George Walford: The Value of Tradition

Roger Scruton comes closer to providing a theory of the Right than do most of its supporters. Presenting a society of the Right as: ‘a spontaneous order… rich in institutions and replete with motives other than the lust for gain’ he approves its repudiation of goals, such as liberty, equality and fraternity, which derive a specious clarity from their abstractness. He praises traditions, holding that they arise spontaneously, are capable of being criticised, amended and even discarded, but speak with the authority of long experience. When Burke spoke of tradition, Scruton assures us, he did not have in mind the trivialities so often attacked by the Left – Scottish country dancing, or the investiture of the Prince of Wales. He spoke of

enduring practices and institutions – not churches, schools, universities and parliaments only, but the delicate web of association and collective problem-solving on which they depend. Consider the Common Law of England; or the curriculum, as this has grown from the liberal arts of the middle Ages; or the classical symphony orchestra and the musical language which created it. Continuities like these define the topology of civilization, and minister to our need for permanence.

Yet the society which largely restricted life to these continuities has been superseded, and without doing violence to qualities of urbanity and civilization which Scruton prizes we cannot return to it. Those, now, who value these traditions have the task and the opportunity of realising and maintaining them in a wider and more dynamic context.

ANTHROPOLOGY Today ascribes to Benedict Anderson the observation that ‘All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact are imagined’ and notes that Europe and the nation-state are no exceptions. We add that the images produced vary with the ideology of those doing the imagining, and that those face-to-face villages, when taken as communities, also are imagined. Communities, however small, cannot be seen, they all belong with Europe and the nation-state in the category of mental constructs.

STRAVINSKY maintains that the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations are really buying up surplus symphonies as governments buy up surplus corn, with the difference that they also have to try and buy a need for the symphony. Looking at some of the works granted large subsidies he comments that the composers should have been fined these amounts. The journalist reporting him suggests that the proposal be extended to fiction.

ZOE Redhead, daughter of A. S. Neill, now runs Summerhill. In an interview with Lesley White (following a Channel 4 documentary that elicited the predictable reactions) she explodes the theory that a liberal education of the Summerhill kind produces revolutionaries. A product of the school herself, she gives every sign of being at peace with the world; those of her pupils who move on to sixth-form college commonly complain of interruptions from non-Summerhill classmates while they try to work. Summerhill ex-pupils seem to fit into authoritarian society quite as smoothly as the products of ordinary schools, perhaps more so. The education there allows scope for the free play of youthful energies, but although sometimes leading to rebelliousness these have little connection with the sophisticated intellectuality of the social revolutionary. (Sunday Times 5 April).

from Ideological Commentary 57, August 1992.