Sir Roger Scruton, 1944 – 2020
BY OWEN PATERSON
Sir Roger Scruton was a pre-eminent philosopher, influential teacher and courageous opponent of Communism. His death comes as a sad loss to the conservative cause and to all those who value freedom of expression and intellectual valour.
In over 50 books, he applied his mind to everything from the nature and role of God and the Church to sardonic meditations on the benefits and pleasures of wine. He was a stout and thoughtful defender of the countryside who understood the enjoyment of hunting. Through the rigour of his thinking and the clarity of his expression, he taught his many students and admirers not what to think – that is the individual’s prerogative – but how to think.
More than that, Scruton was a man of action to accompany his words. Arguing for freedom is one thing – and his off-the-cuff extemporisations argued for it just as beautifully as his books, articles, and lectures. It is quite another to fight for it in a literal sense. His bravery behind the Iron Curtain, where he travelled at great danger to himself to keep alight the torch of intellectual freedom, is a profound testament to the strength of his character.
Incredible stories abound – of pursuit and arrest – which would seem more familiar to a John le Carré novel than the life of a Professor:
“After a hectic chase in Jiri’s belching Trabant, pursued by a fleet of Mercedes, we crashed through the door of his little house and down to the bathroom, where, one by one, Jiri swallowed the bits of paper I had brought him from England.
“By the time I was delivered to the authorities, not a trace remained of the messages that I had come to deliver. I was questioned for a few hours and strip-searched, but got off lightly in the circumstances.”
In recognition of his service, Scruton was awarded the highest State civilian honour for foreigners by the Polish President Andrzej Duda in July last year. He was similarly honoured by Czechs and Hungarians. It was richly deserved.
Scruton’s experiences of Communism in Eastern Europe – the enforced unity, the destruction of national character, the suppression of speech, thought and activity – fed directly into his distrust of the EU. He believed passionately that every man and woman, and every nation state, had an inalienable right to be free.
Scruton’s personal conduct, through a long, tumultuous public life and, latterly, through an uncompromising illness was a credit and an inspiration. Conservatives must endure a fair deal of wilful misrepresentation and Scruton, unyielding in his graceful deconstructions of liberal orthodoxy, endured more than most. He did so with wry wit and unconquerable determination.
Like his philosophy, there was something timeless about Roger Scruton. As Douglas Murray has said, he was a man who seemed bigger than the age, so it is no wonder that younger Conservatives often tell me of his influence on them. In his poignant piece in last month’s Spectator, Scruton wrote: “Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.” We and the generations that follow us have much to be grateful to Roger for. Through the extraordinary power of his brain and the compassion and courage of his spirit, he taught us not only how to think, but how to behave as well.
Owen Paterson is the Conservative MP for North Shropshire. Follow him on twitter: @OwenPaterson