17 April

Deposing Freedom of Thought

Last week, Sir Roger Scruton was sacked from his role as Chairman of the ‘Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission’ following an interview that he gave to the New Statesman. Scruton’s appointment in November had caused considerable controversy, so perhaps his deposition from his unpaid position might be seen in retrospect as all but inevitable. Nevertheless, the manner in which Scruton was judged to be ‘deeply offensive and completely unacceptable’ is evidence of a breakdown in public discourse.

Sir Roger Scruton is regarded by not a few as Britain’s most prominent living philosopher, and above all in the field of aesthetics. He has exercised a formative role in British intellectual life. His work on Kant, Hegel and Spinoza are staples of reading lists for philosophy students – and are read by many others, too. The very breadth and range of his writing points up a humanistic interest in virtually all subjects relating to culture and society: from wine (Sir Roger wrote the New Statesman’s wine column for years) to Wagner, environmentalism, Anglicanism, the roots of political ideology and a plethora of others. The pungency and provocativeness of his very articulate thoughts make it very difficult to dismiss his views off-hand.

He had agreed to be interviewed by the New Statesman’s Joint Deputy Editor, George Eaton, to discuss his intellectual life. The interview ranged over topics such as the nature of Islamophobia, the place of George Soros in Hungarian politics, and the effects of totalitarian governance on Chinese civic life. Yet what was intended by Scruton to be a routine interview resulted in Eaton’s parading before the media an excerpted ‘series of outrageous remarks’. Within a matter of hours Scruton was deposed from his chairmanship – charged with Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism – by a Conservative minister. The journalist celebrated (champagne in hand) the sacking of Scruton to the rapturous delight of his social media followers.

With the media frenzy having calmed a bit, it is now clear that the vaunted controversial remarks were edited unfairly in a manner divorced of any genuine context. Scruton is, nonetheless, now deemed ‘unacceptable’ for a rôle in public life.

The apparent insincerity of his interlocutor might also be taken as representing a sinister trend in British political life. The sacking only confirms that freedom of thought is to be ever more restricted. The pseudo-liberal illiberalism that now dominates our public sphere is not interested in debate or diversity of thought.

Scruton was deposed not because of a serious interchange of opinion and scholarly debate. Rather, he was sacked for challenging newly-established opinion. Yet such an ability to question must surely be central to any form of true intellectual freedom. Eaton will enjoy for a time the accolade amongst ideologues for having ‘taken down’ a conservative philosopher. The cost is a civic society more afraid of intellectual inquiry.

In the Sunday Times, Prof. Niall Ferguson has called for academics collectively and vigorously to defend intellectual freedom in order to counter further dismissals. The efficacy of such a venture is yet to be seen. Scruton’s dismissal from an unpaid position on a building commission should alert all to the ease by which freedom of thought may be sacrificed on the altar of transitory fashion and acceptability.

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