Hilaire Belloc and being principled in politics

By  Ian Hunter, Catholic Register Special
  • March 25, 2010

As Canadian politicians twiddled their thumbs and denounced their opponents for most of an unproductive winter — in the process alienating voters even further from the political process — I recalled a different kind of politician, a man who entered politics not from personal ambition but from conviction, an MP of the British Parliament who chose to quit politics rather than compromise his principles.

That unlikely politician was novelist, poet, essayist and Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953).

Born of mixed parentage (English and French) at La Celle Saint Cloud, about 20 km outside Paris, Belloc loved both France and England (particularly East Sussex). He was educated at Cardinal Newman’s Oratory House; his precocious intellect enabled him to carry off academic prizes in several subjects. One such prize was a signed copy of Cardinal Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius, which Belloc later had to pawn when his finances were precarious.

Following a year of French military service, Belloc went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he excelled academically and was elected president of the student union. A contemporary, E. C. Bentley, thus described him:

“When Belloc came to Oxford . . . a fresh spirit began to work in the intellectual life of England. His immense personal magnetism, his cascade of ideas, of talk, of fervid oratory, his exuberant and irreverent humour, his love of bodily activity and adventure, carried all before them.”

For a temperament as bellicose as Belloc’s, Parliament was a natural outlet. In 1906 he ran as Liberal candidate in the marginal South Salford constituency where the electorate was overwhelmingly Protestant and Belloc’s Catholicism was considered an insurmountable political liability. The Conservative incumbent, J. Greville Greeves, was a wealthy brewer whose family owned a hundred pubs within the constituency. Belloc countered Greeves’ advantage by pointing out that people had died from drinking impure beer; if elected, Belloc promised a Pure Beer Bill. He made good on his promise, but his bill was defeated in parliament.

Urged by his campaign manager to make no mention of religion, Belloc began his first election speech in typical pugnacious fashion:  “Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This (taking a rosary out of his pocket) is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative.”

After a shocked silence, there was applause. Belloc won.

He proved a prickly parliamentarian. So frequently he voted against the government that he was sometimes mistaken for an opposition member.  When a minister proposed “compromise and moderation” over a bill dealing with Catholic education, Belloc rose to say: “I cannot too emphatically point out that those two words are absolutely meaningless when the House of Commons is dealing with the Catholic faith.”

What a contrast Belloc is with our sorry string of ostensibly Catholic prime ministers — Trudeau, Turner, Chretien and Martin — who first initiated, then extended, abortion access until Canada became unique among countries of the Western world in having no legislative restriction on abortion.

Belloc served two terms (1906-1913) but finished up at odds with his party and constituency, the latter because they spurned his proposal to run as an independent. To a close friend Belloc wrote: “I can no longer stand the House of Commons. I see little object in it. It does not govern; it does not even discuss. It is completely futile.”

What would Belloc make of the bellicose barnyard which our House of Commons has become? Better not to ask.

After he left Parliament Belloc continued to lecture and write but, by 1940, the four human beings who had mattered most to him were dead: his wife Elodie, his mother, his eldest son Peter and his closest friend, G. K. Chesterton. Solitary, and increasingly senile, Belloc lived a hermit-like existence at Kingsland, his Sussex home, until July 14, 1953 when he fell out of his chair and was badly burned in the fire grate. Two days later he died.

In a sense, it could be said that Belloc foretold not only his own fate but the fate of that rare bird (probably  extinct now in Canada), the principled politician, the man who puts principle before expediency, when, as a young man, he wrote these lines:

A lost thing could I never find;
Nor a broken thing mend.
And I fear I shall be all alone
When I get to the end.
O who will there be to comfort me,
O who will be my friend?
(Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University.)

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