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Britishness and anti-intellectualism

Why is Britain the country of commonsense, rather than high theory? A brief history of the ideology of anti-intellectualism and conservatism in the UK.

In a recent article published on openDemocracy Michael Gardiner set out an interesting thesis on ‘Burkean British time’. The article attracted vigorous criticism in the comments beneath – many of these alleging that it was ‘pretentious’, ‘unreadable’, wilfully obscure and so on. It struck me that there was a certain irony to this kind of criticism given the article’s focus. These comments reproduced, wittingly or not, a staple of conservative thinking which was propagated most effectively by Burke: a posturing form of anti-intellectualism. Dismissiveness and hostility towards ‘theory’ has long been a bulwark of the British conservative ideology that Gardiner ably identifies.

It is often remarked that Anglo-Saxon culture is marked by a relative pragmatism and empiricism in comparison with continental European cultures which are much more inclined towards high theory, abstraction and so on. It is bound up with differences in the cultural status of the figure of the ‘intellectual’. It is frequently pointed out, for example, that the French admire and take pride in their ‘intellectuals’ while the British are, at best, indifferent about theirs. This is reflected in Anglo-Saxon impatience in relation to conceptual complexity and in its veneration of what is called ‘common sense’ and ‘plain speaking’. How can we explain this Anglo-Saxon anti-intellectualism – this hostility towards theory? As I hope to show here, anti-intellectualism is deeply rooted in the political history of Britain and has long performed a strategic conservative ideological function – which is to shield the status quo from systematic criticism.

We must start with Edmund Burke. As we shall see, Burke did not construct a British ideology of anti-intellectualism from scratch, but he was the first thinker to produce a worked-out justification of it, just as he was the first thinker to formulate an account of conservatism as a coherent political doctrine. Indeed the two are intimately connected – anti-intellectualism becomes, in Burke’s schema, a key organising component of conservatism as a cohesive doctrine. In order to understand the culturally ingrained British hostility to ‘theory’, then, we need to understand the wider political philosophy of which it is a component as it was formulated by Burke.

As Alan Haworth suggests Burke’s conservatism comprises three core (intertwining) ideas. First, Burke is suspicious of political change driven by ‘pure reason’ and abstract principles. Reality is much more messy and complex than can be grasped in theory. For Burke it is foolish to enact sweeping reform of political and social institutions along ‘rational’ lines inspired through abstract reasoning. Existing institutions work well because they have evolved and adapted over many years in a gradual process of trial and error. The second strand of Burke’s approach is the idea that principles like liberty are always embodied in concrete historical and national circumstances. The liberty a nation enjoys is always a specific set of particular freedoms and rights. There are only ever these liberties. There is never liberty as such. Further, the specific set of liberties embodied in the constitutional order is the outcome of adaptation and long experience that has taken place over many generations within a particular national tradition. One cannot simply step outside of these inherited customs, conventions and established practices and appeal to liberty as some trans-historical, universal entity. If there is to be change it must take place within the tradition our current way of doing things has grown up in. Experience and history will always be a better guide to action than abstract principles.

How do we know what reforms are necessary and prudent? Burke emphasises in this respect something he calls ‘natural’ wisdom or ‘prejudice’. This is the third key aspect of his thought. ‘Prejudice’ is having a certain habit of thinking. Growing up and living within a particular tradition inculcates you with an instinctive sense of what can and should be altered and what preserved in any given situation. But prejudice in Burke’s sense of the word goes beyond the culturally specific too. It also directly maps on, in some rather unspecified way, to the natural order of things – the way things really are. This is a core assumption – perhaps the core assumption - of much conservative thinking. Reality (the realm of the possible and its limits) can be known and grasped directly and unmediated through the simple application of ‘common sense’. You can understand the world perfectly adequately if you think like a sensible sort of chap.

It is clear that one of the major threads running through these elements of Burke’s thought is profound mistrust – something oscillating between disdain and fear - towards ‘theory’ and theorists. Radical critique of existing institutions, the elaboration of universalist principles of social justice, questioning of the prevailing wisdom, thinking beyond the quotidian world of day-to-day concerns – all are ruled out as dangerous, silly or both by Burke. In fact anti-intellectualism helps to cement the various elements of his thought together. Anti-intellectualism, that is, is deployed as a sort of unifying factor in modern conservatism.

Burke’s ideas pertaining to the perils and uselessness of theory struck a chord in the British consciousness and became deeply embedded in the national outlook. The success of Burke’s anti-intellectualism did not necessarily have much to do with the quality of his arguments (whatever the merits of Burke’s ideas, their weaknesses are fairly easy to identify) – it had more to do with the ideological function that his schema could perform for the British ruling class. Burke’s formulation of conservatism into a coherent philosophy was called forth, of course, in response to the radical challenge of the French Revolution. This revolution brought established traditions and hierarchies that had long been taken for granted by the mass of people into question. Whereas the powerful could largely rely, before 1789, on the habitual, instinctive conservatism of the people, the revolution forced defenders of the status quo to seek out a more reasoned doctrine designed to convince people who had, previously, needed little convincing. This is what Burke provided.

It is no accident that anti-intellectualism and hostility to ‘theory’ plays such an important role in this newly organised favourite philosophy of the ruling class. As David Simpson points out in Romanticism, Nationalism and the Revolt against Theory, both left and right in the late 18th Century ‘pronounced that the French Revolution was principally the result of ideas’ (p. 5). In the view of the right, then, rationalism, ‘system’ and ‘theory’ was inseparable from Jacobinism and, as such, extremely dangerous. Burke’s schema provided the British ruling order with a defensive ideological shield with which to ward off the advance of ‘ideas’ and, thus, to prevent the emergence of an indigenous British Jacobinism. Burke’s anti-intellectualism became the basis of a hegemonic strategy on the part of British social elites seeking to strengthen their position.

Ideology is never constructed out of thin air, however. Anti-intellectualism could not have succeeded as a strategy of inoculation against radicalism unless it could draw on prior, rooted ideas. Simpson shows that a tradition of vigilance against ‘theory’ together with concomitant fetishizing of ‘common sense’ in Britain/England goes back at least as far as the Civil War period. The radical wing of the Parliamentarian movement – groups such as the Diggers and Levellers – made frequent reference to ‘reason’ in relation to their demands for radical redistribution of land and wealth. It was in this period that the powerful came to associate rational abstraction and theory with dangerous levelling tendencies – ‘ideas’ were suspect since they could be corrosive of people’s taken-for-granted acceptance of the established social order as ‘just the way things are’.

After the Restoration, as Simpson argues, an empiricist sort of ‘common sense’ was increasingly asserted as a distinguishing feature of the English. With the reinstatement of the ‘natural order’ of monarchy, this definition of the national character helped to keep dangerous critical ideas at bay – now depicted as alien to the national psyche. This discourse of ‘national character’ was reinvigorated and amplified in the 1790s and after – Anglo-Saxon ‘common sense’ was more and more explicitly contrasted with the continental European (particularly French) weakness for abstraction. This depiction of the national character could draw on a highly empiricist scientific tradition in England. Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, for example, both promoted a deeply inductivist method of inquiry. Indeed, Newton famously claimed to ‘frame no hypotheses’. Bacon claimed to look at things ‘simply as they are’. This was a tradition very easily assimilated into the emerging discourse of English ‘common sense’.

These, then, were some of the pre-existing strands of thought upon which Burke could draw in order to articulate a powerful, reasoned case against theory as part of his philosophical defence of the ruling order. The ideology of anti-theory and ‘common sense’ has been enormously successful. It continues to circumscribe and limit British intellectual culture today. It performs a deeply conservative function. Prevailing practices, institutions and hierarchies are insulated from criticism – they are simply ‘reality’ and part of the natural order of things. Those who do engage in far-reaching criticism of what exists are alien and un-British and, anyway, such thinking is both silly and dangerous simultaneously and should be treated with contempt. 

None of this is to deny that some of what passes for theory can be absolute rot. We have all come across texts which we suspect have been written in a deliberately impenetrable style. Nevertheless, the number and frequency of such texts is hugely exaggerated in a culture in which all theory, all complexity – everything at which one might have to expend some mental effort in seeking to understand – is regarded as suspect. Those with a commitment to progressive politics should steer clear of the discourse of ‘common sense’. Those who dismissively reject ‘high theory’ out of hand are, whether they know it or not, de facto conservatives.

Ed Rooksby teaches Political Theory at Southampton University.

About the author

Ed Rooksby teaches politics at Ruskin College, Oxford.

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