So I recognise something John Biffen said the other day, half in jest. He said he was a "Tory of deference". When I rang him at home in Shropshire to unpick this idea a bit, he laughed and said he had been a very disobedient Tory, at least so far as the Whips went. But he said he believed in hierarchy and the institutions which enshrine it. He seems to have a lingering taste - half-mocking - for patterns of social and organisational life which are enshrined in tradition. They risk ossification, but at least have some shred of dignity about them.
When Biffen retires at the next election, we shall miss his finely balanced gifts of impishness and gravitas. When Douglas Hurd retired as Foreign Secretary, I felt we'd lost a figure I could respect by virtue of his age, experience, sense of duty and education. I never thought of him as a toff, just someone admirable. I even rather like the idea of people being born to rule, or rather to serve by governing.
The other day, I was put somewhat to the test on these matters. A group of us campers went to evensong in St David's Cathedral. The second reading was from Paul's letter to the Ephesians. It's the bit about "wives be subject to your husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife...". The feminists amongst us were rolling their eyes at this stuff, and I found myself defending it.
Firstly, Paul tells husbands that they owe their wives the sort of love which the Church owes Christ, and the sort of sacrifice which Christ made to the Church. Husbands and wives are locked into reciprocal obligations. Secondly, granted the mores of the day, Paul looks to be proposing a form of marital relations of amazing liberality.
It happened that the young drama group from Birmingham, which always does a Shakespeare in the Bishop's Palace at St David's, this year took on The Taming of the Shrew. Again, the difficulty with the play is surely only superficial. Firstly, Kate's being made to conform happens in a comedy put on for a tinker who has been made a lord for a day. Isn't Shakespeare saying that her being un-shrewed by Petruchio is as unlikely as the ennobling of a bum?
But the play also speaks to the happiness which comes when people love each other with a deal of mutual submission. Kate's obedience may be total, but it is also an ironic and even a kindly charade. Kate's sisters stick to their unthinking minor bolshiness because they lack the character to be really difficult or to taste the fruits of self-abnegation. And they do not love their partners the more because the men are too weak to impose themselves.
These sorts of thoughts were mirrored in Robinson Crusoe, which I read while sitting on beaches in Wales. When Crusoe (a born leader) rescues the savage Friday (10 years after first seeing a frightening lone footprint in the sand), Friday interposes his head between Crusoe's foot and the sand. Kate's last speech suggests, similarly, that a wife's hand should be between her husband's foot and the floor.
Crusoe's realisation that "my man" Friday is a better man than him mirrors a constant theme of 17th-century writing: that "savages" may be pagans, but they are somehow obviously good. Another supremicist defence of the "natural" order crumbled.
I think the point of these observations of Paul, Shakespeare and Defoe is that no one actually merits any authority they have, and certainly should not abuse it. It does not, after all, flow from moral superiority. That is what gives such power to the observation of whichever Pope it was who said that he was the servant of the servants of the Lord. We should resist the corrosive cynicism that would construe that idea as self-serving humbug.Reuse content