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April 03, 2007

Cheer Up, Gloomy Dean: England - William Ralph Inge, D.D., C.V.O.

Posted by Lincoln Allison

by William Ralph Inge, D.D., C.V.O.
Pp. 302. Ernest Benn, 1926
Part of the Benn series on The Modern World: a Survey of the Historical Forces

W. R. Inge (1860-1954) was one of the best known pundits of the inter-war period. His opinions were on offer not just in the pulpit, but in the lecture hall and in books, magazines and newspapers and, towards the end of his career, on the radio. He was Dean of St. Paul's from 1911 to 1934 and his title, like that of Dr Johnson, became a kind of forename: he was almost invariably know as "Dean Inge" to a wider public. He was also known as "the Gloomy Dean" because of the general pessimism of his view of society. It must have been a bold step in some respects to offer him the home turf in Benn's Modern World series, but in purely commercial terms it paid off handsomely. My edition is the third, all produced rapidly within 1926, and it takes account of the failure of the General Strike.

England consists of six chapters: "The Land and its Inhabitants", "The Soul of England", "Empire", "Industrialism", "Democracy" and "Epilogue". All treat their subjects very broadly. The long chapter on the Empire, for example, is less than half about the Empire in strict terms, but is more generally concerned with Britain's place in the world. Therein lies a problem because the dean is as shifting and slack about whether he is talking about Britain or England as any sports commentator.

In most of the chapter on Empire, for example, he seems to equate Britain and England, but then he complains that (p. 158):

It has been a bad sign that England, in the narrower sense, has not taken her place as the predominant partner. We are governed by Scots, Welsh, Irish and Jews.
So who are we, according to the Dean? It is a question which dominates the first two chapters. He refuses to swallow the racial-national myths of the time, but shifts through the academic evidence quite carefully to conclude that we are a mixture of a large number of Germanic and Scandinavian tribes with pre-existing peoples of Mediterranean origin. A "mongrel" race, in other words, and he is opposed to the use of the term "Celt". Logically, he ought also to be opposed to the term "Anglo-Saxon", but he uses it casually on a number of occasions. The two things he is completely wrong about, according to the DNA research of our own times, is that he boldly asserts that the Romans did not interbreed with the local population and that the Germanic invaders did not interbreed with the previous population. It is as if he wants us to be "Anglo-Saxons", but has to accept at least some of the evidence that we are not.

His account of our "soul" or "national character" is equally contradictory. But, of course, this is the general form for any such account based either on outsiders' descriptions or on self-ascription or both. We are gentle, but brutal, humble, but arrogant, perfidious, but fair etc. One particular contradiction captures the eye. Inge repeats the story of the "Private of the Buffs" who refuses to kow-tow to a Chinese warlord and is executed for his gesture while 150 asians, who do abase themselves, are spared. A true Englishman? But then we are offered a story of the Duke of Wellington (p. 65):

Another characteristic, which seems to belong to the nation without distinction of class, is a commonsense prudence and practicality which readily surrenders "the point of honour" to utility. A story of the Duke of Wellington during the Peninsular War is a good illustration. He had planned a combined operation on a large scale, and called on the Spanish General to secure his co-operation. That hidalgo replied that it was not consistent with his dignity to grant a request from the English commander unless he went down on his knees to ask for it. The Duke explained afterwards that he wanted the thing done, and did not care a twopenny damn about going on his knees; "so down I plumped". No French or German general would have abased his dignity in this way, and presumably the operation would have been given up.
Putting aside the technicalities that no source is given for this story and that the Duke was, in a sense, an Irishman, I am inclined to say that the "Private of the Buffs" was an idiot - and a very un-English one at that - and the Duke, in this story as in general, is a fine example of the pragmatic wheeling, dealing and sound administrative practice which gave us the Empire.

So, can anything be said about "National Character" except that arguing about it is like wrestling in a pool full of olive oil? In the end, the dean opts for two characteristics: individualism and a higher than normal immunity to dogma and superstition. Both the General and the Private in the above stories can then be seen as individualists: the private is making his own (rather costly) gesture whereas the Duke is acting in the general interest, but in his own way. So - independence and no-nonsense; stand on your own two feet and shout bollocks.

Here we must examine his views on religion. They are not very explicit except in one respect: he is not ecumenical. Though he does not actually call the Pope the Anti-Christ it is very clear that in his view if you cannot be an Anglican (or possibly a Methodist) it would be far, far better not to be religious at all. Calling yourself a Christian does not make you one; true Englishmen were opposed to the papacy long before the reformation and you cannot be an Englishman in the real sense and also be a catholic. We are never anti-clerical precisely because our opposition to the superstition and dogma which define Catholicism pre-empts any need for anti-clericalism. Our historic enemies all fall under the heading of Caesaropapism, which includes all those popes and catholic monarchs and Napoleon, a sort of "humanitarian" pope.

Incidentally, the Dean is as passionately in favour of animal rights as he is opposed to suffragettes, which gives him yet further reason for detesting Southern Europeans, generally co-extensive with Catholics.

His enthusiasm for empire is considerable, but moderate. That is, he is no fantasy imperialist (like Beaverbrook or Churchill) who thinks the empire can persist and strengthen as an economic and political unit. He sees it, in the conventional way, as a kind of accident (p. 90):

No deep-laid schemes of founding an empire were ever made in this country.
There is also much for a Christian to regret in the history of empire, including piracy and slavery. The crucial periods in the rise of British power are the Elizabethan, when we achieved the improbable in maintaining national independence, and the war of 1756-63 when our dominance of India and North America was assured. But self-government was always the norm and central control was never an option. Indeed, his general statement about Empire is that (p. 88):
The Commonwealth of self-governing societies, which we still call by the honoured name of the British Empire, has many claims to our admiration and loyalty.
However, it cannot be sustained: we are essentially a small power, now weakened by the Great War and out-ranked by our former colony, the United States. Our economic and political problems are fundamental.

Which brings us to the dean at his gloomiest, in descriptions of an England which is over-populated, dependent on imported food, idle, riven with class hatred and unable to compete with newly industrialised nations. A political system which brings labour (and Labour) to power determined to further shackle economic vigour through legislation. We are all doomed, at least in the medium term; it is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. "Democracy" is neither sensible nor consistent with our parliamentary tradition. But there is no alternative: an "English Mussolini" would neither work nor fit our ways. We must struggle on and keep what is good alive through the Church and the public schools. It is interesting to note that the Dean is not terribly worried by Soviet Communism which he considers to be an absurdity which will collapse into a conservative peasant republic. His fears are mainly of "syndicalism" and its cousins, trade unionism and "Guild Socialism".

Social commentators in our own day are pretty keen not to be judged on their capacity to prophesy. But the Dean has a good deal to say about the remaining three quarters of the twentieth century and scores rather high marks for prediction. Because of the American insistence on the "Balkanisation" of Europe (Wilson) and French determination to screw the Germans into the ground (Clemenceau) Great War Part II is inevitable. It will be marked by horrors and barbarities hitherto inconceivable. (Keep going, Dean, this is good!) Next (p. 270),
The only other type of government which seems to me possible has been already sketched in this chapter - bureaucratic State Socialism. At present there is no movement in this direction; but it might not improbably follow another European War. If this country were involved in another struggle for its existence, like the Great War of 1914-18, there would certainly be not only compulsory military service, but a mobilization of all the available resources of the country - what is sometimes called a conscription of wealth. In other words, for the duration of the war, a bureaucratic State Socialism would be hastily installed and organised. The condition of the country at the end of the war, whether we were successful or not, would be such that an arbitrary government of a military type would be a necessity . . . . In this way a system of State Socialism might be established and, once established, it might have a long life.
. . . though it would eventually collapse, perhaps under American influence. I cannot help but compare this rather shrewd prognosis with that of its contemporary, Where Is Britain Going? by Leon Trotsky which is wrong in every conceivable respect. Yet I have met lots of Trotskyites and no Ingeans. This is partly because of the human capacity for stupidity and partly because liberals and conservatives don't do intellectual cults.

So cheer up, Gloomy Dean. You rightly said that the twentieth century would be difficult, but that the one after might just be better. If the English Imperial Project, considered broadly, is to create a world which is capitalist, free-trading, English-speaking and increasingly free from dogma and superstition, then its fate perked up considerably towards the end of the twentieth century. A lot of your enemies, including the Catholics and various forms of socialist had a bad time. You did think that the fate of our imperial interests in the broadest sense would depend on improved relations with the Americans which would, in turn, depend on them being more grateful and reasonable (p. 278):
Much will depend on the friendliness of the United States, on which we cannot count, but of which we need not despair.
Well, you would have liked the Cold War, the "Special Relationship" and NATO and all that - and the result of the Cold War. You would have loved Margaret Thatcher. On the down side, you had no conception of the "Islamic revival", nor would it have occurred to you that Great Britain would have considerable immigration. You wouldn't have liked these things. Moreover marriage and the family have declined beyond your worst fears.

Inge's political premises were more "Old Liberal" than anything else, though the kind of Liberal who, when the "strange death" occurred, headed for the Tory party rather than Labour and with many individual eccentricities. Perhaps, more than anything else, he was a nationalist for a nation which could never be "little". His concluding sentiment is (p. 290),
This much I can avow, that never, even when the stormclouds appear blackest, have I been tempted to wish that I was other than an Englishman.
Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.

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