Some weeks have gone by since the strange news that the Roman Catholic Church is thinking of canonising G. K. Chesterton, author of ‘The Rolling English Road’ and other ditties.
It felt like a silly season story, but the time has gone by and it still seems to be true.
I’m sure it won’t happen. Chesterton was an early critic of Hitler, naming him for what he was before most of the commentariat, but his fatal admiration for Franco and Mussolini probably puts him beyond sainthood these days.
These issues were more complicated then than they seem now. Much of the staff of G.K’s Weekly, Chesterton’s newspaper in the 1930s, were followers of Mosley largely – it seems to me – because of the element of romanticism that Mosley retained when other political parties lost it.
But here is the irony. Chesterton was a committed Liberal for the first half of his life, falling out with the party over the Marconi affair along with his friend Hilaire Belloc, a Liberal MP.
If he was to be canonised, he would be – as far as I know – the first former member of the Liberal Party to be made a saint.
Instead, Chesterton launched and inspired his own political movement in the 1920s, which he called Distributism. It is a Liberal ‘heresy’ but one which attracts me enormously, because of the insight that economic independence for poor people was the basis of human liberty.
Small-scale ownership – emphatically not corporate or plutocratic ownership – of a home and piece of land, was at the heart of it. Belloc borrowed the idea in 1912 from Catholic social doctrine as the only possible inoculation against tyranny from big business or big bureaucracies.
It was also a kind of Liberalism without Fabianism, and Chesterton and the great Fabian George Bernard Shaw used to slug it out in a series of public debates in Holborn, into the 1930s.
Belloc borrowed the idea from Catholic social doctrine as promulgated by Pope Leo XIII, and drafted by Cardinal Manning, who borrowed it partly – you guessed it – from his great friend, William Ewart Gladstone.
So there are links. And they are made explicit in the 1938 Liberal policy on ownership, written by Elliot Dodds, the Huddersfield journalist who was so influential on Liberal thinking in the Grimond years.
"Tribute must be paid to the work of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton who, though they fell foul of the Liberal Party, were such doughty fighters for Liberal values," wrote Dodds in the acknowledgements, "and whose 'Distributist' crusade inspired so many (including the present writer) with the ideal of ownership for all."
There are also clear links between Distributism and mutualism, as long as the mutualism enables individual ownership – for Distributists, ownership which is entirely collective or theoretical (like the way we used to own building societies) was meaningless.
In that respect, St Gilbert Keith Chesterton remained a Liberal, and his Distributist call to arms in 1926 urged the defence of those economic units which were most threatened – and which provided a buttress for individual liberty. It still rings true today:
“Do anything, however small, that will prevent the completion of the work of capitalist combination. Do anything that will even delay that completion. Save one shop out of a hundred shops. Save one croft out of a hundred crofts. Keep open one door out of a hundred doors; for so long as one door is open, we are not in prison.”
It’s good stuff, and I agree with it. But I’m not sure it will lead to canonisation.
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