There are no shortages of dead philosophers (or indeed just writers) whose books go unread, gathering dust on the library shelves or at second-hand bookshops. But what does a romantic ‘Trad Con’ philosopher has to offer to those whom he’d disagree with (and they with him)? Roger Scruton spent his career trying to define conservatism, yet by a strange twist of fate got thrown under the bus by his own party over a deliberate misquotation. The way he was dropped as housing advisor in Theresa May’s government almost reminds you of another septuagenarian who spent his career on the fringes of his party only to rise to the top, fall and now even hardly an ordinary member.
The then Housing Secretary, James Brokenshire, who had appointed and disappointed Scruton is said to have not even known about Sir Roger’s intellectual depth and thought he was just a wine critic with opinions on architecture. This, in itself, reminds me of that Michael Foot quote about the dilemma of powerful people having little time to read which then makes them unfit for power.
“Men of power have no time to read. But those who don’t read are not fit for power.” Michael Foot
How to win friends and influence people?
When Scruton was asked about how he became a conservative, he described witnessing the French student riots in May 1968 and how seeing fist-clenching students, some even carrying copies of Foucault angrily denouncing the system which had produced them served as a moment of epiphany for him. He thought “whatever they are for, I’m against”. It’s hard to imagine without that episode what he would have become. Could he have otherwise even become a man of the left? We shall never know. But just this episode should remind those of us on the left that sometimes through our ‘passion’ and the style of our activism, we actually put people off. Instead of turning indifferent strangers into friends and ‘allies’ for our cause, we inadvertently alienate. Mark Twain is said to have once remarked that ‘the only thing (which put him off) Christianity were other Christians’. Can’t the same thing sometimes be said of some Socialists and Socialism?
When people on Twitter admit to having voted Tory in the past and how they have changed their minds now, you immediately see a stream of shaming comments of ‘how dare you?’ and ‘austerity enabler’. Without wishing to sound overly Christian, one wonders, what happened to forgiveness and redemption? How can we hope to recruit more for our political camp if we shame those who join for having previously belonged to the other side?
Similarly, on the subject of How to Win Freinds and Influence People, perhaps the Extinction Rebellion folk should change their ways of getting us to change our ways or else they and us could all go extinct?! “Half of you won’t be here in 30 or 40 years’ time”, as a teenage William Hague told the Tory Party conference in 1977. Couldn’t that be said of the planet if we don’t act, or to paradoxically act to reduce our activity?
Politics of Love
The other thing us lefties can learn from Scruton is expressing politics in terms of Love. The love of home, love of country, love of nature, the love for one another which can be argued to underpin the very essence of the institutions we have built, namely the NHS and the Welfare State. Too often we only talk about what we hate, the injustice, the poverty and inequality. We are good at describing what we oppose but not so good at painting a picture of what we are for and what we want to build.
And talking about building, we have to pay more attention to aesthetics. Our concern for environmental conservation has to be joined up with architectural conservation. Of course, we have to build more houses, especially more social housing. But if we did so in a way which was more appealing to the eye, there may be fewer community objections and Nimbyism. Why should there be a trade-off between affordability and beauty? Afterall is anything ever too good for the working class?
But before we do that, we have to win. And to win hearts and minds at the ballot box, we have to learn to appeal to people’s instincts. I don’t think it is condescending to suggest that the majority of the electorate don’t actually live and breath politics or think about the intricacies of issues for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (Though that understanding doesn’t mean that those of us political geeks are of some holier than thou priestly caste who know best). But the voters perceive, understand and respond to issues not necessarily through ideas or ideological blueprints, but based on a series of instincts. The instinct to protect your family and community. The instinct to ensure your children have a better start in life than you did. A sense of fairness and decency. To know that people take out of the system what they put in, something for something (not something for nothing), a sense of shared fate and destiny. A popular government or government in waiting would try to help people fulfil their instincts rather than to go against them.
Acknowledging the truth in others
And finally, we could do well to acknowledge the truth in what our opponents are saying. It would be plainly arrogant of us to for a moment imagine that we have a monopoly on wisdom. At the very least, we must always listen to those we presume to disagree with or think we have nothing in common. The whole thing is a conversation, not a battle. In the words of Orwell “We are a family with the wrong members in charge”.
In 2014, Sir Roger published a book entitled ‘How to be a Conservative’ which included chapters such as ‘The truth in Liberalism’ or ‘The truth in Socialism’ at the end of which he would concede one fundamental point to the belief system which he’d instinctively disagree with. On Socialism, he wrote that ‘the core truth in socialism tells us that we enjoy the fruits of society only if we are ready to share them’.
And in that spirit of sharing, we can learn a few things from a life spent on learning.