How To Be A Conservative by Roger Scruton

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How To Be A Conservative by Roger Scruton

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Ed Robson
Reviewed by Ed Robson
Summary: How to Be a Conservative is a heartfelt, personal exploration of what it means to be a conservative in modern Britain. Scruton presents a cogent analysis of what it means for him to hold right-wing values and opinions and in doing so, expresses complex philosophical ideas in an accessible manner, without resorting to over-simplification. Whether you are swayed by his arguments will very much depend on your own political bias.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 208 Date: October 2014
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1-4729-0376-1

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Roger Scruton has been described by Jesse Norman as one of the few intellectually authoritative voices in British conservatism His central theme in this book is to defend and champion the value of the home, a society based on free association and the nation state. The simplest of biographical sections demonstrates that the author was brought up not from ‘privileged’ stock but within a Labour-voting, lower middle class family, to demonstrate that his conservatism was not inherited but a product of his own intellectual journey.

Scruton devotes a chapter in turn to each of the major political philosophies – liberalism, socialism, capitalism – his aim being to identify what he sees as the truth in each of them, and then to argue how these essential truths fit within a conservative philosophy and outlook. His depth of learning is impressive, citing writers as diverse as George Orwell and Aeschylus. He is strong when comparing the traditional liberal definition of natural rights with the modern interpretation, which defines rights as those which require state intervention and which he rightly challenges, such as the alleged right not to be offended. He also presents some compelling views when addressing the opacity of the European Union and its decision-making processes.

However, as with any commentator with a prefixed bias, he chooses to ignore arguments and evidence that do not fit his worldview. Whilst he concurs with the left’s view that people within a society are mutually dependent, he maintains the falsehood that income inequality is not in any way a cause of social deprivation or hardship or that it limits people’s opportunities.

Another frustration of the book is that Scruton’s scope, intelligent and disciplined though it is, falls short of truly exploring an issue. When he considers multiculturalism, he makes some insightful observations – pointing out that race and culture are not the same thing – but doesn’t consider how the influence of other cultures can be of enriching benefit to British culture on a really fundamental level, in terms of the music we listen to, the clothes we wear, even the food we eat (there is a reason why the nation’s favourite dish is chicken tikka marsala, not the traditional Sunday roast). He is right to point out that political correctness is often used as a way of denigrating Western culture, but neglects to consider its positive effects. He devotes some time to a study of humour and rightly identifies jokes as judgements. He could then have considered how the racist jokes so prevalent in Britain in the 1970s were only challenged because of the influence of politically correct attitudes.

This leads to another weakness of the book, which is that Scruton too often allows his particular viewpoint to cloud his judgement. Consequently, he can only see left thinking in terms of revolutionary socialism; and whilst it is undeniable that Marx et al rejected the idea of preserving traditions and institutions, it is false to claim that such a refection is true of all left (and left-liberal) thinking. He defends grammar schools but does not consider how the old selective education system effectively wrote off generations of children at the age of eleven.

As with most conservative thinkers, Scruton is wedded to the idea that a free market economy is the most efficacious way for society to be underpinned, but he does not consider that in the modern era, there actually is no such thing as a ‘free’ market (as the USA’s protective tariffs for its domestic industries demonstrate). I also couldn’t decide whether the author was being disingenuous or naive when he dismissed the rapaciousness of venture capitalists by saying that we must bite the bullet and accept that the new financial instruments are a natural extension of market principles. Even more worryingly, his assertion that in Britain, our legal order arose spontaneously is nothing more than a dangerous fantasy.

Ultimately, a text such as How To be a Conservative should provoke thought, argument and discussion and in this regard Scruton clearly succeeds. Whilst the principal audience for the book may well be students of politics and philosophy, there is much here that should give modern Conservatives – such as the current government – plenty of food for thought. Whilst I suspect that Scruton rather enjoys his position of intellectual outsider – both within academic circles and within the modern Tory party – there is no doubting the sincerity of his opinions and the intelligence with which he expresses them.

For more from Scruton you might like to try The Face of God: The Gifford Lectures

Buy How To Be A Conservative by Roger Scruton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How To Be A Conservative by Roger Scruton at

Buy How To Be A Conservative by Roger Scruton at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How To Be A Conservative by Roger Scruton at


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