Magazine | August 5, 2013, Issue

Salon and Breakfast

Kenneth Minogue, R.I.P.

If you were a distinguished philosopher, economist, political theorist, or literary critic arriving at Heathrow from the U.S., Australia, or New Zealand between, say, 1990 and 2010, there was a fair chance that you were heading for 43 Perrymead Street in Fulham. That was where Kenneth Minogue, professor of politics at the London School of Economics and Britain’s leading public intellectual of the Right, and his second wife, Beverly, lived and over the years maintained a high-class B&B for visiting conservatives (English breakfast and metaphysical debates included). Its guest rooms were almost never empty. The Robert Conquests, the Tim Fullers, the Roger Kimballs, and (I have to add) the John O’Sullivans were among the more frequent guests. And the prices were unbeatable.

Suppose, however, you were unlucky enough to be visiting London when all the rooms were booked or, worse, you were living in the city? No worries. You would still be welcome at No. 43. In addition to keeping house for non-paying guests, Ken and Bev gave an apparently limitless series of lunch and dinner parties at which the current boarders, other visiting firemen, local Tory intellectuals, sporting left-wingers fond of debate, next-door neighbors, and the couple’s extended families — including Ken’s first wife, Val — would gather at a long table in the conservatory to be fed delicious food, more-than-drinkable wines, and provocative argument. Ken was a generous host, champagne bottle always at the ready, Bev a superb cook in the school of Elizabeth David, a mistress of both French and English cuisine. (I share with Roger Kimball fond recollections of both her steak-and-kidney pie and her steak-and-kidney pudding.)

If all those present had been dumb, the evenings would still have been memorable. In fact the guests included some of the best talkers from three continents. Most of London’s cleverest minds attended at one time or other — not only academics, politicians, and journalists (Ken’s professional contacts, so to speak) but also novelists, sculptors, dancers, actors, chefs, and composers. The conversations ranged widely and playfully. And those evenings, rich in friendship and debate, were stimulated, guided, and occasionally calmed by a host who could match his sharpest interlocutors in logic or epigram over a vast range of topics.

Ken’s genius was, among other qualities, conversational. He was stimulated by error, contradiction, folly, and even intelligent correction. One can see that in his Firing Line debate with Bill Buckley, where, though they are in essential agreement, they tussle over secondary points — with Ken rarely coming off worse. 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 Noël 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. It is sometimes difficult to see in that review exactly where Stoppard ends and Ken begins; but this is unmistakably Ken: “When an influential set of people lose their wits to some grand abstraction — Nazism and Communism are the obvious examples — then whole nations go mad. . . . 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.”

Precisely because Ken was a good conversationalist, some of his liveliest work took place in the lecture room or in political and cultural journals such as NR, The New Criterion, and Australia’s Quadrant, where he was responding to immediate crises or topical criticisms. Here he is in the British journal Standpoint, illustrating how the ideology of “niceness,” by ignoring such realities as the need for social discipline, has destroyed the peace of the classroom, still solid but threatened when he was a young substitute teacher in the tough inner-London district of Brixton:

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 who had not yet been accorded the absurdity of rights, but they understood very well that they lived under a rule of law.

#page#Ken’s conversational style of argument was also marked by coolness, urbanity, skepticism, and the making of fine distinctions (that last very evident in the quotation immediately above). It is these qualities that 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 a number of particular ideologies in skepticism; Politics: A Very Short Introduction (2000); and The Servile Mind (2010), 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 conservatism, whose admirers range from R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. to Andrew Sullivan.

What was that style? Obituaries have generally summarized it as the familiar conservative theme that the attempts to create a heaven on earth generally produce a hell instead. That judgment is not false — Ken believed it devoutly — but it is inadequate. I hesitate myself to summarize a set of ideas that are both subtle and scattered across works of theory and daily journalism, but I think they go something like this.

A free society is composed of people who, seeking to better themselves, gradually cast off the constricting customs of earlier times and develop various skills and abilities to navigate a changing world. In doing so, they change their identities from whatever their social status had previously dictated to whatever their economic and social interests now require. They can do these things (in different times and places) because human beings are self-conscious: They reflect upon themselves and their circumstances and act in accordance with their reflections. They can be influenced, of course, but they cannot be conditioned. They have to cope with reality.

That is why ideologies from Marxism to feminism that claim to liberate people from false consciousness are not only false, and condescendingly so, but are also attempts (fortunately doomed in the end) to impose a false consciousness on others. That is also why governments that attempt to regiment people, whether economically or psychologically, in pursuit of some collective aim generally prove both mistaken and accident-prone. They impose a single aspiration where there are many and draw on limited bureaucratic skills rather than on countless social ones. And as Ken pointed out in The Servile Mind, this ambition to control is spreading:

The evident problem with democracy today is that the state is preempting — or “crowding out,” as the economists say — our moral judgments. Rulers are adding moral judgments to the expanding schedule of powers they exercise. Nor does the state deal merely with principles. It is actually telling its subjects to do very specific things. Yet decisions about how we live are what we mean by “freedom,” and freedom is incompatible with a moralizing state.

One can trace in this set of ideas certain echoes and influences from the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, the economist F. A. Hayek, and the political and literary critic Shirley Robin Letwin. Ken, within a decade of arriving in Britain from New Zealand and Australia, where he was respectively born and educated, was appointed a junior lecturer in the LSE politics department headed by Oakeshott. (Ken remained there 50 years and, in due course, became head of the department.) Not long afterward, he became a close friend of two Americans prominent in London’s social-cum-political life: Bill Letwin, professor of government at LSE, and his wife, Shirley. Shirley ran one of London’s few intellectual salons, and Ken was a regular participant at the Letwins’ tennis and dinner parties, which Hayek also frequented when in London.

Ken absorbed all these influences but, mixing them with his own experience and insights, he turned them into something distinctive. Not for nothing was he an individualist. 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 — who were 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. Margaret Thatcher was derided by the Tory “Wets” as “Daily Telegraph Woman.” She was a founder of the CPS; a friend to the Salisbury Group; and a scholarship girl, ever eager to learn, at the CPG, where Ken was an equally regular pundit. As he might have put it himself, he risks the guilt of being a founder of Thatcherism.

And somewhere along the way he got a taste for salons, which, fortunately, Beverly shared, and from which all his friends benefited — and maybe the wider world too.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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