The portrait hanging in the debating chamber of the Oxford Union shows a rather grumpy looking old boy seated in an armchair, heavily bearded and clutching an unlit pipe in his right hand.
Anyone glancing at it might assume that the old gentleman was a distinguished if long forgotten academic, perhaps a former master of one of the Oxford colleges, a benefactor of the union.
In fact the portrait, the work of Royal Academician James Gunn, is of the Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc painted in old age at his home in Sussex.
And the reason why his portrait hangs in the Oxford Union, as it has done for many years now, is that as a young undergraduate at Balliol College (1893-5) Belloc was once the union’s president, and regarded as one of the most brilliant speakers ever to take part in its debates.
“From Mr Belloc,” the university magazine Isis reported, “ you get a speech different from anything you will hear in the Union … the freedom of his conversation is admirable, he scintillates with enthusiasm on all things – boats, riding, Shakespeare, running across country.”
Traditionally regarded as a nursery for would-be politicians, the union had known few who seemed more destined for success than Belloc. But although he stood for Parliament and was elected Liberal member for Salford in the great Liberal landslide of 1906, Belloc was too restless a character to pursue a political career. He stood down in 1910.
A prolific author who wrote well over 100 books and claimed to produce 8,000 words a day, he was also a compulsive traveller, unable to stay long in the same place for more than a day or two.
The one consistent element in his life was religion. Brought up by his devout English mother and educated at Cardinal Newman’s school in Edgbaston, he remained a devoted and belligerent Catholic all his life, his constant defence of the Church in countless books and articles sustaining the faith of Catholics still suffering from the oppressive prejudices of British society.
Unfortunately his overwhelming desire to defend the Church on every issue often led Belloc to sacrifice truth to propaganda. And as he grew older he abandoned the ardent republicanism of his Oxford days and became the advocate of aristocracy and monarchism.
More damaging to his reputation was the ill-disguised anti-Semitism which dated back to the Dreyfus Affair of his youth, when he first succumbed to the notion, common to countless Frenchmen (and particularly Catholics), of a sinister worldwide conspiracy of Jewish financiers all seeking to undermine the values and traditions of Christian Europe.
Disillusioned with parliamentary democracy in Britain and elsewhere, Belloc rejoiced at the coming to power of Mussolini in 1922 and later hailed the Spanish dictator Franco as the saviour of his country. The Russian Bolsheviks were dismissed as Jews. Given this record, and in the light of the current campaign in Oxford to knock down the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, one wonders how long it will be before left-wing agitators demand that the portrait of the quasi-fascist and anti-Semitic Belloc should be removed and publicly burned, as Sutherland’s famous portrait of Churchill was.
Perhaps his very obscurity – he is remembered now solely for his satirical Cautionary Tales – will protect Belloc from the threatened fate of Cecil Rhodes. But in the intolerant, politically correct atmosphere of modern university life, one cannot be so sure.
And would the Church rally to the defence of its tarnished champion? I somehow doubt it.
Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and The Oldie
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