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Appointment of Sir Roger Scruton

Volume 649: debated on Monday 12 November 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government if he will make a statement on the appointment of Sir Roger Scruton as the chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.

On 3 November I announced that I would convene a Building Better, Building Beautiful commission. The aim of the commission will be to champion beauty in the built environment, as an integral part of the drive to build the homes that our communities need.

Building more homes to address the housing shortage is one of the central challenges that we face as a country. As sources such as the British Social Attitudes Survey show us, most people now accept the need for new homes, but we must ensure that we are building homes in the right places, and homes of high quality, in order to gain the support of local people.

Part of making the housing market work for everyone is ensuring that what we build is built to last, and that it respects the integrity of our existing towns, villages and cities. That will become increasingly important as we look to create new settlements across the country, and invest in the infrastructure and technology needed to ensure that they are thriving and successful places. The commission will make practical recommendations for the Government to consider, to help to ensure that new developments meet the needs and expectations of communities, making them more likely to welcome rather than resist new development.

In the selection of commissioners, my priority is to assemble experts who can provide real expertise and challenge on design quality, and a commitment to building places that communities value and support. Professor Sir Roger Scruton is a global authority on aesthetics, and was knighted for services to philosophy, teaching and public education in 2016. He is one of the country’s leading living philosophers. His commitment to promoting beauty in the built environment is well known, and he has published extensively on the subject. He was an adviser on design to the coalition Government.

As this was an advisory appointment, due diligence checks were carried out and considered prior to Sir Roger Scruton’s selection as unpaid chair. With his experience and commitment to this important agenda, Sir Roger is the right person to chair the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission.

Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker.

Across the country and in the House, there have been considerable concerns about the appointment of Sir Roger Scruton, especially as his views have become more widely known. Can the Secretary of State confirm that, as part of the appointment process, he was made aware of Sir Roger’s previously expressed views? If he was, what consideration did he give to those views in relation to Sir Roger’s suitability for such an important post? If he was not, is he not just a bit embarrassed that due process was not followed?

Order. Mr Bacon, you are normally a most civilised and urbane fellow. I cannot imagine what has got into you. I know that you know all about building and houses, and that you can dilate on those matters with great eloquence and at any length specified. We will hear from you ere long—

Of course it is excellent—excellent for you and, no doubt, excellent for the House, excellent for Norfolk and excellent for the nation—but in the meantime, you should exercise just a degree of patience, and entertain the possibility that someone might express a view, legitimately, that differs from your own.

Will the Secretary of State tell us whether the Nolan principles apply to this post? Does he consider the views that Sir Roger has expressed to be appropriate for the post of chair of the commission? The primary focus of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission is to seek to address

“how new settlements can be developed with greater community consent”.

We support that aim, which is why we have launched our own planning commission, but communities are more than just bricks and mortar and planning processes. They are about people—people from diverse backgrounds —and good planning should foster good community cohesion.

When was the Secretary of State made aware of Sir Roger’s comment that homosexuality is “not normal”, and his comparison of homosexuality to incest? When was he aware that Sir Roger had complained that gay men have an obsession with the young? Will he now apologise to the LGBTQ+ community for appointing a man who holds those views?

When was the Secretary of State made aware of Sir Roger’s links to far-right organisations, and his propagation of their antisemitic conspiracy theories? Was he aware that his new chair spoke out against the disbanding of Vlaams Blok by Belgian courts after it was found to have incited racial discrimination, dismissing it as a conspiracy by the “liberal establishment”? Is that acceptable, in the Secretary of State’s view?

When was the Secretary of State made aware that Sir Roger heaped praise on Hungary’s Viktor Orbán at the height of his truly hateful, state-orchestrated, antisemitic campaign against George Soros, and that he stated in a lecture in Hungary that Jewish intelligentsia

“form part of the…Soros empire”?

We also know from reports in the Huffington Post today that Sir Roger Scruton spoke favourably of the National Front, calling it an “egalitarian” movement. Is this acceptable in the Secretary of State’s eyes?

Given this, is the Secretary of State still prepared to speak alongside Sir Roger at an event on Wednesday? If we are going to have a society that welcomes free speech, we should also hold those people to account for what they use this privilege to say. We should consider the views of the people who are left silent by the propagation of hateful rhetoric and views that should have no place in the 21st century, let alone be rewarded by a senior Government appointment.

I want the Secretary of State to confirm to this House that he has confidence in Sir Roger and the views that he holds, so that we can go forwards knowing that this Secretary of State thinks that these views are acceptable for the chair of this commission.

I have to say that it saddens me that someone who has done so much to champion freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of thought should be subject to the kind of misinformed, ill-judged and very personal attacks that we have seen over the last few days, some of which, sadly, the hon. Gentleman has just repeated. It is all because Sir Roger has agreed to chair a commission to advise the Government on beauty in the built environment—something that he is eminently qualified to do and that he has done in the past.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of points. I would say to him that Sir Roger Scruton is a leading expert on aesthetics, who was asked to take on an unpaid role as chair of a commission looking into beauty in the built environment. He is one of the most qualified people in this particular field, so I am pleased that he has accepted that role. As a public intellectual of renown and author of over 50 books, as well as countless articles and public lectures, Sir Roger is engaged in a variety of topics, often expressing—yes—strong and controversial views.

I am not going to repeat the word that the hon. Gentleman used and read it into the record, but I think he should consider his terms. As Sir Roger has made very clear, he has been offended and hurt by suggestions that he is in any way antisemitic or Islamophobic. Most of what has been reported is highly selective, taken completely out of context and distorted to paint an inaccurate picture. I do not have to agree with Sir Roger to acknowledge this, nor do I have to agree with his views on a number of different issues. However, we live in a free society where people can hold different opinions. I am proud that we do still live in a society where that remains possible.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect further on some of the points he made. He made some points regarding Prime Minister Orbán’s regime. If, in fact, he read the speech that was given, he would see that Roger Scruton actually took a very firm line against antisemitism—quite the opposite of the situation that has been presented by the hon. Gentleman today. I continue to believe that Sir Roger is the right person to lead this important work.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s point about the need to take this work forward, but I hope that he will recognise the huge contribution that Sir Roger Scruton has made to public debate in so many different ways. This is about freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and although we do not necessarily agree with all that Sir Roger has to say, he is uniquely qualified to provide support to our work on the built environment and aesthetics. We should support him and get on with that job.

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker. It is a great fact that we live in a free country and speak in a free Parliament where we can say what we want, and it is only for that reason that I defend the right of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) to issue forth the crass and oafish comments that he did, which would be refuted quite easily by reading the books and articles of Sir Roger Scruton.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on appointing Sir Roger Scruton. Does he agree that Sir Roger is eminently qualified to do this, and that it is about time we had somebody speaking up at the top for people who want to take notice of beauty in this country?

I profoundly do. The point is that, if we are to gain that consent and the support of the public on ensuring that we have communities that are built to last and that reflect a sense of community at their heart, it is right that we challenge and have this debate. I think that Sir Roger Scruton is uniquely placed to support that.

Mr Speaker, you will not be surprised to hear that I disagree profoundly with many of the views of Sir Roger Scruton, which seem to be designed to bring the bigotry of the 19th century into the 21st. The Secretary of State implied that Sir Roger Scruton has been consistently taken out of context. Does he think that for a professional and public intellectual, as he describes him, to be so generally misrepresented shows a lack of professionalism and expertise, or does he think that offering Sir Roger Scruton a platform on the built environment of the communities of our country is in some way not connected with his views on race, multiculturalism, homophobia, sexual orientation and Islamophobia?

We have the right to speak our minds in this House, as the hon. Lady has done, and my respect for the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, even if I may disagree with his views, ensures that this place is the place that it is. We live in a world where people communicate in 140 characters. We are talking about someone who delivers long lectures and has written extensively in many different books and some controversial articles. It is important to see that context. Sir Roger has accepted in the past that he has got it wrong—for example, he acknowledged in 2010 that he had changed his position on homophobia and was wrong. It is part of that public debate that leading intellectuals are entitled to explore ideas and change their minds where necessary.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his inspired decision to make beauty an important part of the planning process and his equally inspired decision to appoint Sir Roger Scruton? Sir Roger is a very brave defender of free speech who used to go behind the iron curtain when some people on the other side of this House might have been rather more sympathetic and fellow traveller-ish than they might like now to admit. Any philosopher must be able to discuss issues and is bound to say things in his works that are controversial, because otherwise, discussion and debate cannot be advanced. That is an inevitable consequence of appointing a philosopher.

My hon. Friend makes a point in relation to freedom of expression and freedom of speech. I point him to an interesting lecture that Sir Roger supported by the Syrian architect and author Marwa al-Sabouni. In the midst of the bombardment of Homs, Marwa emailed Sir Roger about his book on aesthetics and how architectural issues were as relevant there, and she has maintained that contact. That freedom of speech and openness is so important.

I studied art, and I totally agree that beauty and aesthetics are important, but building homes for our diverse communities is not just about beauty; it is about the right homes for them. If these controversial remarks have been made, the Government should think twice. They seem to be making a habit of appointing people who are not appropriate for Government advisory roles. Does the Secretary of State agree that the vetting process should be more transparent, to guarantee public faith in such public advisory roles?

All I would say to the hon. Lady—I appreciate that she might not have been in the House at the time—is that Sir Roger previously served as an adviser to the coalition Government on issues of design, with both Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers. He has served before, and I think it is appropriate for him to provide that support again.

Is not the only truly illiberal thing to use student union smear tactics to deliberately attack a distinguished philosopher who has written hundreds of thousands of words and do what the Opposition spokesman has done today, which is to take one sentence and then claim that the philosopher is antisemitic? We should read the rest of the sentence, in which this philosopher says:

“People in these networks include many who are rightly suspicious of nationalism, regard nationalism as the major cause of the tragedy of Central Europe”.

Here is a man who has defended George Soros. Why are the Opposition stooping so low as to do this? Why can they not defend freedom of speech?

I certainly cannot answer for the Opposition in relation to this. All I would say is that Sir Roger is a distinguished philosopher. He is a distinguished author on aesthetics—I think uniquely qualified to support our work in designing better, more beautiful communities. Therefore, I look forward to working with him and getting on with that important work.

This is not about freedom of speech; it is about whether someone is suitable to be appointed to public office who holds extreme views. There is a difference between dealing with controversial issues and expressing specific views on issues such as Islamophobia, antisemitism and racism in general, and links with right-wing organisations. Did the Secretary of State satisfy himself that those views had never been expressed—those links did not exist—before he made this appointment?

Again, I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has taken the view that he has. I remind him that Sir Roger was obviously knighted, back in 2016, for his eminent work and his eminent service. Indeed, he served the coalition Government before, and I believe that he remains the right person to lead the work of this commission. It saddens me that his views have been so misrepresented and that his character has been smeared.

Anyone who has taken the trouble to study any of the 70-odd books on the subject which Sir Roger has written, or read his extensive lectures and articles, will know that, quite contrary to how he is being painted by the Opposition, he is one of the most compassionate and even-handed men that I have ever met. He is my constituent and a good friend, and I know his works extraordinarily well. He is nothing like an antisemite, nor an Islamophobe . Nothing could be further from the truth, and it is an outrage to describe him as such.

Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State not agree that someone who has written so well on the aesthetics of architecture—that is one book, and the classical vernacular another—is the most ideal person there could possibly be for this appointment? Rather than traducing him, which is what Opposition Members are doing for their own purposes, we should be congratulating my right hon. Friend on making an outstandingly good appointment.

I do, and Sir Roger has been an important champion of this work. I believe he is the right person to chair this commission to enable us, yes, to have the debate that we want to have on this important issue and to see that we build the homes and the communities that our country needs.

The Opposition never raised a peep when Sir Roger Scruton was appointed as an adviser, nor indeed when he got his knighthood, but they learned from the bully-boy smear tactics that ousted my good friend Toby Young that this kind of smear campaign works. How much more impressive it would be if the Opposition shared my concern about Sir Roger Scruton’s appointment, which is that I do not want him to lead a commission that simply advocates for neo-Georgian pastiche as a definition of beauty. I hope that the commission will include contemporary architects, women and people with BAME backgrounds as well. As far as Sir Roger’s character is concerned, and his views, it is impeccable; he just has a slightly dodgy neo-Georgian pastiche thing going on.

I note my right hon. Friend’s personal thoughts on aesthetics. I certainly will be looking carefully at further appointments to the commission, because it is important that we have a good reflection of views there so that we are challenging, thinking and making the case for building beautiful places that are designed to last and to reflect a sense of community and identity with the places in which we live and of which we should be proud.

The Clerk at the Table advises me that I am under no obligation to say anything about Sir Roger, because of course one meets all sorts of people in the course of one’s work and one’s life, but in the light of what the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) have just said, I simply inform the House that I have of course met Roger Scruton many times over the years. I express no view about the appointment—that is not for me to do—but I did read his book “The Meaning of Conservatism” in 1982 and I have read many of his articles over the years, and I simply took the view that this issue should be aired in the Chamber. That is what is happening, and Members are very properly expressing their views on the subject.

Does the Secretary of State agree that Sir Roger Scruton is respected throughout the world, not necessarily because of all his opinions but because he is a profound and distinguished thinker? Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations on the fact that the Government are not allowing themselves to be bullied by the thought police rent-a-mob, and that they are going to stand by this decision?

I appreciate the support that my hon. Friend is giving to the work of the commission. I believe that our focus should firmly remain on how we build communities for the future, how we build a sense of community at their heart, how our built environment is key to all that and how Sir Roger has been a champion of freedom and liberalism, which is something that we should not forget.

I am sure that the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) was here earlier, and that I just failed to notice his presence.

I am extremely grateful, Mr Speaker. As has already been said, Sir Roger Scruton is an extremely distinguished academic with a long pedigree in these subjects. He has made the case—in direct contrast to that made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey)—for a gentle, generous and harmonious built environment, and it does the Secretary of State great credit that he has appointed Sir Roger as chair of this commission. As you have implied, Mr Speaker—although not said, because you would never breach the proper terms of your office—Roger Scruton will bring a lively, imaginative, well-researched report that will inform all of our thinking, and my goodness we need that after years of dull, egalitarian modernism.

I will not comment on my right hon. Friend’s last point, because I want the commission itself to come to some of those conclusions, but I know that he is a passionate advocate of this debate and that he has shown himself to be so on previous occasions. His comments on the contribution that Sir Roger will make are well made, as his comments always are.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Sir Roger Scruton has shown true courage and humanity through some of his journeys, particularly to the east, and that his writings and speeches are actually pretty good—

I have to say that my hon. Friend is absolutely right: they are better than mine. But I will finish my question. Does the Secretary of State agree that Sir Roger Scruton continues to have massive respect for all sectors of our society?

Sir Roger is a leading philosopher, and his extensive work clearly provokes responses and debate, as it is intended to do. However, my focus is on the core skills that he brings to his work on beauty in the built environment, which is why he is so well placed to do this work.

I am sure that, like me, the Secretary of State noted the contrast between the claims of widespread outrage from the shadow Secretary of State and the fact of the virtually deserted Labour Benches behind him when he made those claims. Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of those accusations are easily refuted by actually reading what Sir Roger Scruton has written and said, rather than by selectively quoting him?

I agree with what my hon. Friend has said. Many of the allegations, claims and smears have been highly selective and taken out of context. I would certainly encourage people to read all the articles that they have sought to point at, and they will see that their claims are misjudged.

If the qualification for such an appointment is that someone should not have said anything offensive or controversial to anyone during their life, how many Members of the House—with the exception of course of you, Mr Speaker—does my right hon. Friend think would qualify?

The short answer is probably very few, which is the point my hon. Friend is making. We need people who are prepared to come forward to advise Government and provide support. It is important that we continue to attract skilled, talented people to do that, and the Government will continue to champion freedom of expression and speech.

I congratulate the Government on attracting a world-leading expert in architectural aesthetics to this position, and I thank Sir Roger for accepting unpaid public service. Will the Secretary of State join me in deploring the Opposition’s tactics which seem to be based on soundbite misquotations generated on social media?

As I said in my initial response, this has been misjudged. Professor Sir Roger Scruton is one of the most qualified people in this field to do this job, and that is why I am so grateful that he has said yes. I look forward to working with him.