Roger Scruton, British philosopher and conservative lightning rod

Dr. Scruton was knighted for services to philosophy, teaching, and public education.
Dr. Scruton was knighted for services to philosophy, teaching, and public education.Associated Press/John Stillwell, File 2016/PA via AP

WASHINGTON — A British philosopher, author, and high priest of conservatism, Roger Scruton helped smuggle blacklisted books to Czechoslovakian dissidents during the Cold War and was sometimes described as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s ‘‘court philosopher.’’

Unabashedly elitist, he favored fox hunting, the fur trade, Bordeaux wines, and the House of Lords, as well as an old-fashioned death sentence: hanging. Single mothers, gays, socialists, and multiculturalism came in for scathing criticism, and he was pessimistic that any art could surpass Shakespeare’s plays or Wagner’s operas. The noisy youth culture of MTV and Oasis, he wrote, was simply ‘‘yoofanasia.’’

Dr. Scruton was 75 when he died Sunday after a life that saw him become a one-man think tank, a scourge of liberals, and a hero to Tories such as Prime Minister Boris Johnson. ‘‘We have lost the greatest modern conservative thinker — who not only had the guts to say what he thought but said it beautifully,’’ Johnson tweeted Monday.

In a statement, his family said Dr. Scruton died after a six-month battle with cancer. He had lived for many years on a farm jokingly known as ‘‘Scrutopia,’’ in the Wiltshire County town of Brinkworth.


The author of more than 50 books, Dr. Scruton wrote about morality, politics, aesthetics, architecture, Kantian philosophy, and the joys of hunting, in addition to penning two operas and several novels. He was the founding editor of the Salisbury Review, a conservative journal, and for 21 years taught philosophy at Birkbeck, part of the University of London. Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash called him ‘‘the kind of provocative, sometimes outrageous Conservative thinker that a truly liberal society should be glad to have challenging it.’’

Indeed, Dr. Scruton’s remarks on sexuality, race, and religion sometimes generated anger in Britain; last year, he was dismissed from his position as a government housing adviser after a pointed interview with the New Statesman magazine in which he discussed China, billionaire George Soros, and ‘‘the sudden invasion’’ of Hungary by ‘‘huge tribes of Muslims from the Middle East.’’


While a Downing Street spokesperson said the comments were ‘‘deeply offensive,’’ Dr. Scruton said he and other conservatives were the victims of a political ‘‘witch-hunt,’’ and he insisted the magazine had misrepresented his remarks about China and a ‘‘Soros empire’’ in Hungary. The New Statesman later apologized, saying it had inaccurately represented some views, and Dr. Scruton was reinstated to his post.

A onetime socialist, Dr. Scruton was raised in a working-class household where his father refused to allow Beatrix Potter children’s books because they ‘‘polluted the image of the countryside with cozy bourgeois sentiment.’’ He traced his conservative views to May 1968, when he was visiting Paris and watched from the Latin Quarter as his friends flipped cars, revolting against capitalism.

‘‘What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans,’’ Dr. Scruton told the Guardian in 2000. ‘‘When I asked my friends what they wanted, what were they trying to achieve, all I got back was this ludicrous Marxist gobbledygook. I was disgusted by it, and thought there must be a way back to the defense of western civilization against these things. . . . I knew I wanted to conserve things rather than pull them down.’’

Dr. Scruton helped organize the Conservative Philosophy Group, which brought together politicians and academics and helped lay the intellectual groundwork for Thatcher’s 1979 rise to prime minister. (She attended some of its gatherings, according to a biography by Charles Moore.

In later years, Dr. Scruton played down claims that he had seriously influenced Thatcher, telling the Guardian she ‘‘was completely indifferent to our kind of conservative philosophy.’’ He said he advocated ‘‘a subdued sense of the importance of history and tradition, of doing things in an orderly way,’’ rather than Thatcher’s paramount emphasis on free-market economics.


Dr. Scruton’s political work alienated many of his colleagues in academia, especially after he attacked left-leaning scholars such as Eric Hobsbawm and Jean-Paul Sartre in his book ‘‘Thinkers of the New Left’’ (1985). Its release marked ‘‘the beginning of the end of my academic career,’’ he later told Britain’s Observer newspaper, although by then he was increasingly engaged in anti-communist efforts in Central Europe.

Working with the Jan Hus Educational Foundation in Czechoslovakia, he helped provide books to dissidents, taught underground seminars on Plato and Aristotle, and supported efforts to produce and disseminate samizdat — including copies of the Salisbury Review. Thrown down a Prague staircase by a member of the secret police in 1979, he later learned Czech and continued visiting the country until being expelled and added to the Index of Undesirable Persons in 1985.

He formed a consulting firm to offer business advice in post-Soviet Central Europe and received the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit from President Vaclav Havel. But the fall of the Iron Curtain proved something of a disappointment, as did much of modern culture.

‘‘The slaves had been liberated, and turned into morons,’’ he wrote in his 2014 novel, ‘‘Notes From Underground,’’ which drew on his experiences in Czechoslovakia. ‘‘Pop music sounded in every bar, filling the corners where, not so long ago, we whispered of Kafka and Rilke, of Mahler and Schoenberg, of Musil and Roth and The World of Yesterday that Stefan Zweig so movingly lamented.’’


Roger Vernon Scruton was born in the eastern English county of Lincolnshire. His father was a teacher and his mother a homemaker.

He studied philosophy and received a bachelor’s degree in 1965, a master’s in 1967 and a doctorate in 1972 from the University of Cambridge.

While teaching at Birkbeck, Dr. Scruton studied law, thinking he might need a backup career amid the increasingly politicized environment at British universities. He was called to the bar in 1978 but remained in academia, acquiring a reputation as a talented instructor, even if his extracurricular forays into politics sometimes rankled.

‘‘Some of the views he expresses in conversation or print are not necessarily views he would hold to the bitter end,’’ Oxford philosophy professor Ralph C.S. Walker told the Guardian. ‘‘They are often put in a provocative form for people to think about.’’

In 1992 he accepted the post of professor of philosophy at Boston University, where he found some students possessed “that residue of European culture which most young people in England no longer have,” according to the Daily Telegraph of London.

In his three-year tenure at BU, he also taught a music philosophy course. “I encountered the fact that the class, although they were graduates, were hearing (basic works of the classical canon) for the first time. They had all been brought up on AC/DC and things like that,’’ he said in 2009. “How on earth do you introduce young people to the art of criticism when that has been their diet?’’


His marriage to Danielle Laffitte ended in divorce, and in 1996 he married Sophie Jeffreys. In addition to his wife, with whom he ran Horsell’s Farm Enterprises — billed as ‘‘Britain’s leading post-modern rural consultancy’’ — survivors include two children, Sam and Lucy Scruton; and two sisters.