Alan Clark, former defense and trade minister under Margaret Thatcher, son of the art historian Kenneth Clark, and man about town, is what the English call a toff. He lives in a medieval castle in Kent, with peacocks strutting around the gardens. He owns land in Scotland and a fleet of vintage cars. He has a dog named Eva—after Eva Braun. He also holds very right-wing opinions, which he expresses with great panache in private and in his diaries, published in London a year ago. Hailed as the best of its kind since the diaries of “Chips” Channon MP, chronicler of London society in the 1930s, Clark’s book was at the top of the British best-seller lists for many months. Even people who could not possibly agree with Clark’s political views selected his diaries as their favorite book of the year.
Clark’s politics are probably beside the point. It is the waspish tone that appeals, the wicked sense of humor, the unashamed snobbery, the charm, the gossip. Evelyn Waugh’s letters come to mind, or Flashman, the dashing bully in Tom Brown’s Schooldays. It is an acquired and rather English schoolboyish taste.
Here he is, bored with his job as junior minister at the Department of Employment:
It is (naturally and heartbreakingly) a glorious summer morning, and I have drawn back to their maximum extent the sliding windows, thus buggering or—I trust—partially buggering the air conditioning system. There is a tiny balcon, a gutter really, with a very low parapet, below knee height. Certain death on the Victoria Street pavement eight floors below. Sometimes I get a wild urge to relieve my bladder over it, splattingly on the ant-like crowds. Would this get one the sack? Probably not. It would have to be hushed up.
The diaries are, as one might expect, longer on malicious gossip than political philosophy. But you get a good picture of the office politicking round the palace of Westminster, and the casual anti-Semitism of Tory grandees: “Too many jewboys in the Cabinet” was the conclusion at a former home secretary’s dinner party, where Mrs. Thatcher’s government was discussed. And there are numerous entries on Clark’s various sexual enthusiasms: one secretary’s hips, another’s pouting lips, the braless breasts of a young woman met on a train, Mrs. Thatcher’s “attractive—not boney—ankles,” and so on.
Despite the snobbery and the cruelty, Clark is not shy to expose himself as a lustful, ambitious, even somewhat ridiculous homme moyen sensuel. He says what he thinks, and often what many people think, if they had the courage to say so. Clark is romantic but not sentimental, except perhaps about animals. When he tells you that a politician stays in power by “gratifying people’s material aspirations,” but that you must “dress it up a bit with intellectual pretension,” you realize he is a man of few illusions.
Here is Clark, as the roguish fantaisiste, reveling in the trappings of power:
I am in my lovely new spacious office. I have rearranged the furniture so that my desk is up the far end, with a “conference” table three windows down towards the Private Office door—and this I insist is always kept open, being the best way of asserting discipline.
It means that visitors have to cover a good distance as they approach me. Mussolini-like. And is particularly welcome in the case of the diary secretary, who is called Rose. Rose (primly she signs her notes, of which there already have been a good number, “Rosemary”) has hips, and a bust, which are almost too noticeable in someone of only (say) 5 foot 4 1/2 inches.
And finally, at the end of Thatcher’s reign, there is Clark, the careerist, afraid to lose his modest position near the throne:
Is this the end of an era? Uneasily, I feel it may be. Perhaps they’re actually going to get her, the same way the weevils got de Gaulle. Will I, alarmingly soon, be back with the books and the Heritage—but without the cachet?
It is not a particularly attractive self-portrait, but it is an amusing one. So to take Clark’s ideas seriously is perhaps to betray a lack of (English) humor. And yet the political success during the last decade of right-wing ideas in Britain demands an explanation. Maybe Alan Clark is the crackpot many make him out to be, but the study of crackpots can be a useful exercise: the fringes often illuminate the mainstream.
A week before his book came out in the UK last year, I interviewed Clark in his London flat. We sat in his living room, with a bookshelf to my right. Books on the Third Reich and on vintage Rolls-Royces predominated. Clark explained his views on the British fighting spirit, on the efficiency of Hitler’s economy in the 1930s, on the human penchant for violence and ethnic purity, and on the need to defend the British national identity. He also told me that if a policy was in the national interest, the morality of it didn’t interest him in the slightest. This was a little extreme, but still intelligible. It was his passion for the “British identity” that arrested me.
Clark does not define his idea of British identity very clearly. But in the diaries we get glimpses of what he might mean. It is nothing if not nostalgic. Driving along in his vintage Rolls-Royce, he notes that “My car was built in an epoch when the Grand Fleet dominated the world’s oceans. And under the bonnet, in the brass and the copper and the hugely overstrength componentry, there is much trace of marine influence. The factory record shows it going out to India, in Curzon’s name (although I doubt he ever sat at the wheel).”
It is in any case presented by its defenders as a fragile identity under severe threat, by modernity, by Americanism, by European bureaucrats. Clark is given the draft of a speech to be delivered by Mrs. Thatcher: “The Lady is going to make a speech at Bruges on the occasion of some Euro-anniversary or other. The Eurocreeps have written for her a really loathsome text, wallowing in rejection of our own national identity.”
National identity is often used to mean national sovereignty. But this too has nostalgic overtones: it is a lament for absolute sovereignty, when the Grand Fleet ruled the waves. The following passage in Clark’s diary gives us a taste of Clark’s frustration.
I am blighted by the Foreign Office at present. Earlier today a creepy official, who is “in charge” (heaven help us) of South America, came over to brief me ahead of my trip to Chile. All crap about Human Rights. Not one word about the UK interest…
I’m Minister for Trade, for Christ’s sake, what’s the point of keeping an expensive mission in Santiago if they can’t even tell me what to push? When I questioned him, he was evasive on all policy matters other than his own tenacious, Guardianesque obsession.
“Aha but,” soft-spokenly he gloated, “Community policy is” we are but one in twelve, etc.
What does he mean? There is no exclusive “Community Competence” in Foreign Affairs (yet!). I don’t think that there is even a Foreign Affairs Commissioner, is there? This man is exactly the kind of mole who is working away, eighteen hours a day, to extinguish the British national identity.
Now, Clark has a point here. Community policy is indeed a fuzzy affair. The European Union has no democratically elected government, which can formulate a common foreign policy. And it is dangerous to simply hand over the authority of national parliaments to European bureaucrats, if the EU cannot develop democratic institutions of its own. But when the political definition of national identity slips into romantic rhetoric about national culture, a defensive nationalism quickly comes to the fore. And such rhetoric has become increasingly common in Britain.
I was used to seeing this kind of thing in Japan, where a pseudoscience called Nihonjinron, literally the “theory of Japaneseness,” has long been part of the political debate. Scholars and cranks, emperor worshipers and politicians, archaeologists, psychologists, and economists produce an endless stream of articles and books on the unique nature of being Japanese. What lies behind this romantic obsession with national uniqueness, this doctrine of blood and soil, is mainly a problem with America, with Japan’s dependence on the US after the defeat in World War II, and with the messy, materialist liberalism of American popular culture. German idealists reacted in a similarly defensive way to French ideas, when Napoleon and the French Enlightenment threatened to overwhelm the German states. Later, the French developed a blood and soil ideology of their own after their humiliating defeat against Prussia in 1871. But Britain, the bastion of liberalism and national self-confidence, never seemed to have had much need for a theory of Britishness; it had the white man’s burden instead.
And yet, there it was, especially during the 1980s, week after week, in the editorial pages of the Sunday Telegraph, or some of the zanier articles in The Spectator, or Roger Scruton’s right-wing Salisbury Review: There, among paeans to Friedrich von Hayek and the swashbuckling economics of the Reagan-Thatcher era, you would find strident discussions of Britishness (or, more commonly, Englishness), which were no less romantic, and no less defensive than the Nihonjinron I had left behind. Roger Scruton, one of the cleverest thinkers of the New Right, furiously attacked the opponents of fox hunting as destroyers of Englishness. The famous Sunday Telegraph columnist Sir Peregrine Worsthorne argued that Britain’s taking part in the Gulf War was an example of how nations “respond to ancestral voices.” An Oxford don called Jonathan Clark (no relation) argued in the same paper that the British (as well as the European) identity was being swamped by “the real American values (divorce, abortion, homosexuality, consumerism).”
As was the case in Japan, the trouble here was partly the overwhelming influence of America, and American culture. But to judge from much of the theorizing about Britishness, it was mostly against “Europe” that national identity had to be defended. The prospect of European integration, as a symbol perhaps of Albion’s terminal decline, appears to have unhinged many on the right. In an article about history education, Jonathan Clark outlined “the most explosive questions of national identity, origins and purpose. Can Britain integrate into a unified Europe? Are our traditions inconsistent with French or German ones? Is our national identity in danger of fading away altogether, like that of Holland or Denmark?”
The right is of course a slippery concept, for it is not a homogeneous group. Some on the right are classical laissez-faire economists, who wish to abolish all trade barriers and much of the welfare state. Others, like Alan Clark, are economic protectionists, and yet others are not interested in economics at all. Among the people I spoke to, aside from Alan Clark—the historian Maurice Cowling, for example, and Roger Scruton—it was striking how much disagreement there was. Phrases like “absolute nonsense” or “he can’t really believe that” were frequently used of one another.
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.
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.”
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.
October 20, 1994
Preface to second edition of Mill and Liberalism, by Maurice Cowling (Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. xxix. ↩
Mill and Liberalism, p. xxx. ↩
Roger Scruton, The Philosopher on Dover Beach (Manchester: Carcanet, 1990), p. 148. ↩
London: Cassell, 1978. ↩
See, for example, Scruton’s In Defence of the Nation, reprinted in The Philosopher on Dover Beach. ↩
Quoted by Noel Annan in Our Age (Random House, 1991), p. 441. ↩
Lord Hailsham, The Conservative Case (Middlesex: Penguin, 1959), p. 19. ↩
Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 175. ↩
Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, p. 175. ↩