Sir Roger Scruton

The loss of England’s last conservative thinker makes a new addition to our chronicle of death. Sir Roger Scruton had been quite ill, from a cancer, submitting to chemotherapy and the like, yet nevertheless stayed in the news, always with a new book (he wrote around eighty, according to one obituarist, on about as many subjects), in addition to being an accomplished pianist, enthusiastic fox-hunter, and so forth; and most recently in the news from a vicious, deceitful attack on him by a leftist thug, “interviewing” him for the New Statesman (where he had once been the wine columnist).

This cost him, for a while, his remarkable work as (unpaid) chairman of a British commission to promote better-built and more beautiful housing. Fortunately, a recording was found of what he actually said. This did not resemble what the leftist thug said that he had said, so the paper apologised. But in the course of the (widely publicized) “scandal,” Sir Roger was able to discover, hardly for the first time, that the “conservative establishment” are gutless pantwets. Their first instinct was to abandon him for their own personal safety.

I remember Roger Scruton (as he then was) from the start of The Idler magazine, in Toronto. He was editing The Salisbury Review, in London, where some of the people can read. Both were reckless start-ups. Naturally we corresponded, and taking each other for fellow “young fogeys,” were mutually helpful. I was surprised by his command of detail, including subscription and distribution arrangements. He was operating on a shoestring, as I was. Incredible application and industry made him a success, so that his name was soon known across Europe, and even in the United States.

His name is best known in Central Europe, and especially in former Czechoslovakia (which he loved), from the “activist” part of his life before, and then after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In such parts, everyone not a criminal was anti-Communist, but he was thinking in larger terms. In the end, with the ideological degeneration in the West, I thought of him as an English dissident.

The word “conservative” has been used here before. Sir Roger was unashamed of it. He took it to be a philosophy, but finding its adherents somewhat dim, worked heroically to instruct them. He was not a man of one idea, nor as I have mentioned, of one book; he was habitually a teacher. His cause, in a word, was Civilization: its preservation. He was quite unpretentious about it, though his attention to modern “Enlightened” thinkers and use of their vocabulary made him seem, often, to be learnedly dense; but never so much that he could not be followed by a reader who remained conscious. He was exact: something that “perfessers” don’t bother with any more. He was, methodically, independent of mind; and unexcitable. Those who’ve read broadly have, in effect, seen it all before; and he was willing to explain it.

A Burkean conservative, I suppose we could call him, though I favour the term, “reactionary.” Edmund Burke reacted to the French Revolution, grasping that it was evil. Sir Roger’s reaction was to the Paris streets in 1968, a later explosion of “self-indulgent middle-class hooligans,” with an ambitious agenda they can’t articulate, except in gobbledegook and slogans. He realized, on the spot, that he was a builder, not a destroyer. He must get to work, defending things. He did, and paid each price in full.

From the start, he was “obsessed” with beauty. His first books were on art and architecture, and from these objects his interests spread. I won’t go into my disagreements with him — this would take eighty books — but we agreed on most things. We are, or were, both proponents of the “Endarkenment,” in opposition to the Lords of Misrule. Let us say the parting prayer and continue: Backward ho!