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Three myths about social conservatives

We're not in the 1950s anymore. Credit: Getty

December 25, 2019 - 7:00am

The general election was less than two weeks ago — and in that time hundreds of articles have appeared claiming to explain the big result.

Luckily you don’t have to read them all. But if you do have a moment over Christmas, then you could do worse than UnHerd’s coverage. It’s been encouraging to see such interest in the pieces we’ve published since the 12th December, but I’m especially proud of what we published in weeks and months before the earthquake.

Time and again, our contributors have explained that, in Britain beyond the Westminster bubble, there are millions of voters who lean to the Left on economic issues, but to the Right on others. In other words they’re sceptical both of untrammelled free markets and excessive political correctness.

A debate is currently raging as to whether their small-c conservatism (as successfully courted by Boris Johnson’s big-C Conservative Party) is social or cultural in nature.

Unhelpfully, the terms “socially conservative” and “culturally conservative” are often used interchangeably. There is, however, a useful distinction to be drawn between the two: social conservatism concerns matters of personal responsibility, while cultural conservatism concerns matters of collective identity — i.e. the former is about behaviour and the latter about belonging.

With that framework in mind, we can deal with three misconceptions:

Firstly, there’s the notion that social conservatism is the bad form of political incorrectness and cultural conservatism the good form. In truth, both kinds of conservatism have their light and dark sides. Social conservatism can be harshly judgmental or it can be about upholding standards that encourage people to the right thing. As for cultural conservatism, that can be exclusive and xenophobic or it can be inclusive and patriotic.

The second myth that needs busting is that the working class voters who moved so decisively from Labour to Tory at the last election are culturally — but not socially — conservative. That’s far too simplistic. It’s true that the key issue of Brexit is one of collective identity. However, the parties of the centre-Left have also alienated their traditional supporters on issues on personal responsibility too, for instance law and order, not to mention work and welfare.

The third and final misconception is that the realignment we saw on the 12th is a sign of growing extremism. For the most part, this is not an extreme country. Nor is it one that is hostile to change — it just needs to be change at a human pace. That means a social conservatism that builds people up, not knocks them down; and a cultural conservatism that bring us together instead of tearing us apart.

And on that note, I wish you a blessed and peaceful Christmas.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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