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Artillery Row

Our ideology in the North

Is there such a thing as social neoconservatism?

The General Election in December produced something unthinkable for the last generation: a sizeable Conservative majority based on gains across the Midlands, Wales and North of England. This has led, in turn, to a burst of interest in what distinguishes the voters of this new Conservative coalition. After three years in which the struggle over Brexit felt steadily more like a culture war than a technical dispute about international relations, various voices on Right and Left have settled on ‘social conservatism’ as the thing uniting voters who rejected both Remain and Corbyn.

But there is less agreement about what this ‘social conservatism’ means. The voters of Blyth and Bolton may not be overwhelmingly ‘woke’, but neither are they unusually fond of women staying at home, children being born in wedlock, or any of the other 1950s stereotypes often connected to social conservatism.

Some have suggested ‘cultural conservatism’ would better describe what divides these voters from the Social Left: a reflexive patriotism, and lack of interest in the advancing boundaries of social progressivism. Small activist groups in both main parties, and elsewhere online, have further labels for this politics, whether Post-Liberalism, Red Toryism or Blue Labour. But each describes broadly similar ground: a discontent with the prevailing presumption of economic and social individualism that drives our politics. 

Whatever this means exactly, one thing that’s very clear is the Progressive Left, whether Corbynite or Centrist Liberal, do not like it. For example, shortly after the election, the small Blue Labour group posted an innocuous welcome to some hundreds of new twitter followers, presumably those seeking different ideas after Labour’s crushing defeat. What followed was a tsunami of screeching vitriol from progressive accounts large and small that left ‘Blue Labour’ trending nationwide. 

Amid thousands of angry tweets one could pick out accusations of not only racism, misogyny, and homophobia, but also, impressively, domestic violence, theocracy, transphobia, and fascism. Needless to say, not a single response quoted even a sniff of evidence for any of this veritable encyclopaedia of crimes against Progressivism.   

Neither was this an isolated incident. Everyone expects the Progressive Inquisition, in response to any public deviation from the latest Woke line. On the other hand, the sheer hysteria suggests, post-Brexit, progressives are not as confident as they pretend. A man with the evidence on his side can afford to lay it out in a calm manner, a person throwing every accusation imaginable may be protesting a bit too much.

What the angry protestations share is the assumption that any reference to social or cultural conservatism can only be a cover for the worst features of the 1950s-70s: open racism, illegal abortion, institutional homophobia, sexual harassment tolerated, single mothers stigmatised, etc, etc.

Modern social conservatism does not mean picking some idealised date in the past and shifting society wholesale back

But is this a necessary or even reasonable connection in 2020? Fifty years ago social conservatives may have defended any or all of these things. But basic political distinctions – right and left, conservative and liberal – are relative, not set in stone forever. What counts as economically Right or Left has changed over the decades, and what policies count as socially progressive today certainly aren’t the same as in 1970, so why not social conservatism?

But if social neo-conservatism doesn’t mean the worst cheese-induced nightmares of progressives then what does it mean? Firstly, it can be defined negatively, as disagreement with at least some of the most recent doctrines of social woke-ness, whose advancing nature means someone happily identified as a social liberal in past years can find themselves suddenly left behind by ‘progress’ today.

Do you believe that the definition of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ includes human biology? Do you think there should be any legal restrictions on late-term abortion? Or that children have better life-chances when raised by both their biological parents? Do you think that Britain is a great country with much to be proud of? That policy should promote local community and commitment? Or that people shouldn’t need to move hundreds of miles to get a decent job? 

If the answer is yes to some of those questions then congratulations, you may be a social conservative, or at least socially conservative enough to get excommunicated by the progressive left.

No political movement should only be defined negatively though. So, what positive idea should social neo-conservatism be promoting in 2020? My suggestion is this – stability, commitment and pride in communities, families and our country, and being willing to shape policy and incentives to encourage these things.

Married couples are more likely to stay together than those who cohabit, even with children. These are facts

The social individualism underlying progressive assumptions recognises only two legitimate poles, the independent individual, and the progressive State that is meant to ensure the individual faces minimal constraints on getting what they want. But in reality, a large part of what dictates our chances and quality of life is the bonds of family and community around us.

This is not a matter of prejudice, indeed these days the evidence is vast and easily available, it is just ignored by polite opinion in Britain, even among most political conservatives, despite constant evocations of ‘evidence led policy-making’. Indeed, it is the progressives who simply will not look at certain evidence, or consider that a largely beneficial liberal revolution may have negative side effects that need addressing. 

To give one important example, data shows that children who grow up with both their biological parents achieve higher grades in school, are less likely to get expelled, become drug addicts, or involved in crime, and are less likely to be abused at home. And married couples are more likely to stay together than those who cohabit, even with children. These are facts, solidly supported by data, and they should be front and centre of our debates about social justice and mobility, but they are invisible in Britain because they fit uneasily with progressive doctrine. 

There is no reason Social Neo-Conservatism should mean stigmatising single mothers, banning divorce, or otherwise throwing out the positive elements of social liberalism, but it should, in this case, mean regarding marriage and family stability as social goods to be promoted by intelligent policies, and divorce and family breakdown as social harms to be reduced, like smoking or teenage pregnancy, not just neutral choices made by autonomous individuals.

That is just one example, there are numerous others, ranging from the importance of family links in combatting loneliness, to the effect of traditional architecture on happiness and well-being, but this is not the place to lay out a full socially neo-conservative manifesto. The point is rather that modern social conservatism does not mean picking some idealised date in the past and shifting society wholesale back to then; but instead recognising that policies guided by a positive vision of society can complement the freedom we have in law by encouraging family and community, and so strengthen the social supports that actually give people the ability to live their lives fully.

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