Waugh on Politics

Athough Evelyn Waugh professed no interest in party politics and asserted that he never voted, he has been cited several times recently in political articles. In a Weekly Standard article earlier this month on the unfortunate politics of the British Royal family in the 1930s, Waugh’s assessment of George VI is quoted:

Evelyn Waugh called George VI’s reign “the most disastrous” since the Middle Ages: an empire lost, a country demolished by war, and socialists ruling the rubble.

Waugh is here quoted from a letter to Nancy Mitford, dated 15 February 1952 (Letters, pp. 368-69). The summary explanation is provided by the author of the article, rather than by Waugh. The article (“Fighting Siblings: The House of Windsor in uniform” by Dominic Green) concludes: “It could have been worse. What if Edward VIII had listened to his brothers in 1936 and been king in 1939?”

In an earlier article in the same journal, Joseph Epstein  was discussing English conservative Michael Oakeshott and had the occasion to compare the political philosophies of US and English conservatives:

England is (or at least was) a society aristocratic in spirit and based heavily on tradition. America is based on revolution. Americans, even ultra-conservative ones, have not given up on the idea of progress; English conservatives wish (or used to wish) to retard, even stop, progress. Evelyn Waugh once remarked that he would never again vote for the Tories: They had been in power for more than eight years and hadn’t turned back the clock one minute.

Waugh’s pronouncement on his disappointment with the Tories comes from Frances Donaldson, Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbor (1967), p. 15, and was made in response to her congratulating him on the victory of the Conservative Party in 1951. The actual quote is “The Conservative Party have never put the clock back a single second.” The reference to the party’s having “been in power for more than eight years” seems to have been added by another hand.

Finally, the Buffalo (NY) News recently cited Brideshead Revisted for a quote applied to Hillary Clinton’s present predicament caused by her somewhat unconventional attitude to e-mail security during her tenure as Secretary of State:

“A twitch upon a thread,” was the way English novelist Evelyn Waugh described how a person’s gravest decisions might be influenced by the actions of another. In his “Brideshead Revisited,” the persons being “twitched” were fallen-away Catholics. Tugging at the other end of the string was God.

In the ongoing soap opera of Hillary Rodham Clinton and her emails and the emails of those closest to her, the federal justice community is holding one end of the thread. On the business end, it could be the director of the FBI, or the attorney general or even President Obama himself.

In this instance the quoted language is that of G.K. Chesterton. The quote comes from one of his Father Brown stories (“The Queer Feet”) which Lady Marchmain reads to her children and guests as was her custom at a time of family tension (Penguin, pp. 128, 212). Chesterton, who was admired by Waugh, was more active in politics and political writing than was Waugh but this quote had nothing to do with politics.

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