This volume
is yet another eloquently argued defence of tradition and small government
against radical change and large government. I will not call Roger Scruton,
currently Research Professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in
Washington and Oxford, the high priest of this viewpoint as that would subtly
trivialise it; but he is certainly its most learned and passionate advocate.

All his
recent books are an unambiguous attack on, as his subtitle puts it, “the danger
of false hope.” “Pessimism” in this context means a wise and realistic estimate
of human nature; “false hope” is not a shallow optimism so much as an ideology
of man’s perfectibility. Communism has surely shown us the flaw in this way of
thinking. Yet attenuated Communist traits are still alive and well in the Western
democracies, most particularly the illusion that legislation and planning by central
government will solve deep social ills and make us happy.

For
Scruton, “The only improvement that lies within our control is the improvement
of ourselves”. Human beings are inherently frail; what has civilised them over
the ages is the development of community, underpinned by custom, faith and law.
Customs that have stood the test of time are more valuable than the schemes of
radicals and activists. Indeed, “if customs, laws and morals decay, legislation
cannot replace them. For they arise spontaneously or not at all, and the
imposition of legislative edicts for the “good society” destroys what remains
of the accumulated wisdom that makes such a society possible.”

The book’s
chapter headings indicate Scruton’s targets: “The Utopian Fallacy”, “The Zero
Sum Fallacy”, “The Planning Fallacy” and “The Moving Spirit Fallacy.” There is
also the fallacy of ‘progress”. Scientific progress is a demonstrable fact. Moral
progress is much more arguable; we no longer send children up chimneys but we
are happy to expose them to other, more insidious, dangers. And as the author
points out, virtually no poet since Homer has surpassed him in tragic
understanding of the human condition.

Along the
way there are stimulating and perceptive judgements on such subjects as the meaning
of Islamist terrorism, the brutal, dehumanising architecture of Le Corbusier,
the Plowden report on education which did so much to destroy discipline, study
and instruction in schools, the legacy of Enoch Powell and much else. On the
consequences of Powell’s famous speech of 1968 to the Birmingham Conservatives,
this author comments, “Since the 1960s Western countries have adopted policies
in the matter of immigration that no person schooled in the elementary truths
of pessimism would have endorsed. Anybody who has studied the fate of empires
and the difficulties of establishing territorial jurisdiction over communities
that differ in religion, language and marital customs, knows that the task is
all but impossible…”

Although
not argued from a religious perspective, much of what Scruton writes about
human nature suggests a reverence greater that a conservative philosophy on its
own could contain. “The most important source of human value… is the capacity
for love,” he states.  He also examines
the concepts of forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Attacking the “adaptation”
theories of evolutionary psychologists, he reminds us that everything that
everything that is distinctive of humans — their knowledge of death, concern
for others, the overcoming of fear, acts of self-sacrifice — is left out of
account “along with the reasoning, the moral education and the social consciousness”.

How, given
man’s inherent moral weakness, can a healthy society come about and flourish?
This is the question that Scruton examines over and over again. A conservative
with a small ‘c’, he believes that “a society of settled people is held
together as much by territory as by religion, and indeed, in due time, religion
may decline or fragment without damage to the rule of law.” But is this true?
Christianity has declined in Western Europe; this has resulted in a multitude
of social problems which, in turn, have been addressed by a raft of new
legislation. If society is not underpinned by a strong, shared morality, no amount
of legislation will cure the ensuing problems.

As always,
Scruton makes a serious contribution to a vital debate about wise government.
Nor is he alone in his stance. In a recent article in the magazine Chronicles, writer Chilton Williamson,
under the heading “What’s wrong with the World” has this to say about a
well-functioning society: “A true society is a society made of related
communities, each bound within itself and linked to those above, below, and
around it through ties of loyalty, affection and responsibility. These ties are
personal and therefore wholly natural… Ideological society is a contradiction
in terms because ideology aims at the abolition of societies and in fact of the
possibility of society itself.” The big state is not beautiful.


Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire,
in the UK.