“How to Be a Conservative”, by Roger Scruton – book Review

“How to Be a Conservative”, by Roger Scruton, is as the title suggests a defense of Conservatism.

Growing up in a working class household with a father who was deeply committed to Socialism, Scruton nonetheless discovered in his father a conservatism (of the non-political variety), for Scruton’s father was a lover of the English countryside and was possessed of a strong desire to preserve ancient buildings and the traditions of his locality.

While Scruton is a Conservative of the political kind, anyone reading “How to Be a Conservative” with a view to obtaining a detailed programme/manifesto will find instead a thoughtful defense of the philosophy of Conservatism in its broadest sense, rather than a list of proposals regarding how Conservative governments should operate. In passing Scruton does advocate choice in education via such methods as providing parents with vouchers in order to enhance choice in schooling. He also writes in support of welfare reform. However, as already stated “How to Be a Conservative” is not a manifesto.

So what is Scruton’s view of Conservatism?
Scruton argues that Socialism is a top down philosophy whereas Conservatism flows from the natural instincts of the people. People form into the “little platoons” defended by the Conservative philosopher Edmund Burke. Such “platoons” include the family, sports clubs and local charities through which people find meaning in common cause with others. For Scruton we are individuals and he criticises Socialists for what he perceives as their disregard for this self-evident fact. However the author is also critical of what he refers to as “homo economicus” (the tendency to view human activity in purely economic terms). So while Scruton defends private property and the market economy, he does so only insofar as they do (in his view) promote human flourishing. For example a good portion of the book is devoted to defending “high culture” which should not, in Scruton’s view be left to the visicitudes of the market. There is, for Scruton such a thing as “objectively” noble/good in the field of culture and there are things which constitute trash.

While Scruton defends aspects of the late Lady Thatcher’s legacy, he is critical of the obsession of many Thatcherites with economics pointing out that, in the end it is through social attachments (“the little platoons” that we flourish, not through economics.

During the existence of the former Eastern (Communist) Block, Scruton visited Czechoslavakia and met with disidents. He was arrested and expelled. His experiences behind “the Iron Curtain” help to explain Scruton’s Conservatism. In Czechoslovakia Burke’s “little platoons” had been abolished or absorbed into the state, there being no independent boy scouts or other independent institutions promoting human flourishing. Given the author’s experiences and the suffering he observed amongst disidents, one can understand why he adopts the position he does of defending those “little platoons”.

While Scruton shares the Classical Liberals view that the individual and private property should be protected from the encroachments of the state, he deplores “human rights” arguments seeing in them a potentially slippery slope leading to the lessening of human freedom. For example he mentions the decision of the courts to allow travellers to occupy a village green on the grounds that they (the traveling community) had a “right” to live somewhere. The courts did not take into account the concrete rights of the local property owners to enjoy the facilities of the village free from unwelcome intrusions. So, for Scruton there is a right to private property and to government welfare (although the latter is less than that supported by those on the left of the political spectrum).

The defense of existing institutions is, of course a cause dear to the Conservative’s heart. For Scruton (as for all true Conservatives) institutions reflect the collective history of the country and this fact leads the person of a conservative disposition to value them on account of this. For instance many people no longer attend church on a regular basis, yet the Christian ethos still plays an important role in the country and many people who would not regard themselves as religious are, nonetheless imbued with its ethos. We see the spires of churches and are glad they are there for they represent a part of who we are as a country. While things change the Conservative should attempt to shore up what is left and protect our culture from cultural relativism.

There is much in “How to Be a Conservative” with which Conservatives of all hues will agree. The defense of “the little platoons” and the scepticism regarding human nature are common to all true Conservatives. However Scruton’s support for the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union is an issue which has split the Conservative Party, while others within the Conservative fold are (unlike Scruton) less inclined to advocate “family values”. While Scruton does not use the term “family values” he is strongly supportive of the traditional (hetrosexual) family, while other Conservatives hold that the state has no business in telling consenting adults how they should conduct their sex lives.

Finally people who are not political Conservatives will, I think still nonetheless find aspects of Scruton’s arguments persuasive, for instance his love of the English countryside and his advocacy of the need to protect and preserve historic buildings. For anyone wishing to understand traditional Conservatism I recommend this book.

“How to Be a Conservative”,, by Roger Scruton, https://www.audible.co.uk/pd/How-to-Be-a-Conservative-Audiobook/B00NGVR6NO

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