Volume 8, 1912-1913
In 1912, the paper that gave G.K. Chesterton his voice starting losing its own voice. When newspapers support a particular political party, and when the leadership of that party is exposed as being corrupt, the paper has a decision: stand up boldly for what is right in spite of the party, or stand up stupidly for the party in spite of what is right. The Liberal Party controlled Parliament but some of its most powerful players got caught in the case of insider trading known as the Marconi Scandal. Instead of cleaning house, ousting those politicians, and making an example of them, the Party used its majority to excuse the key players at the conclusion of a hearing on the matter. The guilty players made a humbling public apology even without admitting any wrongdoing, and got away with a slap on the wrist. Everyone knew it was a whitewash, and most of the papers said as much, some more loudly than others, but the Daily News failed to condemn the scandal for what it was.
It is commonly thought that Chesterton was fired from the Daily News for raising his voice against the Liberal Party, but the fact is, he quit, and his leaving the Daily News was itself news. But even before he quit, we can see a change in tone during the last months of his tenure there, especially when he devotes one of his columns to an open letter to the Liberal Party. In it, he confesses that first time since he started writing for the paper, he is not enjoying himself. He admits that he has been a Liberal “since shortly before I was born” because the party represented freedom and democracy. He could see, however, that it was clearly acting in the direct opposite of those ideals. Before the straw that actually breaks the camel’s back, there is a penultimate straw that does severe spinal damage. For Chesterton it is the compulsory Insurance Act, and the fact the paper calls someone who opposes the Act an “anarchist.” Chesterton has already spoken out against the problems posed by compulsory health insurance: the rise in the power of the medical establishment joined at the hip with government, the looming threat of eugenics and with it, infanticide, the messing with marriage, the manipulation of the working class, and above all, the helplessness of the citizen to do anything about it: “The broad, brutal, fundamental fact about the capitalist State in which we live is in two parts: First, that we are all servants; second, that we know less and less whom we are serving.” And: “It used to be the weak things that hid themselves, now it is the strong things that hide.”
He sees everywhere the loss of freedom and democracy: “Russians have thousands of rifles, as Englishmen have thousands of votes: very nice things to have, if one were only allowed to use them.”
As in his early days at the Daily News, he still brings up literature, but even here there is a noticeable change. He offers a criticism of some modern writers, Kipling, the barely-remembered Israel Zangwill, and the now largely forgotten Hall Caine, as being brilliant writers who lost something when they stopped writing about the universe and starting writing about the world. In some ways, and certainly for some people, this was about the same time that Chesterton himself succumbed to the same thing. His writing became less universal and more particular. He went from the universe and its glories to the world and its problems. But unlike his “realistic” colleagues, Chesterton does not simply describe the problems, he offers some solutions.
We say that . . . an owner would be in a simpler and honester attitude to the whole universe. He would say, “I know the fruit of my acts and the limits of my responsibility. I know whom I am serving: I am serving myself, my wife and children, and what I can give beyond the necessary I will give to such a God as I may truly worship or such a public policy as I may truly approve.” But as things are in a complex wage-earning society (whether capitalist or collectivist in its form), no man of any trade really knows for whose benefit he has done one single stroke of his work. . . Our work is not simple enough to have any sense in it. The meaning has gone out of our daily actions; and our very gestures are void and vain.
He also heroically defends Home Rule for Ireland, which again is something his ruling party opposes. Chesterton calls out the unnatural position of the Englishman which has led to a permanent persecution of the Irish people. His analysis is acute and prophetic. The ideas which are “now believed tolerantly, casually,” that were “once held savagely but now only sanely” are: first the theory of the triumphant Teuton, second the horror of the Roman religion, and third the belief in commerce and the contempt for agriculture. These beliefs would not only lead to the horrors of Nazi Germany, but the horrors the world is now experiencing.
We have put our trust in man, not in God. And we have put our trust in gold. “And what shall we answer? I confess I can only answer in that lamentable sort of language used when religious differences were very marked: that if our God be God He can deliver us out of this furnace, but if not, we will not worship a golden image that such men have set up; that the safety of the proud insults heaven; and that idols are not always empty, but are the houses of devils.”
The end comes in February of 1913. Chesterton breaks with the paper and the party, both of which he had served loyally. He learns the hard lesson that the people in power cannot be trusted and that we cannot expect political solutions to the problems that plague us.