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Gray’s Reflections on Brexit, Burke — and Quite a Bit More Besides

A pro-Brexit yellow vest protester demonstrates in London, England, March 30, 2019. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

In the midst of so much chaos, I have little or no idea what will happen next in Britain’s endless Brexit drama, but two things, at least, are clear. The first is that there is plenty of blame to spread around for the current mess, much of which can be shared between fanatically obdurate Remainers and, on the other side, Brexiteers in thrall to magical thinking. The second is that the widespread assumption that any upcoming British general election will (almost certainly) end up in a victory for Boris Johnson’s Tories is (almost certainly) wrong.

As John Gray observes in his terrific new piece in the New Statesman:

Stupidity in politics is not an inert condition. It is dynamic, inventive and cumulative.

As so often with Gray, I found plenty to agree with and plenty to disagree with (sometimes strongly), and, a great deal to think through. Read the whole thing, as the saying goes, but this stood out:

No discussion in polite society of the state of politics is complete without a reverential genuflection to the 18th-century parliamentarian. Get rid of Cummings and Boris Johnson, along with the right-wing libertarians in the cabinet, recover Burkean moderation, and all will be well . . .

Burke has been resurrected by self-styled moderates because he lets them off the hook. Having previously supported the American Revolution, he reacted to the French Revolution in his celebrated Reflections of 1790 with uncomprehending horror. Burke was unhinged by the revolution in France because it subverted his Whig belief that incremental progress was part of a providential design ordained by God. Prescient in predicting the Terror, he ended up regarding the French Revolution as divine punishment for human sinfulness. The ideas that fuelled popular discontent were demonic lies, used by wicked demagogues to appeal to the base instincts and low intelligence of the masses. The people had been prised from their proper deference to higher minds, and chaos and tyranny ensued . . .

For centrists rattled by the rise of populism it is a flattering tale. No responsibility for the condition of politics is ascribed to them. Reason has been tossed aside because the masses – encouraged by amoral rabble-rousers – have been allowed to vent their ignorant passions. It is not hard to detect the reek of class hatred in this ruling liberal narrative. But there is something more powerful here than mere snobbery: the belief that politics can be governed by formulas derived from some large theory. In the past, such theories were derived from Marxism and positivism, utilitarianism and Fabianism, among other ideologies. Today they emanate from the prevailing variety of rights-based liberalism promoted by philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. The key feature of this liberalism is that it transfers decision-making from political to judicial institutions. Liberals are turning to law to entrench values and policies for which they cannot secure democratic assent…..

The haute-Remainer mind is an example of what the 20th century’s subtlest and most original conservative philosopher called political rationalism. Michael Oakeshott (1901-90) used the term to describe totalitarian ideologies such as Leninism and National Socialism, but he was clear that any kind of political tradition could succumb to rationalist ideology – including conservatism. (His own version of conservatism – an ultra-liberal variety, in which the ideal role of the state was that of an umpire – itself did.) The core of rationalism in politics is an idea of politics itself. Rather than being a practice in which people negotiate the terms on which they co-exist with one another, politics means the imposition of an idea. The idea is self-evidently true; anyone who questions it is ignorant and stupid, or else wilfully malignant. Though they claim to embody reason in politics, haute-Remainers cling to a view of the EU in which facts are secondary or irrelevant. They fulminate on the dangers of Brexit without ever mentioning that Paris has been convulsed by riots while Barcelona has become the scene of mass demonstration, burning streets and police violence. No mere fact can be allowed to cloud the vision of a sacred institution.

Any shout-out to Oakeshott is always welcome, and Gray goes on to quote these well-known words by the former:

In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy, and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.

But (of course there’s a ‘but’):

The flaw is in Oakeshott’s understanding of tradition. He writes as if there is a body of practice, uncorrupted by theorising, to which conservatives could revert. Here he is not unlike Burke. During the dozen or so years in which I knew and talked with Oakeshott he rarely mentioned “the founder of modern conservatism” and never with approval. He disliked Burke’s Whiggish faith in progress and much preferred the cool scepticism of David Hume. But Oakeshott’s idea of tradition has many of the difficulties of Burke’s defence of what he described as “just prejudice”. Both of them preferred the tacit knowledge embodied in practices to the abstractions of rationalist intellectuals. They passed over the fact that tacit knowledge often consists of fossilised remnants of fashionable ideas.

Today, one of those fossilized ideas is the midcentury blend of supranationalism and corporatism that lay (and lies) at the heart of Jean Monnet’s vision for “Europe.” The “tacit knowledge” that a peaceful continent is unthinkable without “ever closer union” underpins much of the thinking in Brussels, Berlin, and Paris — and it does so with increasingly dangerous consequences.

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