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August 04, 2005

A Crisis of Conservative Thought: The Hopes and Fears of Arthur Bryant

Posted by Jeremy Black

In the light of Julia Stapleton's recent study Sir Arthur Bryant and National History in Twentieth-Century Britain, Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - reconsiders Sir Arthur Bryant's contribution to Conservative thought.

The recent appearance of Julia Stapleton's first-rate study Sir Arthur Bryant and National History in Twentieth-Century Britain (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2005) provides an opportunity to reconsider strands in Conservative thought over the last century. Bryant (1899-1985) was a leading Conservative writer, particularly active in Conservative circles in the late 1920s and 1930s. He was very active in the Conservative education movement, close to Baldwin, and, from a perspective of patriotism that Stapleton ably elucidates, not one of neo-Fascism, a supporter of appeasement.

During the war, he then took up with great energy his already-pronounced presentation of a particular vision of the national past that he felt important to a living patriotism in which he thought much of the value of Conservatism resided. Disillusioned, however, with Conservative politics, he refused to stand as a parliamentary candidate in 1945, writing:

After twenty years of disillusionment I am too old to crusade any more for Tory ideals only to find that one is being a smoke screen for stupidity, inertia, and greed.
Welcoming the Beveridge Report, he felt that the Left projected a sense of national unity and social welfare that an inclusive patriotism required, and that the Conservatives would not provide. Experience of Socialism and bureaucratic rule rapidly disillusioned him anew, and Bryant reverted to support for the Conservatives, albeit not with the closeness or enthusiasm he had shown in the 1930s. He was a bitter and prominent opponent of entry into the Common Market and praised Mrs Thatcher. Guests at his eighty-fifth birthday included Macmillan, Wilson, Callaghan, Gielgud and a host of the prominent.

Stapleton's careful study of Bryant's career, thought, books and journalism is not a biography: we learn next to nothing about Bryant's personal life; but for thoughtful readers its focus is more valuable as a result, as we are able to study the travails of romantic Tory nationalism through one of its foremost exponents. Bryant's sense of a living past, his rooting of Conservatism in patriotism and piety, individual rights and social concerns, was clearly very potent. His books sold very well and he was a popular speaker and journalist.

Yet, aside from the obvious point that intellectuals (who Bryant criticised, if not despised, for their failure to engage with the task of uplifting and inspiring the common culture, but of whom he was in many ways also one) do not have to engage with the problems of legislation and, even more, administration, Bryant, like his friend Trevelyan, did not engage with the social changes of a democratic society. With their strong sense of landscape and continuity, neither man sympathised with development, and both loathed the spread of suburbia. This is understandable in aesthetic terms and with reference to a ruralist conception of country and nation, but it is not an approach that accorded with the social changes of the interwar years. Postwar, Bryant was to play a major role in leading the campaign to keep an airport out of the Vale of Aylesbury, but that only ensured it went to Stansted.

Bryant was also willing to praise commercial and industrial enterprise, but he disliked the social disruption attendant on industrialisation, and he was a critic of the utilitarian aspects of capitalism and Socialism alike. He felt them destructive of social welfares, harmony and culture. As Stapleton points out, the transfer of the Romantic ideals of self-creation, genius, individuality and destiny to the collective level of the nation in Disraeli's political thought was echoed throughout Bryant's writings. This amalgam of emotions and ideas also looked toward post-war one-nation Toryism, but it was a static conception unable to adjust to the implications, within a democracy, of changing aspirations and identities that inevitably flowed from social change. At the same time as he denounced Scargill, Bryant was very concerned about monetarism and its impact on Thatcherite policies.

Similarly, his eloquent defence of the individual against attempts to impose uniformity within the welfare state did not address the issue of how best to preserve both liberty and welfare. Bryant was better in the war of words, criticising Bloomsbury writers and others for denigrating historic identities and values, and contesting the authoritarianism of state institutions and precepts. He spoke for an important strand of Conservative sentiment, one only fitfully represented in recent years as the Conservative Party and Conservative intellectuals have largely failed to shape and articulate an eloquent and popular account of the national interest. The challenge is still there, not least in the face of New Labour's gross neglect of this most important aspect of public culture and identity.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter.

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