Who was the most right-wing man in history?PAUL JOHNSON
The recent death of Michael Wharton, aged 92, raises the interesting question: who was the most right-wing person who ever lived?
Many thought he was. I am not sure he did himself. The last time I saw him, when he was already very old, I asked him how he saw himself and he replied, ‘Moving to the right.’ He said this as if regretting a life of obstinate radicalism, though as the honorary editor-in-chief of the Feudal Times and Reactionary Herald for more than half a century it was always difficult to get to the right of him (I tried) in any issue on the political agenda. On other matters he resembled Gilbert Pinfold (or his creator, Evelyn Waugh) and ‘abhorred ... everything that had happened in his lifetime’.
Wharton’s own hero was Colonel Charles de Laet Waldo Sibthorpe (1783–1855), MP for many years for Lincoln, a borough represented previously by his elder brother, father, great-uncle, great-great-uncle, and after his death by his eldest son. He served in the Peninsular war, in the 4th Dragoon Guards, and inherited Canwick Hall and the family estate in Lincolnshire; by his wife, Maria, heiress of Ponsonby Tottenham, he acquired another estate in Ireland. The DNB says, ‘He belonged to the ultra-Tory and ultra-protestant party, and was the embodiment of old-fashioned prejudice.’ He was one of the diehard group of 53 Tories who censured free trade in 1852. His one parliamentary success was to get the proposed grant to Prince Albert reduced by half on the grounds that he promoted ‘foreign influence’, and he opposed the Great Exhibition for the same reasons. Otherwise he sounds pretty tame, though one would like to know what was meant by the statement, ‘His appearance was extraordinary and his dress attracted attention.’
Twentieth-century equivalents of Sibthorpe are increasingly rare. An undergraduate friend of mine who made lists of them used to award the prize to Sir Waldron Smithers, an eccentric traditionalist who sat for seats in Kent from 1924 to his death in 1954. His place was taken by Captain Waterhouse MP, who for some years led a cave of diehards called ‘the Suez Group’. But I heard it said that Waterhouse, though ‘splendid’ on the Middle East, was ‘unreliable’ on some issues, being ‘not sound’ on animal rights. Julian Amery, indeed, told me he was ‘well to the right’ of the captain. But then he himself was ‘unsound’ on capital punishment, since his brother John had been shot in the Tower in 1945. Few people have ever been ‘sound’ across the whole spectrum. Even the Duke of Cambridge was not, by his own admission, a last-ditcher. As he put it, ‘They say I am against reform. I am not against reform. There is a time for everything. And the time for reform is when it can no longer be resisted.’ Ramrod-straight and unflinchingly regimental, did he not harbour a cosy, sentimental streak? He was once heard to observe, ‘fists on his knees’, that ‘family prayers are a damned fine institution, by God!’
There is always a weak spot in every reactionary. C.S. Lewis told me, when ambling through Addison’s Walk at Magdalen, that Joseph de Maistre was the ideal right-winger. He thought the most important official in the state was le bourreau, the executioner, ultimate guarantor of order. There were three divine laws of society: monarchy is a necessity; the monarch must be absolute; his duty is to uphold papal supremacy. De Maistre is the only political philosopher who is consistently shrewd. He coined the axiom, ‘Every country has the government it deserves.’ But Lewis thought de Maistre’s wit was his weakness: ‘A true reactionary has no sense of humour. You must be able to propose the impossible with a straight face.’ Michael Wharton, of course, would not have agreed with that. He took the Chestertonian line that all truth was encoded in a joke, a view shared by Ronald Reagan, the most successful right-winger of modern times, who communicated entirely through one-liners and had over 5,000 of them, by heart, for every conceivable occasion.
Most historical right-wing figures, on close examination, prove inconsistent. Charles X, the last Bourbon, invited Victor Hugo to his coronation, the bloody fool. Ferdinand of Naples, supposedly the touchstone of reactionary purity in the Congress of Vienna era, had himself sculpted by Canova, on a colossal scale, dressed as a woman: Minerva the Goddess of Wisdom. You can still see this extraordinary piece of work in the Capodimonte Museum, though they do tuck it away rather. Then again, Ferdinand VII of Spain never had a bodyguard and escaped assassination. He can’t have been that reactionary.
One of the great errors of political taxonomy is to classify Hitler as right-wing. He, and still more his closest colleague, Goebbels, were socialists, and the fact they were nationalists first did not orient them more to the right. There are six indispensable hallmarks of a conservative. First, firm belief in one, beneficent and omnipotent God. Second, absolute morality as the basis of public law. Third, strict limits on the size of the state. Fourth, respect for a multiplicity of traditional power centres. Fifth, restraint and self-restraint in all things. Sixth, search for the right balance between the individual and the traditional units of society. Hitler broke all these rules: he was an atheistic pagan, a moral relativist, a totalitarian, an ultra-centralist, an uninhibited exhibitionist and a collectivist. In many ways Stalin was to the right of him. There is a seventh point. A conservative is not afraid of force, or of using it thoroughly. But always as a last resort. With Hitler it was the first.
This brings me to another puzzle of ideological classification. The phrase is often used by thoughtless people, TV interviewers, tabloid columnists, etc. ‘He is even to the right of Genghis Khan.’ The implication is that Genghis Khan is on the extreme right of the political spectrum. What is the origin of this belief? And when did the phrase come into use? I believe it is hardly more than half a century old. Hitler, again, is to blame. He is seen, falsely, as the epitome of ‘the Right’. He is also seen, more accurately, as a mass killer on an unprecedented scale. Before the 20th century, the classical perpetrator of terrorist massacre, pillage and the destruction of cities was Genghis Khan. He was not, however, seen as a political figure of either left or right — just as a savage barbarian. Hitler, however, was linked with him as a mass killer, and therefore Genghis took on Hitler’s political colouration. In fact, Stalin killed more people than Hitler, and Mao twice as many again, 70 million at the latest count. So logically, Genghis should have taken on this political colouration, and the phrase should run, ‘He’s even to the left of Genghis Khan.’I have been doing some work on Genghis recently, to see if he is a suitable subject for a biographical essay in my next book, Monsters. On a personal level he is badly documented, and no interesting person emerges. He did two unusual things: he codified tribal customs in a written system of law, and he devised a fast and efficient messenger service. Both are (as a rule) desirable things but not particularly conservative, let alone ultra-right-wing. However, Genghis was philoprogenitive to perhaps a unique degree. In 2003 a DNA survey suggested that 16 million men can probably claim descent from Genghis Khan. That is a remarkable fact, if true. But what does it prove about the Khan’s political affiliations?
Paul Johnson. "Who was the most right-wing man in history?" The Spectator (February 25, 2006).
This article is from Paul Johnson's "And another thing" column for The Spectator and is reprinted with permission of the author.
Copyright © 2006 Paul Johnson
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