[Most people would probably regard Benjamin Disraeli’s remark, ‘In politics nothing is contemptible’ as nothing more than a piece of amusing cynicism. However, the following passage from Christopher Dawson’s 1939 book, Beyond Politics, leaves the impression that there might be more to it than that. The particular essay from which it is taken, ‘Politics and National Culture,’ focuses on the English party system, showing how it resolves some of the undesirable features of unadulterated democracy. One phrase that I found especially light-bearing runs, ‘whatever generalization we may make concerning the English parties invariably fails to cover the illogical realities of the situation.’ For it seems to me that many other thorny realities could be substituted for ‘the English parties,’ and the phrase would be equally valid and equally illuminating.]
The English parties were never the organs of conscious exclusive political ideologies bent on destroying one another and remoulding the State according to a rigid preconceived pattern. They were fluid and variable organizations which represented in a haphazard and unsystematic fashion the dominant social and economic interests in English society and adapted themselves to the changing circumstances of the political situation.
Thus whatever generalization we may make concerning the English parties invariably fails to cover the illogical realities of the situation. For instance we may legitimately speak of the eighteenth century Tories as representing the landed interest and the Whigs the commercial, but we must remember at the same time that the Whigs were the party of the great landlords and that the strongest Tories were to be found among townsmen like Dr. Johnson.
In the same way, in the nineteenth century it is natural to regard the Liberals as the progressive party—the party of reform, and the Conservatives as the representatives of tradition. Yet the traditionalism of English political life is far better represented by the Liberal leaders, Gray, Palmerston, Gladstone, Harcourt, than by the brilliant and exotic individualism of Disraeli, the creator of modern Conservatism; while even in the field of social and humanitarian reform it was Tories like Wilberforce and Shaftesbury who respectively led the struggle against the slave trade, and against the exploitation of women and children in the mines and factories.
The English parties did not, save at rare moments, stand for any coherent body of ideas. They were more like two sides in a political game in which the players were recruited from a limited number of ruling families and were backed by all kinds of local, economic and personal interests. The game was the thing, and political programmes and principles were valid only in so far and so long as they helped the game. In fact it is characteristic of English political life that the ideologists and the political idealists have always tended to become off-side. They have either been sent off the political field, like the Nonjurors or Bolingbroke, or they have changed sides, like Burke and Gladstone.
Yet the English party system worked not only in spite of, but apparently because of its incoherence and illogicality. Whereas a party system which bases itself on clearly defined ideological oppositions, as in France during the Revolution, or on the continent in the Post-War period has led almost infallibly to mutual proscriptions and the liquidation of minorities, until no solution remained save that of dictatorship.
The truth is, unpalatable though it may be to modern “progressive” thought, that democracy and dictatorship are not opposites or mortal enemies, but twin children of the great Revolution, and that the English political system is immune from the tendency towards dictatorship because it is not democratic in the full sense of the word, but rather liberal and aristocratic. The English tradition attaches far more importance to freedom and toleration than does the continental; it developed in defence of individual liberty (and also class privilege) against the State. Continental democracy, on the other hand, was essentially the affirmation of the supremacy of the General Will as against class privilege. It attached more importance to equality and...to the sovereignty of the people than to the toleration of minorities.
Consequently when we talk of democracy as the common cause of the western peoples against dictatorship, we are using the word in an equivocal sense to cover two distinct systems and traditions, which are indeed in alliance for the time being, but are very far from being identical. For the European political tradition (leaving Russia out of account) is threefold and not twofold, and much of the confusion and incoherence of modern political discussion is due to our failure to recognize this simple fact.
English Parliamentarism is no less different from French Democracy than it is from German Nationalism, though the political circumstances of the moment have drawn us closer to the one and further from the other, just as, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, they had the reverse effect, bringing us closer to Germany and alienating us from France.
The existence of this ideological trinity has indeed been obscured by the tendency of international policy to divide Europe into two camps, whether by the conscious attempt to realize a balance of power, or by the spontaneous resistance of the majority of States to the domination of a single power (the Spain of Philip II, the France of Louis XIV and of Napoleon or the Germany of Wilhelm II and of Hitler). It is natural enough that such an opposition should seek an ideological basis and tend to transform itself into a war of ideas—of Catholicism against Protestantism, of the Revolution against Monarchy, or of Democracy against Dictatorship. Nevertheless the common front is seldom a united one, and as in the past Catholic France allied herself with Muslim Turkey and Protestant Sweden against the other Catholic powers—Austria and Spain, so today western democracy allies itself with the dictatorship of Moscow against those of Berlin and Rome.
But when we come to the problem of internal social organization, it is necessary to disregard these sham fašades of international unity and to go down to the bedrock of our own native tradition. It is no use reorganizing our national life according to the abstract principles of international democracy, for that would lead us to ignore the portion of our social inheritance which is most distinctive of our tradition and which is the root of our national liberties.
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