You see young people going around in Scruton T-shirts (Andy Hall/Getty Images)

April 14, 2023   6 mins

A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Sir Roger Scruton. Three years after his death, the professor’s philosophical ghost is still present, and is reaching echelons of influence that eluded him in his lifetime. For the first time, self-proclaimed Scruton acolytes have climbed to the top of European political parties — and governments — in Italy and in Sweden.

For while Scruton’s attachment to conservatism was deep, his philosophy was usually couched in terms few leaders of the political Right would use. It involved, he wrote in the introduction to A Political Philosophy, “the conservation of our shared resources — social, material, economic and spiritual — and resistance to social entropy in all its forms”. His conservatism was, above all, conservationist: constant care for institutions, customs, and family.

These beliefs necessitated a healthy distance from the most politically successful British-Conservative movement of his lifetime, Thatcherism, whose figurehead failed to conserve a great deal. Scruton welcomed her confrontation with relatively recent excrescences on the British body politic: overweening unions, a culture of decline-management, scorn for patriotism. And he initially hailed Thatcher’s coming as “a miracle”, celebrating her as “the greatest woman in British politics since Elizabeth I”. But his support never entailed full alignment, and he was wary of her free-market absolutism and her lack of interest in less tangible ideals, such as beauty.

Thatcherite conservatism, much less that of Scruton’s stamp, has been historically rare in the European continent, often dismissively referred to as “Anglo-Saxon”. And this was particularly true in Sweden and Italy. The Swedish Social Democrats governed for most of the post-war period, and their model of well-funded social protection and generous international development aid was largely accepted by the centre-Right. Italy was led into the Eighties by Christian Democrat coalitions, politically centrist in nature. And when their standing declined in the early Nineties, weakened by corruption allegations, they were succeeded by Forza Italia, a new party created and financed by the media oligarch Silvio Berlusconi, who promised business-like efficiency with little ideological change. But, in the form of Giorgia Meloni and the Sweden Democrats, both countries now have avowed Scrutonians at the heart of their governments.

Though dedicated to the English conservative tradition, Scruton had intervened in European politics within his lifetime. In 2006, he gave a speech at the invitation of the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest) party, a strongly anti-immigrant, Flemish nationalist and Eurosceptic group which at the time was Belgium’s largest party. He told the audience what they already believed — that immigration and the European Union would destroy Flanders — and tested out a neologism of his own, “oikophobia” (derived Greek for home) meaning a rejection both of the family, and one’s native culture. The oikophobe, he said, “repudiates national loyalties and defines his goals and ideals against the nation, promoting transnational institutions over national governments… defining his political vision in terms of cosmopolitan values that have been purified of all reference to the particular attachments of a real historical community”.

Though it gained little traction in 2006, this is the Scruton that Meloni and Matthias Karlsson, the leading intellectual of the Sweden Democrats, have adopted. In her autobiography, I am Giorgia, Meloni describes Scruton as the greatest influence on her party, indeed the most important guide to all European liberal-conservative forces. Citing him in several passages, she admits: “I’m quoting him too often, but it’s his own fault for writing so many interesting things.” From Scruton’s 2014 book, How to be a Conservative, the Italian prime minister highlights Scruton’s debt to Edmund Burke: society is a contract between the living, the dead and the unborn; a “civil association among neighbours” is superior to state intervention; “the most important thing a human being can do is to settle down, make a home and pass it on to one’s children”.

In this context, she engages with another Scruton coinage, “oikophilia”, love for, rather than revulsion from, the home. She admires, too, his formative perception that it is easier to destroy than to create — an insight he gained when he observed the 1968 protests from a hotel window in Paris. And she warmly endorses Scruton’s view that the EU is “a false union… utopian and potentially tyrannous… a community of nations today threatened by the suffocating grip of… a ‘Europeanist’ ideal which has come to be offered as the only possible choice”.

Meanwhile, Sweden, still touted as a social-democratic ideal, has been plagued over the last decade by a hefty rise in murders, itself driven by the drugs-trafficking and gang-feuding disproportionately practised by immigrant groups. The encouragement of mass immigration by both centre-Right and social democratic governments, followed by years denying the extent of the issue and the fear it engendered, gave the Sweden Democrats their breakthrough. Their leader from 2005, Jimmie Åkesson, is widely credited, alongside Karlsson, with transforming the party’s fortunes and purging its historic neo-Nazi presence. They have worked hard at establishing themselves as unthreatening and prescient, persistently calling out the pressures of mass immigration and drug gang violence which other parties ignored. And for much of the Swedish electorate, this sanitisation appears to have succeeded: at the September election, the Democrats gained enough support to form part of the government parliamentary coalition.

When I interviewed Karlsson in Stockholm earlier last month, he had no need, as Meloni has found in government, to soften his anti-European views. “We want to deeply reform the EU: we were against the Lisbon Treaty altogether… We want to have a union of sovereign states. We want to remove as much power as possible from the (EU) superstate.” He anticipates an impending fight on European law’s precedence over national law, and draws directly from the many objections to European law adumbrated in Scruton’s essay, “Newspeak and Eurospeak”.

Scruton writes that “the British react far more unfavourably than other Europeans to the great Euro-plan. They sense its encroachment, not merely on their legislative sovereignty, but on the very language with which law and politics are conducted.” And Karlsson says he mourns the loss of this perspective, and the UK itself, from European politics. “We lost our closest ally in my political family, in the shape of the Tory Party, and in general, with the UK leaving the European Union.” He adds, with obvious warmth: “Scruton has been my inspiration! I met him several times. He was a great influence on me when I was writing the party programme. We see very clearly the value of civil society, as he does. This has a very strong existence in my party. You see young people going around in Sir Roger Scruton T-shirts.”

Though his country has long been suffused with a social-democratic culture and morality, Karlsson believes that Swedish “conservatism is coming back. That’s partly what we are seeing with this new government. On cultural issues our approach is very close to what Sir Roger was thinking about.” And he argues that his party’s support is not only founded upon opposition to mass immigration, but a broader turn against the progressive cultural, sexual and anti-nationalist tendency which has permeated all European social democracies. “In the past,” he says “before the Sixties, even the Social Democrats were somewhat conservative. That was one of the keys to their success. They were able to build on a basis of social conservatism while also talking about social reform. They had the idea of the peoples’ home — Folkhem — and that we should be in solidarity with each other because we belong to each other.

“We got the worst of both worlds,” he explains. “We got radical progressive ideas on culture and civilisation and individualism, and on top of that, a big state. Many people didn’t understand why we had a society; we had nothing in common, just individuals. Very radical ideas competing against each other and nothing there to moderate it. If we look at the development of Swedish society it’s clear to me that what has been lacking is conservatism. Someone standing up and saying: ‘Wait! You sure you want to throw this away?’”

Yet for all Karlsson and Meloni’s attraction to the late philosopher, it will be hard to transform enthusiasm into political praxis. Philosophical conservatism has been a thick vein in British (Scruton might have said English) politics since at least Edmund Burke. To transplant Scrutonism to Italy or Sweden and give it political substance would require overcoming cultural as well as political and ideological heritages, including a backdrop of Catholicism. Meloni is winning establishment and popular plaudits for avoiding, so far, any challenge to the EU — a concession from someone who since adolescence had seen the Union as a threat to national independence. But this posture is necessary if Italy is to continue to receive the massive financial support which Brussels provides, terrified that the third-largest European economy may keel over. She can afford to relish Scruton as an iconoclast, not treat him as a model.

Sweden, which is not in the Euro and doesn’t have a long history of Euroscepticism, retains a large liberal leaning, from Left to Right. Mass immigration and violent crime have weakened it, but not enough to dispense with a socio-political hegemony which has given the state much of its global resonance. And Karlsson recognises that the Sweden Democrats’ base is largely working and lower-middle class, with half of their parliamentary representatives also from working-class backgrounds. They cannot afford to propose sudden transformations of Sweden’s civil society, such as a dramatic contraction of its large and generous public sector.

He cites a passage of Scruton’s: “Solon, when asked what is the best kind of government, replied: ‘for whom and at what time?’” (Solon was a pre-Socratic philosopher, who crafted many of Athenian’s democratic laws.) “Conservatism necessarily takes very different forms, depending on country and traditions,” Karlsson says. “I talked to [Scruton] about that as well. As Scandinavians we have a different experience from the Anglo-Saxon states.”

Nevertheless, Meloni is always scrupulous to describe her party, and government, as conservative. Karlsson has created a think tank, founded in 2021, named “Oikos”, in personal homage to Scruton. Both, it seems, need a political anchor beyond historical fascism, in countries where any but the mildest form of the centre-Right has been seen as a vehicle for resurrecting it. Both also believe that a popular wind may now be at their backs, one which bears the anger and frustration of citizens condemned to watch their living standards fall, their communities splinter, and their social values dissolve.

This is the social entropy which Scruton saw as conservatism’s task to defy, and it might — who knows? — make a welcome change, turning the New Right Swedes’ and Italians’ one-time success into a winning formula in the longer term. Achieving it, for raw and sometimes extreme politicians accustomed to protest and scorn, will be the hard part.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and is writing a book on the rise of the New Right in Europe.