Book Review: The greatest living English philosopher.


Researching my Kentish ancestors, who mostly seem to have been agricultural workers, opened my eyes considerably to the agricultural revolution that seemed to run alongside the industrial revolution with changes in technology, organisation and labour relationships. I read loads of articles and quite a few books related to the period 1730 to 1850, many of which highlighted tales of poverty, exploitation and even social war. I followed this up by seeking out something on the lives of modern day farmers to see if there had been much significant change to the lives of “the small farmer” in England, not those who owned or farmed 000s of acres, but the farmer who might be roughly equivalent to my ancestors in status. I came across a book called News From Somewhere which has been most enlightening and also somewhat depressing.

The book is written by a man who was not born into farming, but who is a well known philosopher, an academic on both sides of the Atlantic. He bought a small farm on the outskirts of Malmesbury in the county of Wiltshire and was determined to restore it, run it, love it and to generally “fit in”. He also married a farm girl ….. but more on him later.

The book is divided into 6 chapters as follows: Our Soil, Our People, Our Animals, Our Home, Our Place, Our Future; each one describing through anecdotes the social and political context of the locality. It was written in 2003 as a compilation of articles the author had written in newspapers, journals and magazines such as the Financial Times, The Sunday Telegraph, The Spectator, The New Statesman and The Times. By my reckoning it was published before fox hunting was banned in the UK.

The author of Notes From Somewhere is Sir Roger Scruton, acclaimed by many as England’s greatest living philosopher.

Overall the book was a fascinating read, a mixture of history and personal anecdotes, humour and sadness, factual as well as philosophical. It describes a community that is slowly dying as politics and changing career choices are added to unrepresentative protests about hunting, veganism, and land management.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter Our People, full of “real lives”, people scratching a living from the land, bombarded by legislation, under the thumb of supermarket buyers, but having a sense of community and interdependence that nothing and nobody can shake.

Our People

“Old Larry Ames was a farm labourer until the age of 40 when he fell while stacking straw and broke his spine. He has lived for 35 years in a wheelchair. Each evening his daughter Margaret comes to his cottage, brings him to her ramshackle farm where he spends the night. Next day he’s taken back to spend the day at home before the cycle is repeated. He never complains, is always cheerful, and most people who visit to cheer him up say they leave having been cheered up themselves.”

“Margaret, Larry’s daughter, looks after neighbours children, cooks Sunday roasts for folks who live alone and stages pig roasts and birthday parties too.”

“Mrs Weld is the local District Nurse and a farmers daughter. She enters each house in her stocky legs and bum-slapping humour with which a farmer enters the milking shed! Patients brighten at her approach for she radiates competence and interest. She attends to Larry Ames as she might if he were a horse or a cow …. after she leaves Larry is smiling for a long time afterwards.”

“Vince is 14 years old and an inveterate truant now excluded from his school. He cannot read or write and lives with his equally illiterate parents in a cottage by the railway. The hereditary dyslexia that has dogged the family for generations has finally condemned them to ruin. But Vince is happy with his lot and unlike many of his age has a clear vision of his future career. For Vince wants to be a Pest Control Officer. He identifies instinctively with wild animals, he knows their habitats, their habits, how to capture them, care for them and how to kill them. He has a menagerie of birds and rodents, a pair of ferrets, a collection of lurches and terriers. By day Vince lavishes care and affection on his menagerie. By night he is a hunter.”

There are many more “portraits” of the community like this, the cobbler, the farrier, the music teacher, the bell ringer, and others, tales of weddings, festivals, and of hunting. In this chapter the final tale is of Sidney, who if using a more ancient title would be classed as a Yeoman Farmer whose ancestors from many generations lie buried in Somerford churchyard.

It’s a funny story, as Sidney is on the verge of giving up farming following the pronouncements of Lord Haskins, head of the Governments Better Regulation Task Force, regarding subsidies, redundancies, environment standards, bigger farms etc. But the author, Sir Roger Scruton, England’s greatest living philosopher and on a few government bodies himself, slowly unpicks Lord Haskins pronouncements to Sidney and “exposes” him as also being chairman of Northern Foods, one of the most environmentally destructive and subsidised businesses in the modern economy. I won’t spoil it further for you!

Footnote:

I’m a big fan of Sir Roger Scruton. A great philosopher employed as an academic on both sides of the Atlantic and part of UK Government committees and think-tanks …….. until recently! The tale of what happened to him in April this year caused by a scurrilous, false, left wing Marxist magazine’s journalism is actually a disgrace to our once democratic, decent country. An interview with a New Statesman journalist was altered, incorrect statements published, and calls for a “public execution” made. To the utter shame of our whole nation an inept, cowardly UK government immediately fired him from his advisory positions. It was broadcast across the abhorrent BBC and all of our disgusting news channels. Within a few days the lies told by the New Statesman had been exposed, the outcry was deafening. Did the media publish the Marxist lies? What do you think? We are coasting into becoming a replica of Venezuela!

If you’re interested read this, it’s one of many “buried” reports of the truth:

The Real Sir Roger Scruton Scandal: (Brendan O’Neill)

“The Roger Scruton scandal is indeed disturbing. Not because of what Roger Scruton said, but because of what the New Statesman did. In order to score a hit against a conservative philosopher cum Tory adviser who has always rubbed leftists up the wrong way, the New Statesman’s deputy editor dispensed with the ethics of journalism, wilfully distorted a quotation, and inferred racism where, to the best of our knowledge, none exists. Scruton’s comments were not particularly shocking, but the New Statesman’s behaviour was.

Scruton had been a housing adviser to the Conservative government. Yesterday he was sacked for his ‘unacceptable comments’ in the New Statesmaninterview, as the minister of housing put it. Reading the general media coverage of the scandal, and the New Statesman’s promotion of the interview online, you could be forgiven for thinking that these ‘unacceptable comments’ from Scruton included anti-Chinese racism and anti-Semitism. But they didn’t; it only looks that way because of the New Statesman’s unethical sleight of hand and virtual misquotation – usually a huge no-no in the world of respectable journalism.

All those who think Scruton expressed racial hatred against Chinese people and Jews really should read the interview. They might find that they have more questions for the New Statesman’s deputy editor, George Eaton, who conducted the interview, than they do for Scruton. Take the claims of anti-Chinese racism. In his Twitter-summary of Scruton’s comments, Mr Eaton has the philosopher saying the following: ‘Each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.’ That would indeed be a racist thing to say, playing on the stereotype that all Chinese people look and behave the same. But that isn’t what Scruton said. He said: ‘They’re creating robots out of their own people… each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing.’

So Scruton, it seems, was talking about the Chinese Communist Party and its expectation of conformism from the populace, not the Chinese people. By taking his comments out of context, Mr Eaton, quite wilfully it seems, turned criticism of a tyrannical government into a racist slur against a whole people. But it’s even worse than that. Mr Eaton did not only take the comments out of context – he also changed them, in a small but nonetheless important way. In his tweet, his use of a capital ‘E’ on ‘Each’ – in order to make the sentence ‘Each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing’ look like a standalone comment – is, to all intents and purposes, a misquotation. In the actual interview article, the ‘each’ has a small ‘e’, and is preceded by ellipsis, because it was clearly part of a broader comment by Scruton on the authoritarian nature of contemporary China. A journalist has misrepresented the views of a public figure to make him seem racist – isn’t that more scandalous than Scruton’s strong-worded critique of what he views as Chinese conformism?

What about anti-Semitism? Again, Scruton says nothing in the interview that could be construed as anti-Jewish hatred, and yet the New Statesmaninfers that he did. Scruton made critical comments about the ‘Soros empire’ in Hungary. He was referring to George Soros, the Hungarian-American philanthropist who funds many so-called ‘progressive’ think-tanks and institutions. Soros is Jewish, and according to some liberal observers, this means any criticism of him is by definition anti-Semitic. This is a perverse idea. Is there a ‘Soros empire’ in Hungary? That’s certainly not a phrase I would use, but it is an indisputable fact that Soros funds various groups inside Hungary and across Europe. The depiction of all anti-Soros criticism as anti-Semitic is dodgy on two levels in particular. First, it demonises and seeks to silence all public discussion of a billionaire and his political interests. And secondly, it seriously harms the crucial struggle against resurgent anti-Semitism by weaponising accusations of anti-Semitism to the cynical end of silencing dissent on Soros and his political role – and this can only deepen the depressing cynicism that already exists towards the seriousness of anti-Semitism.

Let’s put it like this. If someone were to say that Ed Miliband is a wily, puppeteering political figure who uses his North London connections to do down ordinary people, that would clearly be anti-Semitic. But if someone said Mr Miliband was a piss-poor leader of the Labour Party who hasn’t got two ideas to rub together, that is not anti-Semitic. Do you see? Likewise, if a Hungarian hard-right agitator says Soros is a sinister, octopus-style figure puppeteering the Western world, that is anti-Semitic. But if someone – Scruton, say – says Soros funds various campaign groups that have a detrimental impact on conservative values, that is not anti-Semitic.

In order to fortify the smear that Scruton is anti-Semitic – despite the fact that he said nothing about Jews in the interview – Mr Eaton refers to an old speech Scruton made in which he seemed to suggest that Hungarian Jews are part of the ‘Soros empire’. Gross, right? Only, once again, his comments are taken out of context. He said, in the speech titled ‘The Need for Nations’, delivered in Hungary a few years ago, that ‘many of the Budapest intelligentsia are Jewish, and form part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire’. Why did he make this claim? He said many of these Jewish intellectuals are ‘rightly suspicious of nationalism’, because of the anti-Semitic horrors of the 1930s and 40s, and they are also confronted with the ‘indigenous anti-Semitism [that] still plays a part in Hungarian society and politics’. These past and present experiences are an ‘obstacle to the emergence of a shared national loyalty among ethnic Hungarians and Jews’, he said. So he was sympathising with the plight of Hungary’s Jews. Did Mr Eaton not have space to point this out?

Scruton’s other ‘unacceptable comments’ include saying that Hungarians in recent years have been ‘alarmed’ by ‘the sudden invasion of huge tribes of Muslims from the Middle East’. This is indeed very worrying language. It is the one part of the interview that feels ugly. So why not challenge it? Why simply cite it as evidence for why Scruton is unfit for public life? For a public role that has precisely nothing to do with immigration or Islam?

Scruton also said that Islamophobia is a word ‘invented by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop discussion of a major issue’. What’s wrong with that? I would dispute that the Muslim Brotherhood invented the word. There are so many competing claims as to who invented it. And in the UK context, it was the Runnymede Trust that popularised it. But it strikes many of us as utterly uncontroversial to suggest that accusations of Islamophobia are used to close down discussion about Islam, Islamist extremism, social and cultural tensions, and so on. Because Scruton thinks Islamophobia is a phrase used to chill public debate, he deserves to be sacked? That’s crazy.

Here’s the truth of it: most of Scruton’s comments were not particularly alarming or surprising. He criticised China’s enforcement of conformism, repeated his concerns about George Soros’s growing influence, and called for a more open debate about issues relating to Islam. Demanding someone’s scalp because you disagree with their views is one of the most depressing features of our age. In the interview, Scruton was doing what Scruton has always done – provoke and challenge and irritate. It is the New Statesman that has changed. A once prestigious magazine now distorts and virtually misquotes as part of a transparent hit job against a philosopher whose views it doesn’t like. In this scandal, it is the dishonesty and anti-intellectualism of the New Statesman that should concern those who care for the state of public life.”

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The greatest living English philosopher.

  1. Thanks for the book review! I’ll add it to my (very long) to-read list. My grandfather emigrated from Kent in the 1870s and probably came from a family of farmers, I’m not sure. I need to move to that line and do some in-depth research someday soon! I also appreciate the introduction to Scruton – I haven’t known about him until now. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, looking forward to your Kent research. I’ve slowed down a bit on the genealogy for a while as I focus on my book again, I appreciate your taking the time to still read my stuff. Now in France!

      Like

  2. The book sounds quite interesting. I’ve never hear of Scruton before. I have first-hand experience with how the media distort what people say. I was at a protest with a sign I’d made and was filmed and interviewed for television. They cropped my sign, leaving out several words and entirely changing the meaning. They did the same for my interview. That is NOT reporting the news – it is manufacturing it. Shameful. And it’s not a liberal plot – it works both ways, politically.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely! What happened to you is shocking and so typical nowadays. The truth isn’t sensational enough for them. It happened to me in Nepal once I was being interviewed for an education newspaper about the Ministry of Education’s appalling record, they even added whole paragraphs of things I never said!

      Liked by 1 person

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