SIR ROGER : AN ELEGY
1st February 2020
Around the turn of the century an acquaintance who worked in an Oxfam bookshop concluded a spirited discussion about politics by handing me a copy of England: An Elegy by Roger Scruton, the right-wing philosopher, academic, author and amateur composer. I had been arguing from the point of view of a disillusioned left-liberal; my acquaintance from the point of view of socialism. ‘Here,’ he said with a kind of archness; ‘you will probably like this.’
The paperback book had a plastic public library wrapper and had already been taken out of circulation despite having been published in 2000, just a couple of years earlier. I’ve since wondered if its removal was at the hand of some zealously left-wing librarian doing the endless censoring required by their creed.
I had heard of Scruton. His name had appeared at odd times in the newspapers and I had once seen him on television talking about country sports. But I had never read a word of him, having mentally filed him as a slightly absurd figure, like Evelyn Waugh’s Gilbert Pinfold.
I was sceptical if not outright hostile towards conservative figures yet in the previous couple of years my views on culture and politics had been moving steadily away from the Left. After the Blair landslide of ’97, which I naively cheered, I soon sensed the shadow of the wrecking ball darkening rather than lifting: this version of Labour was not going to stop bad things from happening, nor was it going do good things. The liberal left were rampant, their war chests were full, their decaf Trot ideas to be force-fed to the public through TV and radio, the courts, schools and universities.
Thatcherism, which incidentally Scruton was critical of, was not to be opposed but to be put to work funding neo-Marxist social policy; globalisation was to be the new Internationale; the European Union was to be the new day-glo Soviet Union: a sham democracy disguising a long-term project to destroy nation states. British cities were getting nastier by the minute, drugs had become a lingua franca, mass immigration was to be stepped up far beyond sustainable levels yet touted as a benison. People were beginning to say they felt strangers in their own land. Art and culture had nosedived with the triply distilled poison of state funding, tasteless commercialism and critical theory. Political correctness was marching through the institutions at double time. It was a dismal period for culture, but everywhere you looked the commentators were telling you things had never looked so good. I smelt a rat.
All these notions were occurring when Scruton’s book fell into my hands. The opening paragraph commanded my attention:
'The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the gathering of dusk.’ Hegel’s words ring true of every form of human life: it is only at the end of things that we understand them. And understanding them, we know that they are lost. Which comes first – the understanding or the losing? Often it seems that we kill things by examining them; and then again, that understanding is a way to keep what we value, when all other means have vanished.
Through eleven chapters Scruton explains what England was, why it was and what it became. He put forward powerful and complex arguments: for a sense of place, a sense of enchantment, the experience of membership, England as corporate body, nation state and country. He investigated the concept of home. He unpicked the half-baked objections to 'faith, flag and family' so often bleated by much of the Left.
When contemplating the growing ugliness of modern culture it was not hard to enjoy passages such as the following, even if one did not entirely agree with them:
Gone are the congregations and little platoons. Gone are peaceful folkways – the children’s games, parlour songs, proverbs and sayings – that depended on a still remembered religious community. Gone are the habits – the stiff upper lip, the aloof sense of duty, the instant assistance to the stranger in distress – that went with imperial pride. Gone are the institutions – the village shop, the market, the Saturday-night dance, the bandstand in the park – through which local communities renewed themselves … The new media culture has been a particular misfortune for the English. When your fundamental loyalty is to a place and a genius loci, globalisation and loss of sovereignty bring a crisis of identity. The land loses its history and its personal face; the institutions become administrative centres, operated by anonymous bureaucrats who are not us but them them. The bureaucratic disenchantment of the earth has therefore been felt more keenly in England than elsewhere. For it has induced in the English the sense that they are really living nowhere.
This was more than 15 years before Brexit but Scruton’s book anatomised the dispute before new Labour had really got started with their spiteful agenda of weaponised immigration and globalised politics that set the country on its long road to divorce with the EU. He mourned the vandalised town centres and deplored the law-making that came from abroad.
Even certain lefties felt moved to agree with the book, while usually decrying the final chapter, The Forbidding of England, in which Scruton itemises the abolitions and misappropriations visited on various institutions.
I wrote him a fan letter saying I had been through the dowdy, mediocritising ideological mill of a comprehensive education but the scales had fallen from my eyes so to speak. He replied, saying he was encouraged by my words. I wish I still had the email but it is lost. He would probably be the first person to point out the essential fragility of electronic communication: it has no primary existence but is composed of bytes than can vanish at the pull of a plug.
After England: An Elegy I then read many of Scruton’s books: on culture, on Islamism and the West, on wine, on the meaning of conservatism, on the countryside, on himself. I did not always fully agree with what he wrote but they were elegant and enlightening works stuffed full of lines that need to be anthologised. Opening one book at random: ‘The revolutionary spirit, which searches the world looking for things to hate. . .’
I think his coruscating insights into the left-wing mind is the reason he aroused so much rage from that quarter. He had their number. Scruton knew that most small-c conservatives were easy meat for the browbeating, ideological Left, which is why the institutions fell so quickly. The Left operated by non-negotiable demands: ending racism, imposing equality, halting global poverty by next Tuesday, preventing the end of the world through auxiliary taxation. Scruton’s mission was to mount a defence of bourgeois society and proper liberty and make the arguments stand up. The Left, composed as it was of intellectuals, did not take kindly to one of their own becoming an apostate. In 1984 when Scruton published the Bradford headmaster Ray Honeyford’s criticism of multiculturalism in the Salisbury Review that was it as far as the Left were concerned: Scruton was persona non grata. Honeyford’s career was destroyed and Scruton had the 20th century version of witchcraft attached to his name: racism.
Did any of the army of left-wing teachers and journalists apologise 25 years later when Trevor Phillips, the Labour politician and then head of the Commission For Racial Equality, said multiculturalism had failed, and largely for the reasons Honeyford had pointed out? I don’t recall hearing about it.
In his Times obituary, one of his contemporaries spoke of Scruton’s ‘quixotic and absurdist nature’. This was one of the many things I enjoyed in his writing. He knew perfectly well all conservatives are fighting a largely losing battle, for standards, for quality, for taste, for the endurance and conservation of good things, but he tilted at windmills anyway and became a sort of folk-hero in the process. For me and a number of my friends, all of whom have lived fairly rackety lives, to find in Scruton a certain light in the darkness was a most unlikely development, but it happened.
His critiques of rock music, while not always convincing to me, were fun: ‘If a machine could sing it would sound like an electric guitar.’ Of the moronic ‘street art’ of modern graffiti there was no better critic.
He always maintained the highly sensible position that one is only ever of a political position on balance. His now fabled political epiphany in Paris in May, 1968, struck a resounding chord with me.
One evening while reading De Gaulle’s memoirs he broke off to watch soixante-huitards smashing up shops and cars. He lectured a female friend in an ‘obnoxiously pompous’ way about the protesters on their ‘toy barricades’ (a bullseye description if you ask me), and was given a volume of Foucault’s Les mots et les choses by way of an answer. He found this an ‘artful book composed with satanic mendacity’. The spectacle of the riot made him feel a ‘surge of political anger’ for the first time in his life and set him ‘on the other side of the barricade from all the people I knew’. It was the beginning of his long march against the ideas that all culture is just power in disguise and that obedience and peaceful living is failure and defeat. He wanted to conserve things and not kick them down.
Later he backed up his anti-Marxist views by going into Eastern Europe to found underground universities with the aim of seeding liberty in societies flattened by communism.
Back in England that liberty was giving way to license and, in an unpleasant irony, the EU’s reach was gaining as the Left’s grip tightened in UK public affairs. Governments of Labour and Tory behaved like an ancien régime, presiding over social entropy and growing institutional incompetence. Scruton criticised Thatcher as a ‘dreadful woman’, and his founding of the Salisbury Review was an assertion of traditionalism in the face of the new monetarism controlling the Conservative party. Again he was prescient: after 40 years of governments knowing ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’ the public in many western countries woke up to the idea that there is more to civilisation than cut-throat economics with which to busk your way through the next financial quarter.
He wrote movingly of his father’s socialism, which Scruton senior mistakenly believed would prevent change and preserve worthwhile things: my italics: ‘The spectacle of a Labour Party committed to “globalisation”, indifferent to the fate of rural England, and managed by smooth “consultants” who might next year be working for the other side, which is in fact only the same side under another description, would have appalled him.’
By the time of the Brexit meltdown it had appalled more than half the country.
While hardly being a ‘panygeric preached over an empty coffin’, as Waugh described the elegiac Brideshead Revisited, Scruton’s funeral oration for England has proved not to be quite as final as he intended.
Those of us who had turned right in the years following the Blair revolution despaired of ever seeing common sense and common law again. The Brexit referendum and, three years later, socialism’s wholesale drubbing at the ballot box have given cause for positive thought, but it remains to be seen if the Scrutonian vision of the nation state as home, with all that little word means, can be realised or renewed. Similarly, art and culture had become and remains largely a waste-ground of clichés, cheap propaganda and postmodern nostrums. Scruton fought back by grappling with the slippery concept of beauty and saw nothing to snigger at in art being, as Beethoven said of his own, ‘from the heart to the heart’.
Tiny sources of optimism can found: the public’s rejection of supranational interference in British affairs; its growing frustration with political correctness and relentless propaganda in the mass media; the impatience with the received wisdom of the middle class Left and its dominance in public life; even the increasing interest in locally produced food and drink points to a desire to live somewhere as opposed to nowhere. It was the recognition of that desire that led Scruton to write approvingly of the miner’s strike of the mid-Eighties as a protest in favour of ‘the local community as against the global economy’.
People laughed at Pinfold's hatred of plastic, but he turned out to be right: the substance has become a curse on the world. Sir Roger, the eccentric fox-hunter who advocated gavottes and galliards over ‘disco-dancing’ (but who admitted to liking Jailhouse Rock by Elvis Presley), was proved to be correct in his denunciations of globalisation, faceless bureaucracy and the rejection of such things by the Brexit movement.
It was, therefore, tragic that he should die just at this change in affairs. He had been traduced and mispresented for decades, finally by the appalling behaviour of the New Statesman hack who stitched him up. Thankfully this wrong was put right, not least by the assiduity of the writer Douglas Murray. But overall Scruton finally seemed to be receiving the large and due credit he deserved as a thinker and writer, which is something to be thankful for.
A while after I was given Scruton’s elegy by my left-leaning friend in the Oxfam bookshop, I ran into him again and we spoke about politics. His previous dogmatic socialism about art and culture had more or less evaporated, he had become disillusioned with Blair’s Britain, and he was taking a far more Scrutonian line.
That was, as Sir Roger might have said, encouraging.
Rex Varro is the pseudonym of a national newspaper journalist