Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
Who is the most pre-eminent British Conservative philosopher of the latter half of the twentieth century? Today, most of those under the age of forty would probably say that Roger Scruton qualified for that title, but prior to 1980 and the publication of Scruton’s immensely controversial debut “The Meaning of Conservatism”, few would have denied Michael Oakeshott these laurels.
Oakeshott’s continued reputation amongst Conservatives largely rests upon a volume of essays entitled Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays – published by Methuen 60 years ago, on January 21st 1962. It would be risible to argue that a book with such a sparklingly snappy title became an overnight bestseller. But it was reviewed widely in both the British academic press and the upper end of current affairs media. Knowledge of its contents quickly made its way across the Atlantic to the editorial offices of National Review. Oakeshott’s philosophy, based upon a belief in the tried and trusted over the risky and experimental, remains one of the purest distillations of genuine Burkean Conservative thought.
Michael Oakeshott was born into the ranks of a prosperous middle-class family in Chelsfield, Kent on 11th December 1901, the same day that Marconi transmitted the first transatlantic radio signals from Cornwall to Newfoundland. Michael’s father worked in the higher echelons of the civil service and was a paid-up member of the Fabian Society. Little wonder that his son was destined eventually to be sent to St. George’s, a radically co-educational “progressive” boarding school in Hertfordshire.
Surprisingly perhaps, this establishment did not wreck the lad’s academic opportunities and he was to go on to read History at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Oakeshott graduated with a First in 1923 and became a Fellow of Caius two years later. Post graduate studies were subsequently undertaken in Theology and German Literature at two separate German universities in the latter days of the Weimar Republic. Oakeshott considered entering the Anglican clergy around his time.
Whilst in Germany, Oakeshott came into direct contact with Marxism and National Socialism, which gave him a detestation of authoritarian political extremism and resulted in his short work “The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe” (1939). This was his second book, the first, the philosophical work “Experience and its Modes”, had been published quietly in 1933 and took over 30 years to sell all copies of the first edition. Oakeshott spent the 1930s teaching History at his alma mater, but shortly after the outbreak of war he did his utmost to join the Special Operations Executive.
Sadly, he was rejected for being “too unmistakably English” to conduct covert operations behind enemy lines, but he ended up working for “Phantom”, a wartime intelligence organisation examining battlefield signals data that worked with the SAS. During this time, he shared a billet with fellow Conservative Peregrine Worsthorne. Oakeshott ended the war with the rank of Acting Major and returned to Cambridge in 1945.
Within four years his academic career had gone from strength to strength. After two years teaching at Nuffield College, Oxford, in 1951 Oakeshott was appointed Professor of Political Science at the LSE. It is surely ironic that Oakeshott was selected to replace the recently deceased Harold Laski, stalwart of the Labour Party, communist sympathiser and Stalin apologist. Michael Oakeshott was destined to hold this Chair until his formal retirement in 1969 but continued teaching at the LSE until 1980.
The chapters comprising “Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays” collectively challenge the notion that politics can lead to a perfect society. Oakeshott draws a distinction between philosophy, which seeks to understand life, and politics, which deals with the practical management of human affairs.
Government does not require a “theory”. He argues that over the course of the preceding century “Rationalists”, who seek to harness the power of government in the service of their societal blueprints, have become predominant in political affairs. This has led disastrously to social engineering guiding the decisions of political life.
Oakeshott perceives that the world is continuously evolving and there can never be a fixed, permanent condition. Humans build upon the knowledge and achievements of past generations. The Rationalists, in contrast to good sense, put theory first and practice second. It therefore follows that all intellectual constructs based upon the imposing of an idealistic template are false and ultimately doomed to fail.
The obvious example of the specific Rationalism to which Oakeshott is referring in the eponymous opening essay is Socialism, with its state planning, regulation and centralised ownership. However, Oakeshott provides us with other less obvious examples of the same phenomena by citing a long list which includes:
“The project of the so-called re-union of the Christian Churches…the Beveridge Report, the Education Act of 1944, Federalism, Nationalism, Votes for Women…the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the World State (of H.G. Wells or anyone else) and the revival of Gaelic as the official language of Eire, are alike progeny of Rationalism.”
If nothing else, this passage demonstrates that the author’s prose is both light and often humorous.
Oakeshott’s 1962 book contains a rich mix of chapter subjects from political education to the role of historians and from Thomas Hobbes to the importance of poetry. However, two essays particularly stand out.
In “The Political Economy of Freedom” Oakeshott provides an obituary for Professor Henry C. Simons, a free market American economist who identified himself as “an old-fashioned liberal” and pithily remarks:
“If he was a liberal, at least he suffered from neither of the current afflictions of liberalism – ignorance of who its true friends are, and the nervy conscience which extends a senile and indiscriminate welcome to everyone who claims to be on the side of ‘progress’.”
Oakeshott bemoans that “…to be a genuine libertarian in politics is to belong to a human type now sadly out of fashion.” A free society depends upon the absence of “overwhelming concentrations of power”. Collectivism and freedom are opposites, “…if we choose one, we cannot have the other.” Collectivists “…reject the whole notion of the diffusion of power” and a collectivist society cannot function without “…a lavish use of discretionary authority”. Oakeshott concludes thus:
“Politics is not the science of setting up a permanently impregnable society, it is the art of knowing where to go next in the exploration of an already existing traditional kind of society.”
The second great essay of note is entitled “On Being Conservative” and comprises the text of a lecture that the author gave at the University of Swansea in 1956. It is fair to say, that it contains one of the greatest expositions on the true meaning of Conservatism and contains the following passage:
“To be a Conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”
Oakeshott supports innovation, but warns about change for change’s sake:
“…to be a Conservative is not merely to be adverse from change; it is also a manner of accommodating ourselves to changes, and activity imposed upon all men. For, change is a threat to identity, and every change is an emblem of extinction.”
Michael Oakeshott died, at the age of 89, in 1990 in Acton, Dorset, but his 1962 work “Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays” stands as one of the most significant and accessible cornerstones of modern Conservative thought.