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’.

To be fully convincing, such a strong conclusion would need to be based on a deep study of Conservative thinkers and a rigorous examination of the performance of Conservative governments, in the manner of John Dunn’s highly successful The Politics of Socialism. But that of course is not the way of the rationalist – and anyway Honderich is not equipped to adopt it. Peregrine Worsthorne’s political column, he cheerfully informs us, ‘illuminates Conservatism more than quite a number of books on the subject’. That may well be so, but Honderich would have been in a better position to judge had he actually read the relevant books. Realising, presumably, that his own most recent book on politics, a stimulating study accurately called Violence for Equality, was not the ideal training for an assault on Conservatism, Honderich asked no fewer than 25 people to make suggestions as to what he should read. Regrettably this unusual procedure was unproductive. Either Honderich’s helpers were remarkably sparing in their suggestions, or Honderich did not follow them. One of his endearing traits is to make strong criticisms of other people without realising that he himself exemplifies what he is attacking. Thus the shortfall in his own reading does not inhibit him from sneering at Conservatives for not reading books.

Karl Popper does not appear anywhere in Honderich’s text or in his admirably honest threadbare bibliography. In an outstanding essay on Popper, Gray says it is a misconception to think his political philosophy is a species of Conservatism. That possible defence, justified or not, is not open to Honderich, since Hayek, who once explained why he was a liberal and not a conservative, figures prominently in the text, and five of his books are listed in the bibliography. Popper, of course, has demolished the sort of utopian social engineering that is so dear to the author, but that is no excuse for ignoring him.

Two quotations from Harold Macmillan are included, but Honderich has apparently not read any of Macmillan’s books. R. A. Butler is a non-person to Honderich, and so is Iain Macleod. The most glaring exclusion of all, however, is that of Lord Hailsham. Honderich is aware of Hailsham’s existence since he makes a heavy joke about his trousers, which Honderich calls his undergarment, but he is evidently not aware of his books. With the leading post-war Tory thinker in politics thus consigned to the scrapheap, Chris Patten, William Waldegrave and Francis Pym inevitably go the same way. These omissions might have been ascribed to a bizarre decision by Honderich to disallow books by all practising politicians, were it not that he does include Roy Hattersley and Gordon Brown.

Much the same happens with work by non-politicians. Two very good non-extremist studies, Anthony Quinton’s The Politics of Imperfection and Noel O’Sullivan’s Conservatism, appear, but they are almost alone. Norton and Aughey’s Conservatives and Conservatism is well beyond Honderich’s ken. Even Lord Coleraine’s right-wing For Conservatives Only is for him virgin territory. With Hailsham and the moderate Conservative tradition thus largely eliminated, Honderich confines his attention to British and American luminaries of the New Right. This is roughly the equivalent of – and about as valuable as – a book about post-war British socialism which ignored Hugh Gaitskell, Anthony Crosland, and Douglas Jay, and relied instead upon Ralph Miliband, Ken Livingstone and Tony Benn. Honderich is only a little better-informed about past than about present Conservatives. Coleridge makes one fleeting appearance. Disraeli’s Vindication of the Constitution is cited, but only from anthologies, and Honderich appears to think that it was connected with the Reform Act of 1867, passed by Disraeli, when it was in fact written thirty years before. Otherwise Disraeli does not figure, and Honderich’s knowledge of Lord Salisbury’s writings is evidently confined to a three-page discussion of them in O’Sullivan.

With Burke the case is, superficially, very different. He is mentioned often and constantly derided: his rhetoric is infelicitously called ‘risen sophomore’, and in praising Conor Cruise O’Brien’s introduction to Burke’s Reflections Honderich says it is the best short account, ‘although sympathetic’. Hazlitt said of Burke that ‘it has always been with me a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.’ Honderich comfortably fails that test. Hazlitt also said that ‘the only specimen of Burke is, all that he wrote.’ Honderich easily fails that test too. Although he jibes at another writer for not having read Burke, he himself has evidently read little of him but the Reflections, a deficiency which has led him into an astonishing error. He quotes the following: ‘circumstances are infinite, are infinitely combined, are variable and transient: he who does not take them into consideration is not erroneous, but stark mad ... metaphysically mad.’ These famous words are Burke’s – the importance of circumstances is a vital part of his thought – yet Honderich attributes them not once but twice to John Randolph of Virginia. The error stems from his reliance on The Portable Conservative Reader (edited by Russell Kirk) for much of his knowledge of Conservative thought. Honderich tells us he has read every word of it, and many of them appear in his own book. But Kirk is not to be blamed for Honderich’s howler. John Randolph makes it clear that the remarks about ‘circumstances’ are not his own but come from ‘one of the greatest masters of political philosophy’.

A lack of familiarity with his sources is not Honderich’s sole handicap. His knowledge of English history is also shaky. Once again one might have let that pass, but Honderich criticises others for being ‘under-supplied with historical knowledge’. For Honderich, much of English history before 1979 is a firmly closed book. Hence, instead of seeking guidance on what to read, Honderich would have done better to ask his panel of 25 to read his manuscript. One of them, Mr Michael Foot, though not perhaps the highest authority on Conservatism, is a good historian who could have told him that the man who said that ‘the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he’ was Colonel not Captain Rainborough. More important, he could have put Honderich right on Macaulay. Honderich, following, as ever, The Portable Conservative Reader, is convinced that he was a Conservative, and according to the American tradition he may have been. But in England, every schoolboy, as Macaulay might have said, knows that he was not.

Hence Honderich has no tools except rationalism and abstractism. But neglecting to equip himself for his task was not his only serious error. It is just as well, when writing a book, to make sure, before you get very far, that its subject exists. Lacking, and perhaps despising, the Burkean virtue of prudence, he did not take that useful precaution before embarking on a search for the fundamental rationale of Anglo-American Conservatism.

By ‘Conservatism’ he means ‘a political tradition including a number of parties and many governments’, and his subject ‘is the particular political tradition of belief, feeling, policy, legislation and action exemplified by the Conservative Party in Britain and a main part of the Republican Party in the United States, a political tradition that has evolved and contains diversity’. Honderich adds that ‘that is no adequate account or definition of the subject’, but that it is good enough to start with. Undoubtedly there were many resemblances between the Reagan Administration and the Thatcher Government. But between the wars the British Conservative Party had much more in common with the American Democrats than with the Republicans, and the same is true of some other periods. Yet Honderich proclaims his purpose ‘is to try to find the fundamental principle of Conservatism in order to make a judgment on it’. Assuming for the moment that all of them had a fundamental principle in their politics, does Honderich seriously believe that Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan had the same one as, say, Rab Butler and Iain Macleod? The political tradition that Honderich is attacking does not exist. The Conservative and Republican traditions are different. There are at least two traditions, and though this book never manages to cross the Channel, there are a number of European Conservative traditions as well. Nevertheless Honderich makes obsessive use of the word ‘Conservatism’ – sometimes up to seven times on one page – as though the thing he is talking about were an identifiable character: a stupid red-faced banker, perhaps, or a colonel, denouncing the workers, immigration and Neil Kinnock at the 19th hole of a Home Counties golf club.

And that brings us to a further difficulty, which Honderich seems dimly to perceive but which he makes little attempt to surmount. When he came to England in 1959, Honderich writes, ‘decency was still in a kind of ascendancy.’ Since 1979, however, he continues, that decency has been lost by governments ‘which manifestly lack it’. In 1959, he presumably remembers, there had been a Conservative government in office for eight years, yet he uses ‘Conservatism’, the same stupid red-faced colonel, to personify both the ‘decent’ Conservative governments of the Fifties and the governments which in his view have set out to ‘degrade’ human nature since 1979.

The truth is that owing to the gaps in his reading and his insouciant attitude to English history, Honderich has very little idea of what the English Tory tradition is. In his diary for 1961 Harold Macmillan described the ‘quite deep divergence of view between ministers, really corresponding to whether they had old Whig, Liberal, laissez-faire traditions, or Tory opinions, paternalistic and not afraid of a little dirigisme’. That would be much too confusing for Honderich and his colonel. They might even be puzzled by Sir John Nott’s remark when a member of Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet, that he and she were 19th-century liberals and that was what her government was all about.

Honderich is much more at home with the New Right. In speaking of it, he has ‘in mind a Conservatism of the last quarter of the 20th century, in the main in Britain and America, but not all of the Conservatism of that period’. The New Right includes the Thatcher and Reagan Governments, but not ‘several governments of another Conservative kind, which came earlier in the quarter century’. Despite the occasional qualification, what Honderich for most of the time means by ‘Conservatism’ is the ‘New Right’. Since he finds the Reagan and Thatcher Governments fairly repulsive, it is obviously legitimate for him to attack them, and though he sometimes spoils his case by overstatement and repetition he makes a number of valid points in often pungent prose, characterising the tabloid papers as ‘a wretched puppet press, full either of nipples or pompous servility’, and denouncing the callous treatment of the poor. Had he conceded that he was only concerned with unravelling the policies and what he regards as the indecencies of recent British and American governments he would have been on tenable ground. But to suggest that the actions of the Thatcher-Reagan Administrations and his criticisms of them embody eternal truths about ‘Conservatism’ is pretentiously inaccurate.

Evidently aware of the implausibility of identifying ‘Conservatism’ with the ‘New Right’, Honderich produces a number of ‘distinctions’ among those who ‘count as Conservatives’. These distinctions, which are presumably intended to widen his net, include opposition to social compulsion, ‘authoritarian’ attitudes, ‘commitment to a large property-freedom and market-freedom’, ‘not by first intention democratic’, inclination ‘to a true natural aristocracy’, ‘opposition to equality of results’, and the ‘fundamental opposition of Conservatives to social freedoms, those most closely associated with such 20th-century advances as the Welfare State and the War on Want’. But since all his distinctions apply at best only to the New Right, and some apply to liberals, and probably to everybody not on the extreme left, they don’t much help him. If Presidents Nixon and Reagan really were inclined to ‘a true natural aristocracy’, how, one wonders, did they manifest their illicit yearning? And if Conservatives are fundamentally opposed to the Welfare State how, one wonders, does Honderich think that in 1939 after twenty years of virtually unbroken Conservative rule Britain had the most advanced social services in the world? And does he seriously believe that Iain Macleod, say, was fundamentally hostile to the National Health Service, and that Ted Heath, a leading member of the Brandt Commission, fights relentlessly against the war on want?

After all this, it is no surprise that Honderich’s conclusion is ‘not that Conservatives are selfish. It is that they are nothing else. Their selfishness is the rationale of their policies, and they have no other rationale.’ Clearly there is a large element of selfishness in Conservatism. To deny it would be blind and foolish. But is it any less blindly foolish to make a claim, based on slender reading, that the sole attribute of a Conservative is selfishness?

Honderich, whose prime objection to Conservatives is their reliance on ‘property-freedom’ and other economic freedoms, does not like Western democracies. He defines democracy as ‘a possible form of government such that in virtue of certain features all of the people choose and then influence those who govern the nation and control its relations with other nations’ – which is as good an example as could be found of the rationalist politics of perfection. Honderich points out that Western democracies do not meet those requirements (he does not say how any regime ever could meet them) and then adds in all seriousness: ‘something the same has been true of the Soviet political system.’ Elsewhere Honderich calls into question the commitment to constitutional forms of those conservatives who in the pre-Gorbachev days sought to overthrow the Soviet constitutions of the Baltic republics. On that argument it was unconstitutional to seek to overthrow Hitler.

Instead of Conservative ‘property-freedoms’, which according to Honderich diminish rather than safeguard other more important civil and political freedoms, and instead of ‘what are called Western democracies’, he advocates a society in which, if there isn’t quite ‘equality of results’, there is ‘so far as is possible’ (his italics) equal income and wealth. Fortunately or unfortunately, this is of course a rationalist defiance of experience. Following Kant, Gray holds the possession of strong property rights to be essential to the autonomy of the individual. Oakeshott, in an essay which Honderich may or may not have read, maintained forty years ago that freedom depended on ‘the absence from our society of overwhelming concentrations of power’. In Honderich’s society, however, the government would be an overwhelming concentration of power, and the only one; and it would have the ability and the need to interfere incessantly with economic and market freedoms in order to enforce equality. Yet, as Gray points out, personal and civil liberties have never existed in the absence of extensive rights of private property. Honderich’s rationalist politics would assuredly lead to tyranny.

Like Oakeshott and Gray, Popper believes that freedom is more important than equality, and that ‘if freedom is lost, there will not even be equality among the unfree.’ Popper’s argument against utopian social engineering is even more crippling to Honderich. If we try to control social relations, we create a host of new social relations. Therefore, while piecemeal social engineering may be desirable, utopian social engineering is a logical and practical impossibility. Recent revelations about Herr Honecker and East Germany certainly bear Popper out. Honderich, whose book does not appear to have been revised to take account of developments in Eastern Europe, ignores both Popper and Honecker.

Both the Conservatives and Labour will similarly ignore Honderich’s Conservatism. Labour has abjured what Michael Foot calls Benn-foolery, and the New Right looks to be on the wane in Britain and America. Ideology will soon be back where it belongs: well away from Westminster. Two-party politics seem to have resumed, and with any luck we shall soon return to what Bagehot called ‘middle government’: that is to say, ‘government which represents the extreme of neither party but the common element between the two of them’. Such a middle government would avoid what Gray calls ‘the excesses of an inordinate liberal ideology’, and it would not be socialist. It would be conservatively social-democratic or social-democratically conservative. Perhaps that, too, is being utopian: but if it is anywhere near right, only ideologues need be unhappy.