Roger Scruton is one of the most prominent conservative intellectuals in Britain – perhaps the most. He has been described by The Weekly Standard, America’s ‘neocon bible’, as “England’s most accomplished conservative since Edmund Burke”. He has authored over thirty books, from introductions to Spinoza to A Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism. I had the privilege of interviewing him concerning the release of his most recent non-fiction work, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left.
I began by asking Scruton if a specific event had prompted him to write the book, or whether it was a product of years of critiquing the Left. He responded that the work is in fact a rewrite of his earlier book, Thinkers of the New Left (1985). The reason for writing the original, he told me, was that he was “very exasperated by leftist apologies for the Soviet Union”. While he acknowledged that obviously the situation had changed due to the collapse of the USSR, he was keen to point out that “apologies for revolutionary violence are still in existence”. When I pressed him as to which episodes he had in mind, he pointed to “leftist histories of the Russian and Chinese revolutions”, which paint them sympathetically even though “60 million people died in the Chinese disaster”. In Scruton’s view, atrocities such as the latter are ignored by the Left, excused by the fact that the revolutions themselves had their genesis in leftist thought.
Moving on from this, I put to him the observation that, since the collapse of communism and the triumph of neoliberalism, the main thrust of leftist thought has shifted from class empowerment to issues surrounding gender, race and sexuality, and asked him his views on the cause of this paradigm shift. “The default leftist position is to be against whatever the established order happens to be”, he responded, and “having lost the argument about economics, the Left can still find a lot of other things to be against, in particular the traditional order of marriage and the family, traditional sexual mores etc.” Scruton acknowledges there are interesting issues about identity that need to be discussed, but insists it is the natural leftist instinct to find victims to defend against the traditional order.
Much as I am on the Left myself, I have grown disillusioned with aspects of New Left thinking; particularly concepts such as value-neutrality and moral relativism when they are taken to their extremes – as they too often are on the Left. In light of this, I was keen to know what Roger Scruton thought was the most dangerous notion propagated by the New Left. Without hesitation, he replied: “the idea that all the major existing problems of the human species can be solved by taking control of the political process from on top, and leading it in a new direction towards the emancipation of everyone”. Continuing, he condemned this as “an illusion which is always bound to lead to death and destruction”. Scruton argues that change must grow from below rather than being led, and that, whilst they are needed, “laws, structures and forms are created over time by an invisible hand”.
conservative academics tend to keep their heads down, whereas I didn’t, I ‘came out’
Fools, Frauds and Firebrands focuses on the pervasiveness of left-wing thought in academia, and I was eager to get Scruton’s insight into the difficulties of being a self-professed conservative in the academy. While Scruton hasn’t been in academia for quite some time, he indicated that he has conservative friends within it who stress it is still very difficult. Speaking of his own experiences, Scruton stated, “conservative academics tend to keep their heads down, whereas I didn’t, I ‘came out’, and it cost me quite a lot of pain and struggle.” Citing the recent controversy surrounding Germaine Greer, he was also keen to add that, while disagreements are less heated now the Soviet Union has fallen, “if you are on the wrong side of the issue of the day, you are open to intimidation”.
If Scruton is so critical of the New Left, then, does he have any sympathy for the ‘Old’ Left? A surprising amount, in fact. He singles out Labour MP Frank Field as representing this philosophy and speaks fondly of the “rooted, English industrial working-class”, to which his own father belonged, as well as “people like George Orwell who spoke for it”. He goes even further, saying that the passing of the “patriotic Old Left” is something he “very much regrets”. He also speaks of his dislike for the “radical New Right libertarian movement which ignores the nation, the family and local communities” in favour of the individual, which he finds “very disheartening”.
Lastly, I asked Scruton what he thought of the future of British politics now the Conservatives have won a majority and Labour have elected their most left-wing leader to date. “I wish I knew,” he replied, adding, “no one expected either of those things to happen and that’s how volatile the situation is.” Our interview ends on a poetic and portentous note, as Scruton summarises; “everything has rather lost anchor, drifting on a tide we cannot control”.