Roger Scruton's new book roots British Conservatism in our distinctive history
Roger Scruton is a distinctive and important voice in British Conservatism. He is also extraordinarily prolific and energetic. This book communicates a distinctive conservative disposition with great charm and formidable learning. But that disposition, however admirable, is not the same as the Conservative statecraft practised in our country for the past two centuries.
Roger Scruton’s Conservatism is shaped by his own experiences which he describes in the opening section of this book. His personal journey is fascinating and engaging. He describes his father’s solid working-class communitarianism. His own work supporting dissidents in Eastern Europe in the 1980s was courageous and important. And having, like him, had the experience of being shouted down on university campuses, I know how deeply dispiriting it is when you discover that some people really do want to narrow the range of opinions that can be freely expressed.
This book roots British Conservatism in our distinctive history. Roger Scruton rightly sees it is as the special responsibility of Conservatives to protect our common law tradition and the institutions which embody that. He is very good on the importance of autonomous institutions — what I called civic conservatism. But he is surprisingly uninterested in where this great tradition comes from or how it has changed over time. He appears to regard it as a happy and perhaps rather accidental gift from history. This means that his account of the role of Conservatives is rather passive and incurious. We are like the inheritors of a stately home which has been in the family for centuries — our job is to preserve it and pass it on but not worry too much how much of the land was acquired by aggressive enclosures, what the royal mistress got up to, or what deals were done to escape inheritance tax.
I am persuaded by Alan Macfarlane’s excellent work suggesting that our tradition of ordered liberty emerged with the Anglo-Saxons from the woods of Germany. In the wise words of Benjamin Franklin, “Britain was formerly the America of the Germans.” But you still need to explain real political decisions in 1215 or 1688 or indeed 1867. It is not just a tradition given to us. We enjoy it because of Edward Coke and Blackstone and Maitland as well of course as Pitt and Disraeli and Thatcher. It is something shaped by political decisions over centuries and sometimes fought for.
As soon as we see this tradition as emerging from centuries of political argument we have to recognise that there is more to Conservatism than just a disposition to conserve. That is just the start of the politics — we are endlessly having to decide what to conserve and how. Would Squire Scruton in 1720 have made his peace with the Glorious Revolution and the House of Hanover? Somehow, I suspect from the tone of this book that he would not. And a century and a half later Dean Scruton, writing from his cathedral close, would surely have been shocked by Gladstone’s approach to Ireland.
But what if the Conservative Party had not been quite so hysterical about Irish home rule — would we have then been able to preserve some kind of political federation across the British Isles? Can’t we now recognise John Major’s opening to Irish Republicans as a classic example of Conservative statecraft? What if Margaret Thatcher at the height of her powers had offered devolution to Scotland —would that have secured a continuing place for the Conservative Party in the affections of the Scottish people?
Sometimes doing nothing is the most imprudent form of Conservatism. Disraeli’s enormous gamble in 1867 was believed by many Conservatives at the time to be very dangerous — Dean Scruton might well have opposed it — but looking back we can see that setting our faces against expansion of the franchise would have been far more dangerous. David Cameron’s bold offer of coalition to the Liberal Democrats is absolutely in that tradition.
Captain Scruton, fresh from brave service on the North West frontier between 1860 and 1940, would surely have placed the Empire at the centre of his account of what he wanted to preserve. But now we recognise that Macmillan’s decolonisation was wise Conservative statecraft, whereas Enoch Powell’s memo to R.A. Butler after the war on how to retake India now seems delusional. A strategy of accommodation is of course not always right. Many Conservatives sympathised with a Halifax strategy of compromise with Hitler in 1940, but thank heavens for Churchill. Thanks to Margaret Thatcher in 1979, we did not accommodate ourselves to what looked like the inevitable but fought to turn the tide. How do Conservatives decide when to accommodate and when not? This is where political judgments come in. Statecraft matters and the Conservative Party is still around because we have historically been rather good at it.
All these dilemmas are still confronted in the day-to-day business of politics today. Roger Scruton’s advice on how we approach these decisions would be interesting. He offers a few examples himself but without really digging as deep as he could. He does not like the EU. We are all familiar with the objections and of course there is a need for reform. But can’t we also think of it as the concert of Europe in permanent session? Disraeli was right to go to the Congress of Berlin to represent Britain interests and British statesmen should still be there.
Given Scruton’s own heroic work in the Eastern bloc he should reflect on the role of EU membership in the extraordinary success of liberation of Central Europe. Instead he says that freedom of movement stripped them of their middle class. Even today, despite the economic failures of the eurozone, people in Ukraine are willing to die for the opportunity to link to and eventually to join the EU. Scruton and the hardline Eurosceptics might not agree with it, but the arguments for European engagement seem to me to be recognisably Conservative and in a tradition which stretches from Wellington and Canning to Hurd and Hague.
Our distinctive history also had another consequence — creating the world’s first market economy. That is what you get when free people can exchange goods and services protected by the impartial enforcement of the law of contract. Because we were the world’s first market economy — capitalism without factories — we then gave the world the Industrial Revolution. That has left Conservatives as the bearers of a tradition which created capitalism and yet also anxious that capitalism could erode some of the very values and ties of association which we value. Scruton clearly feels this and appears to be particularly hostile to big business. He is a cottage industry Conservative — indeed he is such a prolific writer that he is a cottage industry in his own right. Of course it is marvellous if someone has the enterprise to set up a local window-cleaning firm or reopens the village store and makes a go of it. But I am even more excited when our entrepreneurs create a small business which turns into ARM or Virgin or Vodafone. In fact Britain is already doing very well when it comes to business start-ups — our problem is that we have not got enough big businesses.
The Liberal split in the 19th century brought Joe Chamberlain and the Liberal Unionists into alliance with the Conservatives, leading to the creation of the Conservative and Unionist party in 1912. Chamberlain’s family firm is now part of GKN, still based in the Midlands and a FTSE 100 company. The old Conservative party of the English shires merged with parts of the old Liberal party who brought with them leaders of big business and the big cities. Meanwhile the centre — Right on the Continent often remained divided between a rural, traditionalist, confessional, peasant party and an urban, anti-clerical, pro-business, liberal party. Those two distinctive strands came together in British Conservatism at the beginning of the 20th century and were crucial to our electoral success. We should celebrate that connection and welcome the “metropolitan” and the “big” in today’s Conservatism. This modern Conservatism reflects our deepest and sometimes conflicting desires — we want roots, tradition, and belonging, but at the same time we want opportunity, mobility and opportunity. Quite simply our job is to provide both.
Margaret Thatcher recognised the fear that her policies were tearing up the social fabric and something rather precious was being lost. She resolved the problem by appealing to the great Biblical parables —the parable of the talents or the parable of the good Samaritan. She was absolutely clear — as is Scruton — that capitalism depended on and was shaped by a prior set of Christian moral values. The Centre for Social Justice, founded by Iain Duncan Smith, continues to embody that appeal to a moral framework. But that framework may not work for a modern society with such a range of faiths and culture, including a very strong tradition of secularism. Scruton does try to construct his arguments independently of his religious beliefs, but in many ways his book and the virtues he praises are deeply religious. He eschews newer intellectual disciplines such as game theory, evolutionary biology and neuroscience. I personally find these “-ologies” full of insights which strengthen our Conservatism and enable us to shape it for the 21st century.
Burke famously said: “Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them.” Roger Scruton is one of our great men of speculation and there may be even more resources to understand this latent wisdom than he draws on in this book.