TAUBE: A conservative we barely knew, but should have

Kenneth Minogue fought the good fight at London’s bastion of liberalism

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Kenneth Minogue, a professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, passed away on June 28. The New Zealand-born and Australian-educated academic was a conservative intellectual giant, an inspirational figure who championed classical liberalism, small government, free markets and more individual rights and freedoms at every turn.

Sadly, many North Americans were not familiar with Mr. Minogue’s work. The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol epitomized this sentiment in a recent blog post, “I didn’t know Minogue well, nor his work as well as I should … The best tribute the rest of us can pay to his memory is to read him, and to learn from him.”

Fortunately, I knew Mr. Minogue to some extent. I’d therefore like to introduce readers to an impressive academic voice most American conservatives have never heard of.

I first met Mr. Minogue in 1994, while I was taking my master’s degree in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. While I had read some op-ed pieces in the British newspaper The Times and had scratched the surface of his first book, “The Liberal Mind” (1963), I didn’t know much about him. I also was never enrolled in his class, so I can’t speak with any authority about his teaching style.

At a few social gatherings, we were able to discuss European politics, North American politics and political theory. I distinctly remember that Mr. Minogue was as interested in Canadian history as I was with Australian. I immensely enjoyed these conversations. He treated me with the utmost of respect, and was very generous with his time.

The sight of a conservative academic speaking with a conservative student at a leftish university must have been amusing. The London School of Economics has had diverse individuals such as Friedrich A. Hayek (classical liberal economist) and Anthony Giddens (adviser to former Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair) teach courses. Mick Jagger was even there as a student for one year. Yet the core of the school’s teaching staff and student base has long been on the political left.

Here’s what struck me about Mr. Minogue: He was a student of Michael Oakeshott, one of Britain’s pre-eminent conservative academics. He had an enormous appreciation for great political thinkers such as Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill. He firmly believed in the free-market system and private enterprise. He wanted government out of his life, not in it. He admired America’s Founding Fathers. As the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne nicely put it, “His key achievement, I think, was to challenge the central leftist proposition (‘the personal is the political’) that politics embraces all forms of human conduct.”

Hence, Mr. Minogue firmly believed in the important principles many American conservatives strongly support and cherish. Although hidden away in European academic circles (with occasional appearances in publications such as the New Criterion), he vigorously defended them throughout his career.

Two of his books particularly stand out. “Politics: A Very Short Introduction” (1995) is a compact volume examining political theory, personal liberty, the modern state and even patriotism. In one notable passage, Mr. Minogue passionately defended the position that the “Western ideal of freedom is irresistibly attractive to many other civilizations,” but correctly pointed out the “paradox of freedom is the fact that it can only be a possession we already have.”

Meanwhile, “Conservative Realism: New Essays in Conservatism” (1996) is an exceptional collection of contributions by writers and thinker such as John O’Sullivan and Irving Kristol. In Mr. Minogue’s contributions, he describes a conservative realist as someone who “knows that utopianism feeds on itself” and believes “there isn’t much salvation around (certainly not in politics).” He also praises three London School of Economics conservatives, Shirley Letwin, Elie Kedourie and Oakeshott for having “supported much that was done by Margaret Thatcher’s government after 1979.”

I kept in contact with Mr. Minogue after my graduation. He was kind enough to write an original piece for my long-since defunct publication, From the Right. Alas, we lost touch for many years until I saw him again in 2011 at a conference in Ottawa, Canada. Once he remembered who I was, we spoke for a while — much in the same manner as we had in London’s pubs. We said our farewells, and he went off to his hotel room to collect his things and head off to the next adventure.

This was the last time I saw the conservative we barely knew, but should have. It’s high time that we read and reread Mr. Minogue’s work, learn from his ideas and — above all — enjoy his powerful defense of conservatism.

Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a contributor to The Washington Times.

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