Ethics & Public Policy Center

How to be a Conservative: a Conversation with Roger Scruton

Published in Prospect (UK) on September 12, 2014

Conservatism, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott once wrote, is not a creed so much as a “disposition,” a cast of mind rather than a set of beliefs. Roger Scruton echoes Oakeshott when he writes, in the preface to his new book “How To Be a Conservative” that the “conservative temperament is an acknowledged feature of human societies everywhere.” The conservative, in Scruton’s sense, asserts that “we have collectively inherited good things that we must strive to keep,” and is sceptical of large-scale attempts to remake the world in the image of abstract ideals. “Good things,” Scruton writes (and among those good things he numbers “law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life”), “are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”

[Jonathan Derbyshire] met Scruton in London recently to discuss some of the philosophical and political implications of this view.

JD: In the preface to the book, you say that there are two kinds of conservatism, “one metaphysical, the other empirical.” The metaphysical variety, you write, “resides in the belief in sacred things and the desire to defend them against desecration.” The empirical version, meanwhile, is a “reaction to the vast changes unleashed by the Reformation and the Enlightenment.” You say you’re mostly preoccupied in this book with “down-to-earth matters.” I wonder, though, just how hard-and-fast that distinction is. It struck me that the empirical side of your conservatism is also underpinned by what might be call a metaphysics of personhood, a conception of the nature of the human person.

RS: That’s absolutely true. I think it’s what conservatism—my kind of conservatism, at least—shares with liberalism: an attempt to found things ultimately on a vision of what the human person is. Of course, it is the case that conservatism as I envisage it distances itself always from abstract conceptions and tries to find the concrete reality… the good in the present.

Related to this is the emphasis you place on what you call the “first-person plural,” a phrase that occurs several times in the book.

Yes. Ultimately, political order does not generate itself. For that reason, social contract theories are suspended in mid-air, so to speak. All political order presupposes a pre-political order, a sense that people belong together. And then, of course, they might seek a contract that embodies their togetherness. But the togetherness has to be there.

With Oakeshott’s remarks about conservatism as a “disposition” in mind, I was very struck by something you say about the tone of voice in which this book is written. You say: “The case for conservatism does not have to be presented in elegiac accents.” What do you mean by that?

So much of modern political conservatism—and you see this in America, which has a quite articulate conservative movement compared with us—is phrased in elegiac terms. [It’s about] what we’ve lost—we’ve lost the traditional working-class family, the black family or whatever it might be. Now, all that is perfectly reasonable. But the most important question is what have we got, rather than what we’ve lost, and how do we keep it?

In the first chapter of the book, entitled “My Journey,” you describe how Margaret Thatcher appeared to you as a kind of saviour in the late 1970s. I’m interested, though, in your ambivalence here—not necessarily towards her, but towards some of her acolytes. You say you didn’t swallow whole the “free-market rhetoric of the Thatcherites,” but that you “deeply sympathised with [Thatcher’s] motives”. How, in your view, did her motives differ from those of her “praetorian guard of economic advisers”?

I think of her as an old-fashioned British patriot who saw the country to the dogs and said, “We’re going to rescue it.” She had a very clear conception of old, lower-middle-class virtues—frugality, responsibility and so on. This was displayed in events like the Falklands War, when her instinct was immediately to ask, “What is the threat? What shall we do?” The “we” feeling was very, very strong.

But she also felt she had to have a comprehensive philosophy. That was, if you like, one of the bad legacies of socialism. She was very much under the influence of the economists around her who were pushing the Hayekian conception. Now, I defend Hayek’s work [in the book], but as a piece of legitimate argument about the nature of prices and all the rest. But you can’t use it to deduce an entire collection of policies for a modern state of more than 50m people, in which you’ve got a massive dependent class and so on.

But one of the ironies of the past thirty years is that the reforms her government introduced unleashed forces that were corrosive of many of the things she held dear.

True. But there is a tension in human nature here. I don’t think it’s something you can anything about. If you’re going to have a free economy, one in which the ordinary citizen can dispose of his own income, you’re going to have people who dispose of it in an anti-social way. You’re going to liberate all kinds of forces which you don’t necessarily have the institutions to control. And that’s what happened. But it doesn’t follow from that there is such a thing as a government policy that could rectify this.

You have some quite severe things to say about the kind of market economy we’ve ended up with…

People fear the anonymity of the big corporations and the confiscation of the space in which small-scale economies can grow. I feel very strongly about this. The food economy, for example, has been confiscated by the supermarkets and the mass distributors. They’re not only poisoning the world with packaging, they’re also destroying the ability of communities to survive without central distribution. This is very dangerous.

Aside from the advent of Mrs Thatcher, the other important moment in your political and philosophical development, you say, was your first visit to Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s. Are you claiming that the dissidents you met in Prague were conservatives in your sense? You do say that their primary goal was the survival of things in their culture which they held dear.

Yes. I think their fundamental sense was that their heritage had been stolen from them and they wanted to repossess it. In that sense, they were conservatives.

How do you assess what has happened in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989?

This is a theme of my novel, Notes from the Underground, which is set in Prague in the mid-1980s, before the Wall came down. Something beautiful occurred [in 1989] and has been lost. People found in conditions of semi-darkness the things that they love. And then, once the curtains are pulled aside and the brightness floods in, they see more exciting things outside. An element of love was lost. And there was also mass emigration, which has damaged those countries—especially Poland.

You have a very distinctive account of what the principal evil of communism was. People often talk in very general terms about totalitarianism and the sclerosis of the planned economy. But for you the real evil was the assault on the institutions of “civil association”—the closing down of choirs, theatre groups, reading societies, walking clubs, church institutions, charities and so on.

Absolutely. I think I’m speaking the same language as Burke there. He was so prescient about what he saw as evil in the French Revolution. It was not just the executions and so on—it was the confiscation of civil society from its members. That’s what I felt most strongly [in Czechoslovakia], because I was trying to revive it in my own way.

We were talking about the conservative conception of the person earlier. You argue that what the rational chooser model of human behaviour one finds in neoclassical economics cannot capture or make intelligible is human beings’ capacity for “sacrifice”. You seem to think sacrifice is the basis of moral life…

It’s a basis. The ability to give things up. I think of the great Christian virtue of forgiveness in those terms. This is a giving up of resentment, a giving up of the thing that is dear to you.

Is sacrifice a distinctively Christian notion or can secular sense be made of it?

I think secular sense can be made of it. And is in wartime, very easily. Going back to my Czech experience—the Czechs are very secular, but, certainly among young people, there was that desire to give up things for others. It’s stronger, of course, in a religious community. And religions differ [from one another] in the extent to which they require it.

In your chapter on “The Truth in Socialism”, you say that what conservatives, in your sense, and socialists share is a recognition of the “truth of mutual dependence”. Where, then, does the conflict between socialists and conservatives arise? Over the distribution of the benefits of that mutual dependence?

Partly that. But it also has to do with control. Socialists, when they see a problem, they want a centralised answer to it. Whereas conservatives are more open to the thought that if a problem arises locally, it must be solved locally—to the extent that it can be solved at all. Also, conservatives are open to the thought that most [political] problems are not soluble.

You discuss inequality in the book. For you it’s a problem, not because it offends against some abstract standard of social justice, a notion you dismiss as incoherent, but because it undermines social harmony. Have I got that right?

There is that. Also, inequality confers massive powers that can be abused. Look, this is where I don’t say [in the book] what I really think—because what I really think is unsayable now. I would say that this is the great argument for aristocracy. It makes accumulations of wealth into something which cannot be exploited by the present owner of them. They have to be handed on.

We were talking earlier about some of your reservations about Thatcherism, if not about Mrs Thatcher. Hayek’s an interesting case here. Was he a conservative in your sense, rather than a neoliberal?

He did write that little chapter “Why I am Not a Conservative”. But that was because he saw Conservative governments after the war colluding in the massive takeover of things by the state. But his fundamental argument about the price mechanism and the epistemological argument that without a free economy you don’t have the economic information required to run a big society—that argument is valid. As he rightly saw, it has its equivalent in an argument about the law, defending the common law against legislation. It has its equivalent, as Burke already saw, in an argument about civil society against the centralised state. So, to that extent, Hayek shouldn’t disagree with anything I say!

Roger Scruton’s “How To Be a Conservative” is published by Bloomsbury (£20). Mr. Scruton is a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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