How the PC brigade took down Scruton

The sacking of the conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton from his public sector job is another blow against viewpoint diversity

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"The defenestration of Roger Scruton", an illustration by Adam Dant

The fall of Sir Roger Scruton was a drama in two parts. Act One began last November when the 75-year-old conservative philosopher was appointed Chair of “Building Better, Building Beautiful”, a commission established by the government to try to improve the design of new homes, villages and towns. The beady-eyed commissars of political correctness immediately sensed an opportunity and, within hours, they were hard at work, digging through everything Scruton had ever said or written in the hope of finding material they could be “offended” by — ideally, anything that would make him look like a racist, homophobe or misogynist, even if that meant wrenching it out of context. Given that Scruton has written more than 50 books and enjoyed a long career as a prolific journalist and public speaker, they had plenty of material to sift through and, sure enough, they soon found a treasure trove of “hateful” comments. For instance, he’d once described “Islamophobia” as a “propaganda word” and — in a column for the Telegraph in 2007 — said homosexuality was “not normal”. He’d also given a lecture in the United States in 2005 in which he questioned whether “date rape” — defined by him as when a woman has initially consented to sex but withdrawn it afterwards — should be a criminal offence.

I thought he was a goner, partly because I’d been taken out in an almost identical manner when the government appointed me to the board of the Office for Students, the new universities regulator, 11 months earlier. As soon as it was announced, my enemies on the Left started searching for evidence that I’d once held “unacceptable” views and it didn’t take them long to find it. For instance, someone went through the Spectator’s archive and read everything I’d written, dating back more than 20 years. Sure enough, they discovered a piece from 2001 entitled “Confessions of a porn addict”, which they then photographed and put on Twitter. Within 15 minutes, the Evening Standard ran an article headlined: “New Pressure on Theresa May to Sack ‘Porn Addict’ Toby Young from Watchdog Role.” After eight days of this, with Labour’s front bench gleefully seizing every opportunity to denounce me, Downing Street began to wobble and I had no choice but to resign. I hoped that would draw a line under the affair, but I ended up losing five positions, including a Buckingham University fellowship and my full-time job running a free schools charity.

Sir Roger, it turned out, was less vulnerable. The government was a little better prepared this time round, having been caught off-guard when my appointment was challenged, and a Cabinet minister went out to bat for him in the form of James Brokenshire, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. That’s more than could be said for me. In addition, Scruton has a knighthood for his services to philosophy, teaching and public education, so it was an easier appointment to defend. Finally, he’d served on a public body before, having been appointed to the “Design Advisory Panel” in 2015, and no one had objected then. In the end, the storm passed and the red-headed Englishman remained standing. I was delighted because it meant there was still a place in British public life for people who challenged the liberal-left consensus on cultural issues. For once, a Conservative government had stood up for someone with robustly conservative views.

Act Two began on April 9 when George Eaton, the political editor of the New Statesman, posted a Twitter thread boasting about how he’d coaxed Scruton into making a “series of outrageous remarks” in an interview he’d just given to the magazine. He then quoted four of these remarks, although why he thought this was such a journalistic coup wasn’t immediately obvious as Sir Roger had expressed almost identical views before — describing “Islamophobia” as a “propaganda word”, for instance. The only new “outrage” was what Scruton had allegedly said about “the Chinese” — “Each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.”

As soon as the tweets appeared, journalists started calling up Conservative leadership hopefuls and inviting them to condemn these comments. No context was provided and it would be two days before the interview appeared on news-stands, but that didn’t stop Johnny Mercer MP, along with half the Labour front bench, calling for Scruton to be sacked. Dawn Butler, the shadow minister for women and equalities, accused Sir Roger of invoking “the language of white supremacists”. Someone who’d actually read the Statesman interview pointed out that Scruton hadn’t, in fact, made disparaging references to “the Chinese”. He’d prefaced his remarks with the following comment about the Chinese Communist Party: “They’re creating robots out of their own people by so constraining what can be done.” In other words, he wasn’t invoking a racist stereotype about Chinese people — that they all look and behave the same — but condemning the efforts of China’s Marxist regime to enforce conformity. Eaton defended himself by claiming he’d “edited” the remarks he’d posted on social media “for reasons of space”.

Less than four hours after Eaton’s original Twitter thread, Scruton was fired. James Brokenshire, the Cabinet minister who’d proved such a doughty champion last November, wielded the axe. A spokesman for the Prime Minister described the comments as “deeply offensive and completely unacceptable”.

So what was different this time? Why were the enemies of free thought able to claim Sir Roger’s scalp in April but not in November? My guess is it’s partly because Labour has stepped up its attacks on the Conservative Party for being anti-Muslim in an attempt to deflect attention from its own anti-Semitism problem, which has made the Government more sensitive to allegations of “Islamophobia”. And partly because Theresa May is even weaker now than she was. Whatever the explanation, it’s another blow against viewpoint diversity in public life. What right-of-centre person in their right mind would now apply for an official position, knowing that the Left has a tried-and-trusted method in place to humiliate them?


The Playbook

1. Dig up some “offensive” remarks

The first step, once the target has been identified, is to find something “offensive” they’ve said or written. 25 years ago, that would have meant paying a seasoned political researcher thousands of pounds to do some “opposition research”, but not any more. Today, the Left can rely on an army of unpaid keyboard warriors. As soon as a prominent conservative gets a new job, even if it’s in the private sector, the offence archaeologists set about their work, trawling the internet to find evidence of wrongthink so they can post it on Twitter. It’s like a crowd-sourced version of Big Brother. Kevin Williamson, the conservative journalist, discovered just how effective this machine is last year when he landed a job at the Atlantic, one of America’s most prestigious monthlies. Within days, someone had dug up a tweet he’d written in 2014 comparing abortion to murder and recommending it should carry the same judicial penalty. Twenty-four hours later he was fired. A similar fate befell Jordan Peterson after it was announced he’d been made a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge and some Torquemada found a photograph of him standing next to a young man wearing a “proud to be an Islamophobe” T-shirt. A day later the fellowship was withdrawn.

2. Whip up outrage

There’s never any due process when a dissenter is targeted in this way, but justice isn’t always as swift as it was in Williamson’s and Peterson’s case. Sometimes, as happened with me, the miscreant’s fate hangs in the balance. At this point, it helps to whip up as much outrage as possible. It goes without saying that no one is actually offended by anything you’ve said — it would be slightly odd if people went through your entire output with a view to finding things that genuinely upset them, and odder still if they then repeated them in the hope of upsetting others. No, it’s all an elaborate game. They’re offended in the same way that Captain Renault was shocked — shocked! — to discover gambling was going on at Humphrey Bogart’s place in Casablanca. But to sustain the illusion that something you’ve said is completely outrageous and beyond the pale, it helps to get up a petition on Change.org. A petition calling on the Prime Minister to sack me attracted 221,516 signatures. 

3. Draw attention to the target’s race and gender

It’s no accident that Dawn Butler is Labour’s lead attack dog in these conservative quail hunts. As a black woman, she is ideally placed to highlight the sins of being white and male — or, in Scruton’s case, a “white supremacist”. In the Left’s intersectional hierarchy, sometimes known as the “oppression Olympics”, being a white male places you at the bottom of the moral pecking order. If you’re unlucky enough to possess these characteristics, then you’re the beneficiary of “unearned privilege” and it goes without saying that you are both a racist and a misogynist because, after all, how else could you justify having any career to speak of? One of my most dedicated critics was the black playwright Bonnie Greer, who wrote an endless stream of tweets about me ending with the hashtag #TimesUp. That phrase was originally coined by a Hollywood talent agency to encourage actresses to call out sexual predators in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein affair, but the way Greer used it suggested she thought it applied to all men, particularly white men. Having said that, one of the curiosities of being “called out” for the offence of being a white male is that the people who denounce you the loudest are other middle-aged white men — in my case, almost the entire staff of the Guardian. It must be the same self-preservation instinct that prompted some male Tory MPs to join in the witch-hunt against Sir Roger Scruton.

4. Isolate your victim

Which brings me to another important tactic — isolate your intended victim. If you’re a white, heterosexual, Brexit-supporting Tory, it may not prove all that damaging to be  attacked by Caroline Lucas, as I was relentlessly. But orchestrate some blue-on-blue friendly fire and the target begins to look vulnerable. That’s why left-wing journalists immediately start calling round some of the wetter elements of the Conservative Party whenever a right-wing figure is in the stocks. Among those Tory MPs who joined the clamour for my head were Robert Halfon, Nicky Morgan and Sarah Wollaston. It was their denunciations in the House of Commons that persuaded Number 10 to throw me under a bus.

5. Celebrate victory

After the kill, it’s customary to organise a little victory parade just to let other conservatives know what fate awaits them if they stick their heads above the parapet. George Eaton, the journalist who was the instrument of Sir Roger’s downfall, posted a picture of himself on Instagram — since deleted — drinking champagne, accompanied by the words, “The feeling when you get right-wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government adviser.” In my case, the “writer, satirist, blogger” who organised the Change.org petition posted an update headlined: “Gotcha.” Afterwards, I took some comfort from the fact that things would not always be this way and one day, in the not too distant future, conservatives would be allowed to play their part in public life again. Then I remembered that there’s actually a Tory government in power and I shuddered to think how much worse things are likely to get if Jeremy Corbyn ever gets the keys to Number 10. No doubt “Islamophobia” and being a “porn addict” will carry custodial sentences. I just hope I’m sharing a cell with Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson.


The Conservative Hall of Shame

The technologist Brendan Eich was forced to step down as the CEO of Mozilla in 2014 after some online activists revealed he’d contributed $1,000 to California’s Proposition 8, which called for the banning of same-sex marriage. Dan Cathy, the CEO of the American fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A, was also targeted by LGBT activists for making comments in 2012 opposing same-sex marriage. Protests and boycotts followed.

The software engineer James Damore was fired from Google in 2017 for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes” after circulating an internal memo arguing that the lack of gender parity in tech isn’t entirely due to bias and discrimination. The same fate befell the theoretical physicist Alessandro Strumia, who lost his job at CERN earlier this year after presenting data at a “gender” workshop showing that the under-representation of women in physics couldn’t be attributed to gender bias since women are discriminated in favour of, rather than against, in the field.

Daniella Greenbaum, a right-of-centre American journalist, parted company with Business Insider last year after the magazine’s editor took down a column she wrote defending Scarlett Johansson’s decision to play a transgender man in the film Rub and Tug. A week later, Johansson withdrew from the film and apologised. “Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I’ve learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realise it was insensitive,” she said.

The pro-Trump conservative broadcaster Laura Ingraham was mobbed last year when she ridiculed David Hogg, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and a pro-gun-control activist, on her radio show. Hogg posted a list of Ingraham’s advertisers on Twitter, where he has more than half a million followers, and called for a boycott. Many of them obliged, including Nestlé, Expedia, Hulu, Johnson & Johnson, TripAdvisor and Wayfair. Ingraham apologised to Hogg, but ad revenues have yet to recover.

Numerous right-of-centre academics have being targeted by campus outrage mobs, including the Nobel prizewinner James Watson, the political scientist Charles Murray, and the historian Niall Ferguson. The latest victim is Samuel Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, who wrote an op-ed for the New York Times last year pointing out that Democrat-supporting college administrators outnumber Republicans by a ratio of 12:1. As a result, a group of students calling themselves the “Diaspora Coalition” have demanded he issue a “public apology to “marginalised students wounded by his op-ed”, particularly “black people, queer people and women”, and called for a “review” of his tenure by “three faculty members of colour”. To date, 40 of Abrams’s colleagues have endorsed the Coalition’s list of demands.

Earlier this year, the Catholic journalist Caroline Farrow was investigated by the police for the crime of “mis-gendering” a transwoman on Twitter, even though she automatically deleted her tweets two weeks after posting them. A Surrey Police officer summoned her to the local station to be interviewed under caution for an apparent breach of the Malicious Communications Act and said a warrant would be issued for her arrest if she refused to attend. Farrow went public with the story and the police dropped the case.

The Ones That Got Away

Occasionally, the outrage mob goes after a right-of-centre journalist or academic and they manage to brazen it out. Ben Shapiro, the American polemicist, was targeted for supposedly offensive things he’d said when he was 19 (he’s now 35). But he has kept his career nevertheless. “It’s not that these people are hated because they’ve said terrible things,” he said of conservatives who’ve been targeted by Twitter mobs. “It’s that they’re hated, so the hard Left tries to dig up supposedly terrible things they’ve said.” More recently, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson was attacked for making some sexually explicit jokes about a Miss Teen America contestant in a radio phone-in 12 years ago. Carlson said they were just “naughty words” made in “jest” and, so far, the network has stood behind him.