Against the Tide by Roger Scruton, review: a fitting tribute to the Tories' philosopher king

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'Once we start to celebrate ugliness, then we become ugly too': Roger Scruton - Getty Images Europe
'Once we start to celebrate ugliness, then we become ugly too': Roger Scruton - Getty Images Europe

People loved Sir Roger Scruton, even if he didn’t always know it. Against The Tide, a new collection of his journalism, ends with a touching series of articles from 2019, just before his death. It was a year marked by two terrible blows. First, in a piece of summary injustice, he was thrown overboard by the Conservatives, the party which he had spent so much of his life defending. Three months after that, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Yet these misfortunes also brought a great wave of public affection that swept him back towards shore; he was even reappointed to the government housing commission he had been sacked from. As he wrote in The Daily Telegraph at the time, it felt as if the life “that I assumed to be over was now being renewed”.

This book draws together his best work across five decades of controversy. Every piece is a masterclass in prose style and a reminder of how he earned such widespread popular affection. Scruton was unlike most intellectuals, who, in his words, “dislike nothing so much as the ordinary middle-class voter”. Respecting the public’s intelligence, he wrote to be understood, though never to pander.

While lacking the depth of his books, his journalism is an accessible introduction to both the man and his thoughts. His moral courage shines through from the start, as the staunch anti-communist runs up against campus apologists for Soviet crimes. The same steel can be seen powering his righteous indignation at the Western commentators who let down both Lebanese Christians and the people of Iran, or on behalf of the victims of over-mighty planners at home. It’s hard not to feel renewed admiration for someone who held so firmly to unfashionable truths.

His career as a public intellectual began, as it ended, with cancellation. When being demonised in the Left-wing press made his position as a university professor untenable, he retired into the limelight of the op-ed pages. There, he made his stand as the articulate voice of tradition.

While Scruton had little time for the “exculpating idolatries” of psychoanalysis, it is notable that he was a Tory by adoption rather than birth, in flight from the socialist resentment of his father. Anxiety about whether he really belonged haunted him to the end, and helps explain why his final defenestration by party grandees hurt so much.

Roger Scruton in 1989 - Shutterstock
Roger Scruton in 1989 - Shutterstock

His longing for “refuge from an alien world” is a recurring theme, yet so too is his unquenchable spirit of adventure. That tension animates his prose, never more than in the delight with which he describes his discovery of hunting. It was, he writes, like opening your front door to put out the milk and stepping into the glory of Byzantium at its zenith.

To make your living as an intelligent defender of old-fashioned views is a risky path, with the dangers of self-parody and insensitivity waiting on either side. In one essay, he dissects Noam Chomsky, another professor who built a second life as a political provocateur. But Chomsky, he complains, is a man valued by readers “not for his truths but for his rage”. Instead, Scruton settled for being gently puckish.

He delighted in provocation – “every vegetarian meal is a crime against nature”; “McCarthy was right” – but there was always an argument to back it up. He wasn’t on the right side of every issue, but you always knew what he thought and it was always worth reading. Even on the lip of self-parody, calumniating the invention of the telephone or the destruction of the “shadow-filled grandeur of the Victorian slums”, he wanted to make you think.

Scruton subverted expectations rather than confirming prejudices. He questioned the concept of “Islamophobia” for cutting off debate, but recommended addressing Islam with “the courtesy that makes discussion possible”. He criticised feminism, because he feared it unleashed the worst of male sexual perfidy.

Perhaps Scruton’s most original and underrated contribution was his conviction that cultural corruption matters as much as the political kind. “Once we start to celebrate ugliness, then we become ugly too.” His remarkable documentary for the BBC on beauty is for some reason unavailable on iPlayer or YouTube (although a determined Googler will be rewarded). Here, we get a glimpse behind the scenes, and into his decision to show not just the highpoints of culture but a decaying townscape where the only beings at home “were the pigeons fouling the pavements”.

Conservatism begins when people come together for the sake of a shared way of life, to resist its loss. Such behaviour is still often dismissed as ill-informed and bigoted. Scruton’s entire career was devoted to showing the conservative disposition at its best: thoughtful, gentle and moral. Still, we may have him wrong. Based on the beauty of his journalism revealed here, and his active resistance to Soviet tyranny, which made him a hero in Eastern Europe, he has a claim to be remembered not just as a philosopher, but as the Orwell of the Right.

We need that spirited voice more than ever, as a fresh set of revolutionaries tears through our heritage, this time in the name of equity and decolonisation. Like Orwell, and unlike too much of the British Left, Scruton recognised a brutal regime that really was built on privilege and slavery, and had the guts to resist it when few dared. As he knew to his cost, “the alternative is not another and better civilization, but no civilization at all”.

Against the Tide: The Best of Roger Scruton's Columns, Commentaries and Criticism ed Mark Dooley is published by Bloomsbury at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, visit Telegraph Books

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