That word ‘Conservatism’

I see that Mr. H.G. Wells has been describing the ideal of myself and some of my friends, with great good-humour and considerable accuracy, as “a conception of vinous, loudly-singing, earthy, toiling, custom-ruled, wholesome and insanitary men.” And a very jolly conception too, I think. But it is not of this egotistic truth that I wish to write here, but of a curious point of more public interest, which attaches to what followed. I did not read the words I have quoted in Mr. Wells’s book, but in a review of it in an excellent weekly paper. And after these words, the critic, not quoting further from Mr. Wells, but summarizing him (as I suppose), proceeds: “But we are not really driven back on this Conservatism, or upon the planless progress of the ordinary Radical or Socialist.” Look at that word Conservatism and think — think hard, and England may yet be saved.


Now, what did this critic mean by calling me “Conservative” (confound his impudence; his article was very good)? What, I repeat, did he mean by calling it “Conservative” to want men vinous, loudly-singing, custom-ruled, earthy, wholesome, and so on? Conservatism, presumably, means trying to keep your country as it is. How is our country this morning?

Is it loudly-singing? Apart from the fact that it has precious little to sing about, it is notorious that it does not sing: it is notorious that now, as for long past, the Englishman rather prides himself on not showing his feelings in a loud or lyric or symbolic way.

Is it even vinous? There have been no vines here since the Middle Ages; and not one man in forty could afford the cheapest claret. And though there is soaking in the slums, and much worse drugging in the Smart Set, Mr. Wells is much too magnanimous and understanding a man to suggest that I want people “vinous” in that style.

Is it earthy? Obviously it is not earthy. Sooty would be more in the manner of the mot juste. Our whole framework of Civilisation is industrial and not agricultural; it will need almost to be burst in pieces in order to be put together again as agricultural.

Is it toiling? Yes; without song, without wine, without the sight of Nature: but it is toiling all right — or, rather, all wrong. That is the only thing our progress has managed to “conserve”: the curse after the Fall. But even here the phrase is not happy: for the largest fact of our life to-day is that abstention from work (that jolly thing) has been so much abused by one class as a pleasure, that it is being used by the other class as a weapon.

Is it custom-ruled? Quite the contrary, of course. In the great determining cities and increasingly in the counties all round them, people have grown more and more nomadic; and a rolling stone gathers no customs. Parents and children are probably more loosened from each other, and different in manners (and even in class) than in any society ever known before.

Is it, to use Mr. Wells’s last and delightful antithesis, “wholesome and insanitary”? It would be hard to conceive a society where there was so much sanitation and so little wholesomeness.

So that it comes to this, and may be summed up calmly as follows: Because I want almost anything that doesn’t yet exist; because I want to turn a silent people into a singing people; because I should rejoice if a wineless country could be a wine-growing country; because I would change a world of wage-slaves into a world of free-holders; because I would have healthy employment instead of hideous unemployment; because I wish folk, now ruled by other people’s fads, to be ruled by their own laws and liberties; because I hate the established dirt and hate more the established cleanliness; because, in short, I want to alter nearly everything there is — a cursed, haughty, high-souled, well-informed, world-worrying, skyscraping, hair-splitting, head-splitting, academic animal of a common quill-driving social reformer gets up and calls me a Conservative!

The Illustrated London News, 6 July 1912.

Published in: on September 18, 2013 at 9:12 am  Comments (1)  

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