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A Moveable Feast?

Roger Scruton (Hoover Institute via YouTube)

Last week a unique but apposite tribute was paid in Budapest to the late Sir Roger Scruton, the distinguished Tory philosopher who died earlier this year: A café was opened in his name. It goes under the designer label “Scruton—The Place to be” and is situated three blocks from the Hungarian Parliament at 10 Zoltan Street. It’s the first of several such cafes. A second has already opened in the city center, at least technically, and will open its doors in reality when the COVID restrictions are lifted. Several more are planned for Hungarian university towns where their natural clientele is likely to be found (until about three every morning if my own university life is any precedent).

But the first Scruton Cafe has some advantages that probably can’t be replicated indefinitely; Roger’s widow, Sophie, has given it some memorabilia of his life — books, records, an old-fashioned gramophone, his favorite brands of tea, his teapot, etc. — and it’s intended to be a place of intellectual and social conversation as well as of light eating and civilized drinking. Roger’s books will be on sale — he wrote more than 40 on topics ranging all the way from sex and wine to left-wing thinkers. So will opinion journals and magazines — principally conservative ones, of which Central Europe now has a good number such as the European Conservative, which Alvaro Mario Fantini edits from Vienna — with pride of place going to the Salisbury Review that Roger founded and edited for many years and that still flourishes modestly with regular contributors like the coolly formidable wit Theodore Dalrymple. There’s a space in the café for the occasional philosophical debate, poetry reading, or book launch, and its basement doubles as a television and internet studio that hosted its first event this month — see below.

All this is traditional in coffee houses going back to 18th-century London and indeed to Central Europe, especially from about 1860 to 1940. But the special appeal of the very English Sir Roger to Central Europeans is interesting and significant. It rests on three features of the man and his life.

The first one, not to be underestimated in an intellectually snobbish part of the world, is that Roger was a first-class professional philosopher who knew his Kant and Hegel, his Descartes and Pascal, his Burke and Hume, his Sartre and Aron, as well as or better than any Doctor-Doctor. He led an extraordinarily varied and active life — fox-hunting, composing an opera, founding a publishing house, writing a weekly column for the London Times — and both drew and commented upon all these activities in his philosophical work. His life and work added depth to each other in both directions.

Second, Roger was an intellectual Scarlet Pimpernel saving minds rather than lives in the Central Europe of the final decades of communism. He organized Western writers and academics to smuggle books and themselves into Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia, where they delivered private lectures on the latest developments in their specialties, read poetry, exchanged ideas, and formed what were in effect underground universities with both lecture halls and senior common rooms in people’s homes. The atmosphere of those times is well-caught by two plays by Tom Stoppard, who was a friend of Roger’s: his play for television, Professional Foul, which is available on the Internet, and Dogg’s Hamlet and Cahoot’s Macbeth, in which absurdism comes to the rescue of truth when a secret policeman invades a private performance of Shakespeare. Roger’s missions were a serious and risky venture requiring courage and commitment to truth, with no hope of any reward other than doing the right thing. He and his collaborators were tracked, roughed up, threatened, and expelled. But some of their students went directly from jail to ministerial office after the velvet revolutions, and others went on to university chairs, editorial desks, and diplomatic postings (though few, I think, to corporate boardrooms).

Third — and not solely because of his dissident activities 30 years ago — Roger had a large following of conservative students and intellectuals throughout the region. He was a founding influence on the members of the growing Vanenberg Society, which holds an annual international meeting devoted to discussing conservative approaches to a range of philosophical and social questions. His books are widely read by students and by people in public life in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he maintained his commitment to Central Europe, enjoyed its life and intellectual debates, formed friendships with its leading figures, and gradually became an “influence” in its public life whose views were sought and honestly given. Those views were deeply but not narrowly conservative, subtle, discriminating, and (though I hate what the word has become in political debate) “nuanced.” His friendships included both Vaclav Havel and Viktor Orban. But he was never nervous of disagreeing with the Prince, and the Princes he knew seemed to take it very happily. As a 2017 interview he gave to Hungary Today on Orban, Trump, Erdogan, and climate change inter alia illustrates, he could give conservative views on the most controversial topics without losing his own distinctive reasoned and reasonable tone of voice or diluting his convictions.

Last week, the Scruton Place hosted a discussion of Roger’s life and opinion in its basement studio, with Douglas Murray, the English author most recently of The Madness of Crowds who is currently in Budapest as a visiting fellow of the Danube Institute; Ferenc Horcher, a professor of politics at the Civil Service University in Budapest and the leading advocate of Scrutonian conservatism in Hungary; and myself. Leading the discussion was Boris Kalnoky, perhaps Central Europe’s best-informed foreign correspondent, who also heads a journalism school at the Matthias Corvinus Collegium here. There’s a videotape of our proceedings available here, which opens with Sophie Scruton’s kind welcome. It’s a lively discussion of a very significant life. I think it will awaken happy memories in those who were taught by Roger, in class or informally, and I hope it will persuade those who weren’t to make his acquaintance through his books.

Coffee shops with a point of view are a rarity in the English-speaking world, but there’s been a recent minor tradition of them in England. The Left started it in the late 1950s, with the Partisan coffee shop serving the new “frothy coffee” in Soho. It made the leading BBC current-affairs program, Panorama, on which correspondent Christopher Chataway (later a Tory minister) recommended it to Tories looking to enjoy a good argument. (I know, it was a different world then.) In the 1970s and 1980s, Chris Tame of the Radical Libertarian Alliance established and ran the Libertarian Bookstore in Covent Garden. It stocked libertarian and classical-liberal “forgotten classics” as well as the latest books selected to satisfy broad right-wing sympathies; served coffee and cakes (as I recall); and for a decade or more was the place to launch a book or to hold a conference. (I was for some years a regular speaker at its conferences on the invariable theme of “Why Should Libertarians Pay the Slightest Attention to Conservatives?”) Then there was the usual quarrel among the libertarians, and it closed down. At about the same time, a feisty young American woman set up a Libertarian Hamburger Bar in the suburban Tory depths of Kingston-upon-Thames. It was a bold enterprise, even a confrontational one. Its napkins bore the declaration: This is a government tax collecting agency—As a sideline we sell hamburgers. But she too despaired of effecting a revolution in Middle England and departed for the U.S. at the very moment when Mrs. Thatcher arrived to do her bidding. (If she sees this, I hope she’ll contact me through National Review.) And, finally, just when Thatcherism was winding down, Iain Dale, a natural political entrepreneur, planted the Politico Bookstore and Coffee Shop in Westminster to sell conservative books, hold right-wing conferences, and tend the flame of the Iron Lady. He added Biteback publishing to his store, turned them by degrees into a conservative opinion conglomerate, and, having sold some of his enterprises, turned himself into a major broadcaster and newspaper columnist. Open a political coffee-shop and statistics show that the sky’s the limit — in every one out of three cases.

I hope an American political entrepreneur will take Iain’s success as an incentive to plant Scruton Places in New York, Washington, and university towns across America, but especially in towns such as Hillsdale, Mich., and Richmond, Va., that host colleges with sympathetic coffeeholics. Roger and Sophie lived in Virginia for many years, and they have many friends and admirers among American conservatives. (Since we believe in competition, maybe NRI might want to set up a chain of Buckley Coffee places as well. I’ll leave it to Lindsay and Rich to choose the right name.)

Let me suggest one minor amendment to any American borrowing of Scruton Cafes, however. An ideal name for such an American version would be the name that Roger and Sophie gave to their farm in England. I can even propose its advertising slogan:

Scrutopia: For those who like Coffee and Conservatism undiluted.