Ethics & Public Policy Center

No Mere Academic

Published in American Spectator on September 2, 2013



Readers of this magazine will know that conservatism has been going through a dark time in Britain. Since the premiereship of Margaret Thatcher, the state has expanded relentlessly to take control of just about every aspect of civil life. The media, the universities, and the schools have adopted a soft-left orthodoxy that allows little room for dissent. And the fundamental values on which the conservative vision of society is based—national sovereignty, social continuity, political freedom, and Christian heritage—havebeen condemned and in some measure criminalized by the European machine, without the faintest sign of resistance from our politicians. The same politicians have assumed the right to violate and impose arbitrary changes on our way of life: opening our borders and our national assets to the rest of Europe, redefining marriage and the family without respect for popular opinion, and generally treating our heritage of individual freedom and bottom-up law as a dispensable eccentricity. The things we value are being swept away. But where do we find the people who argue our case? Of course, we had Mrs. Thatcher’s glorious interlude. But she was first and foremost a politician, not a thinker. And the long march of the left, through the institutions of our society and through the brains of its members, continued under her watch.

Of the few intellectuals who stood against the trend and articulated their reasons for doing so, none was more important than Kenneth Minogue, who died on June 28 at the age of 82. Ken was born in New Zealand and educated in Australia. He came to England in 1955 and taught political science, first at the University of Exeter and then, from 1959, at the London School of Economics, where he was a pupil and friend of Michael Oakeshott. Ken enjoyed public debate and was a passionate advocate of the conservative cause. He had the returning colonist’s love for the old country, and a poignant sense of its fragility. But he was also an articulate theorist, who had studied Marxism and its effects, and who saw more clearly than any other political scientist of his generation that the greatest danger presented by socialism was not the expansion of the state but the advance of ideology. By softening the brains of the intellectual class, ideology prepares the way for the statist machine far more effectively than any army. It is a substitute for thought, one that is designed to make thinking impossible.

In his book Alien Powers, published in 1985, Minogue turned Marxism on its head. He showed that the theories of Adam Smith, David Hume, and Adam Ferguson, which Marx dismissed as “bourgeois ideology,” provide the real foundations for social science. The categories of Marxist thought—class, exploitation, oppression, surplus value, capitalism, socialism, communism, and all the dusty, cobweb-covered terms that were the substitutes for observation in the political science departments of British universities—are adopted because they rationalize resentment and provide impenetrable walls of pseudo-thought that are immune to refutation. Minogue took those categories apart. He argued that the classical economists were the true social philosophers, who understood the place of free association in the development of institutions, and the nature of liberty as a moral and legal idea. And he showed the way in which the Marxist categories had poisoned political theory in the British universities. This was not a wise career move for someone employed by one of those universities; but it encouraged and inspired people of goodwill and good sense.

In other books, Minogue expounded the case for classical liberalism, and showed that the tradition that ran from Hume and Smith, through Burke and Tocqueville, to Oakeshott and Hayek, was one of the treasures of our civilization. It is difficult for an American to appreciate how bold it was to go public with this message in the Britain of the 1970s and 1980s. It was not just that Minogue invited the contempt of his colleagues: He found himself shouted down and threatened on university campuses and routinely castigated by the pundits for his articles in the press.

Thanks to his command of English prose and his refined English drinking habits, Minogue belonged to a circle of articulate conservative journalists that included Peregrine Worsthorne, Peter Utley, and Colin Welch. Those writers valued his immense knowledge and culture, and encouraged him to go public with his unfashionable ideas. He played his part in defining and propagating the message of libertarian think tanks like the Institute for Economic Affairs; he was an active member of the Conservative Philosophy Group; he was one of the leading lights in Encounter, the magazine that set out, under Melvin Lasky, to create an alternative voice to the establishment left; and he wrote beautifully and persuasively in the Daily Telegraph, the (London)Spectator, the Salisbury Review, and the Times, as well as in this and other American journals, in ways that both enlightened and entertained his conservative readers. In many ways he was a model of the conservative activist. He was not in the business of destroying things or angering people. He was in the business of defending old-fashioned civility against ideological rage, and he believed this was the real meaning of the freedom that the English-speaking peoples have created and enjoyed. In defense of civility he could be provocative. But it was characteristic of the Britain in which he lived, whose institutions he defended in so heartfelt a way, that his civility was regarded by the left as a kind of aggression.

Ken Minogue was unlike other academic conservatives I have known—unlike Oakeshott in particular—in that he willingly and enthusiastically joined the battle. I knew Ken from the many occasions when we would find ourselves signed up to this or that initiative, institution, or campaign that we both believed in. He did not think, as Oakeshott seemed to think, that conservatism was too sophisticated an outlook to dirty its hands with politics. He did not think that we should rise above the stream of history in a posture of angelic detachment. On the contrary, he was an inspiration precisely because he thought that the conservative vision is true, and that, because it is true, it must be advanced and defended.

Of course, it must be defended with decency. But for Ken Minogue, decency was not just a way of doing things, but also the point of doing them. Like Oakeshott, he recognized that the conservative vision does not define itself by what it seeks to achieve, but by its way of achieving it. His philosophy was a philosophy of the passage through: not where you go, but how. And if this led him, in his last work, to be skeptical of democracy, this is surely understandable. The idea of the state as a benign father figure, who guides the collective assets of society to the place where they are needed, and who is always there to rescue us from poverty, ill health, or unemployment, remained in the foreground of politics in Britain. And it has remained there because people vote for it. Minogue did not merely vote against it. He spoke, thought, and acted against it too. Not surprisingly, therefore, he was hated by all the right people. These days, that is the best that we can hope for, so long as we are also, as Ken was, loved by the right people too.

Roger Scruton is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Comments are closed.