In defence of a dirty business

<i>The Cunning of Unreason: making sense of politics</i> by John Dunn (HarperCollins, &pound;19.99, 401pp)
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The Independent Culture

One of the curiosities of late 20th-century intellectual history is the repudiation of politics by political philosophers. Under the influence of American thinkers such as John Rawls, author of A Theory of Justice, political philosophy came to be viewed as a branch of jurisprudence, whose chief concern was to devise an ideal constitution which would make most forms of political activity redundant.

One of the curiosities of late 20th-century intellectual history is the repudiation of politics by political philosophers. Under the influence of American thinkers such as John Rawls, author of A Theory of Justice, political philosophy came to be viewed as a branch of jurisprudence, whose chief concern was to devise an ideal constitution which would make most forms of political activity redundant.

In this once canonical view, politics was a rather second-rate activity, whose grubby compromises and shabby subterfuges were contrasted unfavourably with the majestic certainties of the law.

The task of political philosophy was not to understand politics and consider how its practice might be improved. It was to remove the central questions of liberty and equality from political deliberation. In this, now largely defunct, transatlantic orthodoxy, the core institution was not a parliament or any other political assembly. It was a Supreme Court, charged with interpreting a theory of justice or rights.

Having dominated English-speaking political philosophy for nearly 30 years, this bizarre species of utopian legalism is clearly on the wane. It is recognised to have rested on a highly idealised, almost Platonic view of the nature of law. I think it was Bismarck who observed that those who love law, like those who love sausage, should take care not to inquire too closely into how it is made.

The philosophers who imported Rawls's legalistic theories into Britain and other European countries followed Bismarck's advice all too well. They had little comprehension of how judicial decisions are always affected by political realities. This lack of interest in politics contributed to their lack of impact on political life. It would be hard to find a single practising politician in Britain today who has read Rawls, and there can be few who have even heard of him.

John Dunn's book The Cunning of Unreason blows a gust of fresh air through these cobwebbed byways of political thought. He writes clearly and freshly about some of its most venerable questions - what politics is, why it occurs, how it works, and why it cannot be abolished. He is sharply critical of moralistic approaches to politics, and it is refreshing to find him writing appreciatively of Hobbes.

Dunn dismisses the view that Hobbes's view of life as an unending struggle for power is merely a reflection of Hobbes's own culture and time, arguing that there is much in his thought that remains universal.

Quite rightly, he contends that Hobbes identified "a fundamental, permanent and biological grounded feature of the human condition"- the partiality of judgment, rooted in the individuality of human experience, which is one of the ineradicable sources of political conflict. It would be pleasant to think that Dunn's assessment might lead to a wider rediscovery of the greatest political thinker of modern Europe.

Dunn wears his impressive erudition lightly, while evincing a strong sense of the obstacles that must be faced by anyone trying to understand what goes on in politics. At times, he seems to find the sheer difficulties of understanding almost oppressive. It is not only that the forces that find expression in political decisions are difficult, sometimes impossible, to identify.

Even the standards we use to judge political life are fraught with obscurity. This might seem a depressingly sceptical result, but the lesson Dunn teaches - that, whether we think about politics or do it ourselves, we are always to a large extent in the dark about the causes and the consequences of political decisions - is perennially useful.

Unsurprisingly, Dunn does not wholly succeed in living up to the sternly self-critical ideals he preaches. The book's central case study is an examination of Mrs Thatcher's impact on British government and society, and here Dunn's account is disappointingly shallow and conventional.

Like some of her more giddy-headed votaries, he treats the governments Mrs Thatcher headed as if they came from nowhere. The roots of her policies in the economic crisis of the mid-Seventies and the pivotal role of the Callaghan government in the break-up of the post-war settlement are not even mentioned.

Again, Dunn attributes to Mrs Thatcher "a precise inversion of the central premises of the welfare state as William Beveridge had defined it and Clement Attlee had brought it to fruition". But it was Dennis Healey, not Margaret Thatcher, who first repudiated the post-war economic consensus. Equally, Mrs Thatcher's governments were notable for the caution with which they treated the welfare state.

The introduction of Soviet-style pseudo-markets into the NHS began in earnest only in the time of John Major, as did the tightening up of unemployment benefit that culminated in the Job Seeker's Allowance. In terms of the consensual politics that preceded her, Margaret Thatcher was a revolutionary figure, but her radicalism was applied strategically to a small range of issues.

Despite his sceptical stance, Dunn is like other academics in that he gives the policies of Mrs Thatcher's governments much more coherence than they had at the time. For Thatcherism was an exercise in statecraft, not the application of a political doctrine, and her governments were marked by all manner of error, confusion and accident. What we now look back on as "Thatcherism" was often a response to events.

Yet it had the effect of changing the character of changing the British state deeply and irreversibly. This paradox is well brought out in Hugo Young's One of Us, in which the interplay of personality, situational logic and chance events in the Thatcher years is presented with a force and clarity that no academic study has yet matched.

The Cunning of Unreason is a breviary of scepticism for academic writers on politics. One of its many virtues is that it takes the central subject matter of political theory to be politics, with all its contingencies and ambiguities.

Ironically, if perhaps unavoidably, it has some of the characteristic flaws of the academic discourse it so ably criticises.

John Gray is professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics

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