the book by Ted Honderich
reviewed by Michael Foot

    A former leader of the Conservative Party in this century who held the job for the extraordinary period of 21 years is quoted in these pages saying that what he most feared was not praise or blame but having his own explanations explained. He wrote a book called A Defence of Philosophic Doubt and carried his scepticism into fields where politicians are normally inclined to be most assertive.               

    The speaker was Arthur Balfour, later Lord Balfour. His predecessor in the Conservative leadership, Lord Salisbury, would often define his ineradicable detestation of democracy as a tolerable method of government, and when someone suggested that his England might succumb to the power of the trade unions, he replied: 'I would welcome the military despotism that should relieve us.' Either Balfour or Salisbury made the famous sneer that on a matter of policy they would as soon consult their valet as that intrusive novelty, a Conservative Party conference.

    Is this, conceivably, in any sense whatever, the same Conservative Party which now parades before the public in its shameless populist Thatcherite-Tebbitite-Bakerite garb; the same Party which has raised money-making, money-grubbing, money-worship, to an unchallenged place on the highest altar of all, the same Party which has identified as never before the interests of the nation with those of the Conservative Central Office; the same Party which has established at No. 10 Downing Street what Mr Edward Heath calls a 'corrupt' relationship between the Conservative government and the multi-millionaire gutter press?

    It is hard to see how any claim to continuity can be established. The Heathite protest that there has been a scandalous rupture in Conservative tradition deserves to be respectfully examined. Perhaps the manners of the Cecils might be regarded as too lordly and fastidious for modern application. Disraeli might, momentarily, be a better ally. He once called a Conservative administration which set such store on money-making at the expense of the public 'an organised hypocrisy'. He provides many splendid invectives which would exactly fit the conditions of today.

    However, it is not these voices from the sidelines, Heathite or Disraelite, which give Professor Honderich his theme. He is a philosopher, not an historian; a dealer in eternal truths, not fascinating gossip. He is determined to discover what is the principle, the rationale, the common binding interest, the ruling passion which has made Conservatism in modern times such a formidable, triumphant force on both sides of the Atlantic. His intellectual combat is much more with the theorists than the practitioners, although these latter can always move at great moments of crisis to push the former off the stage or out of the pulpit or editorial chair.

    Still, the most flamboyant and famous of all those who could claim the rare title of Conservative philosopher is the one whose statue is pictured on the dust cover, the statue of Edmund Burke, which stands outside Trinity College, Dublin. He looks composed, handsome, powerful, far-seeing, as philosophers should. But he was also a man of deep passions and prejudices. He boasted his love of the practicalities of politics  -- 'I must see the things: I must see the men.'

    Burke was a great liberal before he came to the rescue of the Conservatives; maybe that was part of his potency. He knew the strength of the argument against him. Professor Honderich does not quite take on this Burke in all his chameleon glory, but the assault is significant. If Burke can be so successfully challenged in his own citadel, as he is here, how much will be left of the 'lesser breeds'?

    Moreover Professor Honderich can summon to his side of the debate voices which should never have been muffled, from Richard Price in Burke's own time to R. H. Tawney in our own. 'To choose our own governors, to cashier them for misconduct, to frame a government for ourselves'; these were some of the gospels which Dr Prices preached from the pulpit, and Burke retorted as if he were dealing with some eighteenth-century Bishop of Durham; 'No sound ought to be heard in church but the healing voice of Christian charity.'

    Sometimes the full democratic argument of Dr Price, the final demand for equality, has been revived -- most notably in modern times by R.H.Tawney. Tory philosophers, ancient and modern, the Cecils and theTebbits, have alike found it advisable to avoid this particular moral challenge to their much-vaunted values, even their Christian ones. Honderich's book, apart from its other dialectical delights, offers the best modem discussion on the Tawney thesis, as up-to-date as our cardboard camps or the homeless or the Harrods takeover.

    Somehow, it is what happens to the money -- the accumulation, the worship, the unending search and distribution -- which holds the tale together, the Party together. The Burkes and the Pitts, the Disraelis and the Cecils, the Heaths and the Thatchers, all seem to concur in accepting one conclusion enunciated quite bluntly by that old middle-of-the-roader, philosopher-publisher, crofter-capitalist Harold Macmillan.

    The whole book must be read. Indeed, only the final page, like a good detective story, brings with it the full philosophical discovery, one much too rich to be exposed to impatient disclosure.

Conservatism was published by Hamish Hamilton and Penguin Books in 1990, and in an enlarged form in 2005 under the title Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? Michael Foot, the former leader of the Labour Party in Britain, reviewed Conservatism in the newspaper The Observer on 5 August 1990. There is another review by Enoch Powell, minister in a Conservative government.

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