Review: Roger Scruton Addresses the Traditional Britain Group
by The Editor
Professor Roger Scruton addressed the Traditional Britain Group and spoke on the endurance of British national identity.
Last Friday (20th February 2015) around 70 members and friends of the Traditional Britain Group gathered in a prestigious Mayfair club for what was probably the most hotly anticipated TBG event for years. Tickets had sold out in less than two weeks and there was a waiting list of people eager to replace any last-minute drop-outs. The person causing all this excitement was none other than Professor Roger Scruton - author of numerous books on religion, aesthetics, pessimism, wine, even sex, and, most importantly, conservatism. To say that this was a coup for the Traditional Britain Group was an understatement as for many in attendance Scruton holds an almost rock star status.
Traditional Britain Group Vice-President Gregory Lauder-Frost kicked things off by introducing both our esteemed guest and our President The Lord Sudeley. He then went on in his signature defiant style to remind those assembled that “we are the resistance” before opening the floor to Prof. Scruton.
Scruton began his address, perhaps surprisingly for the Traditional BRITAIN Group, by suggesting the real focus for traditionalists in England should in fact be England and not Britain. He pointed out that Britain is an amalgamation of nations which, despite their geographical closeness, shared history and achievements and family ties, also have many important differences which make any analysis of a strictly British tradition quite difficult. It is England, he asserts, that has dominated the British Union and it is English values and traditions we often mix up with British ones. This is why it has been so easy for the English to conflate England and Britain in the past and also why an understanding of English peculiarity has suffered. It is high time, Professor Scruton argued, to change this.
Drawing heavily on his excellent book England, An Elegy, Prof. Scruton argued that it is a fortunate mix of geography and landscape, law and literature, character and clubability that has made England so unique and special among nations and that these are the things that need protecting if it is to survive in any meaningful or recognisable form.
He went on to point out the differences in how we define our nationhood compared to the Germans who, like many newer nations, have had to partially invent a narrative and a set of goals in order to bring purpose, legitimacy and coherence to their nation building effort. England, on the other hand, is defined much more organically as simply “home” or “this place where we are, together”. This is made easier, he suggests, because we are an island (or at least the major part of an island) and so it has always been obvious who the “us” and the “them” are. This has allowed the English to forget about having to take the time to define their nation in abstract terms and to get on with the business of simply being in this place, together.
Underpinning this ability to be together peacefully is, Scruton says, our unique system of Common Law which has allowed the English, whose character usually predisposes them to remain aloof from their neighbours and to value privacy, to nevertheless come together when the need to arises in a spirit of mutual cooperation and compromise. He pointed out how the law of trusts, almost unique to Anglo-Saxon nations, has allowed this society of strangers to come together easily and without the need for State permission in order to found and build up institutions which, thanks to their being underpinned by clear laws and governed by clear rules, have endured long after their original members have passed on. For Scruton, the Common Law is like the deep magic of Narnia; almost part of the landscape itself, self-evident and immutable. It is this that has enabled the English to develop their deep respect for rules, to value stability and continuity and which has also enabled them to accept being governed by those whose opinions they hate.
With Common Law as a foundation the little platoons of English men and women have managed to build up a real, organic nation and it has been that simple fact of being here in this place that has defined the English attitude towards nationhood. This led Scruton on to talk about the aesthetics of “this place” and how a love of the English countryside has helped the English become so attached to the place they call “home” and which also needs protecting if our idea of nationhood is to survive. Scruton commended the work of architects like Quinlan Terry and John Simpson who have shown how beauty is still very much possible in modern building and how it can enhance landscape and the English people’s attachment to it. He noted how nobody now complains that the city of Bath was built upon green fields and conceded that we do have to build somewhere. But he warned that the sheer scale of mass immigration was likely to make this more difficult.
On immigration, Scruton suggested, as he does in his book, that the disquiet over immigration has been largely to do with this disruption of this sense of home, that the sheer scale of change has threatened the very essence of English nationhood by diluting its character, undermining a general understanding and appreciation for its laws and heaping pressure on its landscapes. And since English identity has been so heavily influenced by these things it is difficult for newcomers to understand what it means to be English and profoundly more difficult for some than others. With many newcomers coming from cultures very unlike England where tribal, religious or family loyalties will often come before national ones; it is unsurprising that a sense of reverence for the ingredients for English identity will often be absent. Scruton pointed out the English experience of Muslim immigration as an example where it is difficult to instil our values because, put simply, the Muslim commitment to their faith is so often placed above any loyalty to the laws and customs of their adopted land. Scruton sees this as a challenge which must be overcome if we are to preserve our Englishness. Stopping short of calling for a halt to immigration, he intimated that it is more an issue of controlling the pace and quality of immigration, that we should try harder to insist on immigrants being able to adapt to our ways.
For someone who is regarded as perhaps the most important conservative philosopher, Scruton was surprisingly practical about what we can expect to achieve and didn’t fall into the trap of suggesting the answer to all our woes is to simply reverse all the bad decisions that have been made. He sees the English project (if you can call it a project) as an evolution, the English themselves as gradual, gentle and peaceable. He warned that our nation cannot be saved by violence as more would be lost in the violence than would be gained.
He is sure that the future of England will be different, but he also believes we must preserve the essence of Englishness – law, liberty, landscape, liturgy, literature, poetry, institutions and faith. He accepts that we have to build, but he knows we can build beautiful new housing developments that can be better even than the green fields they’re built on. He believes that if we are to accommodate new immigrants, that newcomers to this land must also try to discover and love those things that make this place our home.
By Leigh Quilter, a member of the Conservative Party, a parish councillor and a Conservative candidate for Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council in the forthcoming local elections.