Sunday 13 November 2022

Beloved over all: how conservatism isn't like other politics

God gave all men all earth to love,
But since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove Belovèd over all;
That, as He watched Creation’s birth,
So we, in godlike mood,
May of our love create our earth
And see that it is good.
Kipling knew when he wrote these words, that the world is a big place. Too big for us to truly love, too much of it is too far away, too foreign, just not home. It isn't that we don't care for people in Hue or Houston but that we care so much more about home, about family and about the spot we love the most.

When I set out recently to explore modern conservatism the result was confused - you can read the unfinished article here. It wasn't that I'd failed to find important things to say about how modern conservatism lost its way but rather that, like many modern conservatives, I'd lost the essence of what we believe, an essence captured in Kipling's words.

I'd begun with a reminder that conservatism isn't an ideology - quoting American conservative writer Andrew Sullivan:
"Conservatism, if it means anything, is a resistance to ideology and the world of ideas ideology represents, whether that ideology is a function of the left or the right"
But to appreciate what Sullivan is saying, I needed some inspiration, something that led me back to those words Kipling wrote about the Sussex he loved. And three things happened - the Ukrainians liberated Kherson, the Hookland email arrived and I went to the theatre. After this I remembered that conservatism is about our relationship with place, that this relationship is transcendent, and that it isn't only physical but emotional, it is the feeling of home.

You'll have seen the images of Kherson's liberation, the cheers and smiles, the literal relief on people's faces. One image sticks in my mind. It is the image of the middle aged woman lifting up a piece of paving under which she'd buried an Ukrainian flag. This woman was uncovering the symbol of nation that had been taken from her by invaders, she was reminding us that picture of Ukraine, capturing its sky and corn but also more than that, pride in a place forged in hiding and adversity.

Hookland is a real place. Not real in the sense that you can find its towns, hills and pubs in the AA Book of the Road, but real in the sense that the people who write about its ghosts, sea hags, witches and wise policemen reflect the place that birthed that imagined county - England. In the latest newsletter we are presented with an observation from Emily Banting, witch (taken, we're informed, from her postal correspondence course in witchery):
"When the witch walks a corpse road or lych way, she does it in communion with those that travelled before. A movement in which the intimate exchange of thoughts and feelings is possible. A travelling not of trespass, but shared journey. We must always have the manners to know that you do not poke those walking beside you."
Here we encounter transcendence, the idea that our relationship with home isn't just about now or even tomorrow, that relationship is also about those Kipling evoked in his charm:
Take of English earth as much
As either hand may rightly clutch.
In the taking of it breathe
Prayer for all who lie beneath.
Not the great nor well-bespoke,
But the mere uncounted folk
Of whose life and death is none
Report or lamentation.
Our idea of place and our identification with home is founded on the things that those mere uncounted folk did - the walls they built, the fields they tilled, the woods they planted and a thousand other things that shaped our environment, the work that made it possible for you to look out and say "wow, I love this place".

These thoughts were in my mind as I travelled to Leeds Grand Theatre to see "Fisherman's Friends, The Musical". Based on the true story of the Port Isaac fisherman's choir and the film that story inspired, this musical tells of that choir and why songs and shanties matter. The part when Jago dies drew together the thoughts in my head, the idea of why place matters and how that mattering is transcendent, about hundreds of years of history and tradition.

If we want to understand 'true conservatism' we can't start with the actions of government or the meanderings of philosophers. We should, to grasp conservatism's permanence, sit and look out at the place our small heart loves most.

Giovanni Guareschi described the little world of Don Camillo and Peppone in Italy's Po valley. Guareschi's creations came to life far beyond Lombardy because we all instantly understood when he wrote:
" the Little World between the river and the mountains, many things can happen that cannot happen anywhere else. Here, the deep, eternal breathing of the river freshens the air, for both the living and the dead, and even the dogs have souls."
Conservatism isn't about politics in the way that liberals and socialists think about politics. We don't have a prescription for the perfect society written down by a prophet in the 18th or 19th century. Nor are we the shouty, ignorant rant of nationalism where love of place is corrupted to "we are better than them".

Conservatives know that Kipling was right about our small hearts and that we are mere stewards of the place we love. But, just because we love our home the most doesn't mean we cannot or should not love all the world or that we should dismiss those for whom somewhere else is belovèd over all.

Conservatism is about us making the places we all love (and even the seemingly ugliest of places is loved by someone) a little bit better, about us being a little part of the legion of barely remembered people who loved the place too. The people whose wisdom the witch Emily Banting knows can help us make the right choices today. And when something breaks in our place we won't sit in despair but will dig up the flag, wave it proudly and set to fixing the broken. Not as an act of jingo but just because we love that place.


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