Politics 7 November 2018 | 11:32

Don’t ditch Sir Roger Scruton

07 November 2018 11:32

I have known Sir Roger Scruton for more than thirty years. I first met him when he came to speak at a small, independent debating society that I had co-founded as an undergraduate. In those days – the first flush of the ‘no-platform’ era – he was wary of events hosted at universities, where he was often greeted by angry demonstrators determined to stop him from having his say. As it happens, the evening went off without a hitch and Scruton answered questions from Left and Right without incident.

Since then, I have had numerous conversations with him on a huge variety of subjects. We disagree on a great many things, from the role of religion, to the nature of homosexuality, to the value of pop music, to the merits of ‘multi-culturalism’, to the ban on hunting with hounds. He is a traditional conservative, and I am not. He loves his life on the farm, I revel in modernity and the urban setting. He probably thinks I am a hopelessly faddish liberal. I can’t get my head round his bucolic existence. But so what?

In spite our differences – because of them, perhaps – his thoughts and prolific writings have had an immense impact upon me over the decades. I picked up a copy of his Thinkers of the New Left (1985) in the college library – and could not put it down. Mischievous, sometimes exasperating, but always compelling, this was a foundational text in the academic fightback against E.P. Thompson, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, Perry Anderson and many others.

You didn’t have to agree with Scruton to admire his fighting spirit and determination not to take the easy option (writing critically of such thinkers at the time was an act of rank academic apostasy). And it is intrinsically good to be challenged intellectually: to be forced back to first principles as often as possible (see our recent piece by Dolly Theis on the necessity of this process).

More recently, I have revelled in his writings on music – especially his brilliant account of Wagner’s Ring cycle, published two years ago. His most recent book, Music as An Art (2018), is a work of spectacular erudition and wisdom, which makes the reader think deeply about the nature of its subject. If you are interested in culture, these are essential writings.

He has written novels, operas and countless shorter tracts. Many of his books are excellent primers to the study of philosophy itself – notably, Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey (1994), perhaps the best such text since Bertrand Russell’s. Mark Dooley’s Conversations with Roger Scruton (2016) is a fascinating and often moving account of the life of the mind. I could go on, but you get the idea.

This is the context in which I urge you to see this week’s controversy over his appointment as chair of a government housing commission. His credentials for this role are impeccable: he has written extensively on architecture, planning and the true nature of a home (as opposed to a house). He knows his way around Westminster and Whitehall. At 74, he remains awesomely industrious, and especially serious about public service and civic responsibility.

Labour MPs are now demanding that he be sacked, primarily for allegedly anti-semitic remarks he made in a speech in 2016 in which he said: “Many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish, and form part of the extensive networks around the [George] Soros Empire.’’

Taken out of context, this might seem hostile. But read on: “People in these networks include many who are rightly suspicious of nationalism, regard nationalism as the major cause of the tragedy of Central Europe in the 20th century, and do not distinguish nationalism from the kind of national loyalty that I have defended in this talk. Moreover, as the world knows, indigenous anti-Semitism still plays a part in Hungarian society and politics, and presents an obstacle to the emergence of a shared national loyalty among ethnic Hungarians and Jews.”

It might be considered provocative of Scruton to refer to the “Soros Empire”. But his whole point was that the Jewish suspicion of nationalism in Hungary was understandable, given the recent history of the region, and that lingering bigotry against Jews was a serious problem. It was not Jews, but anti-Semites, that Scruton was attacking. And as he pointed out in a statement on Tuesday, he has made representations on behalf of Soros to Viktor Orban to keep open the Central European University in the spirit of intellectual freedom.

Scruton now stands at the eye of a social media storm. James Brokenshire, the communities secretary, faces enormous pressure to sack him. The easy option would be to do just that, to make the problem go away, to move on to other things.

But this is one of many reasons why Brokenshire – and Number Ten – must not yield to the digital tornado. Yes, Scruton is a conservative of strong opinions. But he is not a bigot. He really isn’t. He is also one of the most distinguished, thoughtful and civilised scholars of modern times, and a pillar of British intellectual life. A public sphere without room for such an individual is not worthy of the name.