This is the penultimate of our series dedicated to the memory and works of the conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, and the ninth lesson, for our not very Conservative government, drawn from his writing.
It comes from the fourth part of a keynote speech Sir Roger gave on the future of Europe, national identity and the virtues of patriotism and nationalism, to the ‘Europe at a Crossroads’ conference last May.
The lesson is this – revitalising the nation state must be the first concern of conservative politics.
THE Brexit vote was an expression, however, of another kind of alienation. And comparable feelings have given rise to the discontent with the European project that we see growing in Italy, Greece and Spain. In all three of those countries, the political class has seen an easy solution to the problem of governing the people: namely to accept a regime imposed from above, so as to collect all the privileges of political life while avoiding all the duties.
When Burke wrote his reflections on the French Revolution, he knew that he would be targeted as a public enemy. But he also knew that the political class to which he belonged would be influenced by his arguments and would begin to understand that a society built from below on a foundation of custom and common law is far more stable than one imposed from above, like that of revolutionary France. Burke developed that idea in a way that inspired generations of British politicians and which encouraged the gradual democratisation of our political life. He offered a clear proof that conservatism, when guided by philosophy, can achieve its goal, which is the goal implied in its name: the conservation of an existing social order.
This goal is differently conceived in different European countries. There is no single religious institutional or legal inheritance. Nevertheless, the basis of conservative philosophy is shared across the continent, not merely to conserve things, of course, but to adapt them, so that they survive. The basis behind this whole way of thinking is the concept of responsibility. This is not how the conservative message is usually expressed.
Ever since the Reagan-Thatcher Risorgimento, conservatives have advocated freedom as their principal value: the goal that distinguishes right from left in the modern world. That emphasis was persuasive in the days of the Soviet empire, but it is less persuasive today when it is not tyranny but incipient anarchy that is the main cause of popular concern, and the principal thing against which the ordinary voter is seeking a remedy.
Of course, real freedom is also a condition of self-discipline and responsibility is a part of it. Freedom and accountability go hand in hand and cannot, in the end, be distinguished from one another. But the emphasis on responsibility involves a change of message and this is what I would advocate to conservatives everywhere. It’s why, for example, the environmental movement should be understood as part of the conservative cause and not one term in the red/green alliance. But that raises the question on which I wish to dwell in this brief talk, the question of loyalty. To think in terms of responsibility is to ask the question, ‘To whom am I accountable?’ It is to subjugate the ‘I’ to the ‘we’, to set limits to individual ambition on behalf of the collective. And this setting of limits has no motivating force if people cannot identify with a community, a first person plural with whose destiny their own success and failure are entwined.
We want to renew our communities as communities of law-abiding and accountable citizens, able to make sacrifices for the common good, who will work together to establish common institutions and a shared way of life. In short, we need to renew our legacy of social trust and we want to achieve this without lapsing into religious or ethnic homogeneity. In other words, while defining the fundamental loyalty as a loyalty to a place, a country and historical ties, rather than to a faith or a race. And, of course, that has become all the more important on account of the mass immigration into European states. This can only be done through the nation state and, to my mind, the revitalising of the nation state must be the first concern of conservative politics, both at the domestic and the international level.
There are those who disagree, of course, and in particular those involved in the networks and businesses that are profiting from the European illusion. But it is an illusion at a time when communities all over the continent are fragmenting and losing their sense of accountability, the European Union offers nothing save an ever-expanding list of human rights, which citizens of any country can claim against their governments and therefore against their fellow citizens, so adding to the legacy of social and moral distrust.
Maybe it will come as a surprise to hear a British conservative, heir to the greatest experiment in liberal government that the world has known, speaking adversely of human rights. But I would only emphasise that this concept and the means to make it a reality through international courts has been hijacked by the same forces that have undermined education and the old rule of charity. Forces that prefer equality to freedom and anarchy to hierarchy when the choice must be made.
Only in the context of a nation state, proud of its identity and able to offer a shared home to its citizens, does the idea of a right to make sense. For then it is a claim that must be paid for, by obedience. In the national context, rights and duties remain indissoluble, sustained by a common obedience and a shared loyalty to one’s fellow citizens.
For conservatives, all disputes over law, liberty and justice are addressed to a historic and existing community. The root of politics, they believe, is a settlement: the motive in human beings that binds them to the place, the customs, the history and the people that are theirs.
The language of politics is spoken in the first person plural. And for conservatives, the duty of the politician is to maintain this first person plural in being. Without it law becomes an alien imposition, not ‘ours’ but ‘theirs’ – like the laws imposed by a conquering power, or those as we have experienced in Britain, imposed by a treaty made years ago in a vanished situation by people long since dead.
The final part of Sir Roger’s lecture will be published tomorrow.