Roger Scruton: Philosopher whose career was marked by controversy and contrarianism

Scruton’s writing, and his disdain for the left, put him in adversarial positions that he by and large enjoyed

Marcus Williamson
Sunday 26 January 2020 13:41 GMT
Scruton: ‘I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down’
Scruton: ‘I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down’

“Whatever its defects, my life has enabled me to find comfort in uncomfortable truths,” the philosopher Roger Scruton, who has died aged 75, wrote in his memoir Gentle Regrets (2005), one of 50 books he published during his lifetime. These “uncomfortable truths” would define his relationship with the world around him and by reflection define the opposing views of others towards his career of proud contrarianism.

Scruton was born in Buslingthorpe, Lincolnshire in 1944 to Beryl Scruton and John (“Jack”) Scruton, a schoolteacher and passionate socialist. He had a difficult relationship with his father who, upon hearing that his son was going up to Cambridge, refused to speak to him. He studied moral sciences and philosophy at Jesus College, graduating with a double first and going on to gain his doctorate in 1972.

Scruton then joined Birkbeck College, University of London, as a lecturer and professor of aesthetics, a position he would hold for the next two decades. The philosopher AC Grayling later said that “it is partly because of Roger’s presence that the department [at Birkbeck] is one of the best in the country”.

Scruton’s conversion to conservatism had come, he said, in 1968 upon seeing the student protests on the streets of Paris. It was there that he observed what he termed “an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans” discussing “ludicrous Marxist gobbledegook”. He recalled: “That’s when I became a conservative. I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.”

In 1974 he became one of the founding board members of the Conservative Philosophy Group, a collective created by Sir Hugh Fraser MP whose meetings Margaret Thatcher attended on several occasions. That same year Scruton published the first of many books, Art and Imagination, a work based on his doctoral thesis that was praised for the clarity that he brought to his discussion of the philosophical problems of aesthetics.

He took on the role of editor for The Salisbury Review, a conservative journal, from 1982 to 2001. His editorials allowed Scruton to take the position of the old Tory controversialist. On gay relationships, for example, he wrote: “A concern with social order prompts us to view homosexuality as intrinsically threatening.” And of the Quran, he said: “A lot of the Quran is, frankly, cantankerous, vitriolic, man-hating stuff.”

Scruton later reflected that his editorship had cost him “many thousand hours of unpaid labour, a hideous character assassination in Private Eye, three lawsuits, two interrogations, one expulsion, the loss of a university career in Britain, unendingly contemptuous reviews, Tory suspicion, and the hatred of decent liberals everywhere. And it was worth it.”

During the mid-Nineties Scruton had moved to Sunday Hill Farm, a 30-acre holding in Wiltshire that he jokingly named Scrutopia. He met his wife-to-be, Sophie Jeffreys, during a hunt, coming to his rescue after he was thrown from a horse. Remembering that moment, Scruton observed: “You see, if someone stops to pick you up while hunting, she’s lost her day, because they’ve all gone, and you won’t find them again … So it was a sign of something more than just courtesy.”

The rural idyll emerges as a key theme in England: An Elegy (2000), his reflections on a country that for him no longer exists. Here he mourns the loss of past symbols of Englishness, such as cricket on the village green. The Labour peer Lord Bragg, writing in The Independent, said of it: “Scruton’s England, apart from its final over-compressed, over-simplified chapter, is a classic elegy: biased, selective and resonant, done with that passionate regret which can seed re-emergence.”

Between 2005 to 2009 he was research professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences and subsequently joined the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington DC. Scruton was knighted in the 2016 Queen’s Birthday Honours for “services to philosophy, teaching and public education”.

In April last year the New Statesman published an interview with Scruton in which he expressed what appeared to be antisemitic and Islamophobic views. He was dismissed from his role as a government adviser on housing, as chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission. However, after calls from Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt for him to be reinstated, the magazine apologised for misrepresenting him and he was reappointed to the role. Johnson described him in tribute as the country’s “greatest modern conservative thinker”.

Scuton is survived by his wife Sophie and two children.

Sir Roger Scruton, writer and philosopher, born 27 February 1944, died 12 January 2020

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