I don’t remember exactly when I realised we were Conservatives. Politics tends to be transmitted from parent to child, just as religion once was, and my family were Tories, although of a strange variety.
The stereotypical middle-class Conservative voter is conventional and stable, conscientious but unadventurous; blessed with common sense and terrible taste in music. My parents were bohemians, to put it mildly, living in a rackety, messy flat surrounded by a mountain of books, with a circle of friends who were mostly quite unconventional in their habits (ie they were alcoholics). Yet they believed in a philosophy that supported convention, order and tradition because, as much as political leanings can fit personality types, it often just comes down to who annoys you the most.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
My first political memory is of my dad chuckling one morning while reading the paper, and when asked, telling me that the GLC had been abolished. London was no longer in the hands of Ken Livingstone, the man seen as leading the “loony left” who ran local politics: the Trotskyites, CND-supporting peaceniks, radical feminists, various insane Marxist race campaigners who compared Britain to apartheid South Africa or even Nazi Germany; and the crazed teachers union, forever closing our progressive primary school down in opposition to FATCHA. Rick from The Young Ones was a brilliant fictional character, but people like him did exist in the Eighties.
I was eight, and my main interest was The A-Team, so I had no idea what any of it meant, but as time went by, I became aware of the sort of people who my parents were against – the Sandalistas, as dad called them, a pun on the Nicaraguan guerrillas who were the current flavour of the month among Guardian readers. Dad read the Guardian every day, and had worked there a long time before, yet he had an intense love-hate-but-mainly-hate relationship with the paper and what it stood for; in his politics he was motivated by an intense dislike of sanctimonious and hypocritical Lefties.
He didn’t particularly like the Conservative Party either; he seemed to loathe most of their MPs, thought they were only interested in enriching themselves and wasn’t convinced by the Thatcher revolution. I was never entirely sure what he stood for, except for a world stuck at a certain point of time.
For progressives, history is a succession of steps forward whereby the lives of the poor and vulnerable are liberated and the forces of darkness pushed back; it’s a view of the world they inherit from Judaism and Christianity, and which they share with Marxists. Faced with this glorious vision of unending change, conservatives can only offer a point at which the process should have stopped.
For dad, as he got older and more reactionary, that date went further back in time, until in his mid-70s he was arguing that western civilisation had reached its peak in the 14th century. After that, everything had gone into decline.
Back when I was still young and innocent, the number of people who might now be termed “progressive” was relatively small; “political correctness” was yet to be popularised as a term, although academics such as William Hamilton had already begun to privately complain about a new atmosphere of intolerance on campus.
The chief political argument was about economics, characterised in a recent BBC documentary on Thatcher as being a great battle between economically liberal pointy-heads in SW1 and working-class men with sideburns and donkey jackets out on strike. Thatcher won that argument, but it sped up the social transformation that made Britain far less Tory; indeed it’s an interesting question who would now be regarded as more “Right-wing”, the strikers or the pointyheads, now that politics has become all about identity and values.
Thatcherism helped turbocharge the sexual revolution as more people acquired disposable income; the raunch culture of the late Nineties owed a lot to the economic liberalisation of the previous decade. Maggie’s government also vastly increased the number attending universities, which would become the main means by which progressive ideas were spread.
I knew I was a Tory from quite a young age, but only joined (and left) the party in my thirties. I always assumed that any Young Conservative event would be largely filled with freaks and mutants. I don’t have to necessarily like or empathise with the people I broadly agree with, after all.
We’re less social than the Left; we’re also not credal about core beliefs which everyone must sign up to, which is why the Right is far more politically diverse, being more an alliance of groups that fall foul of the orthodox Left – from libertarians to Christian socialists. Conservatism also provides far less of a moral lodestar, which is why the decline of Christianity has drastically shifted people’s politics to the Left – because when religion is no longer a moral anchor, politics fills its place.
Our philosophy is more of an anti-religion, if anything. The origins of English conservatism lie in the conflict of the 17th century and in opposition to “enthusiasm”, or the politics of Puritanism. The Godly, as the Puritans called themselves, wished to overturn the social order by basing status not on land or ancestry, but on religious fervour, and their moralising made them hugely unpopular.
Later, most famously with Edmund Burke, the Tory worldview was articulated into a coherent philosophy about the wisdom of preserving institutions, even those – especially those – which in theory didn’t make sense.
The Conservative Party then evolved into opposition against the Whig and Liberal Party merchant interests, and in defence of crown and altar, before becoming a coalition of liberals and conservatives opposed to socialism. Thatcherism was part of that struggle, but with the Great Realignment, we’re now back to where we started, with the Tories there to oppose moralising fanatics who are creating an atmosphere where dissenting opinions feel threatened.
Family history has a nice cyclical air, and a generation on, I vote for a Conservative government I dislike mainly because the Opposition are sanctimonious fanatics. Except the difference is that there are far more progressives today, and Rick from The Young Ones is no longer an aberration but the norm. And in the medium term, let alone the distant future, they are going to win.
One of the curiosities of the modern world is that everyone thinks they’re losing, and the Tory Party is certainly good at elections – in my lifetime they’ve come top in 8 out of 11. It’s better than the alternative, as Woody Allen said of old age, but they’ve hardly spent the past decade in power reshaping the country in their image.
Under their rule we’ve had anti-natalist child tax credit cuts, the introduction of no-fault divorce, restrictions on stop and search, Theresa May’s equality report Burning Injustices and the publishing of gender pay ratios. Very little has been done to make family formation more affordable, which more than anything would make the country more Tory-leaning.
Cuts to police spending have seen crime levels rise once again under the Conservatives; this year my 12-year-old daughter has seen one knife fight and the aftermath of a second, and in-between those exciting days out a teenager was murdered about 100 yards from my son’s primary school. The Tory Government was way ahead of Black Lives Matter when it came to defunding the police.
David Cameron made promises about immigration, but the economy had already become too reliant on it; high immigration satisfied the financial needs of Telegraph readers and the moral needs of Guardian readers, and the Government didn’t want to upset either. So we got Brexit, which helped speed up the realignment, giving the Conservatives a solid majority. And for as long as Labour is captured by a relatively extreme minority and spends its time debating the dictionary definition of woman, the Tories are able to cruise along with their winning mixture of centrist policies and reactionary vibes.
But time is not on their side, for the least Tory social categories are now the most demographically ascendant – the young, the single, ethnic minorities and renters. The youth problem might be alleviated by housing reform, but it also reflects a significant generational shift in values.
The cohorts born after about 1975 and especially after 1990 tend to hold a range of views that will make it hard for the Tory Party to win their support, without abandoning their values to the point of meaninglessness. On most of the key identity issues, such as racial diversity, immigration, sexuality and gender, and (increasingly) our treatment of animals, there is a generational shift that dwarfs anything seen before.
The causes are varied; the globalised digital economy and the rise of English has weakened nation-states; the decline of religion has made utilitarian arguments about bodily autonomy impossible to resist; increased urbanisation makes people more liberal; progressivism financially suits the ruling class in a way it never did previously, and because politics is much to do with status, others imitate them.
Such a generational shift has only happened twice before in European history; during the Reformation, and in the period when Christianity itself replaced polytheism. Just as with progressives in our own time, in the fourth century Christians had started off as a small, cranky minority, but had come to dominate the education system; they won because they were popular among the young, and especially young women, and were concentrated in cities where they could control institutions.
Their numbers grew until, at some point, in the words of one Christian apologist, the pagans would have to “wake up” to the fact that they were now a minority. Soon the temples were left to rot not, most likely, because of Christian persecution, but because no one believed anymore. It would seem absurd, and embarrassing, to profess a belief in Jupiter. Julian the Apostate had tried to turn back the clock, but it was impossible to fight Roman institutions which were now controlled by Christians.
Just as in Rome, conservatives today face professions that are dominated by their opponents, the most profound example again being the education system. Like Julian, Boris Johnson has recently made attempts to ensure that cultural institutions are not entirely controlled by the new religion, but he is fighting a losing battle.
The problem is not just with institutional control; the most important comparison with the last days of Rome is in the control of taboos. Whoever owns society’s taboos comes to win, and Christians just believed with greater force that to blaspheme their God was an offence against public morals, while the polytheists had stopped caring to defend theirs. And the ancient world impiety was often viewed as a worse crime than murder.
Today it is progressives who own taboos, and those who offend the sacred ideas of race and sexual identity face the terror of being charged with impiety (or “cancelled”, to use the secular term). And if you don’t control society’s taboos, it doesn’t really matter how many elections you win — you won’t shape the future.
And so, there you have it, it all went wrong in the fourth century. Even my dad would be impressed by such a reactionary view.
Small Men on the Wrong Side of History is published by Constable