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Why conservatism is doomed Despite Tory election victories, the Right still faces huge problems

How's it going fellow young conservative? Photo: OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images

March 9, 2020   9 mins

I had mixed feelings about the election result last December. On the one hand, I wouldn’t be working on a collective farm along with all the other useless intellectuals who had displeased our new communist masters. On the other, I had a book coming out arguing that conservatism was doomed, and here they were, winning once again.

So if everything is going so badly for conservatives, as I believe, how come they’ve been in Downing Street for ten years now – and are likely to be there for the next ten, what with the current state of the Opposition?

Well, welcome as Agent Corbyn’s successful destruction of Labour has been, the Tory victory belies some huge structural demographic problems facing the centre-Right. The Conservative Party is still effective at winning elections, against a hopelessly divided opposition, but conservatism as a movement is facing a very difficult future, a result of demography, cultural trends and its disappearance from many national institutions and sectors.

I began writing Small Men on the Wrong Side of History a number of years ago, partly as a form of therapy, to understand why I was unusual in being more Right-wing than my friends and contemporaries. I wanted to understand why some people turn out conservative and others progressive, and whether the latter are really more glamorous and charismatic, as I suspected.

I began to notice that, contrary to what we had all believed, the people around me weren’t following the old dictum that you become more Right-wing as you got older. Many seemed to be more progressive in their mid-30s than in their student days, because the acceptable parameters of belief had shifted, and were continuing to move.

By the time of the 2017 election it became clear that conservatism was completely repulsive to a majority not just of the very young but people well into their 30s and even 40s. And this was a new development; even in 1979 and 1983 the Tories came first among 18-24-year-olds, and traditionally a form of social conservatism had started to kick in around the age of 30. That wasn’t happening anymore.

There was Brexit, of course, but it was also a sign of something deeper and more fundamental. Conservatism was as much in demographic decline as the Christianity from which it once emerged, and indeed the two trends were linked.

It was not the young who had turned out to wreck the Tories that year, despite the term ‘youthquake’ being bandied around, but the middle aged; this wasn’t the natural rebelliousness of adolescence but a more permanent shift of social mores, changes that made conservatism socially abnormal and anything associated with it electoral excrement.

Indeed, despite long-held assumptions that people will always grow into conservatism, surveys in the US at least showed that those from Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980) were actually moving to the Left as they got older, and in the US the proportion identifying as liberal had increased from 29 per cent in the mid-1990s to almost half today. The same thing was happening with the cohort after us, the Millennials, who were not showing any signs of becoming more Right-wing as they aged.

By any conceivable measure what is regarded as mainstream, normal opinion had shifted rapidly in the preceding decades, but the rate of change now also seemed to be speeding up, almost as if we were heading for some sort of progressive singularity with the “Great Awokening” and the rapid shift to the Left among the American upper-class.

Most of the influential publications and broadcasters among people who matter, including the BBC, Times, Guardian, Financial Times and Economist, had become considerably more socially liberal in that period, a shift that was accompanied by a shrinking bracket of what was permissible to say without social sanction. On almost any non-economic issue most of my friends hitting 40 were more progressive than in their early 20s; they might resent paying more tax or even dislike trade unions, but that didn’t make them conservative.

The adoption of Brexit as a policy only helped to expose how much the Tory Party’s brand was entirely built around their reputation for economic competence and how unpopular conservative philosophy actually was once financial considerations were removed. This sense of revulsion was felt not just by a large proportion of young and middle-aged Britons, but the overwhelming majority of the most educated and influential.

Despite all the liberal lamentation about Brexit and Trump — and the live-action nervous breakdowns of so many members of the commentariat — these events are most likely mere blips in the onward march of progressivism; the former supported by the old and the latter by the prematurely dying in America’s depressed, opiate-riddled heartlands.

There are today very few important areas of British or American society in which progressives do not have dominance. The influential film industry of southern California is overwhelmingly liberal, as is the even more powerful tech industry of northern California. Technology giants like Google or Facebook overtly side with progressive causes in funding and policy, and within these companies Left-wing identity politics is so embedded that according to one employee at Google ‘the presence of Caucasians and males was mocked with “boos” during company-wide weekly meetings, one of many examples where ‘white males’ were subject to abuse.

That these progressive outfits are all pretty much led by white males is beside the point; it’s a creed with inherent inconsistencies and contradictions, just as Christian leaders throughout history have been absurdly wealthy or warmongers, and yet still genuine believers.

Outside of tech increasing numbers of corporations, including Nike, Starbucks and Heineken, openly promote progressive causes, either in advertising or in donations, in a way no mainstream company would once have done for fear of alienating a large section of customers. Likewise, most prestigious American newspapers and news outlets are not only pro-Democrat but since 2008 have become far more openly partisan, while conservatism has retreated to the shouty, tabloid ghetto comprised of Fox News and smaller non-mainstream sites of varying degrees of sanity.

Some vibrant Tory activists (Photo by Harry Benson/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This cultural trend is reflected in the shifting axis of the two-party system. In the US the Democrats have become the party of graduates with a huge education divide in voting, but in Britain a similar trend is now developing. The Conservatives, once the party of the more educated middle classes, are now haemorrhaging support amongst all professionals, while making advances in once improbable ex-industrial towns in the midlands and north.

In contrast, in upmarket urban areas are slowly emptying of Tories, and in this we are following the US pattern, where the overwhelming majority of the wealthiest ZIP codes vote Democratic.

It’s all very well Right-wingers complaining about the “liberal elite” while citing semi-exotic vegetarian foodstuffs eaten in upmarket postcodes, but it doesn’t really matter if this much-caricatured group are “out of touch”. History shows that elite opinions tend to become adopted by society as a whole because people imitate the belief systems of those higher up the social ladder. If left-liberalism has become dominant among the elite, then like many historical faiths its popularity among a high-status minority will lead to universal adoption in just a couple of generations.

Historically the religions and belief systems that flourish and predominate are those that carry the most prestige, and which bring with them more social benefits than costs to followers. What matters is how much ideologies are associated with high-ranking and successful people, and how much social proof their believers have. When that happens, they will inevitably become dominant.

A crucial indication of the way things are developing is the extent to which younger women have become far more Left-wing than men, with a pro-conservative bias among females born before 1955 turning into a heavily Left-liberal one among younger cohorts.

Faiths that attract large numbers of women tend to predominate, the most obvious being Christianity, where females heavily outnumbered males in the early centuries. Men tended to become “secondary converts” to Christianity, adopting the belief system of women — a pattern noted throughout the ages.

Before she became prime minister Tory politician Theresa May once commented that they were viewed as the ‘nasty’ party, which was true, especially after she gave everyone the catchy phrase. However, the image problem of conservatism more generally is even worse than that — it’s seen as low-status, and the number of people in professions receptive to conservative ideas is rapidly shrinking.

Whole fields, among them teaching, academia, medicine, journalism and science, have gone from being politically mixed a generation ago to overwhelmingly Left-liberal today. Indeed, there is growing evidence in many areas that dissenting thinkers increasingly keep their opinions to themselves.

In education, some 65 per cent of primary school and 72 per cent of secondary school teachers voted for the most Left-wing major leader in British history, compared to just 7 and 8 per cent respectively for the Tories.

This domination is just as pronounced in academia, which in the US has gone from a political ratio of two liberal professors to every one conservative in the early 1990s to five to one now, and that figure is only that low because less-ideological STEM subjects tend to be quite evenly balanced; in contrast the ratio in the social sciences varies from between 10 and 40 to 1.

The same trend has been happening in Britain, too. In 1964, some 35 per cent of British academics voted Tory, compared to 47 per cent for Labour; by 2015 just 11 per cent supported the Conservatives, only half that of the Green Party.

Elsewhere, among doctors, scientists, the civil service and even the leadership of mainstream churches, conservativism is becoming marginalised. There are a number of reasons for this, among them the expansion of higher education, as well as changing family patterns and the decline of religion, and leftist ‘capture’ of many institutions, including charities, broadcast media, government, social services and education, which have all become culturally progressive.

People’s political identity tends to be heavily influenced and shaped by the individuals in their social circles, so the disappearance of conservatives in the professional middle class has a domino effect; people grow older in an ideologically homogenous environment, and so continue to identify as liberal even as their tastes change. Indeed, one of the most popular political insults of the 2010s, “centrist dad”, applies to a growing demographic of men who see themselves as liberal but whose lifestyle is recognizably quite conservative – marriage with children, weekend visits to the Cotswolds and rock-based musical tastes frozen in the 1990s.

Pretty much the last refuge of conservatism is the Army, and even Sandhurst has equality and diversity classes while the armed forces’ social media accounts tweet out prog mantras just as their 17th century forebears would have quoted scripture, as if the raison d’etre of the Army was to promote inclusivity and LGBT rights rather than literally killing foreigners.

The establishment in the 21st century is centre-Left, if by ‘establishment’ you mean people who hold most power and make the important decisions, rather than those who have archaic titles or take part in Ruritanian traditions. Except for a shrinking number of toffs who follow the old faith, progressive views are the norm among the future leaders of tomorrow, even at Britain’s top public schools.

Indeed the most expensive schools and colleges, both in Britain and the US, are now leading the way in liberal causes, whether it’s gender-neutral uniforms or no-platforming conservatives, and in America there is a clear correlation between how much a college charges its elite students and how intolerant it is of Right-wing speakers, a phenomenon nicknamed “radical privilege” by one blogger.

What better way to signal high status in the current year than banning conservatives from being able to speak?

As Left-liberalism has become the prestige faith with a moral monopoly, dominant in academia and the most elite professions, so conservatism has retreated into comforting stupidity. It has become characterised by shock jocks and outrage-merchants, as well as an aversion to commonly-accepted science, the most prominent examples being scepticism over climate change. In America it has become the preserve of “the Stupid Party”, as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal referred to the Republicans, echoing John Stuart Mill’s jibe about the Tories. Perhaps no one better epitomises this better than Donald Trump, a man with the seemingly unique gift of having no redeeming features whatsoever.

Some Right-wing commentators, in an appeal to their increasingly male audience, have tried to make the philosophy seem more macho than it actually is, when in reality many conservatives by nature are quite fearful. Likewise in Britain, where tabloids take on the conservative banner against a socially liberal broadsheet and broadcasting media, the Right has become associated with deliberate anti-intellectualism and even yobbery.

Yet by aiming low, to paraphrase Michelle Obama’s expression, conservatives are only further helping to make their brand irredeemably vomit-inducing to almost anyone under the age of 40. It is a view summed up by the thirty-something Bridget Jones when she said: “Labour stands for sharing, kindness, gays, single mothers and Nelson Mandela as opposed to braying bossy men having affairs with everyone shag shag shag left right and centre and going to the Ritz in Paris then telling all the presenters off on the Today programme.”

Bridget Jones is fiction, obviously, but the words reflect widespread middle-class thinking, and applies even more so today than when it was written in the 1990s, at a time when the Tory Party seemed to disgrace itself with sexual peccadilloes while they were lecturing the rest of us on morality. Indeed a Bridget Jones 25 years ago would have known many conservatives in her upper-middle-class social circle; today there would be very few indeed, at least openly.

Since the 1960s the west has gone through the biggest cultural shift in half a millennium, an epochal change similar in some ways to the Christian takeover of pagan Rome and the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Both of these events led to revolutions in public ideas about morality and eventually to culture conflicts – and conservatives, like the polytheists and Catholics before them, are today on the losing side.

The bad news is that this second reformation is going to be long, painful and boring, and both sides are going to get more tedious and hysterical, just as divisions the last time around drove Catholics and Protestants into prolonged periods of insanity. Conservatism will see revivals but it will become increasingly dominated by the sort of identity politics the centre-Right once hated, a phenomenon already developing in continental Europe and Trump’s America.

But the Left is winning and we’re losing. As the dashing, gentlemanly and high-status liberal Barack Obama said of al-Qaida, another group of guys not entirely comfortable with the modern world, we’re Small Men on the Wrong Side of History.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable


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Chis Marley
Chis Marley
4 years ago

`the dashing, gentlemanly and high-status liberal Barack Obama`

`Donald Trump, a man with the seemingly unique gift of having no redeeming features whatsoever`

That the latter is not the former is a redeeming feature in itself.

Dashing, gentlemanly and high-status liberals who cause the destruction of entire countries and the death of vast swathes of innocent civilians are unique in having no redeeming features whatsoever because their hypocrisy trumps all.

Donald Trump is not the worst thing in the world.

That is two redeeming features that Donald Trump possesses.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
4 years ago
Reply to  Chis Marley

No matter what you think of The Donald, he has a HUGE ‘skill set’ which is hard to outflank

4 years ago

The writer is too concerned with the control of the public narrative and calls himself conservative but does not understand our psychology. Being conservative with is about self control….not control of others! Everything today seems to be going the way of the progressives but ultimate failure is writtten into their psychology….hatred of reason and virtue is its own reward….destruction and despair

Frederick B
Frederick B
4 years ago

Interesting article and very concerning for a non-Tory “small c” conservative. I do, though, have some hopes for continental Europe where, for example, Marine Le Pen’s National Assembly enjoys the support of 40% of 18 to 24 year olds. Similarly we have a predominance of youthful support for the ultra-conservative governments of eastern Europe and rising right wing movements – predominantly youthful – even in ultra liberal Sweden.

The real problem lies in the Anglosphere, as Mr. West makes clear. Even here though there are some indications that the young may not be quite as uniformly “woke” as appears from this article – for example, a recent opinion poll on immigration suggested that a majority of 18 to 24s want it reduced. An outlier maybe, but suggestive, and as the article indicates, hope for a conservative revival has to be placed in the identity politics which the Right should never have abandoned.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago

This article is somewhat behind the curve. As Frederick points out below, the young are increasingly distrusting of progressivism/socialism because they see the consequences all around them. AfD in Germany are growing, and three of the four most popular parties in the Netherlands are right-wing. The Sweden Democrats are now the most popular party in Sweden, not least because on the attacks of Swedish teenagers by you-know-how.

Meanwhile, podcasts in the US by youngish people like Steven Crowder are incredibly popular, attracting millions of viewers. Even natural leftists like the podcaster Tim Pool detest both wings of the Democrats. Also in the US, viewing figures for CNN (or BBC-NN as I call it) and MSNDC (sic) are falling, while viewing figures for Fox are rising. Even in the UK, TalkRadio (which at least allows conservative voices to be heard) claims to be the ‘fastest growing radio station in the world’ while millions of us desert the BBC.

And one barely knows where to start with the writer’s statement that Trump ‘has no redeeming features whatsoever’. It is just so lazy and crass. Trump is no worse than the vast majority of politicians, and the popularity of his policies such as strong borders and the pursuit of national interests in economic terms at least partly disprove the thesis the conservatism is dead. Surely the December election result in the UK demonstrates the same thing.

The writer has written a book, the thesis of which is probably out of date. Oh dear.

Jonny Chinchen
Jonny Chinchen
4 years ago

I think the writer attaches too much importance to the MSM. I agree with him that the institutions of the UK and the US are saturated and infested with progressives – but that is proving only to shift the conservatives and right of centre onto other platforms and into new areas. It’s very exciting to see that right wing comedians are now the edgy ones, they can say what the lefties can’t (without a quick check of the Guardian PC update).

What the left has in their favour is fear. Celebs and big companies are scared of being unwoke, so they make these cringeworthy attempts to bend the knee. However, they often fail – “go woke and go broke” as the saying goes, and look what has happened to JK Rowling in recent weeks!

Fortunately for us unwilling residents of ClownWorld, the left as it currently appears in Western countries is too unstable to last for much longer in its current form. It can’t keep mutating and becoming more and more radical without consuming itself. Today’s progressive hero is next week’s statue tipped into the bay. The Left is a hungry beast that must find new grievances to fuel its confected outrage, so all we have to do is refuse to bend the knee – tell the truth – use statistics to combat feelings – and most importantly, never apologise for speaking an opinion.

Jeff Andrews
Jeff Andrews
3 years ago

With so called Conservatives like this writer that political party will be no great loss. However what is a loss is the one of our entire country. It can no longer be hidden that the Police are unable to control the huge ethnic, sorry, BAME population and areas so they don’t try. By there own oath, they don’t even have to try if it offends there human rights. The lockdown only achieved destroying the economy and what was left of our society. Yes, the progressives are winning, but what, a bankrupt country and who will the BAME folk blame then?

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
3 years ago

Ed, your fascinating, informative analysis has compelled this radical centrist yank to hitch a ride on your wonkish transport. Thanks for sharing.
My only present comment is this. Next year, after we American moderates have aided progressives in overthrowing trump, then a “conservative” half of the socio-spectrum will resume an appropriate parry to neutralize excessively outlandish identity politics. See Jordan Peterson for more info.