Roger Scruton: A Knighthood For Conservatism
Roger Scruton almost singlehandedly helped Conservatism gain legitimacy as mainstream philosophy
Much of his philosophical ideas can serve to defend any form of traditional Conservatism
“Nothing upset me more than the award of Companion of Honour to Eric Hobsbawm in reward for a lifetime of unswerving loyalty to the Soviet Union” rued Roger Scruton, about the time in England “when honours and praise go only to people on the Left.” 20 years later, Scruton has been knighted on the Queen’s 90th birthday “for (his) significant impact on thinking about national identity, freedom and Western values.”
It is quite easy to understate this achievement if one is not aware of the position of conservative thought in post-world war Western philosophy. The emergence of Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger as the guiding lights of philosophy to the exclusion of the Enlightenment era philosophers, relegated any thought of religion or custom to the intellectual dustbin.
This trend fortified with the rise of the “soixante-huitard philosopher”, whose ideas could have no practical effect except dehumanisation of the individual. All that the conservative could do, even when his ideology gained influence, such as during Margaret Thatcher’s rise, was to mock philosophy as a wasteful discipline or attack the major philosophers of the day for their personal follies. (See, for example Paul Jhonson’s Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky).
Through his work, Scruton almost singlehandedly helped Conservatism gain legitimacy as mainstream philosophy. He was not inventing a new philosophy but was only drawing heavily from earlier thinkers like Burke, Kant and Hegel- who were all but forgotten in Europe’s left-dominated academia. Anyone who reads Scruton would instantly realise this.
Scruton’s ideas are an intellectual solace to millions of individuals around the world, who have been struggling to reconcile their instinctive love for things inherited in society with the philosophical consensus against everything that came to exist through millennia of human interaction. His defence of concepts, that were hitherto close to cuss words in Western philosophy like nationalism, family, beauty, tradition, inequality, etc. is so appealing that one wonders why it took so long for anyone to articulate the obvious.
The manner in which philosophy was taught and studied in Europe was such. The Left still had such a stranglehold over the academia that Scruton’s success is almost a miracle achieved, against tremendous odds. What he had to face, in his own words, is “a relentless campaign of intimidation (by which) left-wing thinkers…sought to make it unacceptable to be on the Right.” (pg273,Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left). The knighthood is, therefore, not just a recognition of Scruton’s intellectual capabilities but also his courage.
Every stage of Scruton’s career appears to have been a struggle. In an article, in The Spectator, he explains how difficult it was for him to run an expressly Conservative journal. He says the editorship “had cost me many thousand hours of unpaid labour, a hideous character assassination…three lawsuits, two interrogations, one expulsion, the loss of a university career in Britain, unendingly contemptuous reviews, Tory suspicion, and the hatred of decent liberals everywhere.”
His involvement in underground intellectual movements in Communist countries is, by far, the most remarkable symbol of his commitment to the Conservative cause. His narration of a visit to Prague in 1979, to give a talk to a group of dissident-intellectuals is scintillating:
I arrived at the house, after walking through those silent and deserted streets, in which the few who stood seemed occupied on some dark official business and in which party slogans and symbols disfigured every building. The staircase of the apartment building was also deserted. Everywhere the same expectant silence hung in the air, as when an air raid has been announced and the town hides from its imminent destruction. Outside the apartment, however, I encountered two policemen, who seized me as I rang the bell and demanded my papers. Dr. Tomin came out, and an altercation ensued, during which I was pushed down the stairs. But the argument continued and I was able to push my way up again, past the guard into the apartment. I found a room full of people and the same expectant silence. I realised that there was really going to be an air raid and that air raid was me.How to Be a Conservative
In that room was a battered remnant of Prague’s intellegestia- old professors in their shabby waistcoats, long-haired poets; fresh-faced students who had been denied admission to University for the parents’ ‘political crimes’; priests and religious in plain clothes; novelists and theologians; a would-be rabbi and even a psycho-analyst…They all belonged, I discovered to the same profession: that of stoker. Some stoked boilers in hospitals; others in apartment blocks; one stoked at a railway station, another in a school. Some stoked where there were no boilers to stoke, and these imaginary boilers came to be, for me, a fitting symbol of the communist economy.How to Be a Conservative
Many such “dissidents” who studied Scruton became influential figures in the first democratic governments that formed in Eastern Europe, after the fall of Communism. Scruton, therefore, is a public intellectual in the true sense of the term.
Honouring Scruton just days before the crucial Brexit vote is a noteworthy coincidence. Scruton has been providing immense intellectual support to the movement demanding Britain’s exit from the EU. In his memoirs “Gentle Regrets”, and elsewhere, Scruton idealises the nationalism of Charles De Gaulle, who blocked Britain’s entry into the EU twice before it finally joined in 1973. Far from being parochial, according to Scruton, it is this conservation of inherited values through a national identity that allows for their protection from unmanageable human tendencies.
While Scruton is categorical in identifying Christianity as one of these values in the British context, much of his philosophical ideas can serve to defend any form of traditional Conservatism, especially against continuing dominance of leftist-intellectualism.
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