This is the last of our series dedicated to the memory and works of the conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, and the tenth lesson, for our not very Conservative government, drawn from his writing.
It comes from the fifth part 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.
The lesson is this truth: that democracies need a national rather than a religious or an ethnic ‘we’.
THOSE who dismiss conservatism in the name of the universal ideals of the Enlightenment have a tendency to forget that governments are elected by a specific people in a specific place and must meet the people’s needs, including the most important of their needs, which is the need to trust their neighbours. That is why, in all the post-war political debates in European countries, conservatives have emphasised the defence of the homeland, the maintenance of national borders and the unity and integrity of the nation.
And this is also a point of tension in conservatism, since belief in a free economy and free trade inevitably clashes with local attachments and community protection. We are living now through the latest eruption of this tension. It was in the name of their social and political inheritance that conservatives fixed their banner to the mast of freedom. What they meant was this kind of freedom, the freedom enshrined in our legal and political inheritance and in the free associations through which our societies renew their legacy of trust. So understood, freedom is the outcome of multiple agreements over time, under an overarching rule of law. And the task of politics is to establish what Hayek called a Constitution of Liberty.
Liberals believe in the right of individuals and communities to define their identity for themselves, regardless of existing norms and customs. They do not see liberty as a shared culture, based in tacit conventions. On the Left, it is the negative that inspires. And a whole language has developed with which to abuse those who cling, in however dispirited a fashion, to the existing social order, the inherited hierarchies, the old and tried conventions. The -isms and -phobias are designed to describe our established forms of belonging as forms of exclusion. And so to undermine them. To racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia and the rest we now must add homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia. Those words belong to a posture of relentless interrogation, directed towards all that we have by way of a shared experience of belonging.
The effect of this is not to amplify freedom, but to curtail it in new and radical ways, as people are silenced, shamed or dismissed from employment for uttering thoughts that have become forbidden. And this is what we are beginning to see as the censorship that begins in the universities spreads to the rest of civil society.
Radical Islam, of the reactionary Sunni kind, is able to claim the privilege of a rival identity, a challenge to our rooted ways of belonging. And the response of Western liberals is therefore to insist that nothing should be said, nothing can be said, against this way of life. It is a way of life that challenges our way of belonging, but that merely proves that the problem is our way of belonging. Moreover, if the customs of certain Muslim communities seem to violate every precept defended by feminists, for example, this is an illusion born of Islamophobia. As every feminist knows, the culture of male domination is the preserve of comfortable white men in Western democracies.
All this reminds us of a remarkable truth, which is that ordinary people in Europe are less afraid of Islamists than they are of liberals who police their language and their thoughts and ensure that all attempts to affirm our way of life are nipped in the bud. In the face of this, the task of conservatives is surely to defy the censors, to be vigorous in affirming what we are and in shoring up the foundations of our inherited way of belonging, while extending an invitation to rival cultures to seek the compromises necessary to belong with us, on the same terms.
We should be in the business of instructing the public, and young people in particular, in the virtues of our civilisation. We should be teaching pride, not shame and gratitude, not resentment. And we should do this without denying the faults of our ancestors, or the need, where necessary, to mend our ways. Indeed, it is one of the virtues of Western civilisation, and a virtue owed largely to its Judeo-Christian inheritance, that we confess to our faults and try as best we can to atone for them. In our time, popes have apologised for the Crusades, archbishops have owned up to the Atlantic slave trade and churches everywhere have hosted self-accusatory sermons on the oppressions exercised by previous generations of Christians. And so it should be. But so it should be with other cultures too.
I do not think, nor have I ever thought, that conservative thinking can be devoted to freedom alone. Nor is the agenda about economic freedom. It is about our whole way of being as heirs to a great civilisation and a many-layered bequest of laws, institutions and high culture. To defend that way of being must be our first priority and this defence cannot be properly conducted through politics alone. We need to uphold the secular law that has come down to us from the Romans and the Anglo-Saxons. We need to defend the spiritual wisdom of the Hebrew Bible: the ethic of forgiveness and compassion that was taught to all mankind by Christ, and the spirit of free inquiry that we owe to the Enlightenment. We need to defend, in the face of a growing narcissism, the real and lasting sexual relations on which the future of society depends.
Opposition, disagreement, the free expression of dissent and the rule of compromise all presuppose a shared identity. There has to be a first person plural, a ‘we’, if the many individuals are to stay together, accepting each other’s opinions and desires, regardless of disagreements. Religion provides such a first person plural. I might define myself as a Christian or a Muslim and that might be sufficient to bind me to my fellow believers, even when we disagree on matters of day-to-day government. But that kind of first person plural does not sit easily with democratic politics. In particular, it does not accept the most fundamental disagreement within the state between the faithful who accept the ruling doctrine and the infidels who don’t. We lived through that in the 17th century and our democracy came into being because we lived through it and rejected it.
That is why democracies need a national rather than a religious or an ethnic ‘we’. The nation state as we now conceive it is the by-product of human neighbourliness, shaped from the countless agreements between people who speak the same language and live side by side. It results from compromises established after many conflicts and expresses the slowly forming agreement among neighbours, both to grant each other space and to protect that space as common territory.
It has consciously absorbed and adjusted to the ethnic and religious minorities within its territory, as they in turn have adjusted to the nation state. It depends on localised customs and a shared routine of tolerance. Its law is territorial rather than religious and invokes no source of authority higher than the intangible assets that its people share. It is the nation state, so conceived, that defines the primary goal of conservative politics in our time. Thank you.