31 JANUARY 2004, Page 34

Who would you prefer as PM Garnett or Bertrand Russell.

Scanning the newspapers, and absorbing with a mixture of incredulity and indignation the enormities they report, I conclude that what England lacks today is, quite simply, sense. I do not say common sense, what Bertrand Russell — who certainly lacked it — called 'the metaphysics of savages', because that raises all kinds of difficult questions concerning class and intellectual snobbery. It was All Garnett's conviction that he was well endowed with common sense, which he equated with the capacity to think. Hence his reiterated remark 'It stands to reason', a delightful phrase to my mind, which plays an important part in saloon-bar conversation, though it actually means little and conveys nothing other than the speaker's conviction that he is in the right.

No: I prefer sense, partly because it is one of those English words that are hard to define but full of satisfying meanings. The big OED, which is within reach of my arm, as always, while I write, devotes pages and scores of thousands of words to sense and its many connected words. I have been burrowing into this small print and learning things, not indeed of much value but new to me: and, as Dr Johnson said, 'There is nothing so minute or inconsiderable that I would not rather know it than not.' Thus I have discovered there is a philosophical noun, sensible, described as 'a term popularised by Bertrand Russell to denote the kind of thing which, if sensed, is a sense-datum'. As one might suspect, given the populariser, this line of inquiry deviates sharply from the commonsense way of life and does not, as Mr Garnett would say, stand to reason. The illustrative quote, from Russell's Mysticism and Logic, reinforces this impression: 'I shall give the name sensibilia to those objects which have the same metaphysical and physical status as sense-data, without necessarily being data to any mind. Thus the relation of a sensibile to a sense-datum is like that of a man to a husband: a man becomes a husband by entering into the relation of marriage, and a sensibile becomes a sensedatum by entering into the relation of acquaintance.' Eh? Come again. Moreover, it is my experience that, where Bertie comes, Freddie cannot be far behind. And indeed the next unilluminating quote is from A.J, Ayers Foundations of Empirical Knowledge: 'We shall have to take as a criterion for the existence of a sensibile the truth of a single hypothetical proposition.' All clear now? Let us proceed. Sense is defined in the OED in at least eight distinct ways, of which (d) and (f) are relevant to my theme. Meaning (d) speaks of a 'faculty of perception, not scientifically delineated, or only conjectured to exist'. Add to this (f): 'the intuitive knowledge or appreciation of what action or judgment is appropriate to a given situation or sphere of activity'. Now we are getting there. The 18th century reacted against the terrifying convictions of the 17th century, which led to such slaughter, by stressing the centrality of reason. By the end of the century reason was out of fashion, however, and Rousseau had opened the trapdoor that led into the darker recesses of the soul. But there were those, at the turn of the century, who wanted a convenient and comfortably halfway house between reason and emotion. Dr Johnson had defined opera as 'an irrational entertainment'. So it is. But it may be enjoyed nonetheless. Among these halfway-house seekers was Jane Austen. She had already explored two types of personality and human attitude in Sense and Sensibilay, and when she came to write Pride and Prejudice in the first decade of the 19th century, she was anxious to stake her claim to a form of practical virtue which combined reason and humanity. She used the word sensible. In chapter XIII, after Mr Bennet reads out at breakfast the splendidly self-revealing letter from Mr Collins, the pu77led Elizabeth asks her father, 'Can he be a sensible man, Sir?' He replies, 'No, my dear; I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse.'

Alas, it is one thing to relish a lack of sense in fiction — that was Jane Austen's aim. As she put it, 'Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.' It is quite another, however, to encounter them in real life, to one's cost. Mr Collins's parishioners must have groaned under his administrations, and no doubt raged at Lady Catherine de Burgh's condescension, But I doubt if Mr Collins would have been a parson today: not enough in it for him, in the material sense I mean. He had all the makings of a dispenser of political correctness, prim, self-righteous and humourless, of the kind now favoured by officials. Head librarians, for instance, university registrars, race relations enforcers, chief constables and the like. Mr Collins would have flourished in our age: as, to give one instance, the prison governor who sacked a warder for making a joke about bin Laden within the hearing of a Muslim, or the ultra-PC chief constable of Wales about whom

the Daily Mail asks, s the worst copper in

Britain?' It seems glary clear-up rate is the lowest ever re d, but he recently chaired a conferen 'Wildlife Crime', against which he sworn vengeance.

'Traditionally,' he sa rime has been crime against the person an e against the prop erty.' But now we `11 reated another sort of crime, crime again e planet'. Can he be a sensible man? Th er is an emphatic no. But this powe n is no joke if you live in his bailiwick. return to find your house sacked by bu and the police not terribly interested y are co-operating with 'a national strate clamp down on the persecution of the hen-harrier' — you feel a sharp sense of grievance, a conviction that the world is not being run by sensible men.

Some would argue that sensible men have always been in short supply, especially in politics, where posturing, self-importance, a liking for ideology and obstinate belief in your own righteousness are ubiquitous. A typical Collins figure from the Commons, soon to quit it, thanks be to God, is Tam Dalyell, a 'great joke', a 'character', a source of harmless mirth, but not if you are a soldier or sailor fighting for your country, or a Jew for that matter. In the past, one of the virtues of England and its political system was that it had an admirable way of turning silly people into sensible men, given time. Pitt the Younger was always a sensible man but it took 40 years to change Charles James Fox into one. Peel, too, was always a sensible man. He was destroyed by the young Disraeli, who in the 1840s might have been described as a Mr Collins with outstanding talents but no sense. He too became a sensible man in time, and an outstanding party leader and prime minister, having to contend with Gladstone, a perverted genius who started out as a sensible man but lost his marbles in the Stygian bog of the Irish problem and ended his career as a Grand Old Collins. Not hard to spot the unsensible men of our time: the gruesome Ted Heath, the posturing Heseltine, the clownish Robin Cook, and so many others queueing up. But there are complexities. Tony Blair is a sensible man over foreign affairs and defence, but a Collins on domestic issues. We can't always expect a Margaret Thatcher, sensible in all things. More often we have to arbitrate between varieties of folly. If you had to choose, would you prefer to be governed by an Alf Garnett or a Bertie Russell?