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 assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era