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Blair’s Guru

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Tony Blair’s mention of John Macmurray in 1994, just after he was elected leader of the Labour party, raised the profi le of this Scottish philosopher somewhat, but it has done little to illuminate Macmurray’s ideas. John Macmurray was an innovative thinker who pursued a distinguished academic career as well as writing some dozen books. He has not been given the attention he deserves by professional philosophers, so it is not surprising that political commentators fail to understand him. So what did he really say and why did he appeal to the young Tony Blair? Tony Blair learned about John Macmurray from the Rev Peter Thomson, an Australian left-wing Anglican vicar who was a mature student at St. John’s College, Oxford when Blair was an undergraduate. Thomson’s enthusiasm for Macmurray probably appealed to the unphilosophical Blair on two grounds: Macmurray’s emphasis on the importance of community, and his acceptance of the importance of religion, at a time when the philosophical fashion was to regard religion as a childish irrelevance, or worse. Blair was probably unaware that Macmurray’s position, especially on religion, had already

Jeanne Warren is a founder member of The John Macmurray Fellowship (http: //

As Tony Blair’s time at the top of British politics draws to an end, Jeanne Warren looks at the philosopher who inspired him

made him highly suspect among philosophers, leading to his being virtually ignored after his death in 1976. His radical views had also aroused the suspicions of many churchmen, some of whom called him a humanist. Blair was genuinely taken with the idea of community, the vision of a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts and which enables people to lead fulfi lled lives. This was an aspect of Macmurray’s thought which particularly appealed to Peter Thomson, who saw its relevance to religion. When Blair was a student, he was not politically active. His tragedy, perhaps, was to retain a vision of community which he then tried to pursue politically in the very way that Macmurray had warned against. Macmurray, in the fi rst volume of his Gifford Lectures, The Self as Agent , analyses the Romantic movement which preceded Kant and led to Hegel. After some detailed argument he arrives at the following: “Suppose then that there is a person who fi nds himself possessed of such a vision of the good, convinced by an inner sense of felt and disinterested necessity; suppose that he happens also to possess the power to compel other men to cooperate with him in realising this good - then it becomes not merely right, but a moral duty for him so to compel them.” The Romantic ideal leads, not to democracy but to totalitarianism. In Macmurray’s words, “Being wise after the event, we can say that

The Philosophers' Magazine /4th quarter 2006

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