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The Spike or Victoria College Review 1947

editorial Democracy and Minorities

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editorial Democracy and Minorities

Our heroine, Victoria, is in trouble again. The villain still pursues her. It is all the more distressing that this should happen at a time when she had prospects of a respectable marriage, at a time when her family thought their beautiful tomboy might at last follow the example of her quieter and more homely sisters. Her box was ready, she had kept out of scrapes for a long time, she had been quite civil to the eligible young men of the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Then suddenly, swoop!—with a flourish of his redlined opera cloak, the villain whisked her away. Her distracted aunts found her Walking the Streets. Curtain. It looked as if that mortgage will never be paid.

The villain is the same as ever—the big black-hearted ruffian with the fatal fascination: the noisy minority.

* * *

Such, briefly, is the dramatic story of Victoria's latest fall from grace as reported more in sorrow than in anger by the press, when students demonstrated in protest against the Dutch attack on Indonesia. It was only one more chapter in the sinful life of the Noisy Minority, with his strange power over student clubs, trade unions and other cultural organisations. To the press, and even to our Labour Government, that minority seems an enemy to be defeated at all costs; an enemy who is represented as the foe of democracy.

It is possible to take a different view: that without the noisy but hard-working and vigorous minority, democracy could not survive. Anyone who has belonged to a football club, Ladies' Auxiliary or trade union, knows how easy it is to find vice-presidents and how hard to find secretaries. Someone must do the hard work, sacrifice precious time to a cause other people approved of but don't work for. To that someone, democracy has to mean more than free access to a ballot box, and calls for more effort than that required to cast a vote. The more democratic an organisation is, the more likely is it to fall into the hands of some minority enthusiastic enough to make personal sacrifices. Such people tend to be those who have a busy social conscience: for example, religious people and communists. Why does a beer-loving community like ours put up with our liquor laws? Because the easy-going, beer-loving majority won t organise and work for beer as hard as a socially-conscious minority fights for its dilution. Why does the conservative majority of our Students' Association have to put up with a radical college? For the same reasons.

We say radical college advisedly, because as far as Victoria has any existence at all apart from books and buildings, that existence is embodied in the people enthusiastic enough to put some effort into student activities. Most of these people are socialists or Christians or both.

And so when, organised by the Socialist Club, over three hundred students signed a petition and over two hundred marched the streets protesting against the Dutch attack, it was no mere Socialist Club that spoke out: it was Victoria. If Victoria has a voice, that voice spoke from our banners.

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The general meeting held afterwards, when a motion to disaffiliate the Socialist Club was rejected, vindicated the above claim. The conservative students thought at last here was an opportunity to defeat the socialists without any boring mental effort or laborious organisation. All that was necessary was to attend the meeting in large numbers and vote for disaffiliation. The Socialists found themselves suddenly surrounded by strange faces: faces they had never seen before at any student activity. Were these students? Yes, inasmuch as they had paid their fees. Not, if we judge them by their part in university life, their manners at the meeting, or by their hill-billy opinions. ('I take it we all believe in the self-determination of nations? —Cries of 'We Don't!')

Well, they were defeated, morally and numerically. They hurried off home, cursing the unfamiliar interest in politics which had wasted an evening that could have been spent in money-making, cards or cowboy pictures; resolving never to make such fools of themselves again.

Other active minorities, not merely students, are today being attacked more energetically than in the past, precisely because they are becoming stronger. But, be it noted, the most dangerous attack is not a democratic one. Our conservative students, after all, exercised their democratic right to attend a meeting and try to outvote their opponents. Let us hope they profited by the unusual experience. But the active minority whose power in the trade unions is feared by press and parliament are being attacked in a different way: not by fellow unionists exercising their democratic rights, but by non-unionists who would impose laws forbidding unions to elect communists to office. It is claimed that decent unionists are betrayed by presumably indecent leaders. Surely the only remedy for such a state of affairs is for 'decent unionists to attend meetings, if they consider their interests jeopardised by staying away; to come along and be honestly and democratically trounced as their counterparts were at our general meeting.

As for the law demanding a secret ballot of all those affected before a strike can be held, that is indeed a cunning stroke. It appeals to all the democratic instincts of non-unionists and others who don't understand what unions are for or how they work. At the same time, it appeals hugely to the undemocratic instincts of those who would like to see the unions weakened. 1 Under a Labour Government there is no need for strikes' is the frequent assertion of those who forget how horribly impermanent Labour Governments are, and how permanent restrictive laws can be. The measure is intended to take power out of the hands of those who value unionism enough to attend meetings and give it to the indifferent or hostile majority who are unionists only by compulsion.

Were that principle applied to the Students' Association it would take all power away from our general meetings, so that policies could be settled only by a postal ballot of everyone including those who, taking no part in student life and not attending meetings, were neither interested in nor informed about the issues at stake. Were it applied to the Church of England, it would mean deciding church policy by a ballot of all those who write themselves C. of E. in their census papers.

If that is democracy, then it is of a most dangerous and unintelligent kind. It is a voter's responsibility to know what he is voting about, and the only way to know that is to take part in the work of the body in which he has voting power.

Let us recognise that all democratic organisations tend to be run by active minorities, and that there are two ways of preventing this tendency: for the majority to take a more active interest, or for our politicians to pass anti-democratic laws in the name of democracy. The first way is honourable and arduous, the second ignoble and fatally easy.

At Victoria College, in the government of the country, and in trade unions, democracy is not just a privilege. It is a responsibility.