Left, Right, Left ... the progress of John Gray, thinker and political pundit, might carry a moral for our times
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ON the face of it, John Gray seems to be one of the best examples we have of a public intellectual - someone who is able to bring unconventional philosophical ideas to bear on the urgent issues of the day. He has been a lecturer in political theory at Oxford for almost 20 years, and has just published his eighth book. He writes for national newspapers a couple of times a month, and pops up on TV or radio almost as often. In the last two weeks he has been in London arguing about the end of history with Francis Fukuyama and about "the culture of complacency" with Melanie Phillips, debating communitarianism with Amitai Etzioni and "post-humanism" with Geoff Mulgan. Why then do so few people know what he stands for, or even who he is? Perhaps it is because he is a loose cannon, who has moved from Left to Right to Left again; perhaps his thought defies our tired political categories.

Gray, it is evident, does not want to talk about his personal life. Asked about his background, he rattles off a quick cv: "I was born in 1948 and I am 47. I was brought up in South Shields; I went to a grammar school and then Oxford." Prodded, he reveals a little more. His family was working class - his father was a carpenter - and loyally Labour. There were no boyhood intellectual models, but he had some exceptional teachers at school.

It is only when we begin to talk about his work that he offers any detail. He began as a student on the Left, and wrote a thesis on John Stuart Mill at Oxford, which later became his first book. He taught at Exeter University, before returning to Oxford in 1976 and has been there, at Jesus College, ever since. It was his supervisor Steven Lukes who first suggested he should look at the right-wing liberal F A Hayek, and this rapidly lead to a conversion to a Thatcherite free-market conservatism. "I take responsibility for directing him to Hayek, but not for anything else," Lukes pleads. This was the late 1970s and Gray, with more ink inside him than a cuttlefish, was quickly a much sought-after commodity on the right-wing think-tank circuit in both the US and Britain. His collections of essays contain papers written in association with the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Centre for Policy Studies in this country, and the Liberty Foundation in the US, among others.

Towards the end of the 1980s, however, Gray began to have doubts. In a series of papers published as Beyond the New Right he attempted "an immanent critique" of Thatcherite ideas and championed a strongly communitarian and "green" conservatism. "In retrospect," he reflects, "I stayed in too long." His new book contains an essay which - perhaps a little faint-heartedly - describes Thatcherism as "a compelling response to otherwise intractable dilemmas". But it sees conservatism as a bankrupt force: in its love affair with the unlimited market it has undermined the very communities and hierarchies it existed to preserve. So have the circumstances changed, or has he? "Both. I don't think conservatism has always been incoherent, but it has become so." And, as he admits, the causes of the change were as much personal as intellectual: a close relative became seriously ill, and it brought home to him the importance of a National Health Service. He makes no secret that he is now placing his hopes in Tony Blair.

While we are talking he reminds me that Oscar Wilde's famous dictum was once adapted for another philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre: "To change your mind once is a misfortune, to change it six times looks like carelessness". It is tempting, although Gray seems unaware of it, to say the same thing of him. This would be a little unfair. Certain themes run through the writings which make his changes of mind deeply interesting. For one thing, he has always been a oppositional anti-establishment thinker (like many of his former friends on the Right, he saw himself as a radical); to that extent, he has remained true to his marginal, borderland origins. Beyond this, his work has tended to circle around a small cluster of big ideas: the importance of customs as a guide to life, a hard-headed emphasis on the diversity of these customs, and a conception of the political task before us as a search for ways in which they might coexist in peace.

Throughout his career his most vehement criticism has been reserved for what he calls "the Enlightenment project of universal emancipation and civilisation". As the new book stresses, this project has its roots in classical and Christian ideas, but it took on its modern form in the 18th century, above all in the French Enlightenment. Put simply - but not more simply than Gray is willing to put it - Enlightenment thinkers wanted to displace customary ways of life by a purely rational and secular morality.

In the 1980s Gray argued persuasively that Soviet communism should be seen not as continuation of Russian traditions but as a variation on this Enlightenment project. Now, with the collapse of Marxism as a historical force, he is directing his fire at what he claims is the resurgence of liberal complacency. Francis Fukuyama is his favourite target. If Fukuyama had not arrived to proclaim that the victory of democratic capitalism over communism marked the end of history, even Gray would not have dared to invent him.

According to Gray, the problem with the new liberalism is that it fails to appreciate how much our moral reasoning - even Enlightenment reasoning - owes to our specific culture. Arrangements that appear just in one society will be completely alien to another. Beyond this though, Gray insists, doctrinal liberalism is dangerous - dismissive of, and so unprepared for the "militant religions and resurgent ethnicities" sweeping the world. Witness, for instance, the West's surprise when Yugoslavia erupted into civil war. At home, according to Gray, the premium that liberals attach to rights over community is undermining our traditions of civic life. In American politics, ideas about non-negotiable "natural" rights have led, over issues like abortion and religious education, to "a low-intensity civil war". (Gray insists that he himself is an "ultra-liberal on these sorts of issues".)

So what does he suggest? First of all, he insists on the importance of cultural identity - what he calls "the primacy of cultural tradition in political life". Local and national customs make us who we are and shape our notions of right and wrong. In his right-wing phase, Gray argued that the real threat to local traditions came from the socialist state. He was impressed, in particular, by an argument of Hayek's - that where centralised economic planning sought to rationalise local economies out of existence, the market encouraged their adaptation to new circumstances. Now, though, he believes that as contemporary conservatism has hardened into a fundamentalist free-market ideology, it, rather than socialism, has become the real enemy.

The concept that Gray's new book advocates is that of "the social market" - a pragmatic recognition that while only the market can secure prosperity and preserve civil liberties, market institutions, like political systems, need to be adapted to local needs. For instance, the introduction of Western- style free-market reforms will only further impoverish and destabilise Eastern Europe and Russia. At home he is critical of the "hollowing out of social institutions". What, I ask, does that mean ? "Well, the way, for instance, in which the application of market thinking to institutions like the BBC and National Health Service is undermining their distinctive ethos and expertise." I wonder what his old friends in the Thatcher Foundation would make of that.

This concern for moral order, local knowledge and established ways of life puts Gray firmly in the communitarian camp. Yet on a personal level he feels no strong allegiance to one particular community. "Like most people, I am made up of a variety of sometimes competing identities." He argues that it is wrong to suppose - as traditional liberals, conservatives and communitarians all do - that one might ever feel entirely at home in a single way of life, which provides all the answers on how to live. His pluralism is perhaps underlined by the fact that his first wife was Czech, his second wife is Japanese. He is particularly critical of conservatives like Roger Scruton who dream of returning to the "seamless" communities of the past - he feels no great regret at the passing of the working-class communities he knew as a child, where there was solidarity but also "a lot of suffering". He thought Major's attempt to return the family "back to basics" was "farcical", and quotes Wittgenstein's remark that trying to salvage damaged traditions is like trying to mend a spider's web with one's bare hands.

In the last essay in the new book, he takes his emphasis on diversity of values one stage further, and claims that liberal ideals and institutions - human rights, freedom of expression, representative government - have no special status. There are standards of fairness and virtue which all societies must meet (and which, he admits, most around the world do not). But this minimum moral code can be met in very different ways and there are no grounds - apart from established practice - on which to choose between them. Gray insists that liberalism is right for us and that he himself is a liberal of sorts; yet, he argues, it is just arrogant to say that all other forms of government are illegitimate. The way in which East Asian societies refuse to tolerate mass unemployment, for instance, has something to teach the West.

It strikes me that there are no other thinkers around willing to think of our liberalism in this way, as just one tradition among others. Even fellow pluralists like the American philosopher Richard Rorty end up according liberal democracy a special privilege. When I put this point to Gray he seems slightly nervous at the thought: "I suppose I am ploughing a lonely furrow." But there is a sparkle in his eyes, and I get the impression that deep down the idea appeals.

Inevitably some of Gray's associates have been angered and alienated by his political conversions. In the 1980s there were dark accusations that he had been "bought"; now many of his old friends on the Right think of him as an apostate. But colleagues at Oxford are broadly sympathetic. "The thing about John," says David Miller, a political theorist at Nuffield, "is that he likes to take ideas to their logical conclusion. He is a sceptical thinker, always working through the weaknesses in his beliefs." Liz Frazer, a politics tutor at New College, is happy to give him the benefit of the doubt: "The generous interpretation is that he saw with his own eyes the effects of the ideas he advocated and so changed his position - no one should be blamed for changing his mind." She rather admires anyone brave enough to say our way of life has no unique foundation in human reason - a view for which she, like David Miller, has some sympathy. Gray's emergence as a political pundit is, she adds, quite new: "What we know about here is someone who has written some important books and is a brilliant lecturer. Students come away saying they have understood the issues for the first time."

One to one, Gray is a rather shaggy canine presence - soft-spoken, hesitant and slightly vulnerable; worried, I thought, about what people would make of his intellectual odyssey. His essays, on the other hand, are combative, acerbic and full of drama. He can be generous about the great old men he has known and admired - Hayek, Michael Oakshott, Isaiah Berlin. But, as with Fukuyama, he is unsparing on his enemies.

Hard questions remain, however - and Gray never really examines the case his opponents make against a position like his. His work remains a salutary warning against Western conceit, and against the threat posed by individualism to the common culture on which liberal life depends. Yet Gray has become so concerned - almost obsessed - with the importance of community that he can barely bring himself to acknowledge that established ways of life can be oppressive and unjust as well as enabling. We talked about some of these issues towards the end of an afternoon spent in his rooms in college. He agreed that they were difficult, but clearly my qualms were alien to him. "You see," he said, and as if at the very end of our meeting some gesture of confidence was due, "I am a partisan." And it is true that he loves to push ideas to their extremes. For a moment the light caught his wire-rimmed glasses, making them go white.

! 'Enlightenment's Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age' (Routledge pounds 19.99)