We continue 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. Will they start to listen to him now? Some ‘Conservatives In Name Only’ already seem to be rattled by the thought that he could, after his death, move from the margins to the mainstream.
This week we are republishing our own transcript – in a five-part series – of Scruton’s lecture on the future of Europe, national identity and the virtues of patriotism and nationalism, which he gave to the ‘Europe at a Crossroads’ conference last May.
Our sixth lesson is taken from the first part of his lecture (below) in which he dissects the derogatory use of the labels of populist and nationalist. It is this: National sentiments have been demonised for a reason – they are the one thing that stands opposed to EU’s move towards imperial government.
WE need to look back into the origins of the European Union and ask ourselves how it came about that European integration was conceived in such one-dimensional terms as a process of ever increasing unity under a centralised structure of command. But it has been that way. Each increase in (EU) central power has had to be matched by a diminution in national power, every summit, every directive and every click of the ratchet has since carried within itself this specific equation. The political process in Europe has therefore acquired a direction. It is not a direction that the people of Europe have chosen. Every time they are given the right to vote on it they reject it, as recently in Britain. The process is moving always towards centralisation, top-down control, dictatorship by unelected bureaucrats and judges . . . and constitutional treaties framed without any input whatsoever from the people. In short, the process is moving always towards imperial government. Only one thing stands opposed to this result and that is the national sentiments of the European people.
For this reason national sentiments have been demonised: speak up for Jeanne d’Arc or the sceptred isles of St George and you’ll be called a fascist, a racist or a populist and an extremist – a pattern of denunciation that is repeated all across Europe by its ruling elite that tramples on the face of ordinary loyalties. We see this in the educated contempt directed towards those who supported Brexit and still support Brexit, and the fashioning of the label ‘populist’ as a name of abuse. A populist is a politician who appeals too directly to traditional and rooted voters and to sentiments of national belonging – something that has become not a crime exactly, but the thing against which the elite of Europe is in permanent opposition.
The fact is that national sentiment for most ordinary Europeans is the only motive that would justify sacrifice in the public cause, the reason why people vote not just to line their own pockets but to protect a shared identity from the predations of those who do not belong to it. It’s the real reason why Viktor Orban does so well in Hungarian elections and why Angela Merkel is facing such radical challenge from the AfD . . .
What we are now seeing in Europe is that yesterday’s radical visions cannot translate into today’s political needs. The imperial project is entering into conflict with the only source of sentiment on which it could conceivably draw for its legitimacy. The nation states are not equally stable, equally democratic, equally free or equally obedient to the rule of law. But they are all that we have. They alone inspire the loyalty and obedience of the European people and without them there is no way that the machinery of the Union can act. By replacing national accountability with distant bureaucracy, that machinery has left people disarmed and bewildered in face of the changes sweeping across the continent.
In a crisis people take stock, which means they retreat to the primary source of their social identity and prepare to defend it. They don’t do this consciously but they do it nevertheless, and the futile attempt by the comfortable elites to denounce the extremism of the people whose inheritance they have stolen or the populism of those who have gained the people’s favour merely exacerbates the reaction. The situation is not a happy one. Not only are there nations like the Flemish and English that have no nation state of their own, the half century of peace and prosperity has fed upon the European cultural inheritance without renewing it. The constitutional treaties and the transnational courts of the European Union have made a point of granting no favours to the Christian faith, and the spirit of multiculturalism has ensured that national cultures receive no subsidies either from national governments or from the European Union itself. A cult of the minority has been imposed from above.
Yet all across Europe multiculturalism is being put in question both by ordinary people and by many of their electoral representatives. For while multiculturalism seems to have done nothing to reconcile immigrant communities to their new surroundings, it has destroyed the frail remnants of national culture that survived the Second World War. This is one reason why people who stand up for their national identity can be so easily made to look like extremists. You don’t look like an extremist if you can express your national sentiment in the idiom of Orwell or Lampedusa. But when you have no national icons besides the flag and the football team, you find it difficult to display the most important aspect of national sentiment, which is that it is an invocation of peace and not a cry of war. And this is why culture matters and why its loss in times of crisis is a loss to the whole community, not just to the educated minorities who are aware of the fact. And it is precisely here, in the realm of culture, that the national idea needs to be defined and acknowledged, for European civilisation depends far more on national solidarity than on the transnational institutions that have emerged from the original plan.
We will continue Sir Roger’s lecture tomorrow.