In May 1968, visiting his girlfriend in Paris, Roger Scruton, age 24, watched from an apartment window as students overturned cars and lampposts and threw stones at police. For seven weeks the civil unrest raged, paralyzing France. “That’s when I became a conservative,” he observed years later. “I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.”
Scruton soon found himself in good though embattled company, as across the Western world dissenters from the Spirit of 1968 compared notes. A countermovement began to form. By the early 1980s the fruit of its efforts could be found in the Thatcher government and the Reagan administration. Scruton, who had written his dissertation on aesthetics and received his Ph.D. from Cambridge in 1973, was teaching at Birkenbeck College, London, when he published his third book, The Meaning of Conservatism (1980), which met with furrowed brows among his left-leaning academic peers. He had already helped found a dining club called the Conservative Philosophy Group. In 1982 the founders of The Salisbury Review named him its first editor, trusting him to advance a more traditional, cultural conservatism than that preferred by certain Thatcherites who stressed free-market economics. Good-bye, academe.
Thus liberated, Scruton went on a tear. Over the next four decades he wrote more than 50 books, including half a dozen novels. Along the way he made arguments for, inter alia, traditional sexual morality and English independence from the United Kingdom. The former opinion, misrepresented by journalists who wrenched his words out of context, cost him an unpaid government position in 2018; the offending publications eventually apologized.
Add to his curriculum vitae a couple of operas and the script to the BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters (2009), which he also presented. “The pursuit of beauty” is “the search for home,” he wrote in The Face of God (2012). “We deface the world when we scribble ‘me’ all over it. . . . Beauty is the face of the community, and ugliness the attack on that face by the solipsist and the scavenger.” He shook his head at litter.
During the Cold War he supported an underground network of intellectuals against the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. He smuggled in literature. In 1998, the Iron Curtain no more, President Václav Havel of the newly formed Czech Republic awarded him the Medal of Merit. Queen Elizabeth knighted Scruton in 2016.
He found much in Burke and (mild surprise) Hegel to inform his political philosophy, which was downstream of culture, as we say, but that’s not exactly how Scruton said it. “Culture and religion are in the last analysis indissoluble,” he argued, drawing on T. S. Eliot. In traditional religion, with all its serious appeal to manners and morals, Scruton found culture’s “life-blood”:
The future of mankind, for the socialist, is simple: pull down the existing order, and allow the future to emerge. But it will not emerge, as we know. These philosophies of the “new world” are lies and delusions, products of a sentimentality which has veiled the facts of human nature.
We can do nothing unless we first amend ourselves.
“Such is the conservative message for our time,” he maintained. “It is a message beyond politics, a message of liturgical weight and authority. But it is a message which must be received, if humane and moderate politics is to remain a possibility.”
Sir Roger Vernon Scruton, age 75, died yesterday after a bout with cancer. Requiescat in pace.