William Guest falls asleep after returning from an exhausting meeting of socialist radicals in London and is transported to the early 21st century — and to a socialist, agrarian and very English paradise. In this paradise, the forces of industrialisation have been banished. There is no private property, no money, no police, no prisons. All things are held in common. Everyone lives close to the land. No one is alienated from their labour. Even the repressive forces of marriage have been abolished.
This is the one paragraph version of William Morris’s famous fictional classic, News From Nowhere, a book serialised in the socialist magazine Commonweal in 1890. Though these days he is better known as a textile designer, in his day Morris was one of the pre-eminent public intellectuals of the Victorian era. He wrote books and poems. And News from Nowhere was widely read.
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“Nowhere” was a reference to, and a translation of, the word “utopia,” the name of Sir Thomas More’s well-known 16th century attempt to describe heaven on Earth. But unlike More’s fictional island, situated somewhere off the coast of South America, Morris’s updated version was not a nowhere at all but based on an existing place: Kelmscott in the Cotswolds, where Morris had his much-loved country residence. The Kelmscott Press edition of News From Nowhere has an engraving of Kelmscott Manor on the cover next to the words: “This is a picture of the old house on the Thames to which the people of this story went.”
So wherever you might be going on your holidays, I reckon I have it beat. I went to paradise. I went to Kelmscott itself. As the sun beat down, I stepped out through the reeds and swam in the Thames right by Morris’s house, which is currently undergoing extensive refurbishment. My family went for country walks down shady lanes. We drank in The Plough Inn. “There is no need to lock the car door,” a local drinker informed me: “we don’t have crime round here.” The only sound in the air was that of nature and the gentle waft of cricket commentary coming from a neighbourly radio. Yes, paradise.
But I have bad news for William Morris, bad news from nowhere as it were: lovely place though Kemscott undoubtedly is, it is absolutely not a socialist paradise.
This is socialism only for those that can afford it. Zoopla informs me that, despite a recent dip in prices, the average cost of a house in the village is over £700,000 – that’s the average! This is where David Cameron was MP and it remains a Tory stronghold. Every other car is a Range Rover. Kate Moss and Gary Barlow come to the pub here from their country residences in the next village along. And only a little further afield, the whole social buzz of the Chipping Norton/Burford sets — the English version of the Hamptons — are known for some of the most extravagant, celebrity-studded, cocaine-fuelled parties ever thrown in this country. Forget socialist paradise, think The Great Gatsby.
William Morris always hated the fact that his wallpaper designs were loved by the middle and upper classes. He may have come from a wealthy bourgeoise family himself and was educated at public school and Oxford, but his commitment to socialism was real, if a little paternalistic. He read Marx. He got arrested at demonstrations. He employed working-class boys from Euston in his studio to produce the wallpapers that made his name. But his life was unmistakably one of privilege. And it really bothered him that he was becoming the great guru of middle-class taste. So if William Guest – or Morris himself – were to wake from sleep in the early 21st century, he would be appalled. Morris would also probably be appalled that Kelmscott Manor is being restored. He founded a society to campaign against restoration.
Despite News From Nowhere and its quasi science fiction fantasy, Morris was always more concerned with the past than the future. And unlike many of his contemporaries, it wasn’t the classical world that inspired him, but medieval England. For Morris, this was the pre-lapsarian paradise, full of guilds and gothic spires and maypoles, a world before the fall of the industrial revolution.
Socialism, as it came to develop in this country, and especially through the Labour party and the Trade Unions, became more and more about industry and increasingly lost touch with the John Ruskin/William Morris type of anti-industrial strain. Perhaps that is why the peculiarly Tory kind of socialism that you find in this tradition exists only on the fringes of the Left, if Left it is.
John Ruskin — Morris’ greatest political and aesthetic influence — described himself as both a Tory and a Communist. He claimed “a most sincere love of kings, and a dislike of everybody who attempted to disobey them” and yet also declared himself the “reddest of the red” – though his communism was decidedly old-school, less Paris Commune, more Acts of the Apostles. Ruskin believed that men and women had been alienated from their labour and ripped off by rapacious capitalism. This is the tradition out of which the present Red Tory/Blue Labour movements develop: socially conservative, economically redistributive. Its enemy is liberalism in all its forms, both the social liberalism of the Left and the economic liberalism of the Right.
And this, roughly speaking, is my political tradition too. But it is often misunderstood. It is, for example, a completely different thing – chalk and cheese different – from the so-called “Tory socialism” the Telegraph wrote about the other day. The article described how wealthy property developers are seeking a Covid bailout from the government. These are the people who live by the principles of laissez faire economics but are magically converted to “bail-outs” when it suits them, and they are rightly to be chastised. But they are not Tories. And it does slightly bother me that the Telegraph, of all papers, has got this one wrong.
Tories should not be confused with the rich or the business class. Real Tories believe in God, Queen and country traditionalism, they are Brexity by instinct, and ever so slightly look down upon the nouveau riche obsession that the middle classes have with money — just as true Cotswold Tories are probably just a little embarrassed by the showy extravagances of the whole Chipping Norton set.
Tories are not natural capitalists. Tories are farmers and country squires. Of course, they too need to pay the bills — so they have nothing against making money. But, to them, capitalism is not a matter of core doctrine. What they really believe in is the same land, lanes, pubs and churches that Morris did. And so this sort Toryism is a natural bedfellow of the Morris/Ruskin kind of agrarian socialism — they might sleep uncomfortably together perhaps, but would have a solid respect one for the other.
Kelmscott church – dedicated to St George, who else – is where Morris is buried. One hundred and thirty years on, the area may not look like Morris hoped it would, but it is not the Tories who have ruined it. This is Notting Hill in Hunter wellies. And these people are, broadly speaking, natural liberals, often both socially and economically. All his life, William Morris feared that his work would be appropriated by the forces of liberal capitalism. And nowhere is this fear more realised that here, in the place of his burial, in the very heart of the English Eden.