It was in Paris in May 1968, as French workers and students revolted, that Roger Scruton became a conservative. “I was woken up then, I wasn’t really political until that moment,” the author and philosopher recalled when we met recently at his flat in Albany, the rarefied apartment complex opposite Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, London. “I thought, here is the most beautiful city in the world, with its wonderful culture, all the things that I’ve just learned to appreciate, and these wretched, spoiled brats are trying to pull it all down… I had an old-fashioned English Puritanical revolt against it.”
Since then, Scruton, now 75, has become something of a one-man think tank, writing more than 50 books on politics, philosophy, religion and culture; founding and editing The Salisbury Review (from 1982 to 2001); hosting a ten-day summer school on his Wiltshire farm (with the unintentionally comical name “Scrutopia”); and, most recently, becoming head of the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful commission in November 2018. His sacking was unsuccessfully demanded by Labour MPs and others on account of his past remarks on Hungarian Jews (part of a “Soros empire”), Islamophobia (a “propaganda word”) and homosexuality (“not normal”).
“It’s upsetting because it’s meant to undermine your authority,” Scruton, who was knighted in 2016, said as he reflected on the affair. “And authority is the only thing I have, authority that comes from hard work and thinking.
“What surprised me was the kind of people who repeated this. You expect people who spend their lives on Twitter to have this store of malice but when it comes up in parliament, as it did, I was astonished.”
Scruton is unrepentant, however, about the remarks that earned him such opprobrium. “Anybody who doesn’t think that there’s a Soros empire in Hungary has not observed the facts,” he said, heedless of the anti-Semitic portrayal of the philanthropist George Soros as a Jewish puppet-master.
It was “nonsense”, Scruton continued, to accuse the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán of anti-Semitism (the pair have been friends since meeting in Budapest in 1987). The same applied, he insisted, to charges of Islamophobia. “The Hungarians were extremely alarmed by the sudden invasion of huge tribes of Muslims from the Middle East.” Islamophobia was, he repeated, a propaganda word “invented by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop discussion of a major issue”.
Perhaps most remarkably, he commented of the rise of China: “They’re creating robots out of their own people… each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.”
Scruton has long prided himself on his contempt for utopian schemes to remake the world and society. How does he respond to the charge that Brexit (which he favours) is one such project? “What I really think is that David Cameron should not have given us the chance of a referendum if he did not intend to go through with the result. I think that was a major constitutional betrayal and I suspect that most people would feel that.”
He elaborated: “Cameron’s resignation really was the death knell of the Conservative Party as we knew it because that’s something a proper Conservative politician cannot do: renounce leadership at the moment when it’s needed.”
Scruton was little more favourable towards the prime minister whose government appointed him. “I can’t say that Theresa May would have been my choice. She’s obviously an honest, respectable, somewhat old-fashioned, wooden person… she’s doing her best. But it’s not what the country needs, it does need strong leadership.” Someone prepared to pursue a no-deal Brexit? “Yes.”
Evelyn Waugh once lamented that the Conservative Party had “never put the clock back a single second”. Does Scruton agree? “I think that’s his romanticism, of course it’s true. But it’s not entirely true. What the word conservative means is not putting things back but conserving them. There are things that are threatened and you love them, so you want to keep them.”
Has he been surprised by the resurgence of socialist politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn? (Who Scruton once remarked reminded him of his father.) “In the end I’m not really surprised because the decline of education means that people don’t understand any more what it [socialism] was, they haven’t got the historical narrative that will tell you exactly why communism leads to the gulag.”
But Scruton, who retains a conservative scepticism of the free market, confessed that he was “tempted by the idea of renationalising the railways – they seem to run quite well in places that they’re nationalised”.
He is repulsed by some of the consequences of globalisation. “It is outrageous that Amazon doesn’t pay any tax in this country, or hardly any at all, but it operates from Luxembourg, which is a tinpot little place, which seems to be getting more and more power over us. A lot more could have been done to discipline international business.”
Does he feel any optimism about the future? “I’ve never been an optimist, but that’s fine because pessimists have the possibility of being agreeably surprised… What is known as optimism is really a collection of illusions. One must recognise what all religious people know, which is that human beings are imperfect and fallen and there’s no way in which they alone can surmount the problems which they create.”
Sir Roger Scruton
The New Statesman interview with Sir Roger Scruton (“Cameron’s resignation was the death knell of the Conservative Party”, 10 April) generated substantial media comment and will be readily recalled by most readers. We have now met with Sir Roger and we have agreed jointly to publish this statement.
In the interview, Sir Roger said of China: “They’re creating robots of their own people … each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.” We would like to clarify that Sir Roger’s criticism was not of the Chinese people but of the restrictive regime of the Chinese Communist Party.
Sir Roger is quoted accurately in the article: “Anybody who doesn’t think there’s a Soros empire in Hungary has not observed the facts.” However, the article did not include the rest of Sir Roger’s statement that “it’s not necessarily an empire of Jews; that’s such nonsense”. We would like to clarify that elsewhere in the interview Sir Roger recognised the existence of anti-Semitism in Hungarian society.
After its publication online, links to the article were tweeted out together with partial quotations from the interview – including a truncated version of the quotation regarding China above. We acknowledge that the views of Professor Scruton were not accurately represented in the tweets to his disadvantage. We apologise for this, and regret any distress that this has caused Sir Roger.
This article appears in the 10 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure