Flat White

Conservative notes

18 June 2016

8:00 AM

18 June 2016

8:00 AM

Yet another reason to keep the Crown: as part of her 90th birthday honors list, the Queen knighted Roger Scruton. Scruton – sorry, Sir Roger – can be called, without exaggeration, the greatest living conservative philosopher. He’s also a massive pain in the elite’s generous posterior. Formerly Professor of Aesthetics at Birkbeck College, Scruton was slowly but surely hounded out of academia for openly professing that supreme intellectual heresy: traditionalism. Since then, he’s distinguished himself not only as a critic of the modern Left, but also as a constant antagonist of successive Tory governments, from Thatcher onward. (Scruton, though a capitalist, is skeptical of what’s now called ‘market fundamentalism’, the chief contribution of Reagan and Thatcher to the conservative movement.) The Salisbury Review, Britain’s second-most eminent journal of right-wing opinion, he helped found in 1982. The Review has been a stubborn thorn in the side of Tory leaders ever since, insisting rather annoyingly that Conservative MPs govern, you know, conservatively.

But to call Scruton a political philosopher wouldn’t even be half just. Scruton is first and perhaps foremost a Kantian: he’s written popular books on Kant, including those for the Brief Insight and Very Short Introduction series. His other works include volumes on sex, wine, hunting, ecology, and the Church of England. In 2009, a negligent censor at the BBC allowed Scruton to write and present a documentary called Why Beauty Matters, exploring the failure of 20th and 21st century artists to adhere to the central purpose of art: to reveal glimpses of the sublime and beautiful in an otherwise tedious, ugly world. Throw in a few novels, librettos, and a stint in the anti-communist Prague underground during the Iron Curtin years, and you’ve got a wee taste of Sir Rog’s impossibly storied career.

In a saner world, Scruton would already be the longest-serving head of the British Academy. But so complete is the Left’s stranglehold on our public institutions as to make such a no-brainer totally unthinkable. Eric Hobswam, the narrow and unintelligible Marxist historian, was made President of Berkbeck in 2002. Despite conservatives composing at least half of the British public (and Marxists virtually none of it), Birkbeck decreed Scruton’s views unacceptable and Hobswam’s mandatory. It ousted a battle-hardened warrior against Stalinist tyranny and elevated its leftmost armchair-critic. Hobswam was made a companion of honor in 1998; only the Monarchy, it seems, is left to pay homage to accomplished intellectuals/artists/guerillas without ideological prejudice. Of course, even the royal honors system isn’t without flaws: Andrew Lloyd Webber was made a Baron in 1992, the year Scruton was purged from Birkbeck. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Phantom of the Opera superfan – I’m just not sure it’s the sort of thing that earns one a seat among the Lords Temporal.

Still, this is a day for celebration. And, anyway, as Paul Goodman noted, Scruton probably wouldn’t accept a peerage unless it was hereditary, which is about as likely as Fidel Castro being elected pope: not impossible, or even unlikely, but I still wouldn’t hold my breath. So let’s be content for now with knowing that, so long as One’s Majesty remains at the top of the heap, there are still prominent personages in the Commonwealth willing to give honors where due. While we’re at it, let’s also give David Cameron a round of applause, remembering that the Queen doles out knighthoods at the British PM’s recommendation. (So it was in Australia not too long ago, alas.) Poor Davo’s been getting slapped around by conservatives in the Conservative Party these days for backing the Remain camp. Scruton’s an unapologetic Leaver, and it takes a certain generosity of spirit to acknowledge the greatness of one’s enemy mid-battle.

The Salisbury Review crowd might not be getting invited to Downing Street, but I can’t help but feel optimistic that, with the Leave campaign breathing down their necks, Cameron & Co. will take conservative grievances seriously. (If they survive a Brexit loss, that is.) After all, tax cuts and spending caps aren’t even a fraction of what constitutes traditional conservatism. Part of what makes Scruton such a nuisance is that he doesn’t simply criticize the Conservative Party. It’s that he ignores them. Traditional conservatism, alone among the great ‘political’ philosophies, has virtually nothing to do with politics. That means a nominally conservative party can never even feign a monopoly on ‘true conservatism’ the way liberal and socialist parties do. Rather, traditional conservatism is about a sense of place – ‘oikophilia’ as Scruton puts it. Love of home. It’s about how societies govern themselves, not how or even how little they’re governed. Leftists point to skyrocketing divorce rates and ask how rightists can deny same-sex couples the right to marry on the grounds of ‘sanctity’; so do traditional conservatives. And we balk at the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ attitude of some monarchists. If the Crown doesn’t serve as a measure of grace and constancy in government, better to scrap it and find something that will. Institutions that have no use deserve no reverence. The honor given Sir Roger can rightly be shared by all those who’ve had the courage to disagree, not only with the radical Left, but also with the establishment Right. It’s a testament to those conservatives who don’t see conservatism as a 9-to-5 job for generously pensioned parliamentarians. So raise a glass, see an opera, write a sonnet, draw a covert, hug a tree, and say a Gloria Patri in Scruton’s honor tonight. Then do it again tomorrow night and the next. That’s the stuff of true conservatism, and it’s the stuff of a well-ordered life.

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