Sir Roger Scruton reflects on conservatism rather than attacking socialism and liberalism

I have been having a recent run-in with an American Facebook “friend”. He insists that “conservatism” (with a small “c”) is the same as capitalism and is another word for a system that allows greedy bosses to crush the workers. I keep trying to explain, without success, that conservatism is neither the unacceptable face of capitalism nor modern Conservatism.

In desperation I have pointed him towards Sir Roger Scruton’s admirable little book, published in paperback in 2015, entitled How to be A Conservative. It was Scruton who introduced me to Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” which I referred to in my last blog. As someone whose own conservatism was deeply influenced by witnessing the 1968 student protests in Paris, Scruton addresses a readership that cares for common-law justice, parliamentary democracy, private charity, public spirit and those little platoons of volunteers that all go to make civil society possible and enduring.

Naturally enough, Scruton is a convinced Brexiteer, not because he is stupid or racist (common slurs put out by Remainers last year) but because, as he argues eloquently in his book, the values of conservatism depend on the good maintenance of the nation-state and, following on from this, national borders. The EU is “a conspiracy to dissolve those borders” and is thus a threat to European democracy. Democracy, he argues, needs boundaries and boundaries need the nation state.

His book is a reflection on conservatism rather than an attack on socialism or liberalism. He carefully examines them both, alongside multiculturalism, environmentalism and internationalism, and extracts what is good in them while rejecting ideological aspects. Where socialism understands “the truth of our mutual dependence and of the need to do what we can to spread the benefits of social membership to those whose own efforts do not suffice to obtain them”, it is not far removed from compassionate conservatism. But, Scruton warns, when it becomes “an attempt to revise human nature…it is a dangerous fantasy.” Indeed, the “confiscation of civil society by the state leads to a widespread refusal among the citizens to act for themselves”. This has led to all the problems of “welfareism” that have slowly become entrenched in our society.

Scruton’s chapter on “Realms of value” should be read by anyone who wonders what “British values” actually are anymore and what they mean for a conservative. Discussing the role that the established religion plays in our national life, he pointedly shows up the difference between Christianity and Islam, which does not distinguish between private faith and public government. As he writes, “It is one of the triumphs of Christian civilization to have held on to the Christian notion of human destiny while acknowledging the priority of secular law”. We must render unto Caesar.

On marriage as defined between a man and a woman, now abandoned by all political parties, Scruton again makes the case for the ancient, traditional institution, commenting that it is “the primary way in which social capital is transferred from one generation to the next” and that “the bearing of children and the preparation for family life live at the heart of the marital tie.” Take away this norm and the institution “will no longer be a bond across generations with the nurture of children as its goal, but a contract for cohabitation, as temporary… as any other such deal.”

Scruton’s book requires a certain kind of reflective attention. I am not sure my Facebook “friend” has it. It is always easier to declaim rather than to listen.