John Kersey on Legacy

Christmas talk to the Traditional Britain Group, December 2014.

It is said that Dom Paul Neville, Headmaster of Ampleforth College from 1924 to 1954, was at a meeting of the Headmasters’ Conference. The theme of discussion was preparation for life, and the various headmasters were vying to show how their schools were at the cutting edge in preparing their pupils for Life, in various ways. Dom Paul rose and said, “Gentlemen, I have been very impressed to hear how your schools are preparing pupils for Life. I have little to add to this discussion, because my school prepares the boys not for Life, but for Death.”

I am going to talk to you today about the significance of death from the perspective of one of the key concepts of traditionalist conservatism, that of legacy. The concept of legacy is as integrated into our society as the family itself; the idea that we may have an influence on generations to come. In a number of important ways, our legacy is not simply genetic in terms of descendance, but can also have significant effects on future generations unrelated to us. If we seek to stand for positive values in our lives, we can also hope that when we are dead, those values will not merely continue (for all true values are eternal) but that our engagement with them can assist others in turn to discover and be enriched by them in various ways.

When Edward Latymer, a London city merchant, died childless in 1624, he made several important provisions in his will. The will left a sum in trust that would provide “eight poore boies” from Edmonton and another eight from Fulham yearly on November 1st with a doublet, a pair of breeches, a shirt, a pair of woollen stockings and shoes. In return for being educated to the age of thirteen at a “petty school” the boys had to wear the red cross from Latymer’s coat of arms on their sleeves. The trustees are under a duty to carry out the provisions of Edward Latymer’s will “unto the end of the world.”

The effect of Latymer’s will has been far-reaching. From the original eight poor boys, the Latymer Foundation now has responsibility for three large and thriving schools; two in Hammersmith and one in Edmonton, and it was at the latter, which is the senior school of the Foundation, that I myself received my schooling. Had that not been so, I should never have heard of Edward Latymer. Instead, as in many other schools of a similar vintage, the Founder was commemorated each year on Foundation Day, which had the notable benefit of being a half-day holiday.

The lesson of what Latymer did can be summarized in this way: he was determined that the wealth he had created would not simply die with him, but would be used to nurture something that he believed in strongly. By establishing what would in modern times be termed a charitable bequest, he ensured that his estate would neither pass to distant relatives (although they did contest his will) nor into the clutches of government. His actions are a fine example of noblesse oblige: the doctrine that holds that to those to whom wealth is given, there falls a concomitant responsibility to administer that wealth in a way that benefits the common good.

It will come as no surprise to those who have heard me talk before that G.K. Chesterton is one of the writers to whom I make frequent reference. In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton has this to say, “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” He continues, “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

What Chesterton refers to is the interconnectedness of human existence through the generations. All of us are the sum total of our ancestors in terms of our genetics, but we may well forget how like them we can be not only in our looks but in our character. If we look to the famous families of England these intergenerational traits can often be observed, and are aided by the ability to refer to portraiture from previous centuries that can reveal much about those who have gone before. We also share a more general commonality; not for naught did writers of past generations attribute particular characteristics to the people of the various regions of our island, or refer to the English race, or speak of us as the island stock, or indeed “this happy breed”. For those of us whose ancestry here reaches back some centuries, before the time of widespread immigration, we are each others’ kith and kin far more than is commonly acknowledged, even though it must be said that it is part of our national character to keep others at a certain distance. This shared heritage should not surprise us, since our island is not a large one, and for many centuries the English flourished unconquered.

In truth, we are living links in the chain that binds us from the dead to the unborn; we hold our lives in trust, and should be determined to pass to the next generation that which we ourselves have enjoyed, in as good if not better condition. Indeed, that concept of trust is enshrined in English law and is one of the crowning glories of that legal system. The Trustee has ownership, but his ownership is conceived exclusively as a duty. This remains the embodiment of intelligent conservatism, because it safeguards those things that are of value and prevents them from being dissipated or squandered.

How different our society is now from that which Edward Latymer knew! We should remember that in his day, there was no income tax – that would not arrive fully until 1842 – and few restrictions on what a man could do with his assets; his rights under common law were inalienable. It is still possible for someone to leave their entire estate to charity today, but otherwise there are many pitfalls that work to oppose any idea of legacy. Why should this be?

If we seek to understand how English society has been comprehensively destabilised during the past century, we need look no further than the obscenity of death duties. This Socialist measure is designed to forcibly redistribute wealth; to rob the wealthy of their inheritance, and to smash the hierarchy that is inbuilt into England’s history and character. Countless landed families have gone under; forced to sell the home that was theirs for generations and see their heritage squandered by here-today gone-tomorrow politicians who hate the established way of life of these islands and their people with a fervour I have never understood.

Many today comment on the shallowness of our society; its short-termism and the atomization of its people. Our society penalises those who save money and instead encourages everyone to live on so-called “easy” credit. It privileges two classes of people; those at the bottom who have no money and can therefore obtain the maximum in benefits that is available to them, and those at the top who have so much money that they can either engage in creative ways to hide it or simply not worry about it. Those in the middle are not merely squeezed, they are prisoners of a brutal and uncaring state machine that is designed to exploit their labour and remove their wealth for whatever vain pursuit may be in fashion at the time. Foreign expeditionary wars, High Speed Two, housebuilding on swathes of our Green Belt in order to house the ever-increasing numbers entering our country – these are the things that no-one seems to want and yet everyone is obliged to pay for.

While there is legitimacy to the Crown as a hereditary landowner and centre of wealth in the Britannic realm, there is none whatsoever in the aggregation of wealth by Parliament. The modern State is entitled to nothing; everything it owns it has gained by legalized theft from its subjects. Its sole aim is to keep its subjects in their place, so that the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor and everyone else stays worried, harassed and permanently short of money.

It is no wonder that our society should be shallow and short-termist if the result of aggregating even a modest level of wealth is that death duties of a swingeing forty per cent should forcibly redistribute it against your wishes. It is an absolute scandal that the government that maintains this robbery, backed of course by the ultimate threat of violence, should call itself “Conservative”. It is nothing of the kind: it has embraced a Socialism that Marx himself would have applauded, and it is the embodiment of the politics of envy that are so very popular with the Labour Party these days. Can we be surprised, then, that the most logical response to such measures is to resort to an empty hedonism; if you can neither take your wealth with you nor give it to whom you wish without contortions and expensive planning, it is all too natural simply to spend the lot.

I do not want to talk about legacy simply in terms of money, however. There remain personal elements of legacy that are part of living life as a traditionalist and that apply whatever the state of our personal exchequer. Indeed, these elements are considerably more important than any financial consideration, for they are not only actions taken with a view to the future but also actions that reveal and may indeed form our characters. Not for nothing is it said that success built purely on money and material goods is an empty vessel. Since we cannot immediately hope to displace the state or to abolish taxation, we should instead concentrate on what we can do to create value for ourselves.

The creation of value, of significance and of substance is something that will outlast us even if the things we have created no longer exist. Consider Socrates, a man who wrote nothing that survived him. Everything we know of his thought has been filtered through those who knew and were influenced by him, chiefly Plato and Xenophon, and also Aristophanes and Aristotle. For that matter, consider Jesus Christ, whose words were conveyed to us through his disciples. Theirs may be a barely tangible legacy, but they have created an immense sphere of influence throughout the entirety of Western civilisation. What we see here is a chain not dissimilar to the genetic chain I described earlier, but here it is a chain of ideas whereby one person influences another, and in turn builds those ideas into his worldview. The philosophy expounded by Socrates and by Jesus is not merely a set of dead ideas, confined to the distant past: it is a living legacy, debated and discovered afresh by every generation. To leave a legacy even remotely approaching this brings a satisfaction far beyond that of materialism; it is to know that something of us will remain alive when even our tomb has disappeared.

Even if our accomplishments are, of necessity, considerably more modest than those of Socrates, we can still derive great satisfaction from engagement in work of significance. Creative endeavour of any kind is an obvious means of adding value to life. But there are other ways towards the same fulfilment. Engagement in work that seeks to promote the betterment of our society and the improvement of the lives of others enables us to participate with the same spirit that inspired Edward Latymer. The raising of children who are educated to understand the importance of our core values is another crucial task, and one that must increasingly be undertaken in opposition to government.

If we are to dedicate ourselves to seeking this fulfilment, we must first realize that our lives are finite and that there is no time to waste. This is what my opening quotation means: if we prepare for death, we live our lives with a perspective that looks for the good that we can accomplish in the time left to us, and we actively consider the way we want to be remembered. We may be impelled towards that consideration by a religious belief, or we may simply want to honour life itself, for it is a gift, and one that is all-too fragile.

Whatever the case, we are unlikely to emerge from such contemplation with the view that the way forward is that of pointless nihilism. More likely, we will conclude that the values that are at the heart of us impel us towards a life of integrity. They will be values that, as we explore them more deeply, will reveal a moral code, and will moreover speak to those aspects of our character that we will want to develop. We all begin as deeply imperfect and flawed clay; we can mould ourselves into something that can transcend our past and achieve both self-respect and the respect of others.

We may find our value in a job, but there is no reason why value should be confined there. What people do when they are not at work is an area that continually surprises and intrigues me. Some people balance their lives so that their work is merely a means of paying the bills without interest in career or promotion; their passion is explored outside any environment of financial reward. And as for finance, all of us except the most impoverished can benefit from learning to live on less than we do; the consequence is greater financial freedom and in consequence greater personal freedom.

Whatever we do, its effect is to turn us outward. Spending time with others, particularly others who need us, is often one of the most valuable things we can do. What we are asked to do in such situations is not to give money, but to give of ourselves. We each have qualities and talents that can give pleasure and provide lasting enjoyment. Our lives are better for sharing them. The impact we have on the lives of others is something that will outlast us; it is the most important legacy that most of us will have the chance to leave.

It is not a coincidence that I am delivering this talk in Advent; indeed I did promise to others that it would be morally improving, and I hope it has been so without becoming a sermon. It is easy in today’s world to neglect our common humanity and I hope I have been able to counteract that impulse. Traditionalists may argue over exactly what it is that they are preserving, but I would maintain that it is a way of living in which people have context; where they feel a part of landscape, heritage, society and country in a way that binds them to their roots and enables them in turn to engage in propagation. It is, in short, the opposite of the Marxist society that promotes merely alienation and consequent misery.

And with that, I wish all of you a very merry Christmas.