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Monday, November 24, 2014

Daniel Hannan: What Does It Mean to Be Conservative?

By Daniel Hannan

The cleverest living Englishman
Some years ago, while canvassing for his wife in a local election in Wiltshire, Roger Scruton was asked on the doorstep, “What is conservatism, anyway?” The voter had unwittingly put the question to the man who, more than any other, has defined what conservatism is; the man who has as good a claim as any to be the cleverest living Englishman.

If he were on the Left, Roger Scruton would be recognised as one of our towering public intellectuals; but it’s a peculiarity of our age that conservative thinkers occupy a space beyond the mental horizons of most commissioning editors. There will always be Rightist columnists of the Richard Littlejohn variety, I’m delighted to say; but a Rightist professor whose writings range from German philosophy to the oddities of common law, from religious art to country sports, is likely to be regarded as an eccentric class traitor.

Still, Roger will be read and remembered when many of the prominent literary figures of our day are footnotes – partly for the keenness of his intelligence and partly for the consistency of his vision, but mainly for the grandeur of his prose. He can ennoble almost any subject – economics, cooking, telephone boxes – by his gentle logic and his courteous insistence on treating readers as his intellectual equals.

Roger’s detractors call him an unthinking man’s thinking man, alleging that he will justify any prejudice, from insistence on traditional marriage to dislike of immigration, with allusions to Herder or Aristotle. In fact, the good professor makes a solidly Burkeian case for prejudice. Life, he holds, would become impossible if we had to think through every situation from first principles, disregarding both our own experience and the wisdom of our ancestors.

In his new book, How to Be a Conservative, Roger takes a characteristically Burkeian approach to some of his favourite themes: the essence of nationhood, the nature of tragedy, church architecture, civil society, market malfunctions. He may be mellowing slightly as he enters his eighth decade. He accepts, for example, the case for some legislation in the field of employment rights and anti-discrimination, and has softened his views on homosexuality. Proof, perhaps, that he is living by his own Burkeian code. As attitudes shift, the conservative shifts with them, seeking to temper rather than to halt. As Roger puts it, conservatism is a work of continuing rescue which, since the Enlightenment, has salvaged the best of civil society from the world’s upheavals.

Roger Scruton has almost as little time for libertarians as he has for socialists. Although a convinced defender of open markets, he frets that some who call themselves conservatives have slid from freedom into anomie. Freedom unsupported is a fragile thing, he writes. People must be held together by stronger bonds than choice alone, “and those stronger bonds are buried deep in the community, woven by custom, ceremony, language and religious need”.

An aside on the Church of England neatly encapsulates his approach. He lists its many jumbled and contradictory features, “fragments left over from forgotten conflicts”, and admits that, looked at closely, they are incoherent:

But it is part of the conservative spirit of the English not to look too closely at inherited things – to stand back from them, as Matthew Arnold encouraged, in the hope that they can go on without you. Their institutions, the English believe, are best observed from a distance and through an autumnal haze.
In such a spirit, Roger evaluates in turn the great causes of our time – socialism, capitalism, environmentalism, nationalism, multiculturalism, liberalism – finding in each some truths and some falsehoods. His constant concern is how to define the first-person plural upon which political order must rest. That concern is applied, in particular, to our present discontents: the jurisdictional claims of the EU and other supranational entities; the effects of mass immigration; the competing claims of secular and Islamic law.

Unless and until people identify themselves with the country, its territory and its cultural inheritance – in something like the way people identify themselves with a family – the politics of compromise will not emerge.
Quite: a glance at almost any troubled land, from Syria to Ukraine, confirms as much.

The financial crash, Roger believes, happened because a system that used to depend on recognisable property rights and reciprocal obligations became abstract and incomprehensible. He wants to return economics to its etymological root in the oikos, the home. “Oikonomia without the oikos ceases to be a practical science and becomes an ideology instead.” A lifetime of asserting the primacy of the human spirit, not least in his work with dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, has left Scruton suspicious of all ideologies.

In a climate that values systems, the conservative stands stubbornly by pragmatism and inherited folkways. Good things, Roger Scruton holds, are easily destroyed, but not so easily created.

This is especially true of the good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of which we depend upon the cooperation of others. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull.
Which is why we conservatives often find ourselves at a disadvantage in public discourse: our case is true but boring. Such is our tragedy; let's hope it's not also Britain's.


Daniel Hannan is the author of 'How we Invented Freedom' (published in the US and Canada as 'Inventing Freedom: how the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World'). He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes the EU is making its peoples poorer, less democratic and less free.

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