Roger Scruton

Listening to Roger Scruton, UK conservative intellectual, is like having a quarrel with a museum that claims to represent the present. We’re consigning him to the past as this issue’s Flop European!

Roger Scruton — An ideological museum

Listening to Roger Scruton is like having a quarrel with a museum that claims to represent the present. Promoting a gloomy nationalism, he wavers between insisting that European integration is unattainable, and warning that it needs to be stopped. Voices like his make it difficult to be a conservative European.

A Flop European cartoon
Roger Scruton is certainly not inscrutable | Illustration: Laura Hempel

Roger Scruton is regarded as one of the foremost British intellectuals. He is a philosopher, novelist and composer who was born in 1944 and now lives on a secluded farm in rural England, regularly producing views that are hailed as conservative or ‘High Tory’.

If you imagine talking to your favourite museum, it might be similar to talking to Mr Scruton about Europe. The assemblage of pottery, sculptures and swords could tell you what the past was like. That would be a wonderful thing. However, things could also go awfully wrong. Imagine the museum would not accept that time had moved on.

Recently, Scruton has delivered a series of commentary pieces on the BBC. One had as its title the seemingly innocuous question “Should countries be more like families?” With considerable grace and admirable ease Scruton managed to abandon the question mark somewhere around the first paragraph. He embarked on the argument that all citizens in a country must identify with it as they do with their family. Otherwise politics is impossible. Since we cannot have such identification with Europe, a politics of compromise is impossible on a European level.

Scruton declares with regret that seems hardly genuine: “unfortunately, people don’t identify themselves in that [European] way”. That just denies the fact that a part of the present generation identifies itself as Europeans. Not everybody, obviously, but some do. And some even identify with Europe and their nation at the same time. In fact on average around 60 % in the EU feel like citizens of the EU at least to some extent. Perhaps Scruton just cannot imagine that the situation in Europe is different from that in the UK. The UK is among the last of that list of feeling like EU citizens. Roughly only half of British people identify with the EU to some extent and the other half do not really feel that they are citizens of the EU.

Perhaps Scruton just cannot imagine that the situation in Europe is different from that in the UK.

It is quite obviously beyond Scruton’s comprehension that anybody could identify with several groups at the same time. It seems he has been led astray by his own unfit analogy. The analogy between family and country just breaks down too easily. Sure, it might be difficult to be a member of two families or to identify with two different religions. But politics does not work this way. It is wholly probable to identify as Polish, Italian, and European at the same time. Or to identify as a woman, as a geek and as Slovakian at the same time.

Furthermore, Scruton demonstrates a lack of understanding of how the institutions of European Integration work. “Treaties are dead hands” he murmurs, claiming that it is impossible to govern on the basis of treaties. Again, that seems to deny the facts. Indeed, all international institutions of governance are established on the basis of treaties and they are quite effective. That is true for the EU as well as for the UN. The EU is far from efficient and the institutions have flaws, but those are different points.

Similarly, he claims that Europe is merely a “self-perpetuating political class”. If anything, this claim is true for the national politics of many countries, in particular places like Britain. The opposite seems the case in Europe. Arguably, European integration has created a new opportunity for citizens to focus their political ambitions. How would Scruton explain the fact that working as an assistant in the European Parliament is appealing to many young Europeans who did not originate from such a “self-perpetuating political class”?

Crucially, Scruton makes the classic mistake. He equates Europe with the EU. It has always been the conviction of this magazine that Europe is far greater than the EU, not just in its geographic scope but also in its ambition. This is a possibility that Scruton obviously fails to entertain. Above all, Scruton likes to label himself “conservative”, when it is in fact people like him who prevent the development of constructive European conservatism.

By tying conservatism to the nation state, Scruton and other nation-conservatives alike have done a disservice to their own intellectual cause.

To Scruton, conservatism ends with the boundaries of the nation state. After 60 years of very real European integration there must be more to conservative politics than the nation state. We need conservatives that have more to offer than the romanticising of a patriotic and traditional countrymen fellowship on the basis of procrustean analogies. The reality of European integration demands a kind of conservatism that is compatible with supra-nationalism. What does a conservative have to say to Europe on this? By tying conservatism to the nation state, Scruton and other nation-conservatives alike have done a disservice to their own intellectual cause.

Scruton thinks that it is sufficient for a conservative argument to deny Europe flat out. That is not good enough and if intellectuals like Scruton were really worried about putting forward a strong conservative argument, they would develop a vision of conservative politics at a European level. If conservatives retreat to the nation state and deny the existence or the possibility of politics on a European level there is little that keeps conservatism from collapsing into narrow-minded nationalism. Speaking to conservatives like this is indeed like talking to a museum which refuses to accept that time has moved on.

Teaser photo: Central European University (Flickr); Licence: CC by NC – ND 2.0.

  • mm

    Johannes Himmelreich is a postdoc in Philosophy in Berlin. He studied Philosophy, Economics, and Public Policy in Bayreuth, Leuven, Princeton, and London. While he originally wanted to become a journalist, today he is following his research interests in the foundations of moral philosophy and normative questions of public policy.

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