Endearingly, she wants my opinion. “Dad,” she asked recently “what’s your definition of Conservatism?” I rattled off a list. Self-reliance, a reverence for the past, patriotism, a suspicion of idealism, an inclination towards law and order. She narrowed her eyes. “No, but Dad, what’s the thing, the image that comes to mind. If Conservatism had an emoji – what would it be?”
There was a time when eating with the children was about as intellectually taxing as folding the laundry. No longer, clearly. Several scratches of the chin later and there, in my mind’s eye, was a definition of Conservatism in visual, nay human, form. It was from a couple of years ago inside the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster. The philosopher Roger Scruton was explaining why the imagery of radicals and revolutionaries was seductive. They marched, with a noisy zeal, for fashionable causes. Conservatives, if they marched at all, did so – not with a metaphorical clenched fist – but with a palm edging gingerly skywards. And a whispered chant of “hesitate!” Not easily rendered in emoji form, I grant you, but still a perfect distillation of something so nebulous and abstract and true.
His [Scruton’s] intellectual and moral courage did not render him a physical coward.
That ability to animate complexity with an aesthetically satisfying flourish was part of the secret of Scruton’s greatness. The first anniversary of his death passed last week with many of his fans wondering what he’d try to teach us about the times in which live. He surely would’ve found Trump’s recent behaviour deranged, while admonishing us for taking Twitter bans on presidents lying down. What might he have made of Covid-19 and the way his beloved Common Law has been overwhelmed by statutory instruments and police interpretation of guidance?
As the Labour peer Maurice Glasman wrote: “Over the past year, as the pandemic took hold and politics fell apart, my thoughts have returned again and again to Roger ….he was a gentle and curious man and I would have enjoyed his observations.” Lord Glasman’s essay for the UnHerd website is a thought-provoking and tender eulogy, as well as a reminder of Scruton’s extraordinary breadth. I’ve read about ten of his books, no more than a fifth of a canon that ranges from claret to Kant.
He [Scruton] surely would’ve found Trump’s recent behaviour deranged, while admonishing us for taking Twitter bans on presidents lying down.
So, no superfan I, but in a country not known for its attachment to philosophers, Scruton was able to change the way his readers thought – even behaved. Nobody else could make me sit through nearly four hours of online opera. Yet when his last (posthumously published) book took Wagner’s Parisfal as its subject, it felt like an bum-numbing instruction. When I read how he’d taken up horse riding in middle-age (he broke a leg jumping a hedge in his early seventies), I decided there was no shame in trying to do the same (and yes, I too ended up in A&E).
And, though he never crossed the Tiber, his admission to the Catholic Herald in 2015 that he’d always been “drawn to the Catholic Church because of its respect for tradition, for the apostolic continuity it represents and for its attempts to imbue life with sacraments” certainly rang true for this catholic.
Of course, he was far from infallible. I met him socially only once, at a dinner where I think I overheard him observe to the ambassadorial host – as he left – that his fellow guests were “unremarkables”. Nice one, Roger. And not all his critics were wrong to call his prose excessively purple. In On Hunting (1998), he talks about winding his fingers through a horse’s mane while quoting Ecclesiastes. Pretentious twaddle? Somehow he (mostly) got away with it.
Attractively, his intellectual and moral courage did not render him a physical coward. Not just flinging himself over giant fences on horseback at an age when most older men found golf enough of an exertion, but also – as a young man – dodging communist heavies while organising samizdat lectures behind the Iron Curtain.
That example matters, especially for those for whom the battle of ideas is potentially fatal. I remember meeting the brilliant Ed Husain in a BBC studio two years ago. It’s not an exaggeration to say that as an Islamic reformer Ed’s words might one day cost him his life. I noticed that, amid his pile of papers, there was a well-thumbed book by Sir Roger Scruton.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.