Roger Scruton’s new book, How to Be a Conservative has come at a timely moment. With a general election looming in 2015 in the UK, and Republicans here in the US preparing for 2016, it’s an important time for conservatives on both sides of the pond to reflect together on what just what it might mean to be a conservative, and what our aims, as conservatives, should be.
And Scruton’s book gives plenty of food for thought. He draws on his experiences as an academic, as the son of a working class socialist, and as an activist in the former eastern block countries to weave a fascinating picture of the basic tenets of conservatism. Part memoir, part philosophical analysis, and part common sense, Scruton has written that most engaging of books, where a philosophy is set forth which has been informed by life experience, and life experience is interpreted in light of philosophical ideas.
Having been raised by a socialist, Scruton is quick to point out his father’s socialism sat side by side with a love of English liberty, the ‘freedom to say what you think and live as you will’, which the English ‘have defended over centuries.’ Yet, even as a young man Scruton could see that socialism was a ‘dream’. And later, when he found himself involved in the former eastern bloc he reports that he ‘learned to see socialism in another way – not as a dream of idealists, but as a real system of government, imposed from above and maintained by force.’ Socialism, Scruton argues, is based upon a ‘desire to control society in the name of equality, which carries with it a contempt for human freedom.
It is exactly this ‘top-down’ approach characteristic of socialism that Scruton contrasts again and again with conservatism, which he maintains is about ‘society shaped from below, by traditions that have grown from our natural need to associate.’ For Scruton, this is civil society – comprised of families, clubs, schools, work places, church, etc., where ‘people learn to interact as free beings, taking responsibility for their actions and accounting to their neighbours’. And in an important way, this civil society ‘built from below’ is a pre-political one, in the sense that our political order depends upon civil society in order to work, but cannot create civil society itself.
For the conservative, then, family and society are prior to government, and therefore government exists to protect these institutions, rather than to reformulate them according to some current liberal elite ideal. ‘There is indeed such a thing as society,’ argues Scruton, ‘but it is composed of individuals. And those individuals must be free, which means being free from the insolent claims of those who wish to redesign them.’
Freedom is thus an essential part of Scruton’s conservatism, but it best thought of as a freedom tempered by a determination to preserve civil society, and to limit government. It is certainly not the ‘freedom’ of leftist liberalism or postmodernism. Scruton shows how the former has led to a culture of ‘entitlement rights’ which, instead of limiting government, have instead led to its monstrous growth. And he shows how the latter has bred a scepticism about Western culture and objective truth which has led to ‘choice’ or ‘consensus’ as the highest value, with no truths left to inform choice. Scruton is especially critical of this postmodern idea of freedom; quoting Matthew Arnold he says, ‘freedom is a very good horse to ride, but to ride somewhere.’
Scruton puts forward a conservative position on a whole range of current topics – from socialism, the rights culture and postmodernism to environmentalism, capitalism, Islam, nationalism, and internationalism. He writes with a tone of urgency, but also with a steady, measured rationality. As an academic myself, I feel a debt of gratitude to Scruton, who has dedicated his life to philosophically defending conservatism, at great cost to his career prospects. He has paved the way for a new generation of conservative intellectuals.
Conservatism, Scruton argues, is ‘boring but true’. I must disagree, but in any case, this certainly does not apply to his book. How to be a Conservative is a must read for anyone interested in politics, philosophy, or culture.