Opinion Roger Scruton Roger Scruton’s brand of conservatism became a licence for bigotry Jonathan Portes The thinker eulogised by the Conservative establishment did much to shape today’s anti-immigrant climate
Since Roger Scruton’s death on Sunday, virtually the entire Conservative establishment has united in eulogising him. The prime minister hailed him as “the greatest modern conservative thinker”; Daniel Hannan called him “the greatest conservative of our age”. But when it comes to politics, Scruton’s greatest contribution has been to help make a modernised version of Enoch Powell’s bigotry – the idea that it is impossible for immigrants to integrate successfully – part of the mainstream debate.
Writing in Powell’s defence, Scruton once attacked liberal politicians for believing “the proposition that pious Muslims from the hinterlands of Asia would produce children loyal to a secular European state”. He was clear that just being born and brought up here didn’t make someone “one of us”; indeed, for certain ethnic and religious categories, the very idea was laughable. His view that Christianity was an essential component of English identity, and that of other European countries, meant that Muslim immigrants could only be seen as a threat.
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So Scruton’s “conservative” conception of national identity, much praised over the last week, was not just about his love of foxhunting or the countryside. It was explicitly exclusionary. And his views on what that meant for public policy were not confined to architecture, but ranged far wider. He argued that European countries should explicitly discriminate (in jobs, housing or welfare benefits) in favour of “indigenous European communities”, on the grounds that “all coherent societies are based on discrimination”.
Scruton’s thinking has been influential both in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. His focus specifically on the “Muslim threat” predated that of his friend Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, and most other European “national populists”, who have now made it their near-exclusive focus. His continued popularity among British conservatives – and Conservatives – reflects the fact that Islamophobia is respectable, acceptable, and indeed electorally useful, in a way in which anti-black racism or antisemitism, by and large, is not (at least in public).
In this country, Scruton’s most obvious disciple, Douglas Murray, advances a version of the “great replacement” thesis – which was the inspiration for the Christchurch massacre – that Europe is being overrun by Muslims, encouraged by deluded or malign liberal policymakers. Murray’s bestselling book, The Strange Death of Europe, has been lauded by Orbán and other leaders of the European far right. Meanwhile, Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck, takes a more moderate tone. But he implicitly echoes Scruton in arguing that we should prioritise the “ethnic self-interest” of the “white majority” by explicitly introducing racial and religious preferences into immigration policy.
So what does Scruton’s continued influence mean for British politics and policy? There are certainly those on the right who embrace the connection between his views on national identity and the success of national populists elsewhere in Europe, and would like to see policies to match. Last month, the influential Conservative thinker, Scruton admirer and, until recently, Downing Street “social justice adviser” Tim Montgomerie endorsed Hungary’s exploration of “the limits of liberalism”. This includes, presumably, Orbán’s expulsion of the Central European University, the political subservience of the judiciary, and his muzzling of NGOs who don’t toe the government line.
But there have long been tensions between Scruton’s brand of social conservatism and the liberal, free-market approach that has dominated economic thinking on the right since Thatcher – and these will, if anything, be exacerbated by Brexit. Take immigration. Scruton would have hated Boris Johnson’s policy of a non-discriminatory, Australian-style, points-based immigration system. The idea that immigration policy should prioritise the “skills we need” would have been anathema to him – both because of the priority it gives to economics over culture, and because it will probably increase the number of Asian immigrants at the expense of Europeans.
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More broadly, it is hard to think of anyone with whom Scruton would have disagreed more violently than Johnson’s key aide, Dominic Cummings, who combines a number of Scruton’s pet hates: an affinity for radical change, the view that policy should be far more data-driven, and a conviction that Whitehall and Westminster overvalue the humanities, broadly defined, at the expense of science.
Personally, I find it extraordinary that so many people (not just on the conservative side of the political spectrum) are prepared to minimise or overlook Scruton’s unconcealed and unapologetic bigotry. His views on race, religion and national identity won’t die with him – but I hope, and believe, they have no future here.
• Jonathan Portes is professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London, and is a senior fellow at UK in a Changing Europe
- Roger Scruton
- Philosophy books
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