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Action Anglaise

The case was made again a year or so ago by the young conservative historian John Charmley in his book Churchill: The End of Glory. And it was Alan Clark’s praise of this book in the Times that helped to make it a best seller in Britain. At the end of the Second World War, Clark wrote, Britain had gone bust, its closed export markets in the empire were dismantled, and “the old social order had gone forever.” The old social order represents for the right what the ancien régime did for the Action Française earlier in this century. Order, almost any order, but especially one which can be presented as natural, or native, is preferred to the specter of chaos. Roger Scruton told me he was so shocked by the student rebellion in Paris in 1968 that he “took the side of the police.”

Scruton, like many romantics, takes an aesthetic view of politics, hence the love of order. In an essay on the conservative art critic Peter Fuller, Scruton wrote that Fuller “recognizes that aesthetic experience is meaningless without evaluation, that evaluation means discrimination, and that discrimination breeds order, hierarchy and a respect for the past…Fuller’s repeated and effective invocations of landscape and the ‘organic community’ lying dormant within it show the place where his aesthetics and his politics are joined, in a seam that is as fragile as it is carefully woven.”3 Clark, I believe, invoked the manicured Gloucestershire lawns in the same spirit.

Clark’s ideal of Britain, at any rate, peaked in 1915, when the “habitual bearing, stoicism, self-sacrifice, sense of ‘fair play’; the whole tenue of the English upper class was in place and unquestioned, looked up to and copied everywhere. Now look at us—and them!” This outburst was provoked by attending Harold Macmillan’s memorial service at Westminster Abbey. It ends thus: “I nostalgicised for government by the upper class; which is what I thought it would be—the whole thing run by the OE [Old Etonian] mafia—when first I wanted to get in in 1964…” He was to be disappointed. As Macmillan himself remarked about Mrs. Thatcher’s cabinet: “More Old Estonians than Old Etonians.”

Clark’s other historical tie is an unhealthy admiration for the Führerprinzip. His fawning worship of Mrs. Thatcher is indeed extraordinary: “I start with the premise that the Prime Minister is everything [his italics]: what diminishes or threatens her diminishes or threatens the country—just as the country is itself enhanced by whatever does so for her authority and freedom.” This is odd language for a British parliamentarian. A meeting with Mrs. Thatcher, described in his diaries, ends like this: “At the end, when she spoke of her determination to go on, and her blue eyes flashed, I got a full dose of personality compulsion, something of the Führer Kontakt.” Forget economics, it was her will of iron, her knack of projecting a sense of power, that made men like Clark fall at her feet.

I asked Clark whether he could imagine a right-wing coup in Britain, to stop the rot, to save the nation from “Europe.” He answered: “The ingredients are there for a right-wing coup, politically—ethnic cleansing always has an appeal….” Yes, he said, Britain could be self-sufficient, with full employment. This would be painful at first, but it could be achieved, if the people were sufficiently frightened to revolt, frightened by “erosion of material standards, deference to minorities, all those things that irritate the majority.” Yes, “aggressive nationalism” would be an element in this. And yes, Clark realized that “this kind of thinking has been around for a long time, and its credentials are not altogether good.” Still, he said, Hitler and Schacht did it in the 1930s: “The Third Reich got people back to work. And they really didn’t need all that horsing around with the Wehrmacht and the SS. The Holocaust was completely unnecessary.”

Of course, when an Austrian or German politician talks like this, as the Austrian MP Jorg Haider did two years ago, it makes headlines throughout the world, but when it’s a British politician, he is regarded as a harmless eccentric. This is partly to do with history: the benighted Mosley was the only significant British contribution to European fascism, and despite some early success in the slums of London and some of the grander country houses, he never came close to taking power. It also has something to do with the electoral system. Without proportional representation, there is no room for radical movements to grow. The two main parties absorb radicalism like sponges. This is why there is no Jean-Marie Le Pen in Britain. He would have to be a Tory, and end up like Enoch Powell or Alan Clark.

But the romanticism of the new right serves a purpose, which needs to be brought out. British conservatives often express a disdain for political ideas, as opposed to practical politics. The father of modern British conservative philosophy, Michael Oakeshott, despised “rationalists” and “rationalism.” One of the young right-wing Tory rebels, Edward Leigh MP, told me that “unlike Americans, British politicians are not driven intellectually, but by instincts and historical tides.”

Something akin to an intellectual right-wing ideology exists nonetheless. It is provided by the Peterhouse Right. By no means everyone connected to the college is conservative or right wing. But Peterhouse’s reputation as a congenial place for right-wing thinkers began in the 1930s. The tone was set by the historian Herbert Butterfield, whose brand of anti-liberal conservatism made him sympathetic to Nazi Germany. As late as 1943, he was still advocating a separate peace with Hitler. Peterhouse colleagues, such as Sir Ernest Barker, had similar views. Barker lectured in Germany before the war, comparing Hitler to Oliver Cromwell, in a wholly positive sense. One of Butterfield’s protégés was Maurice Cowling, who shared his mentor’s love of academic intrigue. And Cowling, for his part, influenced many new right thinkers. The journalist Peregrine Worsthorne, the politician Michael Portillo, and the scholars Roger Scruton and Jonathan Clark are among the better known.

Despite a distinct whiff of high table camp, the Peterhouse Right is serious and, to the extent that intellectual ideas count in Britain, influential. It is concerned with cultural conservatism more than libertarian economics, for which some of the Peterhouse thinkers feel a degree of distaste. Its enemy is not so much Marxism, for which it has a sneaking fellow-radical sympathy, as “the liberal establishment”: the pinkish BBC, politically correct dons, left-of-center newspapers, social workers, race relations officials, modernist architects, and avant-garde artists.

Maurice Cowling rather enjoys his reputation as a monster. Malice, in his view, is a virtue. He professes to believe in nothing, yet stresses the need for dogma. Dogma, which can vary according to time and place, is useful to enforce “moral cohesion.” “Popular instincts” must be respected for the same reasons. In his book Mill and Liberalism, Cowling writes:

A doctrine which is imposed in the first place by force may, with the passage of the generations, come to be accepted without strain: indeed, in some circumstances there is no other way of getting an opinion (even a rational one) accepted.

Cowling’s Peterhouse was a rather harsh place, where words like “sneering” and “vile” were used, not least by him, as terms of approval. He told me he supported the Conservative Party because “it provides a public and institutional way of sneering at improvement, liberalism, all that sort of thing.” What about religion, I asked. Did he believe…?

I already told you,” he said, “I believe in nothing.”

Yes, but…

Cowling laughed: “People who know me well say I line up behind Christianity, because I hate liberalism so much.”

Here he sounds like Charles Maurras, the founder of Action Française. Although Maurras was not himself a believer, he supported the Catholic Church, because it represented authority, anti-liberalism, and most important of all, France. The Peterhouse Right also resembles the Action Française, in that it is more like a literary salon, with its arcane rituals and its love of dressing up, than like a political action group.

One reason Cowling and the Peterhouse Right loathe liberalism is that they sneer at the illusion of human goodness. Humans are “vile,” and thus authority and dogma are necessary instruments to preserve morally cohesive national communities and keep human nature under control. The social order cannot be argued with; it must be accepted without quetion. In 1978 Cowling wrote an essay, partly reprinted in The Faber Book of Conservatism, in which he argued that it is best “to agree that the Conservative conception of social structure not only assumes that marked inequalities are inevitable but also declines to justify them because their inevitability makes justification unnecessary.”

This essay, originally published in Conservative Essays, is worth reading in full, because it offers the most lucid attack on liberalism I have come across in Britain. Freedom, Cowling explains, is only an abstraction:

It is not freedom that Conservatives want; what they want is the sort of freedom that will maintain existing inequalities or restore lost ones, so far as political action can do this. And this is wanted not only by those who benefit from inequalities of wealth, rank and education but also by the enormous numbers who, while not partaking in the benefits, recognize that inequalities exist and, in some obscure sense, assume that they ought to. They assume, that is to say, that a nation has to be stratified and that stratification entails privilege; and they assume this not as a matter of principle but because it is something to which they are accustomed.4

This, then, is the Peterhouse description of national identity, stripped of its romantic flummery, Britishness without the hedgerows and the brass tombs. “The only permanent claims,” writes Cowling in the same essay, “are those which arise from the national interest defined in terms of sovereignty, historic continuity and national identity, and beyond these no other focus of loyalty is either necessary or desirable.”

Now why should anybody believe this? The New Right answer is that people will only be convinced that the social order they live in is natural, if the ancestral tombs, the flags—in short, the romantic flummery—are actively promoted. And so the nation must be deified, must, in Shakespeare’s words, become “a great religious object.” What cannot be questioned will be worshiped. The old social order, then, must be enveloped in a national myth, for people to accept their station, however humble. Roger Scruton writes about the necessity for national membership “by immersion,” to foster natural loyalty to “the dead and the unborn.”5 The liberal state, he argues, “has no home, and generates no loyalty towards generations which, being either dead or unborn, form no part of the contract.” Cowling believes that ideally the church as well as historiography should function as canons of national dogma. As he once said about his own profession: “Historical writing is an instrument of doctrine whatever historians may imagine.”6 It is why he regrets not only Churchill’s blow to the national identity by going to war with Hitler, but also the Catholic Emancipation of 1829, when Catholics were given the right to vote, and the Glorious Revolution, when the divine right of dynastic succession was broken.

It might seem ironic in this light that some of the fiercest British right-wingers, such as the journalist and popular historian Paul Johnson, are Roman Catholics. But since Catholicism is far more rigorous in its dogma than Anglicanism, this is not really surprising. Lack of rigor is precisely what Cowling, and others, hold against the present-day Anglican church.

The British myth, the politics of the hedgerows, so to speak, has found its most articulate evangelist in Roger Scruton, particularly in his newspaper articles. His philosophy is more concerned with the loss of spiritual meaning in modern life. But the two are connected. For it is the English (or British) identity that is supposed to give political life its meaning, and is presently thought to be under threat. Scruton’s Salisbury Review was founded in 1983, “to engage with those deeper and more elusive areas of enquiry which had been of such consuming interest to the theorists of socialism.”

Some of the contributions to the Salisbury Review mock left-wing and other pieties: New Age conferences, extreme views on feminism, race relations, or multiculturalism. But much of the magazine is concerned with national mythology. An editorial in the issue of March 1993, which bears the mark of Scruton’s style, has this to say about “our root institutions”: “Their authority is above the social contract, inherited without discussion and imposed without consent. Their origin is sacred. The monarchy and the common law have been as closely tied as the Church of England to the syntax of the Book of Common Prayer and the language of the King James Bible. The idea of England is a religious idea.” But all this is doomed “as our legal system is colonised by that of Europe.” And it “is difficult to accept that we live in a country whose Monarch is merely a well-paid citizen, whose Church is hostage to secular causes, and whose law is dictated by foreign bureaucrats.”

Here we arrive at almost exactly the same place as the Nihonjinron theorists in Japan, who insist that the emperor should be reinstated as the sacred head of state, that foreigners (read Americans) have snuffed out the national identity by forcing the emperor to renounce his divinity, and that rice cannot be imported because it is the sacred heart of the Japanese identity. It is a basic tenet of liberalism that people are meant to be loyal to man-made institutions, not to ancestral voices, calling from the sacred soil. But in Scruton’s vision, “root institutions” are not there to safeguard our liberty or our rights, but to give us…national identity. In The Meaning of Conservatism (1981), reprinted in The Faber Book of Conservatism, he writes that the monarch enables his or her subjects to “perceive society not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself.”

Scruton’s argument on the connection between church and state is a complicated one. He quotes with approval Lord Hailsham’s view that “there can be no genuine conservatism which is not founded upon a religious view of the basis of civil obligation, and there can be no true religion where the basis of civil obligation is treated as purely secular.”7 But the state itself should, in Scruton’s view, be secular. It is the nation, the Gemeinschaft, the social bonds that support the state, that should be sacred. For the holiness of the community legitimizes the political order. Without it, Scruton thinks, even the liberal state will collapse. As he says: “It seems then that the withdrawal of religious doctrine does, after all, bring about a withering in transcendent social bonds.”8 Since in Scruton’s opinion, liberal priests have eroded the authority of the Church of England, Anglicanism can no longer hold the national community together. And so, he concludes, “The restoration of the Church may well become a serious political cause.”9

Liberal Anglicans, then, are the enemies of the new right, just as Marxists are, or “Europe.” Anything that threatens to change the social order, violates the sacred community, the religious idea of England, the national identity. This is where Scruton, Cowling, and Alan Clark, whatever their differences, are fundamentally in agreement.

It was an odd experience to listen to Scruton talk in his cottage, deep in the English countryside (though very close to a Japanese automobile plant), about spiritual poverty, modern anomie, and the threat posed to deeper values by material prosperity. It was odd for several reasons. First, because his endorsement of Hayek’s market economics clashed with his worry that we are too rich. He is alarmed by the European Community, “partly because of its promise of escalating prosperity. People are too rich. It must be stopped.” Western societies, he believes, “are paying the price of their success. The incredible level of our prosperity and security means that we postpone confronting the real issues, such as death.” Scruton sits right on the faultline that runs through much conservative thought: the rugged individualism and material incentives of free-market economics weaken the very things that cultural conservatives stand for: Gemeinschaft, based on unquestioned, inherited values, as opposed to Gesellschaft, based on contract and self-interest. It is a particularly British, or perhaps Anglo-American predicament, since the European romantic right, in France especially, is more inclined toward economic nationalism.

Oakeshott believed that British conservatism had nothing in common with its continental counterparts. And yet the more Scruton talks about Englishness, the more un-English he sounds. He quotes Nietzsche to illustrate his points about soulless modern man. Scores of Wagner operas are piled up on his piano. His favorite reading as a student at Oxford was Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. Again, I was reminded of the Nihonjinron intellectuals in Japan, who are equally fond of Spengler and the Wagnerian Romantics. And so is Enoch Powell, who soaked up the German idealists through his reading of Carlyle. And Cowling’s defense of dogma and national myth, as a tool of social control, owes much to Joseph de Maistre, as well as Maurras.

The romantic right, like the left, are really an international tribe, whose national differences are a matter of style rather than substance. They are bound together by a fear of disorder, of change, of uncertainty. As Scruton put it to me: “Once you start putting everything in question, nothing makes sense, including the question.” And this is exactly what they fear is happening in Britain, as it happened before in France, Japan, and Germany, albeit under far more critical circumstances, after their respective defeats in war. The monarchy is being put in question. Indeed, its prestige is so low that its very continuity is questioned. The Church of England has tried to keep up with the times by appointing women priests and filling its increasingly empty churches with multicultural rock music. (At least one cabinet minister, as well as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph, has already converted to Roman Catholicism in response.) And a greater familiarity with Europe has led to criticism of the secretive, clubby way in which Britain is still being governed. The Euro-skeptics warn that “Europe” will destroy British sovereignty. Members of the romantic right like to argue that this will make Britain less democratic. What I suspect they really fear is that it will make Britain more so.

  1. 3

    Roger Scruton, The Philosopher on Dover Beach (Manchester: Carcanet, 1990), p. 148.

  2. 4

    London: Cassell, 1978.

  3. 5

    See, for example, Scruton’s In Defence of the Nation, reprinted in The Philosopher on Dover Beach.

  4. 6

    Quoted by Noel Annan in Our Age (Random House, 1991), p. 441.

  5. 7

    Lord Hailsham, The Conservative Case (Middlesex: Penguin, 1959), p. 19.

  6. 8

    Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 175.

  7. 9

    Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, p. 175.

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