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516. The power of the great (XVII)

Michael Oakeshott conceptualised politics as a convivial conversation down the ages—a conversation that unites past, present, and future. The scene: a small tavern, perhaps called The Royal Oak, located in rural England. After a hard day’s labour in the fields, the men retreat to the Oak to imbibe ales and ciders in wooden mugs. The old men sit by the fire and draw on their pipes—wraiths of smoke filter through their beards. On the fire, the logs crackle green—the spirits of the wood. These are yew logs. As the local saying goes: Oak alight, April delight / Yew law, October sure. There is a rhyme for every type of log you burn—a line appropriate to the taste of the wood.

Over their ales, the men discuss the issues that face the village: the squire’s plans to build seven new cottages, the season’s planting, the mill stream that needs renewal, the country fair—the gypsies who lurk on the village precincts. The young men are outspoken and forthright, the most brawny young farmhands hold forth—usually for innovation, possibly imprudent. The old greybeards, meanwhile, hold their peace but gently chivvy the young men out of their more radical schemes—though they accept a certain amount of innovation in the course of things.

They also know that Paul Grogan is just like his grandfather, Old Rufus Grogan—Old Rufus was always hot-tempered and outspoken; and Sally Hemmings, the village wise-woman, says the wind was blowing from the southwest when Paul was born and that was how the cantankerous Grogan side came out in him. Paul’s ways are expected—his type, his archetype, has recurred many times in the village; and the village knows how to take account of the intemperate Grogan ways. It is so for all the men in the tavern: they are connected and known to each other by a web that goes back generations—their types can be accommodated and are recognised with a wry smile.

This is how Oakeshott thinks politics should be—an amiable, if sometimes heated, conversation in the pub about the direction in which the village should go. A discussion undertaken with the past present: the archetypes recur; and the next generation is swaddled and nursed by their mothers a few doors from the pub—and the unborn are present too, being the sparkle in Paul Grogan’s eye when he looks at the tavern’s serving-girl. The problem with this view of politics—intrinsically cosy and English—lies in the fact that even when Oakeshott conceived it in the 1950s the social arrangements that allowed it to take place had vanished. He already lived in a bureaucratic, technological, and mass society where mass propaganda was the norm—not conversation. Parliament was not, even then, a convivial “tavern conversation”—it was already cynical and professionalised; and this is even more true today.

Further, in a typical conservative fault, Oakeshott imagines that his opponents are conservatives. The conservative imagines a convivial conversation between young hot-head “innovators” and conservative “oldheads” (as storied American anons say) about the future of the national village; yet the left does not think this way: the left imagines a total solution—essentially religious in nature—to reform society; it never intends a conversation, friendliness is not political—and so piecemeal consensus-based reforms are out.

The left is like some peripatetic preacher—the type who proliferated during the English Civil War—who wanders into The Royal Oak and starts to harangue the villagers about the need to repent: “Christ is at hand, brothers. All men equal. Come, let us tear down the squire’s manor.” The left does not want a conversation, it wants to preach—and the convivial conservative who tries to “have a chat” is steamrollered. In the end, either Paul Grogan and his boisterous farmhand pals throw the preacher out on his ear or the villagers—fired on spirits both spiritual and temporal—turn rogue and follow the preacher’s injunction to burn down the village.


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