On Sir Roger Scruton
by Barendina Smedley
Were our present government marginally less aimless, abject and impotent, it might almost be possible to believe that the appointment of Sir Roger Scruton to chair the ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful’ commission — a public body which, according to this Guardian piece, ‘aims to expand on the ways in which the planning system can encourage and incentivise a greater emphasis on design, style and community consent’ — was an amusingly cynical attempt to pick some sort of culture war scrap, just as all of us are coming down off our various Vegangate high horses, if only to distract us from the national howl of puzzled existential despair that is May’s Brexit. As it is, however, it’s probably just a fascinating, entirely avoidable and indeed rather tragic mistake.
The attempted appointment of Toby Young to the board of a new university regulatory body, followed swiftly by his resignation once our ever-helpful Twitter had unearthed his considered views regarding breasts, has set a precedent. Perhaps, as with many precedents set in the course of the development of our unwritten constitution, not everyone wanted this to become a precedent. But that isn’t how unwritten constitutions work, is it? At present, Twitter represents the review body for HMG’s own internal due diligence procedures. Based on that insight, I am by no means certain that Sir Roger’s appointment will end happily, either for the man himself or for those who appointed him — certainly not for the built environment. Twitter, on the other hand, may enjoy it all enormously. Guido Fawkes, Tom Holland, Niall Ferguson, David Icke and, err, Toby Young have already piled in, supporting Sir Roger.
As often happens, the first salvo in this spat is possibly better as tracer-fire than meaningful attack. Is Sir Roger a friend of the deeply unsavoury Viktor Orbán? Apparently so, according to, ahem, the Red Roar, here. It seems fair to cite Red Roar in the context of Sir Roger, if only because the Red Roar is so clearly what Scruton imagines the Left to be, just as Sir Roger has sometimes been, in specific and limited contexts, what the Red Roar imagines the Right to be. It is on this basis that Luciana Berger MP — someone who, sadly, knows all too much about antisemitism — has asked our Prime Minister to reconsider appointing Sir Roger to this role.
On the other hand, the PM allowed her Conservative MEPs to vote in support of Orbán, which rather suggests that she is either ignorant of European politics, or insensitive to them, so perhaps she may not listen with much interest to Ms Berger’s warning. And she’s keen on Nick Timothy, who has a track record of supporting Orbán, whilst expressing doubts about Soros. (For what it’s worth, I suspect Timothy of being behind Sir Roger’s appointment. Who else in that crowd would have heard of him?) So she’s perhaps not the best party to rule on these issues. But on the other hand, her support for her new appointment seems, as of Tuesday evening, typically irresolute.
I should also add that Sir Roger has robustly denied that he is either an Islamophobe or antisemitic. The Orbán quote, at the very least, does seem to have been taken very much out of context.
As for Sir Roger — where does one start? Anyone vetting his thoughts would have had to read through at least 48 published non-fiction books, peruse seven works of fiction, and sit through a chamber piece and an opera. And that’s before one gets to grips with his abundant journalism, not least his role in editing the Salisbury Review from 1982 to 2001, where in the early years he had to write many of the articles himself, under assumed names. But he also published, for instance, in 1984, a piece by Ray Honeyford that was even back then regarded as manifestly racist. So even within the Conservative Party, his legacy, perhaps because there is so very much of it, is mixed at best.
Back when I was still a Tory, it was always hard to know what to think about Sir Roger. On one hand, because we were all old enough to remember the 1980s, we knew that Sir Roger had shown actual physical bravery — in the sense of consciously risking imprisonment or worse — in the cause of trying to help rescue Czechoslovakia from Soviet tyranny. I admired that bravery then, and I admire it still. It is one thing to be big and brave in print, let alone on Twitter — another, to do so when one is standing at some dark, cold border post, when the guards alongside are holding loaded weapons and there’s an illegal fax machine or two stashed away in the boot. Most of us have never stood up for what we believed with a tenth of this seriousness, and never will. In 1998, Czech president Václav Havel awarded him the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit (first class). This, by any standard, was well deserved.
But on other hand, Sir Roger was always difficult to embrace as that thing we all wanted, a genuine, non-embarrassing conservative intellectual. The Salisbury Review, back in the late 1980s, was considered deeply suspect by virtually all the younger Conservatives I knew, because it stood, manifestly, for a form of conservatism that was authoritarian, anti-individualist and illiberal [sic], possibly also homophobic, xenophobic, racist and sexist to boot. Because we were the other sort of Thatcherites — the soi-disant libertarian ones — these tendencies seemed as obviously ‘the enemy’ as did socialism per se.
But I think, in our brighter moments, we also dimly apprehended something else, which is that Sir Roger’s brand of conservatism, however much we might have objected to it on ideological grounds, was also unlikely to produce anything very helpful by way of practical results, either. Maurice Cowling, whose extended trolling of Sir Roger and his views regarding sex is almost the funniest thing in Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England (vol III), put it better than I ever could: ‘It was both Scruton’s strength and his weakness that he neglected the cynical truth that there is no necessary correlation between political rhetoric and political practice, that a corrupting liberal rhetoric can function in a cohesively conservative manner and that there is a conservative case to be made for the mainstream duplicities of democratic politics’. This observation has aged well.
The other thing about Sir Roger, which perhaps mattered even more — or perhaps, on reflection, was simply a different facet of the same underlying problem — was his joylessness. For a man who spent so much time writing about aesthetics, beauty, pleasure, wine, the countryside, hunting and sex, Sir Roger never really seemed to enjoy anything. His architectural writing, as far as I have seen, has never been illuminated by the sort of antic elegiac frenzies of, say, the great Iain Nairn, or indeed the feline grace, tender yet oh so toxic, of David Watkin. Where, if anywhere, does pleasure repose for Sir Roger? To quote Cowling once again, Sir Roger ‘wishes […] to be beleaguered’. Reading, for instance, England: An Elegy (2000) — a queasy cocktail of inaccurate generalisation, purblind nostalgia and quite a lot of absolutely authentic and clearly painful personal grief — it is hard to doubt the truth of this. But it is equally hard to discern any sort of positive message. And that, as much as anything, makes me doubt that Sir Roger is the right person to advise HMG on the pursuit of beauty in our built environment.
This is unfortunate. I don’t agree with much of what our present government has done and is doing, but in their implied admission that something has gone monstrously wrong with planning policy, they have a fair point. It is hard to find any metric on which planning in the UK right now can be seen to be a success.
My own corner of the UK, north Norfolk, illuminates many of these problems. There are not enough homes, particularly for single people or young families. Where there are homes, these are often not sited in a way that is convenient either for employment or access to public services such as schools and medical care. Where new homes are erected, especially but by no means only ‘affordable’ ones, they are often shoddily built, bizarrely ugly, environmentally unfriendly, and laid out in a way that discourages normal neighbourly interaction whilst privileging cars, paved areas and social isolation. Even the ancient Romans and medieval town builders were better at their job than whoever designs some of these new mini-towns. In Norwich, enormous new developments in the centre of the historic city continue to gain planning permission, even when this means ripping the heart out of centuries-old streetscapes. I’m all in favour of creating new places for people to live in Norwich, but why does that mean abandoning the network of small lanes and tiny alleys that for so long gave the place its distinctive character, its texture and its meaningful links with past generations?
At the same time, too many council conservation officers, let alone the elected councillors themselves, lack any deep historical, architectural or environmental understanding. Planning committees are more concerned with befriending wealthy developers and superstar architects with big PR budgets than they are with reflecting the views of their local communities, most of whom are horrified by what is happening to their towns, villages and countryside, but who — possibly correctly — believe that there is nothing they can do about it. Historic England, too, cherry-picks a handful of non-typical, high-profile structures to ‘save’, whilst refusing even to consider defending, for instance, the interwar architecture that, much more so than a bit of applied flint, gives many north Norfolk coastal villages their unique ambience. ‘There are a lot of 1920s rectories,’ I was told by someone from Historic England, in the course of trying to rescue our local example. How many? Oddly enough, she did not know. She refused even to send someone out to look at the building. That, then, is our statutory conservation body — unfit for any known purpose except allowing developers and socialite architects to have their way, protected from the strongly-articulated complaints of local people.
I could go on, but the general point here is clear enough. Beauty — some might also add ‘history’ and ‘environmental stewardship’ and ‘local character’ — ought to be central concerns within our planning and building process, both when it comes to creating new buildings and also preserving the special character of particular places. But in order to make the changes that need to happen, HMG requires practical advice, positive suggestions, deep expertise and — ideally — cross-party support. Which of these, precisely, is the appointment of Sir Roger intended to provide?
As an aside, over recent days, I’ve noticed that when perfectly sensible people come to the defence of Sir Roger, they often mention Poundbury, a planned community developed in Dorset with the active support of HRH the Prince of Wales. Poundbury, at least, is a positive statement, in the sense that it’s an actual attempt to put ideas into practice and examine whether the result is a satisfactory one. Yet try though I might, I have yet to discover any actual link between Sir Roger and Poundbury, other than the fact that he — like many, many others over the years — has sometimes written and spoken in support of it. No, if there is anyone uniquely responsible for Poundbury other than the much-maligned Prince of Wales and perhaps the architect John Simpson, it is — Little Englander nativist pub-bores look away now, please — Léon Krier, an architect and urban planner from Luxembourg with a special interest in reconstructing European cities in the wake of bad modernist interventions. Similarly, although Sir Roger has obviously written extensively on aesthetics, beauty, the countryside and so forth, it is hard to argue that he has much experience of our present-day planning regime, the realities of designing and constructing social housing, the environmental impact of actual building or the low politics of achieving local support for development initiatives.
No, what Sir Roger brings to the party is polemical force, a tendency to double down when attacked, and — perhaps most crucially — a tight and necessary connection between aesthetic theory on one hand, and a set of moral and ideological certainties on the other, as he has argued for a while now that only deep aesthetic appreciation can fill the gap that he feels was left when religious faith no longer mattered [sic]. For Sir Roger, beauty is necessarily contentious, under threat and an alternative to something else for which others are actively, knowingly and wickedly fighting. High culture, for him, will always be something set at an angle not only to socialism and liberalism, but also capitalism, globalisation and multiculturalism. This position, admittedly, has not always garnered him a lot of friends, but as Cowling hinted above, perhaps Sir Roger likes it that way.
And this, it seems to me, is why — more than any one stupid thing he might have said or written in many decades of speaking and writing — his appointment is disastrous. If the reintroduction of beauty as a consideration within the planning process is important, then it is similarly important for the government to do so in a way that is likely to have a genuine, positive, real world impact. Who is likely to do more good in this context — some humble specialist of whom few of us will ever have heard, who understands building bridges in both senses of that phrase, or Sir Roger, robed in refulgent controversy and trailing the acrid legacy of the Salisbury Review behind him? Is the idea to give ordinary young working people and their families homes that are well-built, sustainable and attractive, or to host a brief if enjoyable culture war bun-fight? Alas, I think we all know the answer to this, and it’s a disappointing one.
The irony, of course, is that there is no shortage of other people who could have contributed something in this role, with just as much respect for traditional architecture and the lessons of history, but without the mountain of unwanted baggage. One thinks, for instance, of Ptolemy Dean, a perfectly capable working architect with an eye for history who is also a good communicator, but whose partisan politics, if any, remain opaque. Or one could do worse than seeking the advice of landscape architect George Carter, who has a deep understanding of architectural history, strong sympathy for local and historical idioms, and a refreshingly sharp eye for practical solutions.
This list could go on, but the general point is that the government could have achieved its stated aims here without picking this pointless fight. All of which leads me to suspect that the fight, not the encouragement of beauty per se, was always the real point.
And so from here on out, the great old traditions of Twitter take over — frenzied attempts to defend the ‘free speech’ of a man who has published, spoken and made his views known pretty much as lavishly as is humanly possible, marshaled against equally wrong-headed attempts to damn him for a few out-of-context quotations rather than what is actually damning here, which is his patent lack of suitability for the role entrusted to him. Meanwhile dubious developers will continue to erect shoddy council houses where it is possible to put an elbow through the wall by accident, where pediments or skins of flint or fan-lights are applied seemingly at random to simulate ‘quality’ or ‘tradition’, and caring about built places will continue to be considered a rarefied, elite pursuit carried out by people who have too much time on their hands, rather than as something everyone deserves as a part of being human. And yes, it’s an ugly outcome — but in this political climate, with this government, could we really expect anything else?