By Jonathan Rutherford
I got to know Roger Scruton because, being Blue Labour, I was interested in conservative thinking and he is England’s foremost conservative thinker and our country’s most eminent philosopher. He explained conservatism to me as liberalism taking a pause. The New Statesman might consider a pause having succeeded in getting him sacked from his role as chair of the government commission on ‘Building More, Building Beautifully’ after he gave an interview to the magazine in which he made intemperate comments on Islam and George Soros.
The glee in bringing down Roger Scruton exposes a journalistic culture tinged with a liberal Stalinism. The New Statesman was reduced to the political Twitter sphere with its toxic mixture of self-righteous ignorance and intolerance. And more than this it reveals a contemporary liberalism whose own illiberalism undermines the values upon which it is based and which it is striving to defend.
What is the purpose of the “new” New Statesman? Its contributors include liberals and Marxists, Blue Labour types and, occasionally, Corbyn types. It features Andrew Murray and Helen Lewis alongside John Gray and Adrian Pabst. It has run exemplary long interview-profiles of Nigel Farage and John McDonnell. As a regular reader, I do not see this pluralism as simply a celebration of diversity for its own sake. As our political crisis has deepened, the New Statesman under Jason Cowley has been engaged in a deeply considered intellectual search for new thinking that can help us to navigate our way through the current interregnum.
It has recognised that our liberal market settlement is exhausted and that there is as yet no viable alternative. The liberal world order is changing fundamentally. Populism is not simply reducible to xenophobia. Leave voters are not stupid or deluded. There exists a deep popular disquiet at the state of our society and its governing class. Our political parties have been unable to renew themselves and millions feel disenfranchised. The New Statesman has been questioning received orthodoxies, creating dialogue, and thinking philosophically in service to the revival of a democratic politics. And it is unique in our national culture in holding open the paradoxes of politics in order to imagine and construct a new political settlement.
It has pursued its intention in a deeply polarised and fractious political environment. However, the treatment of Roger Scruton and the response to his sacking by some of the staff reveals how easily such an open- minded project can succumb to the soft bigotry of self-righteous indignation.
Scruton has got views on Islam. His book The West and the Rest explores its relationship to the West. Read it and form a judgment. His views on the intellectual left are set out in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands and can be countered and challenged. His latest book Where We Are, on the state of Britain, should be widely read on the left.
Scruton’s conservatism is a philosophy of attachment. He describes it as a love of home, by which he means the common life and inheritance that belongs to “us”, the people, and which grows out of everyday life. This “us” is not made by contract and nor is it ethnic in its origins. It is membership which is made in the ordinary life of friendship, family, community and love of place.
The left has followed the liberal philosopher Friedrich Hayek’s disparaging view of conservatism in his essay, Why I am not a Conservative. Conservatism, writes Hayek with its fear of change and timid distrust of the new, is dragged along paths not of its choosing, constantly applying the “brake on the vehicle of progress”. But we have all learned that things don’t only get better. The destructive impact of liberal economics over the last 40 years requires that we recognise the enduring presence and value of the conservative instinct in society. As Scruton argues, the market has a corrosive effect on human settlement. Global capitalism is a kind of brigandage in which costs are transferred to future generations for the sake of rewards here and now.
Scruton’s books are testimony to intellectual rigour and they demand a similar rigour in response. His accusers on the left resort to the superficial and brittle activism of twittered words and phrases. Is this the best the intellectual left can do?