“Why are you a conservative?” Many of us are somehow sure we are conservative, but find the answer to that question (which itself sounds unconservative) hard to put into words, and tend to defer any attempt to do so.
Roger Scruton never seemed to have the slightest difficulty expounding the conservative case, and often did so in such a way as to cause maximum offence to those who disagreed with him. He was a man of astounding eloquence, happy, as he himself once put it,
“to write rude and disgraceful things about the intellectual establishment… I was free to say some really enjoyable and unpleasant things and thereby give pleasure to others.”
Many eminent figures have paid tribute to him since his death earlier this month, and some have suggested he leaves an irreplaceable gap, with conservatives in this country deprived of their last philosopher.
This is ridiculous. There is a kind of conservative journalist who revels in thinking of himself (most of them are male) as a victim, struggling to gain a hearing in a world dominated by authoritarian liberals who brook no dissent and impose their stifling orthodoxy through the universities, the BBC and the rest of the media.
One may note in passing that many of these Tory pessimists somehow contrive to pour forth, despite their persecution by the liberals, a constant stream of articles and other forms of comment.
For them, it is natural to regard the death of Scruton, champion of high culture and of foxhunting, as confirmation that his pessimistic rural conservatism, which in their eyes is the only conservatism, is now pretty much extinct.
This kind of thinking is centuries old. Nor is it without truth. The Dissolution of the Monasteries, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution are among the events which have filled conservatives with an understandable sense of doom.
Pessimistic conservatives are never without evidence for their beliefs. When the country is prospering, an ignoble triumphalism becomes apparent, as old customs are carried away by a tide of new money splashed about by new men who have no reverence for the past and no idea how to behave.
When things are going badly, the pessimist sees his belief that the world is going to hell in a handcart confirmed.
But such pessimism is not the only form of conservatism. Michael Oakeshott, the greatest conservative philosopher of modern times, leaves one feeling bucked and amused, not despondent, even when he is exposing, as in his great essay Rationalism in Politics (1947), the predicament of that fashionable figure, the Rationalist:
“Like a man whose only language is Esperanto, he has no means of knowing that the world did not begin in the 20th century.”
Oakeshott does not give answers, but what conservative expects answers? We do not want to be told what to do, or to pretend, with insufferable omniscience, that we have developed a system of ideas – an ideology – which is equal to every eventuality, and will enable us to know in every circumstance what in logic is the correct thing to do.
Instead we immerse ourselves in a tradition of behaviour. As Oakeshott says,
“the Rationalist never understands that it takes about two generations of practice to learn a profession; indeed, he does everything he can to destroy the possibility of such an education, believing it to be mischievous.”
Against that dictum can be quoted isolated examples of people who came from unprofessional backgrounds yet reached the top. But even they learned much from colleagues steeped in the profession in question. Oakeshott describes life as it is actually lived, rather than life as it might be lived if it conformed to abstract principles.
The present Prime Minister is the son of a politician, from whom he learned much, and was educated at colleges – Eton and Balliol – which have long prepared their pupils for public life, and which have sought continually, as great institutions do, to modernise themselves, so as to remain at the centre of national life.
Johnson is a good debater in part because from an early age he took pleasure in debating, often in an intensely competitive spirit, against his contemporaries. Already he was practising politics, on minor stages where mistakes did not matter, could indeed provoke gales of laughter which swept him to victory.
He had the grave fault of being unwilling to prepare himself for these contests anything like as thoroughly as he should have done. In vain his teachers tried to correct this fault.
Johnson instead developed, to an unusual degree, a capacity to think on his feet, and to use what information he had managed to scrape together at the last moment.
He grew prepared for being unprepared, and this lent his performances an ease and spontaneity which delighted audiences, while annoying those who thought everything could and should have been worked out in advance.
The most dangerous moments for a Prime Minister are generally those when something unexpected happens, and he or she has to decide very quickly how to react.
Johnson will undoubtedly get some of these decisions wrong, but at least he will not be frightened of having to make up his mind in a hurry, on the basis of inadequate information.
Rationalists, as defined by Oakeshott, detest him. They think he has no right to have done as well as he has done, for he has refused to work everything out from first principles to which he clings with rigid correctness through thick and thin, but has instead allowed the flexible development of a strategy founded on experience, circumstance, instinct and intuition.
He has put himself in a position where he can change his mind, because he does not suffer from the delusion that he has discovered the one true path.
At this point the pessimist retorts that all Prime Ministers, and all governments, let you down in the end. And that is quite true. But consider this remark by David Hume (1711-1776), quoted by Ian Gilmour in his admirable work The Body Politic, published in 1969:
“The Tories have been so long obliged to talk in the republican style, that they seem to have made converts of themselves by their hypocrisy, and to have embraced the sentiments, as well as language, of their adversaries.”
The determination of the Johnson Conservatives to steal Labour’s clothes, to talk in the Labour style about the importance of equality, could also end in their making “converts of themselves by their hypocrisy”.
And that will annoy the Rationalists even more. It will seem so unfair that the hypocrite Johnson should somehow turn out to be more truly on the side of Labour voters than Jeremy Corbyn ever was.
Johnson did not, as editor of The Spectator, publish more than a handful of pieces by Scruton, and is neither a foxhunter nor a pessimist.
He is a Conservative who has won both a referendum and a general election, and if he can avoid degenerating into a technocrat, could turn out to be the most Oakeshottian Prime Minister this country has known.