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Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2020) RIP

“Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen. Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”

Sir Roger Scruton, academic, writer and supporter of East European dissidents, died yesterday after a short illness. I knew he was getting on in years but his death nevertheless came as a shock to me. I did not agree with all of his views, but I did on most of them, and he was one of those men I regard as a defender of liberty and of civilisation in its fullest sense.

I met him when I was only 22, having recently graduated from my college. I had contributed a couple of small items towards the Salisbury Review journal that he edited, and was invited to a wonderfully posh and fun black-tie dinner at Hatfield House, ancestral home of the Salisbury dynasty, and joined by such luminaries as the journalist T E Utley, and Enoch Powell. I remember – this being 1988 – that Powell spoke with his customary intensity about Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges Group speech of that time, and remembered thinking that this issue over Europe would dominate much of our politics. I wasn’t wrong.

When you are a young graduate, making your way in the world and trying to get the advice of clever people, it makes a lot of difference when the folk you meet and admire turn out to be great as people. Roger Scruton was one of them – I remember his wit, kindness and helpful advice. The same applied around the same time when I met two outstanding thinkers: Anthony Flew, and David Friedman (son of Milton Friedman). A few years later I met P J O’Rourke, who was hilarious and full of encouragement towards me as I told him I was a trainee journalist. I had the same experience when I met Auberon Waugh once. It really matters that people whom you meet like this give the time and trouble to talk to young people, and I try and remember that when, now that I am in my greying middle age, that youngsters whom I come up against ask me about what I do. Scruton was a model of the good and considerate teacher.

It has been remarked elsewhere that Scruton was more admired abroad than he was in the UK, and that applies of course to the UK’s education establishment, much of which is dominated by the Left. His book, Thinkers of The New Left, is one of his most brilliant, and dissected the likes of Foucault, Derrrida, Heidegger and Althusser – a veritable gallery of knaves and fools. Their defenders weren’t happy, and Scruton’s chances of academic grandeur suffered. He taught in the US, wrote more books and ran a farm. In middle age, he took up horse riding and hunting with hounds with a zeal of a convert. In some ways he was a bit of a paradox: the grammar school boy with a bit of a rebellious streak, except that for him, being a true rebel meant being conservative rather than a socialist. It is a quality I share in some ways, as do many of those who write for this blog.

I think that history will be kind to him: his focus on issues such as understanding the importance of beauty in human life, for example, will last a bit longer than some present obsessions, including, I hope, the intellectual cul-de-sac of “woke” politics. (Here is an obituary in the National Review, from the US.)

All that remains is for me to express my condolences to his family and many friends. In particularly, I think of those people in Eastern Europe he helped, at some risk to himself, during the years ahead of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unlike some academics, he was also a man of action and he was brave as a lion. RIP, Sir Roger.

18 comments to Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2020) RIP

  • Ian

    His is a huge loss: he was a great man who died far too young. But I console myself that he’s in a better place.

    Although his death came perhaps as less of a shock since I’d heard of his illness, nevertheless I was looking forward to being associated with him and meeting him due to his participation in the Free Speech Union. And one can tell his statute because everyone who can is keen to boast about their connection to him, however slight (as in my case) that may have been.

    Condolences to the family.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Well said, Johnathan.

    An example of the disgraceful way that the British left wing establishment treated Sir Roger was George Eaton of the New Statesman maliciously using selective quotation to get him fired from his unpaid post advising the government on how to make people’s lives better by making the government architecture they have to live with less ugly – a subject dear to his heart as you mentioned.

    Sir Roger was reinstated when it became clear how egregiously his words had been twisted, but it was infuriating to see how the then Housing Secretary, James Brokenshire, who calls himself a Conservative MP, caved into the “woke” mob rather than give the benefit of the doubt to one of the foremost Conservative thinkers of our time.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Brokenshaw is an oaf.

  • the grammar school boy with a bit of a rebellious streak, except that for him, being a true rebel meant being conservative rather than a socialist. It is a quality I share in some ways, as do many of those who write for this blog.

    +1

    I envy you that you met him.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Very interesting, Johnathan. I really don’t know much about Sir Roger, but now a few holes are less empty. I am hot to get his Thinkers of The New Left, especially after reading the obituary in The National Review.

    Thanks.

  • rosenquist

    Conservative thinkers have on the whole praised the free market, but they do not think that market values are the only values there are. Their primary concern is with the aspects of society in which markets have little or no part to play: education, culture, religion, marriage and the family. Such spheres of social endeavor arise not through buying and selling but through cherishing what cannot be bought and sold: things like love, loyalty, art and knowledge, which are not means to an end but ends in themselves.

    About such things it is fair to say that Mr. Trump has at best only a distorted vision. He is a product of the cultural decline that is rapidly consigning our artistic and philosophical inheritance to oblivion. And perhaps the principal reason for doubting Mr. Trump’s conservative credentials is that being a creation of social media, he has lost the sense that there is a civilization out there that stands above his deals and his tweets in a posture of disinterested judgment.

    -Roger Scruton

    RIP

  • Snorri Godhi

    Sir Roger Scruton, academic, writer and supporter of East European dissidents

    Obviously Johnathan is not fond of the Oxford comma.

    More substantive comments tomorrow.

  • Lee Moore

    Conservative thinkers have on the whole praised the free market, but they do not think that market values are the only values there are. Their primary concern is with the aspects of society in which markets have little or no part to play: education, culture, religion, marriage and the family. Such spheres of social endeavor arise not through buying and selling but through cherishing what cannot be bought and sold: things like love, loyalty, art and knowledge, which are not means to an end but ends in themselves.

    Not sure I agree with all that.

    “Market values” are simply the application of the principle of voluntary association to those voluntary associations which one or other party, or both, requires some kind of economic incentive to enter into. The notion that “market values” cherish those voluntary associations that require economic incentives, over those that don’t, is a caricature.

    Moreover education, culture, and yes, even marriage often involve economic incentives, and even more often quid pro quos of one kind or another.

    Michelangelo did not paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling for free.

    And in the immortal words of Mrs Merton :

    “But what first, Debbie, attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?”

  • David Bishop

    Jonathan, that’s a fine obituary for a fine man.
    Thank you.

  • Althusser got away with killing his own wife. I’d hardly bracket him among “knaves and fools”, for fear of defaming knaves and fools.

  • CaptDMO

    It’ obvious to me that Mr. Scruton has never enjoyed skating at Wollman rink, stayed at Trump Tower in Manhattan, or attended a show in the arena at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.
    Maybe if he had ever chat with anyone that ever actually has.
    I propose that it’s Mr. Trump’s critics, (Mr. Scruton’s sources?) posturing in RABIDLY interested judgement are the penis envy dilettante “creations of the web”, and other “media”.
    Much like the post-creative Algonquin Round Table, DESPERATE to recycle/glean/parlay paid “influencer” income.
    Perhaps a review of the current “trend” in “social canceling”, beginning on the quads, and traipsing through the “Awards shows” (including Nobel/Pulitzer) MAY be better reference as to who is “consigning our artistic and philosophical inheritance to oblivion”.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Jonathan, that’s a fine obituary for a fine man. Thank you.

    David, thanks.

    Natalie, yes, I was aware of that horrible episode around the New Statesman hit job, and recall how disgusted I was at the time. That Sir Roger was undergoing cancer treatment when this took place makes it even worse.

    Even by the standards of journalistic malfeasance, what the New Statesman did was particularly shabby. I hope those “Tory” MPs who said and did what they did at the time are suitably contrite.

    I like to think that in some ways we have reached a peak in this sort of madness, but who knows?

  • staghounds

    Mr. Scruton and I only intersected hunting, where
    who and what you are in the outside world are irrelevant. I never heard anyone say a bad word about him and he was always welcoming and friendly.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    I generally distrust people who make a career of trying to build a better yesterday. But his stout defense of beauty and his gift for aphorism won me over. RIP.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Roger Scruton was smeared by the left – but that is what the left do, this is war and enemy action is to be expected.

    What was vile was the way that Roger Scruton was betrayed by some (not all – but some) “Conservatives”, they stabbed him in the back. Just as they have stabbed so many real Conservatives in the back.

    “Conservatives” dancing to the tune of the left, bleating about “Diversity” and “Social Justice” (and the rest of the Collectivist agenda), is pathetic – it will NOT save them. The left welcome these “moderates” attacking real Conservatives – but plan (should they come to power) to crush these “moderates” the same as everyone else.

    “If I help the left destroy other people they will leave me alone” – no they will not.

  • Toby Young in the Daily Mail has an example of how left academia controls the narrative even in moments of egregious failure.

    Even when Scruton might have expected to enjoy a moment of triumph, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he was shunned by his colleagues. He was teaching philosophy at Birkbeck College in London at the time and to mark the occasion the history department invited two Left-wing intellectuals to debate the momentous event.

    ‘It was going to be a debate between the old Left and the new Left,’ Scruton recalled 26 years later. ‘They were aware that I actually knew people who were then being appointed president and prime minister of various countries they were talking about, that I had been directly involved, but of course there was no suggestion that I be allowed to say a word.’

    I would bet that in private there were suggestions that he not be. After decades of training themselves to ignore him, they were doubtless good at being slow to think of anything so obvious as asking the views of the man whose predictions had outperformed theirs, but at that particular moment I suspect some quite conscious avoidance had to come to the aid of their trained mental limitations.

    I learn incidentally that Toby is about to launch a new pro-free speech organisation, and share his regret that Sir Roger will no longer be in its advisory council.

  • I also envy that you met him, Jonathan. I had just started corresponding with him, and got a letter from him a week before he died in which he said he was enjoying reading my novel (don’t know if he had time to finish it), and that he was hopeful for his health, so I was stunned to hear of his death.

    Not only was he extremely clever, he was incredibly productive. I don’t know how he managed to write what he did, all at such a high level, and do everything else in his life that he did. A great man, who will be sorely missed.

  • Snorri Godhi

    For me, Sir Roger is primarily connected with the concept of oikophobia; which, as i learn from the Fount of All Knowledge, he introduced into politics. He certainly introduced me to it.

    It is also of some interest that, as you will find at the link, the concept was originally conceived by another Englishman, Robert Southey.

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