospitable people on earth. There cannot be anything fundamentally wrong with them. What they need is better education, more opportunities for travel, better conditions in which to live and work, so that they may develop those finer qualities which lie deep within their natures. No Government which fails to take these bold and drastic steps to grapple with this problem of the cultural and educational development of the people is worthy of support.

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