From journalist to Tory PM – Part II – Does the Sermon on the Mount apply to governments?

Eton was not good for Robert Gascoyne-Cecil (Lord Salisbury).  He was brutally bullied and his father would not take him away from the school.  According to Andrew Roberts, Eton fed his ‘pessimism about human nature’, and his assumptions about the ‘cowardice of the silent majority, the cruelty of the mob and the vulnerability of the rights of the individual’ – not so bad in themselves, but worrying when the speaker puts himself above the majority – as he surely will.  ‘I think the human heart naturally so bad that if not checked by true religion, the bad will generally prevail over the good’.  That is far less healthy.  And Salisbury sent his own sons to Eton – because he thought it had improved.  That was a rare welcome of change from a man who was instinctively against it.

At one time, Cecil, while a journalist, said that ‘we are to be governed by a set of weathercocks, delicately poised, warranted to indicate with unnerving accuracy every variation in public feeling.’  Well, we have seen that gutlessness triumphant.  But then he went on to speak of Realpolitik, and to put the teaching of Christ in its place.

No one dreams of conducting national affairs with the principles which are prescribed to individuals.  The meek and poor spirited among nations are not to be blessed, and the common sense of Christendom has always prescribed for national policy principles which are diametrically opposed to those that are laid down in the  Sermon on the Mount.’

This is most important.  We suspect that governments proceed on this basis, but we rarely see it spelt out this way.  The dispensation is said to come from ‘common sense’, not scripture.  Jesus did not say that his teachings did not apply to Caesar.  You will find no support in Scripture for the notion that government is as no-fly zone for the Sermon on the Mount.  And how and when do you draw the line?

Later Salisbury ‘treated scruples….with marked contempt….if our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people, the British Empire would not have been made.’  How many hundred millions, including the Irish, would have said – so much the better?  This is an imperial rejection of the Sermon on the Mount.

On another occasion, Salisbury said that ‘The vast multitude of Indians I thoroughly believe are well contented with our rule…they have changed masters so often that there is nothing humiliating to them in having gained a new one.’  But he later said that they would ‘certainly cut every English throat they can lay their hands on whenever they can do it safely’.

Christianity forced its way up from being the religion of slaves and outcasts, to become the religion of the powerful and rich; but somehow it seems to have lost the power of forcing its way down again.

You will find no warrant for that transition in Scripture.  If it is a fair comment, it explains the near terminal position of the Church today.

Accordingly, rebellious subjects could easily be put down.  When some Australian colonists got frisky, Cecil said that ‘four sloops of war could at any time bring the four colonies to their knees.’

This imperial Christian’s views on the Civil War were quite odd – to the point of madness.  He supported the Confederacy because ‘the best chance for the alleviation of the slave’s condition lies in the increased wealth and prosperity of the South.’  Of the Red Indians, he had said that the Americans ‘sought to Christianise the country by the simple expedient of slaughtering all who were not Christians.’  John Wilkes Booth had shown ‘not only courage but the hardihood of desperation.’  And, you, too, Judas?

He was of course brutally racist with the Irish.  ‘A sound whipping – stinging but not injurious – administered once a week for six months is the prescription and the world will have heard the last of Fenianism.’  A whipping that is ‘stinging but not injurious’ – was one taught that at Eton or Oxford?  Like Cromwell, he wanted ‘a strong and merciless hand’ in Ireland.  When people said the Irish should get their freedom like Canada and Australia, Salisbury said that Ireland was only four hours away and ‘a large proportion of the Irish people hated us.’  In one famous faux pas, he compared the Irish to the Hottentots – who were beneath the Orientals governed in India.

As Roberts remarked in another context, ‘Salisbury believed implicitly in the politics of prestige and vengeance.’  So do most politicians – but not many get to live up to it.  If Britain could not rule Ireland, ‘what right have we to go lecturing the Sultan as to the state of things in Armenia or Macedonia?’  In the Transvaal, he said, ‘to put it in a terse Oriental phrase, they have eaten dirt in vain.’  This book really should be compulsory reading for the whole State Department.

Because of his birth, and connections, Salisbury did not have to ask for votes.  He was spared

….days and weeks of screwed-up smiles and laboured courtesy, the mock geniality, the hearty shake of the filthy hand, the chuckling reply that has to be made to the coarse joke, the loathsome choking compliment that must be paid to the grimy wife and sluttish daughter, the indispensable flattery of the vilest religious prejudices, the wholesale deglutition of hypocritical pledges.

Well, at least the ruling class then did not have to mix with shock jocks.

Salisbury did have some journalistic flair.  ‘Matters seem very critical….a woman on the Throne and a Jew adventurer who had found out the secret of getting around her.’  He was spot on there and he overcame his dislike of Disraeli to form a strong combination with him – and to learn from him.  (He learned never to respond to the press unless they were dead wrong.)  He spoke of politicians ‘whose courage overboils in Opposition and only simmers in office.’  There are plenty of those around.

He diagnosed the condition of Greece:

The Greeks have magnificent dreams and splendid recollections but after seventy years of independence, their exchequer is nearly bankrupt, their public men and their tribunals are corrupt, and their punishment of crime is so uncertain by political favouritism and brigandage is beginning to rear its head again.

Yes, we can see that; but later he said ‘the Greeks are a contemptible race.’

He of course savaged Rousseau and Voltaire: ‘By their writings – their infidelity and their rant about the rights of man that the gloomy enthusiasts were inspired.’  He also bucketed moderates like Lafayette, Necker and Sieyes.

They believed intensely in amiable theories, they loved the sympathy and applause of their fellow men, they were kind-hearted and charitably fancied everybody as well-meaning as themselves, and therefore…they were the proximate causes of a civil convulsion which, for the horror of its calamities, stands alone in the history of the world.

There is a lot to be said for that view.

He had the heart of a conservative.  ‘With us the feebleness of our government is our security – and the only one we have against revolutionary changes in the law.’  Is government in the U S and here crippled now by that attitude?

We have so to conduct our legislation that we shall give some satisfaction to both classes and masses.  This is specially different with the classes – because all legislation is rather unwelcome to them as tending to disturb a state of things with which they are satisfied.

This is a true conservative – but not a zealot.  He wanted to legislate about housing for the poor, compensation for workers, and pensions for the aged – for each of which he could be damned as a socialist in the U S today.

When property is in question, I am guilty of erecting individual liberty as an idol, but when you pass from liberty to life, in no well-governed state, in no state governed according to the principles of common humanity, are the claims of mere liberty to endanger the lives of the citizens.

This was the British political genius – never let theory run over the facts.  Which they did in the Boer War when 20,000 Boer women and children died in concentration camps.  Still, Salisbury would not be the last conservative PM who professed to follow the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount who would be content to lock up unwanted foreigners in concentration camps.

And Salisbury also saw exactly how bad politics could get.

Nobody argues now.  They give you an opinion neatly expressed in a single sentence, and that does the work of argument.  My belief is that a fallacy in two lines will carry you further than a mathematical demonstration in two pages.

Bull’s eye!

Well, Salisbury was a real conservative in an imperial age.  He was a man of his time, and what we now call a conviction politician – but it does not look like politics ever change much.  Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  Although that is not a proposition that would have commended itself to his lordship.

But to come back to the question posed at the head of this note – I am very confident that the present pope would be horrified at merely the suggestion that the question might be asked, and it is impossible to duck that question when looking at our moral obligation to refugees.  What does the Sermon on the Mount say about detention camps for people who claim to be refugees?

Here truly is an issue ripe for discussion.

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