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Artillery Row

The Conservatives have failed conservatism

The family should have been paramount among concerns

At a Conservative Party conference a few years ago, I was with Sir Roger Scruton as he spoke on a panel. He was asked by an audience member what she should do to further the cause of conservatism or something along those lines. Sir Roger said pithily, “Get married, start a family and set up a business.” 

I have come to know this as “the Scrutonian Triptych and to use it as an analytical framework. In relation to the triptych, the Conservative Party, since taking office in May 2010, can be given one cheer in relation to the latter — business and employment. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons for that single cheer. 

Married couples are now the minority in the UK

Unemployment has been a success story. The unemployment rate in May 2010 was 7.9 per cent. At the end of December 2022, the rate was 3.7 per cent: a decrease of 4.2 per cent, which is a remarkable achievement. Not only that, but the employment rate since David Cameron became Prime Minister to the present has increased by over 5 per centage points — though there is still room for improvement as there are now 1.12m job vacancies. In terms of businesses, there has also been an increase in the private sector. There are now over a million more businesses across the whole of the country than there were in 2010. At its peak, in 2020, this was 1.5 million. Since then, and after lockdowns, we have seen a half million drop. Overall, though, this is another success story. 

Of course, due to inflation, there are current cost of living pressures. Rishi Sunak has five priorities, four of which are economic in nature. 

These successes notwithstanding, the Conservatives have failed on the other two parts of the triptych, both of which focus on social aspects — marriage and the family. These are of paramount importance to our country, as they are the micro-foundations of society. The institution of marriage as a rite of passage should be the foundation of any conservative vision for building a society based on ordered liberty. Yet according to the Office for National Statistics, new marriages in 2019 were at their lowest ebb since 1888, when Lord Salisbury was Prime Minister and Rudyard Kipling published Plain Tales from the Hills. 

The proportion of adults who have never been married has also increased: in 2021 only 38 per cent of adults were married. Thus, married couples are now the minority in the UK. The rate of marriage is low, but divorces are on the up. In 2021, there was a marked increase in the number of divorces in England and Wales, including a staggering increase of over 36 per cent in divorces of same-sex couples. This increase was not from a low base either, as in 2020 there was an over 40 per cent increase compared with 2019.

Turning to family formation, there is a chink of light in that the fertility rate increased very slightly to 1.61 children per woman in 2021. Yet this is still down from the 2010 figure of 1.94. Unfortunately, the Conservatives have presided over an overall drop in the fertility rate since taking office. The rate in 2010 was still considerably lower than the post-World War Two high of 2.93 children per woman in 1964, the year that Winston Churchill retired from the Commons.

There are still financial disincentives within the benefits system for families

There is currently an excess of egoism and exaggeration of the merits of liberal individualism. Along with economic woes, this is undermining the family unit and, in consequence, the social order. The development of individual personhood is also thereby impeded, which in the long term leaves us with neither order nor freedom. 

Jeremy Hunt in his Budget seems to have understood this to a degree, but he did not go far enough as we need a tax system, an economic model and a welfare system that can integrate family and work pressures. This would involve providing pro-family tax incentives, strengthening both maternity and paternity leave and providing childcare vouchers that put parents in the driving seat. Thinkers such as Aristotle and Hegel recognized the relationship between family, household and property. Yet despite welfare reforms, as Fiona Bruce MP and the Conservative peer Lord Farmer argued in their 2017 A Manifesto to Strengthen Families, there are still financial disincentives within the benefits system for families and a “couple penalty”. 

In his conference speech of 2015, David Cameron stressed the link between family breakdown and poverty. A cursory glance at the Conservative leaders’ conference speeches since then show that the party now lacks the confidence to deal with it. It is necessary to put that connection back on the agenda. Since the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith, social issues have been seen as barnacles to remove from the Conservative ship, rather than holes in the hull of society that demand an Oakeshottian ethic of repair. We urgently need an active pro-family social policy. Our welfare system requires further reform to remove the couple penalty and to build citizens: a truly a pro-family, pro-marriage system, supporting the reciprocal obligations that enhance social continuity and expand the property-owning democracy. There is a cross-class interest in having a pro-family welfare state, as family impacts everyone. It is increasingly recognised that marriage should be seen as a social justice issue.

The over-emphasis on the economic status of individuals and the lack of social conservatism in parliament has led to an overly restricted concept of wellbeing. We should not define in narrow economic terms what Benjamin Disraeli in his Crystal Palace in 1872 referred to as the “elevation of the condition of the people”. There are also social, cultural and religious conditions. A successful economy needs tradition and a striving culture. It is time for Sunak to realise his priorities by building on solid foundations. It is only by repairing the social fabric more broadly conceived that the Conservatives could earn three cheers.

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