The Right way: Roger Scruton’s guide to being a Conservative

Scruton’s conservatism is not about bashing immigrants or the welfare state – instead, as articulated in his latest book, it’s more about accumulated wisdom and voluntary association.

Margaret Thatcher celebrating her first general election victory in 1979. Scruton might admire her but is more at home with the One Nation Toryism of Disraeli. Central Press / Getty Images
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Roger Scruton is a philosopher and academic who has probably been more vilified than any other English conservative thinker over the past 40 years, with the possible exception of Peter Hitchens (brother of the late Christopher), a columnist with whom he shares an ardent Euroscepticism, an attachment to small “c” conservative values and a detachment from the British Conservative Party with whom one might have thought both would be associated.

Derided as a patron saint of lost causes, from fox-hunting to grammar schools, Scruton once told me that he believed one of the reasons he has been regarded as “an intellectual pariah” for much of his career (he has, all the same, held chairs at Birkbeck College, London, and Boston in the US, and is currently a visiting professor of philosophy at Oxford University) was because he had been wrongly named. His second name, Vernon, should have been his first, as his mother wished; but his father Jack, an angry man who later resented his son’s academic success and entrance into a society higher than his working-class origins, thought it was “sissy” and insisted he be called Roger instead. The two sides to him – artistic Vernon, who reflects the gentler Scruton less well-known to the public, and the rebarbative, more famous (or infamous) Roger – have warred ever since.

His surname he regards as being no more of a help. Derived from “Scrofa’s Tun”, a village which commemorates a Viking chieftain known for his dandruff, Scruton believes that “the scraping steel of this scalpel-like surname” has led even his “most forgiving works” to be greeted with “unrelenting ­hostility”.

It is worth noting how Scruton's work is received, because it is highly likely that his new book, How to Be a Conservative [;], will be roundly dismissed by many on the left who would not dream of reading it in the first place. That is a shame, for there is much in its elegant, witty and quietly but passionately argued chapters with which they might agree. Despite its title, it is no didactic step-by-step guide, more a series of reflections on what is worthwhile and admirable to pursue, and why he thinks the answers to those questions is what he calls conservatism.

He begins with a journey through his early life and his intellectual development. Initially his interest was chiefly in culture and philosophy, but it came to encompass politics after he left Cambridge and spent 1968, the year of revolution on the streets of Paris, teaching in France. This was a turning point. “I read the attacks on ‘bourgeois’ civilisation with a growing sense that if there is anything half-decent in the way of life so freely available in the world’s greatest city, the word ‘bourgeois’ is the proper name for it.” He had become a conservative, a lonely position in the world of academia, as he found when he started teaching at the University of London and discovered that his colleagues were “to a man” dead set against a philosophy they believed to be the enemy of intellectuals, social fairness and the struggle for peace.

But Scruton remained firm, convinced that Britain had become the “sick man of Europe” by the 1970s precisely because governments had followed ideologies misguidedly rooted in unachievable utopias – namely socialism and progressive liberalism – or lost their bearings altogether in the case of a Tory party that had accepted the “Butskellite consensus” of the 50s and 60s – rather than the conservatism that he sees as growing organically out of the national character and of its very soil. He gives as an example the National Economic Development Council, “set up under a lame Conservative government in 1962, in order to manage the country’s decline”. (That was not its stated purpose, of course, but is a good example of the amusing stings that regularly muster a smile.) “It epitomised the post-war British establishment, which addressed the nation’s problems by appointing committees of the people who had caused them.”

He welcomed Mrs Thatcher’s arrival in Downing Street in 1979, but is clear to distinguish his conservatism from the form that became known as “Thatcherism” – which he rightly acknowledges was less her work and more that of the free-market ideologues associated with the then prime minister, who he says was “motivated more by instinct than by a properly worked-out philosophy”. Those instincts, he thought, were on the whole right. They included the beliefs that the state was not the same thing as society, that the latter was more important than the former, and that it consisted of groups of people freely associating, drawing on the customs and achievements of the past and acting as good stewards for the generations to come.

Throughout the book, the nature of Scruton’s conservatism (which really should adopt the lower-case initial letter, as this is not a book about Conservative parties at all) is underlined by his frequent use of words such as “shared”, “accountable” and “attachment”. His is not a harsh creed of exclusion, of berating welfare-scroungers or immigrants. It owes far more to the considered, practical writings of Edmund Burke that emphasised, instead, inclusion. As Scruton notes: “Society, Burke believed, depends upon relations of affection and loyalty”, naturally forged by interactions in the family, local clubs, schools, the workplace, amateur sports teams and so on.

Similarly, he references the “One Nation” Toryism of Disraeli. “A believable conservatism has to suggest ways of spreading the benefit of social membership to those who have not succeeded in gaining it for themselves.”

At the same time it also states very clearly that that still means accepting responsibilities and differences, that wealth can only be shared once it has been created, and that tradition should not hastily be pushed aside in the thrust to be modern and “relevant”. For that represents an accretion of knowledge over the centuries; it is part of what those living hold in trust for those yet to be born. Indeed, without the powerful binding force of tradition, he writes, society would be in danger of disintegrating into what Burke called the “dust and powder of individuality”.

The middle part of the book is concerned with other philosophies, with chapters titled “The Truth in Nationalism”, “The Truth in Environmentalism” and so on (he also includes socialism, capitalism, liberalism, multiculturalism and internationalism). Anyone suspicious that Scruton aims to appear generous to other beliefs, while all along fully intending to give them a good bashing, would be at least half right. He is relatively kind to some, writing that “it is largely thanks to liberalism” that “the arduous task of compromise” has been retained by the world’s democracies. In others, the “truth” that he finds is not one that would be recognised by proponents of the philosophy in question.

For instance, the truth in multiculturalism, he maintains, is that under the “civic culture of the post-­Enlightenment West, social membership has been freed from religious affiliation, from racial, ethnic and kinship ties … It is why it is so easy to emigrate to western states – nothing more is required of the immigrant than the adoption of the civic culture, and the assumption of the duties implied in it.” Scruton cannot fail to know that the reason there has been such debate about multiculturalism is that it has been viewed as doing exactly the opposite – attempting to privilege what divides people, particularly in terms of race and religion, rather than celebrating what they have in common.

Ultimately, what he thinks all other systems get wrong, and conservatism does not, is that they attempt top-down solutions, starting as they do with an idea and then attempting to shoehorn societies into them. For Scruton, the optimum legal and economic orders, and the traditionalist view of those orders, “arise spontaneously”, through the “invisible hand” of people choosing freely with whom they associate, what they value and how much of their liberties they wish to surrender to the state in order that the “we” commonly used to refer to that community we feel we belong to may thrive.

His, he admits, is a conservatism of the “anglosphere”. There is no discussion of conservative thinking in the rest of the world. Perhaps there was no room in a book of this length (just under 200 pages), but neither does he make any mention of the “Cameroon” Tory party in the UK; and a discussion of the American varieties, from the Neo- to the Paleo-Cons, would have been fascinating.

His is a defence of a conservatism that is less noisy, and sometimes hard to articulate in the face of aggressive attack, precisely because it is not about ideology. “It is there because it is there,” he writes at one point, in that case about the Anglican Church, but it comes close to a partial summing up of his case. Why disrupt what has served so well for so long? If you can see the beauty in a church spire, or marvel at the enormity and emptiness of the desert, and not be troubled by the fact that the former has lost its utility – few attend services anymore – and that the latter is barren and bears little fruit: then, according to Roger Scruton, you are already on the path to becoming a conservative.

Sholto Byrnes is a Doha-based commentator and consultant.