Roger Scruton (Image: Flickr/Policy Exchange)

So farewell then, Sir Roger Scruton, conservative philosopher, polemicist, old young fogey and fox-hunting man, who has died of cancer at the age of 75. 

This morning BBC radio’s Today program bizarrely asked if Scruton would have been more famous had he been left-wing. It is hard to see how he could have been. For 35 years he was omnipresent in the Brit media sphere, as the representative of a revival of actual conservatism, not political liberal conservatism going by that name. 

Scruton first came to prominence in the Thatcher years, when the Iron Lady favoured him with patronage and name-checked his journal The Salisbury Review, named after Lord Salisbury, Tory PM at the end of the 19th century and the last leader who didn’t see — or was not obliged to present — government as the enactment of ceaseless reform.

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Scruton claimed to be presenting a genuine conservatism, regrounding the desire for traditional lifeways, place and community amid the clamour for state transformation from the left, and ceaseless market revolution from the right.

The Salisbury Review began to broach questions from the right that had been buried in Cold War politics, such as the viability of multiculturalism, the limits of gender-role reconstruction, and the failure of modernism as an aesthetic strategy, especially in architecture. 

He gained a final burst of fame when he was hired to advise on a public architecture commission, designed to somehow limit the ghastliness of suburban sprawl, and then had to quit as some opinions on sex, gender, and globalisation came to light.

But the controversy hadn’t come simply from Scuton’s opinions — as the right would have it — or from the rather shabby stitch-up by the New Statesman from which some of them emerged. It was from Scruton’s fatal and contradictory addiction to provocation, claiming the status of a public philosopher, yet sounding like the letters page of The Australian. 

He presented himself as a champion of the English tradition of conservatism — which, in the work of people such as Burke, Bagehot, Balfour and Oakeshott advances as virtuous a defence of the traditional against the programmatic and sweeping, a suspicion of political passions, and a residual scepticism towards even one’s own ideas.

Yet from the moment he acquired some public profile, Scruton behaved in the very opposite manner. He left academe in the 1980s (he claimed that editing the Salisbury Review had had him ostracised, though British academia did not lack for pockets of deep blue) and, despite some good early work on aesthetics, he never genuinely extended conservatism as a political philosophy, though he usefully refined its core ideas in a series of mid-market books and endless articles on which he supported himself.

In the process he willingly became the sort of public intellectual he and other conservatives purported to identify as the ruin of our era — angry, polemical, rude, unfair, baiting in the classic mitteleuropean style, in which politics becomes a pseudo-religion and a source of meaning.

His work alternated between serious contributions such as A Political Philosophy — a somewhat pluralist account of the multiple sources of moral legitimacy in politics — to travesties such as Fools, Frauds and Firebrands — an attack on “new left” thinkers, in which his real rage was directed at those, like the German social theorist Jurgen Habermas, capable of the patient system building that was beyond him, resentment gussied up as truth-telling about moral compromise.

The reputation for assailing the said moral compromise of the Marxist left (Scruton had been arrested in Czechoslovakia while teaching there, for assisting dissidents) was greatly tarnished in 1999, when it was revealed that he had been taking money from big tobacco for years, and consulting with them on placement of articles — especially as concerned switching the health conversation from the dangers of smoking to that of fast foods and obesity.

Having berated the left for decades on the political corruption of intellectual life by political Marxism, he was exposed as corrupt, dishonest, and compromised — indeed, as the sort of person who, had they found themselves on the other side of the Iron Curtain, would have become an authorised intellectual apparatchik without much compunction. 

The scandal lost him a lucrative Financial Times column, his honorary role at Birkbeck and for years he had to confine himself to columns on wine and food. But gradually the broadsheet right managed to scrub it from his record, and he re-entered intellectual life as if it had never happened.

Whatever his substantial work, though too much of it alternates between repackaging and rather high-falutin obviousness, Scruton was an absurdity.

He posed as an English laird — he was a working-class Oxbridge scholarship boy with a resentful teacher-father — who described himself as “ill at ease” for much of his life, a disposition assuaged by the old trick of turning it into general philosophy.

He threw out one provocation after another — announcing that his son would be brought up in a deliberately cold and distant manner – because, in his guise as quiet conservative, he needed the media attention of the metropolis.

He was, inevitably, a sucker for the intellectual respectability of alt-right reaction — his most recent sacking was partly for mutterings about George Soros conspiracies — that English conservatism is meant to protect one against.

Scruton lacked the intellectual courage and originality of a fellow rightist like John Gray, to jump out of his tradition and scrutinise it, so he could never bring himself to launch a genuine critique of neoliberal capitalism.

Reading Green Philosophy, his book attempting to ground a green conservatism, is like watching a man beat himself up, as he accepts that trashing the planet undermines life, but asserts that the greenies who were saying that for decades amount to enemies of civilisation.

Ultimately, one suspects, he was never reconciled to lacking the originality of mind that would have made him a genuinely original philosopher. You can tell much about who he was from the frauds and mountebanks who will be praising him on the British and Australian right.

When he got some money, he joined a hunt and purchased Enoch Powell’s hunting pinks for the purpose (in the 2000s he flew back weekly from Boston to hunt, globally commuting to organic existence in the English countryside).

He was a character from a Tom Sharpe novel aspiring to be a character from an Evelyn Waugh novel and, despite all his successes, for anyone seeking to have an honest relation to their own political-intellectual heritage, a cautionary tale.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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