What does it mean to be a conservative? Last night, The Spectator brought together Douglas Murray and Roger Scruton to discuss that question. Here is the full transcript of their conversation:
Douglas Murray: Some months ago, The Spectator said to me that they would like me to do an event and who would I like to do it with. And I said I'm very used to doing events with my enemies and spend rather too much time with them and would like to spend the evening with a friend. And they said: anyone in particular? And I said first choice, Roger Scruton. And a lot of things have happened since we agreed to get together with you all. Sir Roger and I have known each other for almost 20 years now. And we have a lot of things in common, a lot of common interests, a lot of common loves and pursuits and some common enemies. And we could shoot the breeze for the whole evening but we don't want to do that because this is an incredibly serious time for our country, for the culture, and specifically for conservatism. And so we want to cover as much ground as possible tonight and I will say at the beginning that in this conversation there'll be three things in particular that I wanted to get to at least at some point before we'll hopefully come to you for some questions. I wanted us to discuss the meaning of conservatism what it is now, what it is we're conserving. I wanted us to get on to one of the things which is on all of our minds at the moment which is how we can find a way to have meaningful discussions about things we need to talk about in an age of Twitter. And thirdly, if we can get there, to the question that I think one might sum up as this prevailing ethos in our time where harmlessness has been elevated into the greatest virtue anyone should seek to attain. So, let's start with conservatism.
Roger Scruton: I was going to say that we should start with the last of those because harmlessness is something that neither you nor I have any hope of attaining. However, yes conservatism, I suppose I've made my career out of the futile attempt to define it and to make it into an intellectually respectable cause. I was brought up, of course, in the post-war period when ideas were in fairly short supply in the conservative movement, and where socialism was being propagated as the natural philosophy of the human condition. So I set my mind to trying to define it. And I've constantly come back to it, even though, as you would know, conservatism is more an instinct than an idea. But it's the instinct that I think we all ultimately share, at least if we are happy in this world. It's the instinct to hold on to what we love, to protect it from degradation and violence and to build our lives around it. And what that thing is you know is very varied but it's for us, now in this country, it is at least the heritage of political order and our way of doing things the natural way of being in this country where we belong, and defending it as our home. And I think that is the ultimate root of the conservative position. We all want the Conservative Party, I think, to represent that. And the fact is less and less seems to, although I think most of the members of parliament would like it to. And we have to ask ourselves why this is.
DM: Why has it always seemed to be the losing side?
RS: I think it's the losing side in the world of intellectuals and perhaps in the media too, because instincts are hard to discuss and even harder to defend. You know, if you're in the business of repudiating things, throwing things away, declaring your emancipation from your past, you get an audience pretty quickly and you easily find things to say. But if you're in the business of trying to defend what is your basic sense of belonging in this world, words quickly run out and you don't know how to do it. But nevertheless when it comes to voting, or making decisions for the family and whatever, the instinct prevails and this is why, in the intellectual world, the left is always in the ascendant. Whereas in the real world, which I occasionally glimpse, the right is always the solid basis on which people stand.
DM: But there is also that thing is that everywhere you go the left is always demanding exactly the same things in lockstep. I mean every country I go to, every continent in the world, there's always the same thing. The left is after the same set of demands in the same order. And conservatives are always conserving something slightly different in each place.
RS: Yes, well obviously different things are threatened in different places. I mean you can't understand conservatism in France if you don't understand the extraordinary idea of the nation which they have, le France, as the object of a kind of idolatry, which is the thing that steps in when everything else has failed. And even the left have to pretend to adore it.
DM: What's the explanation for the situation we've always had in Britain – or at least have had for a long time – where conservatives, let's say people in the parliamentary party, they seem to find it incredibly difficult to sustain their position in public – quite often in private they're quite bullish. And then in public, they can do free market. And then you see them starting to worry.
RS: Yes, it's true. And I have often asked myself this. And I suppose I felt that I was failing them by not providing them those clinching, crisp arguments that they could come out with on the political stage and take the people with them. But the fact is it's very hard for people who are rooted in instincts to be gripped by ideas and so that they will never take the people with them. There's a suspicion of them too. And you have to acknowledge that the left are very belligerent.
DM: You know I acknowledge that.
RS: It's very hard to stand up and say that actually I don't agree with you, because that's not the language of political debate that's acknowledged on the left. And this is connects with, of course, what you were referring to earlier – the difficulty of installing a custom or a culture of discussion in the place of one of mob violence – not exactly violence, but hysterical unity around slogans – and I think, you don't get – I've often thought this, that the left is very good at slogans; you know 'March forward into the future'. And if you think what a slogan would be on the conservative side it would be something like 'Hesitate'. And it doesn't work.
DM: No, I once saw an example of that. One of the only protests I've turned up to, I remember years ago and I was with a friend of mine from Northern Ireland. A few of us and – I can't remember what the protest was – but at some point we all chanted something and then we stopped. We did it once and I said to one of the friends: 'We're not very good at this, are we?'. And she said: 'Well, if you said something once that's quite enough'. And that's a difference of habit, isn't it? I mean I don't want to keep saying the same thing anymore than you do.
RS: It's also, though, it goes to the heart of what we think communication is. You know, if you think of communication as an exercise in respect for the other, you don't repeat yourself. Repeating yourself suggests that you're either demented or that you just don't care about the other person's response; you're prepared to override it and say the same thing again and again. There's no way in which a chanted slogan invites an answer. I think there's a whole politics of that kind which grows out of the mass movements on the left but also invades the language of the left.
DM: Both of us at different times in different ways have come across this problem of the fact that it seems to have become at least increasingly difficult to hold on to truths in public – to defend them. I've often thought this is something to do with the sudden...certainly, it's been exacerbated by the modern media, where everything is one person away all the time. So that the consequence of every statement can be put right before you. And so that people can hold on to very abstract ideas often but find it hard to hold onto concrete ones in public. And then, hardest of all – riskiest of all – to be at all involved in the pursuit of truth for its own sake.
RS: Yes, that's of course – as we know, various people have argued that we live in a post-truth society. And point to obviously quite vivid examples like President Trump as illustrating this. But you know there is no such thing actually as post-truth thinking. Truth is fundamental to the idea of thought; that's what thinking is, the attempt to get the true answer to something. So if you discard truth there is nothing left except the pursuit of power, which means shouting in as high a tone as you can. And I think this is one thing that university students have to confront in the humanities. This idea that truth is somehow marginal or negotiable, that there isn't an absolute standard but it's simply something that you use to embellish your arguments as though you've put flowers around their necks. You know that is something that is preached by many of the gurus who people study, in particular, Michel Foucault, who was so influential – and still is – informing the new curriculum. The new curriculum is not about finding out the truth of what people have written but finding the power that advances behind it so that you can confront it and be a hero of the left.
DM: I'm amazed by the the move that's been done on this for the post-truth thing, because the people who complain about Donald Trump and others as being post truth – and they've got a point, of course – but they are the very people themselves who pulled down the whole concept of truth. Every philosopher they admire deconstructed the idea of truth for decades. And at the very least they enjoyed it or went along with it. They never opposed it. And this is one of the things in your book 'The thinkers of the New Left' that you expose.
RS: Yes, that's absolutely true and, of course, exposing that doesn't do much good because there isn't any way of exposing the fraudulence of someone – if he really is fraudulent – but he's lost the capacity to perceive that. And I think that institutionalised fraudulence is part of what we encounter in universities. If you see these denunciations, such as we've seen recently of that statistician in Cambridge who came up with the wrong research – Noah Carl, he's called – these denunciations are not founded upon any respect for truth they're founded on the associations of people with the wrong thing.
DM: Yes, adjacency it's now called. It's not enough you have bad views. You were standing adjacent to someone who is said to have bad views. By the way, at your instigation for something I'm writing at the moment, I finally went back and read some of the texts that I felt I should have done many years ago. I finally read Foucault last year and I have to say: I'm so appalled still. I mean, I'm a bit of a pub bore on this actually. Because I'd read about it, I heard about it – I'd always known I sort of instinctively disliked it – but the catastrophe of what he does, this sort of perversion of all life. It's brilliant, of course, and filled with resonant phrases and so on. But this perversion of life, as being solely about power, and the ignoring of every other human instinct – the total ignoring of love, the total ignoring of forgiveness; power, only power. And you need to find where it is. Squeeze it out of those people and drink up some of the juice yourself. And that this has been imbibed by now a couple of generations of students.
RS: Absolutely, it fuels all the causes of the day. Because whatever the causes – feminism or transgenderism or whatever – it is about emancipating an oppressed group from the domination of the oppressor and this might be exactly the wrong way of looking at it. You know, I personally think that the emancipation of women in the political sphere is obviously a great benefit to them. But to think that they should be emancipated from man as such, you know to undermine the relation between the sexes in that way, is, as you say, putting power in the place of love. And it's one of the hard things again, going back to your original question about defining and defending conservatism. It's very hard to propose a philosophy that is based on love, rather than on resentment or hatred. Because love is a personal thing that you don't want to talk about. You don't want to put it on display. And if you do so it sounds kitsch, sentimental. It doesn't have the right political feel whereas hatred and resentment – the sense that you're being excluded from things that things are oppressing you, it must be must be torn down – that is an easy thing to form into a political movement. And I suspect this is part of what makes it so difficult to express conservatism in public.
DM: But there are some forms of love. I mean, I agree, nobody wants people to get too icky in public. But some forms of love, people are, I think, very welcoming to at least some people are to people expressing it; love of country, it's tricky. There's definitely places you wouldn't do it.
RS: Not in a university.
DM: No no no. But I mean, I've wondered often about this with...resentment is, as you say, such an incredibly strong tool. It's an unbelievably strong weapon to bring to the fight. And one of the things just returning quickly to this issue of conservatism which strikes me is that we do have equal weapons. It's just that nobody wants to wield them. I think an example I've given to you in private before is that I've often thought that it's almost as if both political sides have, as it were, a box of dangerous things. That they know they can call upon, they know they can open it and to use if needed. Sort of: 'With a hammer, break this in case of political emergency'. And the left have obviously resentment, class hatred and many other forms of resentment and they are pulling it out, they're letting things off, seeing flares go off, sometimes they go and take somebody out and they don't apologise and they have got total run of their box. And on the right, there is a box of useful things – which again can go wrong – but may also be the thing you need most if you're going to win any political fight. And it's chained, it's covered in a rug, we pretend it isn't there. And yet it would seem to me that the thing most obviously in that box is this: precisely this love of country, love of society, love of the things you have, not wanting to change them unrecognisably, or carry out a political experiment for a Nirvana you haven't quite imagined yet. And we do have that. And just a final thought on that, which is that, you know I might be breaking a confidence now but hell why not? But I was recently at something with a Conservative MP and somebody asked a very good question of this conservative. They pointed to somebody in the room who was – it was a dinner and somebody was serving some wine – and somebody pointed to this young man and said: 'How old are you?' He said: '24'. And this person said: 'Do you own a house?'. He said: 'No'. 'Do you think you'll ever own a house?' He said: 'No'. And the interviewer turned to the politician said to him: 'So what do you say to him?'. A very good question, a very pertinent question for everyone. The response was fine. It was brownfield sites, featured prominently in the answer. And I just could have wept because as I said to this person afterwards, you know the left is coming at us with everything they have and you're giving us brownfield sites? That's not going to do it. The left is promising him everything, if he votes for them. And you're offering him this possibility of a huge mortgage at some point in the future way out of town. Who's going to win? But we do have things.
RS: Yes. Well the particular issue in question is one about which I'm quite an expert now. Yes. I would say that there is a clear answer to the housing crisis which is to build more beautifully so that people cease to object and then you can build anywhere. Nobody would object if you built Bath again in the middle of the countryside, but that would require first of all, it would require an ongoing battle against the architects, volume builders and all the vested interests that align themselves behind them. But that could be done. And let's face it, it was being done and until this fatal discovery that there was a conservative in the midst of it.
DM: Before we get onto the nature of that fatal discovery, what is the problem with the house building on this? Because you spent many months looking into it, you spent a lifetime thinking about architecture and aesthetics. But what were the main things that struck you in the months you were dedicated solely to this?
RS: First of all, because we have an adversarial planning system in which all people can take part and raise their objections which is a very healthy thing democratically, we also have the consequence that those who have most to lose from a new development, or think they have most to lose, will gang up against the developers And so we have a massive resistance to the building of new housing schemes from people whose amenities and environment will be taken away by them because so much of what is built now and especially in the centres of our towns; the square cubes of glass that are dropping everywhere, these things are not just hateful to people, but they are destructive of their sense of home. They make real places into non places and that's what's happening in all our developments.
And the reason being that things are not designed as places; there are economic reasons for this; there are stylistic reasons; and there is a general growth of ignorance about what architecture really is. Architecture means the building of a genuine home a place where you can belong. And you can't belong in a place if others don't belong there too. So the solution is to make places and not drop little boxes everywhere or glass cubes in the towns. And we have so many examples of places, all our old towns are lovely places where people want to be. There's no reason why they it couldn't be done again and that would be the answer. People would after a while say, yes, of course, we can't object. And more and more people recognise that we shouldn't object to providing housing for people who haven't got it. So there is a solution but it requires confrontation with vested interests like everything else, and an awful lot of those vested interests are connected to the Conservative Party, it has to be said.
DM: Individuals, or the party as a whole?
RS: That's a great question. My investigations were cut peremptorily short.
DM: Could you continue in an independent capacity?
RS: I think that might be the right solution.
DM: I think it's the first time you've done anything in public since this all broke. Can I just ask, I mean both of us are pretty private people in all sorts of ways, but what was it like having the mob actually just come right at you?
RS: Well, it was horrible. Because there are no holds barred. You know, I was reminded actually of the theory that Rene Girard, the French philosopher and anthropologist produces to explain the scapegoat phenomenon. His view is that, at the heart of every society, there are these huge tensions, caused by the fact that others have what you want essentially and that you've been excluded from from what you deserve etc. These tensions build up and they've been building up in our society as we know, radically recently, because of the Remainer/ Leaver conflict, and all that.
And there is a need for a victim to persecute when that happens. You single him out and it's necessary that he should be innocent. If he's actually guilty of something then you can't pour all your venom into him. So here is the lamb led to the slaughter and of course we have the great example in Christ whose crucifixion would have meant nothing if he weren't actually innocent. And the pursuit of the scapegoat for Girard is the way in which a society relieves itself of this burden of mutual resentment growing within it. And you feel that. I mean I don't want to compare myself, obviously with Christ, and all the real scapegoats of the past. But if you look back at it you can see in a small way how this process emerges. It has to single out a victim. I've singled myself out by having the impertinence to defend the conservative worldview. That makes me a natural victim. And most of the people who want to attack me would not have had the patience to read anything that I've written. Or the ability, probably.
But nevertheless, social media provide them, these people, who ought not to have a voice, with a voice, and there they are at it. I don't look at the social media very well. But unfortunately politicians do. And this is a new thing to me. You know every schoolteacher knows that children ought to be told to leave their phones outside the classroom. But nobody tells the politicians to leave their phones outside parliament. And so they're in there attached to these screens in which only soundbites and words are passing and the great thing about the Twittersphere is that it's words that are picked out. Most of the people who are attacking me, from what I heard, were attacking words I've used; didn't you used this word? And, of course, that's what happens when people are incapable of formulating a whole sentence.
DM: There was a moment when when the mob first came for you unsuccessfully last October, when your appointment was announced, and there's a very forgettable Labour frontbencher called...Actually, it's gone. He's called Andrew something, he's got a horrible little beard like this. He's low grade, even for the talent on the bench that he's on, and he said at one point he said somebody put to him a few things that you said, and he said that somebody with your views had no place in modern society.
And I thought this was an overreach even for them and pointed out that in future we're gonna have to go to the Labour frontbench for its views on Hegel and Kant and Spinoza and we're going to be in trouble. But there is this extraordinary thing. It happened with the unfortunate young man who, as your interview for the New Statesman on that hit job piece, and it happened with the Labour frontbencher and others, which is instead of regarding books as being a very good way, for instance, to work out what their author thinks, you can skip that stage and go straight to the...You didn't have to get to the word, it's worse than the word now. Now you have the dog whistle, you know, there are words which used to mean one thing but now mean a different thing if you hear them in a particular tone that everyone else can't hear but I'm going to interpret to you by hearing it in a particular way. Of course, if you do hear the whistle you're the dog but they haven't worked that bit out yet. So it's a shortcut to everything, but one of the things, this is causing the deracination of public thought as well as public life. It's why we have people in politics like this eminently forgettable Labour frontbencher.
And, I might say, I'm sure you wouldn't, the Conservative minister who dispensed with your services without bothering to read what you'd said. It's why we've got them. I'm less concerned about them, than the fact that the thing that has produced them is still going on; this bit and I mean, we were both in Cambridge the other month with Jordan Peterson, and I think it was Jordan who mentioned then this issue about harmlessness. Because this does seem to be in politics, and in everyone's life, the great aspiration; to live your life as a harmless individual, to harm nothing and no one, to say nothing with the language you use, to express no ideas and to die having harmed nothing. And it just seems to me an extraordinary aspiration.
RS: Yes, well to me you are completely harmless, Douglas.
DM: I've always thought so.
RS: But the point is it's not just harmlessness that's being recommended but the advertisement of your harmlessness. And now that's something you would never do you know. So confronting the world with this self-consciously harmless posture, is actually a form of narcissism. It's saying: 'Love me, you've nothing to lose'. So it's a it's a way of proceeding through the world surrounded by a cocoon of self love. And that's an easy way forward. But, of course, it involves renouncing the things on which the value of life really depends, namely giving to others, going out to others, taking risks in order to in order to engage with them with in real ways, of which love is one, and indignation an another, and so on.
It's a complete corruption of the relationship between I and you. You know, everybody becomes a neutral 'It', this harmless thing drifting through this sphere of mist. And that is all, it has a deep cultural significance. It's not for you or for me to to do anything to change this, except to set an example, to say look life can be quite different from that. It can be interesting and exciting, it can involve the giving of things to others, and if you give to others you receive from them. You know, there's a whole world out there. And all you have to do is turn away from that dark corner where you're alone with your screen and look out of the window, you know. And I think this is one of the problems that people are forgetting that there is a real meaning to life and that is in the relations with others. I think going back to what you were worrying about; the collapse of public discourse, I remember the time when people on the left wrote books. And we criticised them and we wrote books and they criticised them, and sometimes we had meetings together where we discussed them. It was wonderful.
And, you know, actually this still goes on. One member of parliament, Jon Cruddas, Labour member, has written a very interesting book from a sort of revised William-Morris Marxist viewpoint on our society in the Old Labour way, and I've attended all the meetings where we discuss this, because he was the kind of mind which reflects on things, which recognises that opposition is not a negative thing, it's the positive thing from which further understanding grows, and if all our MPs were like that, and I think some of the conservatives are like that – Jesse Norman is like that, for instance – we would be able to revive the culture of public discussion, but as I say it means that they should leave their phones outside parliament.
DM: The thing it seems to me is if anyone's ever tried it, even in even in a room of three people, if there's one person who will not allow a thought to go in a particular direction, even if it's true, then the others can't do it either. And if you live in a society where one person in the world can claim that right then which may be where we are, it becomes almost impossible.
RS: That is true. But I think one should also remember that that there are many historical precedents for this. Look back to the 17th century and the Puritan sort of revivals in our country, you'll realise that those were times when the wrong word meant death. And there's plenty of parts of the world where that still is the case.
The default position of human beings is orthodoxy because orthodoxy is safe. You have to ask yourself why are heretics so fiercely punished. It's not the real opponent who is punished, the person from some other religion or from outside the tribe, so to speak – its the person who agrees with you about everything except the one little detail. You know, whether the sign of the cross should be made with two fingers or three; it's in the Russian Old Believers catastrophe. These things go deep in our social nature, as does the scapegoating phenomenon, and we should always remember that and beware of it. We must find a way not to provoke it but still to create that sphere of free discussion which is protected from it. That's what we had in this country and that's what the Enlightenment gave to Europe as a whole, that ability to create a sphere of free discussion in which we actually consider our problems rationally and find a solution to them.
But, as you know, there are so many of our problems today where one side has monopolised the language, so heretical thought becomes inexpressible. And this was beautifully caricatured by Orwell in 1984. But you know, I was just reading an article in a French journal about the way in which Macron's speeches all conform to the syntax of 1984.
DM: Part of this, of what you've just described though of the legacy that we have had in this country, which some of us are very proud of; this legacy of free thought, free expression, allowing a certain amount of heresy. These are are parts of tradition you can be proud of, or you can wish to repudiate. And you coined the term some time ago the culture of repudiation and (it) elegantly sums up precisely this thing, where everything you've inherited is what you are against.
It was put to me a few days ago by a young woman in Germany – I was speaking in Berlin – who said, it's a nice way of putting it, she said everyone of my generation travels to the Far East to see lots of temples but I never see them at our cathedrals. And I said, of course, it's an oddity this, this desire to go all the way around the world but never to pay attention to what's yours in front of you right on your doorstep. You never see people doing holidays around the cathedrals of Europe in their gap years. Which is odd when you think about it because why wouldn't they? I mean I'm not saying it's an either or. But it's strange to go to see Siem Reap if you've never been to Chartres.
RS: Yes, I think though there is obviously this culture of repudiation all around us. And if that's all there was, we would feel despair. But I actually think that there is also an impulse to renew which is in everybody. And you see this with the young people who go to, for instance, to study in Oxford or Cambridge, how keen they are to join the college choir. How they actually enjoy the atmosphere of hall and the formalities and the sense of belonging to a continuous tradition and adding to it. I think there are many such institutions in our countries, still they are denigrated obviously by a lot of people, but people are instinctively drawn to them. And I think those are the sort of things which should provide the Conservatives with their major causes. And if you ask why young people join the military, for example, it's partly for this sort of reason; the desire to affirm something and to belong to something.
We should just make that more available than it is, that feeling; and you find this in America, that feeling is widely available, of course, as as you know it's not available in universities, but there is some hope that universities will close down soon. Rival forms of education will be born in their place. You know, if there were a little college in the centre of London, of which I was master and you Dean, you know, we will very soon have a, you know, a little assembly of somewhat bewildered people whom we would take in hand, and, you know, and it would grow and it would not be a university.
It would be something which, as was founded in the Middle Ages when the monasteries first got going, you know, people need those communities outside the family but inside society which take on the business of education, the business of passing on a culture, the business of creating art, music, poetry. So it was wonderful what happened then and not everything was good, of course, but it was a spontaneous birth of something which made a civilisation. And there's no reason why it shouldn't happen again.
DM: No. And there are, as you said, there are positive signs in the American Academy where, I think of the three main universities in America which have had major scandals, over what one might now call wokeness which I'm sure most of you are familiar with this term now, they're all suffering admissions problems as a result. Bret Weinstein's former university, Evergreen, ever since they chased him and his family off campus for doing nothing wrong, they've got terrible admissions problems; Middlebury College, since Charles Murray was meant to speak and the female professor who was with him was physically assaulted and hospitalised, Middlebury's having to accept it's got fewer people applying this year than before.
And so I would say the harsh bit of this, but which must be pushed, is that these people must realise that there is a price to pay for not educating people. And that there is no reason why an American family should remortgage their house to send their son or daughter away to become stupider. But, as you say, the positive bit of that is that it's not as if we're starting from Year Zero.
RS: No, but this is a very important point, though. We need the freedom to create new institutions and that's where the danger lies. You know that, for instance, in this imaginary college that you and I could set up tomorrow, we could produce a degree course in Western culture which everybody would love to take and we could and we could then go on to to give degrees, but those degrees would not be ratified. They would, we would need a Royal Charter to provide them, and the Royal Charter would have to come through all the apparatus of ignorant lefties who control these things. So there is a freedom that we wouldn't have. And I say this because I'm part of Buckingham University which has, of course, had a huge difficulty in getting off the ground precisely because there was a political prejudice against it – such a place could not be educational if it was not teaching the standard Marxist doctrines.
DM: One of the worst things about this case you just mentioned in Cambridge in recent days – this young researcher who's been dispensed with by the college – was the fact that the justification that the students had for wanting him to go was that they found his research offensive. And of course the truth is often offensive usually. But I thought that the idea that for the first time a university had thought that offending somebody was a reason to therefore ruin somebody's career and get rid of them was unbelievably ominous.
RS: Remember though, that there's this great distinction between giving offence and taking offence and we're living in a culture where people become experts in taking offence even when it hasn't been given. And that's what is taught in gender studies. It teaches young women to take offence at every remark a man might make or even his being there, you know. It's a wonderful theatrical thing to take offence but it doesn't lead to any lasting relationships.
DM: At the Scruton-Murray college, it will be illegal to take gender studies. Because, of course, this is the problem with a lot of these so-called social sciences. They're not sciences. They're not actually a discipline. It's just a political indoctrination to make people bitterer than they were when they went in.