In How to Be a Conservative, you write: “It is not unusual to be a conservative. But it is unusual to be an intellectual conservative. In both Britain and America some 70% of academics identify themselves as ‘on the left’, while the surrounding culture is increasingly hostile to traditional values or to any claim that might be made for the high achievements of Western civilization.” The press, the bureaucracy, the universities: all hostile to conservatism. Why?
It’s a very good question. I think I spent my life trying to answer it, in fact. My impression is that this hostility comes in part because people who self-identify as intellectuals and thinkers also want to identify themselves as in some way outside the community, standing in judgment on it, gifted with superior insight and intellect, and therefore, inevitably critical of whatever it is that ordinary people do by way of surviving. So we have created an intellectual class, which by its nature does not identify with the way of life around it, and tries to gain another kind of identity through its critical stance.
And this produces the paradox that within academic circles and within the press, to be a liberal instead of a conservative is almost boringly conventional.
Yes. That’s right. The convention is to be hostile to conventions.
You begin How to Be a Conservative with a marvellous essay on your own journey from left to right, and you identify a couple of events in particular as crucial in that journey. I quote How to Be a Conservative: “[The Paris riots of] May of 1968 led me to understand what I value in the customs, institutions, and culture of Europe.” Paris explodes and you decide not to join the students in the street. Why?
Gosh. Why? For a start, the thing that most struck me about those students in the street was the sentimentality of their anger. It was all about themselves. It wasn’t about anything objective. Here they were, the spoiled middle class Baby Boomers, who’d never had any real difficulties to cope with, shouting their heads off in the street, burning the cars belonging to ordinary proletarians, whom they pretended to be defending against some imaginary oppressive structures erected by the bourgeoisie. The whole thing was a complete fiction based on the antiquated ideas of Karl Marx, ideas which were already redundant in the mid-19th century. They were enacting […] a self-scripted drama in which the central character was themselves.
Again: “Only someone raised in the Anglosphere could believe, as I believed in the aftermath of 1968, that the political alternative to revolutionary socialism is conservatism.” Only someone raised in the Anglosphere?
Yes. I think if you look around the world, those political parties and political movements that identify themselves as conservative, it’s only in Britain, America, Australia, possibly India, that people would even use that word. Because there’s a tradition which we have inherited from Edmund Burke and the reaction to the French Revolution of recognizing that there is an alternative to revolutionary change, and that is not changing.
This extraordinary original idea only enters the heads of English speaking people. I don’t know why, but it’s something to do with the English language. It’s sort of accommodation of eccentricities, the fact that we live a life based on compromise, the common rule, which tells us that the ordinary person is charge of the law, not the people there who are pretending to impose it on him. All those things, which we’ve inherited from hundreds of years, actually, of discussion and debate, they make it natural for us to say, “let’s not change”.
The second large event in your own journey was “a visit to Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1979 [which] awoke [you] to the fraud that had been committed in socialism‘s name”. What did you see? How were you awakened?
I was there in Poland in the wake of the Pope’s pilgrimage to his country. There was a visible sense that we Poles are together against this thing which controls us. But people of course couldn’t openly talk about it, but the people I met talked to me about it. Then when going to Czechoslovakia where, of course, the oppression was much heavier, I got involved in talking to people who were actually trying to organize underground seminars — curriculum, if you like — for young people who had been excluded from the system. [T]here was a real contentiousness [there] that it was a life and death struggle. Either these societies were going to be finally killed off by communism or people were going to try and keep them alive in the catacombs. It was my first vision of a catacomb culture, which, as it were, re-enacted what the early Christians had to go through in the Roman Empire.
As I understand, your formal training is as a philosopher. […] You intended to work in the tradition of Aristotle — philosophy as it bears on ordinary political life. Is that correct?
Well, yes. I’ve always thought that philosophy has ordinary life as its subject matter. That’s what it’s about. But it is also a reflection on ordinary life and its meaning. When it came to working in Eastern Europe, my main thought was that what young people there especially needed was not merely philosophy but the whole range of knowledge, which had been excluded from the official curriculum. For instance, knowledge of history, knowledge of literature, knowledge of the way in which those things connect, how music and art and literature feed into a vision of your society, and of course, knowledge of the religious traditions of their countries.
All those things had been excluded by the Communist Party from the national sense of identity. But it didn’t alter my view that they’d also been excluded from our societies too by the universities themselves. Most young people today leave a university having studied history but not actually knowing very much about it. They will know about the periods of revolutionary struggle and other things that have appealed to their professors as part of their own selfglorification, but they won’t know that they are […] interred within the spirit of the people.
Your visit to Poland and Czechoslovakia took place in 1979. Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister in the same year. On the one hand — again, I’m quoting — “In the midst of our discouragement, Margaret Thatcher appeared, as though by a miracle.” On the other hand: “I never swallowed in its entirety the free market rhetoric of the Thatcherites.” Explain that.
She came into our lives as a representative of our country at a time when the country looked particularly enfeebled by the trade unions, by the whole labour party attempt to rope society into a communal prison run by the state. All that was wonderful. We felt, we don’t actually have to go along with all that crap. We can do our own thing. And we can revert to our natural condition as rebellious, eccentric Englishmen. But she felt that she had to embellish it with a complete doctrine, which she borrowed from the Institute of Economic Affairs, and about the need for market solutions to every social problem.
Now, I’m all in favour of market solutions where they apply, but not every social problem [has] a market solution. There is a need for the maintenance of traditions in education and in culture and in the law, which are not traditions of free enterprise, but much more conditions of some kind of collective renunciation.
Renunciation of the state?
And a renunciation of one’s own individuality. That’s what her culture is partly. I think she wasn’t sensitive to all that aspect of things. You have to remember that at the time when she became prominent, we inherited a society and an economy that had been radically changed by the Second World War, and by the socialist governments that came into being because of the Second World War. […] People wanted a government based on planning because they had felt that the war showed the need for planning. If it hadn’t been for planning, we wouldn’t have survived it. We almost didn’t survive it because we weren’t ready for it.
Winston Churchill had the capacity to articulate a deeper conservatism. Throughout the war he [talked] about love of native land. […] He actually used the phrase […] “Christian civilization”. Yet, in the 1945 election, in the face of the socialists, because he lacked a vocabulary to talk about free markets, he was naked before Attlee and [the] socialist impulse. It almost seems to me as though there’s a kind of ideological teeter-totter: Conservatives in Britain either get to talk about free markets or they get to talk about cultural conservatism. Somehow, the two don’t seem to go together. Is there some reason for this?
That’s a very insightful observation. I think since Edmund Burke, we’ve had this tension between the adoption of the free market as the instrument of economic organization, the primary way in which a society should create and exchange goods, and the sense that some things should be withheld from the market, and that those things are just as important but much more difficult to defend. Of course, Burke was talking about those things which should be withheld from the market, love, family and so on.
All societies have recognized from the beginning of history that a market in sexual relations is the end of all social coherence. It’s always very hard to say why. That’s just one example. All the things that matter to us, as soon as we recognize how much must they matter, we want to withdraw them from the whole business of exchange and proliferation and, as it were, have them to ourselves. It’s that aspect of humanity which is so difficult to articulate. But as you rightly say, Churchill did articulate it. And it is so much easier when it’s under threat.
One more large question about Britain: Brexit. […] Speaking on the BBC, you said: “The experts failed to see that the British people are profoundly democratic and do not accept to be governed by bureaucrats who are not accountable for their mistakes.” [At the same time] one also hears, over and over again, that Brexit was a reaction against immigration. Explain.
Well, [it] could be both. I think […] the feelings of opposition to the European Union are much longer standing than the recent feelings about the mass immigration from Europe. They have been about democratic accountability, the thought being that more than half — I think nearly two-thirds — of the laws rubber-stamped by our parliament originate in Brussels in the minds of bureaucrats who have no knowledge of, or interest in, the peculiar social conditions of Britain, which are very peculiar because we haven’t been interfered with in this way before.
People have resented that, and rightly, because after all, what is democracy, if it’s not the ability of a people to decide for themselves about the laws that operate in the country that is theirs? That reference to the country, our country, is absolutely fundamental to the democratic idea. It is true, of course, that British people also reacted strongly to the mass immigration — the rate of something like 300,000 a year of people from the former communist countries. They were brought into the European Union without any mandate, any popular mandate from the existing members. They were people living in countries ruined by communism, suddenly given the opportunity to settle in places which were not so ruined.
England, in particular, and Britain in general, has the advantage that its infrastructure was not destroyed in the war. […] It speaks the international language. The freedom to settle there and to enjoy what the British people had defended at great cost to themselves was suddenly offered to these people. Inevitably, they all transferred to Britain. It’s not xenophobia to recognize that your life, if you’re an ordinary person, has been changed — when suddenly people better qualified than you compete for your job, when your child is going to a school where English is the second language, when your right to social housing has been conferred on people who never paid anything to obtain it, etc.
You’ve spoken about the peculiar customs of Britain and the distinctiveness of the Anglosphere. Is it your position simply that Britain ought to have left the European Union or that the European Union is bad for everyone?
Well, I would say, and I did say this prior to the vote, that what is needed is not simply for us to withdraw from the treaty. What is needed is a new treaty, one that we could accept, and that everybody else could accept, too.
My view is that treaties are dead hands. They weigh upon you, maybe beneficially if they’re restraining you from doing something that would otherwise be destructive, as peace treaties do. But they might actually prevent you from taking the measures needed to cope with new situations. Treaties don’t adapt. The more signatures for them there are, the less likely it is that they ever will adapt. That is the problem. We were living under a treaty signed or conceived 70 years ago by people long since dead, in a situation that has vanished. Why should we be governed by it? It’s unusual for a treaty, in that it sets up a system of government. So you have a system of government, which is essentially non-adaptable.
My view is, get rid of it, and everybody come together again, seeing if they can get another kind of treaty which [responds to] all their separate national interests. […] Take the Poles. They thought it was great to join the treaty because at last they would have a system of law, which would replace the complete nonsense of communist legality. They had access to proper infrastructure and markets and so on. What they did not realize is that they would also lose all their youth, so that Poland is in a state of demographic collapse.
Everyone goes off to London to work.
Yeah. Clearly, each country has a different problem. Likewise, the Greeks thought, “Great. The single currency, as you say. We can transfer all our debts to those reliable Germans.” Then suddenly they realize: “Well of course, we can no longer govern our economy as we used to by periodic devaluation.” […] The result is a total collapse in youth employment.
In a talk on the BBC the week after the American election, you said: “In America as in Britain, the indigenous working class has been put out of mind, even overtly disparaged by the media and the political class. All attempts to give voice to their anxieties over immigration, over the impact on their lives of globalization and the spread of liberal conceptions of sex, marriage, and the family have been dismissed or silenced.” How can it be that Franklin D. Roosevelt, in establishing modern liberalism seven decades ago — of which the Democratic Party is the great champion — placed the working class at the very centre of that coalition, and now that same party — that same liberalism — has turned its back on the indigenous working class? How did this happen?
Yes. Well, it’s happened everywhere. I think […] it’s one of those deep mysteries, but I think there are two important factors that contributed to this. One is the change in the economy, which has transferred an awful lot of economic activity to service activities, to activities we conducted through the Internet or through companies based outside the jurisdiction. [This] means that the old traditional working class no longer has that cohesion that it had before and it’s no longer an identifiable social mass in the way that it was in Roosevelt’s day. That’s one very important thing.
The other important thing is that the liberal establishment has ceased to represent the interests of that class anyway. It represents the interest of people who are saying that they represent the interests of that class. It’s a self-serving ideology — people who want to appear virtuous without the cost of it. People in the media, the administration, and so on, who love the image of themselves as defenders of the people but [who] recognize that, when in the proximity of the people, they feel nothing except repugnance.
You’re making a moral point. It all happened through pride and vanity and sloth and inattention on the part of very comfortable people.
Well, I said that’s only one factor. […] There are also lots of good people who are liberals who really do worry about these things. But I’m just talking about these new social factors, which we have to recognize.
Now and again, one will hear: “American anxiety over immigration is xenophobia. It’s just immoral to think you can draw a line at the border. Why should anyone be anxious over immigration?” Yet, you would argue that it is actually a legitimate concern.
Well, yes. Again, there are many factors, but illegal immigration has been a great concern to people. There are ten million illegal immigrants possibly in this country. And I think ordinary people would say, “Look, if the first thing that somebody does when coming into the country is to commit a crime, should he really be allowed to stay?” I think it is a very strong argument. Of course, legal immigration, which has the consent of congress, and therefore the consent indirectly of the people, is not something that people are complaining about, not in the same tone of voice, anyway.
Then again, you have to recognize that what is being asked of the people is to offer hospitality to those who are not currently part of their home. You can offer hospitality to others if you have a secure home from which to offer it. But if that home has become insecure, as it has in large parts of Europe because of immigration, then what are asking of people? You’re asking of them, essentially, to de-territorialize themselves, to detach themselves from the place that is theirs without giving them any alternative.
Another concern you’ve mentioned: “The spread of liberal conceptions of sex, marriage, and the family.” This is a legitimate concern. But the argument could be made that the indigenous working class has no right to be upset about these liberal conceptions of sex, marriage, and the family because they’re the ones who’ve embraced them. To which you reply …?
I would reply that […] all of us fall away from the standards that are required in this area. That is undoubtedly the case because this is the biggest area of temptation. But it is also the biggest area in which examples are needed and in which a culture of resistance is needed. That culture of resistance was absolutely vital to the protection of the working class family, and especially of children who need a father at home and have lost that protection. It is undeniable that it’s liberal propaganda which has made it almost impossible to say those things. It’s not possible to say the things that are needed in this area — unless you’re Charles Murry and don’t care what’s said about you anyway. […] The point is, it’s an area in which the truth has been made ‘unsayable’ by the liberal censorship.
All right. Along comes Donald Trump. Does Sir Roger Scruton approve of the 45th Chief Executive of the United States?
Well, that’s a direct question, which is not strictly relevant to my vision of the world.
I’ll rewrite the question. How do you want to grapple with Donald Trump?
Well, I’d rather not. But of course, his defects of character are so manifest that one can, as it were, recognize that he’s put you in a new position. He is the legitimate President of the United States. He won the election on the basis of things, which were rightly said — some things were rightly said — and also on the basis of other things, which you could criticize, which perhaps should not have been said.
To go back to the point you were just making, did he have the virtue of saying the unsayable?
Yes. One of the reasons why he was elected is exactly that, which is one thing that I said in my BBC talk that you referred to earlier, that people have been living under a regime of liberal censorship, which makes it very hard to say things without being accused of faults like racism, xenophobia […] which nobody wants to be accused of but which are very easy to [make] because there’s no criteria on the basis of which to make them other than the feelings involved.
Senator John McCain, speaking very recently at the Munich Security Conference, said: “What would the founders of this security conference say if they saw our world today? They would be alarmed by an increasing turn away from universal values, and toward old ties of blood and race and sectarianism.” You and Trump both champion the native land, the organic culture. [Critics would say that] you want to turn us back to blood and soil, blood and race and sectarianism.
That’s the kind of language which I reject. My view is that the country is a vital part of our identity. I don’t mean by that ‘blood and soil’ in the Nazi sense; I mean, this land, the place where our jurisdiction operates. This is a crucial thing about the national idea. It’s a defence of territorial jurisdiction against religious or quasi-religious jurisdiction, like the Universal Doctrine of Human Rights or the Sharia, to take another competitor. We are fortunate to live in countries where the law is defined by the land over which it operates.
Within that land, of course there’s a sense of belonging on which the law draws for the democratic process. There’s nothing blood and soil about this. It’s to do with neighbourhood. We’re settled among neighbours. We want to get along with them. We don’t want to force them to agree with us about everything nor do we require them to be of the same race, whatever that means. But we do require them to share our commitment to the place where we are because this is where we’re building a home. Other people might want to come into that home and we should be entitled to invite them, provided they agree to abide by the rules.
All this is perfectly reasonable in my view. It’s only because the left have dominated the language in which these things are discussed that my reasonable position can be made to look like that unreasonable position, which you were just attributing.
There is Trump’s now famous executive order imposing a temporary travel ban from seven countries in the Middle East where there’s been terrorism. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized this, stating: “The bond between Christians and Muslims is founded on the unbreakable strength of charity and justice. […] Welcoming the stranger […] is the very form of Christianity of itself.” There you get the notion that drawing lines at the border is unchristian or immoral. Who is Donald Trump — who is Sir Roger Scruton or Prime Minister May — to say: “We have the right to keep people out.”
You have a house, which you share with your wife and children, assuming you have them. You do recognize the right to keep out of that house people whom you’ve not invited in. Don’t you?
Having invited people in who start smashing things up, you recognize a right to exclude them. […] Just multiply that by a few hundred thousand and you’ll recognize that people taken as a whole have that right. That is another part of democracy: that we live in a place. We have the right to exclude from that place those whom we think are not going to fit into it or to whom we don’t want to extend a welcome. If we didn’t have that right, we wouldn’t feel secure in occupying the place that we claim as ours.
It’s a simple part of human nature and although I think Trump should never have mentioned the Muslim idea in this — because that goes against the whole American tradition that religion is not what it’s about but settlement — nevertheless, he wasn’t exceeding the natural powers of a president in saying what he said if he’d left out that reference to religion. He did make various promises to people prior to the election, which he’s obviously under some obligation to follow through anyway.
Wonderfully compelling, everything you say. But it’s nostalgic. It’s the shire. It’s Tolkien, for goodness sake! Even England isn’t green and pleasant in quite the same way. We live in a modern world and for seven decades, in both your country and throughout the Anglosphere, the state has expanded and expanded. I love the world that you describe in the same way that I love Tolkien, but they belong on the bookshelf together. It’s not practical. Tell me why I’m wrong.
Well, you’re not entirely wrong. The expansion of the state to absorb more and more of civil society has happened everywhere — more outside the Anglosphere than inside the Anglosphere. Let’s face it: You still have private education available here if you want it and can afford it. You still have all the ‘little platoons’, as Burke called them. If you have a problem, you can get together with your neighbours to solve it. You probably belong to all sorts of clubs and discussion groups and so on. All that free association, which made the English speaking countries what they are, still exist. It’s just that there are attacks on it.
Roughly speaking, half of what you earn goes to maintain a shadow community of parasites whose only justification is that they pretend to be governing us. We belong in an organism which is accompanied by a cancerous version of itself. That’s the way it is. All you can do is every now and then diminish it. Cut off this or that bit of it. But it will always be there.
At the same time, focusing on the other thing, it’s not nostalgia, although nostalgia is an underrated aspect of the human condition. Remember the founding work of literature of our civilization describes Odysseus’s decision to give up immortality and life with a goddess in order to travel across dangerous seas to his home. It set the model for what all our literature since has been about and all our art. Why turn away from that? We are in this world as dispossessed and alienated, and we do have that longing for a home. We try to build it. That’s all I’m advocating: that we should go on doing this. It’ll always be a different home, but it isn’t in any way nostalgia to say that this is where our values lie, rather than in that other thing, that great expanding state machine.
The last question: Brexit has happened. Britain has a new government. You have a new Prime Minister and we have a new President. Are you hopeful?
I’ve never in my life been hopeful. I take the view that pessimism is the wise position to adopt because you’re always agreeably surprised.