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

Roger Scruton. Photograph: Intelligence Squared

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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SRSLY #20: Friends, Lovers, Divers

On the pop culture podcast this week, we talk albums from Joanna Newsom, Bjork and Grimes, Todd Haynes film Carol, and comedy web series Ex-Best.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen to our new episode now:

...or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on Stitcher, RSS and SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s web editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we'd love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

The Links

Joanna Newsom, Bjork and Grimes

Joanna Newsom’s Divers doesn't seem to be on Spotify, but you can get it on iTunes here. Listen to Grimes’ Art Angels here and Bjork's Vulnicura here.

This is a good piece about Joanna Newsom.

This piece makes the comparison with Elena Ferrante that we talk about on the podcast.

Here's Grimes's own post about Bjork.

Tavi Gevinson's interview with Joanna Newsom (where she talks about liking Grimes).



Ryan Gilbey's review of Carol, which he calls “as tantalising as hearing a tender ballad on a tinpot transistor”.

Anna's piece about the photographers that influenced the visual style of the film.

An interesting Q & A with director Todd Haynes.



The full series is available to watch for free here.

Meghan Murphy on friendship break-ups.


Your questions:

We love reading out your emails. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we've discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at], or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.


Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 


See you next week!

PS If you missed #19, check it out here.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.