Roger Scruton: The patron saint of lost causes
Roger Scruton is known as a provocative reactionary, a bogeyman for the left. But now he seems keen to show his more sensitive side. Sholto Byrnes hears the confessions of an intellectual pariah
Sunday 03 July 2005
So it's extraordinary to read Scruton's newly published Gentle Regrets, a series of highly personal and revealing autobiographical essays in which he paints a picture of a much more complex man. A guilt-plagued man who endured a childhood of quiet brutality; a man who felt keenly the vicious attacks on his character and the blighting of his academic career; a man who has wrestled with religion and sin; and one whose troubles extend even to his name, which he believes denied him the possibility of an identity genuinely his own.
When I arrive at the farm in Wiltshire where Scruton and his wife Sophie raise their two children, Sam, six, Lucy, four, and their various animals, there is little sign of the suffering, sensitive Scruton. As he is just back from America, I ask if he is suffering from jetlag. "Jetlag is a proletarian defect," comes the crisp answer, as he leads the way into a book-lined living room stuffed with tatty furniture and a Bakelite telephone.
After a drink, we move through to begin lunch, components of which have been produced on the Scruton farm. "That's Singer," declares Roger, pointing at a plate of leftover sausages. Singer the pig, mischievously named after Peter Singer, the philosopher and animal-rights theorist, has been "ensausaged" personally by his former owner. Roger beams as another lunch guest, his publisher Robin Baird-Smith, asks if he can take the final morsel. Singer, it must be said, does taste pretty good.
It all seems to fit together. Roger Scruton, the unsentimental sage of the right, serving up his much-loved pig for lunch, in tune with the natural order of things with which modern man, in his machine of a city, has lost touch. At 62, Scruton appears to be happy now, with his books, his young wife and his children. Across the Atlantic there's a new house in Virginia, which will serve as a base during his visiting professorship at Princeton next year, and near which Roger and Sophie will be able to hunt without their collars being felt by the law. He has created a haven from the "absolute will-lessness, fed on drink and sex and drugs" that he fears is our future.
He may be widely considered beyond the pale, a preposterous throwback whose arguments are there to amuse, not trouble, the social market consensus; but that, I had always assumed, did not worry him. It turns out that it does, very much. "There's a great distinction between legitimate criticism and assassination," a rather less jolly Roger explains as we settle down to talk after lunch. "I get the assassination all the time and not the criticism. Criticism is a compliment; you don't necessarily expect people to agree with you. But the response to my books has in the past been really quite horrendous - dismissive, trying to make out that it's not just that they are badly argued but that there is nothing there. You do get distressed by that."
At times in his life Scruton has found the attacks so unbearable that he's thought of giving up writing completely. "It's one reason I got so interested in composing," he says. "I have to do something creative, so for a couple of years - 12 or 15 years ago - I didn't write at all, I just composed." (His latest opera, Violet, will be performed by the students of the Guildhall School of Music in the autumn.)
Two books brought particular opprobrium on his head, The Meaning of Conservatism in 1979, and 1986's Thinkers of the New Left, which prompted one Oxford academic to write to his publishers warning them that they risked their reputation by printing further works by Scruton. "I've got the letter. I should frame it actually." By this point he had truly become, as he puts it, "an intellectual pariah". I tell him of the withering looks I received in a Balliol politics tutorial around this time when I quoted his words. He nods wearily.
"For the most part there's a kind of cynical scepticism that prevails, and it nourishes itself by attacking people like me. You don't have to believe anything yourself, but at least you can sharpen your wits on the kinds of things that I say. I've become institutionalised as a bogeyman. It would be very damaging to the intellectual world for me to be accepted as something else, because I've been incorporated into the scheme of things."
In Gentle Regrets, he records the occasion Harold Macmillan addressed the Conservative Philosophy Group that Scruton set up in the 1980s with the late Sir Hugh Fraser and Jonathan Aitken, both at the time Tory MPs. Macmillan reached a climax in his speech, holding the attention of the room as he repeated: "It is important to remember... to remember... I have forgotten what I wanted to say." Scruton writes: "'I have forgotten what I wanted to say' is the true contribution of the Tory Party to the understanding of government in our time."
Around this period Scruton gave up on his application to join the Tories' approved list of candidates after a disastrous interview with a matronly female MP. What had he done for the party so far, he was asked. When Scruton mentioned his part in the group Macmillan had addressed, his interviewer "made it clear that the conjunction of the two words 'conservative' and 'philosophy' was so absurd that she could only doubt the existence of such an organisation". Eventually Scruton received the ultimate put-down: "I suppose he could apply for this new European Parliament thing, could he?"
So, writes Scruton: "I ceased to be an intellectual Conservative, and became a conservative intellectual instead." His colleagues in academic circles, however, seemed to have their doubts that that latter job description had any "meaningful content", as philosophers like to say. "One of the great distinctions between the left and the right in the intellectual world," says Scruton, who has held chairs in aesthetics at Birkbeck and philosophy at Boston as well as a fellowship at Peterhouse, "is that left-wing people find it very hard to get on with right-wing people, because they believe that they are evil. Whereas I have no problem getting on with left-wing people, because I simply believe that they are mistaken. After a while, if I can persuade them that I'm not evil, I find it a very useful thing. I know that my views on many things are open to correction. But if you can't discuss with your opponents, how can you correct your views?"
It could all have been so different, says Scruton, if only he had been named differently. His mother wanted him to be called Vernon, which she took to suggest an artistic temperament and a destiny beyond the lower-middle class environs in which her child was born. But Scruton's father, Jack, a disappointed, angry man who was later to resent his son's educational success, thought it a "cissy" name, and insisted he should be known by the more manly title of Roger. So Vernon became his second name and Roger his first. Throughout his life, the two have struggled.
"It could have some role in explaining why I've always been a bit outsiderish," says Roger (or, more probably, Vernon). "Even when I'm included in a certain circle, or a particular society, I seem to do all the wrong things and arouse hostility straight away. That could all go back to feeling that I wasn't permitted to exist, first of all because of the huge paternal disapproval of my existence, and then because of the fact that nobody had taken the trouble to endow me with a name that was definitely mine."
Even his surname Scruton regards as being "repulsive". Derived from "Scrofa's Tun", a small village honouring a Viking chieftain known for his dandruff, the name Scruton has brought bad luck, thinks its most famous bearer. "I am convinced that the hostile reception encountered by even my most forgiving works has been due," he says, "not to the conservative voice that speaks through them (which is Vernon's voice, not Roger's), but to the scraping steel of this scalpel-like surname. I was not surprised to find Sue Townsend using it for her nasty headmaster in the Adrian Mole stories."
Scruton finds comfort in religion, and his growing sense that "there is a meaning to all this." It's a very English Christianity that he has come to, the Anglicanism of ritual, custom and liturgy. Marriage to Sophie, whom he met out hunting, provided a "clearing away of these dreadful shadows" - shadows from childhood, from the breakdown of his early first marriage, and the years in between when he behaved towards women in a way that he confesses does not fill him with pride. "I'm just very lucky that I was eventually able to shake it all off, after long periods of loneliness, thanks to Sophie."
What effect does he think his work has had? "I hope I've caused some amusement," he says. "I'd like to have brought some comfort to people with old-fashioned conservative views, that they're not alone and that they're not perhaps so stupid to think what they think. That's probably the best I could have hoped for. I mean the causes that I've been involved with - defending classical architecture against the modernists, defending hunting against the sentimentalists - these are all lost causes. But I think it's nice to lose them in a way that causes emotional disturbance in the people who take the opposite view. I hope I've done a bit of that."
After we finish the interview ("Phew!", he sighs, "that must be it") we inspect a herb garden in front of the house. "People say 'let chickens run around,'" says Roger, eyeing some half-munched parsley, "but look at what they do. They deserve all the suffering they get." His regrets, I reflect on the journey back, seem not so gentle at all. If only prickly Roger could step aside for sensitive Vernon, he might be a much happier man.
'Gentle Regrets' is published by Continuum at £16.99. To order a copy, with free p&p, contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897
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