The Blunders of Our Parties

THE Party System was founded on one national notion of fair play. It was the notion that folly and futility should be fairly divided between both sides. It was not sportsmanlike that one side should have a rich accumulation of rubbish, while the other was left with nothing but the bare truth. It was not fair play that one combatant should be clad in a shining armour of shams and lies, while the other was handicapped by the nakedness of truth. The game could not be played properly unless various pieces of nonsense and hypocrisy were most carefully and equitably distributed. There must be no corner in claptrap, no arrogant privilege of absurdity. Each competitor carried weights of about the same degree of gravity and inconvenience; each was loaded with some leaden stupidity or other which he was forbidden to drop. To drop it would be to gain an unfair advantage over an opponent still chivalrously staggering under his own lump of silliness. Thus it will be noted that these dead weights seldom have anything to do with the original ideals or aims of the two combatants. Thus the Tory or traditionalist had to profess to the last a perfectly meaningless and morbid hatred of Catholic and agricultural Ireland. Thus the Liberal or champion of liberty had to make an exception in favour of a superstitious and savage taboo against popular drinks like beer. It was not so much that he thought it fair to deprive the people of the popular drinks as that he thought it unfair to deprive the Tory of the popularity. It was one of the Tory’s recognized perquisites that he should have as much of the support of the public as he could get from the support of the public-house. In the same way, the Tory squire felt it would be a trick unworthy of a gentleman to go in for such a dishing of the Whigs as a decent treatment of the Irish. It was his duty as a good fellow to go on governing badly and give his critics a chance. This may seem a rather extraordinary arrangement; but it really was something like the arrangement between the two parties.

That was the superficial or sporting character of the Party system—a thing of the same kind as the Dark Blue and Light Blue passions aroused at the Boat-Race. But now that the formal structure of the two-party system has been thrown out of balance and superseded, it becomes an intensely interesting matter to note whether anything like a real principle had existed behind it or has remained after it. And it must be said in fairness that there was a deeper sort of difference and that it really has remained. Just as there are real differences and that it really has remained. Just as there are real differences between shades of blue, though they are both blue, or real differences between Oxford and Cambridge, though they are both genteel playgrounds, there was, after all, something behind the attitude of the Tory to his opponent, whether Liberal or Labour. It is rather interesting, and might be stated somewhat thus.

The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have the two great types—the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.

In history the whole business of the Tories was to defend the actions of the Whigs. An old Unionist orating about Ulster would probably be surprised to be called a revolutionist. Yet even by his own account he would be taking his stand on the principles of the Revolution—meaning the Revolution of 1688. In short, the Tory of two or three years ago only existed in order to defend what the Tory of two hundred years ago was trying to prevent. And as it was with the Whig Revolution, so it has been exactly with the Industrial Revolution. When the average Conservative or Constitutionalist stands up to defend Capitalism he is defending the deplorable results of the very latest blunder of the Radicals. It was the Radicals who made the Industrial Revolution, with its sweating and its slums, its millionaires and millions of wage-slaves. But as soon as the Progressive has done this happy thing, it instantly becomes the duty of the Conservative to prevent it from being undone. Capitalism is simply the chaos following on the failure of mere Individualism. But those very traditionalists who never fell into the error of Individualism at all are forbidden to point out that Individualism has failed. The Manchester policy has been accepted so abjectly as something that succeeded that its conquered enemies did not even dare to see that it has failed. It becomes the duty of the Tory to defend the Radical triumph even when it ends in defeat. Rather in the same way, it is incredible but true that some people still go on talking about German efficiency, though they have staring them in the face exactly what it was that the Germans effected. So the respectable person considers it a sort of Bolshevism to talk about the collapse of Capitalism. But if Bolshevism were to blow up the whole City with dynamite, hurling the cross of St. Paul across the Thames and sending the Monument flying beyond the hills of Highgate it would then become the duty of the respectable Conservative to conserve these fragments in the precise places where they had fallen, and to resist any revolutionary attempt to put them back in their proper place.

Now if there is one thing more than another of which I am convinced, it is that what we want is to put things in the right place, however long they have been in the wrong place. I am convinced that the curse of the last two or three centuries has always fallen in this fashion and followed this course. It has always happened that impatient people precipitated the Deluge; and then custom and caution froze it into a sort of permanent Ice Age and endless Arctic Circle. It always happened that men moved when they might have stood still; and then immediately stood still when they really ought to have moved. The spirit of innovation always went far enough to get into a mess; and then the spirit of stability returned incongruously and told them to remain in the mess. Something of this sort may be noted, for the hundredth time, in the curious deadlock that seems to exist in Bolshevist Russia—or rather, in the Russia that is supposed to be Bolshevist. It looks as if Russia might remain for an indefinite time in queer congested compromise if decayed Communism and alien Capitalism, and servile or conscript labour and defiant peasant proprietorship, into which indescribable patchwork that society has settled down after the Revolution. It has had the energy to jump into the fire and not out again. It may be a little more comfortable, but hardly more comprehensible, because the fire itself now largely consists of ashes. But it is not only in Russia that everything is choked up with the ashes if burnt-out things. In a less conspicuously chaotic fashion, the same is true of the recent history of the more orderly civilisation of the West. There also a lumber of dead revolutions lies like a load on top of us. There also we are oppressed with old novelties. It would be all right if the innovators really had new ideas they had adopted recently, and the traditionalists really had old ideas that they treasured still. But the reactionary is only clinging to revolutions of which even the revolutionist is weary. He is merely a man one generation behind in the general disillusion about the last discovery. The only sort of reform proposed is one which Conservatives will treat as convention as soon as it is established; and which reformers are already treating as a convention even before it is established. It is true in a sense to say that things will be worse before they are better. But it is truer still to say that we shall have to go even further back before we can get any further forward.

~G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, April 19, 1924.

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One thought on “The Blunders of Our Parties

  1. Thanks for posting this, Tom. As our mission statement alludes to, GKC is pertinent to our time as much (or even more so) than when he was writing. He sees the modern man adrift without the timeless (that is to say, Christian) truths that really do make for good governance, culture & family life.

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