Academics of any ideological persuasion seldom have praise from the Prime Minister on their demise, but the death of Roger Scruton in January 2020 prompted Boris Johnson to announce on Twitter that ‘We have lost the greatest modern conservative thinker, who not only had the guts to say what he thought but said it beautifully’. Tributes were added from other mainly conservative thinkers, journalists and politicians, his website noting some 23 tributes over two weeks. Conservative MP Danny Kruger claimed that Scruton’s work gave intellectual confidence to the image of a UK free from the EU and fashioned an appeal to the public based on attachment to a place which is theirs, although much of Scruton’s work might suggest that his imagined place seemed to exclude minorities and their ‘cultures’. The Spectator published tributes from sixteen friends, with his goddaughter journalist Aleva Scott noting in the Financial Times his persistent belief that conservative intellectuals were being censored out of public debate. A further tribute from a founder of the Blue Labour group, Maurice Glasman, described him as a ‘gentle and curious man’, who felt that ‘the left’ had embraced a cultist politics of hate.
As Scruton was able to publish some fifty books, edit the Conservative Journal The Salisbury Review for eighteen years, lecture at Birkbeck, University of London for over twenty years, help create a right wing publishing imprints the Claridge Press and the Sherwood Press in the 1980s, co-found the Conservative Philosophy Group, through which, as his friend Jonathan Aitken pointed out, he introduced Margaret Thatcher to intellectual and academic acquaintances, it is difficult to find evidence of censorship.
It could also be noted that hate in politics and the public is not confined the left, as the rise of right-wing racist and xenophobic attacks over the past few years plus the murder of an MP might testify. It is, however, more likely to be those on the right who would agree with Scruton’s comment that, “an understanding of the human individual as a social artefact shows inequality to be natural, power to be a good, and constraint a necessary ingredient” (Moreton 1988). Certainly, Victor Orban, Hungarian Prime Minister, honouring Scruton eight weeks before his death with an Order of Merit for his work helping East European dissidents, would agree. Scruton was an undoubted academic polymath, his political and philosophical contributions being interspersed with fiction, music, horses, architecture, and tobacco enthusiasms. His work would also suggest that he was a bigot and a xenophobe (Portes 2020), whose diatribes against anything labelled multicultural or anti-racist in the 1980s contributed to exclusionary and racist politics which up to and after the Brexit vote, did much to encourage dislike and suspicion of non-white citizens, EU workers and immigrants.
The 1980s was the decade which sparked Scruton’s antagonism to any multicultural policies, or support for educational change in a multicultural direction which he labelled as left-wing or Marxist. His antagonism to any left-wing activity, stemming apparently from his much quoted visit to Paris in 1968 when in his view self- interested middle class ‘hooligan’ students rioted against their government, was supplemented in later years with his antagonism toward Muslims. In England it was his editorship of the Salisbury Review and friendship with like-minded traditionalists, who regarded any attempts by schools, teachers and local authorities and even Lords, to change the school curriculum towards what was labelled at the time as multicultural/anti-racist education, that gave a platform for diatribes against a ‘race relations lobby’ which was apparently subverting free speech. This as he explained in an article in the Times Educational Supplement in 1986 led inexorably to “a wicked attempt in social engineering” by including peace studies and world and development studies in the curriculum.
He was especially incensed by the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) production of booklets dedicated to anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-heterosexual teaching, which he labelled as glossy propaganda. He claimed there was a para- educational establishment dedicated to producing the New Socialist Man (sic) with a failed comprehensive school system leading to the decline of classics, a denial of an ‘elitist culture which is our national heritage’, a decline in language teaching, and the rise of sociology, which was ‘ soft socialist propaganda’ and led to the teaching of something he called ‘attitude education’ (Scruton 1986). Keith Joseph, then Secretary of State for Education was castigated for failing to stand up to this para-educational establishment and political indoctrination. Although the editor of the TES pointed out that there was no evidence for his ‘smears against everything he hates’ (Maclure 1986) Scruton took comfort from Mrs Thatcher’s attention when she abolished the ILEA in 1988.
Scruton took up the case of Ray Honeyford, the Bradford Head Teacher whose original 1982 article argued against recognition of minority cultures in the curriculum, and any discrimination that might favour minorities, as ‘the adjustments involved in settling in a new country lies entirely with those who have come here, as they enjoy all the rights and privileges of equal citizenship, including unlimited access to the welfare state’ ( Honeyford 1982). Honeyford’s views were criticised by some in central and local government, teachers and academics, race equality and community groups and minority parents and students. Scruton then published an article by Honeyford in the Salisbury Review in 1984 in which he claimed that his views were censored as ‘the race relations lobby is extremely powerful in the state education service’ and ‘racism is a slogan designed to suppress constructive thought’. Honeyford claimed he had been accused of being white and middle class and a blatant racist and ‘even accused of trying to deprive negroes of their welfare benefits” (Honeyford 1984: 31). He did indeed take early retirement from his post and spent time writing a book discussing the nature of multi-ethnic societies and concepts of race and racism, concluding that ‘ there is good evidence that unscrupulous political agitators are using the notions of anti-racism and multiculturalism to foster inner-city tensions (Honeyford 1988 :301).
Scruton also championed Jonathan Savery, a teacher who worked in a multicultural resource centre in Bristol and then at a Bristol boys school. Savery’s article in the Salisbury Review was entitled “Anti-Racism as Witchcraft” which asserted that there was an anti-racist lobby who ‘twitched their fingers gleefully’ when the 1981 Rampton report suggested that racism was a problem in schools and society (DES 1981). The article claimed that anti-racists supported the 1980 riots in St Pauls, Bristol and ‘Anti-Racists had a vested interest in disturbing fragile community relations’ (Savery 1985:42). Savery was accused of inciting racial tensions, but was cleared by a panel representing Avon Education Committee due of lack of evidence (Spencer 1986). The Home Office also conducted an enquiry into the Avon Multicultural Centre, with an editorial in The Times suggesting that the Savery case had ‘lifted the lid from an unsavoury pot’ and the Government should inquire into the operation of such centres (The Times 1986).
Scruton’s major attack on anti-racism came in a book Anti-Racism-An Assault on Education and Values (Palmer 1986) published by the Sherwood Press, an imprint Scruton helped set up together with the Claridge Press which published his own work and those with similar views. Frank Palmer, a former teacher who later taught philosophy at what was then the Polytechnic of North London, expressed his gratitude in an editor’s acknowledgement, to ‘Roger Scruton…not only was the idea of this book his own, but he remains an source of inspiration and support” (Palmer 1986). The book included contributions from other North London Polytechnic lecturers, Anthony Flew, Emeritus Professor Philosophy at Reading University, and Ray Honeyford. Several chapters railed against any attempt to change the curriculum in a multicultural direction, especially taking aim at Lord Swann’s report on ‘Education for All’ (DES 1985) and a chapter complaining that material on teaching the Holocaust and Auschwitz ignored other genocides.
Scruton’s own contribution examined a myth of cultural relativism, setting up the proposition that uncritical teaching about other cultures and’ the history of distant and unknown places’ is unnecessary as ‘A child brought up in the British way of doing things is encouraged to question and criticise, to seek fair play and impartial judgement’ (Scruton 1986:132). Further articles hostile to the presence of ‘coloured immigrants ‘appeared in the Salisbury Review. Two in 1988 questioned “What Future for Multi-Racial Britain?”. The author, a retired Professor of economics at the LSE, complained that many large British cities had been ‘transformed into foreign enclaves and incipient casbahs’, blaming post-war liberal tolerance for allowing a ‘silent invasion’ of people with whom the white British could not share atavistic sentiments of kith and kin, and whose sense of national identity would be weakened (Mishan 1988).
Neither Scruton, nor the authors he supported had any interest in examining why, as the British empire disintegrated, citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies were invited into the country to help in post–war reconstruction, or in developing an education system that might change an ethnocentric xenophobic curriculum that generations of children continued to be subject to. Instead, their work fed an imperialist misconception of white British superiority, with nostalgia for a lost world of imperial dominance. It is perhaps a tribute to those who do try to hold on to fairness and social justice in the current British multiracial and multicultural society that there has not been more negative evaluation of Scruton’s work and influence. He contributed to what Rabbi Lady Julia Neuberger in the 1980s called Hatred as a Moral Virtue (Neuberger 1986) by which ‘you could make a moral virtue out of despising the people you disliked’, and Jonathon Portes noted over thirty years later that Scruton helped make bigotry mainstream.
Scruton and like-minded traditionalists, depended on the myth that minorities had full choice and opportunity to assimilate into a British society, whose culture was regarded as superior to others. The Hillgate Group, of whom Scruton was a supporter, claimed that the recommendations of Lord Swann’s committee for curriculum change and development ‘engages with post-colonial guilt and threatens to destroy altogether the basis of our national culture’ (Hillgate 1987: 4). In fact, the history of the following decades indicated that educational nationalism triumphed, with the views of Scruton, Hillgate and colleagues, having much influence on the direction of the English national curriculum, with little evidence of post-colonial guilt.
Despite his views being manifestly in the ascendant to the end, Scruton continued to regard himself as a vilified outsider, complaining in an interview to the National Review, that ‘just being civil you expose yourself to contempt as a bourgeois apologist’ (Scruton 2018). In contrast to Boris Johnson’s endorsement, it does not take ‘guts’ to attack people whose opinions and actions differ from yours, knowing that you have the support of influential conservatives -, just a large amount of arrogant self-belief in your own bigoted superiority.
(Bigot: Oxford English Dictionary.’ A person who is prejudiced in their views and intolerant of the opinions of others.’)
DES (1981) West Indian Children in our Schools (The Rampton report) London. HMSO
DES (1985) Education for All (The Swann report) London. Department for Education and Science
Hillgate Group (1986) Whose Schools? A radical manifesto” London. The Hillgate Group
Honeyford, R (1982) “Multi-Racial Myths” Times Educational Supplement19th November
Honeyford, R (1984) “Education and Race: an alternative view” Salisbury Review 5/3;30-32
Honeyford, R (1988) Integration or disentegration? Towards a non-racist society London. The Claridge Press
MacClure, S. (1986 “Educational Challenge” Times Educational Supplement (letters) 13th May
Mishan, E.J. (1988 “What Future for Multi-Racial Britain? Part 1” The Salisbury Review 6/3:18-27
Moreton, B (1988) “Libertarian of the Old School” The Times Educational Supplement 22nd July
Neuberger, J. (1986 “Hatred as a moral virtue” The Times Educational Supplement 5th May
Palmer, F. (ed) 1986 Anti-Racism-An Assault on Education and Value London. The Sherwood Press
Scruton, R. (1986) “Vote, and save these children” Times Educational Supplement 6th May
Scruton, R. (1986) “The myth of cultural relativism” in (ed) Frank Palmer Anti-Racism-An Assault on education and Values London. The Sherwood Press
Scruton, R. (2018) Interview with Roger Scruton. London. The National Review
Spencer, D. (1986) “Tribunal clears teacher on disciplinary charges “The Times Educational Supplement 30th May
The Times (1986) Editorial “A victim of anti-racism” London. The Times 24th May
Sally Tomlinson is Emeritus Professor at Goldsmiths University of London and an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Education, University of Oxford. She has worked for over thirty-five years in the areas of education policy, race ethnicity and education and special education. Her latest books are (with Danny Dorling) ‘Rule Britannia: Brexit and the end of Empire’ (Biteback 2019) and ‘Education and Race from Empire to Brexit’ (Policy Press 2019)