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Sunday
Apr282019

Notes on a scandal

The New Statesman/Roger Scruton ‘scandal’ rumbles on.

The Mail on Sunday devoted a double-page spread to the subject, including an article by Scruton himself.

If you haven’t been following the story, a quick recap.

A few weeks ago conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton gave an interview to George Eaton, deputy editor of the New Statesman.

As the magazine’s former wine critic Scruton didn’t expect to be shafted but that’s what happened.

The published article took some of his comments out of context and allegedly made him appear racist and antisemitic.

Within hours he had been sacked from his unpaid role as housing adviser to the government with one opposition MP suggesting he had used ‘the language of white supremacists’.

Eaton’s response was to post a photo of himself on Instagram drinking a bottle of champagne. Alongside it he wrote:

The feeling when you get right wing racist and homophobe Roger Scruton sacked as a Tory government minister.

Douglas Murray, an author and political commentator who writes for the Spectator, asked the New Statesman to release a tape of the interview. The magazine refused.

No matter. On Wednesday Murray announced he had a copy of the tape. Intriguingly he didn’t say how he had obtained it.

In this week’s Spectator, published on Thursday, Murray revealed how Scruton’s views had been misrepresented.

The Scruton tapes: an anatomy of a modern hit job is a must read. Far from being a ‘racist rant’, Murray noted that Scruton’s words were ‘measured and careful’.

The full recorded interview was also posted online. Belatedly the New Statesman then issued a transcript of the recording.

But wait. An eagle-eyed Murray noticed an error and late on Friday night the editor of the New Statesman was forced to add an embarrassing note to the transcript:

An error in the transcription was corrected on 26 April at 23:09pm. Roger Scruton said of gang membership, “I don’t say that it is something special to black people”, rather than “I know it’s something that is special”.

In other words, what Scruton had said about gang membership was the complete opposite of what was in the transcript.

The deputy editor isn’t the only one to come out of this badly. His editor may wish to consider his position too.

Worst of all perhaps - because of his spineless, knee-jerk reaction - was the behaviour of Communities Secretary James Brokenshire who sacked Scruton without checking to see if Eaton’s claim that Scruton had ‘made a series of outrageous remarks’ was actually true.

That’s the real scandal.

You may be wondering why this story interests me. Well, many years ago I visited Scruton at his London home.

It’s so long ago I can’t remember why I was there or who I was with but I know that a few of us were invited round for afternoon tea and a chat.

It was probably when I was editing a national student magazine and the Salisbury Review, which Scruton edited, was an advertiser.

I was struck by his quiet modesty and the thoughtfulness with which he spoke. He wasn’t bombastic or a showman like some self-styled intellectuals.

And it wasn’t all about him. He had time for other people’s views too.

Another reason the story interests me is because in 2002, three years after I joined Forest, Scruton found himself at the centre of another ‘scandal’ when the Guardian revealed he had been doing some work for a tobacco company.

The paper got hold of an email Scruton had sent to the company asking for an increase in his monthly fee and, naturally, put their own spin on it - Scruton in media plot to push the sale of cigarettes:

Professor Roger Scruton, darling of the moral right, asked one of the world's biggest tobacco companies for £5,500 a month to help place pro-smoking articles in some of Britain's most influential newspapers and magazines.

The controversial conservative academic offered to use his Fleet Street contacts to get pieces published in his own name and those of others on "major topics of current concern" to the tobacco industry.

Within days it was reported that Scruton had been ‘sacked’ by two newspapers, the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal, for whom he previously wrote.

He quickly acknowledged his error - Pro-tobacco writer admits he should have declared an interest - but if he was guilty of anything it was probably naivety.

Others however weren’t so charitable:

Clive Bates, the director of the anti-tobacco group ASH, said: "Japan Tobacco should follow the FT and Wall Street Journal and dump Roger Scruton. Anything he says on tobacco now will immediately be discredited."

If that argument sounds familiar it’s because it’s used repeatedly to try and discredit anyone who accepts money from industry. (Taking money from government is of course OK.)

Personally I believe in transparency but ‘who funds you?’ is designed, quite simply, to silence debate.

Ideas and beliefs sincerely held are trashed simply because money changes hands - money that pays for wages and other legitimate expenses.

Would most tobacco control campaigners work for nothing? Of course not.

Anyway, ten years after that controversy I bumped into Scruton when I spoke at a conference in Windsor called 'A Renewal of Conservatism – How to secure a Conservative majority in 2015'.

I was one of three speakers invited to respond to the question, ‘Is the Conservative party still the party of freedom?'. (See ‘The Conservatives and the f-word’.)

In the evening, before dinner, there was a drinks reception at the Guildhall. As I wrote at the time:

My son and I enjoyed a long chat with Professor Roger Scruton who later gave a charming, entertaining yet thoughtful after dinner speech.

Scruton had a quiet charisma that was deeply impressive. He held his audience’s attention not by raising his voice but by articulating a clear, considered message.

That brings me to the final reason I’m interested in the New Statesman story.

Having read several of Scruton’s books, my son later interviewed him for a student newspaper. The article was published in January 2016 and you can read it here.

It’s worth reading, I think, not because it’s by my son but because it’s clear how carefully Scruton chooses his words. His commitment to free speech despite the impact it’s had on his career is pretty impressive too.

Here are two passages that illustrate what I mean:

When writer and philosopher Roger Scruton first published Thinkers of the New Left in 1985 it was, in his words, “greeted with derision and outrage” and “marked the beginning of the end of my university career”. His critique of such leftist icons as Marx, Foucault, Derrida and Gramsci led to “reviewers falling over themselves to spit on the corpse” while “raising doubts about my intellectual competence as well as my moral character.”

Since then he has written books on a variety of subjects including The Aesthetics of Architecture, How to be a Conservative, On Hunting, a memoir (Gentle Regrets), and two novels. Now, 30 years on from his mauling at the pens of the academic establishment, Scruton has renewed his assault with an updated and revised version of that original book, Fools Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left.

Does he expect the reception to be better this time around? “Of course, since I no longer have an academic career to lose. Also, when I published the book in 1985, people in the academic world actually believed things, usually silly things of a vaguely socialist complexion. Now they merely repeat things – whole paragraphs of Deleuze applied to the obsession of the day, but impossible to believe since meaningless.” 

And this:

In recent months the very ability to freely and openly discuss and debate ideas has been the subject of intense controversy. Calls for universities to be ‘safe spaces’ and the no platforming of various groups have created an atmosphere that many fear will have damaging consequences for freedom of expression. Scruton has written extensively in defence of free speech so I asked him about the difficulties of reconciling freedom of speech with the supposed need to avoid offending ideas that others hold sacred.

“You should not knowingly and disrespectfully trample on what others hold to be sacred,” he tells me. “But you should also remember that you have the right to do so, and that ‘holding something sacred’ is not a blanket excuse for whatever a person should choose to think or do. Think of what was held sacred by the Nazis, the fascists and the Bolsheviks, and what is held sacred by the Islamists today.” Above all, “the university should be the kind of ‘safe space’ to which you refer, but a space where offence can be safely given, in the cause of rational argument.”

What I particularly like is the sense of gravitas (not to be confused with a lack of humour) that is rare these days.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday Peter Hitchens calls Scruton ‘guileless’ (ie devoid of guile; innocent and without deception). I think that’s a good description of a man who doesn’t seek trouble but, like an innocent abroad, tends to attract it.

The idea that an honest thinker like Scruton could be driven from public life because of the actions and reactions of journalists and politicians who aren’t fit to lick his boots is genuinely depressing.

Credit then to Douglas Murray and the Spectator for attempting to put the record straight. The question is, will James Brokenshire have the guts to admit he acted in haste and give Scruton his job back?

I wouldn’t bet on it.

Update: Top Tories call for sacked aide Roger Scruton to get his job back after he was ‘stitched up by the left’ (The Sun).

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Reader Comments (3)

Clive Bates??? Who believes a word that rabid smokerphobic says about anything, especially ecigs? They lost credibility as an alternative once the ecig lobby embraced that hater knowing how much he was behind the public hate campaign waged against us.

Monday, April 29, 2019 at 14:21 | Unregistered Commenterpat nurse

No surprise that partisan extremists manipulate statements and rely on calumny to promote their totalitarian view and suppress dissent. Tobacco control epitomizes this unethical tactic.

Monday, April 29, 2019 at 22:32 | Unregistered CommenterVinny Gracchus

Scruton is a philosopher and philosophers through training and use of their discipline use language very carefully. I'd be shocked if he'd rante, irrespective of the subject and stance of the rant. No matter if you disagree with his views, it's the behaviour of a moral bankrupt to wilfully misrepresent them and then to crow about the damage to his reputation.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019 at 20:10 | Unregistered CommenterJay

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