Roger Scruton is one of the few public intellectuals who has a just claim to be a counter-cultural force. Embattled at Birkbeck, University of London, where his politics were at variance with the prevailing Hobsbawmian Marxist-socialism, his 1979 book The Meaning of Conservatism established him as a leading authority on conservative thought and made him a hate figure amid the socialist hegemony that dominated the academia of the 1980s. This new book enables us to consider his contribution both to conservative philosophy and to political debate.
With his founding of The Salisbury Review, Scruton proved himself an activist as well as a philosopher; it was a journal that attacked many of the sacred cows of the Left, including the notion of multiculturalism. Although it is now discredited, the view that society could accommodate diverse and conflicting cultures without demanding that they accept central tenets of the host society was then a powerful shibboleth. The Review’s publication of an article by a conscientious Bradford headmaster, Ray Honeyford, bewailing the limited education and slim life chances of Muslim pupils resulting from the opposition of sections of their community to cultural integration, caused a national furore and resulted in Honeyford’s dismissal.
Not content to limit his political campaigning to British intellectual life, Scruton was active in encouraging dissident movements within the Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe. The role that he and a few other British academics played in travelling to address audiences of persecuted non-Marxist intellectuals did much to encourage intellectual freedom and played a part in preparing the way for what was to become the “velvet revolutions” that eventually overthrew the Communist regimes.
In How to be a Conservative he recalls accepting an invitation to lecture in Prague and finding his way, under the observation of the secret police, to a dingy room, where he addressed the “battered remnants” of the city’s intelligentsia: dismissed professors, poets and novelists whose works the regime would never allow to be published and would-be students denied entry to universities because their parents belonged to the wrong class.
It was not just as an opponent of socialism that Scruton’s views ran counter to the dominant philosophies of the day, for as a Conservative, with both a capital and a small “c”, he was by no means a complete admirer of the philosophy of the conservatism that turned the socialist tide in the 1980s. He recognised the valour, integrity and determination of Margaret Thatcher and the way in which she invigorated Britain after the “management of decline” policies of both Labour and Conservative post-war governments; but he saw her obsession with the free market as too narrow an approach to conservatism in that, like socialism, it placed too much emphasis on man as Homo oeconomicus. He views the market economy as by far the best way to underpin a prosperous society, but concurs with Adam Smith in considering that markets must work within customs and moral and legal traditions, for otherwise they will erode them.
Scruton’s conservatism is based not on economics but on a view of society as formed by a relationship with place and land that has developed over time; and he follows Edmund Burke in seeing it as an association of the dead, the living and the yet unborn that ensures the continuity of the common cultural values that are its basis. It is a very British – or English-speaking world – form of conservatism; like the common law on which it rests, it sees rights and duties depending not on abstract notions of human rights, but on tradition and practice.
At times, How to be a Conservative reads like a retrospective debate between the author and his father. Jack Scruton, a schoolteacher, trade unionist and socialist, had a very different political outlook from that which his son developed, but shared with him a deep love of the English countryside, market towns, villages and rural churches. This somewhat William Morris-esque brand of socialism would make Jack a conservative in his hatred of what planners and developers were doing to the environment he loved. In this, so Scruton observes, he fulfilled Robert Conquest’s dictum that “everyone is right-wing in the matters he knows about”.
When the early 21st century looks more like the early 17th than the plateau of secular liberal democracy that optimists envisaged, Scruton’s type of conservatism – which follows that of Michael Oakeshott in seeing tradition and experience as the key to the survival of culture and society – seems apposite.
How to be a Conservative
By Roger Scruton
Bloomsbury, 208pp, £20.00 and £17.99
ISBN 9781472903761 and 3778 (e-book)
Published 11 September 2014