Tradition, Culture, and Citizenship

Tradition, Culture, and Citizenship, by Roger Scruton.

The concepts of tradition, culture, and citizenship have this in common — they are summoned to protect our political inheritance against the disintegrative forces to which it is now exposed. They are tenuous, fragile, subject to many interpretations, and bend or break when we place too much weight on them. But they are among the important assets we have, when it comes to opposing the view of society as simply a power struggle between groups, who have no other end than to gain the ascendancy over their rivals. That view of society, as a power struggle, whose aim is domination or the escape from it, has been an intellectual commonplace from Marx to Foucault and beyond. Its falsehood is best displayed by examining the three concepts that form the topic of this article. …


We should distinguish trivial from deep traditions. …

First among those traditions for us in the Anglophone community is the Common Law. This is the legal system in which principles are derived from particular judgments, rather than deduced from some higher principle: the principles of common law are a kind of sedimentation left by the resolution of conflicts. Such law offers a paradigm of practical knowledge: not contained in a single head but implicit in the procedures of the court and the feelings of the people. We enter the courtroom with the sense that the law exists already, and remains to be discovered, and that the judge is simply applying to the case before us the rules that we learned as a child.

Other examples of deep traditions: political procedures and the dignities of office. Traditions act as constraints on behaviour in which social membership is recognized and given its due. ..

There are also deep conflicts of tradition: for example, between common law and shari’ah, which tells us that law comes from above, not from below; between the face-to-face society and the society in which women cannot enter the public space unless behind a veil, so that their private space still surrounds them. These are existential conflicts, and bound in the long run to be dangerous. …


High culture is taught, common culture acquired. By far the most significant part of common culture is the inherited religion; but in the modern world there are communities emerging without that foundation, struggling to define themselves with no reference to the divine. It is an open question whether they can succeed in this.

Popular culture is the sphere of popular entertainment … like Princess Diana.

One difficulty for us is that the three forms of culture have come apart, with high culture looking askance at a degraded popular culture, and also striving with great difficulty to hold the fragments of an inherited common culture in place. Yet a common culture of some sort is needed as a foundation of citizenship. If there is no ‘we’ there can be no cooperative engagement in the business of government, but only a scramble to grab its benefits.

Our common culture has a Judaeo-Christian root; but we are maintaining it in being even though it has been uprooted, like a tree in a tank of nutrients. This has become vividly apparent, now that we are in conflict with another common culture – that of Islam – in which religion remains the firm foundation, but which seems not to be able to generate a reliable form of citizenship. (My Muslim friends dispute this, and I hope they are right.)


The citizen participates in government and does not just submit to it. Although citizens recognize natural law as a moral limit, they accept that they make laws for themselves. They are not just subjects: they appoint the sovereign power and are in a sense parts of that sovereign power, bound to it by a quasi-contract which is also an existential tie. …

The distinctive and demanding nature of citizenship can be understood through the contrast with Islamic society, in which the important laws are laid down by God, or deduced from the hints that he has given. … Islamic law seems never to adapt in time to changing circumstances, since nobody has the authority to cancel it or replace it with a more fitting and man-made substitute …

Citizens are accountable as individuals, not as members of groups, and their rights and duties are benefits and burdens to the individual: this principle is the core of enlightenment individualism, and crucial to many conflicts in the modern world. (Does someone have rights as a woman, a black, a gipsy, a homosexual, etc., or only as one individual among others?) …

The pitfalls of certain types of diversity:

My own view is that there is a philosophical foundation for this vision far older and far deeper than that presented by the Enlightenment. It is based in the ‘I-Thou’ relation that lies at the heart of human communities, and which lifts the self-conscious person out of the state of nature so as to be a light above the turmoil. The Judaeo-Christian idea of neighbour love, as explored in the original statement in Leviticus and expounded in the parable of the Good Samaritan, is an expression of this ‘I-Thou’ relation. But neighbour-love makes sense only if there is also a neighbourhood in which it can be freely and safely exercised. We can base our civil obligations on neighbourhood only if we can share a place, protected by all of us, which establishes the boundaries within which negotiation is to prevail over force.

That point is politically incorrect, and is therefore all but unmentionable in the crises that we are living through. The Terrorist migrant may have no idea of obligations that grow from a place, or of a law that can be valid merely because it was made by the people of that place and is legitimate regardless of what God has commanded. The task of explaining this idea to the new wave of immigrants has not been undertaken, but on the contrary scorned, by our liberal elite.

Read it all.