I had the pleasure of making new friends this week. I dined with a wonderful couple introduced by an old friend and client. Their home was beautiful. Their hospitality was spectacular. I was nervous about meeting complete strangers, but within an hour felt right at home.
It so happens they are wealthy people, but that’s not really the point. Yes, they could show me their rare classic sports car, factory-restored to 1960s glory. Yes, they had beautiful art, antiques and sculpture. Yes, they could entertain me – and the friends to whom they introduced me – in very high style. Yes, they had unrivalled views through their olive trees of some of the best parts of Southern France. What was most impressive however was their zest for life, which has nothing to do with wealth or luck. I have been in poor homes where the same spirit prevails (and rich ones where it doesn’t). To spend time with such people, rich or poor, is uplifting. It led me to ask myself, not for the first time, whether the real division in society is not between rich and poor, or left and right but between those who celebrate life’s possibilities and those who fear them?
If someone says he is left-wing, he means he puts people before profit and assumes his opponents do the opposite. If someone says he is right-wing, he means that private endeavour should take priority over public and assumes his opponents think the opposite. None of these claims and assumptions – like most of our political discourse – is fully true. Leftists need businesses to produce a surplus and rightists have ethical limits on what they would require of employees to produce one. Both right and left accept a boundary between the public and private spheres – though they would undoubtedly position it differently. As the man said, for every problem there is a solution that is simple, clean and wrong. Most of humanity’s self-inflicted catastrophes have arisen from our failure to appreciate that life is just too gloriously complicated to be understood without more nuanced thinking than most of us find comfortable.
It often seems to me the English Civil War never ended. On one side of the political divide are the Roundheads. They speak with the god-given authority of the righteous; brooking no opposition in telling us all how to live. They despise our pleasures and hedge them about with licensing, restrictions and – most lethally – taxes. They hector us to live better lives and would abolish Christmas and dancing if they had not heard of what happened when Cromwell tried it. They see evil (Cromwell would have said “the Devil”) in all who oppose them. The analogy is not perfect of course. These are puritans without their predecessors’ fear of God and, in consequence, also without their humility.
The analogy is as imperfect yet also useful for their opponents. You don’t have to be royalist to be cavalier (indeed Prince Charles strikes me as a right royal roundhead). It’s no accident that “cavalier” has acquired a negative connotation of recklessness in puritanical Britain, yet it also implies exuberance for life. True cavaliers don’t just eat and drink, they feast and carouse. They don’t see cars as just a mode of transport or art as mere decoration. They don’t see a malt whisky as just a drink or a cigar as just a smoke. They know they are, as my late grandfather used to put it, “only here for a look around” and they are determined to see and enjoy all they can. If they become politically excited it is most likely because they want to be left alone to do so.
The tone of political discourse in Britain belies the roundheads’ claims to be more caring. Perhaps it’s just because classical liberal thought has been so long in retreat, but much anti-socialist advocacy now has almost a pleading tone. Even in the blogosphere, where civility is sometimes in short supply, it is the left which sets the standards for sneering and contempt. Right-wing journalists and bloggers do not hold back in challenging what they see as error, but reading between the lines it’s clear they assume (as I do here) that their opponents mostly mean well. Yet left-wingers speak of their opponents as if they were far more than merely wrong. Consider this embittered piece on the royal wedding for example. I don’t know the couple concerned, but why on earth would I not wish them well? And why would I sneer at simple folk who delight in the celebratory optimism of this or any wedding? Or consider this piece of anti-Clarksonism by George Monbiot. Please don’t tell me you think his views would change if we discovered abundant oil supplies or invented better brakes. It is joy he hates, not the energy or safety costs of motoring. He sneers from imagined high ground and that sneer says far more than his words.
Yesterday the Belgian driver of a BMW M3 flashed by me on a French autoroute. Provoked by the sexy Pininfarina-designed rear end of my car into an impertinent desire to see her front in his rear-view mirror, he had given his little German engine a good thrashing. I said “this is for you, George” as I cancelled cruise control, hit the sport button and unleashed my Modena-made V8 in a brief but convincing retort. For those few illegal moments we experienced pleasures beyond Monbiot’s cramped imagination. As the M3 veered off towards Brussels its driver and I exchanged waves and smiles.
The New Roundheads are welcome to their miserabilism, but the cavalier in the rest of us is also entitled to a shot at happiness. The true test of civilisation is how such different human tendencies can live together in some approximation of harmony.