The Tories appear poised to regain power, so it is timely to recapture a sense of the conservative disposition amid all the policies, programmes, plans and "isms" floating around. In America, where conservatives have lost power, there is a scramble to remember what it means to be conservative.
During the nearly 50 years since Rationalism in Politics appeared in 1962, Michael Oakeshott's work has gained much ground in the academy. More and more of his work is published for the first time, or reprinted, and books and doctoral dissertations in Britain and North America abound. But do the politicians who have inherited the conservative mantle pay attention to what he said to us on this subject?
It is perhaps less to be expected in America where Oakeshott's sort of conservative thought is often seen by Republicans and neo-conservatives as a sceptical, foreign element. But in Britain one would like to hope for more. Oakeshott (1901-1990) chose specifically to talk of the conservative disposition because he did not associate being conservative with ideological plans to reconstruct or remake society.
He thought that to be of a conservative disposition was to enjoy the possibilities of the present moment without excessive anxiety for what we had been or what we imagined we were going to be. He thought that maturity meant to live in the present, neither in a state of guilt nor of heroic aspiration. Heroic aspiration he thought was proper to the individual striking out on his own to seek his fortune, but was not an attitude for governments to impose on the polity as a whole.
We should, he said, "attend to" the arrangements that had brought us together by chance or choice. Living in the present did not mean to him living self-indulgently, but rather living to the highest possible degree without the distraction of an endlessly regretted past or a wished — for but illusory future liberation from all our problems. He understood that many of our "problems" were recurrent predicaments that we had to manage but from which there would be no permanent liberation. He believed that individuals would be better off without constant hectoring from political leaders' moralising pinpricks.