As I Was Saying/Essay XVII

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Essay XVI As I Was Saying
Essay XVII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XVIII



Essay XVII: About Political Creeds

As I am myself a Liberal without any Liberal Party; a Little-Englander in the sense that I care more about England than about Newfoundland or Tasmania; a Radical in all my instincts in the general social quarrels of our plutocracy; an ex-Socialist who is still enough of a Socialist to be a sort of revolutionist, and to regret that the Socialists have become as respectable as the Prime Minister; a Distributist who denies that any of the nineteenth-century parties of squires and merchants had the remotest notion of what was wrong with the nineteenth century, especially in England (for what was wrong was the absence of peasants, who are equally opposed to merchants and squires)--in short, since I am a disreputable demagogic sort of person, holding that most reforms are too slow rather than too fast-- from all this it will be easily and naturally deduced that my favourite politician is Mr. Baldwin. The deduction may not be swift and obvious; but it is sound. When I say my favourite politician, I mean in so far as any politician can be anybody's favourite. I do not take the taste with tremendous solemnity; because our politicians do not control our politics. Even the best of them are forced to a continuous compromise by the pressure of private interests, which are also public monopolies; and it is these commercial monopolies that rule the State. But if I were in practical politics (which God forbid), and if they involved me in that particular problem of party allegiance, I should support Mr. Baldwin for all I was worth, or rather for all he is worth--which is not a little. I should support him even though I disagree with him; on the ground that at least he is more liberal than the Liberals, more social than the Socialists, and immeasurably more patriotic than the Imperialists. I should support him through thick and thin; for I think the opposing theories are pretty thin and the impudence a bit thick. I should support him especially against his loyal and devoted followers.

But I value him very specially for this: that I do think he is the one politician alive who has some inner understanding of the English people. They are exceedingly difficult to understand. So far from being merely bluff and sturdy, as they used to imagine, they are by far the most subtle and complex of all the great nations of Christendom. Since the fall of the Stuarts, with the beginning of the eighteenth century, their system has worked with a quite abnormal sort of anonymity and evasiveness. At that date they set up a king who was not allowed to govern anything and an aristocracy which in reality governed everything, but which went on saying louder and louder that it governed nothing and was not an aristocracy at all. All our chief official figures are unofficial; they are in that sense outsiders. The Prime Minister is an outsider, for he is unknown to the British Constitution. The Speaker is so called because he is the one Member who never speaks. The Cabinet carries with it the suggestion of a secret meeting; or men hiding in a corner, or even locked up in a box. For the only lawful power was in the Privy Council, which never meets at all. The power has passed to something much privier than a Privy Council. These are only instances taken at random; these and a thousand other things illustrate the strange quality I have mentioned; the quality of evasiveness; we might say of escape. And the most singular form of it is that to which I have already referred, the curious anonymity of aristocracy. For two centuries, and at least up to very lately, England has been a State of a special historical type. It was a type very common in mercantile and seafaring States; as in the Republic of Venice and the Republic of Holland. One feature of these Republics was that they were not republican-- in the modern sense of democratic. But the feature of England was more odd and unique. It was, in effect, that aristocrats could do anything except call themselves aristocrats. They must be very careful only to call themselves gentlemen. It may seem a very vague and irrational understanding, but upon that understanding rested the safety of a vast and often victorious system; and, for some time at least, the greatness of England.

Now when the quarrel began about the Black-shirts and the Red Peril in England, Mr. Baldwin said one very profound and penetrating thing. Nobody else said it; and nobody seems to have taken any particular notice of it. What he said was, in substance, this, or words to the same effect. Whatever you may think about rival theories or systems, the fact will remain that Communists generally are poor men and Fascists generally are not. He was right; and it is unfortunately the fact, in England, that a fight between them will seem to be simply a fight of rich men as such against poor men as such. And _that_ is precisely the one thing that the policy of a popular gentry must avoid as a matter of life and death. Cynically speaking, it may have any amount of general injustice, in the impersonal pressure of one economic class upon another. But if you can actually take a snapshot of the squire kicking the poacher, if you can prove the practical occurrence of a banker bashing a beggar on the head--then you explode the whole generous fiction on which the popularity of a gentry reposes. Anybody who does not understand that does not understand the English people; and Mr. Baldwin does.

It is not so with the same factions of Fascists and Communists on the Continent. For on the Continent the traditions of a conflict of ideas have come down continuously from the Crusades and the religious wars and the wars of the French Revolution. And the intellectual vision, even the enemy's intellectual vision, is often vivid enough to make men forget the mere facts of wealth and poverty. When a Crusader fought with a Saracen, it might happen that the Crusader was a poor knight or squire driven to the wars by sheer poverty and the other a great Sheik with whole processions of camels and concubines. Or it might equally happen that the Crusader was a rich and powerful baron and the Moslem a poor and ragged Bedouin. But it was in the whole temper of the time to think of it first as a fight between Christendom and Islam. So, even in England, as late as the genuine struggle of Roundheads and Cavaliers, the Cavalier might be a great noble like Newcastle, or he might be a nameless yeoman from loyal Hereford or Cornwall. The Roundhead might be a tinker like Bunyan, though he was quite as likely to be a Puritan aristocrat rich with the abbey lands, or a wealthy London merchant. But there remained some true feeling that it was the anointed King against the Parliament--or the Saints. So in Europe still, whatever be the facts, it is felt as a fight between a Fascist who does believe in the Corporative State and a Communist who does believe in the Communist State. But, for good or evil, we have never got ideas worked into the popular intelligence, as on the Continent. We have forgotten the fight about ethics, and are left with the depressing substitute of economics. With us it would really be a Class War; but with them it is only the last of the Wars of Religion.