Roger Scruton’s Britain
In 2002, nearly a half-million British citizens marched on Westminster to protest the Labour government’s decision to ban traditional forms of fox hunting. In his latest book, Where We Are, Roger Scruton cites this seemingly eccentric event as the first rumbling of discontent that would culminate in the UK’s June 2016 “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union. Perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, Scruton says that this march was Britain’s “first nationwide uprising of country people against the urban elites since the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.” While rural areas of England and Wales certainly formed the backbone of the Brexit vote, there would have been no success had they not been joined by large numbers of working class and middle-class city-dwellers who shared a certain vision of Britain with their fellow citizens in the countryside.
For those of us who have followed Roger Scruton over the years as perhaps the most prominent conservative philosopher in the English-speaking world, his latest book is an eagerly awaited one. In it, he turns his immense learning and considerable powers of reflection to this matter of Brexit—perhaps the most consequential political change in the Anglo-American world since that community of nations came together to fight and win the Second World War.
The UK has long had a position of leadership within the English-speaking world—deeply interested and involved in European affairs, to be sure, yet always standing a bit apart. Over recent decades, as successive British governments have ceded more and more of their country’s sovereignty to the bureaucracy and courts of the European Union, Americans of my generation have watched as our ties of affection and bonds forged in shared struggle have weakened and become increasingly devalued. One can only imagine what similarly minded conservatives in Commonwealth countries have felt, facing a future where their relationships with Britain would have been increasingly mediated by bureaucrats in Brussels. With the Brexit referendum, that inexorable process seems at least to have slowed, and a different ending to the story now appears possible.
Perhaps prematurely, Where We Are presumes that the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union is permanent and settled. Scruton acknowledges that there are recalcitrant factions grasping at legal and parliamentary straws in an attempt to overturn the will of the British people as expressed in the 2016 referendum. But he pointedly reminds readers that the question of leaving the EU “was assumed on every side [to] lay beyond the reach of normal government, being an issue about our identity.” The decision is, therefore, solidly in the rear-view mirror for Britain, but an unknown road still lies ahead for the British people. The question that consumes Scruton is a simple one: who are “we” going forward? How, he asks, should the British conceive of their national sovereignty in order to bring the “leavers” and “remainers” together?
Scruton, a TAC writer-at-large, believes that “patriotic sentiment, defined in terms of a home and the sovereign people who reside there, can form the foundation of a creative response to Brexit.” This sentiment must adapt to changing circumstances, and it must avoid “pathological forms of national pride” that arose so virulently on the European continent during the 20th century.
As one would expect from a traditionalist conservative, Scruton stays with his close analysis of the situation in Britain rather than indulging in broader theories. Yet he clearly understands that what he is writing about is but a local example of a global question. That makes this slender but densely packed volume one that deserves close attention outside of Britain:
For many ordinary voters… the issue of who governs us, and from where, is real and urgent. For such people something was at stake [in the Brexit vote] that had been systematically overlooked by the politicians, and which was more important to them than all the economic and geopolitical arguments, namely the question of identity: who are we, where are we, and what holds us together in a shared political order? It is not only the British who are faced with this question: it is the political question of our time…
Scruton views the question of sovereignty as crucial. One of the failings of the European Union, in his eyes, is that such transnational institutions have removed sovereignty from member nations, but “have not really acquired it for themselves.” Thus, when true crises hit, only the constituent states have any ability to address them, yet they do so in a weakened condition. Furthermore, sovereignty and identity are connected: “we need to know who the people are, where they are, and what holds them together. There can be no democracy without a demos, a ‘we’, united by a shared sense of belonging.”
The problem is easily recognizable, particularly to Americans: who are we, who governs us, and from where? Scruton’s genius is that he observes the significance of the British situation as owing not only to the universality of the problem but also to the fact that Britain itself has clues to possible solutions:
There is something specific about the British identity that is not present in quite the same way in other European nations. This specific thing is accountability—a feature of our lifestyle and our government that runs through all things, and which is at the origin of the British reluctance to be governed by those whose attachments lie elsewhere. This accountability is not an abstract or merely legal thing. It is a feature of the country itself. [It] originates in no particular person, no particular office, no particular procedure or institution: it grows in the place where we are.
In that spirit, Scruton takes the reader on a journey through the British experience, often contrasting the organic development of British patriotism with the ideologies and grand narratives that led to so many of the pathologies that have arisen on the European continent from time to time. Scruton says that true “patriotism… arises spontaneously in the ordinary human heart. [It] grows from the habits of free association that we British have been fortunate to inherit.”
On the European continent, mass movements have usually “laid claim to the future as their legitimating purpose,” but traditionally British patriotism has instead looked backwards, “telling itself stories that represent things as they are now through the lens of a long and vindicating history.” Whig historiography, with its harmonizing emphasis on continual progress and emancipation, is familiar to most, but Scruton points out that there is also a time-honored Tory version, according to which British history has been “a slow, steady extraction of institutions and liberties from the ancient gifts of monarchy, Christianity and the Common Law.”
Scruton, now 74, recalls the history taught in his grammar school days, in which “proud islanders” overcame great dangers while facing overwhelming odds, learning the importance of being merciful in victory and dignified in defeat. By contrast, the regnant view taught in Britain today is one of a “race of grasping imperialists, who spread chaos abroad and conflict at home, in pursuit of world domination.” Both views of Britain are, of course, caricatures with elements both of truth and falsehood, but Scruton makes clear that he leans toward the more forgiving view of English history, in no small part because the law of England came to be the law of the land, rather than of whomever happened to be in charge at any given time.
Such ideas are deeply ingrained in the English psyche, and those habits of mind were passed on to those of us in the Anglosphere lucky enough to have inherited them, whether or not we as individuals have so much as a drop of British blood flowing through our veins. By contrast, it is hard to imagine a continental power where the ideas of the 13th century British jurist Henry de Bracton, who argued that the king lies below the law that appoints him, would have arisen, let alone taken deep root through ensuing centuries. It is equally difficult to imagine an honest telling of American political liberty that doesn’t trace its roots back firmly to that same heritage.
Scruton grants that continental critics have some truth in their jabs—namely, that the British are a people unwilling to think things through (hence a Brexit vote that strikes Europeans as inexplicable). He points out, however, that the French Revolution was very much a thought-through affair, but it resulted in Robespierre’s “despotism of liberty”—the kind of impenetrable contradiction that Scruton says one should expect when trying to create a political order from scratch. He writes:
[By contrast, the British have made do with] an unwritten constitution, a Parliament whose powers remain undefined, a form of sovereignty that can be traced to no specific institution and no single person, a system of justice in which the most important laws are not written down, and patterns of local administration that cannot be explained even by those who operate them.
To the extent that the American experiment has been successful, it has largely been because we have likewise instinctively followed that template with its unwritten traditions of self-restraint and with its undefined principles that encourage organic political development. Scruton, in fact, cites the American experience as a prime example of the process whereby diverse peoples can come together as a nation. “There you have,” he writes, “a brief summary of American history: people settling together, solving their conflicts by law, making that law for themselves, and in the course of this process defining themselves as a ‘we’, whose shared assets are the land and its law.”
Rival visions or myths underlay the internal British conflicts over Brexit. Scruton chooses the word “myth” with care, noting that myths are “parables that contain a concealed truth, a truth about people’s aspirations and the way in which they realize them.” One of them, in his view, is the Magna Carta myth, which “tells us that those with power… must always answer to the people beneath them.” Another is the myth of the Vanguard, which “speaks of the legitimate use of power by those—the experts, the intellectuals, the liberators—who have the knowledge required to lead the people to a salvation that they could never achieve on their own.” The latter vision was embraced by the European Commission, while the former was one that, ultimately, was affirmed by the British people when they voted for Brexit.
With such a heritage, all should be well, but Scruton notes that a generation of young people, sated by peace and prosperity, bathed in globalism, and immersed in networks that are more real to them than their neighborhoods, has had no experience of an emergency to which patriotism is the only effective response. He does add, however, that “the jihadists are trying hard to rectify this.”
Scruton sees the embrace of the EU by young voters in Britain as the instinctive effort to find a global solution (transnational political organizations) to a global problem (international capitalism). Far from being hostile to their concerns, Scruton shares most of their objections to the abuses of global capitalism, in which profits are fully taken at home but costs and risks (financial, social, and environmental) are outsourced to places and peoples out of sight and out of mind. He remains, however, optimistic that with time and persuasion, these younger Britons will come to share his view that the nation-state is actually a far more effective restraint on such abuses than is an unwieldy transnational organization such as the EU.
Scruton doesn’t shy away from the challenges Britain will face as it seeks to move forward after Brexit. The question of Scottish nationalism is one of the biggest, and the map of the Brexit vote, with Scotland being a large sea of “remain,” highlights the magnitude of that problem. The creation of a Scottish parliament under Tony Blair is something that Scruton views as a major problem for national unity, mainly because there was no English parliament created as its counterpart. Because of this oversight, its counterpart is rather the UK’s parliament in Westminster, creating a situation where merely sectional differences are magnified into reasons for a UK breakup. The urban-rural divide in general and the divide between north and south in particular—Scruton notes that the movement of resources and talent to London and its environs during the EU era has created an untenable imbalance between the thriving south of England and the rest of the island—are also major challenges for Britain, as is the divide between younger and older generations.
Where We Are does a masterful job of telling the centuries-long history of why the British people instinctively and perhaps inevitably voted to leave the European Union in spite of the vast and powerful forces arrayed against such a vote. It is less strong in providing specific answers to the problems that will arise in post-Brexit Britain, but the reader shouldn’t be surprised that a traditional conservative such as Scruton would eschew prescriptions based on theory and suggest instead general principles around which the British people can arrive at their own home-grown solutions, as they always have. That, after all, is sort of the whole point to leaving the EU.
The book’s subtitle—The State of Britain Now—has a clever double meaning that Scruton never actually spells out. He addresses the condition of Britain, to be sure, but the book is also an extended encomium to the nation-state itself. He writes: “[I]f we are to be true to our European identity, this will not be by turning our backs on the nation state. Nationality is one of Europe’s achievements.”
The limited scope of the nation-state is, for Scruton, part of what allowed the strongest aspects of European civilization and life to arise organically—financial institutions, educational traditions, legal instruments, artistic pursuits, religious tolerance, and scientific discoveries. In one sense, by exiting the European Union, strengthening the national bonds within Britain itself, and treating the entire world as a great adventure waiting to be explored, Britain is true to European ideals and achievements in a way that the EU in its current inward-looking form never can be.
This was always an explicit part of the pro-Brexit campaign. Leading figures such as Boris Johnson (now foreign secretary) made a vigorous case that leaving the European Union would give the country an opportunity to return to more robust trade and close international relations around the globe, not less. These pro-Brexit figures maintained that while the European Union has tied Britain more closely to the continent, it had also restricted Britain’s relationships with the rest of the world to a lowest common denominator determined by an inward-looking EU bureaucracy.
It is only when patriotism is replaced by the belligerent and alien ideology of nationalism that a nation-state becomes dangerous to itself and to others. Patriotism is a love of home and a willingness to defend it, while nationalism—from that of the French Revolution to even more deadly 20th century versions—is parasitic, cynically using national symbols in the service of war and the abuse of its own citizens.
Britain faces the challenge of uniting segments of its population that were set at odds during the Brexit campaign: the British urban elite that voted to remain in the EU and the largely rural and working-class majority that voted to leave; native-born and immigrants; Scotland, Wales, and England, with their long and complicated history of sharing the same island; those in Northern Ireland who treasure their membership in the UK and those who enjoyed the open border with Ireland that the EU provided; those whose economic interests have benefited from membership in the EU and those who were hurt by it.
What Scruton offers—or rather believes that Britain can and should offer to all its citizens—is the residual idea of national identity, which he believes is enough for Britons to find their way together as a nation in the post-Brexit world. He writes that “the idea of a shared home and a territorial jurisdiction… is neither belligerent nor mystical, and does not depend upon extinguishing the many other loyalties that its participants may have.”
The cover photo of Where We Are depicts the “Angel of the North,” a monumental sculpture that commands high ground overlooking a crossroads in northern England. It evokes an echoing memory of British Christendom and of a national self-confidence that has of late been too often absent from her shores. That statue also, like Britain today, embraces a modern idiom—angular, abstract, and even a little cold. Britain is indeed at a crossroads after the Brexit vote. The question is whether her people and her leaders will find the right balance between old and new, between traditional habits and fresh thinking, and between openness to the world and a guarding of her internal bonds. A guardian angel might very well come in handy.
Bradley Anderson writes from San Francisco, California.