William Shawcross is a former head of the Charity Commission and and official biographer of the Queen MOther.
When Sir Roger Scruton was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2016, the official announcement said he was “often described as Britain’s foremost philosopher”. He is that and much more.
His knighthood was for “services to philosophy, teaching and public education”. It could just as well have been for his courageous work during the 1980s, when he travelled repeatedly – and at considerable risk – to communist Central Europe, forging links with dissident academics and students in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere.
For those activities, he was in June 1985 detained, expelled from Czechoslovakia, and placed on the communist government’s “Index of Undesirable Persons” – a badge of honour that saw him feted by Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic after the fall of Communism.
Yesterday a little-known blog and a few tweeters – including, alas, a couple of Labour MPs who should have known better – tried to place him on their own “index of undesirable persons”. Their reasons for doing so were feeble and their evidence scant. But it seems to be mainly because of a speech that he gave in Hungary in 2016, the same year as his knighthood.
The key passage – which is being selectively quoted – is as follows:
“Many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish, and form part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire. People in these networks include many who are rightly suspicious of nationalism, regard nationalism as the major cause of the tragedy of Central Europe in the 20th Century, and do not distinguish nationalism from the kind of national loyalty that I have defended in this talk. Moreover, as the world knows, indigenous anti-Semitism still plays a part in Hungarian society and politics, and presents an obstacle to the emergence of a shared national loyalty among ethnic Hungarians and Jews.”
For this, he is accused of being someone who “peddles anti-Semitic conspiracy theories”. His accusers demand that the Prime Minister and James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government who on Saturday appointed him to lead the new Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, drop him. That would be grossly wrong.
The hunt is now on, it seems, to find incriminating remarks in his life’s work. He is the author of more than 50 books on philosophy, politics, the arts and more. He has written thousands of essays and articles and given countless interviews (including those in which he has recanted previously asserted beliefs). For example, one article published yesterday afternoon accused him of “controversial comments” about Islamophobia and homosexuality. These former comments are worth quoting:
“Muslims in our society are often victims of prejudice, abuse, and assault, and this is a distressing situation that the law strives to remedy. But when people invent a phobia to explain all criticism of Islam, it is not that kind of abuse that they have in mind. They wish to hide the truth, to shout ‘lies!’ in the face of criticism, and to silence any attempt at discussion. In my view, however, it is time to bring the truth into the open.”
Some may disagree with these views, but must Sir Roger be silenced for holding them? He seems to be alert to the problem of anti-Muslim hatred, but sceptical about the definition of Islamophobia. That may irritate some, but if philosophers cannot think, write and speak freely, what is the point of them?
Similarly, on homophobia, it is clear that he has revised his views. As he told The Guardian in 2010, referring to an earlier essay about homophobia, “I wouldn’t stand by what I said then.” People’s views – especially if they are philosophers, one hopes – change over time and this is perfectly normal. It is also worth noting that his appointment by the Government relates to the design and style of buildings, a fact which risks getting lost in a blizzard of confected outrage.
Three things are worth adding on the subject of antisemitism – and quickly, because as the saying goes, “falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it”.
First, I have known Sir Roger for many years and do not believe for a moment that he has an antisemitic bone in his body. Indeed, as the final sentence of the above quotation demonstrates, he is acutely aware of the problem of antisemitism in Hungary. Moreover, as his autobiography movingly explains, he is of German-Jewish ancestry himself.
Secondly, Sir Roger is not guilty by association simply for having travelled to Hungary and for knowing Viktor Orban. The facts are that he helped Orban and others set up an independent law school, the Jogusz-Szakkollegium, in the days of communism. He lectured in the school, as part of his mission to encourage young people to work for the liberation of their countries. The school played a significant role in the collapse of the regime.
Another overlooked fact: Sir Roger also personally lobbied Orban’s government not to close down the Central European University in Budapest, founded by Soros. He is not uncritical of Orban and, like many people in the UK, approves of some his policies and disapproves of others.
The third and final point. Antisemitism is a serious problem in countries like Hungary – but also in supposedly more enlightened places like our own, particularly these days on the left of politics. It is a virus that mutates from generation to generation, and must be dealt with vigorously wherever it emerges. No one should accuse anyone else of antisemitism frivolously or for mere political gain. It is a very serious charge and in this case it is entirely without merit.