In a typically roistering effusion, that Red Clydesider and North Briton, the Ha-ha Hero, has challenged me to say what the apolitical Capability Brown, great man of the soil as he was, would have thought about ‘Blue Labour’, a recent, and at first sight unlikely, political fusion between the conservative politician and theorist, Edmund Burke, and socialism.
What sounds like a camel has in fact got four legs and may yet go a good distance. In a recent note (no. 205) I reported on Brown’s respect for the mystery of the past, even if its solutions to design problems were ones that he would never have conceived himself. If Brown had respect for the past, we should seat him in Horace Walpole’s pew with the rest of the singers, lusty for the antiquity of English gardening, and there he would find Edmund Burke as well, arguing precisely for the retention and recreation of unimproved countryside, with his concern that 18th century improvement was eradicating the ancient English countryside.
Burke was concerned, in politics and in the countryside around him, that all the myriad ‘little, quiet rivulets’ that had ornamented and watered the ‘unplanned’ landscape would be ‘lost in the waste expanse and boundless, barren ocean’ of cruelty, vulgarity, and ‘homicide philanthropy’. From the unplanned character of old countryside springs a connection with the past and at the same time a sense of mystery as to its origins, the same sense of mystery as Brown felt, walking in the old gardens at Wrest.
I refer my readers to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, where he wrote that ‘all the pleasing illusions … are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason ….’ This same line of thought provided him with metaphors for his great attacks on Warren Hastings’ treatment of India.
For Burke, as later for Macauley, early English history led up to, and modern English history began with, the 17th century and the Constitutional Settlement. His argument was that the 1688 settlement had not tried to create a new system from scratch, for every political community was slowly shaped by ‘the wisdom of unlettered men’, in a permanent ‘partnership’ of the living, the dead, and the yet unborn. For Burke, who had been a leading Whig, a supporter of the American Revolution and the nemesis of the East India company a free society relied on voluntary respect for its institutions, which ‘the longer they have lasted … the more we cherish them.’ Therefore he attacked the French Revolution, therefore he was attacked in turn by younger radicals, by Coleridge, Wordsworth and Priestley, and therefore the subtle and quiet approach of the late Brown answered to Burke’s political principles.
To stay with Burke and his Reflections, and in response to another question that explores the same area of doubt (note 223) ‘To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely’. In short Mr HhH, one might justly regard the driving motive for Brown’s landscapes to be political as much as it was aesthetic.
Should you wish to find a contemporary link between landscape and politics (and the ill-advised consequences of making it), then may I suggest the course of Henry Tilney’s conversation with Catherine Morland in 1798, as reported by Jane Austen: ‘by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the inclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics, and from politics, it was an easy step to silence.’
As for blue labour, perhaps socialism might learn not to change systems that happen to work just because they are evidently irrational and should not work.