Sir Roger Scruton is dead. The knight errant of modern philosophy, the Edmund Burke of our time, the pimpernel of dissidents, is no more. He was only 75.
If a French philosopher of his stature had died, there would be a state funeral in what is left of Notre Dame, with an oration by the President of the Republic, and a tomb in the Panthéon. Here, not even the Times, for which Scruton once wrote a coruscating column that electrified and enraged England in the Eighties, decided that his death was front-page news. No man is a prophet in his own land, least of all England.
The British have never cared for those who think too much. The Germans like to boast that theirs is the land of poets and thinkers; Britain has been even more blessed with both. Yet to those who defy the orthodoxies of the age, we pay little attention and are often vindictive. From Roger Bacon, the 13th century friar who is said to have been imprisoned for writing the books that pioneered experimental philosophy, to his namesake Roger Scruton, this country has rewarded those who go against the grain with indifference or ingratitude.
It ought to be a source of shame for our ancient universities that neither Oxford nor Cambridge, his alma mater, ever recognised Scruton’s contribution with a chair in philosophy. With a few courageous exceptions, British academics had suffered from Scrutophobia. Neither his books — of which there were more than fifty in all — nor his teaching, which drew large audiences (and protests) wherever he lectured, were enough to impress the gatekeepers of the cloister.
Perhaps it is just as well. For Scruton flourished in the freedom he found, far from the petty petulance of the professors, in the open market of ideas. He taught in America, where he was fêted, and for a while considered settling there. But his love of family and country drew him home again, to the farm in Oxfordshire, the church where he played the organ and the fields where he rode to hounds. In later years he and his wife Sophie ran a summer school there. He joked that he had found “Scrutopia” and in a way it was true.
Yet the barely disguised envy and hostility of his peers did rankle. He sometimes mused that his early polemical writing, especially his 1980 tract The Meaning of Conservatism, had wrecked his academic career and that he wished he had done things differently. After all, he had created a corpus that ranged across ethics, aesthetics and metaphysics, including highly original investigations into sexual desire, music and the environment, which deserved to be acknowledged on its own merits.
His fate was sealed when he founded a High Tory journal, The Salisbury Review, and dared to publish an article in 1982 by a state school headmaster, Ray Honeyford, which cast doubt on the theory and practice of what became known as multiculturalism. Honeyford lost his job and Scruton was vilified. It was bad enough that he was seen as an apologist for Thatcherism in the years when Oxford refused the Prime Minister an honorary degree. In liberal academic circles, however, the Honeyford affair tainted him with the unforgivable sin of racism. It did not help that he was friendly enough with Enoch Powell to buy the older man’s hunting gear.
What hurt him most, however, was not the enmity of the dons but the philistinism of the politicians. True, Margaret Thatcher (whom, despite many reservations, he admired) did attend meetings of the Conservative Philosophy Group that he founded with Hugh Fraser. But she seldom took seriously the ideas that were aired in Jonathan Aitken’s drawing room at his Westminster home. Nor did Scruton have any more luck when he revived the Group during the years of the Cameron and May governments. His exasperated passion for the Conservative Party has remained unrequited.
It was all the more gratifying, then, that in his seventies Scruton finally began to receive the recognition that was overdue for a lifetime of service to the republic of letters. He was knighted in 2016 for services “to philosophy, teaching and higher education”. Abroad, the nations of Central Europe, for whose resistance to totalitarian tyranny he had done so much, vied with one another to honour him.
Then, in his last year, came the unkindest cut of all. The New Statesman, for which he had written a wine column, published an interview that was presented as a farrago of racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Instantly excoriated on broadcast and social media, Scruton was sacked within hours by the May Government from his unpaid job as chairman of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. It did not seem to matter that the interview was quickly exposed as a crude hatchet job, which had traduced the far more nuanced views of the philosopher into more or less the opposite. Thanks to the efforts of Douglas Murray, who obtained the tape, the New Statesman apologised and eventually Scruton was reinstated by the Government. The damage, though, was done.
A few months ago, Scruton was diagnosed with cancer. Surrounded by a devoted family and an unexpectedly large and varied host of admirers, at home as well as abroad, the pain and suffering of his last months was to some extent alleviated by the knowledge that his intellectual endeavours had not been in vain.
In a valedictory piece last month in the Spectator, he looked back neither in sorrow nor in anger, but grateful for what he now saw as not so small mercies: “Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.” Roger Scruton is dead. Long live his ideas!