Got those busybody blues again

CONSERVATIVE REALISM: New Essays In Conservatism ed Kenneth Minogue, HarperCollins pounds 14.99
The eleven essays on contemporary conservatism collected in this book are meant to find their inspiration in the work of an influential trio of conservative intellectuals who have died within the last decade: Michael Oakeshott, Elie Kedourie and Shirley Letwin. Margaret Thatcher has furnished a Foreword.

In a telling little observation in his essay on Civic Conservatism, David Willets MP writes approvingly that "We are after all a nation where the ultimate sign of social distinction is to be wearing an old suit which belonged to one's father." It is tempting to laugh at this Bertie Woosterism, and put this collection aside, but that would be a mistake. If their opponents look hard they might find in the work of Oakeshott and his allies some uncomfortable truths about themselves.

It is true that it is not always easy pinpointing exactly what the Conservatives honoured here wanted to say. This is especially true of Michael Oakeshott, the most important of them, who, in arguing that conservatism was a "disposition" rather than an ideology, resisted writing anything like a creed. But they were all agreed in their hostility to state intervention. Their enemy was the planner, or what Oakeshott called the rationalist - the conceited busybody, restlessly embarking on one new project after another, full of facile dreams of international government, rational dress, and a ban on smoking.

Elie Kedourie's writings were distinguished by his black sense of humour, an attribute that was rarely better deployed than in his account of Richard Crossman's decision that the Labour Government of 1964 would build 400,000 houses, a figure which was apparently plucked out of the air. Harold Wilson interfered - it must be 500,000! "This is it!" said Wilson. "We'll make housing the most popular single thing this government does." Six weeks later, however, the Government became worried about trouble on the foreign exchanges. Wilson now announced that no contract whatever was to be signed by any ministry for three months. "The PM wanted to do something to impress them with our determination to curb inflation," as Crossman put it. "And so," writes Kenneth Minogue, "the idiot merry-go-round of unreal projects went on. It was a pure illustration of rationalism in politics."

The problem with the rationalists, according to the Oakeshottian conservative, is that they think about knowledge in the wrong way. They suppose that everything worth knowing can be summarised in a set of precepts, a recipe, a plan, or as they now say "a strategy". But - and this is a point made by Oakeshott's contemporaries, Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle, as well as by Oakeshott himself - most of what we know can't be articulated and written down; it consists of habits, of "know-how", built up through a life-time and transmitted, like Willet's family suit, across the generations. The skill of the cook, the pianist, or the scientist can't be acquired by precept but only by practice. The rationalist, always wanting to start afresh according to some new superior plan, has no feeling for the habits and skills without which we would be lost, and our institutions and ways of life would collapse.

It hardly occurred to Crossman or his generation that it might be a good idea to learn from the way in which the urban working classes lived, before "rehousing" them. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot went further in setting out quite deliberately to destroy the skills of both the peasantry and the bourgeoisie. Nowadays, of course, no one talks about "cultural revolutions" or "five-year plans", but the rationalists, or so the contributors to this volume insist, are still building their castles in the air. They are set, above all, on creating in Europe a level of government which has no basis in the experience of those it is meant to represent.

Of course, even if you accept the Oakeshottian case against the planners, it does not necessarily follow that you will look favourably on the last 15 years of Conservative rule. Shirley Letwin admits, in an article published posthumously here, that Thatcherism showed an unconservative taste for the language of revolution and crusade. Richard Griffiths, in turn, argues that the Major government, in its handling of rail privatisation and the health service, displays an almost rationalist adherence to abstract principle.

There is, though, a more fundamental point: if the last 15 years have shown anything, it is that the free market can be just as insensitive to the interests of individuals and communities as what Letwin calls "the bullies in Whitehall, Westminster and town-halls". With the exception, perhaps, of Noel Malcolm's erudite criticisms of Continental Christian Democracy, these essays feel rough and slightly slap-dash. But it is the unwillingness of any of them to engage, to even the slightest degree, with the legacy of nearly two decades of "conservatism" that makes this book such an exasperating read.