There is often a mismatch between a person’s public image and their private behaviour.
It is sometimes forgotten that Sir Roger Scruton, who died yesterday, was a barrister. He was rightly honoured as a bencher of the Inner Temple. He held strong and often unfashionable views on human rights – he believed that they were better protected by the common law than by conventions and statutes – and on the criminal law, where he sometimes advocated more severe punishments.
Yet in private Sir Roger belied this hard-line image. He made friends easily and without regard to political persuasion, colour, religion or sexuality. Nor could you have met a more decent, forgiving and – although he would absolutely detest the word being used of him – liberal man. A conservative, of course, should be pessimistic about human behaviour, indeed it is often pessimism that leads to a belief in conservatism. Roger even wrote a passionate defence of pessimism.
But where it came to individuals, even individual criminals, he could be optimistic to the point that the President of The Howard League for Penal Reform might consider absurdly naive.
In the 1980s he lived in a spacious Notting Hill flat with a rather gloomy basement kitchen. Late one evening he returned alone with his shopping. He put down his bags in the narrow entrance hall, only to dimly apprehend a burglar preparing to ransack his flat.
“Stay where you are!” he shouted, optimistically, “I’m going to call the police.”
He turned to leave the flat, but had forgotten the shopping bags over which he now stumbled and fell. The burglar, sensing his opportunity, had decided to make for the door as well, but found his route blocked by a confusion of broken shopping bags and the sprawling philosopher. Instead of trying to clamber over, he helped Roger to his feet and asked if he was hurt, which fortunately he was not. Roger suggested that they discuss the situation over a bottle of wine, an invitation which the burglar was happy to accept.
He had a sad story to tell. He was not a burglar by choice, he had drifted into the profession as a result of a series of undeserved misfortunes, which were related in great detail. He was down on his luck and living in a nearby hostel.
Roger was touched. He forgot any thought of calling the police, and after some convivial glasses of what would have been fine wine – readers will know that he was a famous oenophile – he sent the burglar out into the night, wishing him well and promising to help him.
The following morning he telephoned the hostel.
They had never heard of him. Roger had believed the burglar, and the reason he had done so is that he was generous, good-natured and optimistic about the burglar’s good nature and capacity for rehabilitation, and he wanted to help him, as he wanted to help so many others who crossed his path.
Another rather more recent incident illustrates a similar capacity for forgiveness as well as his physical courage. Early one cold winter morning he was standing by the side of a narrow country road near his Wiltshire farm. Suddenly a car came round the corner at high speed, skidded on black ice and shot across the road towards him. He remained perfectly still, as the car spun past him before landing in the ditch beyond. The driver got out and came over to apologise, well aware that he had come within feet of hitting him. Most people would have been on the phone to the police immediately, and with good reason. Not Roger. He had narrowly escaped death but was politeness itself, and appeared to hold no resentment towards the driver, merely making the laconic observation that black ice often caught people out on that particular corner.
Dear Roger, you will be terribly mourned by your beloved wife and children, and by your many friends. You will be missed by the world as a philosopher, teacher, lecturer, writer, polemicist and musician. Your courage in confronting and undermining the Communists of Eastern Europe will never be forgotten. But it is not just for those public achievements that you deserve to be remembered, but also for your extraordinary human decency and generosity of spirit. You showed kindness to everyone you met, even to those who did not deserve it. You were traduced in public yet without bitterness in private. You were, in every sense a great man.