Sam Leith Sam Leith

What does it mean when Giorgia Meloni quotes G.K. Chesterton?

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For a UK audience, the most striking moment in the new Italian PM Giorgia Meloni’s victory speech will have been that she anchored its peroration to a quote from G.K. Chesterton. ‘Chesterton wrote, more than a century ago,’ she said, ‘“Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer.” That time has arrived. We are ready.’

G.K. Chesterton? The creator of the excellently herbivorous Father Brown mysteries, the Isaac Newton of what we now call ‘cosy crime’? That G.K. Chesterton? The author of a poem, memorised by many a previous generation of English schoolboys, about how ‘the rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road’? That one? The man who wrote ‘we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet’? The one whose very voice conjures up cricket on the village green, spinsters on bicycles and warm beer?

In the popular imagination, Chesterton is a half-forgotten avatar of small-c English conservatism: the quintessence of a BBC-talk-giving, tweed-upholstered, pince-nez-wearing Anglo-Catholic buffer of the old school. So it seems on the face of it very odd that an Italian politician in the 21st century would be quoting so utterly English a figure; odder still that it should be a politician so widely condemned as ‘far-right’. You’d think Gabriele d’Annunzio would be more her speed. And if you had only this vague idea of Chesterton as a sort of English teddy bear, you might well take that view.

‘Dad, can you trickle me down some economics?’

The columnist Allison Pearson even tweeted: ‘Funny kind of “fascist” quoting G.K. Chesterton.’ Well, yes and no. Chesterton wasn’t a fascist in the Italian or even the German tradition – for a start, he loathed modernism and all its works, and would have had none of your Marinetti-style worship of the machine.

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