In Praise of Middle Government

Ian Gilmour

  • Liberalisms. Essays in Political Philosophy by John Gray
    Routledge, 273 pp, £35.00, August 1989, ISBN 0 415 00744 5
  • The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education edited by Timothy Fuller
    Yale, 169 pp, £20.00, April 1990, ISBN 0 300 04344 9
  • The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott by Paul Franco
    Yale, 277 pp, £20.00, April 1990, ISBN 0 300 04686 3
  • Conservatism by Ted Honderich
    Hamish Hamilton, 255 pp, £16.99, June 1990, ISBN 0 241 12999 0

The collapse of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the dire condition of the Soviet Union have left Socialism almost irredeemably discredited. Understandably, the recent Labour policy document tactfully avoided the subject. Such reticence is of course nothing new. Unlike Continental parties, even the old ILP kept ‘Socialist’ out of its title to avoid offending the workers; and the Labour election programme of 1929, largely drafted by Tawney, did not mention the word ‘socialism’. Labour’s recent socialist flirtation was an atypical, though not unprecedented folly – the Party indulged in similar sectarian extremism in the Thirties – which is unlikely to be repeated. Certainly if Labour is to face the future with any hope of electoral prosperity, it will have to be resolutely social-democratic both in rhetoric and in action. Outside the Third World, socialism is dead and will not be resurrected for some time to come.

Coincident with the end of socialism in any meaningful sense, John Gray tells us that ‘a liberal political philosophy is an impossibility,’ and Ted Honderich announces that Conservatism is a nullity. If both of them are right and can be taken at face value, there does not seem to be much left.

Dr Gray’s original intention was to define liberalism and give it a foundation, but that ‘enterprise ended in failure’. In Liberalisms, which examines the thought of a collection of liberal philosophers from John Stuart Mill onwards, Gray sets each of his thinkers up in turn and then knocks them down like ninepins. His verdict on Hayek is that ‘quite apart from the inadequacies of his conception of liberty, none of his arguments for its value secure the inevitability and certainty that he seeks for liberal principles.’ Similarly he finds Nozick’s derivation of the state riddled with obscurities and a failure in its own terms. Isaiah Berlin, one of the few of Dr Gray’s ninepins who manages to remain upright, gains high praise for his contention that the conflict of values is an ineradicable feature of human experience, thus dispelling, in Gray’s words, ‘the reigning illusion of the enlightenment, the chimera of a rational morality, and its step-child, the project of a science of politics’. Gray’s postscript ‘After Liberalism’ turns out to be largely devoted to knocking down yet more ninepins; the last three pages alone live up to the title. The implications of ‘After Liberalism’ seem heavily conservative, but the argument is too brief to yield definite conclusions. Elsewhere, however, Gray’s conclusion is unambiguous – liberal political philosophy is ‘hubristic and defective’ – and that verdict, based as it is on scrupulous argument and an impressive mastery of the subject, may be difficult to upset.

Aside from Berlin, the only thinkers to survive Gray’s bombardment without a scratch are Michael Oakeshott and Karl Popper. Gray even pays Oakeshott the compliment of quoting him twice: ‘In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.’ ‘Political Education’, the essay in which those celebrated words appear, has been usefully assembled with five other of Oakeshott’s essays on education and republished under the well-justified title The Voice of Liberal Learning. And from the same publisher comes the first full-length study of Oakeshott’s political thought. Paul Franco has produced a fair, readable and clear account of one of the best, if one of the most tantalisingly elusive, of English political theorists. Because he is concerned, perhaps rightly, to stress the consistency of Oakeshott’s political thought, and because it has received more attention in the past than other aspects of his work, he devotes relatively little space to ‘Rationalism in Politics’. Nevertheless, like Gray, he gives an excellent summary of Oakeshott’s view that rationalism has had a disastrous impact on political life in the West. For Oakeshott, the rationalist is preoccupied with certainty. Custom and prejudice and any other authority are all his enemies. His unaided reason will infallibly tell him what is right. The rationalist sees himself as an engineer, and abstraction, not experience, is his tool. Rationalist politics is ‘the politics of perfection’ and ‘the politics of uniformity’.

From both Franco and Gray, Professor Honderich might have learned the importance of Oakeshott, and the sheer obtuseness of dismissing him with a sneer or two in under four pages. He might even have learned the perils of rationalism. For Honderich is the archetypal rationalist of Oakeshott’s nightmares. His politics are those of ‘perfection’. He knows that his reason – which in this book is largely unaided – will not let him down; as an engineer dealing in abstractions, he knows what is right. And he knows that Conservatism is wrong, even if he is not quite sure what it is. Conservatism or what he thinks is Conservatism is Honderich’s ninepin, and he takes pot shots at it for more than two hundred pages before deciding that Conservatism ‘has in the end nothing to say for itself’.

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