the book by Ted Honderich
reviewed by Enoch Powell
For the past 300 years and more the inhabitants of Great Britain (or perhaps more accurately of England) have been content to be "godly and quietly governed" under unique arrangements, which may, if they must, be classified as a parliamentary monarchy. The course of being so governed has been characterised by oscillations between, on the one hand, governments whose appeal to their fellow countrymen is to conserve existing institutions and, on the other, governments whose appeal is their call for innovation. The rhetoric in which the two appeals are couched has been correspondingly contrasting.
On the one side, at any rate, the appeal has not taken the form of deduction from premises assumed to be self-evidently or demonstrably true. Like all rhetoric, it has been an appeal to emotion or prejudice, resembling more the singing of a song or the recitation of a poem than the arguing of a theory. A notable example of this rhetoric was Edmund Burke's outburst about the contrast between the government of his own nation and what was being exhibited across the Channel by another nation with whom the British were to be engaged in a long and critical war.
It is not surprising if the contents of Burke's speeches and writings, and of the repeated attempts by others since to formulate "conservatism", do not stand up as self-consistent or logically satisfactory when interrogated as a would-be philosophy. No song would or could stand up; and in any case the conservative appeal is part of the history of the last three centuries or more, when those who sang it "took it from there", wherever it happened to be when they were installed or retained or tolerated in government.
Ted Honderich, the Grote Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London, has consequently had an easy and often amusing time demonstrating that there is no such self-consistent or logically satisfactory philosophy. That need not have prevented him from contributing valuably to the understanding of his fellow countrymen's history. But his book is the work of a virulent partisan who leaves no one guessing how he intends to vote, and hopes a majority will vote, at the next general election. It is no part of a philosopher's task or argument to recall with ill-concealed glee, not once but twice, that the University of Oxford withheld from the Prime Minister the courtesy of an honorary degree. And a philosopher in search of illustrations of the "fundamental difference" between "acceptable moral judgments" and "ordinary true propositions" does not light by accident upon the following:
"There is a fundamental difference between, say, 'Selling cemeteries to property developers helps keep down local taxes' and 'Selling cemeteries to property developers is right and proper', or between 'Wall St brokers have incomes on average of $300,000 per annum' and 'Wall St brokers should or ought to have incomes on average of $300,000 per annum'."
Professor Honderich is not unaware what he is doing. He can write: 'History has been a struggle not an inquiry and what has lasted in it, in terms of actual politics and economics, has been owed to human desires other than the desires for truth, validity, consistency and the like." The trouble is that he just hates the guts of the Conservative Party, which is a pretty formidable disqualification for writing a book on "Conservatism".
In an unlucky hour the professor allows himself to state in "logically consistent terms" the antithesis of "Conservatism". Here it is:
"All of us share in certain fundamental desires: for the material means to a decent length of life for ourselves and those close to us; for further material goods, say those supplied by dentists rather than interior decorators, which make life easier; for kinds of freedom and control of our lives in our societies and in smaller contexts, such as work; for the respect of others and also self-respect; for kinds of intimate and other relations with others; for various goods of culture, including knowledge and skill."
The reference there to "dentists" and "interior decorators", though it does not improve the formulation, is symptomatic of the sort of author who thinks it clever to write that "it was once supposed, perhaps with the aid of Kipling, that being British was a necessary condition of being human, but that supposition on the whole has been abandoned". Anyhow, what the specimen does demonstrate is thai. the antithesis to Conservative rhetoric is also rhetoric and no more capable of explaining or logically demonstrating how in real life those desirous of being called to government either actually do govern or vocalise their appeal to those who they hope will give them the power to do so.
The professor is nothing if not naive, and many readers will find illuminating the biographical glimpse which he has decided to vouchsafe them and which is not easy to reconcile with his stance of philosophic impartiality. I have allowed myself to be tempted occasionally to italicise:
"When I came to England in 1959, I came from a decent place to join a nation of decency. It was to join a nation which to my mind had been and was still raised up in a certain way by a war. That was a war which touched on it uniquely and which had been made necessary by, among other things, a generosity of feeling, which feeling was part of its struggle against Germany and contributed to victory, and was in the end stronger than before. Whatever the worth of that explanation, it is true that the decency of England, that part of the character of its people, was in 1959 still in a kind of ascendancy ... As all have come to see, that general decency or generosity, by which I do mean something more general than the particular compassion which informs a good deal of socialism, has been confused and weakened. It has been confused and weakened by British government since 1979 ... Some members of these governments, blinded by political struggle, are incapable of seeing what they have done. I should not myself choose to be a child or grandchild of a member of a government which set out to drag dawn, in so far as it could, the character of a people."
So the sneering professor is no more exempt than the rest of us from emotion, prejudice, and history when he behaves like Aristotle's description of mankind, "a political animal".
Conservatism was published by Hamish Hamilton and Penguin Books in 1990, and in an enlarged form by Pluto Press in 2005 under the title Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? Enoch Powell, minister in a Conservative government and before that a professor of Greek, reviewed Conservatism in the newspaper The Independent on 1 July 1990, under the heading 'Sing a song of Tories, prejudiced and wry'. There is another review by Michael Foot, a leader of the Labour Party.
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