I attended a talk by him at Balliol last night, explicitly on the topic of what’s wrong with the Left and how to carve out a legitimate alternative space on the Right. I’ve had classes in aesthetics with him weekly for the whole term now, and inevitably his politics has seeped through somewhat. But it was still thoroughly worthwhile to see him articulate his own strand of conservatism in the flesh, rather than attempting to second guess it through various Op-Ed columns.
I feel that what needs saying most of all about Scruton is that he isn’t the cold-hearted conservative the media likes to caricature him as. When I read the Independent interview before attending his aesthetics classes, I expected to encounter an odious, smug demeanour. But he couldn’t be further from that. I was warned by an older student that this was due to his charisma, and I may soon change my mind and deem him a charlatan. But I’m sure after last night that that isn’t going to happen. I find him sincere and humble. He says that while he judges the Left to be wrong, the Left judges him to be evil. But he certainly isn’t evil, and I don’t even consider him entirely wrong.
Key to understanding why he shouldn’t repulse you is realising that he’s truly defending a traditional, British blend of conservatism. He has as much reason to disdain grand ideological systems – or ‘abstract ideas’ – like Fascism, libertarianism and political Christianity as he does socialism and communism. That’s not to deny that he’s evidently deeply religious and a defender of most current market mechanisms. It’s just to say that none of these beliefs would ever be sacrosanct and blindly guide his practical positions. If they entailed a commitment to radical, risky social change, then it seems to me he’d be as sceptical and hostile towards them as he is towards, say, the vast imposition of redistributive taxation in the name of ‘equality’. In that sense, he has no ideology at all. His commitment is primarily and only to pure pragmatism.
And on the question of Rawlsian ideals like ‘social justice’, I strongly sense that it isn’t that he fails to see how most current social practices are built on privilege and are thus unfair. He doesn’t, like meritocrats or libertarians, seem keen on defending wealth by invoking desert or an absolutist commitment to property rights. His point is only that such grand state-driven schemes are destined to be destructive. I wonder how true this is. The empirical data he clearly presumes to prove his case is the Iron Curtain that existed throughout his formative years. But a friend pointed out afterwards that he seems blind to the existence of Scandinavia, which pretty much embodies the Rawlsian dream without exactly being synonymous with Stalinist tyranny. And I don’t know how he accounts for that. Ironically, if anything this seems reactionary. There’s the same implausible if understandable paranoia that we feel nowadays when reading Isaiah Berlin.
To emphasise, though: his conservatism seems to be of the Frum and Sullivan variety insofar as it is perfectly consistent with a concern for poverty and actual inequality. The disagreement with the Left is only about the efficacy and wisdom of the means by which we wish to do something about it. There’s nothing in that sort of worry that could warrant hostility, and I emphasised this to him. If Conservative and Republican party discourse was couched in terms of a concern about whether promoting Left-ish values would succeed in making the world a better place, politics wouldn’t be so polarising. But that’s not how they justify opposition to liberal reform. Political parties tend to let the libertarians monopolise the media and talk as if desiring equality is fundamentally evil on every front.
I asked him if there were any social changes that have occurred during his lifetime which he fought fervently against at the time, but now felt like they were fine, sound, not worth opposing. He joked that he enjoyed the sexual revolution greatly, but now worries about its long-term impact on responsibility for child-rearing and traditional family structures. But at this point he seemed perfectly open to the possibility that his own biases towards the status quo were excessive and probably unnecessary, and he certainly acknowledged that there was room for something like the modern Labour party to create a dialectic that gently nudges us in the direction of progress without radically overhauling anything. He may have written policy documents opposing marriage equality, but it was hard to envision him breaking down over its legislative success.
I also wanted to ask, but couldn’t, why someone like John Stuart Mill makes his blacklist alongside the likes of Rawls. From my perspective, conservatives of his variety need not disdain texts like On Liberty. Society has surely got to the stage now where the rights that Mill so passionately defended are one of those ‘sacred’ institutions and vehicles for human prosperity that Scruton cares so much for. I dug up this Wall Street Journal column afterwards, though, and now I understand why he doesn’t see it this way. He views ‘Utilitarianism’ as an archetypal example of one of those abstract, grand ideologies which justifies all kinds of reckless reform. But if Scruton is right in thinking that his conservatism is the best way of preserving human happiness, there is no genuine tension here. Once more, Lenin is ludicrously cited as an example of an anti-conservative consequentialist. But the fault here surely lies with Lenin’s interpretive skills, not with Mill’s philosophy. And I think Sullivan, apparently courtesy of Oakeshott, grasps my general point here about Mill and conservatism:
What Scruton has not comes to terms with is that the liberalism of Mill has become our custom. It has generated a culture that is itself “deeper and rarer than rational thought.” Anglo-American society, as it is today, is customarily liberal, in the Millite sense. Our sense of liberty, our resistance to being bossed around, our civil religion of “live and let live”: these are now the sacred principles of our customs. Oakeshott’s genius was to recognize this shift – to see that the principles of liberal society themselves generated a custom of what he called “civil association;” that these liberal principles had become conservative customs; and that the true conservative today is someone who defends the social architecture of liberal society, rather than pining for a past that never was in order to buttress prejudices that merely mask bigotry. That’s the distinction between conservatism and reactionaryism. And one can have serious reservations about Mill’s utilitarianism and still recognize that.
One final point. A friend noted how, despite his professed reluctance to invoke ‘abstract ideas’ in defending any practical positions, Scruton happily borrowed the language of justice when rationalising his support for Scottish independence, invoking the absurdity embodied in the West Lothian question. Perhaps he was being merely rhetorical and appealing to arguments that we as an evidently left-leaning audience would be attracted by, but it did seem that he was genuinely concerned for democratic values when pondering this phenomenon.
But his reply, no doubt, would be to say that of course such values may steer us on questions of what we should do, so long as we don’t idolise them and lose sight of all else that matters. Scruton wouldn’t back Scottish independence in the name of democratic justice at any cost. What matters is the effect of any such change on ‘concrete reality’, on individual lives. That’s not obviously anti-utilitarian. Nor is it an offensive form of conservatism that liberals should refuse to engage with.