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Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc’s political career commenced in May 1904 when he presented himself for adoption as the Liberal Parliamentary candidate for South Salford, an industrial suburb of Manchester in northern England with a large working-class population. In his speech to the Council of the local Liberal Association, the body charged with the ultimate responsibility for either accepting or rejecting his candidacy, he stated his personal position on several of the most pressing political issues of the day. He opposed the Education Act (1902) on the ground that ‘there is no right more sacred than the right of a parent to have his children educated in the religious influence which seems to him the most important part of his life.’1 Such a stance was in tune with the Nonconformist roots of Liberalism but reflected Mr. Belloc’s own desire to defend Catholic schools from State encroachment. It also marked him out as an opponent of the centralization of power into the hands of the State, a ‘subsidiarist’ political position which would bring him into conflict with his own party when, in 1908, Lloyd George, as Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, began to construct the Welfare (or Nanny) State.

On the question of Temperance Reform, Mr. Belloc’s celebrated love for French wine and English ale would seem to have placed him at loggerheads with the Nonconformist abstainers in the ranks of his adoptive party. He overcame any such difficulty by siding with them against the wealthy brewing interests.

‘Before the brewing monopoly arose, England was not a drunken country …. In those days the publican managing his own house—the man, that is, who is now put forward as the victim of our policy—was the only person directly concerned in obtaining licences. At the present moment the vast majority of publicans throughout England are the servants, and probably the debtors also, of a small and very wealthy clique whose power it is our business to destroy.’2

Again, Mr. Belloc’s position was consistent with his subsidiarist ethos. Unlike the abstemious Nonconformists in the Liberal Party, most of whom would have sympathized with the United States government’s future imposition of Prohibition, Mr. Belloc sought the breakup of monopoly and the restoration of a healthy small business sector in the brewing industry.

In his speech to the Council, as though to predict and pre-empt the anti-Catholic prejudice that his candidature might provoke, Mr. Belloc nailed his colours candidly and firmly to his religious mast.

‘My religion is of course of greater moment to me by far than my politics, or than any other interest could be, and if I had to choose between two policies, one of which would certainly injure my religion and the other as certainly advance it, I would not for a moment hesitate between the two.’3

In spite of such candour, or possibly because of it, Mr. Belloc was adopted unanimously as the Liberal candidate. His adoption widened his circle of acquaintances. He met Lloyd George at the annual dinner of the Palmerston Club, but, as if to prophesy his future alienation from the Liberal mainstream, he disapproved strongly of Lloyd George’s vision of the ‘nanny state’, and he had little sympathy with the policies of the deceased statesman after whom the club was named. From the outset, Mr. Belloc was a peculiarly uncomfortable Liberal, a fact made manifest a few months after his adoption by the publication of his first novel, Emmanuel Burden, a scathing and sometimes overly subtle satire of the cynical, self-serving relationship between cosmopolitan finance and jingoistic political imperialism.

Following Arthur Balfour’s resignation in December 1905 and the subsequent dissolution of Parliament, all of Mr. Belloc’s considerable energy was directed towards the impending election campaign.

house of commons 1906

House of Commons 1906

South Salford was, at the election of 1906, what would now be called a marginal constituency. The Conservatives had won the seat from the Liberals at the previous election with a precarious majority of 1,227. With so much at stake and so few votes likely to separate the two candidates, the Conservatives quickly resorted to the crudest of tactics in their efforts to retain the seat. Playing on popular prejudice, they adopted the slogan ‘Don’t vote for a Frenchman and a Catholic.’ Faced with such an affront to his faith and to the blood of his father, Mr. Belloc decided to come out fighting. He chose a Catholic school as the venue for his first public meeting and decided to ignore the warnings of the local Catholic clergy that he would be wise to skirt the religious question and concentrate instead on other, less contentious issues. Disregarding their advice, he rose to address the packed audience as follows: ‘Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This [taking his beads out of his pocket] is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative.’4 For a few seemingly endless moments there was a hush of utter astonishment—followed by a thunderclap of applause. Confronting the bigotry head-on appears to have paid dividends because Mr. Belloc was elected to Parliament on 13 January 1906 with a slim majority of 852.

Mr. Belloc’s Parliamentary career was destined to be short and turbulent. He soon had a reputation for embarrassing his own party with the candour of his contribution to debates in the House of Commons. He criticised the Liberal government’s compromise over the importation of cheap Chinese labour to South Africa; he defied the powerful Temperance elements in the Liberal Party by supporting the Pure Beer Bill and by declaring that there were ‘very few nights when I do not go to bed after drinking a pint or two of beer’;5 and he opposed the Liberal Government’s plans for education reform, declaring that ‘English Catholics cannot be content with less for their Catholic children than Catholic schools with Catholic teachers teaching Catholic religion.’6 As a man of principle who put his principles before his party loyalty, Mr. Belloc found himself increasingly disillusioned by parliamentary politics. ‘I cannot stand the House,’ he wrote, disgruntled, to the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt on 9 November 1906. Two months later, barely a year after being elected, be wrote to Mr. Blunt again about his disillusionment: ‘I can see little object in the House of Commons except to advertise work. It does not govern; it does not even discuss. It is completely futile.’7

Early in 1908 Mr. Belloc inscribed his own copy of The Path to Rome with a succinct statement of his personal political philosophy. ‘When you have reconciled these two things—I mean the high stoicism of the Republic with the humility of the Church (for they can co-exist) then you will have the perfect state.’8 Such idealism sat uncomfortably on the backbenches of Parliament. On 19 February 1908, Mr. Belloc moved ‘that this House regrets the secrecy under which political funds are accumulated and administered and regards such secrecy as a peril to its privileges and character.’ Three weeks later he informed his friend, Maurice Baring, almost casually, that he ‘went to the House’ and ‘voted against the Government’ as though he were a dutiful member of His Majesty’s Opposition, not a dissenting and disillusioned member of the government itself.9 At best, Mr. Belloc must have appeared to his parliamentary colleagues on the government benches as something of a maverick; at worst he would have seemed a positive liability.

Mr_Clutterbucks_Election_1000367354Mr. Belloc’s jaded vision of parliamentary politics inspired two more satirical novels, Mr Clutterbuck’s Election and A Change in the Cabinet, published in 1908 and 1909 respectively. During the same period he made his debut as a political pamphleteer, publishing An Examination of Socialism (1908) and The Church and Socialism (1909), indicating his strong opposition to socialism and his adherence to the social teaching of the Catholic Church as preached by the hero of his youth, Cardinal Manning, and by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum. In November 1908, at a public debate held at the Surrey Masonic Hall in Camberwell, south London, Mr. Belloc and G.K. Chesterton argued against socialism from a subsidiarist or distributist perspective while George Bernard Shaw and Mr. Chesterton’s brother, Cecil Chesterton , argued for it.

Towards the end of 1909, with another general election looming, Mr. Belloc wrote to Maurice Baring that he was feeling ‘very dejected about the approaching election.’ He had no desire to stand, and believed that parliamentary politics was ‘a perfectly beastly trade.’10 In what amounted to a tacit admission that his position on the Liberal benches was becoming increasingly untenable and even absurdly incongruous, he expressed his belief that most ‘healthy people’ who agreed with his opinions would vote Conservative. In spite of the incongruity of his position, he was re-elected with a reduced majority of only 314 votes in the general election on 15 January 1910, the narrowest of victories but a victory nonetheless.

Shortly after his re-election, Mr. Belloc wrote a controversial political pamphlet on ‘The Ferrer Case.’ This related to the case of Francisco Ferrer, a Catalonian anarchist who was executed by the Spanish authorities in October 1909 following a violent uprising in Barcelona. As with the anarchist and communist uprisings a quarter of a century later, which would lead to civil war, the politically inspired violence in Spain in 1909 was aimed largely at the Church. In the riots, which Mr. Ferrer was found guilty of inciting, churches and convents were burned to the ground, graves were violated and the bodies of the dead exhumed and defiled. Nonetheless, Mr. Ferrer’s execution caused a furore of protest in England. When the matter was raised in the House of Commons Mr. Belloc shouted ‘Rubbish!an interjection that earned him a good deal of hostile comment in the press and a flood of anonymous and threatening letters. The hostile response mirrored the hostility that greeted the poet Roy Campbell when he had the courage to condemn communist and anarchist atrocities during the Spanish civil war. Undeterred, Mr. Belloc analysed the Ferrer case carefully in two articles in the Dublin Review in January and April 1910, as well as writing the pamphlet for the Catholic Truth Society.

As soon as it became clear that another election would be called so soon after the previous one, Mr. Belloc announced that he was not prepared to stand again as a Liberal candidate. In his last-ever speech to the House of Commons, at the end of November 1910, he declared that he was no longer prepared ‘to play the Party game’: ‘If the machine will not let me stand as an Independent to represent my constituency and to do what my constituents want done in this House, then I think everyone will agree with me that even the most modest pen in the humblest newspaper is as good as a vote in what has ceased to be a free deliberative assembly.’11

As the threat of his ‘modest pen’ implied, Mr. Belloc’s valedictory address to Parliament was by no means a farewell to politics. In fact, even as these words were being spoken, he was in the midst of writing The Party System with Cecil Chesterton, a parting shot at Parliament intended as an indictment of the undemocratic nature of parliamentary ‘democracy.’ Indeed, from the perspective of posterity it would be truer to say that Mr. Belloc’s reputation as a political thinker rests on his achievement after his retirement from Parliamentary politics. His major political and economic works would not be written until he had substituted his seat in Parliament for his ‘modest pen.’

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1. Speaight, The Life of Hilaire Belloc, p.190

2. Ibid., pp.190-1

3. Ibid., p.191

4. Ibid., p.204

5. Ibid., p.209

6. Ibid., p.211

7. Blunt Papers, West Sussex Record Office, Chichester; cited in Pearce, Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc, p.109

8. From Belloc’s personal copy of The Path to Rome, in the possession of Dom Philip Jebb of Downside Abbey

9. Speaight, op. cit., p.227

10. Ibid., p.240

11. Ibid., p.295

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1 reply to this post
  1. Fascinating, and interesting to see how far the Liberal Party has fallen since its principled birth in the 19th C, to even the final days of the Manchester Guardian in the 1950s. Parenthetically, I enjoy reading Baring and would love to learn more of him.

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