Famous last words: the TwitterMob campaign to oust Roger Scruton from his government-appointed post appears to be running out of steam. Why? Perhaps because the original charge against him of anti-semitism, based on isolating seven words from a paragraph of almost a hundred, is demonstrably false. As William Shawcross proved on this site earlier this week, Scruton was lamenting that “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.”
Since this is so, those concerned have scrabbled around in the mud, desparately searching for something that, when hurled at Scruton, will stick – eugenics, sexism, Islamophobia etc. But, so far, the calls for him to be removed have by and large been confined to Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs. Downing Street is nervous these days, but not so much so to ask, when Andrew Gwynne asks it to jump, to reply: “how high?
But there may be a deeper reason why Scruton is still in place, and the bandwagon of those opposition MPs has become bogged down. Perhaps feminists and Muslims and others have read his work in greater numbers than some on the Right might assume. If so, they will have noticed that the philosopher is more than capable of taking right-wing thought full circle to meet them. Feminists hate the degradation of women for feminist reasons. Scruton hates it for conservative ones.
Many Muslims believe that liberty in the western world has degenerated into licence. There is no more eloquent champion of liberal democracy than Scruton. But he none the less sees eye-to-eye with them on the place of faith, the role of piety and the primacy of the family. In The West and the Rest, he displays a deep unease about the displacement of traditional Islamic society, in the Muslim-majority world, by western consumer culture.
This may explain why those claiming to speak for Muslims – and Muslim institutions more widely – have been relatively quiet about the Scruton controversy. At any rate, there have been plenty of voices from the Left speaking up for him: Jason Cowley, Peter Broadbent, Giles Fraser, Jacob Reynolds. As a voice on the Right, the only disappointment that we can express about Scruton is that he was made only a knight, not a hereditary peer.
A final point. That government-appointed post is Chairman of its Building Better, Building Beautiful commission. It is no coincidence that the campaign to oust Scruton didn’t exist, first, until this appointment and, second, since it became evident that the Government is taking the idea of beauty in design seriously. The interest comes from the top. Theresa May has been known to brandish Policy Exchange’s document Building More, Building Beautiful – spot the overlap – at meetings on housing and design. Scruton was one of the authors. James Brokenshire has taken up the cause, and he is very much May’s appointment.
Potentially at least, there is a lot at stake here. The campaigning for and against beauty in design has wider implications. Buildings help to shape our view not just of them, but of the world – and of ourselves. Poundbury, to pick a well-worn example of revived traditional architecture, preaches a kind of sermon in stone (and, as its champions would remind us, slate and render) about our relationship with the past, the nature of beauty, and what makes for happy communities. No wonder Scruton’s appointment is seen as a threat by those who have a jaundiced take on the past, or believe that beauty can’t be spoken of meaningfully at all.