Kenneth Minogue by John O'Sullivan

John O’Sullivan is a conservative political commentator and journalist and currently vice president and executive editor of National Review. He writes on the death of his friend Kenneth Minogue, CPS board member for 26 years. 

Our friend and colleague, Kenneth Minogue, who died suddenly last Friday when returning from a conference of the Mont Pelerin Society on the Galapagos Islands, was a profound philosopher of liberty and an active public intellectual of the Right. He combined these roles with ease and consistency because he held that citizens needed protection against the growing intrusion of government into every aspect of their life and even thought. He was also, in descending order, a devoted friend, a jovial companion, and a fearless ally in intellectual disputes.

Ken was born in New Zealand, brought up in Australia, and adopted by Britain when he arrived here in the 1950s. He never lost contact with the Antipodes which he visited regularly and to whose intellectual life he contributed through lectures and articles in such influential outlets as “Quadrant” magazine. He was a proud holder of the Order of Australia. In later life he visited the United States regularly to write, lecture, and research. All in all he was a citizen of what Goldwin Smith called “the moral federation of the English-speaking world” – though this did not prevent his playing a lively part in European debates, most recently in lectures to the Instituto Bruno Leoni in Milan.

That said, his real home was the London School of Economics where he taught for almost fifty years, and the various institutes, learned societies, and salons of the London political and academic scene. He rose quickly but surely in the LSE’s politics department under Michael Oakeshott, who became a mentor, in the 1950s. From the 1970s onwards he was a central member of a lively group of political philosophers, economists, and journalists – in addition to Oakeshott they included Bill and Shirley Letwin, Colin Welch, Elie Kedourie, Maurice Cowling, Maurice Cranston, Perry Worsthorne, T.E. Utley, Noel Malcolm, Roger Scruton, J.B. Kelly, and Frank Johnson – who between them helped to reshape English conservatism in disputatious debates over the Letwins’ dinner table (often after vigorous tennis parties.) These unlikely adherents of “the stupid party” instilled intellectual rigor, political imagination, a deep appreciation of liberty, and a sharp (occasionally derisive) wit into the then inert body of Heathite conservatism – just when Margaret Thatcher was emerging as the party’s great ladylike hope.

If most accounts of Thatcherism trace its economic DNA to the Institute of Economic Affairs, these intellectuals influenced the new Tory leader across a wide range of social and political issues through bodies such as the Conservative Philosophy Group, the Salisbury Group, and the Centre for Policy Studies, and through their friendships with Sir Keith Joseph. Mrs. Thatcher met them both through her position as joint patron of the CPS and because – as a scholarship girl all her life – she was a regular attendee of debates at the Conservative Philosophy Group where Ken was a leading performer.

Mrs. Thatcher was always impressed by intellectuals and anxious to benefit from their tutelage, but also fearful that they might not prove reliably conservative. She quickly realised that Ken was the real thing – a genuine intellectual and a genuine conservative. He helped to reassure the new Tory leader (and more sceptical Tories) that Thatcherism had deep roots in (an Oakeshottian) Tory tradition. Ken was never a courtier, but he was an intellectual defender of Margaret Thatcher in office and a close personal friend to her afterwards.

Ken became more deeply involved in the Centre over the years. He served as a member of the board for 26 years. His talent for friendship, universally acknowledged, made him a useful, as well as a pleasant, influence our counsels. With his good nature and sharp intellectual grasp, he could chide and chivvy even strong antagonists into going along with a friendly compromise. These gifts also made him a valuable member of other institutions such as the Social Affairs Unit and the Mont Pelerin Society whose retiring president he was when he died.

Indeed, though he was 82, Ken died at the height of his powers. He had just published a powerful analysis of the moral failings of modern democracy, “The Servile Mind,” and he was planning a new book and other conferences. Here is an unanswered question from his most recent book:

The evident problem with democracy today is that the state is pre-empting—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. That is why I am provoked to ask the question: can the moral life survive democracy?

We must hope that it can. But Ken’s departure means that its chances are somewhat diminished.

Date Added: Thursday 4th July 2013