Suffragettes March 19 1913


The debate on the HOME SECRETARY’S treatment of the Suffragist prisoners revealed some extraordinary facts, and will, no doubt, arouse in the mind of the public some curious reflection. These misguided women have used violence in their efforts to force the Government to grant them and their sisters the vote. They have been encouraged to sue such inexcusable means of agitation by Liberal Ministers like Mr. Hon-HOUSE, whose remark on the subject is notorious, and by the traditional Liberal attitude towards such acts of mob violence as the burning of Nottingham Castle and the pulling down of the Hyde Park railings. We have always thought it a deplorable thing to use violent means of reaching a constitutional end; but we are bound to say that there is something almost comical in the way these Liberal Mother Carry’s chickens are now coming to the Home Office to roost. Lord ROBERT CECIL, tells us that the hunger strike is an invention of the Russian Nihilists, whose political martyrdom has so often drawn tears from the eyes of the English Radical, and the Russian people will no doubt be interested to hear that Mr. McKENNA is being advised – and is sympathetically considering – the creation of a Siberia, somewhere within the bounds of the British Empire. “I should be glad,” he said, “if I had the power, but I am not sure these women would not starve themselves on the way out, and I am still less sure that this House would grant me such a power.” We would suggest that it is at least worth trying: there are, as Sir A MARKHAM points out, “St. Helena or some of the Scottish islands” available – and, indeed, many other places, and we do not see any reason to doubt that the Liberal Party would sympathetically consider it, if it were made a question of confidence. Again, we are bound to say as a further preliminary to the discussion of this question that these fanatical and hysterical women, as Mr. McKENNA justly calls them, have been sorely aggravated by the present Government. It was the plain duty of the Government to say to these misguided women the plain truth, which was this: “We have no authority from the country, and we have no intention, to deal with this subject; we are not returned to give you the vote, and we do not intend to give you the vote. We have no proof that the country is behind you; indeed, all the proof available is that the country is against you. Therefore we can do nothing for you.” If the Government had taken this position, these women would have had no grievance, but instead Ministers played with Suffragist affections; they thought they might have their support by the free use of sympathy and vague assurance; Mr. LLOYD GEORGE was particularly profligate in this direction, and the wretched women were “fubbed off and fubbed off and fubbed off” until this lamentable display of fanaticism was aroused.

Mr. McKENNA gave the House a very remarkable account of the devotion of these women to their cause. “These fanatical, hysterical women,” he said, “no more fear death in fighting this battle than a savage in the Sudan feared death when fighting under the banner of the MSHDI.” And again: “Some of them pretend to take the food and surreptitiously starve themselves in order that they may become so weak and exhausted that they cannot be dealt with at all, for no other reason than intention of dying in prison. One of the prisoners quite recently, before going to bed at night sponged herself all over with warm water and lay on the bed without any bedclothes during the whole of a cold night, with not other object that I can conceive except that she wished to catch her death of cold in order to die in prison. Some of them have refused even to take water, and have voluntarily submitted to self-torture, not merely of hunger, but also of thirst.” If this had been a report penned in Siberia by a humane but unsympathetic officer of the EMPERORS, it would no doubt have stirred the Radical Press to its muddiest depths. For our part, while not refusing a tribute to the fanaticism of these misguided women, we are bound to say that as to give them a vote is a national calamity, so also to surrender to their violence and their obstinacy is injurious to our system of justice.

We do not think that the resources of civilisation have been exhausted. Justice and its minions must proceed, as heretofore, dealing with every case on its merits, without fear or favour, and while taking all precautions to save life, giving no ground for the spread of the belief that the law may be brought into contempt. The case of forcible feeding is certainly difficult. We recently saw a statement by the Chief Medical Officer of a great Edinburgh Lunatic Asylum that he and his colleagues had carried on the privatise for years without either cruelty or danger to life. But there is, of course, a difference between a mental patient, usually melancholic and stuporous, who refuses food, and a violent histerical woman who struggles against the process. The practice is certainly repulsive to the mind of the humane, and should only be – and no doubt is – carried out as a last resort and with every medical precaution for safety. The case of Miss LENTON has been a good deal misrepresented if what Mr. McKENNA says is correct, for denies that there is any ground for the suggestion that the food was inserted into the lungs and caused an almost fatal pleurisy. If this is so, there is the less reason for Mr. McKENNA`S unconstitutional interference, and it should be remembered that the forms of law are of extreme importance to the liberty of the subject. If a prisoner is dangerously ill the proper course would surely be to send her to hospital or to release her under remand. It has nevertheless to be said that the circumstances in which the HOME SECRETARY finds himself are extremely difficult, and to a humane man exceedingly painful.



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