The Idolatry of Home

Brexit & the View from Somewhere
(Andrey Kuzmin / Alamy Stock Photo)

The Brexit referendum of June 2016 has become a prism through which political passions are endlessly refracted. Analysts and commentators return to it again and again, finding in it some combination of populism, xenophobia, fascism, tribalism, localism, nostalgia, ignorance, and the righteous anger of the dispossessed. It’s taken to be a harbinger of the end of the EU, or the UK, or both; or to provide evidence of a peculiarly English form of anti-Europeanism; or to show, decisively, the dangers of government by plebiscite. In retrospect, it also seems to have anticipated the election of Donald Trump five months later. It certainly upended British politics. Without it, Theresa May wouldn’t be prime minister, nor would Jeremy Corbyn have become so popular. And it was surprising. It did not, in advance of the vote, seem possible to most people—even to those who hoped that the result would be what it was—that a majority would repudiate EU membership. But that’s what happened, if narrowly: 52 percent of those who voted checked the “leave” box, with a turnout of 72 percent. That’s much less than half of the whole electorate, of course, and there were areas of the UK, particularly Scotland, in which the “remain” vote was well over 60 percent. But still, as plebiscites go, it was a narrow but decisive victory: the British people had spoken—not with one voice, certainly, but loudly. What to make of it?

Among the more distinguished contributions to the flood of Brexit analysis is Roger Scruton’s Where We Are: The State of Britain Now (Bloomsbury, $24, 256 pp.). Scruton is an English philosopher now in his seventies who has written intelligently and interestingly on a wide variety of topics, including music, sex, art, political theory, ecology, and fox-hunting. He’s held professorial positions at top-flight English and American universities, and is self-consciously a public intellectual: he writes well, and he writes about topics that many outside the academy care about. Those virtues are evident in this book. In economics and politics he’s broadly conservative in an old-fashioned way (see How to Be a Conservative, 2014), with the likes of Edmund Burke and George Orwell among his household gods. He’s allergic to religion in general and Christianity in particular (more on this below), except when it serves as a guarantor of virtues external to itself, and so is very far from the theocon schools of thought that still have influence in the United States. Neither is he an apologist for unrestrained free-market capitalism, sounding often more like an English Wendell Berry (see England: An Elegy, 2000) than a disciple of Friedrich Hayek. This makes him hard to locate on the American political scene, in spite of his considerable experience in this country and his affiliation with the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Gaining clarity about where and what your home is means also gaining clarity about the scope of the “we” with whom you share it. Home necessarily excludes: not everyone can live there.

Scruton thinks the result of the Brexit referendum is mostly a good thing. In Where We Are he’s concerned to explain why and, perhaps, to provide a voice for those who voted to leave without being able to say exactly why they did. Central to the book is the distinction between oikophilia (home-love) and oikophobia (home-hate). The Greek word oikos, from which Scruton derives these words (they’re not his coinage but he is largely responsible for their use in ecological and political philosophy), can mean “house” or “home”; it’s at the root of the word “economy,” which could be rendered “home-law”—that is, the principles that ought to order your home life. Your oikos is your place in the world, the place where you belong. Oikophiles, or home-lovers, are those who want to keep their home warm, local, cozy—in a word, homely. Oikophobes, home-haters, are those who aspire to a kind of homelessness, who also, typically, hate the place they’re from, and look for an external fulcrum to overturn or transform it. Scruton thinks home-loving a virtue that requires intimacy with those who share your home with you. Gaining clarity about where and what your home is means also gaining clarity about the scope of the “we” with whom you share it. Home necessarily excludes: not everyone can live there. Home must be local and particular, and its inhabitants must share with one another at least a broad understanding of what’s proper to living there. When disagreement about this becomes broad and deep, then what was a home will cease to be one for all who live there.

Scruton’s oikophile/oikophobe distinction is paralleled and buttressed by his distinction between “somewheres” and “anywheres.” Somewheres are people who belong in and to a particular place. They speak and love the local language, know the terrain, savor the cuisine, and so on. Whenever they’re elsewhere, by choice or necessity, they feel themselves in exile and are drawn by the magnetic pull of their oikos. Homer’s Odysseus is their epitome: the man who rejects even Circe’s immortal beauty and life in paradise for Penelope’s bed and the sights, smells, and tastes of home. For somewheres, it matters where you are, and home is where you want to be. It’s not necessarily that you think your home better than anyone else’s, but you do think it better for you.

Anywheres are everything that somewheres aren’t. Their odysseys aren’t aimed at returning home because they want to be at home anywhere and everywhere. They aspire to endless mobility. Where they live is unlikely to be where they were born and likely to be temporary. Signs of anywhere status are number of passports carried, number of countries lived in, number of languages spoken, and number of cuisines, literatures, and musics understood. The life of anywheres is given texture and meaning by placeless skills, activities that can be done precisely anywhere; they prefer to maximize the number and range of places in which they do what they do. Oikophobic anywheres value novelty and rootlessness; oikophilic somewheres value familiarity and roots; each cordially, and sometimes not so cordially, despises the other.

 

Cards on the table: I’m a medium-intensity oikophobic anywhere. I live in a country I wasn’t born in and didn’t grow up in; my anywhere-work has taken me to twenty-eight countries and forty-eight states; and I find it difficult to say where home is. If I had one, I’m sure I wouldn’t like it much. Scruton, it seems, is in the same case, only in a more thoroughgoing way. He confesses as much in this book. But he, unlike me, would prefer things to be otherwise. This book, like much of his work, is an encomium to the somewheres, and there are in it occasional notes of lament that he isn’t more of one himself. He understands the Brexit vote as, at bottom, a rejection by the somewheres in Britain of the remaking of the home they love by the anywheres who have charge of it but care no more for it than they do for any other place. Scruton is on the side of the somewheres.

As I read him, I found Don DeLillo’s maxim (from Underworld), that capital burns off the nuance from culture, coming to mind again and again. Scruton would agree. Oikophobic culture is highly corrosive, and even when it advocates preservation of local particularities (the last unspoiled place in…) it does so, typically, so that anywheres can treat them as a consumer good. There’s something, perhaps, of that in Scruton himself, and it’s as unpleasant in him as it is anywhere.

For Scruton, Britain—or England, at least—has been a home for those who live there and is still a home for some. He wants it to remain one. It’s a “national home,” by which he means “a people settled in a certain territory, who share language, institutions, customs and a sense of history, and who regard themselves as equally committed both to their place of residence and to the legal and political processes that govern it.” England’s membership in the EU, he thinks, has made it less homely for the English in recent decades, largely by smoothing away the particularities of English habits with the rough sandpaper of European legislation and regulation.

Those who voted to leave did so, at least in significant part, because they didn’t like the effects of EU membership on English life, and Scruton’s use of the idea of homelessness as a way to understand this has a good deal of power.

That smoothing has been done in the name of universal principles, formulated abstractly and a priori, and then embodied in legislation or binding regulations. That’s the European way. The English way, by contrast, is inextricable from common law, which emerges over time as a result of innumerable particular decisions. Common law is adaptive, locally variable, and resistant to codification by universal declarations of right or principle. In Scruton’s reading, the common law is at bottom a system of remedies for particular offenses, and it assumes that everything is permissible unless explicitly forbidden. EU regulation and legislation, by contrast, often assumes the reverse: that the state has prevenient control over many aspects of life, and that citizens should seek permission before doing something rather than assume that they can do it until they learn otherwise. According to Scruton, EU membership has altered much in the fabric of English institutions, customs, and culture (weights and measures, licensing, the movement of goods and people, fishing, farming, medical practice, and so on), with no possibility of redress. Whence the Brexit vote. Many in England no longer felt at home in their own country because too much was changing too fast. They also felt they couldn’t reverse the changes by familiar, local means (voice and vote). And so, when offered a chance to feel at home again by drastic political action, they took it.

Much of this diagnosis is right, it seems to me. Those who voted to leave did so, at least in significant part, because they didn’t like the effects of EU membership on English life, and Scruton’s use of the idea of homelessness as a way to understand this has a good deal of power. But that diagnosis is compatible with the thought that the leavers are confused about matters of fact—about which of the changes they don’t like are in fact traceable to EU membership, or about what the likely effects of leaving are. Scruton’s diagnosis is also compatible with the thought that the leavers are morally confused. They don’t see that much about the erstwhile fabric of their homeland is implicated with injustice, racism, and xenophobia. And they don’t see that there are moral as well as practical benefits to the mobility of people and goods and to the changes in the fabric of culture that EU membership encourages.

Debates about these and similar matters will continue without resolution. After May 2019, when the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is final, it will begin to become clear who is right about them. Scruton’s contribution to the debate at this point is valuable chiefly for its lucidity, for the verve with which it defends a particular understanding of England and Englishness, and for the clarity with which he sees that local particulars are important. But these virtues are the flipside of the book’s principal problems.

 

The first problem is that the England he sketches would be unrecognizable to many English people. It’s an updated version of George Orwell’s England in “The Lion and the Unicorn” (1941), in which the pastoral dominates. English people resonate to the rhythms of the countryside even when they don’t live there; they read The Wind in the Willows and listen to The Archers; they can recite Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”; they understand and approve of fox hunting even if they don’t do it themselves; they’re patriots but not nationalists; they’re resistant to ideological passions, whether fascist or communist; they’re religious, but never enthusiastically so, which is why their Christianity is neither Roman nor radically reformed, but instead a kind and gentle supplement to their Englishness; they’re pragmatists who resist top-down legislative and judicial solutions; and, because of all this and because of the accidents of their geography (the island nation) and history (Magna Carta, the Reformation, the accidental empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the heroic place in the two great slaughters of the twentieth century), they are not really Europeans at all.

Scruton’s position implies that no Catholic can be at home in England without abandoning something central to Catholicism.

Scruton’s England isn’t, for the most part, one I recognize. And it isn’t one I identify with even when I do recognize it. I was born there in 1955, and I lived there until I was twenty-four, which means that I was largely educated there. I’ve returned frequently since then, once or twice a year on average, visiting sometimes for periods as long as several months, but I’ve not lived there since 1980. Scruton likes to use the word “we” when offering his generalizations about the English, but this “we” mostly seems one to which I don’t belong and don’t want to. Perhaps that’s because I’ve lived elsewhere for so long, but I don’t think so. I think it’s because the England I knew wasn’t, for the most part, like the one Scruton describes. It was instead a place of decaying and ugly cities; of terrifying violence at soccer matches (Scruton’s comments on this suggest to me that he can never have experienced it: by most accounts, British soccer violence has a scale, scope, and intensity you won’t find anywhere else); of visceral and omnipresent class-based contempt at every level of society; and, above all, of a suffocating parochialism, large parts of which are exactly what Scruton celebrates. I was glad to leave England, and my sojourns there since leaving haven’t been comfortable. I don’t claim that my England is representative. I wouldn’t use the first-person plural for it, as Scruton does. But neither is his England representative, and it’s a deep and significant weakness of the book that he presents it as if it were. His local-pastoral English people may exist, but they’re certainly not all there is.

The second problem is that Scruton is insufficiently attentive to the internal stresses within the UK. He tends to write “Britain” when he should write “England.” The vote to leave the EU can be understood as principally, and perhaps essentially, an English vote and an English concern. Leaving was certainly rejected by large majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland (though not in Wales, which in this way, as in others, is more English). Scruton’s oikophobic anywheres certainly voted to stay in the EU, and for the reasons he gives. But so did deep-dyed oikophile Scots and Northern Irish, partly as a means to protest the submerging of their local cultures and identities into Englishness. If this is the correct analysis—and like everything else about Brexit, it’s disputed—it raises serious questions for Scruton. It suggests, for example, that many Scots do not feel at home in that strange composite entity called “Britain.” What a good number of them seem to want is a smaller, local home (Scotland) that is nonetheless part of a grand transnational (the EU). This aspiration suggests the possibility of separating, analytically at least, the legal and political processes of governance from the need for a home. For Scruton, these are intimate if not identical: the locus for law and politics should also be the home place, he thinks, and EU membership makes that difficult or impossible for the English. But this connection can be weakened. One could find one’s appetites for homely things satisfied by the local air and food and language(s) and habits—the things one hears and sees and touches every day. But one doesn’t need one’s appetites for politics and law to be met as locally as that. For example, I might be happy, as a U.S. citizen since 1994, to be governed in part by a federal legislature, judiciary, and executive responsive to a top-down, rights-based Constitution. For the most part, I am. Scots and Catalonians could coherently think the same way about their place in Europe if they were able to separate from Britain and Spain, respectively. Oikophiles can be transnationalist in politics. Or, to put the same point differently, there’s nothing that requires the nation also to be the home. A combination of deep localism and transnationalism might make it possible to be at once a somewhere and an anywhere, and there is at least some evidence that just such a combination is affecting European politics at the moment.

There is a third and final problem with Scruton’s book. It’s not a matter of overgeneralization, like the first one, or undertheorization, like the second. Rather, it’s a tin-ear problem, and one that’s especially problematic for Catholic readers. For Scruton, Christianity is at its best when it serves a particular nation, and at its worst when it’s aggressively transnational. This means that he dislikes (stronger words would be possible) Catholicism. The English, he writes, rejected the Church of Rome in the sixteenth century and the Treaty of Rome (the EU’s founding document) in the twenty-first. Both rejections, for him, have a kind of historical inevitability: his English could do no other, for their sense of themselves doesn’t permit allegiance beyond the nation’s boundaries, and each of these Romes requires just that. This is a consistent position. It’s a pure Erastianism, transfiguring the church into a slave of the state. It was John Locke’s position, and it has a long and noxious history. But it’s a position unacceptable to Catholics, whose lives are in part governed by transnational law and whose institutional allegiance looks always beyond the bounds of whichever nation they happen to be citizens of while at the same time giving that nation whatever degree of love and loyalty it’s worthy of. Scruton’s position implies that no Catholic can be at home in England without abandoning something central to Catholicism; I suspect that the same is true for Jews and Muslims, though I lack the standing to say so. This implication is enough to make it finally clear to me that I, a Catholic who holds both American and British passports, can have no place at all in the “we” of Scruton’s book title. English Catholics were, I hope, disproportionately among the remainers, because Scruton’s oikophilic leavers aren’t home-lovers but, rather, home-idolaters—and perhaps English Catholics are in a better position to see that than most.

 

Where We Are: The State of Britain Now
Roger Scruton
Bloomsbury, $24, 256 pp.

Published in the August 10, 2018 issue: 

Paul J. Griffiths, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, recently resigned from his position as the Warren Chair of Catholic Theology at Duke University. He is the author of several books, including Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar, and, most recently, The Practice of Catholic Theology: A Modest Proposal. His new book, Christian Flesh, is forthcoming from Stanford University Press in September.

Also by this author
Suburban Paradise Lost

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Collections