THE death of Sir Roger Scruton has fanned the flames of a long-running civil war within the conservative ranks. Admirers and acolytes of the great thinker – social conservatives who value tradition, nation and family – have ensured his passing is marked with due recognition of his achievements and attention to his legacy.
This appears to have triggered a certain alarm among socially liberal conservatives who have been quick to pour as much cold water as they have to hand on the enthusiasm of their colleagues.
As Kathy Gyngell commented on TCW yesterday, Boris Johnson’s biographer Andrew Gimson has written a piece for Conservative Home, viciously laying into Scrutonian scribblers. Wrongly defining Scrutonism as pessimism, Gimson writes that the Scrutonian ‘revels in thinking of himself (most of them are male) as a victim, struggling to gain a hearing in a world dominated by authoritarian liberals who brook no dissent and impose their stifling orthodoxy through the universities, the BBC and the rest of the media’.
Gimson seems to imply that this ‘persecution by the liberals’ is reactionary delusion, despite ample evidence of its teeth, not least Scruton’s own high profile persecution last year at the hands of the Twitter hate-mobs and their feckless stooges in the Tory party.
Gimson holds up Michael Oakeshott in place of Scruton as ‘the greatest conservative philosopher of modern times’, contrasting how Oakeshott ‘leaves one feeling bucked and amused’ rather than, as Scruton supposedly does, ‘despondent’. There is nothing despondent about Scruton’s philosophy that I have ever seen, but I would certainly say you derive from it something more than amusement.
Oakeshott is a funny kind of conservative philosopher. He may not have been pessimistic by Gimson’s reckoning, but he was certainly sceptical. His godless philosophy held that what distinguished the conservative from the Marxist and fascist was his lack of any ultimate goal for society. Ever the pragmatist, the state for Oakeshott has ‘neither starting-place nor appointed destination’, only an aim to ‘keep afloat on an even keel’. Aptly did Bernard Crick describe him as a ‘lonely nihilist’.
This is not the conservatism for which Scruton proudly stood, as set out in his highly recommended Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition. In this tradition, which goes back at least to Burke, humanity lives under bonds of affection and loyalty – familial, patriotic, religious – which provide us with a sense of identity and purpose and the pre-conditions of our freedom.
Gimson claims Boris Johnson for Oakeshott, saying he has the making of ‘the most Oakeshottian Prime Minister this country has known’. How far Boris really is inspired by Oakeshott’s directionless pragmatism rather than Scruton’s idea of treasuring a place we, the people of England, call home remains to be seen – though pushing through for Brexit against the shrill warnings of the globalist elite would seem much more like the latter than the former.
In one respect at least, though, Boris resembles Oakeshott: he, too, was a womaniser, twice divorced and having numerous affairs, some of them with wives of his students and colleagues, and even one with his son’s girlfriend. Boris still has some effort to put in here if he wants to match ‘conservatism’ of that calibre.
The latest player to emerge on the field of the Conservative civil war, batting for Scruton’s socially conservative side against the metropolitan liberals, is the Orthodox Conservative Group. Mainly active in the Twittersphere, the group is fronted by the fearless Dominique Samuels, a woman who breaks the mould of woke orthodoxy by being young, black, northern, and a Tory-voting, socially conservative Brexiteer.
Describing her new group as a ‘truly conservative organisation aimed at promoting traditionally conservative values’ which have ‘been lost within the Conservative party’, she says it is ‘a forum for fellow social conservatives to contribute, propose policy and influence government policy’.
The group has published Ten Pillars of Social Conservatism, for which it has drawn fire from a number of liberal-progressive conservatives, prompting the Bow Group to spring to its defence: ‘Great to see launch of @OrthodoxConsGrp & absurd their foundation should be criticised. In the space of little over 10 years @Conservatives have gone from being an organisation that isn’t wholly conservative, to one where liberals are outraged by the presence of ANY conservatives’.
One Conservative-voting libertarian writer even went so far as to call the group’s social conservatism ‘deeply immoral’, claiming socially conservative policies are ‘discriminatory, economically damaging and politically unwise’.
‘Why should married couples be supported by the state at the expense of the rest of society?’ he asks – rhetorically, apparently, as though this question has never been given a cogent answer by social conservatives based on what is best for children and society. It is to ‘vilify single parents’, he claims. Dominique Samuels disagrees: ‘I was raised by an amazing single mother who worked her whole life to provide for me and my siblings. She was raised by both parents and was treated awfully. But that does not mean that stable, two-parent households are not desirable.’
This is the conservatism of Scruton’s great tradition. A recognition of the patterns of human life that give it structure and make things go well through the generations – family, nation, church, freedom.
This kind of conservativism – so-called populism as its detractors snootily smear it, as though there is something frightfully base about having policies that appeal to voters – has been a vote-winner in Brexit, and if Boris can actually bring himself to cut immigration down to sustainable pre-Blair levels it will be a vote-winner there too. Proper support for married families will also appeal to many poorer voters.
Social conservatism presents massive electoral opportunities to any leader willing to face down the PC woke mobs and listen instead to ordinary voters for a change.