“Real grief,” wrote Sir Roger Scruton in Culture Counts, “focuses on the object, the person lost and mourned for, while sentimental grief focuses on the subject, the person who grieves.” Bona fide grief attends the death of Roger Scruton, 75, from cancer on Sunday. The noted philosopher, expert on aesthetics, and intellectual architect of modern conservatism – who wrote more than 50 books – leaves behind his wife, Sophie, and two children, Sam and Lucy.
Scruton, who had been fighting cancer for the last six months, “died peacefully on Sunday 12th January,” his website announced yesterday. “His family are hugely proud of him and of all his achievements.”
Conservatives in his native UK mourned his passing. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote, “We have lost the greatest modern conservative thinker – who not only had the guts to say what he thought but said it beautifully.” Former MEP Daniel Hannan, who called Scruton “the greatest conservative of our age,” said, “The country has lost a towering intellect. I have lost a wonderful friend.”
Roger Vernon Scruton was born on February 27, 1944, in Buslingthorpe, Lincolnshire, England, to Jack Scruton, a left-leaning schoolteacher, and Beryl Claris “Johnny” Scruton, a Conservative-minded housewife. Roger so excelled as a student at High Wycombe Grammar School that its headmaster waited until Scruton won a scholarship to Cambridge University in the natural sciences before expelling him. Scruton explained that actors in a play he staged had set the stage ablaze, and “a half-naked girl” doused the flames.
Roger Scruton revealed that he became a conservative while watching the 1968 Paris riots:
“I suddenly realised that I was on the other side,” he says. “What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans. When I asked my friends what they wanted, what were they trying to achieve, all I got back was this ludicrous Marxist gobbledegook. I was disgusted by it, and thought there must be a way back to the defence of western civilisation against these things. That's when I became a conservative. I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.”
Scruton changed his focus to philosophy at Jesus College and credited Edmund Burke with further grounding him in a broader, deeper conservative tradition. At university, the middle-class prodigy absorbed a Western cultural patrimony for which he remained deeply grateful all his life, committing his career to teaching it to subsequent generations.
Scruton took a post as professor of aesthetics at London’s Birkbeck College in 1971 and married his first wife, Danielle Laffitte, two years later. (They divorced in 1979 without having children.) In 1974, he founded the Conservative Philosophy Group, attempting to connect the Conservative Party with deeper taproots in the Western tradition.
During his tenure at Birkbeck, he saw academia slowly changing its mission. “The culture which has been entrusted to the universities to pass on is no longer passed on, because those charged with doing so no longer believe in it,” he said. He reminisced that, as a student, he never knew his professors’ political views; however, “the new curriculum is a curriculum of foregone conclusions.” His colleagues ostracized him as he rebuffed their efforts to transform education into the replication of the faculty’s pet political views. He also began to study for a career in the law, because “I thought I ought to have an exit route.”
Since he taught classes in the evening, he began his prolific writing career during the daytime. He quietly embarked on a political career, but the Tories rejected him as a candidate in 1978. The following year he wrote The Meaning of Conservatism and became a pariah within the academic world.
Although Scruton became closely associated in the public mind with Margaret Thatcher, who sometimes attended Conservative Philosophy Group events, he never enjoyed political insider status. He instead established his reputation through his prodigious output and even more imposing intellect.
Scruton held the Burkean notion that conservatism springs from community. “The conservatism I shall be defending tells us that we have collectively inherited good things and that we must strive to keep them,” he would write in How to be a Conservative. Conservatism meant embracing a national identity, religion, and other traditional markers of society. These, in turn, created a healthy civil society that should do more to guide and provide for citizens than its government. Scruton’s conservatism meant cherishing and preserving “all the traditions that enable people to live with each other.”
Part of the inheritance is a Judeo-Christian view of human nature that respects the integrity of each human person. That necessarily limits the government, especially overarching supranational entities such as the European Union, which he indefatigably opposed. It also respects the market as establishing a free relationship between responsible human beings. Scruton warned of the “demoralisation of the economic life” that occurs when “[d]ebts are no longer regarded as obligations to be met, but as assets to be traded. And the cost of them is being passed to future generations, in other words to our children, to whom we owe protection and who will rightly despise us for stealing what is theirs.”
“The culture which has been entrusted to the universities to pass on is no longer passed on, because those charged with doing so no longer believe in it.”
To popularize these views, Scruton became founding editor of The Salisbury Review in 1982, leading to his most public controversy. He published an article by Ray Honeyford, headmaster at a Bradford middle school, arguing that multiculturalism had failed his students – the vast majority of whom were Pakistanis or Asians – by denying them integration into UK society, especially by limiting their proficiency in the English language. The article triggered a national furor as a putative example of racism. The newly fired Honeyford had to seek police protection for his own safety. (A court reinstated Honeyford, whom soon retreated into early retirement rather than live with the nonstop campaigning.)
Scruton later recalled that editing the journal “cost me many thousand hours of unpaid labour, a hideous character assassination in Private Eye, three lawsuits, two interrogations, one expulsion, the loss of a university career in Britain, unendingly contemptuous reviews, Tory suspicion, and the hatred of decent liberals everywhere. And it was worth it.”
The same year that Scruton publicly defined conservatism, 1979, he began surreptitiously visiting the Communist bloc. A colleague named Kathy Wilkes invited him to speak to dissident intellectuals and students cloistered in a private apartment in Prague. There, he said, he found a group of people hungry to receive the cultural patrimony of the West and he rediscovered the joy of teaching. Soon, he began lecturing across Communist-dominated Eastern Europe to students dispossessed by socialist universities.
It was, however, not a safe undertaking. A policeman once threw him down a flight of steps. The police later expelled him from Czechoslovakia.
However, Marxist inefficiency undermined their efforts at suppression. Scruton later said one of the people in his circle “actually was the first person to invent a software programme in the Czech language. He gave it to us before any officials could get hold of it, so that we were able to send in messages on floppy discs before the secret police had any way of communicating with each other in Czech by the same method.”
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Scruton continued his intellectual life, encouraging others to study aesthetics and value beauty for its own sake, to read great literature, appreciate classical music, and uphold Judeo-Christian civilization. He taught at Boston University and purchased (but later sold) an estate in the U.S. He wrote on topics as diverse as sex, beauty, and animal rights. He also continued to define the conservative temperament in matters large and small, from taxation and EU policy to fox hunting. One such hunt introduced him to his future wife, Sophie Jeffreys, whom he wed in 1996. They had two children together.
Scruton’s accomplishments led to his being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2016 for his commitment to “public education.” The same year, Sir Roger Scruton graciously honored the Acton Institute by speaking at the first conference of our new transatlantic initiative, Religion & Liberty Transatlantic. At the “Crisis of Liberty in the West” conference, he discussed “freedom of the nation-state.” You may read his remarks here or watch the video here.
Scruton’s final year on earth was marred by the same “cancel culture” that had dogged his academic life. The Conservative government of Theresa May appointed Scruton an uncompensated adviser to its Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission – an appointment entirely appropriate given his lifetime of scholarship on aesthetics. Last April, the New Statesman accused Scruton of making “outrageous” racist comments about Hungarian Jews being part of George Soros’ “empire,” and claiming “each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one.” The Tories fired Scruton within hours and Scruton’s interviewer, deputy editor George Eaton posted a picture of his champagne-soaked celebration of the sacking.
However, the full, 54-minute recording of the interview soon emerged. Scruton had explicitly denied Soros’ empire was composed of Jews and called anti-Semitic conspiracy theories “such nonsense.” His comments about Chinese people denounced Beijing’s soulless “mass politics and the regimentation of the ordinary [human] being.” The New Statesman eventually admitted Eaton had acted unprofessionally and his summary had been “misleading.” In July, the government of Boris Johnson reinstated Scruton to his advisory post.
By then, he was already suffering from the cancer that would take his life. Scruton’s prompt defenestration to satisfy the Twitter mob proved that “a prophet is not without honor, except in his own country.” Scruton greeted every setback with good cheer, summarizing his life in 2018 by saying, “It’s been a great adventure for me to be so hated by people I hold in contempt.”
Yet once again, Eastern Europe feted the man rejected by his own nation, and now his own party. Last June 4, Scruton received Poland’s Order of Merit. In November – 11 years after Vaclav Havel honored him with its Medal of Merit – the Czech Senate awarded Scruton its Silver Medal. One month later, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban bestowed his nation’s Order of Merit on Scruton, now bald and wheelchair-bound but beaming with pride.
These leaders understood the profound debt of gratitude they owe to Scruton’s activism, his scholarship, his humanism, and his philosophical precision. Above all, they appreciated his genuine warmth, wit, and friendship. Their gratitude is shared by those throughout the English-speaking world who seek to comprehend the vocabulary, and content, of conservatism, and all those who need encouragement to uphold the good, the true, and the beautiful to which he dedicated his life.
Sir Roger Scruton, requiescat in pace. May his memory be eternal.
How identity politics destroys freedom (Address at the Acton Institute’s first transatlantic conference on the “Crisis of Liberty in the West.”) December 1, 2016.