I last saw my friend Roger Scruton on 23 December 2019, at his home in Wiltshire. I was shocked. He was emaciated from chemotherapy and told me plainly that he would die soon. “One has to be reasonable about this”, he said, “it happens to us all.” He was a philosopher to the end.
I railed against it, as I looked up at his wife and two children, saying when we parted that we would meet again in the new year. He contacted me in early January inviting me to visit him in hospital, that he had “something important” he wanted to talk about, but I will never know what it was. He died before I could visit, a year ago today.
Over the past year, as the pandemic took hold and politics fell apart, my thoughts have returned again and again to Roger, imagining what he would have made of lockdown, of the rise of China, of the Brexit deal and the squalid disintegration of the Trump Presidency. He was a gentle and curious man and I would have enjoyed his observations.
He was interested in many things, but he was also a curiosity in our intellectual culture; a conservative. He was viewed by the Left, as at best a nostalgic irrelevance, at worst a nasty reactionary. There was no place for the conservative philosopher in our universities, and yet I viewed him as an ally. I was always struck by his generosity and his appreciation of the conservative tradition within Labour. He truly understood the importance of loss and grief; the loss of a home and a community is vital to any comprehension of our present politics, but it is hard to grasp if you think that things can only get better.
Roger gave expression to the new era that is now emerging in which the nation state, democracy, a sense of place and the working class are not doomed remnants of a previous epoch, but the primary materials through which the effects of globalisation are mediated politically. He was a modernist in literature and style, but it was a modernity tempered by tradition and this was expressed in his view of people as longing for meaning, for attachment, for love and for beauty, who flourish in a society characterised by healthy relationships, a sense of being part of a “we”.
His conservatism, in which association, friendship, institutions and ultimately politics would encourage a shared responsibility for each other in a shared home, “an island of me in a sea of we”, is central to his thought. That theme of home, or oikophilia, was one of his great contributions to modern philosophy. It required a sense of solidarity, of sharing a fate with others.
Roger’s politics was local, conservationist and loosely sociable; he was far too much of a loner, though, to subscribe to a communitarian or collectivist anthropology. He thought that the Ancient Constitution, based upon the balance of interests rather than the separation of the powers was the system best suited to our country. He was enamoured of the Common Law as the defender of our liberties, and our environment. His book, Green Philosophy is a very significant contribution to this. His love of Kant and appreciation of secularism set him apart from reactionary thinkers.
His understanding of Christianity, meanwhile, and its relationship to the nation was understood in terms of civility and temper and not as the foundation of political authority. He thought that in England, following the civil war, there was an appreciation of pluralism and a suspicion of religious enthusiasm. The origins of authority remained political and revisable. It was the lack of that understanding that concerned him about Islam.
His final book, Where We Are, is a profound reflection on the basic assumption of national sovereignty. He evokes a “we” that provides the democratic authority of the nation state, which far from evaporating in the swirl of globalisation, retains the legitimacy to preserve meaning and attachment in people’s lives. He articulated the possibilities that leaving the European Union opened for renewing our civic and democratic institutions.
When I pointed out to him that the most significant consequence of slipping the constraints of the Lisbon Treaty would be for the Left to be able to actively challenge the destructive power of capitalism to commodify human beings and nature, he replied that Labour seemed more interested in hating Tories than in appealing to a broad range of people who might agree with that, and support it.
I enjoyed many evenings in his garret in Albany going through the papers, discussing our politics: the Left, community land trusts, American misunderstanding of conservatism. Those discussions echo still, and I see three areas where Scruton’s work can continue to be a source of vitality.
The first is his work on aesthetics and beauty, in which human scale and form take a central place within a tradition characterised by the sacred and the sensual, which he considered the basis of love. For him, sex was sacred. During this lockdown period, when we have inhabited a parallel world of no physical presence, in which the laughter of strangers has become a distant memory and when there is so little intimacy, Roger’s emphasis on sociability, conviviality and relationships has taken on a more intense prescience. His interest in what we have lost gives me strength.
The second concerns the meaning of a home. For Roger the primary story of humanity was that of exile and return, this was as true for the Odyssey as for the prodigal son. The sociable nature of the person required a form of settled community, a home to return to. In this, self-governing civic institutions play a central role, expressing the particular nature of particular people in particular places. He viewed the Left as increasingly embracing the renunciation and denunciation of any notion of a home, of attachment, preferring instead an emphasis on false consciousness and domination. His book, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, is worth reading right now. It was Roger who pointed out to me that the meaning of nostalgia is a longing for home and that is not to be despised.
The third area relates to housing and architecture. He railed against a dehumanised modernity, in which the greed of the market worked with the instrumentalism of the state and professional indifference to build homogenised and degraded houses in disconnected spaces that sapped culture of its form and meaning. His heart was grieved by what had happened to Birmingham and Manchester. The city centre of his local town, Swindon, was a source of sorrow beyond words. He loved the terraced housing which was demolished as slum clearance and replaced by something inhumane, rather than restored. For him this was where the coalition between the rich and the educated generated the greatest damage. It bears reflection still.
A very belated recognition came to him when he was chosen to chair the Government commission on “Building better, building beautiful”. It was an attempt to defy the developers and the professional architects so that people could participate in building and designing the new homes relying on local labour and materials.
His chairmanship came to a terrible end, in a storm of Twitter hate, generated by a false account of an interview with the New Statesman. The words I read at that time, full of demonisation, bore no relation to my gently stubborn friend, who argued that what matters is love, truth, beauty, friendship and meaning. Those are the concepts and categories through which we should judge our lives and our politics.
His life was characterised by courage, civility and curiosity. He had the courage to be a conservative when the intellectual world was moving against conservatism, and to be true to his tradition in the face of distortion and demonisation. I think it killed him in the end, but he lived it and engaged with civility when confronted with the hate.
He told me that his politics “if I have any, are probably Blue Labour”, and I asked him to keep quiet about that. That was cowardly of me, and a year following his death, there is a deathly silence in our national conversation where his voice once was.