How did a Baptist boy from Kent become first an atheist and then a Catholic?
When I was around 10 or eleven, I think, my parents decided we should go to a church. They shopped around and chose the Baptists; mum came from a long line of very non-conformists (Christian Spiritualists, actually), so evangelicalism obviously appealed to her. The hymns were superb; the sermons probably taught me how to write and do rhetoric. I believed for a bit, but then I hit adolescence and rejected it, turning instead to Marxism, which is a form of religion minus God. Then, while at university, I studied the English Civil War. What men were willing to do for a set of ideals rooted in Jesus really affected me. Again, I shopped around: unlike my parents, I went ‘high,’ first becoming an Anglican and then, only after some deep thought and prayer, joining Rome. It was a matter of coming home. There is no satisfactory explanation except “the Holy Ghost invited me.”
Linked with that question, given your political progress, are you an example of Churchill’s famous aphorism that if you’re not a liberal at 18, you have no soul, and if you’re not a conservative by 50, you’re an idiot?
I think it’s unfair to see socialism as adolescent and conservatism as mature: if anything, my politics have waxed and waned, and in some regards I’ve become more left wing, in others more right wing. The Pope has impressed me on the matter of the environment. I’ve returned to being very critical of capitalism and the way it orders human relations, especially as I’ve encountered greed and exploitation.
You’ve actually had a doctrine named after you, by a friend humorously: the doctrine of ‘Stanleyism.’ What do you think she meant by that and are you a proper conservative?
Stanleyism is a criticism less of my thinking so much as my style: many culture warriors think I’m too nice, emblematic of conservatives who don’t play as dirty as the Left, so they inevitably lose. I’m not sure I’m that nice, though when I’m nasty I typically wimp out and apologise afterwards. But my philosophy is that if you want to sell Christianity, you’ve got to act as a Christian, and Christianity is about the slow surrender of the ego. I don’t like argument: I turn down almost as many chances to appear on TV and radio as I accept, for this reason.
So why did you decide to write this book and did writing the majority of it during the pandemic change anything about its original concept?
My publisher wrote to me out of the blue to say, “Would you like to write a book? The subject is up to you.” Conditional on it not being mad, of course. Here was a golden chance to write the book I’d been kicking around for about 10 years, because I think the West’s loss of tradition is the big subject of our time and to blame for many of our political crises. Tradition has also played a big part in saving me, giving me a sense of grounding and comfort. The original plan was to travel and base it on reporting, from Japan, America, the Middle East, etc. Lockdown ruined that but resulted in an equally interesting book. I read a lot—wrote 100,000 words in notes alone—and what emerged is far more philosophical than I expected or thought myself capable of.
Lockdown itself also raised some interesting questions, namely what it said about society. Some thought the failure of people to obey restrictions was decadent; others said slavish obedience to silly rules showed we’d lost liberty and common sense.
One of the things you mention early on in the book is our trip to Iraq. I remember when we left you were visibly moved. You allude to that in the book, can you explain a bit more about why you felt that way?
The Christians and Yazidis of Iraq really suffered and have been forgotten. What they went through defies belief. One man, our guide, was forced to flee his house. When he returned, he discovered that ISIS had used it as an HQ—and the house next door had been flattened by a Western bomb. Imagine that: a perfectly normal middle-class professional turned into a refugee. Kidnap was common; women were raped. They turned a nunnery into an execution centre and put a noose in it. To see these things close up was devastating, all the more for how incredibly civilised the victims were. They were ordinary; more than ordinary, they were good! Far more open, generous, hospitable than rich Englishmen who moan when they can’t get a drop of petrol for their car. A people and their culture are under threat, and these things are synonymous. When the culture goes, an ethnicity is eradicated almost as surely as if it had been put up against a wall.
As a Catholic, and having written a book about tradition, what is your reaction to what we might call the “anti-conservative” and anti-tradition direction in the Church at the moment?
The anti-tradition drive—against ancient liturgies, church practices and authority etc—is the last gasp of what is itself an old order, the revolution of the 1960s. Old men in a hurry. Unfortunately, they have captured the commanding heights of the Church and thus could do a lot of damage, which creates an air of a race against time to limit the damage. The whole debate is enervating: a distraction. I was attracted to the Church by its extraordinary claims and these, I feel, should be at the heart of its mission. Jesus died and was resurrected; will return. He instituted the Church via St Peter. We have developed traditions that are both mysterious and utterly human—the doctrine responds to the facts of life as much as it tries to offer us a road to self-improvement. I see no reason to tinker with that. I’m impatient to move on.
What do you think is the future of conservatism in the UK—does it even exist?
British Conservatism is returning to the order that existed pre-Margaret Thatcher: Boris Johnson has more in common with Disraeli than with Mrs T. This is a mix of economic populism—not socialism but pro-business while also spreading the wealth—and cultural conservatism—i.e., not social conservatism, as in religious, but patriotism as in a celebration of British identity. I think it’s potentially very powerful, but hinges on Boris Johnson’s charisma and an economy that could go in either direction. One must never write off the Labour Party. It goes through frequent periods of self-destruction, but when it returns to its own brand of cultural conservatism, it does well. Inflation and shortages will help.
What do you hope, apart from selling well, that your book will do?
I want to start a conversation about the role tradition does, can, and could play in our lives. I want people to think about the way they live and what’s right or wrong about it. And I want people to read. You could interpret the book as a massive bibliographical essay: I’ve combined the foundational texts of conservatism (Burke, De Maistre etc) with as much contemporary thought as possible. Finally, I want people to think outside the confines of the Enlightenment to consider the Medieval perspective, and beyond Europe—to Russia, Japan etc. Other societies have encountered our problems. They have modernised without forgetting themselves.
Having lived in the U.S. and written about political life in both countries, including a biography of Pat Buchanan, what do you see are the major differences between orthodox or ‘paleoconservatives’ in the US and Europe?
Paleos want to get back to the roots of their societies. As those societies develop in different conditions, it makes sense that what they’ll restore looks different from one case to another. American paleos place a lot of emphasis upon cutting the state and the moral integrity of small business, conforming to the Jeffersonian ideal of a republic of small farmers. European paleos tend to be friendlier towards the state—they might even use it to their own ends—and friendly towards social and religious authority, even nobility. Hungary, for instance, has been happy to use welfare policy to boost the family in a way Trump probably wouldn’t. Many French paleos, meanwhile, are loyal to the republicanism of the 1790s, hence critical of public religion.
If the older, wiser, and conservative Tim Stanley could sit down with Tim at 20, what would you tell him, apart from “get a dog?”
I would advise the younger me to stay away from politics. It’s a complete waste of time and effort. You have a one-in-a-million chance of succeeding, and even if you do, it always ends in failure because one’s career must end. Dictators might die in bed, but the people dig up their corpses eventually. Travel as much as possible. Join the army. Try acting. I’m not complaining about the life I’ve led because I’ve had a lot of fun, but there are parallel realities that it could be equally exciting to explore. I wouldn’t want to live forever, but multiple times, yes.