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284. Development (IX)

Roger Scruton and Michael Oakeshott advocated the politics of amiability: the polity, per Oakeshott, is a ship and a ship cannot be sailed in a rigid way—we must tack constantly, make adjustments, and not proceed with a definite goal in mind; it is only through gentle and gradual adjustments that we can avoid capsize. Mao famously observed that a revolution is not a dinner party; for Oakeshott and Scruton, politics should definitely be a dinner party: a convivial evening with friends characterised by a civil, dynamic discussion.

The view is almost Taoist in its conception: a view that politics should be a gentle organic development, as supple as the winds and waves; although “the ship of state” is a common analogy, it is particularly British—we are the greatest seafaring nation. However, there is a definite limitation to this view, for it can become an excuse to indulge in cowardice. In this respect, Oakeshott and Scruton are similar to Burke, another man whose thought is often abused to support weakness and to avoid “extremism” and “unpleasantness”. The truth is that—as with Burke—Oakeshott and Scruton were not rightists in their constitutions, in the blood. Burke was a conservative liberal, Scruton’s father was a socialist, and Oakeshott’s father was a Fabian.

Leftism was in their blood and Oakeshott and Scruton’s self-conscious conservatism was really classic youthful rebellion against the father; both men wanted to kill their fathers, so they embraced a conservative stance to defy daddy—in itself, not a conservative action. If you look at the wider Oakeshott family you will find that they are liberals and progressives. This explains why both men feared right-wing “extremism”: their hearts were on their left, because politics is in the blood. In my case, for example, my paternal line features solid small businessmen, members of the Conservative Party, but my maternal line consists of working-class trade unionists; so I will always be the median between the nation and socialism; it is in my blood, whatever else I say.

Oakeshott and Scruton were both intellectuals; and a right-wing intellectual is almost an oxymoron. What their convivial approach to politics failed to grasp was that the right is really an engagement with reality. Now, it is true that reality, the unnameable and ineffable whole, is like friendship in the sense that it is organic and holistic: as with friendship, you have to let it come and go or else you will kill it. Yet reality is not friendship: reality is also a brutal and cold place; it is like the sea—not the ship on the sea—in that it is awesome, beautiful, and totally indifferent to you, an individual man. Sometimes the sea is kind to you, sometimes she kills you dead; and, unlike a friend, you cannot negotiate with her.

Hence Oakeshott and Scruton were leftist in essence, in their contention that politics can be like friendship. Their view led to the common conservative complaint: “The leftists are just frightful, smashing up our meetings. Stopping people from speaking! When will we return to civil and kind politics?” Of course, this aspiration, for reality to be constrained, for reality to be civil and kind, is precisely what the sons of a socialist and a Fabian would say.

Reality is sometimes a convivial and friendly place; sometimes it is not, and it is rarely so in politics, in public affairs, where it is more like a frozen civil war within the polity and an existential struggle to the death with other tribes without. To say that politics is friendship is a classic left-wing assertion; it confuses the public and private realms, as the left always does: friendship is for the private realm, for the home; politics, in part heroic self-revelation in action, is the public realm—in reality, the realm of strife. Politics cannot be a permanent cosy dinner party; and people who treat it as such will not only lose, but will possibly get hurt in the process.


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