Sir Roger Scruton – The Last Commission
Sir Roger Scruton’s superhuman approach in the last months of his life
Sir Roger Scruton wrote that, “in the face of death, human beings can still show nobility and compassion and dignity.” He certainly did that himself. And, I would add, courage.
Stricken by a vicious cancer, vindicated against The New Statesman’s mendacious misreporting, he returned to the work of the Government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission this autumn with a youthful vigour and commitment which, particularly in sad retrospect, seems almost superhuman. He may have come to meetings in a wheelchair but his intellectual focus to finish the report was utterly undimmed.
As the days shortened, we spent many hours together drafting and re-drafting our report, trying to get the balance right between the elegance of exposition that was his hallmark and the necessary level of detailed policy that a complex commission report requires. It could have been a tortuous and fractious process. Instead it was stimulating, rewarding, even joyful. It was a privilege to work alongside him in the warmth of his book-lined Wiltshire farmhouse and with the tumbling fields and hedgerows that were so precious to him and his kind family all around.
It is probably fair to say that several of the Commission’s advisers were initially a little nervous of his reputation, half expecting the bigoted bogeyman that some in the media have chosen to conjure up. He disarmed them quickly with humour, respect and the breadth of his interests.
His respect for the love of place was universal because it was so confidently and clearly expressed. It is telling that in the last years of his life he did so much to help the Syrian architect and writer, Marwa al-Sabouni, or that, when we first dined together, shortly after his 75th birthday, he served up not just English pies and vegetables but wine from France, harissa from North Africa and sachertorte from Vienna – the latter two sent to him as birthday gifts by international admirers. I hope that the report of the Commission and the government’s response to it can, amongst other things, be taken as a vindication of part of his life’s work.
I first met Roger five years ago when we were both asked to sit on a precursor to the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission. At the first meeting, a phalanx of industry heavies defended at wearisome length the status quo that passes for development in this country with all its ugliness, inhumanity and car-dependent unsustainability. He joyfully punctured the tedium with a frank admission of his own relative inexperience in matters of practical development: “All I have designed is my garden shed – but I did it to Vitruvian principles.”
We could make no headway but eighteen months later, he rather startled, and flattered, me by asking me to give a lecture on a course he was setting up. Then I joined the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission initially serving under Roger’s chairmanship. After his return, following the New Statesman’s apology for its vindictive misreporting of his comments, we served together as co-chairs. It might have been a difficult and tense relationship. That it was anything but, indeed that it was a joy to work closely with him was a testament to the civility of his vision of the intellectual life, a life of wide reading and vivid talking, punctuated by proper meals and good wine.
Nicholas Boys Smith served as co-chair of the Government’s Building Better Building alongside Sir Roger Scruton and is the director of Create Streets.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe