The Conservative Mind of Kenneth Minogue

Ken Minogue died in the Galapagos Islands in June, very much as he lived, engaged with ideas and in conversation down to his last breath. Approaching his eighty-third year, despite a heart problem he had in the course of 2012 and 2013 visited Australia, attended several Liberty Fund conferences in the USA, Europe and Turkey, before heading to the Galapagos to preside over what was to be his last conference with the Mont Pelerin Society.

His death and the manner of his life have been the subject of obituaries in the Times and thoughtful opinion pieces by Edwin J. Feulner in the Wall Street Journal and by Peter Oborne in the UK Daily Telegraph. In the USA he is considered a major Anglospheric conservative philosopher. Indeed, it was there that his last book, The Servile Mind, first found both a publisher and a critical reception. In the UK, as both Peter Oborne and John O’Sullivan have commented, he was one of the last of a generation of English conservatives fighting the entropic drift to socialism, political correctness and state dependence, a descent that Minogue brilliantly charted in The Servile Mind, which, somewhat predictably, Oxford University Press rejected. In Australia, the response has been more muted. Quadrant, of course, reflected upon it online and the Spectator Australia published John O’Sullivan’s tribute, whilst the IPA’s Julie Novak blogged respectfully.

This relative neglect outside of conservative circles is perhaps not surprising given the entrenched parochial progressivism of Australian academe and its mainstream media. Yet Ken viewed himself as Australian, received a Centenary Medal in 2003, and visited the country regularly to give papers to the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute for Public Affairs, and visit his son Nick and his many friends and admirers.

In 2003, he delivered the Menzies Lecture, examining the Australian psyche and considering whether Australia suffered from an identity crisis. He thought not, although he did detect the worrying drift of the media and academic elites towards what he termed Olympianism or a secular and salvationist moral universalism.

More importantly, this local neglect not only says something about Australia’s self-regarding intellectual and political culture, it also obscures the extent to which Minogue’s original cast of mind reflected his experience of Australia during and immediately after the Second World War. If the child is father of the man, then Sydney and particularly the eastern suburbs and the Cross forged Ken’s characteristically droll, self-effacing style and his sceptical take on the world.

Ken was born in New Zealand in the otherwise undistinguished town of Palmerston North in September 1930. His parents moved to Sydney shortly after the outbreak of the war. From 1940 to 1946, he attended Darlinghurst Elementary School and Sydney Boys High before going up to Sydney University where he read arts and law. He graduated with a BA in 1950 and appears in the supplement to the university calendar for that year as a member of the university. As he observed in an extensive interview with Peter Coleman conducted in 1996, and preserved in the National Library, he didn’t really “finish” his degree; he was, it seems, “at one stage doing a degree in law and finishing philosophy in Arts III”. This perhaps reflected the fact that it was “an exciting time, and there were lots of ex-servicemen around” campus.

At the university he came under the influence of the philosopher John Anderson, who had, by the late 1940s, a well-deserved reputation for his commitment to free speech, secularism and anti-communism. As James Franklin observes, Anderson exercised a huge influence upon “several generations of students”. Donald Horne, who had experienced it, thought “Anderson seemed the most important person at the University”, the “main rebel, a renowned atheist, not long ago a communist, censured by the New South Wales Parliament and by the University senate”. He exerted a formative influence on the young Minogue’s thinking and writing. As early as 1943, Anderson had observed the growing shift of government to collectivist solutions, which he condemned in his essay “The Servile State”, a title echoed in Ken’s last book, which also shared a very Andersonian concern with state dependency and democratic despotism. Very much involved in student journalism, at the expense of his studies (as he observed in the Coleman interview, he “got through his education by the seat of his pants”), Ken wrote for the student paper Honi Soit as well as a short-lived free-thinking broadsheet, Heresy. He later reflected that he imbibed “a lot of critical and anti-establishment postures at that time, and up to a point, they’ve served me quite well ever since”. He associated with an eclectic group that included inter alia Murray Sayle, David Armstrong, Peter Coleman as well as Alan Barcan and Dick Klugman.

By 1951, however, he decided he needed “a pilgrimage to the Old World to see what it was like”. Again, as he observed to Peter Coleman, this had little to do with cultural cringe and more with Australian swagger. Indeed, Minogue came to contend that the cringe only crept into Australian culture when its progressive elites began to traduce its history. In fact, “talk of cultural cringe is itself a kind of cringe towards a set of much more fashionable left-wing nostrums”. He thus roamed the docks of Sydney and got a job as a cabin boy on a boat bound for London via Odessa and Port Said. On his twenty-first birthday he found himself in Russell Square, London, waiting for the Youth Hostel to open. 

He arrived in a London that was not exactly swinging. Owen Harries, who made the trip in the reverse direction a couple of years later and who came to know Ken well in the 1970s, remembered 1950s London as grey, bleak, recovering from the Blitz and on ration coupons until 1954. Ken pursued a short-lived career as a writer and sold stories to London Opinion and the Star before realising that “he couldn’t live that way” and took up work as a secondary school supply teacher with the London Education Authority for eighteen months. By 1953 and contemplating returning to Sydney, he thought he should acquire a degree of one kind or another “to take back with me”. He applied for the masters program at the London School of Economics but was turned down. Instead he enrolled for an evening school BSc Econ at the LSE which he completed in three years, achieved first-class honours, married his first wife, Val, and had a son.

These developments and the subsequent offer of temporary lectureships first at Exeter University and then, at Michael Oakeshott’s invitation, the LSE, cemented Minogue’s London connection. As he observed, “I came to the LSE as an assistant lecturer and the rest, as they say, is history. My history at least.” Ultimately, then, Ken’s tale is of two cities, Sydney and London. He spent the next forty years in the School of Government, progressing from an assistant lecturer in 1956 to a full professor in the late 1980s. If Anderson influenced Minogue’s early scepticism and concern for logic and free expression, it was Oakeshott’s thinking that subsequently influenced his distinctively conservative realism. Indeed, Ken was notionally registered as Oakeshott’s research student pursuing a doctorate on Burke. Although the LSE in the 1950s possessed a stellar cast of academic characters, with Karl Popper, Friedrich Hayek and Maurice Cranston as well as Elie Kedourie, Ernest Gellner and William Letwin, gracing its otherwise unprepossessing corridors, it was Oakeshott who exerted the prime influence. As Ken later observed,  

some of [Oakeshott’s] attitudes and postures, his love of freedom, his insistence on the uselessness of the academic, the distance of the academic world from the practical world—these seemed to fit in with my Andersonian prejudices quite well.

Yet in other ways Oakeshott was a different and more sophisticated figure. What Ken derived from their long friendship was “a sense of the complexity of the world, and the way in which one set of understandings depended upon earlier understandings and judgements of the meaning of things”. In particular, as Minogue expressed it in a moving tribute, Oakeshott’s work was “original, profound and pugnacious”. His reflections on the experience of modern European politics, “left no cliché undisturbed”. Oakeshott thought through

the Western tradition anew in all its aspects, and the understanding is animated by a frank disdain for the infatuation with servility which is often barely concealed in much modern theory and practice. Oakeshott may not have saved us from rationalism, but he has left us with no excuse for ignorance of its ravages.


From the 1970s, Oakeshott was the key figure in what Ken termed a group of LSE conservative realists that included Shirley and Bill Letwin and Elie Kedourie as well as Ken himself. They shared the view, he averred, “that the activity of conserving an established way of life” was the “central, indeed, virtually the defining concern of politics”. Conservatism in this realist sense was a disposition, rather than a plan. It recognised politics as a limited activity; it also recognised that freedom, in the modern Anglosphere, derived from membership of a civil association, a type of association constituted by nothing else but subscription to a set of rules. As Minogue explained, “it is only in belonging to an association of this kind that individuals may by themselves, or combining with others, pursue the goals which they have freely chosen”. It was this practice of freedom that the Cold War welfare state, by managing expectation in the pursuit of an overriding purpose, had progressively corroded.

As Margaret Thatcher observed in her pithy foreword to Ken’s edited volume Conservative Realism (1996), “the attitude of always looking to the State for solutions is the end of civilized society as we know it”. Although Thatcher’s Conservative government, which the LSE realists championed, sought to turn back this managerialist tide, the evolution of the state as a mechanism for making us morally good increased exponentially in the post-Cold War era of Third Way politics. Summarising this development in The Servile Mind, Ken identified a worrying paradox: whilst democracy once meant a government accountable to the electorate; “our rulers now make us accountable to them”:

Most Western governments hate me smoking, or eating the wrong kind of food, or hunting foxes or eating too much, and these are merely the surface disapprovals … We must face up to the grim fact that the rulers we elect are losing patience with us … Whilst our rulers are theoretically our representatives, they are busy turning us into the instruments of the projects they keep dreaming up.

In retrospect, the causes and consequences of this servile mentality in the modern West formed the core of Minogue’s oeuvre. Politics properly understood, as he showed in Politics: A Very Short Introduction (1995), is “the activity by which the framework” of a distinctively Western way of life is sustained. “It is not human life itself”, whilst political judgment entailed “a choice between finite possibilities”. Policy, in a political condition, did not emerge from a superior source of wisdom but from “a freely recognized competition between interests and arguments within a society”. Political argument rests on shifting judgments governed by prudence and necessity, partly because we are ignorant of present and future contingencies. Politics requires, therefore, a rhetoric of persuasion, where “conflict is resolved by the free discussion and free acceptance of whatever outcome emerges from constitutional procedure”. As a connoisseur of this rhetoric and its evolution from the Graeco-Roman world to its recapitulation in the modern European state, Minogue was acutely sensitive to the manner of its contemporary erosion. More precisely, he addressed the problem of confusing politics, properly understood, as “a pursuit of intimations”, with the distorting consequences of those who reduce politics to the pursuit of a rational, transformative and ultimately utopian plan. As he explained in Conservative Realism, “what the conservative realist knows is that utopianism feeds upon itself”.

However, to an elite, postmodern and post-enlightenment sensibility, utopianism was more attractive than a politics of finite possibilities. The lineaments of modern utopianism Ken first disclosed in The Liberal Mind (1963). Here it took the form, as he noted in the preface to the Liberty Fund edition (1999), of “a melodrama of oppressors and victims”. Consequently, “the generic man of liberal thought is like a window dresser’s dummy—merely a vehicle for invoking hatred or tears”. Liberal elites of the Cold War era, unlike their more robust nineteenth-century precursors, entered the compassion industry. The new liberalism embraced the pain of classes of people, usually minorities, both nationally and internationally, the solution to whose oppression in modern liberal thought and practice required the transformation of the prevailing state of things by a machinery of distribution. As he noted in a prescient 1991 essay on “Virtue, Social Justice and Moral Identity”, the project of the now academically dominant political philosophy of liberal normativism “combines the Titanic ambition to put on unassailable foundations a scheme of justice which is no less than a complete blueprint of social life”. In its most recent post-Cold War manifestation, nothing is beyond liberalism’s capacious maw.

This new liberalism sets out “in the Year Zero from a bare and characterless place. The place we have left behind has emerged out of our character and desires and many of us are attached to it”. “The place to which we go,” Ken observed sceptically, “we know only that academic theorists know it to be just.” The liberal mind, then, replaced history with a saga of oppression, informed by a curious mixture of cynicism regarding past conduct and sentimentality concerning the generically oppressed. “Both attitudes,” he observed, “dehumanize people by turning them into caricatures; whereas the caricatures of the cynic generate hatred and contempt, the caricatures of the sentimentalist provoke tears”. Anatomising this character further in his Menzies Lecture, he contended that “the damp smell of moralism” had, by the 1960s, pervaded “the solid oak of our inheritance”.

Liberalism in its abstract pursuit of rational harmony and its sentimental preoccupation with moral abstraction constituted the first modern ideology. Like nationalism the subject (and title) of his second book (1967), it was a European creation. Yet, whilst the illusion of ultimate agreement characterised liberal utopianism, nationalism had contributed “little more than a new vocabulary to the politics of evil”. This was because nationalism’s ruling idea of the nation begins as “Sleeping Beauty and ends as Frankenstein’s Monster”. If the liberal view of history tends to the ahistorical, the nationalist version reduces history to mythology. As an ideology it adds up not to a theory but to a distinctive “form of self-expression by which a certain kind of”, ultimately destructive, “political excitement can be communicated from an elite to the masses”.

One of the enduring themes in Minogue’s thought, therefore, addressed the nature of ideology and its impact upon classical political understanding. In The Liberal Mind and Nationalism, he explored two forms of this distinctively modern style of thought. By contrast, his neglected classic Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology (1985) sought to synthesise the general features of this mode of thought. Ideology was “like sand at a picnic, it gets into everything”, in the process distorting thought and corrupting practice. Misunderstood at the time as a critique of Marxism (Ken considered all ideology “a footnote to Marx”), Alien Powers’ enduring value lay in its analysis of the distinctive rhetorical strategies and convoluted logic that inform all ideological thinking.

If ideology was the solution, what then was the problem? In its simplest formulation, ideology assumes “all evils are caused by an oppressive system”. Ultimately, it is a form of social analysis which discovers that human beings are the victims of a dehumanising system and that “the business of life is liberation”. Ideological thought thus uncovers a structure that is evil and facilitates change. In this context, Marx’s enduring superiority over liberal, nationalist, or more recently, green, feminist or multiculturalist rivals lay “in the power of synthesis he brought to the elaboration of this idea”. It “was intellectually devastating in the twentieth century, because it spread the illusion that those in possession of the ideological wisdom had found the secret of understanding society as a whole”. Communists, feminists, environmentalists and other “advanced thinkers” shared the remarkable illusion “that the contingent world we actually inhabit, with all its unpredictabilities, was actually a system”. Following through the logic of such systems “was to imagine that the social opacity of the human world had turned into a transparent drama, or more generally melodrama in which the good could be reliably distinguished from the bad”.

From this perspective, despite their different prescriptions for salvation, ideology always referred not only “to an instance of a type of revolutionary doctrine, but also to a collection of interchangeable devices whose persuasive point was to achieve power in order to transform society”. Ideological thought then possessed both negative and positive poles. An instinctive hatred of the individualism and the free economies of the West formed the negative pole, whilst in positive terms, ideologists sought “to unite the whole human race in achieving the full humanity of a perfected community”. Although what this might entail was, of course, a matter of endless dispute, this logic of ideology, its claim to certainty, was far more important than any differences between any of the actual doctrines asserted.

Central to the self-important certainty of the ideologist was his or her status as a social critic. The epithet “critical” was “appropriated as an ideological shibboleth”. The ideological critic discovered or “unmasked” oppression where others only found an accepted order of things. Criticism demanded dogmatism because it assumed there was only one correct way of construing things. It may begin with an actual grievance but ends by requiring a functional account of the structure that generated it. Definition is power and ideological criticism identifies specific problems in modern politics to generate a pure model of domination. Against the scholar involved in the “endless round of inconclusive discussion, the ideological critic plays the card of practical commitment, while against the politician, he may play the card of a deeper, perhaps, academic understanding”.

After 1989, and the collapse of ideological regimes in Eastern Europe, ideological intellectuals retreated to their secure bases in the universities and the state-licensed media. Ideological critics found a particularly congenial home in the universities. Indeed, in the period after 1989, which formed a kind of ideological watershed, ideological criticism permeated teaching and research in the humanities and social sciences. Rhetorically plagiarist, this mode of criticism “forever attempted to belong to whatever forms of intellectuality are currently admired such as philosophy, history or science”. In its post-Cold War manifestation, culture particularly came to be seen as more interesting than economics, and “authenticity and alienation, than exploitation”. In alliance with Third Way politics and the new managerialism, it distorted both academic and political life in the Anglosphere. Nowhere was this evolution more apparent than at the LSE after Ken retired in 1996.

As a self-declared “purblind reactionary”, Minogue had resisted the student radicalism of the late 1960s and he had little time for what he once termed “the long polysyllabic howl of sociology”. One of sociology’s most notable howlers, Anthony Giddens, assumed the directorship of the LSE in 1997 and one of his academic disciples, David Held, occupied the Graham Wallas Chair of Politics in the School of Government in 2000.

What Giddens and Held represented was the antithesis of “the concept of a university” that Ken had outlined in 1974 in a book of the same name. He considered the LSE’s subsequent embrace of Third Way thinking, global democracy, and policy-driven grant-getting, a form of rationalism that could only end in corruption. The LSE’s embrace of the ideology of global democracy saw Giddens in dialogue with Muammar Gaddafi in 2008 whilst Professor Held supervised Saif al-Islam Gaddafi’s doctoral thesis. In return Gaddafi contributed over $3 million to Held’s Centre for the Study of Global Governance, only for the Libyan regime to collapse in 2011, taking down with it the reputation of the LSE.

As Ken observed in an open letter to Held’s former colleague and current Professor of Politics at Sydney University, John Keane, in 2011, “the problem that Held failed to face”, in his uncritical promotion of global democracy, “is Muslim states themselves. Whatever is not determined by Islam, or local custom”, Ken wrote, “is up for grabs, and my impression is the thing that matters is power.” Such a cast of mind was “unlikely to evolve towards any of the bits of liberalism that might make democracy or freedom real”.

He continued the letter in an Andersonian vein, noting that as Keane now inhabited Sydney, he might

hear in the watches of the night a distant Scottish brogue warning of the dangers of practice and advocacy. This would be the ghost of John Anderson, a tough-minded character, who generated such tough-minded students as John Passmore, David Stove, James Mackie and David Armstrong. A very respectable chap never without a suit or waistcoat, he recognized something like war between the academic concern with “what is the case” on the one hand, and the advocacy of various kinds of uplift (democracy no doubt included) on the other.

The problem of the LSE and, presumably, Sydney, under the influence of such ideological advocacy was “the mushing of academic life common in our expanded universities. Neither in these universities (nor in Islamic societies) is the basic taste for dealing with independent characters (rather than toadies) very commonly to be found”. He noted sadly that the LSE would be remembered for this rather than “for things it once did better”.

Preoccupied with the role of the university in cultivating thoughtfulness and intellectual independence, Ken concluded that, since the revolutionary student movement of the 1960s and the proliferation of feminist, media and European “studies”, as well as purportedly “critical” studies of terrorism and security, ideology had perverted an academic tradition by making it the instrument of a practical political purpose. Understanding, he argued, was different from recommending. However, the policy-directed and utility-maximising view of education that has dominated the vice-chancelleries of Australian and UK universities since the 1990s has only facilitated the drift of education into the advocacy industry. This development, he contended, distorted academic standards. Ken’s essays and journalism after 1997 explored how Anglospheric academe had replaced understanding with a transnational Olympianism reinforced by national self-loathing.

After he retired from the LSE Ken became, if anything, more preoccupied with politics as a limited sphere of activity and the manner of its degeneration into despotism and servility through a media-driven democratically-induced morbidity. He was less attached to academe, however, and the legacy of the London school of conservative realism was lost to the Giddens and post-Giddens-era LSE. Ironically, it had been easier to argue a conservative libertarian case in academe during the Cold War than it was in the new era of political correctness and the servile mindset that it fashioned.

Instead, it was libertarian or conservative think-tanks like Civitas, the Institute for Social Affairs, the Policy Studies Institute, and the anti-European Bruges Group, of which he became President in 1991, and latterly the Mont Pelerin Society, that benefited from Ken’s insight and sustained his analysis of the perversely sentimental moralising that characterised twenty-first-century ideology. Through these institutions and an international network of conservative writers and thinkers whom he had befriended in the Cold War—such as Owen Harries, Deepak Lal, Robert Conquest and John O’Sullivan—he sustained a distinctively conservative and sceptical voice into the post-Cold War era.

With his second wife, Bev, he regularly hosted dinner parties at their home in West London that featured an array of conservative talent from Australia, the United States as well as the UK. As his stepdaughter Jo Henderson observed,

he thought, she gathered, he wrote, she cooked, together they created a haven of ideas and conversation conducted in a spirit of good humour while the wine flowed, anyone who wanted to smoke, did, and irreverence was encouraged so long as it was both amusing and thought provoking.

Any given evening might find the likes of Roger Kimball, John O’Sullivan, Andrew Alexander, Ruth Dudley Edwards, as well as the odd academic, writer or musician discoursing on topics that ranged from the state of modern democratic politics (not good) to the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, the musicals of Gershwin and Irving Berlin or Hollywood films of the 1940s. Ken was particularly good on the Bette Davis–Paul Henreid movie Now, Voyager; “Gerry,” he would say, “don’t let’s ask for the moon—we have the stars.”

Ken Minogue, then, possessed the rare ability to stand back from any event or fashionable enthusiasm and appraise it dispassionately. He attributed this to his early development,

being a New Zealander in Australia and an Australian in Britain, somebody who’s spent most of his life in Britain back in Australia and so on, you’re always slightly distanced, but only very marginally distanced from the people you’re connected with and I suppose this soothes any sense that you don’t totally belong.

He found this alienation satisfying, a personal version, he thought, of Toynbee’s theory of challenge and response, a tiny challenge provoking “a possibly interesting response”. This fed the ability always to present a fresh perspective but rarely judge. The most damning condemnation of a policy or an idea would be that it was “terribly unsound”.

Ken considered political philosophy a conversation, and within it, his distinctive voice rose above the hubbub of progressive orthodoxy and the corrupting politics of abstract compassion. As one of his students put it, there is monologue, dialogue and Minogue. He regarded it impossible to think lucidly if you couldn’t write clear prose, and he spoke as he wrote, in well-formed sentences. Although he paid little attention to his own archive, his various essays and books retain the flavour of his thought, enabling future thinkers to appreciate the style, wit and moral prescience of a great Anglospheric philosopher.

David Martin Jones is Reader in Political Science at the University of Queensland.


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