A towering intellect whose only crime was to be a conservative: As philosopher Sir Roger Scruton dies at 75, TOBY YOUNG pays tribute to the eminent intellectual
Roger Scruton, who died yesterday aged 75, always remained something of an outcast
He was a brilliant philosopher and one of the most eminent conservative intellectuals of his generation, who spent his life fighting for freedom, whether in academia or on behalf of those oppressed behind the Iron Curtain.
He loathed Communism and lived to see his criticism of it vindicated — first in Eastern Europe, then in Latin America.
He wrote more than 50 books on a vast range of subjects and was knighted in 2016 for ‘services to philosophy, teaching and public education’.
Yet Roger Scruton, who died yesterday aged 75, always remained something of an outcast, vilified by the liberal establishment for daring to challenge the fashionable nostrums of our age. Because he was an unapologetic conservative and defender of Western civilisation he was never given the respect he deserved.
Following his knighthood, that respect appeared finally to have been conferred upon him. And when, in 2018, he was appointed as chair of a government commission on building and architecture, it seemed certain.
But the announcement of his appointment was greeted by what he called a ‘hate storm’, with those appalled by it on the Left sifting through everything he’d said or written dating back 50 years to find opinions to be ‘shocked’ and ‘outraged’ by.
Sir Roger survived that ordeal, but he had to endure a second wave of attacks following an interview he gave to journalist George Eaton in the New Statesman magazine in April last year.
Sir Roger had been racist about the Chinese, suggested Eaton. He had apparently derided the influence of Jewish financier George Soros and dismissed Islamophobia as an invention to suppress criticism.
In 2018, he was appointed as chair of a government commission on building and architecture. Pictured: Scruton in December
The response was immediate and angry. Conservative MP Johnny Mercer declared that sacking Scruton was a ‘no brainer’. George Osborne, the former Conservative Chancellor, condemned Scruton’s ‘bigoted remarks’.
Soon Housing Secretary James Brokenshire who had appointed Sir Roger as an advisor, announced he had been fired. And Eaton responded by publishing a picture of himself on Instagram quaffing champagne, and crowing about getting Sir Roger, the ‘Right-wing racist and homophobe’, the sack.
Scruton published a rueful article in the Spectator magazine, lamenting the Maoist climate of intolerance sweeping through our institutions.
‘We in Britain are entering a dangerous social condition in which the direct expression of opinions that conflict — or merely seem to conflict — with a narrow set of orthodoxies is instantly punished by a band of self-appointed vigilantes,’ he wrote.
And then, of course, it transpired that Sir Roger had been grossly misrepresented by Eaton. The full transcript of Sir Roger’s interview with the New Statesman was published — thanks to the efforts of the Right-wing journalist and writer Douglas Murray — and it became clear his remarks had been taken out of context and bore no relation to Eaton’s interpretation.
Following his knighthood, respect appeared finally to have been conferred upon him. Pictured: Scruton with his wife Sophie and children Sam and Lucy when he was knighted in 2016
Eventually, he was reinstated to the commission — for which, incidentally, he was never paid — and received a public apology. But it was too little, too late. He had been hounded by the kind of intolerance he had spent a lifetime fighting.
In his 20s, Sir Roger was awarded a double first in philosophy at Cambridge, and attributed this achievement to the excellent teaching he’d received at the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe. But even as a boy he had to contend with Left-wing prejudice. His father, an austere socialist, would not let him read Beatrix Potter because she was too ‘bourgeois’.
When he won his scholarship to Cambridge, his father refused to speak to him, regarding it as a bastion of class privilege. But Scruton considered this estrangement a price worth paying to pursue a life of scholarship and contemplation.
It was during the May 1968 student protests in France that he first embraced conservatism.
He was in the Latin Quarter in Paris, watching students overturn cars, smash windows and tear up cobblestones, and for the first time in his life he ‘felt a surge of political anger’.
Scruton published a rueful article in the Spectator magazine, lamenting the Maoist climate of intolerance sweeping through our institutions. Pictured: Scruton in 2014
‘I suddenly realised I was on the other side. What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans.
‘When I asked my friends what they wanted, what were they trying to achieve, all I got back was this ludicrous Marxist gobbledegook. I was disgusted by it, and thought there must be a way back to the defence of western civilisation against these things.
‘That’s when I became a conservative. I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.’
It was brought home to him after the publication of his third book, The Meaning Of Conservatism (1980), that he would never be accepted by his academic colleagues, nearly all of whom were Left-wing.
Because of his right-of-centre political views, he never would climb to the top of the greasy pole at Oxford and Cambridge.
When he won his scholarship to Cambridge, his father refused to speak to him, regarding it as a bastion of class privilege. Pictured: Scruton in 1992
Instead, he started The Salisbury Review, a serious conservative magazine that quickly earned him pariah status — not just on the Left, which was to be expected, but among the wets of the Tory Party as well.
‘It cost me many thousand hours of unpaid labour, a hideous character assassination in Private Eye, 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,’ he wrote in the Spectator in 2002. ‘And it was worth it.’
In 1984 the Review published a controversial article by Ray Honeyford, a headmaster in Bradford, questioning the benefits of multicultural education. Honeyford was forced to retire because of the article and had to live for a time under police protection.
The British Association for the Advancement of Science accused the Review of scientific racism, and the University of Glasgow philosophy department boycotted a talk Scruton had been invited to deliver to its philosophy society (the university awarded an honorary degree to Robert Mugabe on the same day.)
Sir Roger could be insouciant about the ignominy his views attracted, but the truth is he was a sensitive man who was often wounded by criticism. He found the almost universal derision that greeted his book Thinkers Of The New Left (1985) particularly hard to bear.
A collection of essays that had first appeared in The Salisbury Review, it was a withering assessment of the leading intellectuals of the European Left whom he condemned for their dismissal of ‘bourgeois’ Western values and their endless excuse-making for totalitarian regimes, such as Mao’s China.
Sir Roger had the temerity to point out that the admirers of John-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher, included Pol Pot, the Communist leader responsible for the genocide that wiped out a third of Cambodia’s population between 1975 and 1979. Pot was a student in Paris at the height of Sartre’s cult-like status.
Not surprisingly, Thinkers Of The New Left was met with a fusillade of negative reviews and Longman, Scruton’s publisher, quickly caved in to demands from its Left-wing authors and took the book off sale.
Sir Roger could be insouciant about the ignominy his views attracted, but the truth is he was a sensitive man who was often wounded by criticism. Left: Sir Roger in 1989 and, right, in 2010
‘I was actually very depressed by it,’ the philosopher confided in 2015. ‘I was close to suicide at one stage, actually, my first marriage had ended, I was very much on my own and all these reviews just went on and on about what I had done being a disgrace to the intellectual world. I had expected some people to be cross. But not that.’
What made this contemptuous dismissal particularly hard to take was that Sir Roger knew first-hand just how destructive the ideas of Karl Marx and his followers could be. He helped the Czech dissident Julius Tomin create an underground university in the 1980s, smuggling in books, giving lectures in secret and even arranging for the Cambridge theology department to award external degrees to the mature students.
For his trouble, Scruton was detained by the Czech secret police, ejected from the country by armed guards and placed on the Index of Undesirable Persons.
In spite of the risks, he continued to do whatever he could to help the growing opposition movement behind the Iron Curtain, not just in Czechoslovakia but in Hungary and Poland, too.
Needless to say, his intellectual peers back in London dismissed these efforts as those of a foolish
romantic, standing in the way of progress. Even when Scruton might have expected to enjoy a moment of triumph, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he was shunned by his colleagues. He was teaching philosophy at Birkbeck College in London at the time and to mark the occasion the history department invited two Left-wing intellectuals to debate the momentous event.
‘It was going to be a debate between the old Left and the new Left,’ Scruton recalled 26 years later. ‘They were aware that I actually knew people who were then being appointed president and prime minister of various countries they were talking about, that I had been directly involved, but of course there was no suggestion that I be allowed to say a word.’
I only got to know Sir Roger four years ago, having hired him to write a column for a magazine I was editing. I was lucky to have visited him at his 250-year-old farmhouse in Wiltshire which he mischievously named ‘Scrutopia’ — a haven from the constant brickbats hurled at him by the cultural warriors of Islington.
Towards the end of his life, he could take comfort from a successful marriage to Sophie Jeffreys, a historian, as well as two children, both now young adults. It was his love of hunting, a passion he discovered in middle age, that led to him meeting his second wife.
He was out hunting in 1993, when he fell from his horse and Sophie, then 22, stopped to help him to his feet. Two years later they were married. Only a few weeks ago, he agreed to be on the advisory council of a new pro-free speech organisation I am about to launch and I was looking forward to marching into battle with him by my side. Sadly that will no longer be possible, and Britain is the poorer for it.
If Roger Scruton had embraced the pieties of the liberal elite, as most of his peers did, his extraordinary intellectual gifts would surely have earned him the very highest accolades the academic establishment can confer — a chair at Harvard, halls of residence named after him, admission to the Order of the Companions of Honour.
As it is, he was a prophet who was never properly acknowledged in his own country, even when, unlike his enraged critics, he proved to be on the right side of history. Let us hope posterity is kinder to him than his blinkered contemporaries.
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