Roger Scruton

This essay, on the Roger Scruton and his social philosophy, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the conundrums of being a Liverpool supporter this season.) It was published on 19 January 2020, under the headline ‘The uncomfortable truths about Roger Scruton’s conservatism’.

I first met Roger Scruton almost 20 years ago at a symposium in Sweden. I admired the eloquence with which he could talk about Kant and the elegance of his writing on beauty. I learned from his conservatism, even as I disagreed with what he said. But although I got to know him quite well over the years, our relationship was always fraught. For there was another Roger Scruton, not the philosopher but the polemicist. For all his warmth and generosity, and for all the poise of his writing, his views were often ugly. ‘Whatever its defects’, Scruton wrote in his memoir Gentle Regrets, ‘my life has enabled me to find comfort in uncomfortable truths.’ His death last week seems an appropriate moment to reflect on the ‘uncomfortable truths’ of Scruton’s conservatism, and on the relationship between the philosopher and the polemicist.

It was Scruton the polemicist who became the founding editor of the Salisbury Review, established in 1982 to defend a traditional conservatism that many felt was being eroded by the Thatcherite revolution.

Today, the Review is remembered largely for the Ray Honeyford affair, in which the Bradford headmaster was forced to resign after a furore over a1984 article critical of multiculturalism. Honeyford’s polemic was, however, bland by the standards of the Review in the 80s.

The first issue published a talk by John Casey on the politics of race. The presence of ‘West Indian communities’, he claimed, ‘offends… a sense of what English life should be like’ and ‘a sense of what is civilised behaviour’. Only the ‘repatriation of a proportion of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population’ could forestall ‘the possible destruction of civilised life in the centres of the big cities’.

If race was one obsession, sex was another, especially gay sex. ‘A concern with social order’, Scruton wrote in an editorial, ‘prompts us to view… homosexuality as intrinsically threatening.’

In the 1980s, the Salisbury Review, and Scruton himself, was seen as occupying the fringes of politics. In many of the past week’s eulogies, he was presented as a figure ostracised by political correctness but ultimately proved right. In fact, many old Salisbury Review authors, including Casey, have long since disavowed their views. Scruton said in 2010 that homosexuality was a ‘complicated’ issue, but he no longer believed it to be ‘repellent’.

The reactionary views about immigrants and gays do not however merely reflect the attitudes of a less enlightened time. They expose also the character of the conservatism that Scruton espoused, which drew deeply upon Edmund Burke’s vision of society and human nature. Both men viewed society as a kind of ‘trust, with the living members as trustees of an inheritance that they must strive to enhance and pass on’.

For both, ‘prejudice’ was the key social cement. ‘Our most necessary beliefs may be both unjustified and unjustifiable’, Scruton insisted, ‘and the attempt to justify them will merely lead to their loss.’ The ideal society was built not on values such as liberty or equality but on obedience, ‘the prime virtue of political beings, the disposition that makes it possible to govern them. In the good society one accepted one’s station in life.’

It was, for Scruton, impossible to conceive of society without prejudices and exclusions, discrimination and inequality. That’s why his views, despite mellowing over the years, never substantially altered. Scruton the philosopher required Scruton the polemicist. Immigration, he claimed in a 2006 defence in the New Criterion of Enoch Powell’s ‘River’s of Blood’ speech, had led to ‘the people of Europe… losing their homelands’. He echoed Casey’s argument about the inherent unsuitability of non-white immigrants, applying it this time not to blacks but to ‘pious Muslims from the hinterlands of Asia’ who would never ‘produce children loyal to a secular European state’. The following year, he wrote that although homosexuality ‘has been normalised, it is not normal’.

Scruton’s ideas about society and nationhood possess, nevertheless, considerable appeal. In an age in which societies have become more fractured, and notions of belonging more fraught, many are drawn to Burkean ideas of social being. In trying to find an answer to the corrosive effects of liberal individualism, many have jettisoned a broader sense of liberalism. David Goodhart, for instance, insisted, in the wake of the Windrush scandal, on the necessity of the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy. Academic Eric Kaufmann has suggested it is legitimate to restrict non-white immigration ’so as not to disrupt radically the sense of ethnicity and nationhood of large numbers of people’.

Does all this mean that we can only embrace the need for society if we also accept illiberal policies? That we have to choose between a liberal individualism that corrodes social life and a notion of a society that is intolerant and exclusionary? Burke developed his ideas in response not to liberal individualism but to a different kind of threat: the actions of what he called the ‘swinish multitude’, ordinary people acting collectively to transform the conditions of their lives. From struggles for suffrage to battles for decent working conditions, the swinish multitude challenged the traditional social order and through organisations such as trade unions nurtured new ideas of solidarity, community and belonging that confronted both the individualism of liberalism and the conservative demand for inequality and obedience.

But as such organisations have crumbled in recent years, so have radical ideas of what society could be. For many, the only way to think of the ‘social’ today is through Burkean notions of exclusion and prejudice. But this is to abandon any notion of a society that can enhance the lives of those with least power – the working class, migrants, minorities, the swinish multitude.

I am glad to have known Roger Scruton, grateful for our conversations, fractious though they often were, and saddened by his death. What I learned from him, however, only strengthened my conviction that I am not, and could never be, a conservative.


  1. damon

    On the face of it, I have to agree with most of what’s written here. It does look like Scruton had some very crass ideas about race and immigration. I find it hard to believe that he wrote that paragraph about Muslims with “four wives and twenty children” that Jonathan Portes highlighted. Was that taken out of context in the way Boris Johnson’s “piccaninnies” comments always are? Probably not.
    So I can’t defend Scruton from criticism there. And Ray Honeyford’s Salisbury Review article, where he quoted part of a Linton Kwesi Johnson poem, also stands out as sounding really terrible (by today’s standards at least).

    But I have this image of Scruton and Ray Honeyford sitting down for an evening of conversation in 1984 and Honeyford explaining to Scruton the whole story of the Mirpuri immigrants in Bradford.
    Both men being English conservatives of an old fashioned kind, I think that their skepticism of the modern situation in Bradford would be understandable, if only from the point of view of that being how such conservative “gentlemen” are. Of course they wouldn’t “get it” and see the positives. Or see the potential for a new society.
    I imagine what their conversation would have gone like if they had been watching this documentary about Bradford in 1966.

    It mentions at one point, that at that time there were 12,000 Pakistani men in Bradford and 600 women. See from 11:00 particularly, where it describes the living situation of the men.
    It says they were living in a “barrack-like atmosphere, with card playing and pin-ups”.
    I’m also imagining Jonathan Portes joining them while they watch this and trying to think about how the three-way conversation would have gone. Portes is a champion of large scale immigration to Britain and talks about all the positives it brings. Just yesterday I saw this piece he did for a BBC website.

    “What would the UK be like without immigration?”

    I don’t particularly like what I’ve seen of Portes. He comes across as one of these overly partisan ideologues.
    Maybe an equal but opposite to Roger Scruton. Both of them being too extreme for my liking.
    I think the 1984 conversation between Scruton, Honeyford and Portes would have been fractious and bad tempered. Portes would have to be arguing that things in 1984 were “much better” than 1966. That “purdah” wasn’t being so strictly observed and that most of the Muslim population were integrating into the U.K. and that their children would do so much more. But I can still see why a couple of “reactionary conservatives” would have seen far more negatives than positives.

    It’s difficult to see though how there wasn’t “prejudice” from the white British towards these rather strange new arrivals. There would have been plenty of interaction between the communities, at work, and at first as neighbours and also people interacting with the Pakistani people because of their jobs. I remember my father (a builder) telling me about going to do a job in a Muslim home which had a purdah set-up going on.
    He said he walked into a bedroom which had some women “hiding” in it and they “screamed” when the white (Irish) builder man walked in on them. This was in London in the 1980s. He thought it was funny.
    The kind of story he would tell to his pals in the pub.
    There must have been so many interactions like that in Bradford. Gas and telephone men going to the Muslim houses in Bradford.
    And when there were grants given to fix up many of the old houses in poor condition, a lot of English builders will have had experience of being in those Mirpuri houses.
    There was certainly a cultural divide. It’s probably closed quite a bit over time, but isn’t really helped by traditions like cousin marriage, which means that there are always new people in the community who are starting out from scratch.
    But for sure, Roger Scruton was quite out of step with modern progressive thinking.
    It’s surprising that he got some praise from people that are supposed to be on the left.

  2. damon

    “What I learned from him, however, only strengthened my conviction that I am not, and could never be, a conservative.”

    Indeed. I can’t bring myself to be that conservative either. But what’s its opposite?
    Being a communist? Claire Fox mentioned that some of the scrutiny she came under when she was announced as a candidate for the EU elections, wasn’t very nice. There was some negative media coverage (noise) about things supposedly said, or views held in the past.
    Personally, I try to leave denunciations only for the very worst of people, and think that as long as you’re not harming anyone, then it doesn’t really matter if you’re reactionary or not. And I’m definitely against this modern practice of “quote mining” where everything a person might have once said is poured over, as a way of potentially attacking them. That doesn’t mean what they might have said wasn’t wrong though.

    Anyway, I’ve seen this photograph in recent days, of a wheelchair bound Roger Scruton, receiving some honour from Victor Orbán just last month. Orbán said Scruton had “foreseen the threats of illegal migration and defended Hungary from unjust criticism.”

    Which really isn’t a good look for Roger Scruton, seeing how Orbán is considered to be so right wing.
    However, travelling around Budapest for the last week, I can’t help constantly thinking about how ‘white Hungarian’ it is and has such low diversity. I was in a northern suburb today, and it was just the kind of place that if it was in Western Europe, could have been half ethnic minorities. It has acres and acres of 12 story Soviet era blocks of flats. And a main road lined with shops, quite similar to Tottenham or Camberwell.
    But it’s all totally Hungarian people …. with the occasional Vietnamese restaurant. Are they missing out on Tottenham and Camberwell’s diversity? Jonathan Portes would certainly think that they are, and that it could be so much better if it wasn’t so mono-cultural. But I can kind of understand why old reactionaries like Roger Scruton wouldn’t agree.

    One thing that slightly grates with me about the diverse society (and actually talked about in today’s Spiked magazine in the piece by Adrian Hart) are the constant accusations of racism being made.
    I see that Stormzy was out in the USA just now talking about England and saying how racism definitely was an issue ……. then he goes on to say that as a teenager (in my borough) he and his mates might order pizzas and then rob the pizza delivery rider when he showed up – including taking his moped.
    Which is pretty nasty. He says that robbing and stabbing was just the everyday stuff that happened. Then you’ll hear of people like him saying they feel hurt when a woman clutches their handbag if they walk near her.
    Or David Lammy telling us to stop being paranoid about black men in hoodies.

    If this isn’t going off topic too much, this is the kind of thing I’m talking about – and I’m sure Scruton would have had in mind too, if he knew much about the “mean streets of South London”.
    This is in West Croydon, off London road, which got trashed in the 2011 riots.
    The video was uploaded in May 2011, so a few months before.

    Several years ago, I had to walk past there at four in the morning sometimes, on the way down to an early starting driving job at the Beddington Lane industrial estate. No car, no buses, so I’d be on foot and I would actually be scared of bumping into guys like that at that time. It was dark and very quiet. And it was definitely “their territory” (or their “endz” like they say). No one was going to come and help you out. You’d be a sitting duck.
    My only hope was, that if I did walk past those type of guys, they would see me for what I was – some early morning worker going down to the industrial estate. Surely no one mugs a dustman. (I looked like a dustman in work clothes). Not worth bothering with I hoped.
    If Roger Scruton had been walking through there in his tweed jacket and old leather satchel though, he might have drawn more interest.

    When talking about race and immigration, I don’t think you can ignore these aspects of our “actually existing diversity”. Hungary doesn’t have it – and makes it clear it doesn’t want it. But they are wrong to think that that is only what diversity brings. It’s not as simple and straightforward as a lot of people like to make out.
    Though too often, people do try to simplify these issues. By blaming everything on racism for example.

    If you want to strongly criticise someone like Roger Scruton for the reactionary views he’s had, I think it’s only fair if you then explain what’s going on in situations like this – which isn’t a TV fantasy drama, but a real documentary about Birmingham in 2013.

    Scruton and Ray Honeyford thought that their kind of traditional English culture couldn’t stand up to such large scale immigration in places like Birmingham. And they were right, it couldn’t.
    A new culture (at least in the cities) took over. So they were right in a way, while still being wrong.
    But let’s not ignore what goes wrong in the new modern culture either – and get the proper reasons why.

  3. damon

    I’m still trying to figure out what’s worse. Scruton’s sometimes ridiculous kind of conservatism, or its opposite on the left.

    This was good in the New Statesman in 2012:
    “Is God an Englishman? Roger Scruton’s craving to belong”

    He does come over as pretty ridiculous. However, the question for me is, is he any worse than the left?
    I’ve been reading through Jonathan Portes’ twitter – and he is really “out there” too.

    Everyone freaks out about Scruton, but did it really matter what he said at the end of the day?
    Any more than what Laurence Fox has been saying recently? – and the left have been totally freaking out about him.
    Marina Hyde did one of her usually witty spoof pieces on him in the Guardian today.

    Why does the left become so agitated when someone like Fox gets a bit of airtime?
    Everyone on the left has been chiming in. He did admittedly make a goof on the thing he said about Sikh soldiers in the 1917 war film – that was bad. However he has actually apologised for that on his twitter today.
    He screwed up there. But how they left loved the fact that he did screw up in that instance.
    See Jameela Jamil’s tweet to him. It was pretty funny.

    There might have been something in what he said though about placing BAME actors in period films when they might have not been likely to be in such a scenario. I immediately thought of the 2017 Winston Churchill film where Churchill goes down onto the London Underground and asks the passengers on a train whether they should fight on. There’s what I presume is a West Indian black London resident in the scene.
    Or maybe he does deserve a place in such a scene because of all the Commonwealth soldiers who could have been in London at that time. Or early Caribbean immigrants.
    Here from 2:45 in this clip.

    I haven’t read a lot of Roger Scruton, but I get the idea that maybe he was pretty harmless and just had fanciful ideas. People who take a completely opposite view from him on practically everything are really just as bad I’d say. Or they’re worse, as they actually weald some power through the popular left/liberal culture.
    And many of them would change the country into something almost unrecognisable. Abolish the monarchy and increase the population of the U.K. by millions through open borders migration.
    Making more and more places in England like the big inner cities are now already.
    Which is still I think, not a majority view and opinion.

  4. damon

    Reading Ayesha Hazarika just now, gives me a slight feeling that some of Scruton’s misgivings about a new hugely diverse majority/minority ethnic society will have some long term disharmony built into it.

    “Laurence Fox on Question Time had a profound effect on me – had I really been playing the ‘race card’?
    Are we imagining racism? I genuinely felt like I was going mad”

    I’ve just watched a speech Scruton gave at the Oxford Union a couple of years ago and it’s true, I also think that a lot of his positions on conservatism are weak (although looking at the magnificence of Budapest does make me even doubt that a bit) – however as he says, people on the far left who wanted to completely change society to some new future kind of Socialist order had to explain what exactly they envisioned too.
    They used to argue that it wouldn’t be like the USSR or any “actually existing socialism” but something far better.
    Which really does need some explaining.
    We know that they were always against the “Imperialist West” in its conflicts around the world (including Northern Ireland where some had a “Victory to the Irish people” stance). And they wanted and still want open borders etc.
    So really, was the left better or worse than reactionary Scruton?

    Honestly, Hazarika shows that we are now a really divided and quite unhappy country politically and socially.

    She says: “Of course our feelings are not imagined: from the murder of Stephen Lawrence to the Windrush scandal to monkey chants at football matches to the only royal of colour being hounded out of the country.
    The thing that upset me most was the fear that Fox speaks for the majority of the country. A silent majority which hates us.”

    She’s still talking about Stephen Lawrence who was murdered in 1993.
    And no mention of all the black boys murdered since.
    And she has this public almost meltdown, because some “D list” white actor nobody ever heard of before got a slot on Question Time and said a few things that went against her intersectional politics.
    It’s like it’s ok to say daft things from the left, but anyone who pushes back against them causes hurt and outrage.
    In a sectarian manner. We’re divided like that I believe.

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