A Middlesex University resource provided by Andrew Roberts
See also extracts from Robert Filmer and John Locke and essay 2 in Social Science History

Family and politics:
Roger Scruton's models

Notes on and quotations from Roger Scruton. Linked to Andrew Roberts' Social Science History

Conservatism and liberalism

Roger Scruton wrote a Penguin book called The Meaning of Conservatism in 1980. In this he argued that

"the Conservative Party has often acted in a way with which a conservative may find little sympathy" (Scruton, R. 1980/1984 p.15)
So conservative political theory and Conservative Party politics are two different things. It is possible to ask "is the Conservative Party conservative?" in the same way as one can ask "is the Labour Party socialist?"

Scruton said that the Conservative Party had

"begun to see itself as the defender of individual freedom against the encroachments of the state" (Scruton, R. 1980/1984 p.15)

When Scruton's book was first published, Margaret Thatcher had just won her famous Conservative victory on the policy which Scruton argued was a liberal, not a conservative, philosophy. Hayek (1899- 1992), the philosopher most associated with the idea that individual freedom is threatened by state intervention, refused to call himself a conservative. He called himself a liberal.

Contractual and family models

In The Meaning of Conservatism Roger Scruton argues that two basic views exist of society and politics:

According to Scruton, liberalism is about defending abstract human rights. But Scruton says we do not have abstract rights. All the rights we have are given to us by the society we belong to. The true conservative is the person who recognizes that his or her life is derived from and dependent on society and whose first priority will be to defend society, not the individual. As modern societies are structured round the nation state, the conservative bias is to defend the state against the individual, and not the other way round.

Scruton says that this social desire to defend one's culture and society is something natural to every social being. Conservatism is, therefore, rooted in the common sense of the people. Another way of putting this is to say that conservatives believe that prejudices may be a safer guide to politics than abstract ideas.

Scruton also wrote A Dictionary of Political Thought (1982). This defines conservatism as:

"The political outlook which springs from a desire to conserve existing things, held to be either good in themselves, or better than the likely alternatives, or at least safe, familiar, and the objects of trust and affection."
Of the Conservative Party he wrote:

"The party's links with conservatism are...uncertain, and it has recently exhibited a sympathy for liberal, and in particular laissez- faire doctrines, in both politics and economics."

Family and politics

Scruton argues that: society exists through authority and power. Authority plus power, he says, equals establishment. Authority and power seek each other out, as illustrated by the way the church and state tend to form an alliance. Conservatives defend the established institutions of society, that is, the establishment. They have authority as an ideal. In fact, for conservatives, authority is more important than freedom.

According to Scruton: Our allegiance to authority is based on a bond that is prior to any possibility of choice or contract: Our fundamental allegiances are to things that existed before our choice or contract was possible. Scruton calls these bonds to what is already established "transcendent" (as opposed to contractual) bonds.

The best example of a transcendent bond is the family. We do not choose our family. It is an already established power. According to Scruton power is good. A child needs its parent's power over it. The power that parent's exercise over a child is a manifestation of their will for that child. It is recognizing that someone has a strong will for us that tells us who our parents are. (As distinct from all the other adults around who do not have this strong will about what we should do and be). A child feels

"the constraint of another's love for it".
Love and power are linked. The child's love for its parents develops from its recognition of two things: its helplessness with respect to the parent and the parent's concern for the child.

Family and state

According to Scruton our personal love for our family is transferred to society at large. Our initial feeling for things outside the family is one of love and dependency. In fact our relationship to society and state is very much like our relationship to the family. As children we only become what we are through our parents' exercise of power over us. As members of society we only become the people we are through society's power over us.

Democracy and hierarchy

Scruton argues that the state exists before us and our allegiance to it is an allegiance to something on which we are dependent. This is a transcendent bond, not a contractual one. If our bond to the state is not contractual any idea of a "mandate from the people" is so much poppycock. According to Scruton, elections are just a way of politicians getting into power. (Power, remember,is good). They are not necessarily, even a good way. Taken seriously, the idea of a mandate from the people is dangerous: A government has to rule and that means doing things the people will not like. A politician's promises are, and should be, worthless.

Democracy, therefore, is just a mechanism for getting people into power. And democracy, even in this restricted sense, is only a small part of government. Most of government is hierarchical. It is there to start with, because it has power and authority. Conservatives, Scruton says, hope that the basic hierarchical institutions of society (law, the monarchy, the House of Lords etc) will accommodate the principle of democratic election - without letting it damage the interests of the state.

Parliamentary institutions, the way democracy is accommodated by hierarchy, evolved to reconcile competing powers. [Power, remember, is good]. They are institutions formed to resolve what Scruton calls the "complex vectors of establishment" (Look back to see what establishment is). This idea is something we could call organic balance as distinct from the mechanical balance of a contrived constitution. You could, usefully, compare Scruton's view of democracy with Burke's view of the British constitution.


The rest of this document consists of quotations from Scruton's works that illustrate his idea of what conservatism is.

Scruton on Conservatism, authority, and individualism.

"In politics, the conservative attitude seeks above all for government, and regards no citizen as possessed of a natural right that transcends his obligation to be ruled. Even democracy - which corresponds neither to the natural nor to the supernatural yearnings of the normal citizen - can be discarded without detriment to the civil well-being as the conservative conceives it." (Scruton, R. 1980/1984 p.16)

"Every society depends upon popular self-respect, respect in the citizen for the order of which he forms a part and for himself as part of that order. This feeling, manifest in patriotism, in custom, in respect for law, in loyalty to a leader or monarch, and in willing acceptance of the privileges of those to whom privilege is granted, can extend itself indefinitely. And it is from this feeling, which need be neither craven nor endlessly submissive, that the authority of the conservative statesman derives. It will be our first concern, therefore, to describe such a feeling. Thereafter we may derive from it an account of the civil order that renders the conservative attitude both possible and reasonable." (Scruton, R. 1980/1984 p.26)

"Authority...is an enormous artifact. By which I mean, not that authority is intentionally constructed, but rather that it exists only in so far as men exercise, understand and submit to it. The condition of society presupposes this general connivance, and a conservative will seek to uphold all those practices and institutions - among which, of course, the family is pre-eminent - through which the habits of allegiance are acquired." (Scruton, R. 1980/1984 p.33)

"It is allegiance which defines the condition of society, and which constitutes society as something greater than the `aggregate of individuals' that the liberal mind perceives." (Scruton, R. 1980/1984 p.34)

"Individuality" [like authority] "is an artefact, an achievement which depends on the social life of man. And indeed, as many historians have pointed out, it is a recent venture in the human spirit for men and women to define themselves as individuals, as creatures whose nature and value is summed up in their unique individual being." (Scruton, R. 1980/1984 p.34)

In a reference note to his comment that individuality is a product of quite recent history, Scruton directs the reader to Durkheim's book on Suicide. No page reference is given, but the following quote from Durkheim relates:

"Originally society is everything, the individual nothing. Consequently, the strongest social feelings are those connecting the individual with the collectivity; society is its own aim. Man is considered only an instrument in its hands; he seems to draw all his rights from it and has no counter- prerogative, because nothing higher than it exists. But gradually things change. As societies become greater in volume and density, they increase in complexity, work is divided, individual differences multiply, and the moment approaches when the only remaining bond among the members of a single human group will be that they are all men." (Durkheim 1897/1970 p.336)

Scruton on the State

"For most of us the state means, not just government, but also territory, language, administration, established institutions, all growing from the interaction of unconscious custom and reflective choice. The nation state is the state at the extreme of self-consciousness. It has its territory, its people, its language, even its church. And it holds these things up to the world not as gifts of nature but as rights of possession, for which it is prepared to commit its citizens to die." (Scruton, R. 1980/1984 p.185)

"If I have tried to argue against the reforming spirit in British politics, it is partly because it constitutes a threat, not only to the state, but also to society. The spirit of reform has been too much concerned with private `rights', and not enough concerned with the public order that makes them possible." (Scruton, R. 1980/1984 p.186)

Scruton and family

"Society exists through authority and the recognition of this authority requires the allegiance to a bond that is not contractual but transcendent, in the manner of the family tie. Such allegiance requires tradition and custom through which to find enactment. But tradition is no static thing. It is the active achievement of continuity; it can be restored, rescued and amended as grace and opportunity allow." (Scruton, R. 1980/1984 p.45)

Transcend: go beyond, or climb above. By a transcendent bond Scruton appears to mean that a bond goes beyond our consent or choice. The bond is prior to, and superior to, any possibility of contract.

"The view of society as requiring forms of allegiance, and a recognition of authority, both of which transcend the operation of any contractual bonds, is a view not of this or that community, but of the essence of civil life. It is this transcendent bond that constitutes society, and which is misrepresented by the liberal theories of contract and consent. Moreover, one particular tradition, which both embodies a transcendent bond, and also reinforces social allegiance, has survived all the upheavals of recent history. This is the tradition of family life. Even a `revolutionary state' will find itself dependent upon it, and placed under the necessity to create (usually through the old expedient of belligerent foreign policy) the corresponding bond of social unity". (Scruton, R. 1980/1984 p.44)

"Associations can be distinguished into the contractual and the non- contractual. [Marriage is a non-contractual association] Its obligations arise in another way - one might say, from its autonomous nature, and not from the agreement of the parties. This difference between contractual and non-contractual associations is also vital to political theory, since a quite different structure of human relations pertains to the two kinds of union. Much will depend, therefore, upon whether one takes the first or the second as the model for the organisation either of civil society or the state." (Scruton, R. 1982 Entry under "contract")

"We are apt to think of children as having a responsibility towards their parents, a responsibility that in no way reflects any merely contractual right, but which is simply due to the parents as a recognition of the filial tie. This sense of obligation is not founded in justice - which is the sphere of free actions between beings who create their moral ties - but rather in respect, honour, or (as the Romans called it) piety. To neglect my parents in old age is not an act of injustice but an act of impiety. impiety is the refusal to recognize as legitimate a demand that does not arise from consent or choice. And we see that the behaviour of children towards their parents cannot be understood unless we admit this ability to recognize a bond that is `transcendent', that exists, as it were `objectively', outside the sphere of individual choice. It is this ability that is transferred by the citizen from hearth and home to place, people and country. The bond of society - as the conservative sees it - is just such a `transcendent' bond, and it is inevitable that the citizen will be disposed to recognize its legitimacy, will be disposed, in other words, to bestow authority upon the existing order. He will be deterred from doing so by acts of unjust or arbitrary power, or by general `unfriendliness' in the public order, of the kind experienced by the deprived and unfostered child." (Scruton, R. 1980/1984 pp 32-33)

In his A Dictionary of Political Thought, Scruton has the following entry under Piety, which, he says, derives from the Latin root pietas. He says that there is:

"a religious tone...detached from any religious doctrine, in Wordsworth's evocation of `natural piety'. Conservatives who are attached to that idea are often accused of `pious cant' - i.e. fragrant venerating words which fail to give grounds for any true obligation. They are also accused - because a defence of piety towards existing institutions may involve a neglect of social justice - of a lack of `pity', to use a later Christian derivation from the same latin root." (Scruton, R. 1982 Entry under "piety")

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Much of this page consists of quotations from Roger Scruton. So how you reference it will depend on what you reference.

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Scruton/Roberts 2001-. Family and Politics: Roger Scruton's models - Notes on and quotations from Scruton. Linked to Andrew Roberts' Social Science History available at http://studymore.org.uk/yscr.htm

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(Scruton/Roberts 2001)

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Conservatism and liberalism

Contractual and family models

Family and politics

Family and state

Democracy and hierarchy