At the beginning of the last strike the papers announced that Public Opinion was firmly opposed to dictation by a minority. Towards the end of the strike the papers said that Public Opinion was strongly in favour of a settlement which would leave neither side with a sense of defeat. I do not complain of either of these statements, but I have been wondering, as I have often wondered before, how a leader-writer discovers what the Public Opinion is.
When one reads about Public Opinion in the press (and one reads a good deal about it one way and another), it is a little difficult to realize, particularly if the printer has used capital letters, that this much-advertised Public Opinion is simply You and Me and the Others. Now, since it is impossible for any man to get at the opinions of all of us, it is necessary that he should content himself with a sample half-dozen or so. But from where does he get his sample? Possibly from his own club, limited perhaps to men of his own political opinions; almost certainly from his own class. Public Opinion in this case is simply what he thinks. Even if he takes the opinion of strangers–the waiter who serves him at lunch, the tobacconist, the policeman at the corner–the opinion may be one specially prepared for his personal consumption, one inspired by tact, boredom, or even a sense of humour. If, for instance, the process were to be reversed, and my tobacconist were to ask me what I thought of the strike, I should grunt and go out of his shop; but he would be wrong to attribute “a dour grimness” to the nation in consequence.
Nor is the investigator likely to be more correct if he judges Public Opinion from the evidence of his eyes rather than his ears. Thus one reporter noticed on the faces of his companions in the omnibus “a look of stern determination to see this thing through.” If they were all really looking like that, it must have been an impressive sight. But it is at least possible that this distinctive look was one of stern determination to get a more comfortable seat on the ‘bus which took them home again.
It must be very easy (and would certainly be extremely interesting) to go about forming Public Opinion, I should like to initiate an L.F.P.O., or League for Forming Public Opinion, and not only for forming it, but for putting it, when formed, into direct action. Such a League, even if limited to two hundred members, could by its concerted action exercise a very remarkable effect. Suppose we decided to attack profiteering. We should choose our shop–a hosier’s, let us say. Beginning on Monday morning, a member of the League would go in and ask to be shown some ties. Having spent some time in looking through the stock and selecting a couple, he would ask the price. “Oh, but that’s ridiculous,” he would say. “I couldn’t think of paying that. If I can’t get them cheaper somewhere else, I’ll do without them altogether.” The shopman shrugs his shoulders and puts his ties back again. Perhaps he tells himself contemptuously that he doesn’t cater for that sort of customer. The customer goes out, and half an hour later the second member of the League arrives. This one asks for collars. He is equally indignant at the price, and is equally determined not to wear a collar at all rather than submit to such extortion. Half an hour later the third member comes in. He wants socks…. The fourth member wants ties again… The fifth wants gloves….
Now this is going on, not only all through the day, but all through the week, and for another week after that. Can you not imagine that, after a fortnight of it, the haberdasher begins to feel that “Public Opinion is strongly aroused against profiteering in the hosiery trade”? Is it not possible that the loss of two hundred customers in a fortnight would make him wonder whether a lower price might not bring him in a greater profit? I think it is possible. I do not think he could withstand a Public Opinion so well organized and so relentlessly concentrated.
But such a League would have enormous power in many ways. If you were to write to the editor of a paper complaining that So-and-So’s contributions (mine, if you like) were beneath contempt, the editor would not be seriously concerned about it. Possibly he had a letter the day before saying that So-and-So was beyond all other writers delightful. But if twenty members of the League wrote every week for ten weeks in succession, from two hundred different addresses, saying that So-and-So’s articles were beneath contempt, the editor would be more than human if he did not tell himself that So-and-So had fallen off a little and was obviously losing his hold on the popular imagination. In a little while he would decide that it would be wiser to make a change….
Of course, the League would not attack a writer or any other public man from sheer wilfulness, but it would probably have no difficulty in bringing down over-praised mediocrity to its proper level or in giving a helping hand to unrecognized talent. But unless its president were a man of unerring judgment and remarkable restraint, its sense of power would probably be too much for it, and it would lose its head altogether. Looking round for a suitable president, I can think of nobody but myself. And I am too busy just now.
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