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The need to connect – a response to Roger Scruton

Adam Lent
8 October 2002

You wouldn’t know it from Roger Scruton’s response but my article was a rather distanced account of what conditions allow social movements to grow. It had no particular political point to make. Indeed, if it had been making a political point, it would no doubt have reflected my own rather centrist social democratic and wholly unrevolutionary take on domestic and international politics. Sorry, Professor Scruton, but I am simply not one of those ‘balaclava-ed faces’ you rightly decry.

I also made no mention of 1968 – this was solely Roger Scruton’s assumption. When I wrote in the opening paragraphs about the ‘youthful movement activity that encompassed women’s liberation, gay and lesbian rights, anti-racism, radical social reform and revolution’ that occurred thirty years ago, I was thinking of the long explosion of campaigning that ran from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, and not solely the student protests of 1968. Roger Scruton is right that those first two causes did not exist in a meaningful form in that particular ‘hot summer’ but they certainly did by 1970.

However, Roger does raise a very important point about the extent to which movements are connected to genuine social constituencies and their actual interests. He is right that such links are one of the best ways of judging the particular worth of a movement. My own article was not making such normative judgements but it did point out that, when movements are linked to strong social or institutional networks, they have a much greater chance of growth.

And again he is right when he states that 1968 was primarily a movement of ‘the protesting classes…moved more by ideas than by real and threatened interests’. But it is vital to register the fact that movements do not operate in a vacuum; development and change are intrinsic to their survival. A movement that starts as a self-indulgent rebellion of the intellectuals may well find roots over time.

Indeed, I would argue, this is precisely what happened when the adolescent sloganeering of 1968 gave way to movements that were based on the ‘real and threatened interests’ of ethnic communities, women, and gay men and lesbians. This is not to say that some ludicrous ideological posturing did not linger within these movements for some time, but over the years this has given way to the pragmatic and democratic politics of anti-racism, women’s rights and gay rights.

Global context, new frame

Roger Scruton claims that the movement for global change is simply a repeat of the shallow campaigning of 1968. Once again he is only partly right. As I stated in my article, this new movement has not found its social base – it has yet to truly articulate the ‘real and threatened interests’ of a particular section of society. However, it is wise to be cautious here.

First, there is no guarantee it will not find such a base. Few in 1968 could have predicted that the movement would give rise to campaigning around women’s and gay rights. It would be more than foolish to assume that the movement for global change will not develop in new directions over the next two or three years.

Secondly, when criticising this movement, it is easier to restrict oneself to its expression in the developed world. But a vibrant movement, both revolutionary and reformist, has gathered for global change in the developing world as well. And significant elements in this movement are rooted in the ‘real and threatened interests’ of communities and individuals. Indeed, openDemocracy has devoted some of its attention to these movements and the issues they have raised (see, for example, Marlies Glasius, Global Civil Society Comes of Age).

In this vein, Roger Scruton claims to have witnessed only two movements in his lifetime which were mass protests by ‘ordinary people’ and which did not ‘originate in the grievances of the protesting classes’. These two are the French protests against the nationalisation of Church schools and the recent Countryside Alliance march in London.

It is hard to know what to make of this analysis, for Roger Scruton has here ruled out dozens of other mass protests: civil rights marches in the US and South Africa, the Eastern European uprisings against communist rule, numerous national liberation protests, mobilisations against dictatorships across the world (Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Burma, Madagascar) and environmental mobilisation against dams, mines, and forest clearance in many developing countries. Of course, all of these protests included elements that were driven by ideology or romanticism (elements not entirely absent from the Countryside Alliance march) but their profound links to the ‘real and genuine interests’ of ‘ordinary people’ surely cannot be doubted. Or maybe Roger Scruton’s definition of ‘ordinary people’ only includes the conservative middle classes?

The challenge of principle

At the end of his article, Roger Scruton throws down a challenge to me. He claims it is the ‘test case for people such as Lent’. He asks: ‘will you fight as vehemently for our right to hunt foxes as you are prepared to fight for gay rights? If not, why not?’ Only this question, it seems, will judge whether my politics is shot through with hypocrisy or is genuinely democratic.

Well, people like me are inclined to agree with Roger’s own point that ‘political unity comes through negotiation, compromise and law’. In this spirit, I would argue that any liberal democratic solution to that question needs to weigh the deeply-cherished rights of the hunters against the rights of living creatures not to suffer unduly purely for human pleasure. Thus, I would broadly opt for a compromise on hunting which preserves the right to hunt but limits suffering as much as possible – a compromise for which many in Parliament are now campaigning. So I guess I would support the right to hunt foxes but not ‘vehemently’.

And finally, the obvious question back at Roger Scruton: will you fight as vehemently for gay rights as for the right to hunt foxes? If not, why not?

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