Review: David Lindsay, ‘Confessions of an Old Labour High Tory’ (2008)

This book appeared some years ago, but it has only just come to my attention as one of the very few expositions of Jacobitism and paternalistic traditionalism to be written in England in modern times. It is always encouraging to encounter another Jacobite voice, even if I do not agree with everything in David Lindsay’s book. Lindsay is absolutely right to locate the original ideals of the Labour Party of Keir Hardie within the old High Tory tradition, and this is surely the book’s major insight – that the old Labour Party of the 19th and early 20th centuries was never intended as a Trojan Horse for Marxism, but rather enjoyed the allegiance of the working class combined with eccentric members of the aristocracy. In other words, just as the Tory government of Queen Anne (the last true Tory government) was founded on an alliance of the monarchy, the aristocracy and the loyalty of the lower orders (to the exclusion of the mercantile class), so the old Labour Party attempted something similar. Not to mention the fact that the social paternalism of old-fashioned Toryism is far closer in spirit to left-wing socialism than anything espoused by self-styled Tories after 1832, or even after 1714. The Labour Party was an attempt at an alliance between the aristocracy and the working class (even if its rhetoric attacked the aristocracy), as opposed to the alliance of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie that had characterised both the Whig and Tory parties in the 19th century.

‘Old Labour High Tory’ is thus not a contradiction at all, and Lindsay bolsters the coherence of his political position by linking the old High Tory tradition of social paternalism to the Catholic social teaching of Pope Leo XIII. Where I part company with Lindsay is on his ultramontanism. He insists that the rise of princely absolutism retarded the ‘social reign of Christ’, which could only be enabled by the policies of the ultramontane 19th century Popes. The problem with Lindsay’s ultramontanism is that it undermines his Jacobite credentials. There is a chapter in his book that argues that the American Revolution was an echo of a residual Jacobite dissatisfaction with the Whig and Hanoverian settlement, but I am not confident that Lindsay really understands what Jacobites believed. Like many English Catholics, his interest in Jacobitism would appear to be stimulated by a belief that it represents a Catholic political ideology – but without a critical consideration of whether the ‘Catholicism’ defended by Jacobites was the Catholicism of Pio Nono and Benedict XVI. To be fair to Lindsay, he is happy to acknowledge the contribution of nonconformists and Scottish Episcopalians to the Jacobite tradition (he makes little or no mention of English Non-Jurors), but he does not seem to have given thought to the fact that Catholic Jacobites were not ultramontane in their views of the Papacy. Or if he has considered this (he mentions that Innocent XI illuminated the Lateran Palace after the Battle of the Boyne) then he is putting forward what is, in effect, an anti-Jacobite view. Lindsay appears to be in favour of England’s close ties with America, and uses his argument that the American republic was inspired by Jacobitism to justify this, but at the same time he appears to reject the ideal of monarchical absolutism and the legitimacy of James II’s campaign in Ireland. Lindsay may be right that the Founding Fathers of the USA were inspired by an earlier British tradition of political dissent, but he does not seem to take Jacobitism seriously.

The most serious failing of Lindsay’s book, in my view, is his approach to Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Lindsay is an unabashed unionist, and he argues that because the Catholic church consistently adopted a unionist position in the 19th century, the only consistent position for a Catholic is unionism. He characterises the heroes of 1916 as a self-interested lunatic fringe and even attempts to argue that the Act of Union of 1801 benefitted Ireland, dismissing the potato famine as a natural disaster that would have happened anyway, and which the British government worked hard to alleviate. Were I an Irishman, I would find Lindsay’s argument offensive. I am astonished that anyone could still argue that the English crown’s claim to Ireland was founded on Hadrian IV’s grant of the Lordship of Ireland to Henry II – this presupposes an ultramontane understanding of the Pope’s temporal power that was long since repudiated even by the Papacy itself. Furthermore, Lindsay seems to ignore that fact that it was the less-than-ultramontane Henry VIII who assumed the title ‘King of Ireland’, in defiance of Papal claims that Ireland was a fief of the Holy See. Ireland already had quite a few kings of its own in 1171 (and indeed still had them in 1541). By disregarding the legitimate claims of those kings, Lindsay makes a nonsense of the legitimism he champions elsewhere in the book – legitimism, it would seem, only applies to a fully developed nation-state.

Lindsay’s lack of understanding of Ireland continues into his claim that Irish republicanism was a foreign import inspired by the French Revolution, without any consideration of how native traditions of dissent, such as the Catholic Confederation and Whiteboyism, might have contributed to the rising of the United Irishmen. Irish republicanism arose from a dissatisfaction with British rule, but also resentment at the imposition of an English concept of the nation-state on what remained an essentially pre-modern clan-based society – and thus the republican tradition is as much an assertion of ancient Irish ideas of sovereignty than it is an anti-monarchical or French innovation. Sovereignty over Ireland lies with the men and women in whose veins runs the blood of the ancient Irish kings who were deprived of their birthright by an occupying power, making a republic the only ‘legitimist’ form of government appropriate to Ireland.

Lindsay’s claim that Irish republicans are anti-Catholic is a distortion of the facts. Anti-clericalism is indeed a strand within Irish republican polemic, which often regarded the clergy (and the bishops in particular) as apologists for the British occupation, but this did not mean that Irish republicans had any desire to exclude the Catholic church from Irish life or impose a kind of secularism. It is true that the early Irish republican movement included both Catholics and Protestants, but this did not diminish their commitment to a Catholic Ireland. In contemporary Ireland, the best way for the state to save the church from itself is to break many of the bonds forged by De Valera – and Enda Kenny is making a heroic effort to give the Catholic church in Ireland breathing space to re-establish its moral authority, as opposed to its state-sanctioned position of privilege. When it comes to Scotland and Wales, Lindsay is even more dismissive – principally because he sees the Scottish and Welsh nationalists as complicit in an attempt to draw Britain ever more closely into the European Union. Whilst I respect Lindsay’s scepticism of Europe (even if I do not entirely share it), I believe that his book needed to deal a little more seriously with the Scottish question.

Overall, Lindsay’s book is strong as a commentary on the history of the British Labour Party (and indeed British politics in general), but weak on historical understanding of Jacobitism and a real appreciation of Irish politics and history. His narrative is vitiated throughout by an uncritical ultramontanism that imposes a narrow 19th century version of Catholicism on earlier eras and on contemporary events. I suggest a second edition with the adulation of the Papacy excised – that would be a magnificent book.

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1 Comment

Filed under constitutional matters, history, Ireland, jacobitism

One response to “Review: David Lindsay, ‘Confessions of an Old Labour High Tory’ (2008)

  1. mark

    English catholics have since the days of the jacobite rebellion shown a volkish mentality that makes anti semitism appear to be child’s play e.g. the famous anglo italian noble john acton slandered the celts as just soldiers and peasants just like david lindsay plus many others whov’e commented in the catholic herald calling us ‘violent people’ it seems most abuse directed at the irish within the catholic church comes from anglophone/english catholics……………………

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