‘Once identified as right-wing you are beyond the pale of argument,’ wrote Sir Roger Scruton. ‘Your views are irrelevant, your character discredited, your presence in the world a mistake. You are not an opponent to be argued with, but a disease to be shunned. This has been my experience.’
Unfortunately, that experience is due to intensify for the 74-year-old conservative philosopher. Last weekend, the government announced it had set up a commission to try and make new housing developments ‘beautiful’ and appointed Sir Roger as its chair. It’s one of the few sensible things the present government has done; so, of course, it’s caused a scandal.
Within minutes of Sir Roger’s appointment, the offence archaeologists had gone to work, digging through everything he’d written in the hope of finding ‘inappropriate’ comments they could be outraged by. It didn’t take them long, and earlier this week the mob started to form up. His most egregious sin, we are told, was giving a speech in Hungary in which he said that many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish and ‘form part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire’.
Taken out of context, that looks as if Scruton is endorsing an anti-Semitic trope, particularly if you simplify it to remove any of the nuance, which is what the Daily Mirror did. ‘New Tory housing tsar claimed Hungarian Jews form part of “Soros Empire”,’ screamed its headline.
But if you bother to read the speech, you’ll discover that its subject is a defence of nationalism and how it came to be regarded as toxic by the architects of the European project. The reason he brings up the fact that some of the pro-EU Hungarian intelligentsia are Jewish is because he goes on to explain that they, along with George Soros, are ‘rightly suspicious of nationalism’ since they see it as being ‘the major cause of the tragedy of Central Europe in the 20th century’. He then makes it clear that this isn’t the sort of nationalism he is defending. Rather, the creed he has in mind is loyalty to the nation state and, in the very same paragraph, he lambasts the ‘indigenous anti-Semitism’ that ‘still plays a part in Hungarian society and politics’ because it is ‘an obstacle to the emergence of a shared national loyalty among ethnic Hungarians and Jews’ — which is something he would like to see.
This is not, then, an example of Scruton ‘aping’ Viktor Orbán’s ‘insinuations of Jewish conspiracy’, as the left-wing website Red Roar would have us believe. On the contrary, he was criticising anti-Semitism in that speech — and the reference to its continuing presence in Hungarian politics feels like a swipe at Orbán.
Other comments by Scruton have been taken out of context to rev up the outrage machine, including some mildly sceptical remarks about ‘Islamophobia’ in The Spectator. The offending passage reads: ‘If you express outrage at crimes committed by Muslims against women, and hint that Islam might have something to do with it, you will be accused of “Islamophobia”.’ I can’t say I feel particularly ‘triggered’ by that, but then again I hired Scruton to write the column those words appeared in.
Numerous Labour MPs have now called for Scruton’s scalp, including Andrew Gwynne, the shadow communities secretary. ‘Nobody holding those views has a place in modern democracy,’ he told BuzzFeed, momentarily forgetting Jeremy Corbyn’s attic full of baggage. ‘The prime minister needs to finally show some leadership and sack Scruton with an investigation into how he was appointed in the first place.’
Yes, let’s have an investigation into how a fellow of the British Academy, the recipient of the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit and the author of more than 50 books, including The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism, was asked to lead a commission on the aesthetics of new housing developments. Or rather, let’s ask the Commissioner for Public Appointments to look into how a bona fide conservative managed to end up in a public position. Didn’t the Prime Minister learn her lesson when she was foolish enough to appoint me to the Office for Students? Tsk, tsk.
This is what the left in Britain has been reduced to — online metal-detectorists searching the internet for material they can pretend to be shocked by. Sir Roger Scruton is one of the great intellects of our age and these commissars of political correctness aren’t fit to tie his boots.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.