When Katharine Pindar moved to a rural town in the south of England “nobody inquired after my politics, because after all everybody, from the butcher who carved at the Tory barbecue to the titled dame, was sure to be Conservative”. Pindar was in fact a Liberal and watched with interest how the assumptions of Conservatism were everywhere and how good works – by good people – were undertaken modestly. Pindar knew she could never join their ranks even though “Conservatism was as much part of the culture of this district as the corn was of the land. It was the philosophy of life.” Just not hers.
The chairman of the conservation society handed round sherry, an invariable accompaniment of evening committee meetings at his house. The splendid mahogany table round which we sat was lovingly protected from committee members’ pens with heaps of Country Life. In the centre the silver salver gleamed, to answering gleams from other solid silver items dispersed casually around the room, on bureaux of rosewood and occasional tables of mahogany.
The walls were lined with fine old books. The walls had been lined with books, too, in the house of another chairman whose meetings I had attended – but they were scarcely seen for the clutter of poor furniture and cramped members perching on old chairs round the walls. For that was a world away, in London, and there would have to be a revolution before that particular society had branches in rural England.
But in the small southern town where I now worked it had not taken the community long to realise that here was a potential committee member. I was young, active and had free time – and nobody inquired after my politics, because after all everybody, from the butcher who carved at the Tory barbecue to the titled dame, was sure to be Conservative. I had never given a thought to conservation, but was sufficiently interested in the community I had joined, and sufficiently aware of the historic value of the little town, to consent to join the committee.
The society chairman, who annually opened his grounds to the Conservative fete, was the local doctor. He was a most likeable man, courteous, kindly and restrained. He had fought the good fight for the conservation society by going round personally to see planning offenders, to argue with them with calm and polite good sense. The method seemed to have been effective, for the town had no obvious eyesores. However, the doctor was hotly opposed on the society executive by a retired naval officer, who favoured a much tougher approach of combat and public inquiries, and was apt to let his pugnacity creep into his address.
It was like the Church, of which they were both pillars. Neither of them could conceivably support the opposition. It was impossible to imagine either of them voting for the party of the working man and of nationalisation; and why vote Liberal, when Conservatism embraced all the policies that a rational man could wish to choose from? The doctor and his opponent both lived comfortably in big houses. But when everyone around you is a “have” the selfishness of the definition disappears from view. You want to preserve the comforts of existence not merely for yourself, but for your friends and neighbours, too, and of course for your children.
Besides, preserving your own comfort does not preclude concern for the less fortunate. The doctor was noted for his kindness to old people, the retired naval officer for his work for Christian Aid. I found a notable instance of the real benevolence of my new associates in the village where I now lived, a few miles from the small town. A new old people’s welfare organisation was started there the winter of my arrival. The chairman of the new organisation, a man himself retired, was already continually engaged with his wife in good works.
As modest as generous, the couple did not boast of the extent of their commitments, but these were heard of in their wake – that they had visited this old person, taken another to see a relative in hospital, driven a disabled lady to a social meeting. I was sure that the couple were Liberals – until I found them canvassing for the Conservatives. Gradually I began to understand. Not only were the Third World and the world grain shortage, famine and war far away, so also were the wretchedly housed, the poorly paid, the down-trodden of Britain. In the village, suffering was largely the result of old age and ill-health. There was not enough conflict here to rouse even a Liberal; nothing to test the ultimate generosity of the dwellers in this rural idyll.
It was true that there had been in the village shortly before my arrival a dispute which had led to bad feeling and factions forming. The point at issue had been whether further house-building should be allowed. The proposition had apparently been put by the parish council, whose long-standing members could see the need for new houses; the opposition had come from newcomers who wanted the village to stay as it was when they had moved in. But the dispute had not been a party matter; the majority on both sides belonged to the great Mother Party.
One afternoon I called to ask for support for a good cause on a woman who lived in a large house in the village centre. She was not only generous to the cause, but also proved a likeable and interesting person. The conversation was prolonged, and eventually turned on my hostess’s family. Happily she told me that her daughter was now in South Africa. Was she not fortunate, to be in such a wonderful place and having a marvellous time with crowds of new friends? As I realised the gulf in our viewpoints, a totally unexpected and novel feeling came over me; a feeling of regret that I could never be a Conservative.
For I wanted to be part of this community in which I had chosen to live. It was not merely that refusing to join the Conservatives would deny me access to a considerable social life. The matter went deeper than that. Conservatism was as much part of the culture of this district as the corn was of the land. It was the philosophy of life. It meant that people could be at ease with each other because of a shared belief and outlook, an acceptance of material well-being earned by courtesy and kindness and industrious service to the community. This was the social pressure on one to accept Conservatism because it rationalised a way of life, a simultaneous acceptance of privilege and duty. And because the way of life was based on good fellowship, it seemed somehow uncouth to introduce a note of dissent.
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