Monday, February 09, 2009

Hilaire Belloc was a Liberal MP

Madelaine Bunting had an article in the Guardian today arguing that David Cameron should embrace the "neglected tradition of English radical conservatism" if he wants to attract voters back to the Conservative Party.

I think that Cameron senses this intellectually, even though he is by nature a narrow economic Tory in the Thatcherite mould.

The thinkers Bunting elects to this "red Tory" tradition are William Cobbett, John Ruskin, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.

Cobbett and Ruskin are fascinating figures who could - and should - be claimed by both left and right. Chesterton was a Liberal of sorts, as is seen in his widely quoted:
I still believe in liberalism today as much as I ever did, but, oh, there was a happy time when I believed in liberals.
But Belloc was no Tory: he was even a Liberal MP. Though he became disaffected with the party afterwards, he sat for South Salford between 1906 and the second general election of 1910.

Belloc's most important political book was The Servile State. As Bunting says, in it he argues that both capitalism and socialism enslave the masses to their dictates. We modern Liberal Democrats should read it and reclaim Belloc for ourselves.

Later. Read David Boyle on red Toryism too.


Jennie Rigg said...

My little one loves Hillaire Belloc. Especially Matilda.

Matthew Huntbach said...

I've seen accounts of Chesterton fairly late in his life speaking at meetings of Liberal organisations, he was never a Tory.

I've a great affection for Chesterton and Belloc, and quite agree that Liberals should make an effort to reclaim them. Their memory is largely kept alive these days by Catholics of a conservative persuasion, who emphasise only some aspects of the Chesterbelloc. Economic right-wingers sometimes give a nod to them, but don't look closely at what distributism really entails, because it isn't what they like to suggest it is.

In fact, far from the small-state low-tax image that the economic right suggest they supported, as a glance at the Servile State link you've given shows, they actually supported punitive taxes on large holdings of wealth in order to ensure distribution of real property.

The problem with trying to revive distributism as proposed by Chesterton and Belloc is just this, that it would require quite a dominating and bureaucratic state to redistribute property at the low level they envisaged. Also realistically our current level of organisation does require large enterprises giving economies of scale. Like most people, I like the idea of small-scale individually owned shops at least in theory, but I confess I do most of my shopping in supermarkets.

The other big problem is the anti-semitism issue. As Pope Benedict has just discovered, rehabilitating someone and then saying "oh, I didn't notice the anti-semitism" doesn't work. I've seen the arguments that Chesterton wasn't anti-semitic, but I'm not convinced. Chesterton was actually someone who could say "some of my best friends are Jews" and I think he saw his anti-semitic remarks as something like the schoolboy joshing with his Jewish friends at St Paul's School where he was educated rather than real nastiness. But they look a lot more sinister in the light of what happened after his death in 1936. Belloc's anti-semitism is even more of a problem - but one might understand it better if one realises there's a strong possibility that "Belloc" is a Francification of "Bloch".

Jonathan Calder said...

I have a great weakness for the Chesterbelloc too.

Chesterton was an early opponent of the Eugenic movement and I am confident that his hatred of what he called "Prussianism" would have led him to see through Hitler.