As I Was Saying/Essay XVIII

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



Essay XVIII: About Shirts

NOBODY seems to have seen, in the current tendency to express party politics by means of Shirts, a new opportunity for expressing them in the shades of Shirts. Hitherto colours have been used heraldically, in the manner of people blazoning or brandishing flags; and not aesthetically, in the manner of people choosing or matching neckties. Yet it would seem an excellent opportunity for a thoughtful citizen to suggest the idea that he is Rather Nazi or Not Quite Communist. A wise and well-balanced Hitlerite, if such a monster is allowed to survive, might express his doubts by having his new brown shirt fade faintly into the old field-grey, or having it shot with the richer colour of the Red International. An Irishman disposed towards compromise (if such a creature be among the varieties of nature) might very well gratify General O'Duffy by wearing a blue shirt, but introduce into it a tint of peacock-blue, verging upon, peacock-green, to indicate his essentially unbroken loyalty to the more normal national badge and to the Wearing of the Green. I fear it is only too true that a great many people now calling themselves Socialists ought to be dressed not in red, but in pink. And though I am no admirer of Bolshevism, I am still less of an admirer of pink. Pink seems to me the essentially false and negative colour; because it is the dilution of something that is rich and glowing or nothing. I do not object to pale blue, because it is sky-blue, and I graciously grant permission to the University of Cambridge to continue to employ the emblem of its traditional tint. But the sky is in its nature pale and translucent; it is the vehicle of light; it is sometimes actually white and blank; and the infusion of a faint and rather cold colour like blue is appropriate to it. But pink suggests nothing but the horrible and blasphemous idea of wine with too much water in it. Pink is the withering of the rose and the fading of the fire; pink is mere anaemia in the blood of the universe. And there is a merely pink humanitarianism which I dislike even more than the real Red Communism. It is not so honest; it is not so genuinely angry or so justly angry; and it is ultimately every bit as negative and destructive of the strong colours and definite shapes of any great historical culture. It will not weaken civilization the less because it is too watery to burn it in a night; for you cannot set fire to a town with pink torches or pink artillery. This cold and colourless sentimentalism none the less threatens the world like a slow and crawling Deluge. It especially threatens the colours of the world. It is a wash-out.

With this melancholy exception of the pink social reformers, however, it is curious to notice that the difference of shirts, with its opportunity for the difference of shades, has appeared at the very moment when such fine shades are most furiously and impatiently disregarded. The old rosettes of Buff and Blue were all cut to one pattern and coloured with one dye; as if to make it impossible for men to express personality in party politics or to effect compromise in party divisions. There was no green in the Orangeman's eye, or in the fine shades of the Tory True Blue. And yet, in the actual centre of our parliamentary politics, the colours ran into each other much more easily than the vivid patches of the patchwork Europe of to-day. Men were solemnly brought up as Whigs and Tories; but there was much less difference between the Whig and the Tory than there is to-day between a Fascist who has been a Syndicalist and a Communist who has been an Anarchist. Our rigid party system did not need to stretch; because the two parties were already stationed in close proximity. An older analogy than the comparison of flags and shirts, of uniforms and underclothing, can be found in the more or less unique architectural structure of the English House of Commons. I do not refer to what is, perhaps, the most English thing about it; that it is actually built on the assumption that a large number of its members will never turn up. I mean that we have again the paradox that there is most apparent division of parties exactly where there is least real division of principles. The Continental Parliaments are nearly all of them arranged on the principle of a Curve of Relativity; almost like that of Einstein. The seats are arranged in a crescent only tending to two extremes at its two horns; the positions known as the Extreme Right and the Extreme Left. But any number of people can sit left of the Right and right of the Left. And I believe these intermediate seats are or were chosen in a more or less symbolic manner, to show that a member is more Radical than one group, but less Radical than another; as a man might say he was more Socialist than Mr. Lansbury but less Socialist than Mr. Maxton. For nobody could possibly be less Socialist than Mr. MacDonald.

This method of relative Left and Right really is the sort of thing that bears some resemblance to a Communist having a red shirt and a Socialist a pink shirt. That is, it allows of degree and fine shades of individuality. On the other hand, the very shape of the British Houses of Parliament seems designed for the most drastic party discipline and the most unwavering party choice. There are only two sides in the parliamentary chamber; as there were primarily only two sides in the parliamentary system. They face each other stiffly, like two lines deployed in battle; yet, as a matter of fact, there has been very much less battle. It was in the Continental council chambers, curved to follow every gradation of thought and allowing for all compromises between all extremes, that desks have been most frequently broken, ink-bottles most vigorously hurled, riots most frequently prolonged into the night, and duels most eagerly appointed for the morning.

I think this worth noting just now, because it confirms something I said recently about a real fallacy in the particular fashion now seeking to improve upon Parliament. I hope nobody will accuse me of the fatuous official optimism which still talks as if Parliament could not be improved. Whatever else we may think of the practical architecture of St. Stephen's chamber, I trust no sane people differ about the vastness and vista of the room for improvement. Indeed, one of the very worst things about Parliament is the parliamentary defence of Parliament. Politicians are using the same silly tricks of smug secrecy and evasion, which they used over the most trivial intrigues in the institution, as a belated and blundering defence of the institution itself. They have never had any notion of defending a thing, except proving it to be indefensible by leaving it undefended. They say nothing about the real distrust now so widely felt, when financial corruption has been followed by financial collapse. But there is something to be said for Parliament; at least there is something to be said against the Fascists who would merely destroy Parliament.

And it is expressed in the paradox that the very mildest of all party systems was expressed in the military regimentation of its benches or the heraldic fixity of its badges. Foreigners had fights, which were not designed and occurred from time to time. We had a sham fight, which was designed, and which occurred all the time. But behind that sham fight was much more of unity; possibly far too much unity. Therefore the Totalitarian State, with its one badge, its one bench and its one party, is not a cure for the old evils of the English party system. It was much too Totalitarian a State already. Its apparent party divisions were merely a popular sport, like the Boat Race; which is also the one and only example I know of shirts, ties, and badges being differentiated only by two shades of the same colour.