A popular image of a philosopher is a solitary man in an ivory tower hunched up in the pose of Rodin’s thinker. Were it true, Roger Scruton would not have been a philosopher – titan polymath that he was: academic, barrister, rider to hounds, farmer, novelist, composer of operas, pianist, wine critic, and much else…including, of course, philosopher. And journalist.
For Scruton had an activist temperament, of which we offer two examples, drawn from our own experience. The first involves this site. In 2013, he set up a new section within it called “Thinker’s Corner“. The aim was to provide a platform for Tory intellectuals and an opportunity for new writers. It failed comprehensively. This was as much the fault of the Editor as that of Scruton, if not much more so.
The second was a reworking of an older idea. Scruton was one of the original founders of the Conservative Philosophy Group, one of the symptoms of the Thatcher revival of the 1970s and 1980s. He revived it more recently. If his aim was to recreate that ethos, he did not succeed. It was not well attended by Tory MPs. One might conclude that Scruton was ineffective as an actor rather than a thinker. This would be mistaken.
For his energy got results in what was Czechoslovakia, where he set up an underground university to offer education for those expelled from the state system – and more broadly to teach them in the western academic tradition. Thirty years on from the Velvet Revolution, he was awarded the country’s highest civilian honour. This work was heroic.
ConservativeHome wrote that Scruton deserved a peerage (though we also said later that “doubtless he would not accept one unless it were hereditary”). We were delighted when he was knighted, describing the honour as “a knighthood for the movement”. This was an attempt to capture his sense of commitment. Which brings us to the Conservative Party and Scruton himself.
He never quite gave up on it – treating it with the derisive affection that one reserves for some impossibly errant relative. Like this site, he was supportive of it while always remaining independent, recognising that, for all its many faults, it remains the only practicable vehicle for the realisation of conservative ideas. His interest was not reciprocated.
This leads us to ask why it has engaged so little, over so many years, with the small but lively domestic network of Conservative intellectuals. Margaret Thatcher was the exception that proves the rule. It is impossible to imagine John Major turning up to one of the meetings of the original Conservative Philosophy Group. We can only think of one Tory leader who would have done so with enthusiasm: Iain Duncan Smith.
One answer is that the Conservatives remain, over 40 years on from the Thatcher experiment, “the Stupid Party” at heart – suspicious of ideas and those familiar with them. (Even when those concerned are reacting against bad ones, which was part of what Scruton did.) Those intellectuals with whom it comes to terms are invariably practising politicians, such as David Willetts, Oliver Letwin, Jesse Norman, Chris Skidmore and Danny Kruger.
Another is that to the Cameron leadership – the most successful electorally since Thatcher’s, at least until Boris Johnson came along – Scruton was an embarrassment, with his commitment to fox hunting, opposition to multiculturalism as Editor of the Salisbury Review, hostility to same-sex marriage (later rescinded) and general dispostion to take ideas seriously.
That knighthood took a very long time to come. At least two Cabinet Ministers claim credit for it, and it may be worth adding that Michael Gove has said that Green Philosophy, Scruton’s magnificently balanced book about ecology and the environment, helped to inspire his work at Defra. He is a bit of an exception to the rule that we are writing about.
At any rate, Scruton had come in from the cold by the time of his knighthood – having been appointed to an advisory post on housing. The Cameron Government had eventually recognised his value. Our readers will be familiar with what happened next. Scruton was fired as Chairman of the Government’s “Building Better, Building Beautiful” Commission after a New Statesman interview before eventually being reinstated.
We thought that he had shown a lack of comradely discipline by giving the interview at all (though noting from the start that his words had been twisted). The Commission has published an interim report. Its final one will be part of Scruton’s legacy. The purpose of the report is “to tackle the challenge of poor-quality design and build of homes and places, across the country and help ensure as we build for the future, we do so with popular consent”.
ConservativeHome looks forward to the publication of the final version. And to the Johnson leadership engaging more actively with Tory intellectuals than its predecessors have done. Whether it will do so or not is open to question. Johnson has an interest in ideas – consider The Dream of Rome – but dislikes being bound by them: he sees politics as a practical business. Dominic Cummings has ideas of his own.
We close by looking back on that list of names we suggested for peerages in 2015: Eamonn Butler, Paul Johnson, Ruth Lea and Charles Moore, as well as Scruton himself. Others whose talents might be utilised by this new Government include: Noel Malcolm, Sheila Lawlor, Michael Clarke, Philippa Stroud, Niall Ferguson, Patrick Minford, Andrew Roberts, David Goodhart, Richard Ekins.
There is also a fledgling network of Conservative academics – the furthering of which has been slowed by the recent chaos at the top of the Party. Scruton would have approved. He would also have known that it wasn’t the Tory Party alone that under-recognised what he had to offer. It is safe to say that his views been less blue, and less colourfully expressed, his academic career would have been more successful.
Then again, there was a part of Scruton that seemed to relish confrontation. His fighting spirit was very like his father’s – a lifelong socialist of a very English kind still remembered, in High Wycombe where Scruton himself was raised, for helping to save the Rye, a park near the centre of the town, from development during the 1960s. Jack Scruton was agent for a petition of protest presented to a joint committee of the Commons and Lords.
Roger Scruton himself, though a practising Anglican, may not have been a Christian – not throughout his adult life as a Conservative, at any rate. But he would ruefully have recognised the force of the verse: “a prophet is not without honour, but in his own country