This is the seventh in our series dedicated to the memory and works of the conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, in which we have been targeting the Conservative government with a series of lessons drawn from his writing.
Yesterday we published the first section of a keynote speech Sir Roger gave on the future of Europe, national identity and the virtues of patriotism and nationalism, to the ‘Europe at a Crossroads’ conference last May. In this section Sir Roger moves on to the question of how to defend conservatism.
It brings us to lesson number seven: Conservatism starts from the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed but not easily created.
EUROPEAN civilisation depends far more on national solidarity than on any of the transnational institutions that have emerged from the original plan. This for me is the principal task of the conservative intellectual today: to get hold of that national culture and represent it to the people. This brings me to the question of how to defend conservatism in the situation in which we now find ourselves.
Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share – the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed but not 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 on the co-operation of others having no means to obtain it.
In respect of such, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull. That is one of the lessons of the 20th century. It is also one reason why conservatives suffer such a disadvantage when it comes to public opinion. Their position is true but boring; that of their opponents, exciting but false. Civil society can be killed from above but it grows from below: it grows through the associative impulses of human beings who create civil associations that are not purpose-driven enterprises but places of freely sustained order.
Politicians often try to press these associations into alien moulds, making them into instruments for external purposes that may be in conflict with their inner character. This is what happened to state schools in our country when the socialists conscripted them to the pursuit of social equality; it is what happened to universities when governments demanded that they be expanded so as to offer a new rite of passage to the young – a time away from home and family, exposed to the relentless and mind-numbing jargon of the Left-liberal theocracy. It is what happened to all the ‘little platoons’ of Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech lands when the Communist Party made them into transmission gears for the socialist agenda. It is what is happening to many of our habits under the jurisdiction of the European human rights machine which condemns as discrimination all our attempts to maintain our old social, marital and sexual habits.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the conservative position, even if it captures a fundamental experience of social attachment, is no longer secure. Politicians who never ask themselves about the roots of social order, who have no conception of the nation and its moral personality, who look on the legacy of Christian civilisation only to laugh at it or turn in puzzlement away, who fail to notice that marriage and family are the sine qua non of social reproduction.
Such politicians have allowed our continent to enter a period of deep uncertainty while effectively preventing the debate that we all of us need – the debate about identity and how we can adapt to its changes. Who are we? What makes us a community? How do we recruit the young to belong to that community and what do we do with those who refuse? Radical Islam has brought that multifaceted question into the open and has been greeted with a predictable silence from the new political class which is entirely without the means to answer it.
It is this silence of the political class that provoked the Brexit vote in my country. As the day of the vote approached it became clear that people were beginning to see the referendum as an opportunity to express feelings that had been largely excluded from the political process. In his attempt to secure the result on which he had staked his career, David Cameron warned of the economic catastrophe that awaits us should we withdraw from the single market, and he produced one expert after another to prove the point. Not all the voters, however, were persuaded. The experts had a point, but they sounded like people who could settle anywhere and always be on top of things. For such people it is no great imposition to be governed from elsewhere – elsewhere is where they always are.
For many ordinary voters, however, whose networks are also neighbourhoods, the issue of who governs us and from where is real and urgent. For such people, something was at stake that had been systematically overlooked by the politicians and which was more important to them than all the economic and geopolitical arguments, namely the question of identity: who are we? where are we? and what holds us together in a shared political obedience? It is not only the British who’ve asked this question. It is the principal political question of our time.
This transcript first appeared in The Conservative Woman on May 19, 2019.