Remembering Kenneth Minogue

by John O’Sullivan
His influence throughout the Anglosphere has been enduring.

Editor’s note: The following is taken from a eulogy delivered by National Review editor-at-large John O’Sullivan at the September memorial service for conservative intellectual Kenneth Minogue.

Kenneth Minogue, for whose life and work we give thanks here today, is known to the great world mainly for his books, his journalism, his influence on politics — in short, for his thought. Towards the end of a fruitful intellectual life, he had become a leading public intellectual of the Right, indeed the leading public intellectual of the Right, called upon regularly by the BBC to present a civilized case for opinions the institution plainly thought were somewhat uncivilized. My feeling was that Ken was slightly ambivalent about this status, since he took a highly ironic view of the public intellectual and his pretensions, but he cannot escape this classification. He was chairman of the Eurosceptic Bruges Group, a board member of the Centre for Policy Studies, persona grata in every organization of the British center right (though he disliked the term center right as a concession to radical centrism). He regularly visited Europe, the United States, and his native New Zealand and Australia to take a prominent part in their public debates. He had recently relinquished the chairmanship of the international Mont Pelerin Society — the mother ship of classical liberalism — and indeed he died shortly after making an acclaimed speech to its conference in Galapagos. He had numerous awards of academic and public distinction, including Australia’s Centenary Medal.

All of these marks of recognition were rooted ultimately and justifiably in his major academic writings, which were marked by coolness, urbanity, skepticism, and the making of fine distinctions. These qualities permeate his major books: The Liberal Mind (1963), which depicts modern liberalism as an elderly Saint George, hooked on idealism and self-applause, desperately searching for ever-smaller dragons to slay; Alien Powers (1985), which attempts to discover the distilled essence of ideology by boiling down a number of specific ideologies in skepticism; Politics: A Very Short Introduction (2000), which is self-explanatory; Conservative Realism (1996), a book of essays on the style of conservatism he favored by several distinguished hands under his editorship; and The Servile Mind (2012), which wittily examines how modern governments infantilize their citizens by dictating moral judgments to them. All these books are in print today, their frequent republication around the world testifying to the growing appeal of Ken’s style of thought and, in particular, his style of conservative thought.

What was that style? Well, here is an example from his most recent book:

Democratic citizenship in the twenty-first century means receiving a stream of improving “messages” from politicians. Some may forgive these intrusions because they are so well intentioned. Who would defend prejudice, debt, or excessive drinking? The point, however, is that our rulers have no business telling us how to live. They are tiresome enough in their exercise of authority — they are intolerable when they mount the pulpit.

One can trace here certain echoes and influences from the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, the economist F. A. Hayek, and the political and literary critic Shirley Robin Letwin. That is hardly surprising since Ken Minogue, within a decade of arriving in Britain from New Zealand and Australia as a deckhand on a cargo ship, was appointed a junior lecturer in the LSE politics department headed by Oakeshott. (He remained there for 50 years and became head of the department in due course.) Not long afterwards he became a firm friend and close intellectual ally of two Americans prominent in London’s social-cum-political life, Bill and Shirley Letwin. Shirley ran one of London’s few intellectual salons, and Ken was a regular participant at the Letwins’ tennis and dinner parties, which became a hothouse of conservative arguments without ever ceasing to be entertaining social occasions for guests of every political stripe. By the early 1970s he was a central figure in a group of writers, academics, politicians, and journalists who exerted intellectual influence on the Tories — then reeling from two election defeats — through outlets such as the Daily Telegraph editorial page, the magazines Encounter and The Spectator, and the conservative think tanks then beginning to sprout: the Centre for Policy Studies, the Salisbury Group, and the Conservative Philosophy Group. All these organizations presented an Oakeshottian and/or traditional Tory set of arguments for the course that the Tory party was to take under Margaret Thatcher. The lady herself was closely associated with all these enterprises. They helped to persuade other Tories that Thatcherism was more than a revival of classical liberalism. They gave it Tory arguments and a kind of Tory sheen. As Ken might have put it himself, he risks the guilt of being a founder of Thatcherism. More recently, he defended the “nastiness” of the pre-Cameron Tory party as a praiseworthy willingness to make hard decisions.

In the meantime Ken had married Val, and for 25 years they had advanced academically and socially in tandem, running their own salon for like-minded friends and colleagues and bringing a family into the world. That marriage came to an end eventually. But as Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote in his own case: “One cannot say that a marriage failed when it produced two fine children.” Or, in Ken and Val’s case, one might add two fine children and five grandchildren. Not only that, but the friendship between Val and Ken endured until his death. When after an interval he remarried, he and Beverley set up house at 43 Perrymead Street in Fulham where Ken also became a stepfather. Bev and he gave an apparently limitless series of lunch and dinner parties at which visiting conservative firemen from abroad, local Tory intellectuals, sporting left-wingers fond of debate, next-door neighbors, actors, painters, novelists, journalists, and the couple’s extended families — very much including Val — would gather at a long table in the conservatory to be fed delicious food, drinkable wines, and provocative argument. Ken was a generous host, champagne bottle always at the ready, Bev a superb cook. Who that tasted it will forget her steak and kidney pudding? Their salon — Ken’s third salon, but who’s counting? — doubled as a kindergarten on the frequent occasions when it hosted the two sets of children and now grandchildren. Two extended families are giving thanks together here today.

Ken turned out to be a natural salon-keeper because his genius was, among other qualities, conversational. He would test seemingly reasonable propositions by pointing out the odious or absurd consequences of applying them in practice. He would do so with fanciful, comic, or homely examples. And he would delight in having his arguments caught, turned around, and sent whirling back by an opponent. Hearing this mix of logic and wit was rather like listening to a Platonic dialogue rewritten by No ël Coward or Tom Stoppard. Indeed, the nearest thing in art to Ken’s conversation may be Stoppard’s 1972 play about modern philosophy, “Jumpers.” Not incidentally, Ken was a great admirer of Stoppard, to whose trilogy of plays on the Russian intelligentsia, “The Coast of Utopia,” he gave a rave review that included the Minoguian or Stoppardian line: 

A nation of clever artists, such as the Italians, should never have fallen for [Mussolini’s] idea that they were all warriors with a mission to restore the greatness of Rome.

For those reasons Ken was a fine teacher, one admired by his students, including those who disagreed with his political views. But we all benefited from Ken’s relaxed but constant interrogation of reality and ideas under the guise of dinner-table conversation. Roger Kimball recalls a lunch early in their friendship when Ken, puzzling over some implications of utilitarianism, asked: “Imagine someone invented a machine that could eliminate thousands of highway fatalities, only it needed to be fed six people at random to work. Most of us would recoil from such a solution, but why?” Roger and he spent a tonic hour over the wine . . . teasing out the answer. We could all, I think, give our own examples of such entertaining education. His students were in good hands, and they knew it.

But Ken knew that being a good teacher meant being a good learner. He was always ready to listen to other views, however out of the way, and to debate them “politely.” On one occasion he accepted an invitation from Arianna Huffington to the Café Royal to meet her guru of the moment. In the formal informal manner of such events, the guests had to introduce themselves. Ken’s opening gambit was, “My name is Ken. I am a teacher. But I am here to learn rather than to teach.” Ken knew that nothing was beyond belief. This omnivorous appetite for sensation stood him in good stead as a writer and lecturer. He wrote about serious things seriously — and about fundamentals in appropriate depth — but he drew on a range of experiences, both down to earth and wildly eccentric, that made his thought deep yet readily accessible to the serious layman.

Here he is reflecting on his experience as a supply teacher in a tough-ish London school in the mid-fifties: “I only once had occasion to call for the cane, which was sent (with the caning record book) straight up from the headmaster’s office. As I raised the cane over the offender’s hand, a chorus came from the class: Mustn’t raise the cane above your shoulder, Sir, LCC [London County Council] regulation.’ These were children, he recollects in tranquility, who had not yet been accorded the absurdity of rights, but they understood very well that they lived under a rule of law.”

In short, Ken was an equal enemy both to the political demagogue and to the academic mystagogue. And his writings will survive as a corrective demystification of the drift of political philosophy in his time.

He died teaching. A student who had heard his fine lecture earlier in the week asked to sit next to him on the plane. Ken, who was apparently very tired at the end of a busy week, readily agreed. He broke off answering questions to ask the air hostess for another cup of coffee. As she was pouring it, he resumed his reply to the student and died in mid-sentence. Was that a good death? I think it was. At the very moment when he passed into the next world, he was doing what he did best and simultaneously committing an act of kindness. Through his work, which will continue to be published and read as long as people appreciate a sophisticated defense of common sense, he will be doing acts of kindness for the rest of us, too. Furthermore, we will enjoy those kindnesses. They will be readable, fresh, arresting.

For Ken deserves the epitaph that his great friend, Colin Welch, devised for that otherwise mythical creature, the perfect columnist: “Always consistent, never predictable.”

— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review.

Did you like this?