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It is good to see the British conservative philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, featuring in the American Conservative, because, as Kenneth McIntyre explains, mainstream American conservatives don’t really get Oakeshott: 

  • “This lack of influence among the movers and shakers of American political life should not be surprising, given Oakeshott’s insistence on the irrelevance of political philosophy to practical politics. As he once wrote, ‘reputable political behavior is not dependent upon sound or even coherent philosophy.’ Such behavior is instead related to the concrete practical knowledge of an actual political tradition and what such a tradition intimates. Oakeshott was skeptical of philosophers who meddled in practical affairs, insisting that he was not concerned with establishing ‘a seminary for training political hedge-preachers in some dim orthodoxy.’”

Though he died in 1990, there is little about today’s Republican Party that would cause Oakeshott to revise his opinion. “Hedge-preachers” and “dim orthodoxy” pretty much sums it up.

But before we get too smug on this side of the pond, we need to make sure that British conservatism doesn’t turn into an ideology either. Looking at the drift of today’s Conservative Party you might not think that too much of a danger, but actually a great deal of debate on the right is highly ideological in character – indistinguishable in tone, though not in content, from the posturings of the  left.

To get our thinking straight we need to understand what Oakeshott meant by ideology and to do that we first have to understand what he meant by rationalism:

  • “…what is rationalism, in the Oakeshottian sense of the term? First, it involves the claim that the only adequate type of knowledge is that which can be reduced to a series of rules, principles, or methods… Second, because of this denigration of practical knowledge, it is a claim that rational action can only take place following the creation of a theoretical model…
  • “The opposite of rationalism for Oakeshott is not irrationalism but authentic practical reasonableness. Thus, and contrary to many of his reading-impaired critics, his critique of rationalism is not a critique of reason but a defense of it against a false modern conception of it.”

And this brings us on to the Oakeshottian meaning of ideology:

  • “Oakeshott used the term ‘ideology’ to describe the attempted application of this rationalistic style to political activity. The rationalist’s or ideologist’s desire is to solve permanently the problems of political life and leave everything else to administration.” 

Idolators of a written – and supremely rationalist – constitution, American conservatives are particularly prone to ideological thinking. But in Britain too, conservatives – centrists and rightists alike – are succumbing to their own theoretical models. 

For instance, not so long ago, many 'moderate' Tories were convinced that all our problems would be solved if only we joined the EEC. These days, there are just as many 'radical' Tories who regard exit from the EU as a similarly efficacious cure-all.

The problem with these positions is not so much their content, but the certainty of their expression, as if their purported truths were obvious and those in disagreement guilty of a crime against reason.

It takes a conservative Tory to accept that while there is such a thing as truth, it is not, in this world, self-evident. 

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