Philosopher and writer Roger Scruton (Photo by Andy Hall/Getty Images)

Scruton’s Last heresy

Principled conservatism’s latest excommunication

Artillery Row

In these dark times, when so much is reduced to chaos and roiling terror akin to Raskolnikov’s nightmare at the end of Crime and Punishment, it is a blessed relief to see the burning light of principle and prudence tended by those who still hold to self-evident truths and honour in public and intellectual life. These brave few hold fast against the swirling hordes of reaction, populism and fascism, conserving the liberal principles that undergird our culture. These honourable individuals spare no effort in rooting out the dangers to the light of reason and freedom, especially when they appear on the right. We see one such courageous person wearily but determinedly girding his loins to once again man the battlements of principled conservatism™️, rightly understood, against the father of our new fascist Internationale … Roger Scruton. 

Jonathan Last of Never Trump therapy group The Bulwark has decided that Roger Scruton, the last real British conservative philosopher, is now to be cast into outer darkness for being the wrong sort of conservative. Scruton wrote that “for the conservative, the value of individual liberty is not absolute, but stands subject to another and higher value, the authority of established government”. Underlying this is the view that “conservatism arises directly from the sense that one belongs to some continuing, and pre-existing social order, and that this fact is all-important in determining what to do”. This is opposed to principled, or “axiomatic” conservatism, which Austin Bramwell defines as “promot[ing] a fixed and well-defined set of policy goals; second, it assumes that those goals are advanced through the spread of ideas or systems of belief; third, it rejects pragmatic adjustment to changing circumstances”. The policy goals are public liberalism, rooted in sacramental liberal systems of belief, adhered to with the fervour of divinely revealed faith. 

The context, of course, is that conservatism has gone crazy since about late 2015 (I wonder what happened then?) and Scruton is to be held partly responsible for this calamity, for the “fascists who love him”, as the nuanced and non-hysterical title puts it. According to Last, one can’t draw a straight line “from Reagan (or Bill Buckley, or George W. Bush) to Trump (or Tucker, or DeSantis) … But you can draw a reasonable best-fit curve”. In other words, as always with the would-be gatekeepers of the temple of principled conservatism, the intellectual lineages and conceptual tightness needed for a coherent conservative philosophy are subservient to the need for ideological border enforcement, flexibly defined to the point of meaninglessness and policed with more exactitude and conviction than America’s southern border would ever require. 

Last cites a piece in Arc Digital that claims to situate Scruton in the author’s view of a new wave of fascism sweeping the world through the use of cool aesthetics and fashionable food and shopping outlets. The evidence provided for this is the new Roger Scruton café in Budapest, Hungary, which signifies the latent far-right nature of Scruton’s conservative worldview. Apparently, Roger Scruton’s England: An Elegy was not a work of history, memoir and philosophy woven together to capture the gossamer-web of a time and place already disappearing in the light of the new day. Instead this book, castigated by Anne Applebaum in her literary tantrum Twilight of Democracy as representative of Scruton’s worldview, is the soil from which today’s international far-right springs. It apparently expresses an “apocalyptic” view of the world that amounted to “an outpouring of despair”. Never mind that Scruton always counselled against despair and in favour of the virtue of hope, as well as displaying a sympathetic, deep knowledge of Islam, Islamic culture and the Middle East that principled conservatives were never capable of attaining. 

The only real response is a shake of the head at the audacity of such people

Last manages to scrape together a couple of sentences to somewhat give Scruton his intellectual due, but in the context of the whole this faint praise serves only to further the damnation. He argues that Scruton’s deeply considered and carefully articulated criticism of liberalism’s unreal conception of the individual, social relations, culture and politics was all well and good in the heyday of the post-Cold War fever dream. Now that democracy is under assault by autocracy, it “comes across more like an indictment of liberalism … that has apparently been taken up as a foundational text by fascists”. These “fascists” include American Catholic intellectual Gladden Pappin and the Orthodox writer Rod Dreher — “fifth-rank, self-proclaimed ‘anti-liberal’ intellectuals”. The fact that the epigraph to Last’s fine book on demography, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, is by none other than Viktor Orban on demographic decline and the false palliative of immigration, is just too perfect for words. I assume this will be purged, as we cannot allow the dissemination of fascist figures and their ideas, can we?

The central problem is that when Scruton was writing, liberalism was triumphant, but now it needs protecting from “the would-be authoritarians sipping espresso in the Scruton café” who take Scruton’s work as a blueprint for 21st century fascism. To all of which the only real response is a shake of the head at the audacity of such people. What we see here is the further abolition of any claim the Bulwark crowd has to the conservative label, principled or otherwise. 

The Bulwark is the continuation of the defunct magazine The Weekly Standard, which closed its doors in 2018 after it was no longer able to maintain the pretence that there was a right-wing readership for its worldview. This publication never saw a country it didn’t want to invade, a war it didn’t want to start, or a town in the American Midwest it didn’t want to deindustrialise. This gives a clue as to why its web-based descendent also never sees a right-winger it won’t eventually deem dangerous to properly principled conservatism and therefore in need of censure. 

Ignore that the policies and worldview pushed by the Never Trump principled conservatives created the conditions for Trump — the very man they cannot do without. The fact of their role in birthing the Trump phenomenon is encapsulated in Karl Rove’s saying that those who clung to the facts of people, place, culture, religion and history didn’t get that this wasn’t “the way the world really works anymore”, as “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”. This presaged Trump’s postmodern relationship with the truth by more than a decade. 

Those at The Bulwark and similar sites should by rights be banished to the wilds of Alaska for their boosting of America’s disastrous 21st century crusades to spread a universalist, liberal vision of politics and culture to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. All this was at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars, for which Fred Barnes wrote that he’d “like to see one other thing in Iraq, an outbreak of gratitude for the greatest act of benevolence one country has ever done for another”. 

Alongside this was the unravelling of social bonds at home already frayed by liquifying trade policies, which produced social stratification and atomisation along with economic stagnation. The principled conservative’s response is to swap out white working class Americans with immigrant replacements, or simply let these sick, diseased people die in towns whose physical dilapidation supposedly expresses their degraded moral state. 

The responsibility for this social and economic vacuum lies with a public liberalism preached by Last and his fellow Never Trumpers — practised ever more assiduously in the aftermath of the Cold War. As a result of the “relentless dynamic of liberalism [that] tends to undermine the ‘peace, security and order’ that liberalism itself promises”, the ties that bind people together in place and across time have been dissolved, a dissolution furthered by the disappearance of a solid material basis for attaining the good life lived in common. Trump, for all his manifest faults, spoke to this in his “American Carnage” inaugural address, damned in similar language as Applebaum damned Scruton. 

These principled poseurs are courtiers who go where the power is

The chief principle of these erstwhile conservatives was a millenarian belief in America’s Founding as the embodiment of liberal ideals, tied neither to people or place, transcending time and circumstance. This ethical universalism demanded that these enlightened few educate America’s political leaders as to their duty to bring salvation and succour to the world’s remaining huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. That America was an idea, an ideological blank slate, was axiomatic. This meant the world must be remade at home and abroad. The liberalism of principled conservatism “is incapable of respecting [the] constraint” of public culture, traditions and customs, “because to do so would betray its inner nature, which is to publicly and conspicuously celebrate its great liturgy, the Festival of Reason, the dynamic overcoming of the darkness, superstition, and slavish authoritarianism of the irrational past”.

It is therefore the smallest surprise in the world that the principled conservatives™️ of The Bulwark et al are now lauded by the leftist media as islands of sanity among a populist storm. Max Boot whinges about his “white privilege”, Bill Kristol calls himself a feminist, and MSNBC, NBC, CNN and the rest fall all over them. These principled poseurs are courtiers who go where the power is. At the beginning of the century, it resided with the Republicans. Now it rests with the Democrats and their ideological confreres in the managerial state and cultural Clerisy who legitimate the liberal regime, whose public liberalism the Never Trumpers already half-agreed with. The unreality of liberalism lends itself to a kind of ideological flexibility as displayed by those in the Never Trump camp that in other circumstances might be labelled charlatanry. But this is not hypocrisy, it’s hierarchy

Last’s piece amounts to an argument that real liberalism must be faithfully adhered to. One can raise mild, abstract issues about its excesses but one must never criticise its foundations. Those countries like Poland, Hungary, Italy, Sweden and all the rest that are implementing conservative policies around trade, immigration, culture and economics, are anathematised by those like Last for enacting a vision that places them outside the liberal congregation. Liberalism’s theological nature is attested to by the reactions from Last, and the rest of the Never Trumpers, to Trump and any leader or country that deviates from liberal orthodoxy. Ideological heathens are bad enough, but those like the leaders in Eastern and Central Europe are far worse, having committed apostasy and repudiated liberalism’s revealed truth

Roger Scruton, for maintaining his commitment to a worldview we would now call national conservatism, is thus painted as the chief philosopher of this theological heresy. This, by fifth-rate scribblers whose missionary zeal combines with their ressentiment at the judgement on their own failings implicit in Scruton’s greatness. Happily, his legacy will still be revered for ages to come, whilst the pseudo-profound whining of the principled conservatives will be blown away by the winds of history.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover