Roger Scruton: a profound but controversial thinker who conceded nothing to intellectual fashion

The philosopher experimented with some contemptible views. But his work is serious and worth disagreeing with

January 14, 2020
Photo: Pete Helme
Photo: Pete Helme

Roger Scruton’s disdain for popular culture, love of hunting with hounds, high Anglican faith and traditional conservatism made him ripe for caricature by anyone left of Ken Clarke. Those who are only familiar with this cartoon conservative are unlikely to mourn his death on Sunday.

But those who looked behind the superficial public image found a serious thinker worth disagreeing with. No one made the case for conservatism more eloquently or persuasively because, not in spite, of the fact that he conceded nothing to intellectual fashion.

Although best known as the leading contemporary philosophical defender of conservatism, academically Scruton is most respected for his work on aesthetics. These two wings of his oeuvre are, however, deeply connected. “There is a unifying intellectual endeavour,” he told me when I interviewed him in 2009. That is “to bring philosophy and culture back together.” Philosophy was not for him “the handmaiden of the sciences” as it had generally become in Anglophone philosophy but “a meditation on the human condition which borders on literature, art, music and the rest.”

Curiously, this made his style of philosophy in some ways closer to that of continental Europe than of his native Britain, even though he had no time for the “worst kind of phenomenology and Heideggerian nonsense and all that.”

Another irony is that Scruton’s conservatism, which placed so much value on what previous generations bequeathed to us, was acquired rather than inherited. “I came from a background where culture wasnt very significant,” he told me. “There werent many books around, we never went to the theatre or anything like that.” On top of that, his father, Jack, despised the upper classes and stopped speaking to his son when he told him he was going to Cambridge.

The grammar school educated Roger became a part of the rural, land-owning middle classes, even meeting his second wife Sophie on horseback at a hunt. However, in yet another paradox, becoming an establishment insider made him an outsider in liberal, left-leaning British philosophy. Marginalised in academia, he built his reputation on journalism and popular books, not journal articles and academic monographs.

In his work on conservatism he repeatedly stressed that it was in essence an attitude. “Articulating it is first of all a matter of describing what it is and bringing out that in it which is loveable, acceptable, or in any case jeopardised by unthinking reform,” he said. This is rooted in “oikophilia,” love of place. “One must begin from an understanding of the virtues and the defects of the thing that one has.”

Socialism and liberalism, in contrast, are directed at realising a vision of the good society established by reason alone, independently of the contingencies of place and history. It has a universal aspiration that creates “oikophobia”: a distrust of particular, local, binds—especially national ones.

Scruton’s brand of non-ideological, Burkean conservatism stands in contrast to the laissez-faire free market dogma that has dominated the parliamentary Conservative Party since Margaret Thatcher. In our fractious times, it seems ripe for a comeback. “One of the great things about the conservative position,” he said, “is that it has always recognised that political solutions are compromises, in which as many of the contending interests as possible are reconciled with each other. It’s not to do with the righteous overbearing the unrighteous.”

However, from such remarks you would never guess how often Scruton goaded and offended. His disdain for popular culture landed him in trouble in 1999 when he wrote of the Pet Shop Boys that “serious doubts arise as to whether the performers made more than a minimal contribution to the recording, which owes its trade mark to subsequent sound engineering, designed precisely to make it unrepeatable.” The band sued successfully and settled for undisclosed damages.

Scruton always insisted he was never blindly dismissive of popular music. “I’m not as prejudiced as I seem,” he told me. “I would like to be more prejudiced because it would prevent me from listening to this stuff.” At the time that stuff included “quite a bit of heavy metal” which led him to conclude that Metallica were “genuinely talented.” He also confessed to finding Elvis “irresistible” even though “it is all below the belt with Elvis.”

More difficult to accept are several of his remarks about homosexuality. The most extreme of these was an argument that it was justified to “instill in our children feelings of revulsion” towards homosexuality, not because homosexuality was wrong but because society depends upon procreation and homosexuals are unable to have children themselves. He later said he had simply “experimented” with that view and that he no longer agreed with it.

Understand Scruton’s willingness to experiment in public with a view that was bound not only to cause offence but to give ammunition to homophobes and you understand why he was so controversial. Scruton defended the view that intellectual life required all views to be entertained and examined. Ironically for a conservative, he failed to see that this often worked better in principle than in practice. Writing in the pages of newspapers like the Telegraph and Mail is not the same as having a candid, hypothetical discussion in the senior common room. Scruton preferred to outrage people than to make any allowances for context.  

His work as a consultant for the tobacco industry left another stain on his career. During this time he wrote several articles and a pamphlet for the Institute of Economic Affairs in defence of the freedom to smoke without disclosing that he was being paid by Japan Tobacco International (JTI). His company also asked JTI in an email to increase its fee in return for which Scruton would “aim to place an article every two months” in leading newspapers. When the Guardian reported this, the Financial Times ended his contract as a columnist, the Wall Street Journal stopped commissioning him and Birkbeck College removed his visiting-professor privileges. Scruton was unapologetic, writing a letter to the Guardian saying “The real scandal is that it [the email] should have been stolen and used as part of your ‘shut up Scruton’ campaign.

He did, however emerge from the last scandal to affect him vindicated. Last year in the New Statesman George Eaton published an interview with Scruton in which he selectively quoted remarks on China that made the philosopher look Sinophobic. Eaton compounded his distortions with misleading social media posts. As a result, Scruton was sacked as unpaid chair of the British government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. The magazine ended up publishing an apology to Scruton and he was later re-appointed to the commission as co-chair.

Overall, it was never entirely clear whether Scruton didn’t realise how his words would be received, didn’t care or positively enjoyed provocation. It probably varied from case to case. But he never set out purely to shock, even though he may have been happy to do so. He was sincere in his desire to defend his unfashionable political views and promote robust debate even—especially—of views that were considered taboo. The result was a certain notoriety but he insisted to me in 2009 that “I don’t feel bitter at all. I had a really interesting time being disliked.”