I am a little afraid of Roger Scruton. He seems a class enemy on two fronts – a Tory of the hunting persuasion, and an intellectual I’ve not read before.
But there it is: I’m reading this book because politics as I have known it (gut-feeling, blood-lines, genetic predisposition) is changing. The old class-based political loyalties are dissolving, because the old classes are being reshaped: when my grandchildren look back at this time they’ll see a period of huge social and political change. I’m swimming in that fluxy sea now, quite uncertainly, and I think, I’m swimming alongside a lot of other uncertain people. It’s hard to know for sure about that because the people who speak most loudly about politics are the people who are most interested in politics – a small minority, way over there, on a little sandbank, mostly shouting the same stuff they seem to have been shouting for years.
And over here in the mist, the vast majority of us mutter disconnectedly, tossed about by the weather and our feelings, not knowing what to think.
Support entrepreneurs? I would
Social justice? Yes.
Save the polar bears? Naturally, who wouldn’t?
Scroungers off our backs? It’s only fair but…
Preserve the NHS? Of course I want to
Extra taxes? Not at the moment, thanks
National curriculum? No, it’s ruining us
Higher standards? You bet
Sustainable economy? Yes but …
The problem is that everything is so complicated: saving the polar bears may mean giving up on central heating or cars. I’d willing pay more tax for better schools but do I believe I’d get better schools – however much money was going in – without a revolution in education? I have no way of thinking through these complicated and increasingly interconnected matters.
So I thought I would read the occasional political book to see if it helped. About two years ago I read Big Society by Jesse Norman. I thought there were some useful ideas in it, cooperatives and friendly societies and Mutuals, memories of early and discarded socialist ideas, Big Society being made up of lots of interest groups e.g. The Guides and Alcoholics Anonymous. As opposed to Big State – enforced knot-learning for all through the National Curriculum, Anti-drinking campaigns run through the NHS.
But I can’t help thinking, how does all this fit with the freedom and tax-breaks which I assume are what the Tory party is really about. As I write that, though, I am thinking also of rich Labourites, Blue Mandelson. Or is that old class prejudice? How do I know?
I only know that we are both individuals and social creatures –and the ancient oppositions seem unhelpful. Also that when I went canvassing on Woodchurch Estate in Birkenhead, a woman in her pyjamas with a baby on her hip told me she didn’t know how to vote and would be scared to try. Her teenage daughter pleaded with her – ‘They’ve told us at school, Mum, it’s important, I’ll come with you.’ I found myself thinking like any good Victorian, the place to start is universal free education.
So I’m thinking to challenge myself by reading outside of my comfort zone. Politics. Recommendations please.
Roger Scruton’s book appeared and it seemed, like Jesse Norman’s, to be in a small way, blurring some boundaries. OK, so he appears in hunting regalia. I followed the hunt on bicycle and foot as a child in rural Cheshire so I have an anachronistic peasant-like fondness for the horses and the red jackets. Should we kill foxes by chasing them in this brutal way then letting dogs savage them to death? I don’t know. I put fox-hunting in a mental compartment called ‘ I don’t have to decide this one.’
And it’s not just hunting. A lot of things are in there. One of them is ‘the planet’. Yes, it’s a roomy compartment.
One of the problems I have reading this book is trust. As I read, I believe some things Scruton tells me, but others echo with the rebuffs I can imagine an opponent chucking back at him as untrue. So, for example in Chapter 3, The Search for Salvation, page 77 Scruton tells me,
‘Conservatives see politics as an agenda-free brokering of rival interests, whose goal is peace.’
If that were really the case, politics as a kind of consensus-building, I’d be quite interested in it. But is it true? The sentence seems to offer an understanding of conservatism radically different to anything I could have imagined. (I’d still be thinking in the language my dock-labouring Grandfather; that Tories support the interests of Toffs over those of the working man. The working man? Does that mean me, a woman with a Ph.D. and a bloody big house in the Wirral? Or is it that I believe that supporting the interests of the working man -whoever he is, and do I include working white fascists in Eltham, South London, say? – Are their interests in my interests? Do these categories work at all?)
Chapter 4, Radical Precaution, has some good stuff. First off – and I loved this – risk assessment is natural, an evolutionary tool – it is what humans do all the time. We balance one possibility against another. As Scruton says, ‘playing with dirt involves the risk of disease, but by forbidding children to play with dirt, we make them more vulnerable to disease’. The risk-sensible adult knows that you must let children get dirty. And you also must teach them to wash their hands.
But formalising risk may be risky. He’s strong on the dangers of the Precautionary Principle as it appears in bureaucratic life:
A European directive issued in response to the slight risk that meat from sick animals might enter the food chain insists that no abattoir can function without the presence of a qualified vet. Qualified vets are expensive in Britain; hence all small abattoirs had to close. When Foot and Mouth disease broke out in 2001 it was not, as in the past, confined to the local source of the outbreak, but carried around the country by animals travelling a hundred miles or ore to the nearest legal abattoir. Some 7 million animals were slaughtered in the attempt to confine the disease, and the cost to the economy was £8 billion. Such was the short-term cost of an edict that considered only one fairly insignificant risk among the many that cohabit in the management of livestock.
Time’s up – I must go to Morrisons for food. More hard labour on this next week.