(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s rare that the carefully unspooled reasoning of an academic thinker cuts through as powerfully as that of philosopher Roger Scruton. The reaction to his death speaks to his profound influence on conservative thought and British politics.
“We have lost the greatest modern conservative thinker — who not only had the guts to say what he thought but said it beautifully,” tweeted U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Johnson’s party owes a deeper debt to Scruton, as Danny Kruger, the Tory MP from Scruton’s beloved Wiltshire, spelled out in a tribute:
“Roger Scruton gave Conservatism its head. He gave the movement the intellectual confidence to imagine a United Kingdom free from the European Union, and to fathom an appeal to the public based on their attachment to ‘the place which is theirs.’ In this, he also gave Conservatism its heart.”
Scruton’s writings in some 50 books, including a number of novels (and two operas), extended into every branch of philosophy — from ethics to metaphysics — but also foxhunting, architecture, music, sexual desire and wine. He was also an activist. A staunch opponent of communism, he took great risks to help underground movements in Eastern Europe in the 1980s.
Mild-mannered and donnish, he could be withering about an intellectually flimsy argument or the “kind of half-educated politically correct person” for whom he was a hate figure. But he was also humble and good-humored. When the Anglican priest and journalist Giles Fraser noted during a podcast interview the huge range of subjects he had tackled, Scruton replied mischievously, “There are some fields I have not yet explored, but they are trembling in anticipation.”
Scruton was at times ostracized by British Conservatives (though David Cameron gave him a knighthood) and was long vilified by the left. He was controversially sacked from a government commission after the left-wing New Statesman published an interview in which some of his statements were selectively edited in a way that made them sound racist or xenophobic. The magazine later apologized and he was reinstated, but it clearly stung. It seemed to reinforce in Scruton’s mind an existential us-versus-them battle with the traditional left.
Scruton traced his philosophical formation in part to witnessing the 1968 Paris riots, where he saw an “unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans.” He wanted to preserve things not destroy them, he said. He was “not a free-market fanatic,” as he noted; indeed, he was more a communitarian conservative than a classical liberal. Though he acknowledged there was sometimes a tension between the two, he didn’t seem overly worried about that; he felt that the two strands needed each other.
Scruton believed in the idea of the nation (though not nationalism), which is becoming fashionable again in the post-globalization age but earned him a lot of criticism for a time. Embedded in the very notion of democracy, he argued, is the idea of political loyalty; whether or not we agree with the government of the day, we accept it. This in turn requires a degree of social trust, which is rooted in place and institutions. “Urban elites build trust through career moves, joint projects and cooperation across borders,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “They will identify with transnational networks since they see those things as assets, which amplify their power.”
But this urban elite cannot function without those who are more rooted in their place — farmers, factory workers, nurses, police. They, he rightly noted, often vote differently.
What binds these groups together, he argued, is patriotic sentiment supported by history and culture. That is the needle Boris Johnson tried to thread in the election, by appealing to a sense of place and to Englishness (even more than Britishness).
Did Scruton approve of the tactics? “We’re up against a brick wall and we need someone who’s capable of crashing through it, and whatever his virtues and vices, Boris is the kind of person who could,” Scruton said in an interview with the Times just after Johnson took over from Theresa May.
It’s not hard to see why he’d think that. He viewed a second EU referendum as the kind of top-down move that is typical of the EU and justifies Britain’s departure. The son of a working class father who was a die-hard socialist and class warrior who effectively disowned Roger when he got into Cambridge University, his life had been a “search for home,” which also reflects his vision of a conservatism rooted in a place, autonomy and accountability. The EU muddied all of that, he thought.
And yet some of the values that underpin Scruton’s conservative vision were hitched to some pretty big wrecking balls in Brexit and also in Donald Trump. Whatever the rationale for leaving the EU, the social trust that Scruton so prized has clearly been damaged. The divide was not just between urban elites and those rooted in the land, but also between his generation and younger voters, who are more open to changing their place of residence and more concerned about inequalities than other kinds of differences. Creating Scrutopia (as his Wiltshire ideal was known) won’t be easy for Johnson as it requires knitting together very different constituencies and delivering both economic opportunity and stability.
The U.S. presents an even greater problem, as Scruton (who lived and worked there at various periods) was keenly aware. In a 2018 New York Times article, Scruton tries to explain Trump, and pretty much gives up, calling Trump “a product of the cultural decline that is rapidly consigning our artistic and philosophical inheritance to oblivion.” And yet is that what happens when traditional conservatism gets weaponized to entrench cronyism?
Scruton didn’t accept the argument that conservatism is largely reactionary. Indeed, his writings celebrated the importance of cultural capital in strengthening societal bonds and he believed the state was an important actor. But almost by definition the iron dome defenses of traditional conservatism are activated when opposing a threat — whether totalitarianism or the tyranny of bureaucracy. In a world where voters are biased toward action, it can be hard to sell mere preservation when the alternative is a gut-punch against the establishment or an exciting leap into the unknown. So the threat has to be manufactured and fear stoked. The danger is that the reaction destroys the thing that the Conservatives should have been protecting.
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Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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