Joseph Farrell examines the influence of Scotland on the English writer GK Chesterton

THE name Keith between Gilbert and Chesterton in this most English of writers has always been a surprise, but in his autobiography, GKC explains that his mother came of “Scottish people, who were Keiths of Aberdeen”. He goes on to say that “partly because of a certain vividness in any infusion of Scots blood or patriotism, this northern affiliation appealed strongly to my affections; and made a sort of Scottish romance of my childhood”.

I am not sure what exactly a Scottish romance is, although Chesterton wrote elsewhere of his appreciation of WE Aytoun’s now unread and forgotten Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers, verses which may have appealed to the fantasy, swashbuckling aspect of his mentality. He loved Robert Louis Stevenson, partly for his adventure novels but particularly for the optimistic philosophy with which Stevenson’s works are imbued and which GKC saw as the antithesis of the prevailing pessimism in such contemporaries as Swinburne and Hardy. Stevenson was fundamental to the formation of Chesterton’s own consciousness, and he repaid his debt by writing what remains one of the most acute studies of Stevenson.

This does not provide justification for recruiting Chesterton into the ghostly ranks of misplaced or honorary Scotsmen. There is nothing more dreary in nationalist biographical writings than the vacuous effort to make, for example, Byron, Ruskin or Macaulay citizens of some mythical Scottish nation. Scottish interest in GKC springs from the fact that, in a paradox he would have relished, he was decidedly, even militantly, English, a mindset that enabled him to gaze on other nations with respect. His nationalism was of the admirably open-minded sort which has no need to express love for the history and culture of his native place by issuing expressions of distaste or contempt for other lands. He was able to combine the national and the international, writing that: “All good men are international. Nearly all bad men are cosmoplitan. If we are to be international we must be national.”

GKC’s nationalism led him to abominate imperialism. In his opposition to the Boer War, he was uncomfortable in the company of pacifists, because he was not anti-war but defiantly pro-Boer, seeing them as a small people oppressed by the behemoth of imperialist financial greed and military might. He roundly denounced people such as Cecil Rhodes, and might have been in sympathy with those students in Oxford who have been demanding that his statue be removed from the portals of Oriel College. It has to be added that the rights of the native people did not figure in Chesterton’s calculations, nor did he foresee that the plucky Boers he admired would be transformed into Afrikaners.

Both the distinction beween internationalism and cosmopolitanism, and the balance between nationalism and internationalism escaped Theresa May in her now infamous dismissal of people with an international outlook as “citizens of nowhere”. GKC’s vision sets him apart from other purely English nationalists, such as, almost at random, John Milton, William Cobbett or George Orwell, who found it hard to deal fairly with other countries. The attitude was most flagrant in regard to Ireland, but applied to Scotland too. Orwell, for instance, was in principle internationalist, and spent his final days in Scotland, but in one of his letters he encouraged a contributor to Tribune to use the word “Scotch” as a way of irritating the Scots. GKC used Scotch and Scots indifferently, and neither was an insult.

Like all nationalists, MacDiarmid in Scotland or Salvador Espriu in Catalonia, GKC was as likely to express exasperation at the deficiencies of the people he saw as his as to give voice to paeons of lyrical praise for the greatness or beauty of his country. His irritation found its strongest expression in what has become his most famous poem, The Silent People, a gently worded, rueful meditation on English history from the viewpoint of the underlings. The opening lines read: “Smile at us, pay us, pass us, but do not quite forget / for we are the people of England who have never spoken yet.” That second line is often misquoted without the final word, the one which packs the punch and reveals the aspiration. The people of England have not spoken yet, they have endured too much, they have been patient too long, they have failed to wrest control from aristocrats in the past or financiers in the present, they have watched as “a few men spoke of freedom, while England spoke of beer”. The poem is not a lyrical meditation but a polemical call to action: “it may be we shall rise the last as the Frenchmen rose the first / Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.” But the final line is resigned: “it may be beer is best”. That is the disenchanted voice of the genuine nationalist, and not only in England.

THERE is no similar treatment of Scottish history in his poetry or novels, but The Napoleon of Notting Hill can be read as a parable, however quixotic, of the value of small nations. It is primarily one of the great ventures into fantasy of English literature, but like other similar works, like Gulliver’s Travels, it has an underlying seriousness. It opens with the lament of the exiled president of Nicaragua over the crushing of his country by brutal, transnational powers, and continues with the decision of the Englishman, Auberon Quin, chosen king by lot since democracy has been abandoned, to establish the London boroughs as independent states. Quin was a prankster but Adam Wayne, who became mayor of Notting Hill, took him seriously and established his Lillyputian kingdom. The ideas are aimed not only of those who live, as did Chesterton himself, on “the borders of fairyland”.

His views on Scotland and the United Kingdom received their clearest expression in an essay, Edward VII And Scotland, included in the collection All Things Considered (1908). Plainly he was much exercised by questions of national identity in those years following the Boer War, and the collection contains reflections on Ireland as well as on the French and the English. He writes that if a Frenchman came from “democratic France to live in England where the shadow of the great houses still falls everywhere, if he saw our snobbishness and liked it ... we should feel that that particular Frenchman was a repulsive little gnat”.

The essay on Scotland was a response to a letter he received from the Scottish Patriotic Association objecting to his reference to Edward VII as King of England. The association quoted the Act of Union, and stated that the monarch’s correct title was King of Britain. GKC bridled, protesting that he believed in “the reality of the independent nationalities under the British Crown more passionately and positively than any other educated Englishman of my acquaintance”.

IN the days of devolution, such a statement may be commonplace but it was not so then, or not in England. He added: “I am quite certain that Scotland is a nation; I am quite certain that nationality is the key of Scotland.” He might be on shakier ground when he asserted that “all our success with Scotland” was due to the fact that, unlike with Ireland, “we have in spirit treated it as a nation. We have quite definitely encouraged a Scotchman to be Scotch”.

That statement may be historically debatable, but it has become revolutionary in post-Brexit days when Scotland is being told that its vote in the 2016 referendum was to be, if not quite ignored, at least subsumed into a wider UK vote. GKC accepted that “Scotland is an independent nation, even if Edward VII is King of Scotland”, but this belief was balanced by the insistence that “England is an independent nation, that has its independent colour and history, and meaning”.He went on to ask: “What is Britain? Where is Britain? There is no such place. There never was a nation of Britain.There never was a King of Britain”. This is not an advocacy of Scottish political independence, for that was not GKC’s perspective, and may not have been that of the Scottish Patriotic Association, but it was an assertion that in historical and cultural terms, England and Scotland are neighbouring countries of equal dignity. His was a Claim of Rights for England, but that confident position allows for respect for others. In whimsy and sobriety, GKC offers an ideal of sane nationalism tempered by balanced internationalism.