How to Be a Conservative and the Southern Tradition

A review of How To Be a Conservative (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2015), by Sir Roger Scruton.

It is highly unusual for any political leader to articulate any sort of learned political philosophy that underscores their beliefs or policy actions in any legislative chamber at the local, state or Federal level.  This, despite the existence of organizations such as the Abbeville Institute, even those who refer to themselves as conservative rarely can offer an underpinning for their opinions.  This is a tragedy particularly in an era where the Southern political tradition has slipped from the minds of the American populace.  However, there is a voice of reason in the wilderness of intellectual thought.  That voice is noted and oft-criticized British academic, Sir Roger Scruton.  Professor Scruton has authored a number of books, focused on a multitude of issues from the political left, to art and architecture, but certain themes repeat time and time again, and that is what does conservatism offer as a remedy to many of the political and cultural crises facing the English speaking world. Specifically, let us examine how Scruton’s conceptualization of conservatism in his 2014 book, How To Be a Conservative, is relevant to the Southern tradition.

The author discusses at length that he is drawing on the traditions and philosophy of men such as Edmund Burke and James Madison.  He also discusses the problems with conservatism, in that it attempts to maintain or conserve, and today is not associated with revolutionary thought.  However, Scruton is careful to note that it is easy to destroy and difficult to create.  The modern world is obsessed with cultural and political destruction of the underpinnings of society, which have been bestowed upon us by past generations.  In fact, Scruton says we are but trustees of our culture and liberty from our forefathers and mothers and that it is the current generation’s responsibility to ensure our cultural ideals and institutions for those yet unborn.

One of the most important themes discussed in this book is the concept of nationalism.  Scruton is careful to unwind the older European idea of nationalism intertwined with ethnicity and belief supposedly transformed by the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment, which helped establish the concept of a civic nationalism of sorts.  Scruton asserts that this type of nationalism uses the Constitution of the United States as its foundation. However, for this fragile contract to sustain itself, the incoming member of the national tribe must accept the norms and responsibilities that this new type of nationalism relies upon.  Scruton clearly admires the intellectualism of the authors of the Declaration and the Constitution; however, the fact that the United States is a republic, rather than a nation-state seems to have escaped his attention.  Then again, perhaps his outlook is a pragmatic one; after all, we certainly no longer behave like a republic, but as a country with a centralized focus on its national government.  Scruton is approaching the subject matter from an English rather than a Southern point of view.

Scruton discusses the concept that Western civilization has entered a new phase of multicultural acceptance, one that is not based simply upon Enlightenment ideals but one of civic nationalism. The political left has decreed that the accomplishments and cultural heritage of the West are oppressive and must be shunned and discarded for the purpose of progress and social justice. The author states that this is a post-modern critique of classical Western thought, and such a critique claims that despite our advancements in technology, the advancement of human rights, and liberty, our culture or nation is underpinned by old world ethnocentrism. In short, the left believes as Scruton explains, “Reason…is a lie, and by exposing the lie we reveal the oppression at the heart of our culture.” This is particularly relevant in the South, with the on-going threat of the destruction, mutilation, and shunning of Southern culture and heritage.  One aspect of this that Scruton does not specifically cover, as the discussion in this book encompasses the United Kingdom and the United States at a macro-level, is that the degradation of our history has at its core deemed our civic regional identity and heritage prior to World War II as unimportant at best, and offensive at worst.  This includes the base cultures that contributed to the creation of Southern culture and identity, including, but not limited to, the English Cavaliers, Africans, German Palatines, and the Scots-Irish dominated backcountry.

At the heart of this degradation of national identity, culture is the repudiation of reason and of the Enlightenment itself.  Here, Scruton truly lays out the case for what is happening to cause the decline of Western civilization.  He states that if these ideals of group or national membership are forced into hiding, they will eventually cease to exist as a force upon society.  The liberties that the Enlightenment has given us as free individuals have also sown the seeds of its own demise according to Scruton who states:

[The] Enlightenment, which seems to lead of its own accord to a culture of repudiation, thereby destroys enlightenment, by undermining the certainties on which citizenship is founded. This is what we have witnessed in the intellectual life of the West.

Where Scruton particularly shines is his consistent railing against the mantra of political correctness, stating that the liberalism of the West and of the English speaking nations has fostered an environment where the people must constantly repudiate and denigrate their own history and its heritage.  To this end, it is not just the South that is on the receiving end of this prolonged attack, but it is the canary in the coal mine for the further unraveling of Western identity and heritage.

Venturing into socio-economic matters, Scruton, echoing the twelve Southerners in, I’ll Take My Stand, discusses the negative impact that urbanization, industrialization, and monetization have had upon the Anglosphere, particularly the United States.  While he is a clear supporter of free markets and rails against government interference, he believes that society itself is best placed to restrain the excesses of the market, not government. In fact, he states that central government interference has acted as an agent to remove these social restraints and no government action will repair the damage wrought. Unfortunately, we live at a period of history where society has removed most of the voluntary restraints placed upon it.  Scruton further states that faith in the market that tends to function properly when there is real competition between moderate size organizations seems to fall apart when larger multinational corporate entities dominate a sector of the economy.  Scruton states,

Instead of the benign competition to secure a market share, we discover a malign competition to externalize costs. The firm that can transfer its costs to others has the advantage over the one that must meet its costs itself, and if the costs can be transferred so widely that it is impossible to identify a victim, they can be effectively written off.

In other words, many of the large multinationals, solely operate to exploit not only consumers but also society as a whole. Damage to our communities and the built environment is due to the intermingling of corporate power and government interference.

Finally, Scruton discusses the importance of the environment, natural and the built environment in which we dwell.  We have allowed for these areas to be destroyed and degraded; it is no wonder that our civic society follows suit. Repeating many of the themes touched upon by the Abbeville Institute, the place from which we come is important to our identity, and the book criticizes how these things are being torn apart through capitalism and government policy run amok.  Underscoring all of this is a loss of faith in God, loss of community, and destruction of the civil order in which we all owe so much.

This review only lightly touches upon many of these themes discussed by Scruton, and while it is not a perfect book, it is certainly refreshing to see a discussion of the Anglo-American conservative tradition by a noted English philosopher. The South has been the front line for the assault on Western culture, and Scruton sounds the alarm as the contagion spreads throughout the remainder of the Republic and the United Kingdom.   Unfortunately, few American (or British) citizens care enough to understand what is under threat of being lost forever.

About Nicole Williams

Nicole Elizabeth Williams is a public policy professional and former political campaign staffer. She holds two postgraduate degrees from the University of Glasgow in the fields of public policy and political communication and is a 2010 graduate of Tulane University. She previously worked as a staffer for a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons in Great Britain prior to returning to the United States. Her primary area of focus is the intersection of Southern colonial history and its effect on contemporary culture with a particular focus on the Scots-Irish. Nicole is from north Georgia and currently resides in Virginia. More from Nicole Williams

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