Entry from May 14, 2004

Dr Johnson’s much misunderstood saying about patriotism’s being the last refuge of a scoundrel came to my mind as I read a letter to The Times of London from a Mr G.V. Harries of Cheltenham. Mr Harries had by his own account been one of the 275 now-notorious members of the Oxford Union who voted in February of 1933, only days after Hitler had come to power in Germany, for the proposition “That this House will in no circumstances fight for King and Country.” No more than 153 votes were recorded against the motion. The Times had reported that the order paper recording the result, framed and hung behind the bar, was recently stolen — along with a portrait of W.E. Gladstone — and Mr Harries was writing to protest against the characterization of the missing paper by the paper’s correspondent, Mr Andrew Pierce, as “the last remaining evidence of what many see as the darkest day of the Oxford Union.”

It’s not as if this were an eccentric opinion, then or since. Mr Pierce points out that Churchill spoke of it at the time as “that abject, squalid, shameless avowal” and added that “One can almost feel the curl of contempt upon the lips of the manhood of [the German, Italian and French] peoples when they read this message sent out by Oxford University in the name of young England.” Historians have speculated that Hitler was emboldened by the news from Oxford to think that the British wouldn’t fight if he threatened war. But Mr Harries thinks they’ve got it all wrong. “My friends and I who voted for the motion not to fight for King and country have been misunderstood ever since,” he writes. “Jo Grimond” — the former Member of Parliament and leader of the Liberal Party — “in his Memoirs had it right: that it was not a pacifist vote but a vote for a wider loyalty to collective security and the League of Nations. The catastrophe of 1914-18 was much in our minds.”

No doubt this much is true. The interwar cult of youth, encouraged by the slaughter of the trenches, had by 1933 taught itself to regard all appeals to King and Country as inherently bogus. Indeed, Orwell wrote that “By 1918 everyone under the age of forty was in a bad temper with his elders, and the mood of anti-militarism which followed naturally upon the fighting was extended into a general revolt against orthodoxy and authority.” But what made me think of Dr Johnson were those fateful words: “a wider loyalty.” It was something very much along the same lines that Johnson was thinking of when he took on John Wilkes’s notion of just such “a wider loyalty” to the nation — that is “patriotism,” on his own account of it — as an excuse for what Johnson regarded as disloyalty to the King.

It’s an interesting comparison in another way because many of those who voted for the “King and Country” resolution were Communists. Anthony Blunt, who ought to know, said that at the other ancient university which he attended at the time, “almost every intelligent undergraduate who came up to Cambridge joined the Communist party some time in his first year.” That word “intelligent” is a form of question-begging — since in the absence of any more objective measure, joining the Communist party seems to have been the criterion of intelligence — but there were certainly enough Communists and Communist-sympathizers among the British intelligentsia between the wars that their revolutionary sense of “a wider loyalty” could hardly have failed to influence even the gentle liberals and League of Nations supporters defended by Mr Harries.

It certainly influenced E.M. Forster, whose dictum that if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friends he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country dates from about the same period and was the principal comment that Blunt had upon his own guilt when he was unmasked as a Communist spy in 1979. But of course one never really does have to choose between betraying one’s country and betraying one’s friends — unless, as in Blunt’s case, one’s friends are themselves traitors. In fact, you could lay it down as a rule, that anytime you hear someone talking about “a wider loyalty” you know he means it as an excuse for betraying, often shamefully, some other obligation of loyalty whose presumptive narrowness is being cited as evidence of its comparative insignificance.

Naturally, no one would wish to suggest that John Kerry’s call to “make the United Nations a full partner” in the American effort in Iraq is tantamount to the Oxford Union’s sense of its “wider loyalty” to the League of Nations — or, indeed, to the Soviet Union — or that it is nothing more than a reason for shirking an obligation of honor. But when in 1971 he accused the men whom he now refers to as his “Band of Brothers” of war crimes, I seem to remember that some talk of “wider loyalties” was in the air. A lot of those men have forgiven and forgotten and are now supporting his candidacy for the presidency, but I must say that if I were one of them I should like to think that my president were a little more reliable with respect to the narrow loyalties before I felt inclined to entrust him with an office requiring a loyalty so wide as to encompass the whole nation.

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