Roger Scruton

I discovered Roger Scruton’s true identity quite by accident, while listening to an interview I’d taped with him. There it was: a perfectly normal, if slightly lispy voice belonging to an earnest, 16-year-old public schoolboy. At first, I thought I had picked up the wrong tape. Only when my own voice came on – Mickey Mouse on helium, the normal sound of speeded up human speech – did I realise that I had flicked on the fast-play mode on my recorder.

Scruton, it seems, is a 16-year-old trapped in a 52-year-old body. As with Dorian Gray’s picture, the exterior has aged while the inner voice, the ‘identity of self’ he so often writes about, has remained young. If you don’t believe me, try taping Radio 4’s The Moral Maze next time he’s on the panel. Listen to his slow, ponderous monotone and then play it back at speed. I know it’s childish, but I promise it will make you smile.

This discovery is only amusing, of course, because Roger Scruton is gravitas incarnate and he’s quite intimidating to boot – and not just because he has a brain the size of Denmark (the double first, the professorship) and because he is a Renaissance man with a capital R (barrister, novelist, opera composer, journalist, author of 20 academic books on subjects ranging from architecture to sexual desire, and organist at his local church). It’s to do, too, with his repertoire of facial expressions: he hasn’t got one. Instead, his pale angular features are frozen in an impersonation of the sinister German dentist-torturer played by Laurence Olivier in ‘Marathon Man’. As Scruton himself once said of his inflexible face and voice: ‘I can’t simultaneously develop an argument and appear like a human being.’

He does smile occasionally, but even this is intimidating: more a tight grimace. Even his fiery hair is a bit scary. As for his name – well, Maurice Saatchi couldn’t have come up with a more appropriate monicker for a right-wing polemicist who’s been accused, over the years, of everything from racism to homophobia to, probably, global warming. Try saying it. Roger Scruton. It’s brutal. It’s stark. It almost snarls at you. Can it be just coincidence that the closest word in the dictionary is ‘scruto’, a trap door? ‘Actually,’ says Roger Scruton, as he prepares to drive off in his battered old Land-Rover, one of his rare, taut grins playing about his face, ‘it’s an old Yorkshire name. It means one who treats dandruff sufferers.’

***

Two hours earlier, Roger Vernon Scruton looks blank as he opens the door of his Wiltshire farmhouse. ‘Forgot you were coming,’ he eventually says in his Marvin-the-Paranoid-Android voice. This is as it should be. You wouldn’t expect Britain’s most famous philosopher to consult his diary every day. Nor would you expect him to dress up for the occasion, even if he had remembered you were driving all the way down from London to visit him on his remote 35-acre farm with its four horses, orchard and ducks. He hasn’t, and he is wearing a blue moth-eaten tank top, grubby trousers and no shoes (but grey school socks that are threadbare and inside out). ‘Follow me,’ he says, and leads me through the kitchen and in to a sitting room that is – despite the log burner, the chairs that don’t match, the hunting horn, the Wagner recordings scattered on the floor, the small painting of a saddleback pig and the large portrait of Lord Fairfax in long wig and armour – somehow austere.

On the windowsill is a photo of two riders clearing a jump. One is Scruton, the other Sophie Jeffreys, the handsome, blonde 24-year-old he is marrying on 7 December. ‘This photo’, he says, ‘shows her competence and my incompetence.’ You can see what he means: he has a shocked look on his bespectacled face and is joggling awkwardly out of his saddle; her seat is perfect. ‘We met out hunting, believe it or not,’ he says. Sophie Jeffreys is half-sister to Lord Jeffreys, a Conservative peer who shares Scruton’s passion for country sports. She is also a descendant of Judge Jeffreys, whose enthusiasm for capital punishment you might expect Scruton to share. (Scruton is, after all, the man who once quipped on The Moral Maze that, ‘Punishment is a good thing. There should be more of it, and it should be more severe.’)

The couple are, by all accounts, smitten. The age difference seems not to be a barrier. Nor does Scruton’s contempt for television (he won’t allow a set in the house) nor his disdain for pop music. When asked if he worries that the marital home might be filled with the sound of Oasis, for instance, Scruton says: ‘No. She is very much not that sort of person. She has the same outlook as I have. She loves, as I do, classical music, architecture and the countryside. Old-fashioned decencies. Not a television-watching type. I don’t think there will be any conflict.’

No kidding. Scruton’s latest book, out this month, was tried out on his fiancée first – and she suggested some ‘vital improvements’. It’s called An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy and its modest aim is to rescue mankind from the trivialising uncertainty of science and to ‘replace the sarcasm which knows that we are merely animals, with the irony which sees we are not’. In recognition of the improvements suggested, Scruton considered renaming the book An Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Philosophy. Given that his last novel, Xanthippic Dialogues (1993), was essentially a send-up of scholarly writing in which Scruton draped himself in the clothes of Ancient Greek women the better to debate such topics as the role of the individual in society, you suspect that he may be only half joking.

All this might make you think that Scruton lacks the lightness of touch necessary to become a living national treasure, in the tradition of ‘Freddie’ Ayer and ‘Bertie’ Russell. I’m not so sure. There is, for instance, a story about Scruton’s time at Cambridge: when his girlfriend’s clothes were discovered in his college room – a serious offence – he told his tutor the clothes were his, and that he needed them because he was a transvestite. In fact, it could be that his sense of humour is so dry it is misinterpreted as pretentiousness. As a teenager, while at High Wycombe Grammar School, Scruton was accused of riding on the London Tube without a ticket. The case was made rather more serious by the allegation that he had given a false name to the police. This was solemnly read out in court as John Stuart Mill. And when once asked by the Guardian what phrase he most overused, he said, ‘the transcendental unity of apperception’. He added that his favourite smell was the French Literature section of the London Library.

The Cambridge don John Casey once said that Scruton’s philosophical armour-plating hides a quixotic, absurdist nature. It is an astute observation, even if the absurd aspects of Scruton’s life are not always intentional. In 1989, for example, I heard him give the inaugural lecture of the Royal Institute of Philosophy in a lecture hall at Durham University. As he was talking, a choir began practising in the next room. The choir grew louder and louder, until everyone else in the hall had to bite on their knuckles to avoid sniggering. But Scruton was unruffled. He did not smile, raise his soft, low voice, or vary his measured, monotone delivery, as if it were for him an everyday occurrence to be accompanied by a heavenly choir. It got worse. Later that night, I gave him a lift back to Durham Castle where he was staying in the Bishop’s Suite. Thinking I had got him back just before the Castle gates closed at midnight, I did not wait to see that he was let in. He wasn’t, and, next day, the campus was tittering with tales of how Scruton’s wan and wraith-like figure had been sighted flitting through the cobbled backstreets of Durham at two in the morning, still looking for a policeman to help him.

Scruton stares out of the window and, with limp fingers, drags on a fat cigar. ‘What’, he asks, ‘would you like to talk about now?’ Well, we could start with Animal Rights and Wrongs, a book he brought out in the summer. Or the First of June Prize, the award he was given this year by the people of the Czech Republic in recognition of the role he played in overthrowing Communism. But we plump, instead, for Modern Philosophy, out in paperback this year. When it was published, The Times devoted a leader to it, not least because it is, unlike most books on philosophy, readable and lucid, conveying complex ideas in a conversational style – or, as Scruton puts it, expressing the problems of the head in the language of the heart. Judged in this light, Scruton has earned a place on the same pedestal as Russell and Ayer – for what they, too, had was a gift for sharing their wisdom with others. Unlike them, though, he is not the apple of academe’s eye. Professor Ted Honderich of University College, London, for instance, went so far as to call him ‘the unthinking man’s thinking man’. (Scruton retaliated by calling Honderich ‘the thinking man’s unthinking man’.)

And if an Oxford chair once beckoned, it was off the cards once Scruton wrote The Meaning of Conservatism in 1980. ‘After that book,’ Scruton says, ‘it was ruled out that I would ever gain the highest of academic honours. Even if I deserved them. Which I didn’t. But being free from the possibility of those ambitions enabled me to write rude and disgraceful things about the intellectual establishment. It meant I was free to say some really enjoyable and unpleasant things and thereby give pleasure to others.’

He denies, though, that he makes his caustic comments solely because it excites him to do so. ‘No, I don’t enjoy being controversial, but it is enjoyable telling the truth about a conspiracy of silence or an established lie. If you are a right-wing academic, your colleagues think that you are not a proper philosopher at all. My right-wing stance has always heavily compromised my career. If you criticise the whole idea of human equality, which is basically what I do, you are going against a prevalent quasi-religious orthodoxy.’

His many enemies accuse him, though, of striking poses rather than expressing deeply held conservative convictions. The exhibitionist who subverts liberal pieties through ridicule, who declares unambiguously that there are no natural human rights, who describes democracy as a wildly raging contagion is, they say, exactly the sort of masochist who would take up fox-hunting at the age of 45 simply because he knew socialists would hate him for it.

There is, undoubtedly, a combative side to his nature, but it’s a mistake to suggest, as the Guardian once did, that his most controversial views – on multicultural education, say, or homosexuality – are just expressions of prejudice. Unlike true bigots, he welcomes serious debate and, you suspect, secretly wishes someone would come along and free him from his martyr’s cross by persuading him that his ‘offensive’ believes were wrong. ‘I don’t want to be right-wing,’ he says, ‘but I just am.’ He is similarly reluctant to set himself up as a moral arbiter, but he can’t help himself. ‘I have thousands of weaknesses and sins, like everyone else. I spend a lot of time regretting what I’ve done, feeling remorse for bad behaviour.’

It is depressing to consider the paradox implied by this. Here is an intellectual who feels he has to live with the indignity of upholding populist views that even some London taxi drivers might consider unsophisticated. Here is an essentially private, almost shy man who has felt obliged to court publicity all his life, even to the extent of appearing on television, a medium he despises. And here is a man who feels he has had no choice but to make himself unpopular with liberals even though he says he found the sack-loads of hate mail he has received over the years hurtful: ‘You’d think I would get used to it, but I don’t.’

It needn’t have been like this. Roger Scruton’s father was a Socialist. And so was Roger Scruton – until he went to teach at a French university, just before the country was torn apart by the student revolution of 1968. After this, Scruton became vehemently anti-Communist. Personal experience confirmed his views: ‘When I started visiting Eastern Europe and acquired friends there, I became indignant and frightened on their behalf. I had an experience of evil: the systematic negation of the human spirit. If you wanted a description of the devil’s work, that would be it: the world devoid of human spirit and freedom.’

In 1979, Roger Scruton was invited to address an underground seminar in Prague – ‘In a Communist society everything is forbidden unless permitted, the opposite of our assumption. Nobody had ever permitted anyone to gather in a private apartment and discuss philosophy, therefore it was considered a crime by the secret police.’ Vaclav Havel, the first President of the Czech Republic, was one of the students Scruton taught. Scruton learnt Czech, helped set up a resistance movement and found himself cast in the role of Scarlet Pimpernel – before eventually being arrested and expelled.

Whatever kudos this might have earned Scruton among the bien pensants was dispelled in 1982, when he set up The Salisbury Review, a right-wing magazine, and published Education and Race, an article by a Bradford schoolteacher, Ray Honeyford, which advocated that immigrants should be taught without respect for cultural difference. This established Scruton in the public consciousness as the natural successor to the other inflammatory right-winger Enoch Powell. Wherever Scruton went, demonstrators would be waiting. Some of his lectures had to be cancelled because city councils could not guarantee his safety.

Enoch Powell is one of Scruton’s heroes, along with Kant and Wittgenstein. ‘Enoch Powell suffered much more than me. He said things that all decent Englishmen in their hearts believes. But in the wrong tone of voice, and when it was so unfashionable. It became possible to label him…’ He hesitates. ‘In the most damning ways. I think he was very brave and stood for the right things, but he would not have made a good prime minister because he was totally unsound on the question of Communism and Russia. He never saw what it meant. He had a romantic 19th-century view of how great powers worked. For him it was as if Disraeli and Bismarck were still dividing up the Balkans.’

Scruton doesn’t think he would have made a good prime minister, either. ‘I did put myself forward as a Conservative candidate, about 20 years ago, ‘ he admits. ‘I had an interview with some old blue-rinse at Central Office but I was judged to be far too intellectual and was told to go away. I think they were right. I didn’t have the temperament to be a politician.’

One enduring myth about Scruton is that it was Powell who persuaded him to take up fox-hunting because to do so was every true Conservative’s duty. ‘He didn’t really get me into hunting but he did sell me his hunting gear,’ Scruton recalls. ‘I happened to be sitting next to him at a dinner when he said he was giving up. I was a bit poor at the time so I offered to buy his second hand clothes. I’ve still got his jacket but it never was quite big enough for me. It split down the seams. The story goes that when someone asked Powell about the hunting clothes, he said, ‘We’re just about the same size. Physically, I mean, not intellectually.’

It’s his physical being, really, that provides Scruton’s strongest claim to the status of national institution. The subject of hunting suddenly reminds Scruton that he is supposed to be picking up a horse, even as we speak. As he rushes outside to hitch up a rusty trailer to his Land-Rover, he becomes distracted by a chicken that has escaped from its coop. It looks at him quizzically as he potters across the field towards it, making clucking noises. As he draws closer he spreads his arms wide, and assumes a shuffling crouch, as though trying to hypnotise the bird. It is a comical sight. Gloriously undignified. And, yes, utterly endearing. Like the 16-year-old’s voice on the tape, it serves to remind you of a sentence in Scruton’s new book: ‘We all know in our hearts, even if we never put the matter in words, that the human subject is the strangest thing that we encounter.’

This appeared in November 1996. Sophie Scruton gave birth to a son, Samuel, in November 1998. Roger Scruton declared that Sam would not enjoy his childhood but would be more enjoyable company as a consequence. Sam would not be allowed to watch television or listen to pop, instead he would hunt, learn Greek by the age of six, as John Stuart Mill had done, and  learn the viola, because it is not much fun to play.

In 2002 the philosopher came unstuck briefly when he lost his column on the FT, after it was revealed he was receiving £60,000 a year to influence the media on behalf of a Japanese tobacco company.