Why doesn't Roger Scruton want to be labelled as "of the right"?

The philosopher positively despises being called a "reluctant rightist", particularly by Terry Eagleton.

It’s a rare thing, seeing Roger Scruton squirm. Forceful, didactic, pessimistic, yes, but discomfited? You can spend hours on YouTube, watching him espouse green philosophies and deliver sarcastic monologues about Richard Dawkins before you come across anything approaching discombobulation.

All the more intriguing, then, when I witnessed just such a thing occur during a recent appearance at the Royal Institution. The occasion? An Intelligence Squared debate entitled “The Culture Wars” where Scruton was slated to do battle to the death with Terry Eagleton over the true definition of culture - what it is, who possesses it, what purpose it serves. In fact, said “battle” was conducted in far too genteel a manner for much blood to be drawn, bar a nick from the occasional sarcastic barb.

“Culture is now what people are prepared to kill for,” Eagleton declared, opening the debate with a cut-down version of his rather more famous statement from 2000’s The Idea of Culture that “Culture is not just what you put on the cassette player, it is what you kill for.”

“Culture used to be a common ground where we could all meet as equals,” he went on. “Take literature - it’s a portable way of carrying values.” For Eagleton, this equality is key to a workable definition of culture, as is his belief that it cannot be separated from the political sphere.

While there is an obvious disagreement between Scruton and Eagleton on the idea of a cultural tradition or canon - Scruton holds to “a constant tradition of trying to articulate what it is to be human” while Eagleton prefers a plurality of different traditions that interweave and contradict quite amicably, all enjoying the name "culture" - they are agreed on the fact that culture and the appreciation of it is not what it was. As Scruton put it: “It’s possible to lose cultural knowledge much more easily than it is to gain it.”

“Culture has ceased to operate as a critique,” Eagleton lamented, in a manner that edged towards nostalgia, or “using the past as a stick to beat the present,” as his much-admired Cambridge tutor Raymond Williams once put it.

Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton debate. Photograph: Intelligence Squared

Eagleton went on to wield that stick a bit more, arguing that to evoke nostalgia for a linear cultural tradition - epitomised by such things as the House of Lords and the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace - is a favoured tactic of those on the right, when seeking to construct a concept of culture that excludes things they don’t like. “As Trotsky said, leftists have their tradition too,” he insisted. “What about the Suffragettes, or the Chartists?”

It was at this point that Scruton’s squirming began - both physically and rhetorically. He has, it turns out, a great aversion to being identified as “of the right”.

“People on the right don’t identify themselves as such, not as part of a group. We’re just holding on to the things we love,” he said, in what appeared to be a sleight-of-hand justification for secretly quite liking the Changing of the Guard.

“But you said of Thatcher...” Eagleton began, only to be interrupted as Scruton retorted: “I’ve grown up since then.”

As Eagleton piled up the ways he believes culture is innately political, and that as such one’s political beliefs are inseparable from cultural ideas - “the way universities have capitulated to capitalism”; “your support for economic systems that have brought about the commodification of culture” - Scruton’s squirming became more pronounced.

Finally, upon being labelled a “reluctant rightist” by Eagleton, he snapped - in the most urbane possible way, that is.

“If you mean in the other sense of ‘right’” he said, the phrase 'as in correct' hovering on his lips, “I suppose I do accept it.”

Details of other Intelligence Squared debates can be found at intelligencesquared.com

Roger Scruton. Photograph: Intelligence Squared

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.