A traditionalist with the eye

January 18, 2002

A hundred years after his birth, essayist and thinker Michael Oakeshott might hold the key to reviving a beleaguered Tory Party, argues David Walker.

If Isaiah Berlin's posthumous reputation has been knocked about a bit lately, that of another great 20th-century essayist who never quite produced the big works expected of him, Michael Oakeshott, has been enjoying a quiet boom. During his lifetime - he would just have celebrated his centenary were he alive - Oakeshott was classed by many as the quintessential Tory thinker. He was a standing rebuttal of the proposition that despite the Tories' dominance in government - in power for nearly two-thirds of the 20th century - they consistently lost the battle of ideas.

But almost 12 years after his death, Hull political scientist and new Labour peer Bhiku Parekh has claimed Oakeshott for multiculturalism, while across the Atlantic, American epigones swarm over his work and try to conscript him to Leo Strauss's little league of neo-conservatives.

In Britain, Oakeshott's collection of essays, Rationalism in Politics , remains sturdily in print - astringent, pulse-quickening reading on the left as well as the right - while On Human Conduct , one of his two big books, still appears on political science reading lists.

Today's Tory Party politics is another matter. Oakeshott's collected works are not likely to grace the bedside table of Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith. His party may be in need of ideas if it is to recover power, but Oakeshott is not likely to be among their sources. We have that on the authority of the party's front-bench home-affairs spokesman Oliver Letwin. His parents, London School of Economics scholars William and Shirley Robin Letwin, were close friends of Oakeshott, and he is Oakeshott's literary executor.

The Oakeshott paradox is that he did not think that politics, the gritty business of seeking votes and putting policies into effect, could bear too much thinking about: it is something that should happen naturally, tacitly, under the auspices of silent tradition. To think and shout and plan, to steam ahead with principles emblazoned on your banner - that is what socialists do, or Thatcher's guru Frederick Hayek, the subject of a caustic Oakeshott essay. Principles and theories in politics - the sin of constructivism, as evident on the right as on the left - run the risk of designing humanity out and bringing oppression in.

Oakeshott's survival is a puzzle, especially after Thatcher's tenure proved Tories could be as designing and rationalist as Marxists. Sir Bernard Crick once called him an elegant nihilist. Perhaps it is a sign of Toryism's historical difficulties just now that a rightwing philosopher who chipped away at the basic justification of political involvement should be enjoying a vogue.

But "rightwing" does not capture all of Oakeshott. He was an intellectual orphan of the idealist historian R. G. Collingwood and the British Hegelian T. H. Green and yet, unlike Hegelians, he argued that history has no point and may never be graspable. Here is a figure so protean he seems to disappear, like the smile on the face of the Cheshire cat. Oakeshott was an anti-state Tory whose best work sometimes extols Thomas Hobbes's arguments for the state to be strong. His theory of a natural order that could never be arranged by human agency except at peril of perverse results anticipated recent green thinking, while his eulogies to civil society sound as if they would pass muster with Blairite communitarians.

Perhaps we should just say that the pieces add up and that Oakeshott is enough of a stylish thinker to be worth reading still. In a recent BBC radio interview, Stefan Collini, professor of intellectual history at Cambridge, called Oakeshott idiosyncratic. Oakeshott was a contemporary of T. S. Eliot and said some inspiring things about the poetic temperament; but he was too sceptical to be an Anglican. So how could a sceptic also celebrate unthinking tradition?

John Gray, professor of European thought at LSE, who knew Oakeshott in later life, says that Oakeshott took as given specifically English traditions and assumptions, even though he was impressively European in his references. Scholars such as Julia Stapleton of Durham University - author of Political Intellectuals and Public Identities in Britain since 1850 - go on to align Oakeshott with such purveyors of Englishry as popular historian Arthur Bryant and poet John Betjeman, maybe even Enoch Powell. But Oakeshott usually reads as too fastidious to join such company. Parekh defends him against charges of racism and there is none of that green-wellied brutalism that spatters the pages of such a latter-day exponent of Englishry as Roger Scruton.

But that lack of identification is part of the problem with Oakeshott. He was not a joiner. After a brief burst of agitation against Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government, he gave up political involvement. After he moved from Cambridge in the early 1950s to succeed Harold Laski as professor of politics at the LSE, his work became more abstract, allusive and ironic. You search in vain for any consideration of the impact of economics on politics or how conservatives should deal with materialism. After September 11, says John Dunn, professor of political theory at Cambridge, Oakeshott is worth reading on Hobbes and the protective state. But there is no answer to the Oakeshottian conundrum of how an anti-fundamentalist can muster the will and energy to keep at bay the fundamentalism that threatens to sweep us away.

Dunn calls Oakeshott a prophet of the "conservatism of recognised precariousness", a purveyor of mood and attitude, more a mannerist than a joined-up philosopher. But perhaps that is what English - Britain is too much of a paradox these days - Toryism is ultimately about. It is not a theory but a tic. Oliver Letwin does not quite say this but the thought hovers in his mind: if the Tories are still repenting an excess of theory under Thatcher, Major and Hague, what they may need now is a good dose of Oakeshottian purgative.

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