A Hedgehog And A Fox

Maurice Fraser: Liberal who rejected relativism (©LSE)

Professor Maurice Fraser of the LSE, who died in February aged 55, served as a political adviser under the Thatcher and Major governments. The following is extracted from an address given at a memorial event last month alongside tributes from the Prime Minister, the French Ambassador and others.

I first met Maurice in September 1969 at the rentrée of septième at the French Lycée in South Kensington. Maurice was so remarkably clever he had just jumped a year, and it wasn’t long before, young though he was in the year, he came top of his class, a position he was to continue to occupy throughout his time at school.

Although diligent academically, Maurice was never a teacher’s pet; his gentle manner, good humour and quick wit combined with a refusal to be cowed by authority made him popular with his peers. His schoolboy enthusiasms — whether for Wacky Races, Monty Python or David Bowie — could be infectious; and he was precocious, adopting strong moral and political positions, and arguing them persuasively, from a very young age. His trenchant views, whether about Marxists, Catholic priests or town planners, stayed with him all his life.

Isaiah Berlin famously divided thinkers into hedgehogs and foxes. But Maurice defied the distinction. A fox he certainly was, curious and knowledgeable about all sorts of subjects — the weather, the sky at night, Roman coins and French Baroque music, as well as women’s fashions and popular radio talk shows. But he was also a hedgehog, in that he held firmly and consistently to a philosophical position, which years later, after he had served as special adviser to three Foreign Secretaries and reached the height of his political influence, he was able to express with confidence, helping to shape the public doctrine of the Conservative party during the Major years.

In a BBC broadcast at the time, Maurice went head to head against Roger Scruton, with each expounding a contrasting philosophy of conservatism. Maurice dismissed what he regarded as the nostalgic vision of a “world we have lost” England, a place of deference and tradition, and instead looked forward to a United Kingdom at ease with itself and culturally self-confident, playing a pivotal role within the European Union and the Atlantic alliance, and committed to spreading the values of free trade and liberal democracy. The West, Maurice believed, had a mission to bring civilisation to the rest of the world, and both its soft and its hard power should be deployed to that end. It was a vision that owed more, perhaps, to the classical liberalism of Gladstone than to the conservatism of Burke or Oakeshott.

Maurice was an arch-critic of multiculturalism and rejected moral relativism. I remember his reaction to a television programme in which the director, writer and broadcaster Dr Jonathan Miller was reporting on his visit to an African tribe. Miller had been so paralysed by cultural sensitivity, so afraid to undermine the system of deference and authority within the tribe, that he had refused to treat a young man’s illness even though he had the medication that could have cured him. Maurice was indignant. For him, the moral imperative to ease human suffering always trumped the self-regard of the collectivity.

As far as Maurice was concerned this principle applied to all sentient beings, to animals as well as humans. On one occasion the entire work of the Foreign Office was brought to a halt when the officials, secretaries, security staff and the Foreign Secretary himself were recruited by Maurice to rescue a baby pigeon that had got trapped on the ledge outside his office.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"