Tsarina McVey. (WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

December 6, 2023   6 mins

So Esther McVey has been made Britain’s Common Sense Tsar. One can imagine the scene around the Cabinet table, as Rishi Sunak calls on various of his ministers to sketch their plans for the future.

First to speak up is the Chancellor, who in a voice trembling with excitement outlines his vision of an economy which has abandoned money altogether and reverted to a form of barter. The Minister for Health follows with an update of her imaginative new scheme to ease staffing problems in the NHS: a limited number of patients will be allowed to carry out minor surgical operations on themselves, starting by extracting their own tonsils and progressing to self-appendectomies. Finally, the Climate Minister announces further details of his campaign to control the emission of methane gases by cattle: all cows will be issued with a neat pair of buttock-hugging Lederhosen, some of them manufactured from the hides of their relatives, which should ensure a dramatic upswing in the planet’s chances of survival.

At a nod from the PM, Esther McVey, dressed in cap and bells like an Elizabethan clown, swoops on these wretched visionaries and belabours them about the head with a pig’s bladder rattling with dried peas, while the rest of the Cabinet thump the table in approval. Common sense has been restored.

The problem, however, is that common sense isn’t just opposed to silly ideas. A lot of it is hostile to ideas as such, which is one reason why there is so much of it around in the philistine British middle class. Unlike the high-rationalist French, idealist Germans and mystical Russians, British culture is suspicious of grand abstractions. In the United States, the word “dream” is central to public discourse and used for the most part positively; over here, dreamers are people who forget to turn the taps off and bring the ceiling down.

If one wanted a figure typical of plain British sense, one could do worse than nominate the great 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson, whose bluff, downright, demystified observations raise common sense almost to an art-form. Asked whether the Giant’s Causeway was worth seeing, Johnson replied: “Worth seeing, sir; not worth going to see.” The dry, downbeat, practical tone of this is the tone of common sense. There are other examples in the literature of the nation. Asked what book he would choose if marooned on a desert island, George Bernard Shaw proposed Practical Hints on Boat Building.

If grand abstractions are to be avoided, it is partly because they are associated with the revolutionary Left. One wonders therefore why God, nation, law and order, all abstract notions beloved of many conservatives, aren’t to be spurned as well. Instead, we’re told that people who trade in ideas lack feeling, as well as being eccentric, unsociable and in sore need of a haircut. They are rootless, robotic creatures who cut you off from nation, family, lineage and locality, whereas what matters for the conservative is sentiment, piety, faith and intuition. The Left has concepts, while conservatives have customs.

We can’t dispense with thought, to be sure, but it should cling as closely as possible to the texture of actual experience. This is what the British know as empiricism. Ideas which come loose from the senses can be lethal. The word “sense” means “meaning”, but also bodily sensation like touching or hearing; and behind the notion of common sense lurks the wish that meaning should be as palpable and immediate as the feel of a rose leaf or the aroma of coffee. What’s true on this model is what we all recognise instantly as true, without any possibility of dissent.

Making meaning palpable is what happens in poetry. Poetry is concerned not just with meanings or ideas, but with what they feel like. Its aim is to translate them into the language of the body. There can be problems, however, when you think of everyday language in this way. If the right to private property is as obvious as the feel of a rose leaf, how come there have been whole societies which have no such concept? If my conviction that I am a divine being is as self-evident as the smell of coffee, how can anyone ever break the appalling news to me that I’m merely human? Common sense can be unnervingly close to dogmatism. Sentiments and customs sound more congenial than abstract ideas, but you can argue over ideas, whereas “I just feel it”, “Everyone knows that!” or “This is just what we always do” can be ways of closing argument down.

Most of our convictions aren’t as unquestionable as the smell of coffee. Roman Catholics believe that the Virgin Mary was taken up body and soul into heaven, a doctrine appropriately known as the Assumption — but only a seriously weird minority of them think it is obvious that she was. Catholics tend not to fall around in astonishment when they are asked why they believe this, as though it was as plain as the nose on your face. Likewise, people who are devoted to the idea of monarchy are usually well aware that there are a lot of societies which don’t have a monarch, but which don’t fall apart on that account.

The idea of common sense first emerged when people began to worry that we had too little in common to maintain political unity. It is, in other words, a concept typical of a fragmented modern age. The more liberal individualism flourishes, the more you must look to some deep communal framework which regulates our otherwise anarchic actions. The problem with appealing to common sense here is that you need something rather more substantial for unity than the universal belief that putting your finger in the fire isn’t the wisest thing to do. But the more substantial beliefs get, the less everyone spontaneously shares them. One way you can think of political unity is temporal: we should think and act as our ancestors did.

The name for this is tradition. What counts in the end isn’t so much what I think and do, as the liberal tends to maintain, as what others have thought and done before me. How could my own tuppence ha’penny-worth of insight possibly outweigh those vast resources of communal wisdom? What a great many people have collectively maintained over the centuries may turn out to be untrue, but it’s unlikely to be pure stupidity either. There is usually a kernel of insight to be extracted from it. If people once thought that the sun moves round the earth, they did so for respectable reasons. Nobody thought that the sun was just a smear on the eyeball caused by chewing too many betel nuts. Jesus presumably thought that the world was flat. Given his historical context, it would be astonishing if he had believed anything else.

The trouble with tradition, however, is that our forefathers did a number of different things, many of them deeply unpleasant. If they produced some splendid epic poetry, they also burnt witches and deported trade unionists. Some of this behaviour they even saw as plain common sense, which suggests that common sense isn’t as common as it thinks it is. What was self-evident to them isn’t self-evident to us. What was common sense in 9th-century Byzantium?

In his study The Tacit Dimension, Michael Polanyi argues that we know more than we can tell. Much of our knowledge is tacit rather than theoretical. It is know-how rather than know-that, and there are kinds of know-how which can’t be explicitly formulated. The way in which we know our own bodies is nothing like the way physiologists talk about them. You can know how to whistle the National Anthem, but you couldn’t teach someone else how to do so because you can’t articulate it to yourself. You can sense that someone is fearful or mortified but find it impossible to spell out why you can be sure of this. This tacit awareness of each other underlies all of our activity and relationships, and someone who didn’t have it would strike us as an alien who had gleaned his knowledge of human affairs from manuals and textbooks. He would be like someone who spoke English perfectly well, but entirely without tone.

A lot of common sense has this tacit, intuitive dimension. It would be too laborious to keep spelling out the axioms and assumptions which underpin our behaviour, so we have to take a whole number of them for granted. The trouble begins when we take for granted what’s thoroughly questionable — when it becomes common sense to believe that Tom Cruise is exemplary of modern manhood, or that the West needs a foothold in the Middle East known as Israel. This is why we can’t live by common sense alone. We also need ways of speaking which subject it to criticism. Having a Tsar for Common Sense assumes that our politicians are fantasists in the grip of grandiose visions which need to be deflated. Since they’re much more drably prosaic than that, the appointment doesn’t make much sense.

Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.