The death of Sir Roger Scruton reminds us of an overlooked fact, that there is a massive difference between the sort of conservatism he championed and free market economics.
Scruton defined conservatism as the “instinct to hold on to what we love, to protect it from degradation and violence and to build our lives around it.” The creative destruction of the free market economy, however, often endangers what we love. It is always threatening to destroy traditional communities and industries. Coal miners and steel workers in the 80s, protesting against pit and plant closures, were conservatives on Scruton’s definition but certainly not Thatcherites. And Patrick Minford’s vision of a post-Brexit economy in which manufacturing disappears is surely alien to the Scrutonian love of tradition.
Scruton himself was of course awake to this. The Times obituary quotes him as saying that “Thatcher was completely indifferent to our kind of conservative philosophy.” And at many points, he opposed modern-day capitalism: in his antipathy to big housebuilders with their ugly and shoddily-built boxes; in his defence of high culture against marketized “pop” music; in his claim that supermarkets are “not only poisoning the world with packaging, they’re also destroying the ability of communities to survive without central distribution”; and in his critique of “absentee capitalism.”
All of this, though, raises a question. Why is there not more hostility between Scrutonian and free market conservatives? Why is there not the vicious bitterness we see in the Labour party between Corbynites and their critics?
One reason, I suspect, is that disputes about thought are often less rancorous than those about power or personality. This is especially true for people who are wise enough, as many Tories are, to know that politics isn’t everything.
Also, Scrutonian and free market rightists have much in common. They share a scepticism of top-down state intervention and reverence for unplanned emergence – for what arises from the market in one case, and from tradition in another. Both believe, with some justification, there’s more unstated wisdom in emergent orders than there can be in conscious top-down direction.
Some of you might add a corollary to this, that both wings of Tory thought are united by a love of freedom. I’m not so sure. Whilst Scruton undoubtedly incurred cost and jeopardy in supporting dissidents in the old Soviet bloc, many Tories have been less enthusiastic about freedom and much more selective in whose liberty they have championed: that of Chileans and South Africans (and for many years women and gays in the UK) had a lower priority than east Europeans’.
But perhaps there’s something else. A while back, Bryan Caplan coined the phrase “the libertarian penumbra” to mean a set of beliefs which, whilst strictly not constitutive of libertarianism are in fact widely shared by libertarians. There is perhaps also a Tory penumbra, at least for those Tories who never bought into Cameronism. Things like a love of fox-hunting, a search for a genetic basis for inequality, hostility to climate change activists, hatred of the EU, or a perceived victimhood in the face of “wokeness” are perhaps not essential features of Toryism. But plenty of Tories share them – enough to create sufficient fellow-feeling as to compensate for what would otherwise be a large ideological gulf between conservatives and free-marketeers.
The flip-side of homophily, though, is exclusion. A love of “home” (a key element of Scruton's thinking) can easily spill into animosity towards immigrants; a defence of Christianity can tip into Islamophobia; and support of “high” culture can become a poncy snobbery.
Herein, I think, lies the reason why so many leftists hated him. Many – especially immigrants, ethnic minorities and even (despite Scruton’s own humble origins) those of us from working class backgrounds – sense that we don’t just belong among Scrutonian Tories. We fear that what also unites free market and Scrutonian Tories is, as Corey Robin said, a love of hierarchies – ones in which people like us are at the bottom.
Which raises a paradox. If we take Scruton’s definition at face value, almost all of us are conservative (just as almost all of us are working class on Marx’s definition!) The difference between us and Tories lies in what we love. People who value UK membership of the EU, or fear that VAR is ruining football are all Scrutonian conservatives. So too was the Communist Ewan MacColl when he tried to defend and revive English folk music in the face of commercial pressures for its decline. One of my favourite blogs, Jonathan Calder’s Liberal England, combines a reverence for English countryside and culture with Lib Dem politics. And one can argue – as Hilary Wainwright does – that Jeremy Corbyn is heir to an English tradition of radical dissent.
England has many traditions and customs, loved across the political spectrum. Tories who claim a monopoly on the love of tradition are adopting a very partial and reified notion of Englishness. Scruton himself saw this. In England: An Elegy (a book whose very title is anti-Thatcherite) he describes how his father blamed the Tories for the “desecrated townscape of High Wycombe.” Scruton pere was a conservative, not a Conservative. As are many of us. Which makes it all the sadder that Scruton himself was so sectarian and divisive a figure.