When Michael Oakeshott attacked rationalism in politics, he could not have foreseen that the Conservative Party would be one of its casualties. He took for granted that his critique of rigid ideological thinking applied mainly to the left. He was always witheringly scornful of Hayek, whom he dismissed as a grand simplifier with no feel for the British political tradition. Despite living long enough to see nearly a decade of Thatcherism, Oakeshott seems not to have noticed when the Tory party succumbed to the dogmatism that he derided in Hayek. He failed to perceive that the Conservative Party had become the vehicle for a long-discredited brand of laissez-faire liberalism. Yet it is hard to believe that the great Tory philosopher would not have viewed the party's subsequent electoral debacle as a vindication of his critique.
If any one person can be singled out as having set in motion the Conservative collapses, it is Keith Joseph. He was chiefly responsible for the party's abandonment of its traditional, pragmatic attitude to economic doctrines and for the increasing influence on it of the sectarian mentality of the right-wing think tanks. It is not unreasonable to credit him with being the main progenitor of the New Right in Britain. At the same time, by shifting the parameters of what was politically possible, he helped make the doctrinaire notions of the 1980s part of the common currency of mainstream politicians today. It may be hyperbolic to describe him as "one of the godfathers of the Blair government", as Charles Leadbeater did in the New Statesman in May 1999, but there can be little doubt that Keith Joseph was the pivotal intellectual figure in British politics in the last quarter of the 20th century.
Andrew Denham's and Mark Garnett's Keith Joseph sets a new standard for political biography. Exhaustively researched and covering every aspect of the career of this at once confessional and elusive personality, it will surely be the standard work on the subject for many years to come. But this is much more than a comprehensive, balanced and minutely detailed account of Joseph's life. Denham and Garnett have given us one of the very few worthwhile studies of the role of ideas in politics. Like all good historians, they are fully aware that the interactions of "ideas" with "events" are never simple, and sometimes highly paradoxical. Politicians rewrite history as they go along - including the history of their ideas. This is nowhere more evident than in the case of Keith Joseph.
One of the book's most valuable contributions is to demolish the myth that Joseph suffered a mid-career conversion to "true" Conservatism. In fact, Joseph always held to a Smilesian faith in individual effort (he contributed an admiring introduction to a new edition of Self-Help in 1986) and viewed unfettered free enterprise as the only route to social improvement. It is true that these beliefs were not very prominent when he served in the Heath administration, but Joseph's assertion that he came to them only after the general election of February 1974 was a characteristic mixture of self-deprecation and self-promotion. When he reported his "conversion" in the foreword to a 1975 volume of speeches, he allowed that he had been at fault in going along with many of the policies of the Heath government. But at the same time, he rubbished an entire generation of Conservative politicians. Joseph's seeming self-criticism had an eminently practical implication - it consigned the failed Heath regime firmly to the past and secured his own position in the new-model Tory party. If there was ever such a concept as "Thatcherism", it originated here, in Joseph's preposterous claim that Conservative thought and practice during the 30 years after 1945 had all been one vast mistake.
Denham and Garnett effectively demystify Joseph's claim to have rediscovered "true" Conservatism. They go on to do something still more valuable. In an incisive commentary that runs throughout the book, they focus repeatedly on the conflicts that beset this simple-minded creed. Throughout his career, Joseph subscribed to the belief - shared with Enoch Powell and passed on to Margaret Thatcher - that the Tory party was first and foremost the party of capitalism. This was a caricature of Conservatism. It made no mention of the vital importance of maintained social cohesion - one of the abiding concerns of Conservatives from Disraeli to Mac- millan. At the same time, it concealed a contradiction in Joseph's beliefs. Like Thatcher, he yearned for an entrepreneurial revolution that would transform the British economy. With equal fervour, he longed for the renewal of "traditional values" such as respect for the family.
Joseph could see no conflict between freewheeling economic liberalism and social conservatism. In practice, however, a libertarian emphasis on individual choice is not easily combined with the moral world-view of Mary Whitehouse. Continuous, far-reaching economic reforms over 20 years had the effect of weakening traditional forms of family life in Britain. From a liberal perspective, this is surely desirable, but it is decidedly awkward for advocates of "free-market conservatism". The result has been a tension that splits the Tories to this day, and which surfaces in the Blair government's po-faced, prohibitionist approach to drug use and its wavering policies on single parenthood.
The political philosophy to which Joseph held throughout his career was not Conservatism but, as he came close to admitting in an interview he gave in 1988, a cranky, backward-looking version of liberal individualism. When I found myself in occasional conversations with him, this nervy intellectual enthusiast and self-avowed utopian thinker had not an ounce of Tory scepticism in his entire body. Naturally he shied away from admitting it, but Keith Joseph's most enduring achievement may be to have shown that an intellectually coherent Conservatism is no longer possible.