The word ‘conservative’ is sadly abused. Nasty people claim it. So do fakes. So, when the English conservative philosopher Roger Scruton writes a book called ‘How to be a Conservative’, we sit up and take notice.
First, some caveats. On the very first page, we get this about ‘ordinary conservatives’:
Their honest attempts to live by their lights, raising families, enjoying communities, worshipping their gods, and adopting a settled and affirmative culture – these attempts are scorned and ridiculed by the Guardian class.
Don’t ordinary liberals or socialists, if there any left, want to raise families and enjoy communities? Are there people around who scorn and ridicule people who do? And is not the reference to the Guardian class an indication that the author may have succumbed to tribalism? Does he stand for the Spectator class? Then, a few pages later, Scruton tells us that he got his cultural conservatism ‘from the literary critic F R Leavis, from T S Eliot, whose Four Quartets and literary essays entered all our hearts at school…..’ Can I say that I have never met a man whose heart was so entered – at school, or at all? As well as a tribal war, we may have a class or culture war on our hands.
But to business – Scruton refers to what might be the Conservative bible, Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution. Burke did not believe politics could be reduced to a plan – he was opposed to ‘a politics that proposed a rational goal, and a collective procedure for achieving it, and which mobilised the whole of society behind the resulting program. Burke saw society as an association of the dead, the living and the unborn.’ That is a very English position and a useful introduction to being a Conservative. It’s a view I share – with other views, of course.
Burke was appalled at the popular revolt – in France or anywhere else. Eventually, most of the world joined him in that revulsion. When government fails, things get out of hand. That’s why I cannot understand how people who claim to be Conservatives support popular revolts – the position that we now call ‘populism’. How can someone who claims to follow Edmund Burke also claim to follow Farage, Hanson, or Trump? God only knows what Burke may have said (and Burke was not short-winded).
Then we get eight chapters seeking to find the truth in eight –isms. Did anything good ever come out of an –ism? Are we comfortable with a search for truth in abstractions like Liberalism or Environmentalism? If we are going to find truth in each of these –isms, of which Conservatism is the last, then are we not in for long journey in political or ideological Multiculturalism –another of the eight – isms? For example, under the truth in Socialism we get:
But socialism means, for most of its advocates, a political program designed to secure for all citizens an equal chance of a fulfilling life….That idea of social justice may not be coherent. But it speaks to sentiments that we share….Hence British conservatives in the nineteenth century frequently acknowledged common cause with the Chartists, and the greatest conservative thinker of the Victorian age, John Ruskin, addressed many of his homilies to the urban working class. Disraeli was not the inventor of ‘One Nation’ Toryism, but he certainly made clear….that the conservative cause would be lost if it did not also appeal to the new migrants to the industrial towns, and if it did not take their position seriously. A believable conservatism has to suggest ways of spreading the benefit of social membership to those who have not succeeded for themselves.
That last proposition is just a fact of political life – at least in Australia and England. (The U S is very different.) Much later we get –
….civil society depends on the attachments that must be renewed and, in modern circumstances, these attachments cannot be renewed without the collective provision of welfare.
Well, given that we do have and will continue to have the welfare state, is there not some Socialism and Conservatism in all of us – and is not the rest of the discussion just bargaining or posturing about the margins?
Scruton spends a lot of time on the zero sum game fallacy. ‘The great socialist illusion’ is that ‘the poor are poor because the rich are rich.’ That statement does look rather large – but how would I know? I can’t recall meeting a Socialist, at least recently, outside the National Party – and I think I would remember. (I should say that I haven’t met Jeremy Corbyn.)
The author must be right to say that we cannot condemn Nationalism just because it can be abused, and he is right to say that people are entitled to protect their national character against invading religions. It would be shocking to permit the practice of Sharia law in an open society. My own view is that historians and philosophers have underquoted on the liberation inherent in the Reformation.
When God makes the laws, the law becomes as mysterious as God is. When we make the laws, and make them for our purposes, we can be certain what they mean. The only question is ‘Who are we’?
Now, that statement about our being certain about what we mean is sadly unwarranted, and the other question is how do we know which laws were made by God and which by men? We only get the laws of God from the mouths of men.
The truth in Capitalism is that ‘private ownership and free exchange are necessary features in any large scale economy – any economy in which people depend for their survival and prosperity on the activities of strangers.’ But we are told that ‘Socialists don’t in their hearts accept this.’ Well, Socialists may not, but the people of China and Russia plainly do. They have both seen the starvation that otherwise comes about. Perhaps the professor had in mind Cuba or perhaps he foresaw the fate of Venezuela.
Under the heading Liberalism, there is a very good discussion about the two differing concepts of liberty – the positive and negative. Scruton is in my view plainly right when he says:
For the search for liberty has gone hand in hand with a countervailing search for ‘empowerment’….Hence egalitarians have begun to insert more positive rights into the list of negative freedoms, supplementing the liberty rights specified by the various international conventions with rights that do not merely demand non-encroachment from others, but which impose on them a positive duty.
The author refers to Article 22 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Its terms are unsettlingly wide and they bear the hallmarks of people who may not have had to get their hands too dirty to make a living. It’s hard to write Kant’s concept of dignity into an international covenant – and be taken seriously.
There are also some helpful remarks on the ‘down with us mentality’ in the discussion of Multiculturalism. Writing in 2014, Scruton said ‘The dethroning of reason goes hand in hand with a disbelief in objective truth’. He was certainly a prophet new inspired.
But the book is worth the price for the chapter on Environmentalism. Why don’t Conservatives want to conserve the earth?
…the love of home lends itself to the environmental cause, and it is astonishing that the many conservative parties in the English-speaking world have not seized hold of that cause as their own.
At last – someone who shares my astonishment! Scruton gives two reasons for the conservative heresy – the ascendancy of economics in the thinking of modern politicians and the agitated propaganda of the other side. We certainly have seen both here, but are we to remain prisoners of history while we ruin Earth for those who come after us? Later Scruton says (again, in 2014) that the only nation in the world who can lead it out of the crisis is the U S. God only knows what he thinks of the U S now.
Under Internationalism, we are told that once again ‘a fundamental truth has been captured by people with an agenda.’ We see this throughout the book – and the writer himself has an agenda. As someone who has spent a lot of time in universities, Scruton may find it hard to recall too many people who don’t have an agenda. We see it again on gay marriage. ‘Only someone with nothing to lose can venture to discuss the issue with the measure of circumspection it invites, and politicians do not figure among the class of people with nothing to lose.’
Later we get another entertaining look at the impact of religion on our communal life. The French revolutionaries were for the most part manically anti-church. ‘The Revolutionaries wanted to possess the souls that the Church had recruited…’ That is I think the case. It’s a theme that recurs in revolutions.
Subsequent revolutions have in like manner regarded the Church as Public Enemy number 1, precisely because it creates a realm of value and authority outside the reach of the state. It is necessary, in the revolutionary consciousness, to enter that realm and steel its magic.
In the hands of Robespierre, the attempted theft was low farce, but the effort was there. Burke stated the view that we and England adhere to – ‘that government must hold religion at a distance if it is to maintain civil peace.’ Scruton makes a droll observation on the fact that a majority of English people still put down ‘C of E’ as their religious affiliation.
But that did not imply that they attended an Anglican church – only that they were so far indifferent in the matter as to believe that God would not object to their pretending that they did.
When we finally get to Conservatism, we get a reference to Hegel – which in my view is a heroic flirtation with eternity – and we then get:
What emerges from it is the view of human beings as accountable to each other, bound in associations of mutual responsibility and finding fulfilment in the family and the life of civil society.
If that’s what makes a Conservative, how is he or she different to me or the rest of us?
Well, all these labels are suspect, but in the intellectual desert of Conservatism in Australia this book comes up at us like a Ballarat gold nugget.