Read GOOD NEWS AND HARD WORK - NEWS AND GOVERNMENT - CHAPTER I of Crowds A Moving-Picture of Democracy, free online book, by Gerald Stanley Lee, on


Every now and then when I am in London (at the instigation of some business man who takes the time off to belong to it), I drop into a pleasant but other-worldly and absent-minded place called the House of Commons.

I sit in the windows in the smoking-room and watch the faces of the members all about me and watch the steamships, strangely, softly, suddenly-Shakespeare and Pepys, outside on the river, slip gravely by under glass.

Or I go in and sit down under the gallery, face to face with the Speaker, looking across those profiles of world-makers in their seats; and I watch and listen in the House itself.  There is a kind of pleasant, convenient, appropriate hush upon the world there.


The decorous, orderly machinery of knowledge rolls over one-one listens to It, to the soft clatter of the endless belt of words.

Every now and then one sees a member in the middle of a speech, or possibly in the middle of a sentence, slip up quietly and take a look (under glass) at The People, or he uses a microscope, perhaps, or a reading glass on The People, Mr. Bonar Law’s, Mr. Lloyd George’s, Ramsay MacDonald’s, Will Crook’s, or somebody’s.  Then he comes back gravely as if he had got the people attended to now, and finishes what he was saying.

It is a very queer feeling one has about the People in the House of Commons.

I mean the feeling of their being under glass; they all seem so manageable, so quiet and so remote, a kind of glazed-over picture in still life, of themselves.  Every now and then, of course one takes a member seriously when he steps up to the huge showcase of specimen crowds, which members are always referring to in their speeches.  But nothing comes of it.

The crowds seem very remote there under the glass.  One feels like smashing something-getting down to closer terms with them-one longs for a Department Store or a bridge or a ’bus-something that rattles and bangs and is.

All the while outside the mighty street-that huge megaphone of the crowd, goes shouting past.  One wishes the House would notice it.  But no one does.  There is always just the House Itself and that hush or ring of silence around it, all England listening, all the little country papers far away with their hands up to their ears and the great serious-minded Dailies, and the witty Weeklies, the stately Monthlies, and Quarterlies all acting as if it mattered....

Even during the coal strike nothing really happened in the House of Commons.  There was a sense of the great serious people, of the crowds on Westminster Bridge surging softly through glass outside, but nothing got in.  Big Ben boomed down the river, across the pavements, over the hurrying crowds and over all the men and the women, the real business men and women.  The only thing about the House that seemed to have anything to do with anybody was Big Ben.

Finally one goes up to Harrod’s to get relief, or one takes a ’bus, or one tries Trafalgar Square, or one sees if one can really get across the Strand or one does something-almost anything to recall one’s self to real life.

And then, of course, there is Oxford Street.

Almost always after watching the English people express themselves or straining to express themselves in the House of Commons, I try Oxford Street.

I know, of course, that as an art-form for expressing a great people, Oxford Street is not all that it should be, but there is certainly something, after all the mooniness and the dim droniness, and lawyer-mindedness in the way the English people express themselves or think that they ought to express themselves in their house of Commons-there is certainly something that makes Oxford Street seem suddenly a fine, free, candid way for a great people to talk!  And there is all the gusto, too, the ’busses, the taxies, the hundreds of thousands of men and women saying things and buying things they believe.

Taking in the shops on both sides or the street, and taking in the things the people are doing behind the counters, and in the aisles, and up in the office windows three blocks of Oxford Street really express what the English people really want and what they really think and what they believe and put up money on, more than three years of the house of Commons.

If I were an Englishman I would rather be elected to walk up and down Oxford Street and read what I saw there than to be elected to a seat in the House of Commons, and I could accomplish more and learn more for a nation, with three blocks of Oxford Street, with what I could gather up and read there, and with what I could resent and believe there, than I could with three years of the House of Commons.

I know that anybody, of course, could be elected to walk up and down Oxford Street.  But it is enough for me.

So I almost always try it after the house of Commons.

And when I have taken a little swing down Oxford Street and got the House of Commons out of my system a little, perhaps I go down to the Embankment, and drop into my club.

Then I sit in the window and mull.

If the English people express themselves and express what they want and what they are bound to have, on Oxford Street and put their money down for it, so much better than they do in the House of Commons, why should they not do it there?

Why should elaborate, roundabout, mysterious things like governments, that have to be spoken of in whispers (and that express themselves usually in a kind of lawyer-minded way, in picked and dried words like wills), be looked upon so seriously, and be taken on the whole, as the main reliance the people have, in a great nation, for expressing themselves?

Why should not a great people be allowed to say what they are like and to say what they want and what they are bound to get, in the way Oxford Street says things, in a few straight, clean-cut, ordinary words, in long quiet rows of deeds, of buying and selling and acting?

Pounds, shillings, and silence.

Then on to the next thing.

If the House of Commons were more like Oxford Street or even if it had suddenly something of the tone of Oxford Street, if suddenly it were to begin some fine morning to express England the way Oxford Street does, would not one see, in less than three months, new kinds and new sizes of men all over England, wanting to belong to it?

Big, powerful, uncompromising, creative men who have no time for twiddling, who never would have dreamed of being tucked away in the house of Commons before, would want to belong to it.

In the meantime, of course, the men of England who have empires to express, are not unnaturally expressing them in more simple language like foundries, soap factories around a world, tungsten mines, department stores, banks, subways, railroads for seventy nations, and ships on seven seas, Winnipeg trolleys and little New York skyscrapers.

Business men of the more usual or humdrum kind could not do it, but certainly, the first day that business men like these, of the first or world-size class, once find the House of Commons a place they like to be in, once begin expressing the genius of the English people in government as they are already expressing the genius of the English people in owning the earth, in buying and selling, in inventing things and in inventing corporations, the House of Commons will cease to be a bog of words, an abyss of committees, and legislation will begin to be run like a railroad-on a block signal system, rows of things taken up, gone over, and finished.  The click of the signal.  Then the next thing.

I sit in my club and look out of the window and think.  Just outside thousands of taxies shooting all these little mighty wills of men across my window, across London, across England, across the world ... the huge, imperious street ... all these men hurling themselves about in it, joining their wills on to telephone wires, to mighty trains and little quiet country roads, hitching up cables to their wills, and ships-hitching up the very clouds over the sea to their wills and running a world-why are not men like these-men who have the street-spirit in them, this motor genius of driving through to what they want, taking seats in the House of Commons?

Perhaps Oxford Street is more efficient and more characteristic in expressing the genius and the will of the English people than the House of Commons is because of the way in which the people select the men they want to express them in Oxford Street.

It may be that the men the people have selected to be at the top of the nation’s law-making are not selected by as skillful, painstaking, or thorough a process as the men who have been selected to be placed at the top of the nation’s buying and selling.

Possibly the reason the House of Commons does not express the will of the people is, that its members are merely selected in a loose, vague way and by merely counting noses.

Possibly, too, the men who are selected by a true, honest, direct, natural selection to be the leaders and to free the energies and steer the work of the people, the men who are selected to lead by being seen and lived with and worked with all day, every day, are better selected men than men who having been voted on on slips of paper, and having been seen in newspaper paragraphs, travel up to London and begin thoughtlessly running a world.

The business man drops into the House of Commons after the meeting of his firm in Bond Street, Lombard Street, or Oxford Street and takes a look at it.  He sees before him a huge tool or piece of machinery-a body of men intended to work together and to get certain grave, particular, and important things done, that the people want done, and he does not see how a great good-hearted chaos or welter, a kind of chance national Weather of Human Nature like the House of Commons, can get the things done.

So he confines himself more and more to business where he loses less time in wondering what other people think or if they think at all, cuts out the work he sees, and does it.

He thinks how it would be if things were turned around and if people tried to get expressed in business in the loose way, the thoughtless reverie of voting that they use in trying to get themselves expressed in politics.

He thinks the stockholders of the Sunlight Soap Company, Limited, would be considerably alarmed to have the president and superintendent and treasurer and the buyers and salesmen of the company elected at the polls by the people in the county or by popular suffrage.  He thinks that thousands of the hands as well as the stockholders would be alarmed too.  It does not seem to him that anybody, poor or rich, employer or employee, in matters of grave personal concern, would be willing to trust his interest or would really expect the people, all the people as a whole, to be represented or to get what they wanted, to act definitely and efficiently through the vague generalizations of the polls.  Perhaps a natural selection, a dead-earnest rigorous, selection that men work on nine hours a day, an implacable, unremitting process during working hours, of sorting men out (which we call business), is the crowd’s most reliable way of registering what it definitely thinks about the men it wants to represent it.  Business is the crowd’s, big, serious, daily voting in pounds, shillings, and pence-its hour to hour, unceasing, intimate, detailed labour in picking men out, in putting at the top the men it can work with best, the men who most express it, who have the most genius to serve crowds, to reveal to crowds their own minds, and supply to them what they want.

As full as it is-like all broad, honest expressions, of human shortcomings and of things that are soon to be stopped, it does remain to be said that business, in a huge, rough way, daily expressing the crowds as far as they have got-the best in them and the worst in them, is, after all, their most faithful and true record, their handwriting.  Business is the crowds’ autograph-its huge, slow, clumsy signature upon our world.

Buying and selling is the life blood of the crowds’ thought, its big, brutal daily confiding to us of its view of human life.  What do the crowds, poor and rich, really believe about life?  Property is the last will and testament of Crowds.

The man-sorting that goes on in distributing and producing property is the Crowd’s most unremitting, most normal, temperamental way of determining and selecting its most efficient and valuable leaders-its men who can express it, and who can act for it.

This is the first reason I would give against letting the people rely on having a House of Commons compel business men to be good.

Men who meet now and again during the year, afternoons or evenings, who have been picked out to be at the top of the nation’s talking, by a loose absent-minded and illogical paper-process, cannot expect to control men who have been picked out to be at the top of a nation’s buying and selling, by a hard-working, closely fitting, logical process-the men that all the people by everything they do, every day, all day, have picked out to represent them.

Any chance three blocks of Oxford Street could be relied on to do better.

Keeping the polls open once in so often, a few hours, and using hearsay and little slips of paper-anybody dropping in-seems a rather fluttery and uncertain way to pick out the representatives of the people, after one has considered three blocks of Oxford Street.

The next thing the crowd is going to do in getting what it wants from business men is to deal directly with the business men themselves and stop feeling, what many people feel partly from habit, perhaps, that the only way the crowd can get to what it wants is to go way over or way back or way around by Robin Hood’s barn or the House of Commons.

But there is a second reason: 

The trouble is not merely in the way men who sit in the House of Commons are selected.  The real deep-seated trouble with the men who sit in the House of Commons is that they like it.  The difficulty (as in the American Congress too) seems to be something in the men themselves.  It lies in what might be called, for lack of a better name, perhaps, the Hem and Haw or Parliament Temperament.

The dominating type of man in all the world’s legislative bodies, for the time being, seems to be the considerer or reconsidérer, the man who dotes on the little and tiddly sides of great problems.  The greatness of the problem furnishes, of course, the pleasant, pale glow, the happy sense of importance to a man, and then there is all the jolly littleness of the little things besides-the little things that a little man can make look big by getting them in the way of big ones-a great nation looking on and waiting....  For such a man there always seems to be a certain coziness and hominess in a Legislative Body....

As a seat in the House of Commons not unnaturally-every year it is hemmed or hawed in, gets farther and farther away from the people, it is becoming more and more apparent to the people every year that the Members of their House of Commons as a class are unlikely to do anything of a very striking or important or lasting value in the way of getting business men to be good.

The more efficient and practical business men are coming to suspect that the members of the House of Commons, speaking broadly, do not know the will of the people, and that they could not express it in creative, straightforward and affirmative laws if they did.