Radical and Conservative: In Defence of the Green Party

‘An insane coalition of Trotskyists and Druids’?

In the aftermath of the Green Party’s 2015 Spring Conference, members were denounced by the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley as a cluster of romantic extremists with no genuine interest in the environment. The Greens are not true conservationists Stanley argued because they are not truly conservative. Denouncing the Green Party as an insane coalition of Trotskyists and Druids, Stanley suggested that: ‘[a] true conservationist wants to preserve the environment that they’ve inherited, along with its traditions, farming, heritage, old architecture and ancient ways of living’. By contrast, the Green Party wants to reshape the environment to reflect a socialist purpose.’ Stacey’s rhetorical stance is loaded with the kind of deep tensions which are painfully common in Telegraph journalism. Chief among these is his condemnation of a fictionalized ever-erasing socialism; this from a paper which continues to provide good employ to free market revolutionaries. These articulate men and women are the same cohort who (with all the zeal of the Maoist) introduced market disciplines into every aspect of life.

Stanley himself put his rhetorical flair behind the Republican Presidential nomination of Mitt Romney on the basis that the former Governor of Massachusetts would ‘get the government out-of-the-way’.  Yet these libertarian impulses, far from regenerating the character of nations, have left many countries in a poor state of repair. In Britain, such was the ferocity of the Thatcherite wave that every pre-Capitalist or non-commercial institution was to be judged according to market criteria; from universities and the NHS to the BBC and the national parks. Thirty years on from the triumph of these free-market insurgents, even Stanley’s beloved English countryside is not immune from the relentless logic of market discipline. When Clement Attlee created Britain’s wonderful national parks in the 1940s, he did so in order to fulfill a core tenet of democratic socialism. Citizens needed spiritual, artistic and cultural refreshment. Following in the footsteps of the Arts and Crafts movement (and romantic Toryism of John Ruskin) Attlee saw them as a sign of the end of Capitalist oppression. Society would now be governed by a different set of values. In words few politicians would dare utter today, he argued in 1935:

One of the heaviest indictments against the Capitalist system is that it is destructive of beauty. The widespread ugliness in Britain is the result of putting profits first. Socialists regard economic activities only as the foundation of a full life of the spirit. It is not surprising that many artists and poets are found in the Socialist ranks. They realize that, until the pressure of material needs, it is difficult to get people to think about life in terms of beauty.

Today, the government speaks of nature in altogether less glowing terms. Official White Papers now routinely speak of the countryside as a source of environmental Capital and the provider of ‘eco-system services’. Nature is now packaged, weighed and measure, not for the purposes of a Trotskyist revolution, but in the name of market efficiency. The State (once the guardian of non-market values like civic duty and love of place) has allowed the very earth we walk on and the air we breathe to come under the thrall of the utilitarian money-men. As the website of the government’s National UK Ecological Assessment expresses such transactional logic:

 Examples of ecosystem services include products such as food and water, regulation of floods, soil erosion and disease outbreaks, and non-material benefits such as recreational and spiritual benefits in natural areas. The term ‘services’ is usually used to encompass the tangible and intangible benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems, which are sometimes separated into ‘goods’ and ‘services’.

What is so stinging about the ‘ecosystem services’ concept is its unremitting dedication to a vision of nature which is nothing but an economic organism; churning out ‘goodies’ for clusters of acquisitive consumers. While there are hints of another vision of our world trying to be born (expressed by the glib phrase ‘spiritual benefits’) any trace of Wordsworthian exhilaration is drowned in the cold and unappealing ink of the balance-sheet. Within such a worldview there is no space for the incalculable, the poetic, the romantic, indeed any affection which calls the suffusing reality of the market into question. Such irrational incommunicables must be brushed aside for the sake of the smooth-running of an economic machine. In such a cold universe traditions and old ways may survive but only if they are eminently translatable into the sharp-elbowed vernacular of the ‘useful’ and the ‘productive’. What Stanley is unable to comprehend about the Greens is that by standing against these dominant economic forces the Party is not merely acting in a socialist way, but actively retrieving a conservative impulse. By arguing for a concerted push-back against the supremacy of the profit motive in our politics, Green policies offer space for the reassertion of a venerable vision of human life which acknowledges loyalties older and more abiding than the cash-nexus. The present slogan of the Green Party is ‘For the Common Good’ aptly expresses this ancient instinct in a party often castigated as merely a Hard Left remnant.

Exploring the Common Good

 It is the Green party that now embodies the natural political expression of the more progressive traditions found in dissenting movements such as Quakerism and radical Catholicism. (Jonathan Batley)

Image result for Thomas aquinas

What does such language tell us about the Green Party of England and Wales? To speak of the Common Good is to inherit the rich soils of thought watered by Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Burke, and Marx. To ask what goods are common is to depart fundamentally from the arid myths of the money-men for new sunlit uplands (for a new richer story about selves). In this Green story (animated by a desire to love and conserve) happiness does not emerge from the individual alone. Ultimately, happiness is sustained by invisible webs of familiarities, friendships,  and affections: those things which make a house a home, those connections which make a neighbourhood, the participation that makes a community capable of politics. A politics of the Common Good considers how our institutions can meet these deep and abiding needs without severing us from each other or the soil on which we depend. A politics which has lost sight of these goals has ceased to be politics in the strictest sense. Disconnected from notions of the Common Good (which contain many interlocking individual goods) the community flies apart into antagonizing interest groups which are incapable of conceiving of a wider justice. This is the trap in which our culture is presently ensnared. In this roundly Socialist call for sustainable communities, the Green Party nonetheless remains faithful to the Burkean vision of society as a contact ‘between the living, dead, and unborn‘. Yet, in our conservatism, British Greens are always radical. In  this, Greens follow in the footsteps of John Maynard Keynes (a very Tory kind of liberal). In his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, Keynes argued that the challenge of modern politics was to produce enough for all so that humanity would never need to worry about money ever again.

 When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.

For Keynes, this disengagement of human life from the idolatrous lure of money will finally allow Western civilization to reassert some of its highest spiritual values, forgotten after three centuries of Capitalist expansion. As Keynes reflected in the same essay, ‘[we] shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin’. This, and not the abstruse puritanism of Trotskyism, is the object of the Green Party. We don’t want a world of regimented blocks or party workers but a world of beauty and plenty, which nonetheless respects the needs of the future. In short, Greens possess the longing for a society capable of meeting our physical and spiritual needs. We not only want food and shelter but time for laughter, joy, and contemplation. Our ideal is that of preserving a society, one where each has enough to flourish. This future ideal is expressed through the party’s commitment to a Basic Income for all UK citizens. In this way, Green politics is about diverting us away from the rat-race of merely ‘getting more’ and towards the nurture and enrichment of social and cultural lives. It is about conserving and not just producing, caring, not just amassing.

Toryism as Socialism

“You see in such a world as this, an idealist or perhaps it’s only a sentimentalist-must be stoned to death. He makes the others so uncomfortable. He haunts them at their golf.” ― Ford Madox Ford, Parade’s End

Yet, if Green politics is in some sense deeply Tory, how can we reconcile the ecological need to conserve our environment with the fact that Green politics is itself a creature of the churning forces of industrialism and democracy? As Stanley notes scornfully: ‘It is no mistake that the Green Party flourishes in urban areas with a young, often highly educated population and very little agriculture. It is a townie’s movement with a townie’s view on what the countryside should look, function and even taste like. It is bourgeois.’ At least in part, Stanley’s irritation here appears to stem from his belief that one cannot be both a conservative and radical. If Stanley is right, one cannot accept some bourgeois values like human rights and freedom of movement, while seeking to protect the environment (including national culture). Yet, such a binary between rural and bourgeois signifies to my mind, a drastic a misreading of the notion of conservatism in the English setting. If one keeps Toryism to the confines of mediaeval social orders and spacious country houses, one’s politics will always be led to the stiff confines of Brideshead Revisited. In this paleolithic form, Conservatism is always reactive and never constructive, always bitter and never life-affirming. Yet, there has always existed a deeper form of Toryism running through the English political imagination. Its chief representative in the 19th century was Benjamin Disraeli. While Disraeli was a creature of the city  (he was born in London) he believed that the democratic spirit of the urban powerhouse could be harmonised with the concrete traditions and intimacies of the countryside. Indeed, his first coherent foray into politics under the banner of Young England was a conscious fusion of traditionalism and reform. No Tory government since the 1830s has believed that large parts of the country must be left as lifeless museum pieces. Traditions and community must be conserved but they must also serve a notion of public good. As Disraeli put it in 1832: ‘I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad’. Tory Democracy was an attempt to rescue the best of the feudal, the small-scale and the ancient, so it might a restless liberal age, seeking identity, beauty, and belonging.

Image result for ToryismThis political imaginary continued in the 20th century in the work of the novelist Ford Madox Ford. In his Parades End Tetralogy (1924–28). Ford argues that Toryism is more than a creed of titles and country houses. It is a spiritual ideal where land, art, and life combine to form a satisfying unity in the minds of a particular people. Thus for Ford’s protagonist, the virtuous aristocrat Christopher Tietjens, Toryism represents the deep bonds of affection between people, bonds which are of eternal significance. Treating his beloved Groby estate as reflecting a piece of heaven, Ford has Christopher muse:

[The] Almighty as, on a colossal scale, a great English Landowner, benevolently awful, a colossal duke who never left his study and was thus invisible, but knowing all about the estate down to the last hind at the home farm and the last oak; Christ, an almost too benevolent Land-Steward, son of the Owner, knowing all about the estate down to the last child at the porter’s lodge, apt to be got round by the more detrimental tenants; the Third Person of the Trinity, the spirit of the estate, the Game as it were, as distinct from the players of the game; the atmosphere of the estate, that of the interior of Winchester Cathedral just after a Handel anthem has been finished, a perpetual Sunday, with, probably, a little cricket for the young men.

Image result for ford madox fordYet, because such a vision intersects with eternity, it is not dependent upon one set of social relations. Ford could just as easily imagine small-scale socialism or anarchism as appropriate vehicles for his radical Toryism. What really concerned Ford, in the end, was not matters of ancient privilege, but the preservation of a community based on bonds other than market exchange or state-power. What Ford desires (which Parades End attempts to elucidate) is an ethic of community, crossing every occupation and class. To make the point, throughout the books, Ford has Tietjens frequently mistaken for a socialist on account of being ‘a Tory of such an extinct type’. In part, this misjudgment relates to Tietjens’ developing hatred towards England’s ruling class and his siding with the proletariat. As Tietjens laments in Some Do Not: “The lower classes are becoming vocal. Why shouldn’t they? They’re the only people in this country who are sound in wind and limb. They’ll save the country if the country’s to be saved.”  But must be saved for Tietjens? In a word service; a society in which the strong  serve the weak, and where a sense of place binds people together from dell to mill town, from city to hamlet. It is this overriding impulse of solidarity that has caused some commentators like  Alan Judd to argue that Ford’s Toryism means socialism but without the state.  What is true and vital in Toryism for Ford, is not the perpetual rule of gentlemen, but a certain shared relationship between the land, the people, and its past. The people should inherit their birthright (a home, a land of beauty and peace) yet such an inheritance should never be blackened by commercialism or greed. The land of England should be left free to form citizens of virtue and inward nobility.  This latter hope is wonderfully expressed in the final novel of Ford’s Tetralogy  The Last Post. The old oak tree on the estate is torn down by Christopher’s estranged wife Sylvia, an event which serves as a mournful prophecy. Now, says Ford, ‘God had changed sides’.  Next, will come the ‘American invasion’ and the eternal disinheritance of England’s ruling class from its ancestral homes. Yet in the midst of this modern disintegration Ford rings a defiant note:

 Christopher presumably believed in England as he believed in Provvy- because the land was pleasant, green and comely. It would breed true.  In spite of showers of Americans….and the end of the industrial system and the statistics of the shipping trade, England with its pleasant green comeliness would go on breeding George Herberts with Gunnings to look after them…. of course with Gunnings!

Here, Ford suggests that Toryism lies in the land itself, not in any one doctrine of government (much less any abstruse economic dogma of laissez-faire). Indeed,  as long as people love their land and take joy in the little things of life an organic Tory flame will continue to burn. This is why Ford mentions the Anglican poet George Hebert (1593 –1633). This now little-known country priest was a Tory in Ford’s generous sense because he loved his parish, its customs and the rhythms of the seasons. His religion, although sometimes metaphysical, was always infused with the beautiful things of life. At this level of thought, poetry is politics and politics is poetry.  The Green Party of England and Wales is a custodian of this tradition as much as the Tory Party (and is arguably a better guardian). Perhaps most modern Greens would cringe at the mention of ‘dukes’ and ‘land-stewards’ but most would not be deaf to the familiar cultural cadences of English cricket, the slowness of rural life and the close-knit bonds between people at work on the land. Yet, in modernity , these affections are reworked to sustain democratic conditions. If previous generations had sought to defend the things they loved through Magna Carta and the more humane elements of lordly privilege, our instruments are the ballot box and the protest.  Ours is a creed both radical and conservative. Something of this dual impulse can be found in our present co-leader,  Jonathan Bartley. A Christian and an activist,  Jonathan says he has been formed by the radicalism of his Quaker ancestor Elizabeth Fry, and yet he is baptised in the Church of England. He is rooted and yet he is unruly. Yet these tendencies are not Jonathan’s gift alone. Such a synthesis reflects a deep truth at the heart of human life that Greens are well placed to give expression to. Most people want a sense of future without giving up the past. People desire stability without sterility. If the Green Party has such a thing as a right-wing (perhaps I am one of a small number?) this fusion must surely summarise its political philosophy.

Given the above remarks, what might be the future of Green politics in these islands? If the pages of the Daily Telegraph are any judge, the omens are good. After all his highly charged invective towards the Green Party, Stanley is perhaps coming around to our way of thinking. This liberal metropolitan  jet setter (who defines himself as an anarcho-Catholic) now seems to have become attached to the notion of roots. In a recent article for the Telegraph praising Teresa May’s performance at the Conservative’s annual conference, he suggested that May’s policies represented the end of a liberal era in which war, corruption, and money predominated and the formation of a new politics. As Stanley rightly laments: ‘There have been too many wars. Too much hypercapitalism. Too little of the local, of the familiar, of building the kinds of bonds that you get when people know each other and take responsibility for each other. Far too little Christian socialism – which, in the British context, was always more Christian than socialist.’  I suggest that our dear commentator takes a closer look at the Green Party website. He may find in our policies on localism, cooperative enterprise and a just welfare state the kind of Christian socialist politics he is seeking. Teresa May might have articulated a ‘Corporatist [politics] heavy on national solidarity, meritocratic’ and ‘tolerant’ but I believe it is the Green Party which is best placed to deliver this. How will we accomplish this? Not by setting ordinary folk against an imagine metropolitan liberal elite or natives against immigrants, but by protecting the things people love. Perhaps the final word should go to George Herbert: ‘When God at first made man, Having a glass of blessings standing by; Let us (said he) pour on him all we can: Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie, Contract into a span. So strength first made a way; Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure: When almost all was out, God made a stay, Perceiving that alone of all his treasure; Rest in the bottom lay.


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