In 1928 Belloc foresaw a woman prime minister in 1979 with a ‘firm hand’ and ‘steady, deciding eyes’, recounts David Twiston Davies
Hacks will soon be clicking out memories of Margaret Thatcher’s accession to power as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister in 1979. May 4 will be the 40th anniversary. But 90 years ago Hilaire Belloc beat them to it — describing the then-inconceivable possibility of an iron-willed female PM in a satirical novel that was, remarkably, set in 1979.
Belloc was a literary giant in the early 20th century, a public figure who was the prolific author of histories, biographies, travel books, essays, and comic verse. He also wrote novels though he did not the take the task too seriously, thrusting his journalist’s opinions into his fiction too readily. However he spent four frustrating years as a Liberal MP in the Commons before the First World War, which makes him, even today, a shrewd guide to the way the parliamentary system thrives on a combination of ambition, incompetence, and pure chance.
But Soft We are Observed! (1928) opens with the disappearance of a mysterious agent for the tiny Republic of West Irania in the New York docks just as he is about to board ship to sell a highly valuable concession for a mineral called Eremin to the British Empire. In one of those errors which are supposed never to occur in real life, a swarm of spies desperately hunting him conclude that he must be the young holiday-maker they have seen joining the boat tor England.
A sketch by G.K. Chesterton of the Belloc's futuristic female PM.
Richard Mallard is the silly-ass son of a tobacco grower who lives in Cuba where he is devoted to the Mother Country he has never seen. He has old-fashioned ideas, carrying a silver-topped cane, dressing like an Englishman and using such expressions as “I say, you fellows,” “D’you know?” and particularly “What?” at inappropriate moments. On landing at Southampton he is of interest to a wide variety of people, including a press lord, a captain of industry, numerous civil servants and, most important, the female Prime Minister, who is acknowledged to be a success compared with her predecessor.
Now under the firm hand of Mary Bullar England could repose … A strong capable woman, hardly fifty, with that new style of square jaw which has been imported from a higher and greater civilisation she has a most determined mouth, and steady, deciding eyes which even before she speaks put confidence into the wavering and the fear of God into the weak.
Among the latter is her cousin Sir Henry Hardham, the bumbling Home Secretary who is ordered to find out over dinner what the mysterious stranger wants. “It’s no good arguing. Somebody has to give the order, and I have given it,” she says, crossing her legs, or rather ankles (for she has Presence). But, distinctly uneasy, Sir Henry fails to bring their discussion to the point and Mallard is foxed by his constant references to “the concession.” “I don’t understand, sir,” he keeps repeating. “What’s it all about?”
“Well?” says the determined voice on the phone to her hapless minister.
“He won’t say anything. Not a word.”
“He must be made to,” answers the Contralto Voice firmly.
“I can’t make him,” quavers the reply.
“I didn’t think you could ... I shall know what to do when I’ve thought it over.”
Of course Belloc’s 1979 is rather different from the one we experienced 40 years ago. Ministers wear frock coats and have long side whiskers (a fashion revived in the early 1940s). There seems to be no transatlantic air travel. A Communist-Anarchist coalition is in power. But the Communists, Belloc reminds us, are “the spiritual descendants of the old Moderates, themselves the spiritual descendants of the Old Unionists, themselves the spiritual descendants of the old Tories; for, thank heaven, there is no breach of continuity in our institutions.”
As the bewildered Mallard walks through Trafalgar Square after his meeting he spots two suspicious figures lurking by the bronze lions below Nelson’s Column. Exactly what happens is unclear but there is a scuffle, and he ends up in a police cell. In court next morning he is not sentenced for causing an affray, as expected. He admits that he acted on impulse in striking a policeman but is commended by the stipendiary magistrate (who received an early morning call from Downing Street) for showing what “an inheritance of English blood can do.”
Such firmness is approved by The Times while The Spectator says such police methods are happily unknown in England and hopes “such a vile continental system” will not be heard of again.
Free to enjoy his holiday Mallard sets off for Scotland, where he considers himself free until he meets a wild-eyed cousin of the prime minister, Arabella Slackett, a Born Fanatic known ... Belloc’s vision, cont’d from p. 112 to everyone in the political world as “Balmy Jane.” She promises to save him from the gravest danger so conspiratorially that the rattled Mallard flees to France, where he is held by the gendarmes then returned to England.
Once more he falls into the hands of the constabulary, supposedly for trying escape from a plain-clothes policeman. Next morning he is back in court before the same magistrate, who is about to denounce him for interfering with the duty of the police when proceedings again are suddenly halted again.
This time it is because the real representative of West Irania has arrived in England after being shipwrecked on the coast of Labrador.
When Lady Caroline Balcome, the lorgnette-waving Foreign Secretary, learns this she goes straight round to tell the Prime minister she is “a chump, a chump, a chump” before introducing her to the hapless Mallard. He is indeed who he claims to be and, a civil servants adds mildly, a fool. What a disaster if this appeared in the papers!
But Lady Caroline has come up with a neat solution. She bullies Mallard to return immediately to Cuba, still completely confused. And in return for being sworn to silence he is to receive a lifetime pension of £1,250 a year, paid quarterly into his bank in Havana; the cost to appear in the Government’s estimates as “Butter for Garrison at Singapore.”
On July 8, 1979 the fictional Mary Bullar rises from the Front Bench in her majesty and with her the Ancient Majesty of the Constitution, to denounce in restrained though thoughtful prose the claim by an Annihilationist backbencher (briefed by Balmy Jane) that the West Iranian envoy had been languishing in a dungeon. Denouncing the ill taste and un-English slurs of wild men to which they had listened, she declares she has a better opinion of her fellow women than some, then reveals that the envoy was an honoured guest at her own table that very day. They had been celebrating the granting of a 35-year concession for the Eremin deposits, at which the House roars its approval.
Note: In the 1920s and 1930s Belloc was assisted by his friend G.K. Chesterton, who illustrated his novels and helped him with the plots. One of G.K.’s sketches is reproduced on p. 112 of the print edition.
Originally printed in The Dorchester Review, Autumn/Winter 2018, pp. 111-112. (A version of this article later appeared in The Salisbury Review.) David Twiston Davies, a contributing editor to this journal, died in 2020 aged 75.
Order the full issue here (click on cover image below):