Monthly Archives: June 2019

Desperate measures for desperate times

I have at least one reader — terence patrick hewett  (see him commenting immediately above). He piqued me with this:

I am re-reading G M Frazer and his superb handing of the vernacular still makes me laugh out loud and his historical reseach is superb:

“lord knows I am not a tory and any contact with a whig wants to me to make me have a bath” – or words to that effect.

Hold on! I know that! Wait for it… yes! The opening of Flash for Freedom! Making sure the terminal exclamatory is present and correct.

Here is the original:

I believe it was that sight of that old fool Gladstone, standing in the pouring rain holding his special constable’s truncheon as though it were a bunch of lilies, and looking even more like an unemployed undertaker’s mute than usual, that made me think seriously about going into politics. God knows I’m no Tory, and I never set eyes on a Whig yet without feeling the need of a bath, but I remember thinking as I looked at Gladstone that day: “Well, if that’s one of the bright particular stars of English public life, Flashy my boy, you ought to be at Westminster yourself.”

You wouldn’t blame me; you must have thought the same, often. After all, they’re a contemptible lot, and you’ll agree that I had my full share of the qualities of character necessary in political life. I could lie and dissemble with the best, give short change with a hearty clap on the shoulder, slip out from under long before the blow fell, talk, toady, and turn tail as fast as a Yankee fakir selling patent pills. Mark you, I’ve never been given to interfering in other folks’ affairs if I could help it, so I suppose that would have disqualified me. But for a little while I did think hard about bribing my way to a seat—and the result of it was that I came within an ace of being publicly disgraced, shanghaied, sold as a slave, and God knows what besides. I’ve never seriously considered politics since.

By any comparison, one of the best listings of qualifications for a life in politics. The parallel with Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, just seven years of age when Frazer published that book, is just too exact.

The ground I stand on

Make the pronoun plural, and there’s the title of a very worthy book by John dos Passos.

I came to dos Passos, as many others, through USA. Above my head is the first UK edition of that, bought at excruciating expense from a West End specialist dealer, and — sad to say — somewhat mangled by years of reference. The Ground We Stand On is a trifle disorienting. Where USA is as coruscating a denunciation of American capitalism as the Depression produced, The Ground We Stand On is a stalwart defence of the Jeffersonian bases of American democracy.

Malcolm Cowley, in the NYT Book Review, 9 November 1975, came up with this summary (specifically of dos Passos’s later work):

… there were many things that Dos Passos couldn’t swallow. The first of them was Communism, which he detested with a hatred extending to anything that suggested a halting step in that direction. He detested liberalism, too, especially when it took the form of progressive education. He detested big government and big labor; in fact, he detested bigness in almost everything. Geography was an exception, especially if it was American geography. Despondent as he was about American culture, he was fascinated by the physical vastness and human diversity of the country, and he celebrated both of these, at times, in a fashion that suggests Walt Whitman.

Fair enough. But … as for me?

I’m not a ‘Big Country’ person. Norfolk, Dublin, West Cork, Norf bleedin’ Lunnun, and now ‘old’ York have been my lot.

I joined the Irish Labour Party in 1963, as an act of solidarity with Noël Browne and Jack McQuillan. When life and a student overdraft led me to teaching in England, I logically adhered to the British Labour Party (though I seem to have a party card with the National Association of Labour Student Organisations from 1964). And there, come hell or high-water, Wilson, Foot, Smith, Blair, Brown, Miliband and now Corbyn, I have stuck. At some personal Remainer-ist trauma, I even crossed the Labour box in the recent EU election.

I’ve tried to reconcile my personal ideology many times. All I can say is I belong somewhere between ideal socialism, and the pragmatism of Harold Wilson — perhaps that’s the sweet spot occupied by the likes of Gordon Brown. My agent in a parliamentary campaign (c.1974) was driving us to an engagement and commented:

I’ve been trying to work you out. I’d say you were an old-fashioned Tribune-ite.

Since Tribune did a part-column on that campaign, and termed me an unapologetic socialist, I’d happily agree.

In the same frame, my favourite prospective parliamentary candidate describes herself as:

A Clause 4 socialist by Clause 1 means.

Understandably, the Corbynites of her Executive Committee are sworn to take her down.

Per ardua ad aspera

Anyhoo, all that brought me to juxtaposing two very opposite sources.

The first, and most immediate, is Robert Saunders’ essay, The Closing of the conservative Mind, in the current New Statesman. Observe the small second  ‘c’. His starting point is:

A party that once set the agenda of British politics – birthing such big ideas as “Tory democracy”, “One Nation” and “the property-owning democracy” – seems worn out intellectually. A tradition that was once cautious of change – that distrusted what the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott called “the jump-to-glory style of politics” – rushes eagerly towards the unknown; a party that once preached scepticism calls its disciples to “believe in Brexit”, and to the conduct of policy “by faith alone”.

British Conservatism has broken with three of its most important traditions. It has stopped thinking; it has stopped “conserving”; and it has lost its suspicion of ideology. Historically, the Conservative Party has been a party of ideas, but not of ideology. Today, that relationship has been reversed: a party in thrall to ideology is reduced to boardroom banalities and half-remembered hymns to a Thatcherite past. Like an ageing Eighties tribute band, the party flubs wearily through the same tired playlist, barely noticing that the stadiums are empty, the hairstyles ludicrous and the fans long departed. In this sense, its Brexit woes are only the manifestation of a deeper problem: the closing of the Conservative mind.

We now have a capital for ‘Conservative’.

I can relate to all of that. I grew up in (and against) the post-War Daily Express state-of-mind. Say what one will against the Express, it was once the drum-major of Toryism for the ‘lower orders’: Beaverbrook was unrepentant in telling the 1948 Royal Commission on the Press:

I ran the paper purely for propaganda, and with no other purpose….[Empire free trade] and an Empire Customs Union, Empire unity for the purpose of securing peace, and if necessary for making war. I look at it as a purely propagandist project.

Even then he distinguished news from opinion:

The policy is that there shall be no propaganda in the news. There is a strong, stern rule, and the most tremendous attempt . . . to carry the rule into effect.

Something there, the Daily Telegraph, which once aspired to be ‘a newspaper of record’, could well recall.

The second point I’d want to make was implied by a passing reference in Saunders’ piece:

If, as Hayek suggested, political debate is won by “second-hand dealers in ideas”, Conservatism is bringing perilously little to the market.

By coincidence I had just been reading Hayek’s Why I am Not a Conservative, pages 517–533 of The Constitution of Liberty, though that extract is widely quoted on its own. Make a Venn-diagram from the sources named above  — George MacDonald Frazer, dos Passos, Jefferson et al. — and they find their commonality in one paragraph of Hayek:

To confess one’s self an Old Whig does not mean, of course, that one wants to go back to where we were at the end of the seventeenth century. It has been one of the purposes of this book to show that the doctrines then first stated continued to grow and develop until about seventy or eighty years ago, even though they were no longer the chief aim of a distinct party. We have since learned much that should enable us to restate them in a more satisfactory and effective form. But, though they require restatement in the light of our present knowledge, the basic principles are still those of the Old Whigs. True, the later history of the party that bore that name has made some historians doubt where there was a distinct body of Whig principles; but I can but agree with Lord Acton that, though some of “the patriarchs of the doctrine were the most infamous of men, the notion of a higher law above municipal codes, with which Whiggism began, is the supreme achievement of Englishmen and their bequest to the nation”—and, we may add, to the world. It is the doctrine which is at the basis of the common tradition of the Anglo-Saxon countries. It is the doctrine from which Continental liberalism took what is valuable in it. It is the doctrine on which the American system of government is based. In its pure form it is represented in the United States, not by the radicalism of Jefferson, nor by the conservatism of Hamilton or even of John Adams, but by the ideas of James Madison, the “father of the Constitution.”

Madison and federalism

There are worse ideological places to land on, particularly at this moment, than Madison.

Above all, Madison was a federalist — believing the embryo ex-colonies needed a central government. here we refer to the Federalist Papers, especially #9 (which was Hamilton’s) and #10 (which was Madison’s follow-up).

Madison accepts ‘factions’ as inevitable in a free society. If there had to be one Madisonian prescription which addresses our present political mire, here it is:

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. Let me add that it is the great desideratum by which this form of government can be rescued from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored, and be recommended to the esteem and adoption of mankind.

What ‘remainer’ (like myself) could deny the efficacy of denying sinister views by regular vote?


Something went wrong in Toryism when it became the plaything of a Little Englander groupule. I am old enough to remember that the Tories had half Scotland’s MPs and 50+% of the popular vote in 1955, but none in 1997 — entirely connected to the Thatcher government using Scotland as the training ground for the Poll Tax.

The present Tory Party (perhaps all 130,000 of them, with popular support of — let’s be generous — 20% of the electorate) is enstooling a chosen satrap. Clearly the Telegraph, as the propaganda sheet for its ‘faction’, has already decreed who that should be. This ‘faction’  governs the UK by buying the adherence of the DUP (which itself  ‘represents’ a third of the Northern Irish electorate). It all seems horribly temporary.

So I’m with Madison. This ‘faction’ has sacrifice[d] to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens.

When we arrive at such a political nadir, ‘opposition’ rather than any ideological ‘purity’ is required.

I continue to hope — but under its present ‘tankie’ leadership cannot be too assured — that the change could come from the Labour Party. ‘Pragmatism’, but of course.

Even so, as I watched the returns for the Borough elections in 2014, I found myself muttering to an equally-long-in-the-tooth member of the ‘sane’ tendency:

Y’know, if I were starting again in politics, I could easily be Green.


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