Not long after John Major became prime minister Maurice Cowling, who died last week, asked me to a feast at Peterhouse. In the port-soaked aftermath in a candlelit Senior Combination Room, and between intermittent insults to the then Master, Lord Dacre (‘Come over here, you old bugger, somebody might want to meet you’), we had a conversation about the new prime minister. Precisely because he held the highest power in the land, Mr Major was not deemed worthy of the Cowlingesque sneer; that would come later. But his obvious managerialism and his lack of bottom provided causes for concern. For Maurice, being a Tory was not merely about having a machine to fight elections, important though the acquisition of power was; it was about upholding a philosophy that, without being in the least priggish, was unquestionably high-minded. He would not condemn Mr Major for having no philosophy other than that of keeping his job, for he knew politics was largely about the naked self-interest of politicians. What did rather shock him, though, was that this self-interest was applied entirely to the personal welfare of Mr Major rather than to the furtherance of a particular brand of Conservatism within the broad coalition he believed the party to be.
Maurice was of a genre of intellectuals who needed close links with practising Conservative politicians: not to provide them with ideas to espouse, or causes for which to devise policies (he would never be so vulgar as that), but to offer a means of the advancement of Toryism. Since his death one or two have spoken of his ‘unscrupulousness’ in advocating the pursuit of power. Much of what Maurice said in this regard was pure mischief. He and those like him — Michael Oakeshott, Shirley Letwin and, a generation behind, Roger Scruton — offered a reading of modern political thought and action that their pupils could either take or leave. Those who took it, however, would never need to ask a focus group for guidance; they had views shaped by a wider discipline than politics.
Maurice’s own outlook was informed by a recognition of the diminishing place of Christianity in public doctrine in the 19th and early 20th centuries and, consequentially, a repudiation of the liberalism (which he defined as ‘the extension of conscientious theological doubt’) that evolved during and after that period. As well as explaining what Toryism consisted of, and why people were Tories, he also understood the need to relate those beliefs to the winning and exercise of power. However, and for all the cynicism of which he was accused, Maurice had a surprisingly optimistic view of the potential of politicians: ‘the more power a person has,’ he wrote in 1963, ‘the greater the opportunity for doing good.’
Today, the Conservative party and Oxbridge high tables are largely divorced from each other. A party that relies on opinion surveys to be told what to think can have no use for any heir of Maurice Cowling’s. And whereas that earlier generation of dons so closely connected with the Tories were by training historians, philosophers and (very occasionally) economists, today most universities have lecturers or professors in politics who fly the flag of political doctrine from their institutions. The very narrowness of their calling would make them useless even if the Tory party were clever enough to feel a need for them, and if, more to the point, they could see a need to try to bolster the Tory party.
The use that Cowling’s and Oakeshott’s generation had to Tories of the 1970s in particular was that they dealt in ideas from beyond politics. They therefore offered a vision of Toryism rooted in other social and moral forces, and understood the limits of what politics could and should achieve. In our own far more superficial political world, where convictions are flexible and can and will be traded if any advantage might be had from so doing, there is no call for such an intellectual foundation. Almost without realising it, the Tory party has gone from a state of sophistication to Year Zero.
As a sometime journalist — he had been a Times leader-writer and literary editor of this very magazine — Maurice understood keenly Carlyle’s dictum about the new priesthood resident in the columns of newspapers. He had been acutely aware of the press’s ability to influence politicians, and at the expense of the role of political scientists. He said he had ‘no objection of principle’ to ‘the aggressive, prejudiced journalism of the large circulation newspapers’, whereas he felt ‘the greatest distrust’ for ‘newspapers …which affect impartiality and superior wisdom and presume to show by rational or disinterested consideration what all right-thinking men must obviously want’. Given the readiness of the candidates for the Conservative party’s leadership, in that party’s post-intellectual state, to say exactly what certain mass-circulation papers would like them to, that lesson seems to have been learnt almost by osmosis.
However, just as Maurice knew that political science had its limits, so too, he knew, did journalism. He didn’t mind it trying to influence opinion, but he did mind ‘the pretension to preach’. The obsession that the Tory party has had with the press since the Major years is deeply unhealthy and highly destructive. The media in the broadest sense — and I include focus groups under that heading — have taken the place of philosophers, historians and other intellectuals in providing the rationale or the justification for the statements now made by politicians, and the poses struck by them. Even Ken Clarke, who we thought was above such things, has fallen for this by saying that he no longer thinks the euro, much reviled by the general public, is a good idea. When a man of such seniority and distinction embraces the means to power with such passion and for such nakedly opportunistic reasons, you know any lingering contact between serious intellectualism and the Tory party has finally been obliterated.
In the 1990s many ministers in the Major government were obsessed not with what the Sun or the Daily Mail or even the Daily Telegraph were saying about them, but with what the late Hugo Young would pronounce in his episcopal column in the Guardian. Whereas the first three papers tried merely to influence opinion, Young went full throttle at ‘the pretension to preach’. Ministers worried about him not because he had the slightest impact on their electorate — he wrote for a small and select group — but because they thought his freedom from vulgarity and populism made him serious. We should, I suppose, be grateful that the Tories’ media obsession is now focused solely on those organs of opinion that have millions of paying customers. But, however old-fashioned it might sound, we should hope nonetheless that the tactics the Tories now take so greedily from the new priesthood will one day again be diluted with some strategy learnt on more contemplative shores.
Simon Heffer is a columnist on the Daily Mail.