Oakeshott’s lessons for a warring party

A failure to heed conservative values of pragmatism and restraint has led to chaotic infighting at the expense of competence and statecraft

Michael Oakeshott: Conservatism is conduct not policy (LSE LIBRARY / LSE ARCHIVES

Rarely has the world’s oldest political party been so at odds with itself. The chaos of Brexit was preceded by decades of self-harm over Europe. The coming leadership contest will provoke yet more plotting and infighting. A few MPs have simply left (to Change UK). One of the most transparently Tory of MPs, Dominic Grieve, has declared himself to be “ashamed” of the party. Others are being deselected by truculent local associations. Jacob Rees-Mogg, meanwhile, has demanded that a true “Conservative” replace Theresa May, as if the vicar’s daughter and MP for the quintessentially Tory seat of Maidenhead were nothing of the sort. And these are just a few of the more explicit manifestations of the Tories’ years of discontent.

That the party can so divide on a single issue of policy—membership of the European Union—should not be surprising. The party has carved itself up many times over the most contentious policy issues of the day during the course of the last 200 years or so. Think of the Corn Laws, free trade vs. imperial preference at the turn of the 19th century, appeasement in the 1930s, the poll tax, and, of course, Europe. What is surprising, however, is the unparalleled rancour within Conservative ranks, the factionalism and incivility, and more damaging still, the sheer incompetence of the present Cabinet.

This is the aspect of the current crisis that should worry Conservatives most. For it is the conservative “disposition”, to quote Michael Oakeshott, that is most at risk over the Brexit wars. This is the most essential aspect of being a Conservative in the first place. It  is what binds them together, and what voters can be persuaded to vote for, even when everything else is going wrong. If Conservatives lose this, they risk everything.

Michael Oakeshott, who lived from 1901 to 1990, was, unusually, a conservative-minded academic. His life’s work was not to build castles in the air, as his left-wing colleagues were prone to do. Rather, Oakeshott’s mission—carried out from his various perches at Cambridge and the London School of Economics—was to delineate the boundaries of political action. He also sought to remind the political classes of his day, intoxicated by the possibilities of planning and New Jerusalems, that the answer to most of society’s ills would already lie within that society itself. His most famous work, “Rationalism in Politics”, written just after that triumph of collectivist endeavour, the Second World War, remains one of the best ripostes to idealists and technocrats. He advances the distinction between “technical” knowledge, that mugged up on PPE courses at Oxford, say, and “practical” knowledge, which, as he writes, “exists only in use, is not reflective and cannot be formulated in rules”—that which we could call tradition, or custom, the essential preserve of a conservative.

‘Conservatives have never been united by specific views. At any one time Conservatives have held radically contradictory views on almost every policy issue that has come up’

Oakeshott was regarded as the most distinguished contemporary exegetist of conservatism, although he has since fallen out of fashion. Oakeshott himself was merely standing on the broad shoulders of Edmund Burke, the Irish-born politician and essayist credited by many as the intellectual progenitor of conservatism, principally as a reaction against the vicious tyranny of the French Revolution. Burke’s work, too, was an appeal to the modesty, not the reason, nor ambition, of a legislator. He wrote famously of how the politicians’ “own private stock or reason” must be so much smaller than the “general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.” Together, Burke and Oakeshott bookend almost two centuries of reflection on conservatism. At the moment, however, all this accumulated wisdom seems to be flying out the window.

To start with Oakeshott and the conservative disposition, it is clear that conservatives have never been united by specific policies. Indeed, at any one time, Conservatives have held radically different and often contradictory views on almost every policy issue that has ever come up. Nor do they believe in a body of doctrine (such as socialism or liberalism). Neither do they have much time for abstract political theory (such as Marxism, or even Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, a theory of radical individualism). Rather, as Oakeshott wrote in 1956, conservatism is a “disposition . . . to think and behave in certain manners; to prefer certain kinds of conduct and certain conditions of human circumstances to others; it is to be disposed to make certain kinds of choices”. For, au fond, Conservatism is, in essence, nothing more and nothing less, than exactly that; a disposition. Strip away all the passionate, but fleeting, controversies over trade, tariffs, Hitler, Suez and the Irish backstop and we are left with the fact that Conservatism is the successful pursuit of government. It is the practice of statecraft. Conservatism is above all, Oakeshott believed, about conduct, not policy.

Voters will often frame this as “competence”. Even if the party is “nasty” in terms of policy or even personnel, as is often the case, people will still support it on these grounds alone. And it is this disposition, the successful administration of government, which has traditionally set the Conservative Party apart from, and above, its rivals. It not only accounts for the party’s longevity; it is also the quality—the virtue—for which the party has been most admired overseas. When critics in the columns of the New York Times—and virtually every other paper—claim that Britain has “gone mad” over Brexit, this is what they mean, that they can no longer find this disposition in the discourse of today’s Conservative politicians. That conservatives, in other words, have finally ceased to operate as such.

Consider, for instance, some of Oakeshott’s specific characteristics of the conservative disposition. “The man of this disposition,” he argues, “understands it to be the business of government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed on, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile . . . And all this not because passion is vice and moderation is virtue, but because moderation is indispensable if passionate men are to escape being locked in an encounter of mutual frustration.” There could surely be no better description of how wilfully many vocal Tory Brexiteers, and some Remainers, have willingly swapped any restraint, any moderation, for that reciprocally reinforcing encounter of mutual frustration. The diehards of the European Research Group, in particular, have long been dedicated to inflaming popular passions on Europe. This is surely the preserve of the populist, not the conservative.

Oakeshott also makes it plain, as Burke does, that the conservative must be wary of “innovation”, and that the conservative must “value highly every appearance of continuity.” It was perfectly legitimate for Conservatives to consider the European Union an innovation too far when Britain joined that institution in 1973. But, likewise, too many conservatives seem to ignore the fact that the enormous disruption of leaving the EU, as has been fully revealed since the referendum in 2016, might also be an innovation too far. Since 1973, Britain, has, in a million little ways, organically (to use Burke’s word) integrated itself with Europe. These ways have not been forced on people by a tyrannical government. Rather they are the result of millions of decisions made by people (and companies) serving their own economic interests, exactly the organic, bottom-up action that is the quintessence of conservatism.

The long, fragile supply chains of small British companies criss-crossing Europe are conservatism in economic action. They should endure or wither according to “human circumstances”, not be hostage to the intervention of an impetuous legislator. To break all these micro-links for an uncertain future is wholly against the grain of Oakeshott’s conservatism. Why have the roundheads of the ERG failed to carry the party as a whole, let alone parliament? As Oakeshott writes, “The onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial, rests with the would-be innovator.” The Remainers’ economic argument at the 2016 referendum might have been fanciful, but the Brexiteers have never made a convincingly beneficial case for such a substantial change as leaving the EU.

Furthermore, as Oakeshott reminds us, the conservative must prefer “small and limited innovations to large and indefinite” ones. Those that seek a legislative compromise on Brexit would surely earn Oakeshott’s endorsement over the sans-culottes of the Right. To deride those that do not want to go the whole hog on Brexit is equally unConservative. “What others plausibly identify as timidity”, he writes, “[the conservative] recognises in himself as rational prudence . . . he is cautious, and he is disposed to indicate his assent or dissent, not in absolute, but in graduated terms.”

The Conservative Party does not necessarily have a monopoly over conservatism as a disposition, but it has generally been grounded in this praxis more than any other party. This is the vital ingredient in the party’s success, for this disposition perfectly reflects and encapsulates the natural instincts—the “temper”, to use Burke’s word—of most British people. But Conservatives, with a big C, beware. When other parties ally that disposition to their own policies, they can be equally effective. Clement Attlee is a perfect example. He is still despised by the radical, Corbynite Left for not reforming any of Britain’s ancient institutions to create the classless nirvana. But this is exactly why he remains the Left’s most successful “statesman”—because he understood the temper of the electorate. Only a man who had an agency ticker machine installed outside the cabinet room so that he could get the county cricket scores could have reformed as much as he did. The  National Health Service has endured not so much because it was a “technical” innovation, in the Oakeshottian sense, but because it was merely an extension of an existing, successful institution, the Great Western Railway medical fund service set up in Swindon in the 1890s. “There it was, a complete health service,” acknowledged Aneurin Bevan, darling of the radical Left and architect of the NHS. “All we had to do was to expand it to embrace the whole country.”

Such is the conservative disposition at its best. For now, the Tories are fortunate in having Jeremy Corbyn to contend with, a man whose appreciation of the temper of the electorate does not extend much beyond north London, and students. But they won’t always be so lucky. To be as careless as the Conservatives now are with their most precious asset will inevitably lead to the sort of factionalism that Burke warned against, and the modern electorate are an unforgiving lot.