Mr. Scruton was 75 when he died Jan. 12, 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 Mr. 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, and was knighted in 2016 by Queen Elizabeth II.
The author of more than 50 books, Mr. 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. Scruton said he and other conservatives were the victims of a political “witch-hunt,” and he insisted that 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 of his views, and Mr. Scruton was reinstated to his post.
A onetime socialist, Mr. 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 and turned streetlights into barricades, revolting against capitalism.
“What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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, meeting there with anti-immigration alarmist Enoch Powell and once exclaiming, “We must defend Christian values with the ATOM BOMB.”)
In later years, Mr. Scruton played down claims that he had seriously influenced Thatcher, telling the Guardian that 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.
Mr. 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 later 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 Buslingthorpe, in the eastern English county of Lincolnshire, on Feb. 27, 1944. He was raised in Marlow and High Wycombe, northwest of London; his father was a teacher and his mother a homemaker.
Mr. Scruton said he was expelled from high school after helping put on a play that resulted in a fire and “a half-naked girl” on the stage; by then, however, he had already won a scholarship to the University of Cambridge. He studied philosophy and received a bachelor’s degree in 1965, a master’s in 1967 and a doctorate in 1972.
While teaching at Birkbeck, Mr. 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 for more than a decade, 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.”
Mr. Scruton also taught at Boston University and lived for several years in the 2000s at Montpelier, a historic plantation house near Sperryville, Va.
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.
Mr. Scruton said he supported his farm in part through work as a consultant for Japan Tobacco International, which manufactures brands including Camel and Salem. That connection led the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal to drop him as a contributor in 2002, after leaked emails revealed that he had offered to help place pro-smoking stories in leading newspapers and magazines in exchange for a raise on his monthly fee.
The controversy was followed last year by the New Statesman episode, which Mr. Scruton described as a trying period in his life, months before he was diagnosed with cancer. “During this year much was taken from me — my reputation, my standing as a public intellectual, my position in the Conservative movement, my peace of mind, my health,” he wrote last month in an essay for the Spectator magazine. “But much more was given back. . . . Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”
Read more Washington Post obituaries