Hilaire Belloc bought King's Land (in Shipley, Sussex), 5 acres and a working windmill for £1000 in 1907 and it was his home for the rest of his life. Belloc loved Sussex as few other writers have loved her: he lived there for most of his 83 years, he tramped the length and breadth of the county, slept under her hedgerows, drank in her inns, sailed her coast and her rivers and wrote several incomparable books about her. "He does not die that can bequeath Some influence to the land he knows, Or dares, persistent, interwreath Love permanent with the wild hedgerows; He does not die, but still remains Substantiate with his darling plains."

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Friday, 21 December 2012

Mike Hennessy's tour de force in London...





Mike Hennessy's talk on Belloc's parliamentary career was gripping. I seem to remember that it lasted one and three quarters of an hour. It was not too long! Around fifty people were treated to a tour de force which illuminated an often hidden aspect of the great man's intellectual output. I can only apologise for not posting about the evening earlier and I have attached a copy of Mike's speech to this post. But this does not do justice to the sheer enthusiasm that Mike generated for the subject matter.

Hilaire Belloc and Parliament


Good evening.

I see I have been advertised as a veteran Bellocian.  I hope you are not too disappointed at my – relative – youth, and lack of long wispy beard, although I am already 3 years older than Belloc was when he left Parliament in 1910.

However, I suppose I am something of a veteran.  I have worked in the House of Commons as a parliamentary official for 20 years, but have been an avid disciple of Belloc, whom I occasionally refer to as The Master, since my University days.  During my adolescence I read a good deal of Chesterton, perhaps too much, but what occasional passages of Belloc I read at the time made little impact.  It was, oddly enough, while sitting in the draughty entrance hall of Didcot Station with a very pretty girl called Madeleine beside me (appropriately enough she was at Magdalen College, reading botany) that I came under Belloc’s not inconsiderable spell (as a matter of record it was the Foreword to his collection of essays, The Hills and the Sea, which so enchanted me).  I was struck by his immense personality and nothing of his I have read subsequently has taken from me the keen sense that he was a man of great genius.  So, since then I have been a devotee of sorts, and my friends often note what they call my “Belloc moments” when I become glassy-eyed and stare into the unseen distance and wax lyrical about the magnificence of the Church's contribution to Western culture or the glories of Corton Charlemagne.

Belloc’s parliamentary adventure always fascinated me.  I found it almost motiveless and in some sense out-of-character.  When I was made Private Secretary to the Chairman of Ways and Means  in 1999 I resolved to transcribe his speeches from volumes of Hansard that were just outside my new office.  This was a rather long and not always fascinating task – for reasons I will shortly explain.  Of course, if I had waited ten years I would not have had to put pen to paper, as the Hansards from the relevant years are now available on-line.  It is however with some satisfaction that I note that the digitisation process has not been a complete success, as comparing my transcription with what is available reveals that some 'bits of Belloc' have been missed.

A not always fascinating task?  Well, I must say something about the raw material from which I have drawn a good deal of what I will say about Belloc in Parliament tonight.  In early 1906, when Belloc entered Parliament, all back-bench contributions in debate were taken down in Hansard in edited form, and  in the third person.  In other words, only front-bench speeches are verbatim, while those from “lesser” Members are in summary form.  Moreover, even at this stage some speeches delivered are not recorded.  As a result back-bench speeches – Belloc’s included – sound clumsy and impersonal and may well be missing matters of substance.  However, from February 1909, Hansard suddenly becomes the full verbatim record that it is today.  From this point the rather disjointed and unsatisfactory record springs to life (for a Hansard that is), and so do Belloc’s speeches and interventions.

I must also add that however great my devotion to Belloc, some of the issues on which he spoke failed to stir anything up inside me except deep torpor.  While transcribing one particularly dull speech on tariff reform I felt my heart stop, and occasionally I feared for my sanity, especially with regard to The Master’s keen – and  to me rather surreal – interest in American gooseberry mildew.

Anyway, to the matter at hand!

It is perhaps inevitable that two of Belloc’s most famous pronouncements in connection with the Parliamentary phase of his life should appear at some point during this talk.  And so I will deliver them up to you now, at the outset, to clear the air of expectation and because they serve as useful bookends to what we must probably call his “parliamentary career”.

To the first quote then: Belloc is about to give his first address as Liberal candidate for South Salford in the campaign that had opened following the resignation of Balfour in December 1905 and the immediate dissolution of Parliament.  Despite the fact that Belloc had failed to be accepted as Liberal candidate for Dover some eighteen months before after being too heartily welcomed by a Catholic priest, and despite the fact that his Tory opponent in South Salford – the sitting Member – was campaigning against Belloc on the basis that he – Belloc – was a Frenchman and a Catholic, Belloc decides to begin his campaign in the school hall attached to St John’s Catholic Cathedral.  Although a large proportion of his constituents were Catholic, only approximately 10% of his 8,000 or so electorate were Catholic: and his local party was dominated by Non-Conformists, many involved in the Temperance Movement.  The hall is packed to capacity and Belloc rises:

“Gentlemen [at this point in history, of course, no electors were ladies], I am a Catholic.  As far as possible, I go to Mass every day.  This [taking out a Rosary] is a Rosary.  As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads each 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.”

The silence that followed was broken by a thunderclap of applause.  Some biographers seem to think that this was the worst possible thing he could have said, having said which it was nonetheless – against all odds – successful.  But given the prejudices of his electorate he could have done a worse thing: he could have raised a glass, foaming with beer or empurpled with wine.  As we shall see, his views on beer and licensing laws in general cost him more support in the end than did his religion.

The second quote comes some six years later, just over a year after he Parliament, when he spoke to the Worthing branch of the Permanent Protest League denouncing the National Insurance Bill.  The Worthing Mercury, which reports on this event and interestingly describes him as a socialist, ascribes to Belloc these words about his time in Parliament:

“Perhaps they did not bribe me heavily enough, but in any case I am glad to be quit of the dirtiest company it has ever to be my misfortune to keep.”

Strong words, perhaps, but the sort of words as we shall see he had been using in personal correspondence and conversation in his last months as an MP, as the game of Parliament wore him down and depressed him.  Belloc left Parliament as despondent, angry and cynical as it seems he had arrived there elated, confident and hopeful.

To begin with, I feel the need to explain how I think Belloc came to be mixed up in this parliamentary business at all.  This will require some delving into French, and English, politics contemporary with Belloc’s youth, adolescence and early adult-hood.  I ask for your patience!  We must also rid our minds straightaway of the later Belloc, and disentangle from our composite impressions of the man those things which belong to the youthful Belloc and those things which do not.  Let us focus on this young Belloc, a man of certain views uncertainly fixed.  Let us see what we can discern of those views. 

He was, of course, French by birth.  He was only naturalized as British in 1902, at the age of 32.  The Belloc of The Path to Rome was French.  The Belloc of Danton and Robespierre was – appropriately – French.  But so was the Belloc of The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts.  Yes, his mother was English; but I believe it is largely to his French context that we must go to understand the early age at which Belloc’s anyway precocious temperament and intellect became embroiled in politics.  The house in France where Belloc was born in 1870, La Celle St Cloud, was trashed by the victorious Prussians that same year.  So too was the house of  near neighbours, the family Déroulède.  The Déroulèdes were on friendly terms with the Bellocs.  Now the name Déroulède is not one with which the English are by and large familiar: but Paul Déroulède, of that family, was the founder of the Ligue des Patriotes, a political organisation pushing for revenge against the Germans and the retaking of Alsace-Lorraine.  Such was the spell cast over the young Belloc by this man and by his rhetoric that at fifteen years of age Belloc joined the Ligue des Patriotes (so did his sister, Marie Belloc, who also subscribed to the League's journal, Le Drapeau: indeed it is recorded that on at least one occasion Madame Bessie Belloc took both her children to a Ligue rally on the Champ de Mars in Paris: it has to be remembered that she came from a long line of English radicals – her grandfather, Joseph Parkes, was known as the last of the true English radicals).

Before we disappear up our French political fundamentals here, I feel I must stress the volatility and relative violence of the French political scene at this time where revolution often seemed to be just few barricades away. In French politics views were held more fiercely, and more views were – compared to those in Britain – extreme views.  With the absence of any acting monarchy, split by the internal struggle over the place of religion in the State, and with a parliamentary system that rested upon a broader franchise, politics in France seethed in way that they seldom did in Britain at this time.  France seemed to have an inability to avoid the big questions; sometimes it found itself fighting over such questions even when there was no real need for an answer.  Britain seemed to want to avoid as many of the big questions as it could, even when they needed answering: Belloc's later parliamentary frustration can be firmly laid in part to what he saw as the unreality of the British political game.

So what exactly did Déroulède say and how did it affect the young Belloc? A certain militarism, joy in the active life, hatred for Prussia and deep suspicion and poised loathing for parliamentary affairs were the keynotes of the later Déroulède and his Ligue des Patriotes.  It is hard to suggest that Belloc didn’t inherit all of them.  Déroulède was a romantic, a great demagogue, a minor poet, a fierce democrat.  When Belloc travelled around France by cycle during the 1889 elections, reporting on them for the English periodical The Month, he recounted with glee hearing there the great Déroulèdian war-cry of  “À bas les parliamentaires!  Vive la République!”: and yet Déroulède from a man who was standing for the French Parliament!  Déroulède sought to enter the French Chamber of Deputies in order to transform it from an arbitrary and isolated body to one which responded efficiently to the will of the people.  Déroulède’s understanding of the corruption of French parliamentary politics eventually developed so far as to lead him to attempt an indirect coup in 1899, an action so foolhardy that he had to clamour to be arrested after its pathetic failure, and for which he was eventually exiled.  This influence of Déroulède I maintain is always present.  After his parliamentary adventure Belloc received Déroulède in London, in August 1914, a few months before his death.  Belloc took him to visit his sister.  The penultimate chapter in Belloc’s Miniatures of French History is written in deep admiration for him: Déroulède was a man who kept his word until death. 

Perhaps it was the fate of his family home, and the revanchisme of the Déroulèdian movement that led him to pen his poem, “The Rebel”:

“There is a wall of which the stones
Are lies and bribes and dead men's bones.  
And wrongfully this evil wall
Denies what all men made for all,
And shamelessly this wall surrounds  
Our homesteads and our native grounds.

But I will gather and I will ride,
And I will summon a countryside,
And many a man shall hear my halloa
Who never had thought the horn to follow;  
And many a man shall ride with me
Who never had thought on earth to see  
High Justice in her armoury.

When we find them where they stand,  
A mile of men on either hand,
I mean to charge from right away
And force the flanks of their array,
And press them inward from the plains,  
And drive them clamouring down the lanes,  
And gallop and harry and have them down,  
And carry the gates and hold the town.  
Then shall I rest me from my ride
With my great anger satisfied.

Only, before I eat and drink,
When I have killed them all, I think  
That I will batter their carven names,  
And slit the pictures in their frames,  
And burn for scent their cedar door,  
And melt the gold their women wore,  
And hack their horses at the knees,  
And hew to death their timber trees,
And plough their gardens deep and through—  
And all these things I mean to do  
For fear perhaps my little son
Should break his hands, as I have done.”

I cannot stress enough how French Belloc was at the turn of the nineteenth century.  For his enemies, the taint of Frenchness was always about Belloc: for himself, he was proud of his Gallic blood and (inevitably) carried it nobly to the grave with him.  Nor can I stress enough the importance to his political formation of his French background and his continuing interest in the French political arena.  Before his university days he had undergone his year's military service with the French artillery.  At Balliol, Belloc subscribed to Henri Drumont’s anti-masonic, socially leftist, violently republican journal La Libre Parole.  How often does his Drumontian pre-occupation with the money power and plutocratic dominance of powerful cabals rear its head?  Belloc still had enough regard to visit Drumont in his decline in Paris in 1912.  How many times does the name of Dreyfus occur and re-occur in the Master’s works, a name always accompanied by a barely suppressed thump of rage and a tirade against the Dreyfusards? 

I must now touch upon the other central political experience of his youth: the involvement of Cardinal Manning in the London Dock Strike of the summer of 1889 (that Autumn Belloc would be in France covering their elections and the speeches of Deroulède, as we have already seen: while in France he met his future wife for the first time and fell in love with her: it was some some year for Belloc).  I will immediately unburden myself of one of the great quotes that rings insistently throughout Belloc’s life – a quote from the great ascetic Cardinal himself: “All human conflict is ultimately theological”: a pleasant little quote to hurl into the faces of those secularists, atheists and other lesser-spotted twits who persistently bedevil believers.  Anyway, as one of Belloc's biographers notes of the period of the Strike: “London in those weeks must have worn the look of Paris when trouble was brewing”.  Belloc himself later recalls the impact of this high drama, and of Manning’s intervention in and solution of the dispute:

“I was … but nineteen years of age; it was my delight to follow the intense passions of the time: and those passions were real.  It was before the socialist creed had been captured for the sham battle at Westminster… I remember the great mob that followed John Burns [the leader of the dock-strikers] and how I myself would go through miles of the East-End to hear him speak.  I call the time of my youth a better time”. 

This time was still two years before Leo XIII’s encyclical on the Church’s social teaching, Rerum Novarum which Manning in part inspired.  Some have gone so far as to say that the “The Cardinal’s Peace” saved London from revolution.

I am going to pause here for just a moment to be completely self-indulgent.  It is astonishing to think that Belloc issued his volume of Verses and Sonnets in 1896, his first book, at the age of only 26.  It is, I think, likely that the sonnet “The Poor of London” was written – or at least conceived – during or shortly after the events of the London Dock Strike.  For all its faults (which I think relatively slight and other critics more substantial – he was possibly no more than twenty when he wrote it) I love it dearly and will read it here:

          “Almighty God, whose justice like a sun
          Shall coruscate the floors of Heaven,
          Raising what’s low, perfecting what’s undone,
          Breaking the proud and making odd things even,
          The Poor of Jesus Christ along the street
          In Your rain sodden, in Your snows unshod,
          They have nor hearth, nor sword, nor human meat,
          Nor even the bread of man, Almighty God!

          The Poor of Jesus Christ whom no man hears
          Have waited on Your vengeance much too long.
          Wipe out not tears but blood: our eyes bleed tears.
          Come smite our damnèd sophistries so strong
          That Thy rude hammer battering this rude wrong
          Ring down the abyss of twice ten thousand years.”

So how did this Frenchman, admittedly of mixed parentage, radical, socially leftist (as we might say today), militaristic, romantic but practical, imbued with a singularly French notion of honour, a Catholic, but a Catholic of an active, social temperament, a man filled with lack of trust for money power, for parliaments, so often their creatures, and for the cabals of Jews, industrialists, masons, plutocrats and others who filled these cabals: a man whose heart was full of the joyous clamour of the barricades, of possible insurrection, of tearing down the corrupt establishment: how did this man come to enter Parliament some ten years later? 

Well, he was a man whose life was about to enter the adventure of adulthood, of love and marriage, of the French guns and of Oxford, and who, by the time the dust settled, ten-or-so years later, would still feel all of these youthful things but feel perhaps more keenly still his responsibility as a husband and father to find a living to keep those to whom he has a duty.  His fiery, revolutionary spirit was to become tempered by circumstance and duty.  By the time the adventure of his young adult-hood was over, the thirty-year old Belloc, who had settled at Cheyne Row in Chelsea with his young American wife, had to put his mind to other things than barricades.

As early as February 1902 we see the first rising Liberal politician, a certain short and unpleasant Welshman, Lloyd George by name, invited by the Bellocs to dinner.  At this point in his life Belloc didn't really DO anything.  Yes, he wrote – an uncertain trade for a recently married fellow with a growing family. In his life so far he had worked on a farm, for various French government departments, as a journalist, in an architect’s office, as a lecturing historian, and as a writer – but his one definite attempt to find a permanent place, as a Fellow of All Souls, had famously failed.  His immediate fall-back, the Bar, came to nothing.  Something had to be found.  Some have argued that by 1902 Belloc had decided to make a career in Parliament.  I am uncertain about this: trying to make a career in Parliament is almost a contradiction in terms: being at the mercy of that most arbitrary of monsters, the electorate, is hardly a certificate of job security.  Moreover, being an MP then was unpaid.  He jested in a letter he sent to his mother that he became an MP to sell more books, but very few first editions from this period have “MP” after his name.

Belloc’s name had been associated with Liberalism (capital “L”) to ‘those in the know’ since his Oxford days: in 1897 his Liberal enthusiasm while at Oxford had inspired the well-regarded volume Essays in Liberalism.  This enthusiasm had been a byword during his Oxford days of “The Republican Club”, as had his brilliant speeches – delivered in parliamentary style often on political subjects – at the Oxford Union, of which he became President.  (While at Oxford such was his reputation as an orator that some felt his successful entry into high political life was inevitable.)  But, nonetheless, the precise development of Belloc’s prospective parliamentary career during these first years of the twentieth century is all a little unclear.  In this context Belloc’s first clear parliamentary political venture is worth noting: it was also the first so-called 'ChesterBelloc', a squib called The Great Enquiry, which few people bought, and – inevitably – fewer people now possess. 

1904 seems to be the crucial year in which the wind changed permanently in favour of the current leading Belloc into the House of Commons.  That year he gave a speech at the Palmerston Club (in his capacity as an historian of Liberal inclinations).  Belloc was then later that year invited to move the vote of confidence at the equivalent of the Liberal Party Conference in Manchester (it was after this event that he wrote to his mother suggesting that any form of political fame would be good for the sale of his books). 

Between these two dates, it seems he attempted to secure the Dover seat.  This was not a vacancy, and the evident affection of the local Catholic Parish Priest apparently 'did for him'.  He also attempted to secure the South Salford seat (where there was as yet no Liberal candidate for a seat held by a Tory).  We will in a moment come to what he said he stood for when he presented himself to the local Liberal caucus on 13 May 1904.  Importantly he was presented to the local Association by the National Association: he was, to some extent, being parachuted in. However, he was faced not with replacing a Member of his own stripe in a safe seat, but with seizing back from the Tories a seat that had been Liberal but which had fallen to the enemy at the last election.  Going into the campaign, as we shall see, he felt that he was facing defeat. 

What could have possessed him?  He may not have been the bluest-eyed of the new Liberals, but even those who are in great favour are often requested first to show their form in defeat before they are handed a prize – especially when such prizes are in short supply. I think the national Liberal party might well have been as surprised as Belloc when he actually won the seat.  Who knows, perhaps the fight attracted him more than the prize!

Anyway, after setting out his stall for the local association, he was unanimously adopted as the Liberal candidate for the South Salford constituency for the next election.  It is worth mentioning something he said in his adoption speech:

“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.”

It is perhaps worth spending a few seconds wondering how many Catholic members of Parliament would say the same thing today – or would even properly understand the statement.

And so we now come to the election of January 1906 and to Belloc’s political career.  There is one principal indicator of what were to be the main planks of Belloc’s electoral campaign: the speech he made when presenting himself for adoption to the local Liberal party.  He spoke on five particular live political issues: he supported the rights of parents to have their children educated in the religion of their own belief, contrary to elements of the Education Act 1902, stating 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.” 

Given the prominence of teetotallers amongst his electorate, he courageously spoke next about Temperance Reform, opposing himself to the wealthy brewing interests (represented by the incumbent Tory) and promising to destroy the tied-house system while also supporting the right of the working man to a cheap and unadulterated beer ‘where and when he wanted it’.  He also opposed the programme of flooding South Africa with imported Chinese labour (a policy which appears quite surreal to us now, but which was carried out for the assistance of the wealthy mining interests in that country who were having problems of pay and discipline with the local African native labour).  On Tariff Reform he unsurprisingly declared himself to be a militant Free Trader.  Finally, on Home Rule in Ireland he claimed that there was not a rational Unionist left in the House of Commons and that entrenched Protestant wealth in Ireland was the great barrier to justice and Home Rule there. 

This is the issue and policy background upon which the campaign opened.  Already, several key features of the first years of his parliamentary contributions are visible.  In that speech he pretty much touched upon all the major issues of his first two Sessions-worth of speeches and interventions in the House. 

His opponent was the Tory, J Greville Groves, of the wealthy brewing firm, Groves and Whitehall.  His majority was 1,227, gained at the previous election when the seat had been won from the Liberals who had held it since 1892.  Greville Groves campaign was largely a negative one: a rhyme found in the grime on a Salford wall (purportedly) ran:

          “A Frenchman there was named Hilaire
          And Rene – the names make you stare;
          He wished to be a Salford MP
          But they wanted no foreigners there.”

A poor, poor verse.  “Don’t vote for a Frenchman and a Catholic”, one Tory slogan ran.  When Tory hecklers persistently shouted out “Who won Waterloo then?” Belloc would reply in great detail, setting out the various factors on all sides which had led to Napoleon’s defeat, ending with a rousing crescendo that he had in his veins the blood of a Pyrennean soldier who had followed the revolutionary army through all its victories and which had established a code of justice over a continent and restored citizenship to civilization.  “It is good democratic blood” he ended defiantly “and I am not ashamed of it!”

Belloc’s campaign was more positive than his opponent’s – or at least less personal.  As we have already noted, he launched his campaign at St John’s Catholic Cathedral.  He spoke at any and every opportunity and particularly enjoyed the rowdier meetings, challenging the noisiest and most vociferous hecklers with relish.  By polling day he was hoarse.

Belloc won the seat by 852 votes.  Given that the electorate was only some 8,000 this was not as marginal a victory as it appears now, but was still considered pretty nail-biting at the time.  There was a considerable swing – in his seat as also nationwide – to the Liberals.  In Salford, most commentators put the swing down to the more prosperous working-class men (the only component of their class who had the vote) deciding in particular to protest against the Government-supported use of imported Chinese labour in South Africa.  This issue was perceived by many contemporary observers as the number one issue at the General Election nationwide.  Belloc refers to it many times in his later writings, and it stars in his celebrated exposé of the fatuity of the back-bench life, The Party System.  It was also the subject – as we shall see – upon which he focused his maiden speech and thereafter many of his contributions in the House.  Anyway, countrywide, the Liberals had savaged the Tories and were effectively unchallengeable in the House.  In the context of that enormous working majority, Belloc expected them – his Government – to do all the things they had said they would do during the campaign.  How wrong he was!

Belloc took a tiny flat in Victoria Street right after the election.  His family (he had five children, three sons and two daughters, the eldest almost 9 and the youngest not even 2 years old) was still in its unhappy year-long stay at Courthill, Slindon, in Sussex: it was not to move into Kingsland, Shipley, where he lived until his death, until August 1906.  Elodie, his Irish-American wife, would very occasionally stay at her husband’s London flat.  As often as he could (which sometimes was infrequently) Belloc would flee the ‘stink of Westminster’ for Sussex, or for some prime walking spot abroad.  Sometimes he would head towards his constituency, on the odd occasion actually visiting it from duty, but more often staying in the area with one of the many (rich and wealthy) friends of his.  We must not forget that the idea of having to live in one’s constituency was odd enough then: the idea of spending more time there than absolutely necessary was outrageous.

Belloc made his maiden speech on 22 February 1906, on the Loyal Address, within days of the State Opening.  Considering that some new Members went months (then as now) before making their maiden speech this shows a certain determination on Belloc’s part.  The maiden speech seems not to have been long and he was physically sick after it (not an uncommon phenomenon – I have heard from two Members of Parliament the same reaction: and Tony Blair was sick after his first PM’s Questions as Opposition Leader in 1994).  The speech concerned itself in policy terms with the great Liberal promise to repatriate the Chinese labourers in south Africa.  But what was parenthesizing this substance was in many respects the more important element of Belloc’s first speech – the fact that he wished to act only as delegated by those who had sent him, that he felt that he had no option but to demand that which his electors demanded: for he was under a pledge.

It seems that his maiden speech was considered – by the Liberal press and no doubt by the Liberal hierarchy – to have been impatient and intemperate.  It was no victory speech, no grinding of the Tory nose deeper into the dirt: it was a call for Government action issued to a Front Bench quite keen now – with victory achieved – to let certain uncomfortable issues drop.  (The new Prime Minister had received legal advice that if he went back on the previous administration’s policy he would be forced to pay significant sums in compensation – which he was very reluctant to do.  He also no doubt came under the same pressures as his predecessor from wealthy mining interests.)

Belloc’s first Session ran from the middle of February 1906 to the middle of December that year, with the usual generous adjournments and recesses.  Belloc contributed a modest eight speeches, and spoke on 26 other occasions.  Of the speeches, his first aside, they were principally dedicated to the Education (England and Wales) Bill.  His concern was to ensure that the Bill permitted as broadly as possible the education of Catholics in Catholic schools: and to do this in a general way so as to benefit all other minority religious groups who also had a right to see their children brought up in the religious influence of their choosing.  This is of course a live issue today.  The main opposition then, however, didn’t come from secularists but from some of the sterner Anglicans of the establishment and from many of the Non-Conformists within his own party.  He spoke on almost every stage of the Bill.  He often voted for back-bench amendments resisted by his Government.  On Third Reading he abstained, despite claiming at the end of his speech that he would vote against the Bill as it then stood.  When the Lords Amendments arrived back in the Commons he gave notice of his clear intention to vote against them en bloc.  His speech actually dwelt more on the undemocratic nature of the Upper House than it did on the substance of the Amendments and Belloc was lucky not to have been reproved by the Chair for straying out of good and proper order.  It was with evident delight that Belloc mentioned those in the Lords who “had openly purchased their places there”.

Belloc’s other two speeches covered different issues.  In his second Speech of the Session, on Friday 16 March, he spoke in support of the Pure Beer Bill, a private Member’s Bill.  Belloc crossed swords during the debate with his own Financial Secretary: he also challenged adulterating brewers, Mahometans and Temperance Men.  He blamed alcoholism on impure beer, the tied-house system and the over-regulated hours of opening and drinking.  He also claimed that he almost never went to bed with less than two pints in him  (Punch celebrated this statement with a a rather droll cartoon).  None of this can have gone down well with many of his electors even if it might have raised a cheer (and a glass) amongst his many Irish, disenfranchised constituents.  The Bill was of course defeated by the Edwardian equivalent of the Government payroll vote. 

His other speech was on the Annual Estimates in regard to the Colonies.  This speech just before the Easter recess, his third of the Session, was entirely taken up with the Chinese labour question. It was becoming clearer with each passing week, much to Belloc's irritation, that the Liberal Government was not exactly consumed by the immediate desire to tackle this problem.  On the 26 occasions when Belloc asked his own Question in the House or was persistent or fortunate enough to be called to asked a supplementary Question, on 17 occasions he raised directly or peripherally the issue of Chinese labour.  He was determined to carry out – so far as he could – the pledge he had given his electors on this, widely believed to be THE crucial, issue of the 1906 election, an issue that, by the end of the session, had almost died away completely through Government inaction and increasing public disillusionment.  As far as he was concerned, “the Government existed only to do the will of the people” and that will had been made clear in January 1906 at the polls.  Campbell-Bannerman’s failure to stop the import of Chinese labour (indeed he permitted further, admittedly small, imports and repatriated not a single soul) stuck fixedly in Belloc’s mind and became one of the principal exemplars in his post-Westminster attack upon the Party System.

To wrap up 1906, I must mention en passant those other subjects which he asked Questions about in the House: free postage for MPs (who were of course unpaid at this point and received no office expenses); county court clerks (unfair dismissal of); the national telephone company (a potential financial scandal redolent of the later Marconi case); religious services in Malta; London restaurant closing times (it seems his favourite Soho eatery had to turn him away while the Savoy Grill was still open for champagne and angels on horseback); and American gooseberry mildew in Worcestershire.

All in all, 1906 had been a fairly busy and well-focused year for a new Member.  In accordance with his theory of delegation to the House, he spoke most on those subjects about which he felt he had been directly sent to Parliament to speak.

Belloc’s second Session, that of 1907, was a peculiarly short one.  The House returned in early February and sat through until late August – with short breaks at Easter and Whitsun – when it prorogued until the following year.  It was a short, thin and rather tedious Session.  Belloc was again a persistent if less frequent questioner.  However, of the eleven occasions in which he questioned ministers, only the first  (no doubt to the relief of his Front Bench) was concerned with Chinese labour.  Nor in fact did he mention the subject anywhere else in the Session.  (He did however  ask two follow-up questions on the vital matter of American gooseberry mildew which now seems to have moved from Worcestershire to threaten the Irish gooseberry crop.)  He probed the matter of the supply of a defective rudder to the destroyer “Edward VII”, largely since the contract to supply the rudder had been given to a relative of a Government minister and, notwithstanding the job having been done badly with the tax-payer covering the cost of repair, the gentleman concerned had been honoured with a knighthood.  He also asked questions on possible police brutality and injustice in Ireland, on a local Catholic school that had been hit badly by the recent Education Act, and on the absurd cost of what the considered the flummery of the Master of the Horse.  

His speeches were also varied.  In April he made a long and considered speech on the Second Reading of the Territorial and Reserve Forces Bill: unsurprisingly, he stressed the urgent necessity for developing and improving in the English army the very position he had occupied during his service with the French army – that of artillery driver.  His speech on “the French guns” struck the House as a good one, born of an experience of which few Members could speak.  

His second speech of the Session was of a different sort altogether.  He spoke on a Government motion on House of Lords reform (again, topical stuff), a motion which, with hindsight, we now know had been dangled before the Commons in order to test its hunger for (comparatively) radical constitutional change later in the Parliament.  In his speech Belloc claimed that, aside from House of Lords reform, there was “not another issue upon which the people were more determined… that there should be ...change”; and that change was change to weaken the power of the Upper House.  I wondered when reading this speech what had happened in his mind to that over-ridingly important issue of Chinese labour, and to the mandate with regard to that issue upon which Belloc claimed to have been most stridently sent by his constituents to the House. 

Anyway, Belloc clearly thought that the House of Lords was – in Sellar and Yeatman terms – a “Bad Thing”.  (He may even have been – God forfend! – a unicameralist.)  He cited the instance of the Lords recently throwing out a Bill to reform the democratic scandal of plural voting: “May the day be far distant when any duke shall fail in his duty in a matter of this sort”, he mocked.  “I hope I shall never see a duke voting to end any political abuse whatsoever.”  He considered the arguments as to the antiquity of the Lords and the flexibility of the unwritten constitution of which it was a vital part no longer relevant.  He pointed out that the Lords could not act as Grand Jury of the nation when almost all of the peers there were Anglican Tories; and most of those that weren’t (and some of those that were) had effectively bought their places there.

The motion was passed, with Belloc of course voting in favour: but it had no procedural or legislative effect.  It simply signalled to the Government that arranging a clash with the Lords over something of great moment might be an opportunity with general Commons agreement to shift the balance of power in favour of the Lower House.

The only other speech that Belloc delivered that Session was in the early summer months when the House, as usual, was considering the annual Finance Bill.  On 1 July he made a short speech in Committee of the whole House on the Bill in terms of its effect to reduce duty on certain goods: not on beer or wine as we might suspect, but on tea!  The thought crosses the mind that Belloc was perhaps trying not to lose more support in his constituency, and was even perhaps attempting to win back some votes from the tea-drinking teetotalers in his Temperance base – a different tack from the previous Session when he had spoken on the Pure Beer Bill!

And so, after the short session of 1907, we come to that of 1908. It is immediately apparent that Belloc has found a new sense of urgency and drive.  In a session that runs from late January through to mid-to-late December, only marginally longer than the 1906 session, Belloc delivers a whopping eighteen speeches and contributes questions of one sort or another on another 36 occasions.  He is almost twice as busy as he when first elected.  His first speech of the session (as it had been in 1906) is in the debate on the Loyal Address.  It is a very strong speech, the most exasperated and biting yet of his Parliament: he speaks on Ireland and on tariff reform.  He expresses astonishment at the ignorance on the Tory benches, whose constituents couldn’t care a tinker’s cuss whether Ireland was governed well or not, or fairly or not.  He expresses himself “astonished that men who after all attached some importance to the political game should be so out of touch with the public opinion of the country”.  He speaks himself for his own constituents, a majority of whom want self-governance for Ireland – and states that this is the case in all but one-in-fifty (or so) of the constituencies of the industrial North.  This speech is to some extent a party political one, a Tory-bashing one, but the tone is different.  His references to party and to “the political game” seem more weighted.

But it is his second speech of the Session begins to move a little off the beaten track.  On 19th February 1908, with the dust barely settled on the King’s Speech, Belloc moves his own motion – “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”.  The speech is a careful and precise one.  He acknowledges that parties have to have funds, even very substantial funds, but regrets the secrecy in connection with them.  Such secrecy veils the connection between cause and effect and attempts thereby to veil any actual corruption or financial favouritism.  And, by so doing, even where there is no such corruption, the belief in the probability of corruption, and of venality, the passing of favours in shares or brown envelopes and the purchasing of peerages, is nonetheless increased.  Constituents are less free if funds are secret: they have less idea what sways their representatives’ words and actions, and to whom their representatives are actually answerable.  It also passes the motive power for action in the Commons from the electorate to the Executive or to an external source of money or patronage.

In Hansard, the speech is long.  Because the motion was Belloc’s, his speech is recorded seemingly verbatim, the first of his to be so treated.  It is a more lively speech than those he had made before – whether this is to do with how it was reported or to Belloc’s performance it is difficult to tell.  The speech is free from the exasperation that marked his previous speech: it is reasonable, calm, precise and ordered.  It is his first assault on what he would come to see as the Party System.  The Government moves an amendment that touches (deliberately) on tariff reform in order to transform the Motion into a party political row and the rest of the debate (despite Belloc’s increasingly irritated attempts to get the debate back onto its original course) predictably becomes a slanging match by both principal sides trying to accuse the other of receiving monies to push for or oppose tariff reform.  The motion is lost by 134 votes to 60, the Edwardian payroll vote rolling out from the bars and smoking rooms of the Palace and the nearby Clubs to shoot it down.

Apart from two speeches on Army Estimates, which run over the same ground as he had touched upon in his speech in the previous Session, all his other speeches are in connection with Bills brought before the House by his own Front Bench.  Education is again a major issue.  He speaks frequently on the Government’s Elementary Education (England and Wales) Bill and has cause to protest at the Government decision severely to limit time for debate – and opportunity for votes.  When he discusses the management of business rather than the business itself, his irritation and exasperation at the way things are handled in the House begins to show again.  He is particularly dissatisfied that both Front Benches have privately agreed that further discussion on key areas of the Bill is unnecessary.  During the debates on the Bill that follow, Belloc again frequently supports non-Government amendments.  On most main votes he abstains.  I picture the meetings between him and his relevant whip being, shall we say, interesting.  I cannot imagine Belloc coming off worse.  It must have been becoming clear to Belloc at this point in his parliamentary adventure that, tariff reform and Ireland aside, most of his blows and attacks are against his own Front Bench.  One wonders how much of a shock this should have been to the worldly-wise Déroulèdian Belloc. 




Much of Belloc’s vehemence in 1908 is reserved for the Prevention of Crime Bill which contains what Belloc claims are “two provisions …utterly at variance with every social or political principle that Western Europe had ever known or any Christian country had ever held”.  The first principle is effectively the “three strikes and you’re out” principle: that on the third conviction for petty crime a poor man at the discretion of the judge can be imprisoned for life – notwithstanding the comparative insignificance of his particular crimes.  The other principle is that of retrospection – that is, that the judge’s discretionary power of life-sentencing shall apply to some of those already locked away for their third act of petty crime, men who are inevitably expecting to see the light of day only to be told that their key is (figuratively) being thrown away.  Belloc can “conceive of nothing more inhuman” than this.    Interestingly this is the only Government Bill he refuses to vote for at Second Reading. 

The last of the three Bills is the Licensing Bill.  Belloc is (again) on dangerous ground here, given the Temperance bent of many of his electors.  It is a Bill to which he feels there is “overwhelming opposition” amongst his constituents, and amongst the inhabitants of similar constituencies: but for which he knows there is support from his party caucus.  Belloc was pretty much caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.  In his speeches on this Bill Belloc points at least three ways.  It is evidently the subject on which he finds most difficulty in reconciling his own views, those of his electorate, of his constituents, and – in particular – of his local party.  It is thus the issue on which he finds most difficulty acting as delegate.

The same exasperation, felt at the beginning of the Session, then held in check and restrained, re-appears in other speeches after the recess.  He continues his strong opposition to the Crime Prevention Bill, claiming that support for the Bill comes only from the well-to-do for whom petty criminals are a nuisance, rather like vermin.  He points out with glee how many of the well-to-do are often guilty of greater crimes as landlords or as dealers in shares and other financial undertakings.

An amendment is finally passed on the Bill, which Belloc claims he has convinced the Government to accept, which changes the principle behind the Bill from “three strikes and you’re out” to “three strikes and a minimum of five years” (although the judge still has a discretionary power to raise from five to life).  This doesn’t stop Belloc from stating that he will still vote against the Bill.  In one of the most lively exchanges in which he is involved during the Session, Belloc asks a sharp question about the introduction of the alien notion of retrospection into British justice.  As the Minister waffles, another Front Bencher  rises to intervene, and explains how “modern science is steadily lowering the barrier that was understood to exist between crime and disease”.  Belloc explodes! “I deny that absolutely!” he shouts across the Chamber.  This is the sort of pseudo-science he loathes. “It is the very worst piece of charlatanism that we suffer from.  It disgusts me!”  When it comes to Third Reading, the Front Benches have sown up the Bill between them and no-one in the entire House except Belloc wants to oppose the measure.  He attempts to divide the House but as he cannot even find a fellow teller (truly a remarkable fact) the Bill passes without division.

And so 1908 passes.  He is decidedly at a crossroads.  1909 and 1910 will be very different years, yet it is clear that their momentous events don’t change Belloc’s tack – they simply confirm his course.  During 1909, as we shall see, his parliamentary spirit curdles.

1909 is a pivotal year for Belloc.  For him it is the year during which the growing exasperation of the previous three Sessions comes to a head and during which he effectively cuts himself off from the Westminster party system – insofar as he has ever really been a part of it.  As we shall see, he becomes something of a loose cannon, letting off numerous barrages principally at the leaders of his own party.  But 1909 is also crucial for Parliament.  It is the year of Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget”, the principal plank upon which the current Parliament Act was eventually laid and the existing balance of power and consequently of function of both Houses was established.  It is the year in which the Liberals decide to try and break the power of the House of Lords (the Budget being the device they decide to employ): the year in which the House is dissolved over the Lords refusal to accept the Budget.  It is a year of constitutional crisis, of secret party negotiations, of back-bench confusion and ignorance and – most heinous of all – a year in which there is almost no summer recess (in my view one of the sins crying out to Heaven for vengeance), the Commons sitting throughout August and into September. 

And Belloc is like a box of fireworks, going off in all directions in screaming colour and noise, frightening at times to both sides of the Chamber but most dangerous to those who sat closest.  From a total of 36 contributions in his first Session, to 54 in his third, this – his fourth Session – sees 72 contributions.  Even given the fact that the House sits for longer than usual this Session, this is a very strong record of activity.  This is not the activity level of a Member who no longer wants to be there and has given up the political ghost: this is the activity level of a fighter.

What are these 72 contributions on?  He speaks on the Loyal Address (for the third time in four years) on tariff reform and its connection with international relations: a dull but worthy speech.  On the minor Bills before the House, Belloc speaks twice on a private Member’s Bill, the Sale of Intoxicating Liquors (Sunday) Bill (you couldn’t have made it up, could you?  Watch his local party members roll their eyes...).  This Bill intends to reduce Sunday drinking hours and Belloc votes against it with great delight, on this occasion assisting the Government in killing the Bill.  Belloc no doubt roars his joy into a pot of beer afterwards down in some Westminster watering-hole.  He speaks once, at length and at levels of almost unbelievable tedium, on the Board of Trade Bill.  This is quite possibly the most staggeringly dull speech he ever gives in the House, which touches upon the eternally boring subject of tariff reform.  (I recall Belloc writing of international parliamentary conferences – I have attended a few in my time – where parliamentarians are:

“delivered of heavy speeches without meaning which make one think of a corpulent elderly man groaning across a ploughed clay field after a weeks' rain by the dark of the moon,”

Well, the Bill may have been dull, but Belloc’s speech is still unforgiveable.  This is the point where I ceased my research some ten years  ago.  Sheer terror at the unimaginable levels of boredom I had experienced in transcribing the first part of the speech prevented me from returning to this Hansard for months.

The Budget and the Finance Bill (inextricably linked) he speaks upon nine times.  On one occasion he is called to speak in fourth place – a prominent placing! – on the Budget debate itself.  Of the other eight occasions on which he speaks on the Finance Bill, six are during its enormous, unprecedented committee stage (at least forty days on the Floor of the House – it nowadays has two days on the Floor and ten-or-so days in standing committee), once is on Report and once, in a convoluted, difficult and extraordinarily long speech, is on Third Reading.  He basically approves of the Budget: certain provisions he dislikes, principally those relating to liquor duties and other alcoholic matters: others he lauds, such a proper taxation of land values, which will hit landowners (comparatively) hard.  Privately, he has little time for the little Welsh squit, Lloyd George, and thinks the Finance Bill a rather crude device with which to break the Lords.  He also suspects that the Government would not have been as radical in its Budget did it not want a showdown with the Lords; and he feels that its radical content is thus in some way dishonestly proposed.  But he supports it in general while trying to see some of its provisions amended.

In terms of questions, Belloc pursues his many interests with intensity and tenacity.  Aside from the many questions concerning doubtful justice and possible police brutality or illegality in Ireland, he also touches upon several presumed financial scandals (the Ocean Island Pacific Phosphate Company scandal to name but one – it sounds like something one might find in one of his satirical novels!); some suspected perversions of justice in the Colonies; Belgian atrocities in the Congo; accidents and indemnities at the Shepherd’s Bush exhibitions; the poor defences at British naval bases.  Occasionally his patience with the ritual obfuscation and delay of parliamentary answers from Ministers runs over.  “No protest, no action by a private Member is of any value under the present parliamentary rules” he roars mid-August, at a time when all Members should be away from the place and when all London, Westminster included, is sweltering in a heat-wave.  Indeed, 1909 is an unreasonable year.  Tempers fray over the long summer as the Lords-Commons showdown over the Budget and Finance Bill intensifies and most back-benchers are kept in the dark as to what the Front Benches of their respective parties are discussing between themselves.  This game of parliamentary “chicken” wears down most of the collateral participants in the House, Belloc included.

Belloc is particularly incensed towards the end of the year at the protests from Labour Members concerning the force-feeding and maltreatment of women prisoners (largely suffragettes) in various prisons.  He frequently intervenes on these questions to ask how many men suffered similar (mal)treatments and to ask when Labour Members bothered to concern themselves with that.  Keir Hardie in particular he targets.  Every time the issue is raised, Belloc is there at the ready to leap in and point out Labour’s questionable silence over the force-feeding of male prisoners.  A cloud of red seems to descend over him and he rarely sounds more intemperate than in these exchanges.  For a man whom many seemed to think was during this year on the verge of joining the Labour Party these are often strong and unpleasant exchanges.  “I detest socialism and collectivism!” he roars in one exchange, before being called to order.

During all this parliamentary time, Belloc was as busy as ever with writing and speaking and travelling.  His biographers all remark upon his restlessness and upon his titanic level of work and output.  Between his election to Parliament in January 1906 and the dissolution of the Parliament in 1909 – thus not even touching upon his last year in the House – Belloc published his longest historical biography, Marie Antoinette, four volumes of essays, most of which had already appeared in The Morning Post during that period, two books of travel and topography, two satirical novels, one volume of verse – the famous Cautionary Tales for Children – and four pamphlets.  (Three of these pamphlets were written for the Catholic Truth Society.)   

On top of this he had completed the difficult family move to Kingsland and had journeyed about with familiar regularity (during the 1907 recess he had travelled to France during the summer recess, crossed the Pyrenees and marched onto Madrid) when he was not acting the peripatetic house-guest across the stately homes of England.  Add to this, lecture tours, constituency visits and work, and you have an almost inhuman gross sum of activity.  How Belloc managed it is beyond me, even if we accept that the life of an Edwardian parliamentarian was not as 9 to 5 (or 11.30 to 7.30 to be more precise) as the life of an MP today.  Despite the facts that he had almost died in 1904 from pleuro-pneumonia (The Times had an obituary laid down and ready for press), and that the medical advice he had received claimed that his illness had been a result of over-work, it is clear that Belloc wasn’t slowing down.  .

So to 1910, and another election is upon the country, based upon the Government’s desire to seek a mandate to reform the Lords so as – ostensibly – to get through the Upper House the Budget and Finance Bill.  There seems to be a myth circulating amongst Bellocians, to some extent assisted by ambiguities in the biographies, that Belloc stood as an independent candidate in this 1910 election.  In fact he sought re-election with the support of what remained of his Liberal base in his constituency.  His second candidacy was accepted by the local party – he insisted that they consider him free after the election to say what he wanted and not what the party nationally wanted (which was anyway no more than he been doing since 1906)– but he was not opposed (if frowned upon) by the national Liberal leadership, and they certainly didn’t parachute another candidate in to supplant him.  His election leaflet proclaimed him the “Liberal and Free Trade Candidate”.  At best we can informally call him a quasi-independent local Liberal party candidate as the election campaign goes into gear for the 1910 polls.

He wrote to his great friend Maurice Baring in November 1909:

“I am very dejected about the approaching election.  I don’t want to stand.  I detest the vulgar futility of the whole business and the grave risks to which are attached no proportionate reward.  So anxious are most people to get into Parliament that they will do anything to oust an opponent, and I have really no desire to be mixed up with such hatreds, or to see myself placarded on the walls in twenty ridiculous attitudes, and with any number of false accusations or suggestions attached to my name.  It is a perfectly beastly trade.”

His agent told him forcibly that his voting on the Licensing Bill had provoked most disquiet in the local Liberal caucus.  Belloc knew that the Temperance people had it in for him: he also knew that the “gang of rich women” who ran many local parties, and ran his, were also incensed at his views on female suffrage.  Indeed, the polling booths in his constituency were picketed by suffragettes.  Clearly, although he did not formally speak in the House on the issue until 1910, it was known that he was strongly opposed to it. 

A little later, in December, he wrote, again to Maurice Baring:

“The House of Commons is hypocritical and dull beyond words, and membership is a tremendous price to pay for the little advantages of being able (very rarely) to expose scandals or to emphasise a point of public interest”. 

Still Belloc hurled himself into the general election campaign, and despite losing his voice early on he enjoyed himself thoroughly and summoned Maurice Baring to join in the fun.  He had not inconsiderable difficulties explaining his voting record on drink to his Liberal caucus – and likewise his by-now known views on female suffrage:

“I am opposed to women voting as men.  I call it immoral because I think the bringing of one’s women, one’s mother and sisters and wife into the political arena disturbs the relations between sexes.”

Wherever he went crowds gathered, up to 4,000 people on one occasion coming to hear him.  He was as popular with his non-voting constituents as ever.  One meeting at a school became three crowded meetings as the numbers of those who wished to attend soared.  He enjoyed engaging with his Tory opponent, C.A.M. Barlow, a young lecturer at the London School of Economics, for whom he had a great deal of respect (unlike his previous opponent).  He (again) expected to lose, thinking he might go down by 900 votes.  Despite running the gauntlet between pro-suffragettes, teetotallers, Irish publicans in hock to the big brewers, Liberals anxious about his errant voting record, Tories attracted to him but repelled by the company he was forced to keep on the Westminster benches – in spite of all this, he again won, this time by 314 votes.  The Liberals as a whole lost 100 seats, which today would be a matter for resignations: the Tories gained many, Labour lost 20% of its constituencies: the Irish Nationalists – crucially – held on to what they had and controlled the balance of power.

With effective carte blanche from his local party, Belloc entered the session of 1910 as a different sort of Member.  And it shows.  We deal in 1910 with a short Session, split by an extraordinary summer-through–autumn recess.  Belloc makes twenty-eight contributions in total: almost half were questions of one sort or another, less focused than in the last Session.  The other half were speeches or interventions, which admittedly show a pretty dogged concentration upon one subject – that which was to become the core of his 1911 book, The Party System.

Again he speaks on the Loyal Address, one week after the commencement of the session.  Not once, though, but twice.  It is a confused debate, which the Government decides to curtail after four-and-a-half days.  He speaks to protest against the Executive’s decision severely to limit the debate.  In his second speech, after touching upon the fact that the Government is evidently running scared, he launches an assault upon the Party System:

“This [King's] speech is a party sham, unworthy alike of the defence it shall receive and of the energetic attack it shall attract from the other side.”

He goes on to touch upon many of the ideas later confided to The Party System.  At one point, to explain his low opinion of his own Front Bench, he mentions Chinese labour.  There comes an unaccountable – surely ironic? – cheer from his own side of the Chamber.  He responds:

“You may very well cheer, though why you should cheer the vices which you possess in common with your opponents I cannot say… You cannot explain to people the depths to which this system has sunk.” 

The gloves are off!  On the House of Lords:

“It is essentially a body which stands as a committee of the modern Anglo-Judaic plutocracy”.

He rags the benches around and opposite him that these peers they are confronting are “relatives of perhaps a third of you, and ...the friends of perhaps half of you.  They are exactly like yourselves.”  His words drip with sarcasm.  He explains at great length the importance of taxing the rich, and then launches an attack upon the ineffectiveness of Labour:

“They may think it good tactics and good discipline [to support the Front Bench Liberal plan] but let me tell them that in the art of war there is one rule more than any other it is well to observe, and that is when you have your enemy, smash him!”

This is a pretty strong opening salvo, redolent of his youthful poem, “The Rebel”, scattering shot across the Chamber in every direction.  Given that he spoke fairly infrequently in 1910 we shall see that he made every speech (more or less) count.

Belloc was immediately suspicious of the long and complex motions tabled by the Government covering various aspects of the Lords problem.  As we may recall, a Government motion on House of Lords reform was before the House in 1908, and nothing was done.  Now that the Lords had thrown out the Finance Bill, and the Budget upon which it rested, in the previous Session the Commons was doing no more than having long and convoluted discussions about possible remedies for the situation.  There was no action, and Belloc wanted action.  Just as with Chinese labour, a party had gone to the country to get a mandate to do something and now it was just talking and talking and talking.  Gradually it became clear that the Front Benches were involved in secret negotiations.  Belloc felt that Parliament should have been the forum for such negotiations, for such a debate, not some private room somewhere, where the self-selected few hatched a deal. 

And so the Commons crawled through ineffectual debates on Lords reform.  About this time Belloc became absolutely convinced that the two party leaders, Balfour and Asquith, were already stitching up another election for later in the year.  Belloc thought it might arrive as early as the summer, but the death of Edward VII spoiled this time-table.  The resolutions upon which the House was debating and voting would be rejected by the Lords, and the Government would go to the country for the second time in twelve months, this time over Lords reform. Belloc wrote to The Times to set out his views that this unnecessary election was designed to keep alive the Party System; and – according to one biographer – he lobbied with radical Liberals behind the scenes to prevent this Front Bench conspiracy.  A few weeks later he wrote to another friend, John Phillimore;

“Every day that passes makes me more determined to chuck Westminster.  It is too low for words… The position is ridiculous and the expense is damnable.  More than that it cuts into my life, interferes with my earnings and separates me from my home – all three irritating.”

A few weeks later still, towards the end of July he writes to Cecil Chesterton, Gilbert's brother, proposing that they co-author a book on the Party System.

In April Belloc again speaks out.  He again acknowledges how tied up in history and tradition is the House of Lords, and then refers to the arguments put forward in the Upper House for the weakness of fully democratic chambers across the world:

“The inherited party system, with all its absurdities, still survives; and there is always more room for advocacy than for the play of cautious and reasoned opinion.  In a hundred ways it is perfectly clear that the representative chambers of Europe are suspected and ridiculed even by those electorates which create them.  This House suffers to a very high degree from that disease which has fallen upon all representative institutions.”

While his opposition to the Lords was based upon its inevitable lack of democratic spirit, he could not find this spirit in the elected Commons either.

A few days later Belloc gave one of his most amusing, intemperate, and – I have to suspect it, it was that time of the night – tipsy speeches of his parliamentary career.  He begins by tearing apart the idea being mooted that there should be a conference between the two Houses to sort out their problematic issues.  “I will tear this piece of dead rag to tatters.”  He quotes Greek, French (both against the rules of debate), is well and truly all over the place, albeit in a most deliberately amusing fashion.  He plays a great deal upon the corruption of their Lordships, and towards the end of his speech becomes more vituperative:

“I am sorry to have taken up the time of the House for even seven minutes, but, to use a Parliamentary tag, or rather, I should say, another piece of hypocrisy which is more used outside the House than inside, if these few words of mine have done anything to exhibit to others how ridiculous – as they are to me – are nine-tenths or ninety-nine-hundredths of these futile, senseless, unmeaning, unreal Amendments with which we waste our time, my few words will not have been spoken in vain.”

The Member who follows this speech begins airily enough.  “The honourable Member for South Salford is a great Parliamentary wag.  One moment we laugh with him; at other times at him.”  This Member, Mr Lawson, accuses Belloc of having a grotesque preoccupation with the country being not a democracy but a plutocracy.  Quite what the Member means by “grotesque” is unclear since he goes on to add that the plutocrats are anyway making a good job of it, as they at least understand Money.  Precisely, Mr Lawson.  No wonder Belloc despaired of the place.

There is only one break before summer from his pre-occupation with Lords reform: in mid-April Belloc speaks on the Temperance (Scotland) Bill and he describes the tremendous levels of inebriation he encountered at Oxford University where privilege meant that no-one dare suggest that students or tutors be restricted in terms of their access to alcohol (thank God, I say). 

At this point in the Session, the various motions debated and passed by the Commons were before the Lords where they were of course rejected.  The Party leaders were in private conference with the new monarch on how to overcome this stalemate. In his last speech before the summer break, aware that an election was inevitably brewing, and knowing that he would probably not stand again as a Liberal, Belloc attacked an aspect of the system that kept him from standing as an Independent (successfully) – namely that constituencies, because they could return only one candidate, were pretty much in thrall to the party grip and would not risk voting for someone without party backing.  Belloc advocated two-member constituencies (and even a system of proportional representation).  The House went up in late July with an official inter-party conference announced to decide the issue of Lords’ reform. Belloc was incensed.  A House matter was being dealt with by the Front Benches in isolation.  Party discipline would ensure that the parliamentary foot-soldiers would consent to the private deal once it was made public.

The House returned only very briefly in November, before being dissolved for a General Election. During the debate on the Dissolution, Belloc delivers his final parliamentary speech.  In a moment I will quote from it; but first I want to examine how and why Belloc had come to a final decision not to stand for Parliament again.

The final decision was indeed a late one.  Undoubtedly, an election again so soon was an unwelcome surprise to everyone in the House – a great annoyance, expense, and inconvenience, hovering above which was the risk of defeat.  Nonetheless, if Belloc had thought he stood a good chance as an Independent – and had found someone to cover his election costs – I think he would possibly have stood again.  It is clear that he needed encouragement to overcome his natural reaction to flee the place in disgust, similar to the support he received in 1909, despite some misgivings, from his local party.  He spoke to his own local party and told them that he would only stand again as an Independent (nonetheless asking for their support). They could not accept this.  It is suggested that even more than temperance, his local party refused to back him on account of his opposition to female suffrage. Anyway, whatever the reason he had expected this reaction, and knew that without local caucus support (and even possibly with it) an official Liberal would be put up against him and he would not stand a chance, perhaps even splitting the vote in the process to permit a Tory again to win the seat.  He would not now be swayed.  The decision of his local caucus was made and was effectively, practically, final.  He would not stand as a Liberal.  He would not win were he to stand as an Independent.  He claimed he had gone “blowing a huge trumpet and banging the door” behind him.  There was some truth in that.  The really big trumpet blast would come the following year with the publication of The Party System and the establishment of the radical journal The New Witness, a course of events that would lead to the uncovering of the Marconi Scandal.

So how did Belloc blow his trumpet and slam the door on his exit?  His last speech, contrary to his earliest biographer, was not his longest in the House, nor even the longest of this short Parliament.  It was a wide-ranging speech which covered tariff reform, Ireland, and then the Party System and its faults.  He fulminates that the House – and thus effectively the country - is run by the two Front Benches together – “I will not use the farcical and hypocritical term Government”.  He concludes by expressing his belief in the futility of Parliament:

“I do not see how anyone can stand in an English constituency today and say “if you return me I will vote in favour of this or that set of men, self-appointed who are going to bring forward some programme, I know not what.”  If it were possible, which it is not, to fight against this, we might in the new Parliament have achieved something for the country.

For myself, I repeat my own intention as a declaration of faith, that I shall not be at pains to play the party game.  I shall not go to my Constituency and talk about the wicked Leader of the Opposition and the good Prime Minister – angels here and demons there.  I do not act like that, I do not think like that, and I do not believe my Constituents think like that.  If the machine will not let me stand as an Independent to represent my Constituency and to do what my Constituents want done in the 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.”

He was done. Belloc was in some respects right: this election saw fewer seats changing hands than ever before or since. It settled nothing and led to a coalition Government.  Ironically, the official Liberal candidate brought into replace Belloc in his constituency lost the seat to the Tories.

I have not been able – inevitably – to say as much as I would have liked to say.   However, before I finish I would like to leave you with some thoughts, principally derived from those set out in The Party System which was published in 1911.

Belloc, with his French political background, obviously came to see something very unsatisfactory about Britain’s peculiar hybrid parliamentary system, a system essentially the same as that which we have today.  After all, can we directly elect the Prime Minister as Prime Minister? And why do we seem content with that barrier to true representative politics, the political party, which is usually the means by which the Executive’s will is enforced, rather than the will of constituents?  Because the mechanism for control of Parliament by the Executive is the Party System, Belloc aimed most of his fire at that.  A Member cannot serve two masters well, as almost all nowadays are so forced to try.  And while most MPs in public will claim that their first loyalty is to their constituents, in private many will quite candidly reveal otherwise.  They cease to be constituency delegates and become party delegates.  Representative democracy is thwarted.  It is not just a matter of corruption, of the venality of politicians, which Belloc was also all too aware of, or indeed of the secrecy of party funds.  It is a deep problem underlying the whole peculiar evolution of the British parliamentary system. 

He effectively concludes The Party System by saying that the British Parliament is irreformable because of the Executive and Party’s stranglehold over it.  This conclusion is matched by a similar one in his book The House of Commons and Monarchy, written some 9 years later.  In this book he reaches a similar conclusion by different means.  It is often cited as a turning-point, indicating when Belloc turned to monarchy and away from parliamentary democracy.  However, as Belloc points out, democracy means no more than rule by the will of the people, something that does not have to be carried out by a representative assembly, and which of course is thwarted by an assembly that only purports to represent but does in fact constitute no more than an oligarchy of the self-interested.  Too often Belloc’s books are read backwards from his support for Franco in the Spanish Civil War; but given the clear expression of Leonine social and political thought mustered in Belloc’s political career it would be inexcusable to consider him in his later years as some quasi-fascist falangista reactionary, or in these parliamentary years as on an inevitable trajectory in that direction.  He was a Democrat – but he knew that often the last place in which a Democrat should place his hopes is a parliament.  Indeed, he may have thought back to something that Benjamin Jowett, the formidable Master of Balliol College had sad to him while Belloc was a student there – “You cannot have a republic without republicans”.  The same is true for democracy.  When the democratic spirit curdles, representative democracy cannot function,.

But at the end of this talk we should not be left by a sense of depression but with the vision of a forty year old man still with fire in his belly and many books before him.  The story of his life is barely half-way through.  Had his time as an MP helped him sell more books?  Did those magical two letters after his name increase his sales and make him better known?  To a degree, perhaps; but Belloc only really became a household name with World War I and his articles in the massively popular war-time journal Land and Water.  Did it cure him of a restless desire to see what it would be like to be an MP?   Did it open his eyes or simply confirm his suspicions about the British Parliament – or about parliaments more generally?  It's difficult to know.  Had his parliamentary adventure been worth it?  Well, Parliament can hardly have been said to have stopped his amazing fecundity and productivity.  In those busy years time was at such a premium (and money so desperately needed) that its pressure led Belloc to produce gems of prose: it was the period when he refined and, to my mind, perfected his enormous talent as an essayist, a talent, a genius, in which I believe him to be unequalled in English letters.  Just for one essay crafted in this period, “On A Portrait of A Young Child”, for which alone he deserves immortality, I would happily suffer many, many speeches on tariff reform.

Some people speak as though Parliament politicized Belloc, made him dreadfully serious and distracted him from his proper vocation.  Twaddle!  Politics was in the man from his youth.  Parliament did not slow him down as a writer.  And that “spouting well of joy within that never yet was dried” had to contend over time with far more than just the depressing atmosphere of the Edwardian Commons.  Within eight years of his leaving the House his wife, his eldest son and many friends were dead; and massive misery had been wreaked upon the western world. 

The House of Commons is seldom blessed to have the Membership of such a great man as Belloc, poet, writer, controversialist, historian, social commentator, polemicist and proud, militant Catholic.  Let us think of the current 'luminaries' who infest the Chamber, and then – to cheer us – let us think of Belloc.  And let us be glad that what could be regarded as his parliamentary failure was not so much Belloc’s failure as, in many respects, Parliament’s.

I don’t want to end with the stench of Westminster still in our nostrils – and, boy, did it stink today – so I will end with another poem.

The Prophet Lost in the Hills at Evening (printed in 1910)

Strong God which made the topmost stars
To circulate and keep their course,
Remember me; whom all the bars
Of sense and dreadful fate enforce.

Above me in your heights and tall,
Impassable the summits freeze,
Below the haunted waters call
Impassable beyond the trees.

I hunger and I have no bread.
My gourd is empty of the wine.
Surely the footsteps of the dead
Are shuffling softly close to mine!

It darkens. I have lost the ford.
There is a change on all things made.
The rocks have evil faces, Lord,
And I am awfully afraid.

Remember me: the Voids of Hell
Expand enormous all around.
Strong friend of souls, Emmanuel,
Redeem me from accursed ground.

The long descent of wasted days,
To these at last have led me down;
Remember that I filled with praise
The meaningless and doubtful ways
That lead to an eternal town.

I challenged and I kept the Faith,
The bleeding path alone I trod;
It darkens. Stand about my wraith,
And harbour me--almighty God.







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