Roger Scruton: Local communities can restore Europe’s soul

During his short stay in Brussels, we met Roger Scruton, emblematic figure of British conservatism. His deep eyes reflected an intimate knowledge of moral philosophy and contemplation of the beauty of the world as well as of its hidden roots, as described in his latest book, published last year, The Soul of the World. We discussed his perception of Brussels and its policies, as well as the reasons for the mistrust and growing gap between the public and their political representatives. In his view, the way out of the current political crisis is to restore the precondition for any social contract, i.e. “togetherness” or the will to live together. He believes that it would be a mistake to replace traditional local attachments, representing tangible and living reality, with a new European identity that still remains a virtual, desired, but distant image. “We have to make it clear that by their attachment to their city or regions, to their part of Europe, people are also attached to a larger project”, said Roger Scruton.

In 2014, you published your most recent book, “The Soul of the World”. Can we speak about the soul of Europe?

Of course we can speak about the soul of Europe, to the extent that we have something spiritual that we share, not just the earth’s surface and geography, but we have inherited institutions that have grown out of Christian roots, including our legal and political system. In many ways, it is fading in people consciousness, but it is there, hidden in the sub-conscious memory of many people, at the heart of a lot of the things that we do, even if we don’t fully understand it or recognise it anymore.

Of course we can speak about the soul of Europe, to the extent that we have something spiritual that we share, not just the earth’s surface and geography, but we have inherited institutions that have grown out of Christian roots, including our legal and political system.

For instance, you can’t understand western music if you don’t understand the Christian input into it; that all of our music comes out of the original religious music of the Renaissance and subsequent periods. And I think that that heritage is there, it’s what moves us in the music of Bach. There has been a movement in the EU to try and deny this part of our inheritance, but I think that’s a mistake. Even if our attachment is dwindling, it is there in everything we remain attached to nonetheless. Our institutions are still Christian institutions. That understanding is a very important part of understanding what Europe is.

It seems that the figure of a mayor is the only one that people still trust. How would you explain the gap separating people in their regions and cities from what’s happening in Brussels?

It has to do with reality. People do want to know that they belong to the same reality as the person who represents them. The European institutions are too far away from ordinary people to feel like they belong to them. So there is no ownership of the EU institutions by the people. Inevitably, people are more likely to trust those who are in the same situation as themselves: their fellow countrymen, mayors or local councillors, than those in Brussels, whose interests they feel are different to their own.

You wrote that “togetherness” is the first prerequisite of a social contract. How can we renew our attachment to Europe?

That is a major problem facing Europe. It isn’t so much a question of whether we can produce an attachment to Europe and the institutions. That is probably an impossible hope. We can however renew people’s attachment to their own part of Europe. They can be attached to their city or country. And it can be made clear to them that in doing so they are also attached to a larger project. But we must not deny that primary attachment to the nation that is their home. That’s the mistake that the EU hasn’t recognised.

Furthermore, we are under threat from radical Islamism, we are at the beginning of that threat, but it will not go away. It is not clearly recognised yet, but look at Libya or the Middle East. Or look at Russia, which is clearly a threat to the Baltic countries, not to mention Ukraine. All these threats to individual nations are also threats to Europe. People have to renew their desire to defend a nation and its interests. I think we can do this providing we allow ourselves to be honest about the problem.

Isn’t this idea out of line of political correctness?

Political correctness is the easy way out for politicians. If they say only politically-correct things they know they won’t be attacked by the media or called horrible names: no more of the stupid name-calling that’s in politics now.

You are touching upon a real dilemma that many politicians have to face today when they look at reality and its representation in the media. It is similar to that ancient dilemma formulated by Plato: is it better to be evil and perceived to be good, or good and perceived to be evil?

This is the real question. It’s always been the case that good people are accused of being evil if they stand up and say provocative things; if they hold their fellow humans to account they are condemned. We have the example of Christ who did just that and was condemned to death. That is going to be the case with all statesmen. De Gaulle suffered from this. Without any doubt, he was a wonderful leader; he stood up for France at a difficult time and saved France, not only during the war but also during the 1950s. He boosted its self-respect and the strength of its institutions.

Of course, De Gaulle was called evil, anti-democratic and even fascist by the left, but it was complete nonsense. You must have the courage to accept that people are going to use this weapon, especially those who believe that there is only one view and that if someone doesn’t share it, he is evil. It is a problem and it intimidates politicians in Europe. Nobody wants to lose their position as an MEP, nobody wants to take the risk of generating controversy or scandal.

So what is wrong with Europe’s foundations?

We have to look at this in its historical context. The European Union was set up under a treaty, and that treaty included a lot of things that should never have been in a treaty, like the dissolving of borders. Treaties are like dead hands, you can’t shake them off; and here is a case where people really want to shake that hand off. It should have been a free trade treaty allowing for maximum trade of goods, but treating human beings differently. They should be treated for what they are. They are not goods, they are people with attachments, and this was not taken seriously into account.

The second mistake was to think that legislation needed to secure commercial freedom can extend into matters that are purely cultural or social. No control has been exerted over which matters legislation can cover, as all matters are technically commercial. You can’t bring in legislation that disrupts the way of life and values of ordinary people and pretend it is a purely commercial thing. Several ethical questions, but also questions such as gender issues, are being imported into this legislation in ways that are totally dismissive of people’s real attachments.

People inevitably think that the problem is Brussels, but it is not. It’s the way the legislation has been formed, and the powers that have been granted to create it are not under sufficient veto from individual nations. They should be able to say “we can’t accept that kind of law”. Discontent with the EU is universal; it concerns a majority in many countries, though not everywhere yet. In a normal democracy, if discontent is with the majority, then the government goes, but there is no plan B, or procedure to rectify matters here. You can’t say it’s not working, let’s start again; there is no procedure for starting again.

What would you suggest as the most urgent change?

What could be changed would be to introduce a way to allow countries to withdraw from particular parts of the treaty, while maintaining a relationship based on other parts of it. It would greatly change the British attitude if we could withdraw from the freedom of movement provision that is no longer acceptable to the population. There are aspects of the treaty to do with social legislation where other countries might also want to withdraw. You certainly can’t create unity by insisting that no one can withdraw. That only comes when people feel free to leave. Since people don’t feel they can, they feel oppressed by the Union.┬áIn other words, all treaties involve a loss of sovereignty because they all involve saying: “in this area I am not sovereign due to a binding agreement with others”.

We British do use the military in ways that don’t have the general approval of the EU. The Franco-German alliance at the heart of the European Union is prejudiced against the use of force and this can cause problems.

Such a loss is inevitable, but it’s also a matter of degree. And total loss of sovereignty means you are not free anymore. In a marriage you’re not free to do what you want, but you are still free since nobody is coercing you and the terms can be worked out; if you want to leave, you can, even though it causes a huge crisis. There are still indeed fundamental areas of national interest where countries keep their sovereignty and the EU is excluded, like defense; but that can be affected by EU decisions nonetheless. We British do use the military in ways that don’t have the general approval of the EU. The Franco-German alliance at the heart of the European Union is prejudiced against the use of force and this can cause problems.

What would be your message to the future generation of politicians and young people, if they want to save Europe?

The danger is treating politics as a market, when this market has involved only the interests of people that have voted for you. You have to take into account the needs of future generations too, think about their retirements, national debt, social security, and also about their environment and nature. Burke was very clear on this. Ultimately a country benefits if its political order takes care not only of the current generation but also of the next one and the past as well. Previous generations created all the savings that we are now benefitting from. Nowadays, politicians borrow relentlessly from the future generations; they know that someone else will pay back their debts.

Nowadays, politicians borrow relentlessly from the future generations; they know that someone else will pay back their debts.

I have taught my children to keep reading books and to write, by hand, not only with a computer, and also to be in contact with the physical reality of the world. This is why I am happy that they like sports and horse riding. When you are with this beautiful animal, you can be in an extremely happy state of mind, but you can also fall and get hurt. It is very important for a child to have direct experience of the natural elements and also to know the pain of life. Obviously, they are on Facebook and living on the edge of virtual reality, but they are also involved in real life.

Isn’t there today a danger inherent in living in a virtual reality, be it in interpersonal or political relations?

The danger, in personal relationships, but also in politics, is that you can fall in love with an image of a real person, almost like Tamino in Mozart’s Magic Flute. When he sees a portrait of the Queen of the Night’s daughter, Pamina, for the first time; he falls instantly in love. “This image is enchantingly beautiful”, he sang. It is so similar to contemporary political electoral campaigns, when we often meet politicians only in virtual reality, on television or through social media. They might even become your Facebook friends. You meet in a virtual space and fall in love with an image. But ultimately, love is a commitment to another person who brings meaning and orientation to your life. A real engagement, I mean interpersonal but also political, can begin in virtual space, but needs to be rooted in a tangible reality. That’s why local communities are so important for political life.

What we need today, in our human relationships but also in politics, is to be rooted in a tangible human experience. As you know, Tamino and Pamina finally met and were able to develop their relationship; but this is not always the case. This would be my message, not only to my children, but also to the politicians in Brussels: don’t forget the local realities of people, their identities, values and attachments. Go out and meet them in their world, and then allow them to be heard back in Brussels. In this sense, coming back to the starting point of our debate, local communities can restore Europe’s soul.

Interview by Branislav Stanicek

Roger Scruton (1944) is English writer and philosopher. He has specialised in aesthetics, moral philosophy and political ethics. He engages in contemporary political and cultural debates from the standpoint of a conservative thinker and is well known as a powerful polemicist. He has written over thirty books, including Art and Imagination (1974), How to Think Seriously About the Planet (2012), and The Soul of the World (2014). He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a fellow of the British Academy. Outside his career as a philosopher and writer, Scruton was involved in the establishment of underground universities and academic networks in Soviet-controlled Central Europe during the Cold War and he has received a number of awards for his work in this area among them the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit, presented by President Vaclav Havel. He is married to Sophie, and has two children, Sam, born in 1998 and Lucy, born in 2000.