• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Action Anglaise

Scruton is a philosopher whose writing on aesthetics has been justly praised. In 1982, he started The Salisbury Review, a conservative journal described by Maurice Cowling as “the nearest intellectually reputable thing that England has had to the authoritarian Conservatism which de Maistre, in a Christian, and Maurras in a post-Christian, mode had propagated in France.”1 Maurice Cowling is a distinguished conservative historian, who was a fellow of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, until his retirement last year. Scruton is a former fellow of the college, and collectively the Peterhouse conservatives are known as the Peterhouse Right. I shall come back to their antecedents later. For the time being it is enough to know that, in the words of Hugh Trevor-Roper, a former master of that college, “what holds them together is a detestation of what they call liberalism.”

As always in Britain, there is an element of class involved. Even though the so-called new right came onto the scene in the 1970s to launch an attack on left-wing orthodoxies, the worst vitriol was reserved for patricians in the Tory Party, “wets” with bleeding hearts, who were supposedly letting the country go to the dogs. Thinkers of the new right, of whom few were born into the upper class, had contempt for upper-class liberals—politicians such as Sir Ian Gilmour, the former owner of The Spectator. They were seen as members of a ruling class that refused to rule. What the more gentlemanly Tories saw as tolerance and liberalism, Mrs. Thatcher and some of her supporters regarded as flabbiness and decadence. Alan Clark is of this opinion too. Much right-wing thinking, including Clark’s, is filled with nostalgia for a class that knew how to rule. In Cowling’s words, the (Peterhouse) right “wish elites and establishments to eschew guilt and self-doubt, to perform the duties of their stations…”2 The British national identity, however it is defined, is not only nostalgic, but deeply class-conscious too.

One problem for the theorists of Britishness is that Britain, or the United Kingdom, is a political construction, just as a European Federation would be. Since the English, the Scottish, the Northern Irish, and the Welsh all have distinct cultures, blood and soil have nothing much to do with it. This is why romantic British conservatism has to rely on Englishness instead. But since Englishness is too vague a concept to form a coherent political philosophy, the theory of Englishness tends to depend mostly on poetry and literature. The recently published Faber Book of Conservatism, edited by Kenneth Baker, the former chairman of the Conservative Party, is a case in point. It offers some theory—by Michael Oakeshott, Adam Smith, even, God help us, John Major—and a great deal of sentimental brooding about England. Walter Bagehot, for example, broods about Shakespeare, who supposedly saw England “with its green fields, and its long hedgerows,” and so on, as “a great unity, a great religious object…” Then there is a poem by Alfred Austin, entitled Why England is Conservative. Its last lines are:

The spirit of our fathers is not quelled.
With weapons valid even as those they bore,…
So we disdain, as they disdained of yore,
The foreign froth that foams against our shore.
Only by its white cliffs to be repelled!

Still in the same book is Enoch Powell, the Tory politician, whose career in Parliament floundered after delivering a blood-curdling speech against (colored) immigration in 1967. Powell is one of the truly learned romantics of the British right, filled with loathing for America, a federal Europe, or anything else that might water down his idea of Britain. Alan Clark describes him as one of those “great men, of massive authority and vision” who “find themselves disqualified by change of circumstance and their own transient misjudgments.” Here is Powell, musing to the Royal Society of St. George in 1964 about the ancient tombs in English village churches. He gazes into the brass and stone eyes of the Britons buried there and rehearses to himself the following lines: “Tell us what it is that binds us together; show us the clue that leads us through a thousand years; whisper to us the secret of this charmed life of England, that we in our time may know how to hold it fast.”

Much of Mrs. Thatcher’s rhetoric was encrusted with this kind of imagery, so her strident nationalism attracted a variety of right-wing romantics. And sure enough, there she is, on the cover of The Faber Book of Conservatism, looking rather like a pugnacious fox terrier, surrounded by her ministers, including the editor of the book. Conservation of the status quo, however, was not what she was about. Indeed, I think her nationalist tone helped her to change Britain, perhaps more radically than a Labour prime minister would have been able to do. She did much to replace birth as a mark of distinction with money. She was hostile toward the hierarchies of such national institutions as the Church of England, the ancient universities, and the legal profession. She enjoyed frosty relations with the Queen. She was anti-establishment, in the sense that, like the new right, she saw the British Establishment as hopelessly liberal and effete.

And now that she is gone, the new right is floundering, bereft of a symbol to rally round. Its representatives in Parliament today—the “Tory rebels”—continue the fight to keep “Europe” offshore. They form a minority, but they make a great deal of noise, and threaten to split the Tory Party. The current leader of the young defenders of British identity is a cabinet minister and former Peterhouse man named Michael Portillo—his father fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. The nostalgia for a real ruling class and the cult of Britishness are certainly still in evidence, and not just in the morbid taste for ersatz tradition in architecture and Olde England television serials. It often pops up in strange ways. When the run of defeats suffered by the national cricket team, in India of all places, added to the recessionary gloom of 1992, long articles appeared on newspaper pages normally reserved for political commentary, analyzing the sporting failure as a matter of national decadence. The rot, one was told, set in because the wrong class—the gruff sergeant majors, the provincial, lower-middle class, the very class, ironically, from which Thatcher and many of her voters sprang—was running the national game, and, by implication, the country. Simon Heffer, a young journalist close to the Tory rebels, wrote in the Evening Standard that a “commanding officer” was needed to sort out the lower ranks, the kind of gentleman, who liked “playing proper games, and drinking pink gins and finding pigs to stick in [his] spare time.”

Alan Clark is precisely such a figure. Or at least it is the image he likes to project. If he were French, one might call Clark a Gaullist. But since Britain has no real right-wing-strongman-nationalist-protectionist tradition, apart from the absurd Sir Oswald Mosley and his union of fascist blackshirts, one would have to call him a soft Mosleyite, or a hard Thatcherite, or a Powellite without the latter’s laissez-faire economics. Clark’s ideas on economic nationalism exude a faint whiff of the blackshirt—though made of the finest silk, of course.

Some months before his diaries came out in the UK, he gave a lecture on the state of Britain, which was published in the London Times. In it, he praised “the wonderful spirit” of the British people, still to be found in soccer stadiums and parachute regiments. But he excoriated the greed of businessmen, and he proposed to protect British industry from foreign competition as a way for the British people to “re-capture their former greatness.”

This would not have amused Mrs. Thatcher, but, as I said, she attracted many supporters who liked her patriotic Poujadism, without necessarily liking her economic policies, or even her Conservative Party. Clark, however, always aspired to the status of a Tory toff, which was also at one point Mosley’s ambition, before he moved on to socialism, thence to national socialism, and finally to the well-deserved obscurity of a pleasant little palace near Paris.

In background and demeanor Clark has much in common with Mosley. He is handsome, charming, and a legendary womanizer, even if his tally of conquests might not quite match the prodigious score racked up by Sir Oswald in his prime. The BBC broadcast a fascinating documentary on Clark’s life, entitled Love Tory, in which his wife, Jane, related among other things how they were joined on their honey-moon by Clark’s teen-age girlfriend. And earlier this year an outraged man named Harkess turned up from South Africa with a riding crop threatening to thrash Clark for having bedded not only Mrs. Harkess but their daughter as well. How Sir Oswald would have relished it. It is just the sort of thing he might have done himself.

Although not an aristocrat like Mosley (sixth Baronet), Clark is ostentatiously upper class. But there is something stagey about his classiness, something Merchant and Ivoryish. His disdain for tradesmen and the bourgeoisie sits oddly in a man whose family fortune was made entirely in industry (textiles). His contempt, shared by Mrs. Thatcher, for liberal members of the old elite, is not incompatible with his status as a landowner of recent vintage. It is as though the game was already up, when the Clarks arrived to collect their spoils. And he resents this.

Clark’s best book, The Donkeys, is about incompetent British generals in World War I sending millions of young men to their slaughter. His thesis that the British people were betrayed by their leaders is deeply felt. It still colors his political attitudes. He feels that Britain’s greatness was almost lost in the trenches of Flanders. In fits of nostalgia, he turns back again and again in his diaries to that period:

There’s nothing quite like a manicured Gloucestershire lawn in high summer, with dark dark trees on the boundary, and rooks cawing. One feels a long way from the sea and, almost, from the century. It is one of the few ambiances where I can be carried back to the summer of 1914, or worse, the year following when the telegrams started to arrive thick and fast, pedalled up the drives of the Great Houses by sly sideways-looking postmen, and Kipling lost his only son at Loos.

What was almost lost in 1914, was, in Clark’s opinion, finally finished off by Winston Churchill’s refusal to make peace with Hitler in 1941. The point about Churchill is somewhat of a trademark of the new right, which is on the whole more sympathetic to Chamberlain’s appeasement than Churchill’s “war of moral indignation.” The phrase is Maurice Cowling’s. He wrote in the Sunday Telegraph (August 12, 1989) that it “is wrong to assume that a dominant Germany would have been more intolerable to Britain than the Soviet Union was to become, or that British politicians had a duty to risk British lives to prevent Hitler from behaving intolerably against Germans and others.” By not interfering with Hitler’s ambitions, the argument goes, Britain would have kept its empire, its independence from the US, its immunity to socialism, in short its greatness.

  1. 1

    Preface to second edition of Mill and Liberalism, by Maurice Cowling (Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. xxix.

  2. 2

    Mill and Liberalism, p. xxx.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print