It was the quote on which some of Roger Scruton’s defenders are silent that did it. Not his reference to a “Soros empire” in Hungary. Nor his views about the Chinese. For the record, here is what he seems to have said about the country’s Communist Party. “They are creating robots out of their own people by so constraining what can be done. [Our italics.] Each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.” By cutting the words in italics, the New Statesman, which interviewed Scruton, distorted his view. Their removal was apparently made “for reasons of space in print edition”. His words were further twisted in a tweet by the journalist who spoke to him.
It is doubtless a coincidence that this cut helped to achieve the article’s clear purpose: namely, to get Scruton fired as a Government adviser. That aim was furthered most not by his slighting dismissal of Islamophobia (a word of which Ministers themselves shy away from using), but by his description of Muslim migration into Hungary. “The Hungarians were extremely alarmed by the sudden invasion of huge tribes of Muslims from the Middle East,” he said. Invasion. Tribes. The imagery is of backwardness and conflict – indeed, of war. There is a smack of the Gates of Vienna. As we say, it is the section of the interview which some of Scruton’s champions have steered clear of.
At any rate, this piece of Gotcha journalism Gotch-Him. James Brokenshire has fired Scruton as Chairman of the Government’s “Building Better, Building Beautiful” Commission on housing. The journalist concerned reportedly posted a photo of himself toasting Scruton’s sacking. What is certain is that there is no record in the interview of him challenging remarks that he afterwards denounced as outrageous. (A transcript would clear up that point, not to mention others.) Those who agree with the Housing Secretary’s decision are likely to say that he was infuriated by Scruton’s last remark. Those who disagree with it are certain to cite a duty that Brokenshire may still face tomorrow – namely, responding to an attack dog Labour Commons debate on Islamophobia.
If you take a narrow, politically-focused view of all this, you will conclude that Scruton has been a bloody fool. He knows that taking up a Government role implies constraints, and a focus on the task in hand. He will also have known that the Left was on his case. Why risk an interview with one of its organs, even one to which he gave lively service as a wine columnist? When writing, Scruton addresses whatever is before him with care. When speaking, he likes to flourish the bat. It is one thing for a philosopher free from obligation to do so. It is another when he accepts the restraints implied by official appointment. It is not as though he hasn’t been attacked before – and defended by some, including ConservativeHome.
So much for a take from the Westminster Village. What about one that looks wider? It will be argued that free speech matters – sometimes by people whose support for it in principle is proportionate to their agreement with it in practice. (Not all our readers will be outraged by Ofcom’s current investigation of Jon Snow for having said, of a Brexit rally, that he had “never seen so many white people in one place”.) They are right none the less: it does matter. There is a campaign to shut down voices on the right. It brought down Toby Young. It had a go at Boris Johnson.
Its unspoken objective is not so much to limit what people say but what they think: we call it unthinking the thinkable, remembering the character in 1984 who exalts in the destruction of thought via the destruction of language: “in the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it”. We disagree with Scruton’s conflation of migration with conflict. But it is undeniable that there is a connection between Islam and Islamism: that last word, the product originally of the Islamist movement itself, illustrates the connection. And where Islamism leads, extremism follows – and, sometimes, violence.
Support for free speech, a determination not to see the hard Left write social norms, a reluctance not to let it claim another scalp, reverence for the quality of Scruton’s writing and his contribution to human freedom – all these point to denouncing Brokenshire’s decision. And such is our instinct. Then again, we are ConservativeHome – not the Conservative Party. And if Brexit is a cause of cultural strife within it, and among its supporters, so is Scruton’s interview, and for much the same reasons. Onward’s new publication Generation Why, and the polling that informs it, has been covered on this site this week. Its main point is irrefutable: that there is a culture gap between older and younger voters – the latter including those aged, yes, roughly 50 or younger.
There is need for care here. For example, the think tank’s polling found that “younger people seemed to be less supportive of the idea that abortion should be legal”, though it went on to exclude the finding from its measures because it doubted its accuracy. (See page 46 of the report.) But even if that decision is mistaken, the thrust of Onward’s case is sound. One the major trends of the post-war era has been towards personal freedom and away from traditional norms. Among younger people, support for free speech has endured, but backing for diversity has also grown. That includes ethnic diversity – and it is not only Muslim voters, most of whom are ethnic minority members, who are reluctant to back the Conservatives.
We are not claiming that, to Tory-resistant ethnic minority voters more broadly, Scruton’s remarks will be a tamer, modern echo of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood”. Most will never hear of them. But we suspect that those who do are likely to pick them up as Tory mood music – part of a wider pattern. Perhaps ConservativeHome, like the Telegraph stable or the Spectator, can get by without them. The Conservative Party can’t. It is thus pulled between the worldview of those whose votes it has and those whose votes it needs. The worst case scenario is that more of the former stump off to Nigel Farage and most of the latter never plump for whoever succeeds Theresa May.
That the Party has got itself into a tangle about anti-Muslim prejudice among some Tory activists doesn’t help. We believe that this is present, relatively rare, and not certainly comparable with Labour’s indulgence of anti-semitism – a trait that goes all the way to the top. CCHQ is being pushed late towards the independent inquiry that it would have done better to have commissioned early. Like Brexit, Scruton is more evidence, were it needed, of the tensions that tear at the Tory coalition. And the unmourned loser, amidst all this? The building of beautiful homes that people want to live in, rather than that of brutalist monstrosties in which they don’t.