On 10 April, the New Statesman published a 900-word Encounter between George Eaton and the philosopher Roger Scruton.
The Encounter is a short interview slot in the Observations section, which opens the magazine each week.
The piece was also published online and promoted on Twitter by George, after which Roger Scruton was sacked without official explanation from his role as a government adviser on architectural matters.
The original interview was headlined “Cameron renounced leadership when it was most needed”.
The headline of the online version was: “Roger Scruton: Camerons resignation was the death knell of the Conservative Party”.
It is highly unusual to release the transcript of a print interview but in the interests of transparency, we are happy to do so.
The full transcript of the conversation between George and Roger Scruton:
George Eaton: You are both a conservative and a supporter of Brexit. Whats your response to those who say that Brexit is an unconservative project? They say its utopian, its immoderate, and so on.
Roger Scruton: I never saw it as a project. I mean, the fact is we were given… Let me go back to the beginning. What I really think is that the then prime minister David Cameron should not have given us the chance of a referendum if he did not intend to go through with the result. I think that was a major constitutional betrayal and I think, I suspect that most people would feel that. And having got the wrong – the result he didnt want, he walked away at the very moment when the country needed leadership, not just leadership from a specific political party but from the prime minister who had initiated this. Given the right to – given the opportunity to vote, I voted for Brexit because Ive never approved really of the European Union, I never approved of it because of its attempts to confiscate national sovereignty in all the issues that matter. To me that is derogation from real politics. Thats not to say I dont see the absolute necessity of a trans-European system of co-operation. And I think everybody agrees with that. But I think it had the wrong form. And all attempts to reform it seem to get nowhere. So my view was that we should withdraw and then work for a new treaty, but it didnt turn out that way because the vote, the referendum, was not really respected by parliament and thats understandable because we dont have a direct democracy, we dont really believe in referenda in Britain. We assume that we have a representative democracy and that parliament will take decisions on our behalf. So that parliament, having been landed with a decision that it did not itself make, then decides to undo it, essentially, thats the situation were in. So where we are now is not a happy place. But it doesnt follow from that that it was – if Cameron had said, having received the vote, that, “OK, I understand what youre saying, Ill now lead you in the direction which I would not have chosen” there would have been a completely different scenario now. He might have had the courage to go for a no-deal Brexit, at least he would have been able to say, “I come to you, you Europeans with a particular decision that my people have made and I have no choice but to enact it.” And I think that something would have gone through, not necessarily a deal. I dont think you can have a deal with an institution that consists of 28 members. How can you get them all to agree to it? Thats my position, does that make it clear?
GE: Yes that makes sense. Obviously one of the great obstacles and leaving, to getting a deal, has been the Irish question, specifically the Irish border. Whats your view on how that could have been resolved?
RS: Well I think it is a difficult question because the opening of that border went with a long and difficult process of reconciliation between communities that have been at each other's throats for 300 years and to risk undoing that was impossible. So I think were trying to keep the border open while respecting Irelands desire to remain in the European Union and our desire to withdraw from it. But the European Union does not have a concept of national identity. It was set up to abolish that idea, not to abolish German national identity because that was trying to save itself. But it doesnt recognise the absolute value to the people of Northern Ireland of being part of this kingdom – for them thats a negotiable thing, its not negotiable for the Northern Irish. I think thats sort of the problem. My hope has been that deeply engendered history of conflict between the northern and the southern Irish has, to a great extent, not been forgotten but been conciliated in some way, that perhaps people dont now want immediately to return to the polarised situation that we had, its hard to know. When the Troubles occurred, southern Ireland still was that strange entity described in Ulysses, which Im re-reading: a deeply Catholic country in which divorce was impossible, and abortion and all that, hadnt moved with the modern world. It wasnt the country which now has a Taoiseach who is a Hindu immigrant and a homosexual, you know, who has brought about all these extraordinary changes. Not saying that those changes are necessarily right but Ireland has jumped forward into the modern world in a way which Im sure many of the Irish people themselves regret but nevertheless its not that romantic thing that was so yearned for by the IRA. So could it be that this old conflict is now dwindling and disappearing? I dont know.
GE: Do you still favour English independence?
RS: No, I dont think Ive ever really favoured English independence. My view is that if the Scots want to be independent then we should aim for the same thing. Scottish independence, I dont think the Welsh want independence, the Northern Irish certainly dont. The Scottish desire for independence is, to some extent, a fabrication. They want to identify themselves as Scots but still to be part of a, to enjoy the subsidy they get from being part of the kingdom. I can see there are Scottish nationalists who envision something more than that, but if that becomes a real political force then yeah, we should try for independence too. As it is, as you know, the Scots have two votes: they can vote for their own parliament and vote to put their people into our parliament, who come to our parliament with no interest in Scotland but an interest in bullying us.
GE: So youd favour an English parliament?
RS: Well I think yes its very odd that there isnt such a thing. My only worry is if there were such a thing it would be a new building just as horrible as the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.
GE: On the economy, theres always been a conservative critique of the free market, and its increasingly said by not only some on the left but by some on the right that capitalism is no longer working for the majority and that free-market economics has proved to be inherently unconservative. Do you agree with that?
RS: Well, Ive never been an ardent free-marketeer, although I am sceptical of state involvement in the economy, as I think most people are these days. Capitalism, its a word, and what we have today is so different from what was originally described as by Marx and people like that. Its no longer the capitalist class of property-owners and property-less workers who are forced to sell their labour or anything like that. Most big firms now are collectively owned by their own members not as cooperatives, but as something like that, as shareholders. There is a big guy at the top, the founding person, but so many of them are not like that. These are kind of sovereign entities and they accumulate huge sums in profits, which do enable them to take actions which are not necessarily contributous [sic], dont necessarily contribute to the public good. So I dont know, Im of the view that the free market is a necessary institution, it simply is what people do when they try to make ends meet. But that when things get too big and when they try to transcend tax boundaries and other boundaries which are necessary for the control of human behaviour, then they have to be themselves cut down to size. I think thats where we need national sovereignty. I think it is outrageous that Amazon doesnt pay any tax in this country, or hardly any at all, but it operates from Luxembourg, which is a tin-pot little place, which seems to be getting more and more power over us over the years. A lot more could have been done to discipline international business in this way.
GE: Have you been surprised by the revival of socialists both here and in the US?
RS: Yes, although in the end Im not really surprised because the decline of education means that people dont understand any more what it was, they havent got the historical narrative that will tell you exactly why communism leads to the gulag, even though the evidence is still with us, with China and the rest. And they dont really know quite what socialism meant. But people will always go on believing that the present disposition of property in the world is unjust, and that people who dont have things ought to have them, and that people who have too much ought not to have it, thats deep in the human condition to think that. But its a pure fantasy to think that socialism will rectify that. It never did.
GE: Are there any of the individual polices that you think have merit – renationalisation of public utilities or higher tax for top earners? Whats your view on those?
RS: I do think, well obviously as a railway user, I get tempted by the idea of renationalising the railways, partly because they seem to run quite well in places where theyre nationalised; although it gives huge powers of strike action to people, cripples France every now and then. Im not really in favour of nationalisation, nor high rates of taxation, because all that does is send the people whom you most want to be in the country spending their money elsewhere, as happened with all those 300,000 wealthy French people living in London. So I think these are unreal solutions. No, I think there are elements – much more important in the socialist legacy, to my way of thinking, is the proper provisions both to look after the poor and the disadvantaged and also to give them some way into society, so that theyre not just dependents, thats what socialism should really be thinking about. Unfortunately, the Momentum movement has invaded the Labour Party and stopped it thinking about those things, turned it more in the direction of absolute power over everything.
GE: Whats your view on the question of tuition fees?
RS: To be quite honest, I have two views really. One is that university education is incredibly cheap for what it is, for what it claims to be. The second view is that its incredibly expensive given that the universities dont teach anything any more. But if they were doing what they did £9,000 or £10,000 a year is nothing, and well, I have two children at university so I have a few thoughts about it. But they are actually working hard my two and getting an awful lot out of it, I think its money incredibly well spent. Most people would spend that on a holiday.
GE: Yes. Of course youre trying to fill the void that some universities have left with your summer schools, Scrutopia.
RS: Thats right. I have a specific worldview which people do want to learn about. Its not easy to teach it through a university. I have a position, I teach an MA for Buckingham, but Buckingham is a sort of free university, rather outside the system, a pure business deal.
GE: Evelyn Waugh once said that the problem with the Conservative Party is that its never put the clock back by a minute. Do you agree with that?
RS: I think thats his romanticism, of course its true. But its not entirely true. What the word conservative means is not putting things back but conserving them. There are things that are threatened and you love them, so you want to keep them. I think in that sense the Conservative Party has been conservation, certainly in comparison with the Labour Party.
GE: Do you think there are some institutions, some traditions which it hasnt conserved enough when it should have done?
RS: Its hard, I think. There is the interesting case of David Cameron and gay marriage; obviously he made a big decision that he was going to pre-empt that whole discussion and go straight into the gay marriage agenda, which was in many ways admirable because it stopped the whole thing becoming the issue as it might have been for two years. But most conservatives would have said, “Isnt marriage one of the institutions that we ought to be sustaining in its proper nature? etc”, so there was an occasion where there was a genuine conservative issue at stake where the Conservative Party essentially took the other line. Whether it was right or wrong is another matter because its such a complex issue now.
GE: On homosexuality, youve been criticised by some for saying, for instance, homosexuality is not normal. But that seems to be a statement of fact rather than a…
RS: Well I mean I wrote a book about sexual desire about 30 years ago nearly, thats stayed in print because its the only philosophical attempt to say what its about. But in that book I say a lot of things about homosexuality, none of which could be conceived as what is now called “homophobic”. I actually argue that its not a perversion and so on, but that its different, and say a lot of things about why its different. Then people take little sentences out of context, the learned editors of BuzzFeed, who have their views on all these things, put together a kind of patchwork of offences without bothering to examine arguments or anything like that, and so you get caricatured as a particular kind of thing as though you were somebody who wants to stone homosexuals to death or something, just because you said that its different. My own view is dont go there, dont get involved in that kind of conversation because these are people who dont understand ideas, theres no point in it. They themselves arent in it for the ideas, theyre in it to take revenge on the world.
GE: In terms of policy, would you rather gay marriage hadnt been introduced?
RS: Im not sure. I mean, I think… We cant claim that the English, British society at the time it was introduced was a great exemplar for the maintenance of the old marital idea, almost everybody is divorced and children abandoned and all that kind of thing, so… But still, I do take a sacramental view of marriage and I think that on that view the state cant legitimise marriage anyway, so let it call what it wants marriage, it doesnt matter.
GE: And where do you stand on the other reforms weve seen in the area of homosexuality, things like the repeal of Section 28? Was that right?
RS: That was the sexual offences act?
RS: Oh yeah, thats history. One must remember the sexual offences act was very late in the day. Homosexuality was not an offence for most of the 19th century, sodomy was but that was regarded as a physical degradation, it wasnt to do with the sexuality, the sex of the partners. No it was a late 19th century thing all over Europe to criminalise homosexuality and I think the – 1968 was it, the act? 1964 – which liberalised everything was simply a return to how things were and thats in my view how it should be.
GE: With Section 28, that was on measures preventing schools promoting homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle.
RS: I dont like the idea of preaching homosexuality as a lifestyle in schools because, for a start, it isnt a lifestyle, its a desire that some people have. And youre introducing children to something at an age when they cant possibly understand it. Ive never been in favour of sex education as it has evolved anyway. I think its always done in a kind of prurience, an awakening of children to that which they perhaps dont want to be awakened to by a person who doesnt have the right to do it. I think parents have to do this and children themselves as the old explorations that we all made…
GE: Of course the subject which is increasingly coming up now is the debate around transgender. How should that be handled in your view?
RS: Well a lot of this is due to displaying in front of children all these complexities that adults have about their sexual identity and children pick it up and begin to wonder in a strange way well, am I a girl or am I a boy? And then this creates all kinds of traumas in children, and of course there is the possibility that it leads to this systematic identification with a particular sex which is not the one that your body exemplifies. I think were playing with fire in allowing children and their parents then to say OK so hes really a girl and Im going to give him this freedom to be a girl. What happens when after all the mutilation and hormones and everything you discover that hes not at ease in that new body hes been given? Can you give him back the old one? Were playing with something that we dont understand at all. Thats not to say that there arent difficulties, but has this come to the fore now? Why has it become the issue of the day when it hasnt been an issue like that for the previous hundred thousand years of mankind? Its obviously a kind of theatrical obsession which is being imposed upon children whether or not they understand it.
GE: To return to conservatism for a while, Margaret Thatcher is said to have remarked to the Conservative group, “The other side have got a philosophy they can test their policies against. We must have one as well.” Do you agree with that?
RS: Well not really, no. I think conservatism is not about ideology, its about love. We have something, this country and its institutions and our way of being, and thats what were holding on to. We dont know why, but its all that weve been given, so why not?
GE: How do you feel about the legacy of Thatcherism?
RS: Well, I mean Im totally in favour of what she did, which was to shake things up and release the grip of the unions around the throat of the country, essentially give people pride in setting themselves up in life and taking responsibility for their own being. I think all that was good and when she had a genuine streak of patriotism. Obviously, she was in lots of ways narrow and had the shopkeeper mentality. She wasnt the kind of sophisticated, super-cultivated conservative one might have hoped for. But in politics the choice is pretty limited
GE: Youve described quite vividly how May 1968 in France was a pivotal moment in your intellectual formation.
RS: Well indeed, I was woken up then. I wasnt really political until that moment and I just thought I cant cope with all this stuff because I thought, here is the most beautiful city in the world, with its wonderful culture, all the things that Ive just learned to appreciate, and these wretched spoilt brats are trying to pull it all down and smashing windows and burning cars which dont belong to them. I had an old-fashioned English Puritanical revolt against it. But it was also was tremendously interesting to read the stuff that inspired them. Thats what made me first read Foucault and recognise the brilliance of the man and the completely demonic nature of what he was saying.
GE: So you shared, in a sense, the horror that Edmund Burke felt at the French Revolution?
RS: Except that May 1968 didnt involve cutting off heads and all the rest.
GE: Some might say thats a sign of progress.
RS: Well yes, it was. It was also a sign of the un-seriousness of the students. They didnt do the real thing; real revolutionaries round up the other side and shoot them.
GE: Yes. Do you believe in progress?
RS: Well things change. Yes, some things get better, other things get better. But obviously in science there is progress. And in law there is progress too because theres a process of reasoning which gradually adapts and changes social institutions without oppressing them and I think thats all very positive.
GE: Who are your main intellectual and political influences, in your early years?
RS: Well intellectually I suppose, it has nothing to do with politics, Wittgenstein and Kant have been the two great influences. In politics though, Hegel has been a huge influence and Burke as well, and TS Eliot I think – not exactly politics but thats my vision of culture. And thats from school days, I came across Four Quartets aged 16 and that made sense of everything for the first time.
GE: Why was Hegel so crucial?
RS: Well, the whole vision of civil society as something independent of the state, and the individual as realised in institutions, made real through institutions, through belonging to things. That to me is really important. The anti-individualist side of Hegel, insisting that we are free but we become free only through social membership, thats the crucial issue for me.
GE: Would you see Hobbs as too statist?
RS: Well hes very, I dont know. I guess his raw realism about the human condition doesnt appeal very much to me. I think hes a brilliant writer, but hes not been a huge influence. Where were you educated then?
GE: Warwick University.
RS: In politics?
GE: History and politics.
RS: Oh right.
GE: I did philosophy at A-level.
RS: Well Warwick is good on all that.
GE: Were you surprised by some of the outrage you mentioned earlier over your appointment to the Building Beautiful Committee?
RS: Well yes. It was very artificial, in that it didnt have anything to do with building. Theres nothing you can do about that sort of thing. I was amazed that somebody had been collecting all these tiny remarks out of context over what looks like 50 years. I hope that the opportunity one day would arise to denounce this character. I didnt read all the stuff. I just thought these are not people – that life is too short to deal with this kind of thing. But it was upsetting because its meant to undermine your authority and authority is the only thing I have, authority that comes from hard work and thinking, and if you lose that youve got no position in the world because Im not employed by anything. That was a bit of a blow. What surprised me was the kind of people who repeated this. You expect people who spend their lives on Twitter to have this store of malice that theyre constantly returning to but when it comes up in parliament, as it did, I was astonished. I thought our members of parliament had better things to do than to spend their time gossiping on Twitter. But there we are.
GE: One of the things which people jumped on was your description of Islamophobia as a propaganda word. Would you defend that now?
RS: Absolutely. It was invented by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop discussion of a major issue which we are all worried about. Were all worried about the extent to which Islam condones, or does not condone, the violence committed in its name. I think Douglas Murray has written quite well about this. I have a PhD student who you probably know, Ed Husain, whos very much concerned with getting from the Islamic tradition the other side to this question, what it is that Muslims really say and can say about the violent manifestations of their own faith. And thats what we have to do, we have to bring it into the open and discuss it, and this word is there to try and prevent that.
GE: Do you think Islam is compatible with Western traditions and democracy?
RS: Well this is what Ed thinks ultimately, and possibly not, I mean it would have to recognise that secular government takes precedence over religious obedience, and that is very hard. It was hard for us to recognise this. It was only in the course of the 17th century that we actually got to do it and I think Islam has to go through that process too. Whether it can is, you know… Meanwhile of course, I entirely agree with what Ayaan Hirsi Ali says, that there are two Islams, theres the Islam of Mecca, the original revelation which gifted the Muslims with a peaceful way of life which was theirs and which included them, and then theres the Islam of Medina when the prophet had been forced into exile and was in fighting mood, and the Medina Surahs of the Koran is full of this anger and violence and need to impose things and thats a different thing altogether. And I think the Muslims who settle into the Meccan way of life are obviously perfect citizens, they have the inner serenity that the citizen should have and we ought to learn to appreciate that and encourage it.
GE: And then on the other side you accuse them of anti-Semitism for your use of the term “Soros empire”.
RS: Is that what I did wrong there? Well, I was talking about Hungary at the time wasnt I? And anybody who doesnt think that theres a Soros empire in Hungary has not observed the facts. Its not necessarily an empire of Jews, thats such nonsense, how can one possibly deal with that?
GE: Whats your view of Orbán? Do you think hes misrepresented in the press?
RS: To some extent he is. I have a complicated relationship with Orbán because I helped him set up his free university in Budapest in 1987 before the collapse of communism, when he was a young man, and he and his colleagues were doing a fantastic job, thats when they started Fidesz. I told them at the time that you shouldnt make it into a youth party because youre not going to be young forever, you should make it into a constitutional conservative party of the old school, then youve got a real tradition to build on, and thats what they did. And it was all going pretty well, but I think power has gone to his head. He has huge charisma and hes made some decisions which are very popular with the Hungarian people because the Hungarians were extremely alarmed by the sudden invasion of huge tribes of Muslims from the Middle East. You have to remember that their history with, their relationship with Islam is not a happy one. So he made those radical decisions that were going to exclude all this, were going to maintain the security of our borders come what may. And thats put him at loggerheads with the European Union, so hes got the whole propaganda machine to deal with. But I dont say that I agree with his policies in general. I think hes getting too close to Russia. But hes also being deliberately isolated by the European Union, which is not in my view a wise thing. Its the same problem as we have with the European Union: how do you negotiate something other than whats being dictated to you?
GE: He is, of course, regularly accused of anti-Semitism.
RS: That's nonsense though in his case, well I assume its nonsense. The Hungarians, what I said in the speech that people quote from was, is true. I said theres a legacy of anti-Semitism in Hungary which you cant deny. You have to recognise that if youre going to form any kind of coherent idea of what Hungary is as a nation. It has a large Jewish population whove got to be included and this was one of the great strengths of the Austro-Hungarian empire, that it gave to the Jews a sense ofRead More – Source