The rise and rise of “Cultural Conservatism”

From the “Sunday Times” today

I cannot recall seeing the descriptor “culturally conservative “ before but it is excellent. There is a very illuminating article in the Sunday Times today by Tim Shipman which shows how the populist appeal to cultural conservatism – the Anti-Woke imperative – is being managed. A shadowy figure called Dougie Smith is the crown Prince of populism – a credo which places popularity of statements and actions not only ahead of truthfulness but ahead of efficacy. The question asked then becomes not “What is the right thing to do?” but “How will this play in Hartlepool?”

Cultural conservatism is something of a throwback and clearly the Right’s response to social liberalism. In the post war years Britain gradually liberalised its attitudes and its laws. It took a while but in key areas like the Death Penalty, the laws on abortion, homosexuality, race and gender discrimination we changed. Membership of the project to unite the previously warring tribes in Europe played a significant part culminating in the four Freedoms of the European Union – especially Freedom of Movement – which changed the cultural aspects of society, considerably in some areas. Substantial immigration from Commonwealth countries, notably from the Caribbean and South Asia, did the same.

The move to a more liberal and pluralist society was never universally accepted of course – those opposing it had mixed reasons for doing so (often religious reasons) but they couldn’t stop the trend, only delay it in some cases. An example is the changing norms and laws on smoking in public. Gradually we changed from allowing smoking everywhere to allowing it nowhere. A social change now enshrined in law, as it had to be. But libertarians have always characterised this as an impingement on personal freedom.

Modern cultural conservatism does not generally argue for the repeal of socially liberal laws (though in some cases they do) but in the main chooses to fight a culture war about the past. They are self-proclaimed patriots defending Empire and, sometimes, excusing slavery. The conservatives do not, to be fair, generally start the fight though they certainly engage in it. To be “Anti-Woke” there has to be a “Woke” to be against. So movements which focus on discrimination like “Black Lives Matter” become a target. Sometimes whilst it is easy to see what the cultural conservatives are against it is harder to see what they are for.

A key element of cultural conservatism is an anti Metropolitan bias. London is too liberal by half , too multicultural, too elitist and too wealthy. But the towns and cities of the Midlands and the north are a rich breeding ground for the campaigners for reaction. The conservatives approach to the BBC is very similar – the Corporation is too politically correct (a cardinal sin) and of course too Woke.

The cultural conservatives are addicted to symbols. The Union Flag, portraits of the Queen, the statue of Winston Churchill and many other symbols become quasi-religious icons. Even statues of highly questionable Victorian entrepreneurs are defended because the Woke warriors are against them.

The binary divide between Woke and anti-Woke is not the same as the conventional divide of Left v Right, though there is some overlap. It is in the DNA of conservatives to oppose change – that’s what the word “conservative” means. However if change reinforces the iconography of cultural conservatism it is, of course, promulgated. The campaign for Brexit was an overwhelmingly cultural conservative and reactionary nationalist movement. The centres of its support were very distanced from the metropolis. It was above all a backlash against multiculturalism. In short “Remain” was “Woke” and “Leave” was culturally conservative and “Anti-Woke”.

The success of the Brexit campaign also fundamentally changed the Conservative Party. It became clear that there were more votes in cultural conservatism and narrow nationalism than there were in the traditional “One Nation” and internationalist positioning. Members of Parliament on the Conservative side have never been so united nor so culturally conservative. For Labour there is a huge dilemma. The very basis of modern democratic socialism was societal liberalism. The driving force for social change in the 75 years of post war Britain was always Labour governments. But now to espouse further improvements in human rights and to argue for improvements in the position of minorities is seen as “Woke” and is not a vote winner. Similarly to argue that the problem of Brexit is not how it is implemented but that it was fundamentally the wrong thing to do won’t play well behind the Red Wall.

One thought on “The rise and rise of “Cultural Conservatism”

  1. There is no greater culturally conservative nation than France. The French are past masters in the preservation of their language, traditions, art, et al; In politics also the French aspire to own left-wing credentials but always vote conservatively usually for center-right candidates.
    The French love the romantic idealism of revolution whilst at the same time are acutely aware of their high living standards and freedoms. Their cultural values, however, except on the far-right do not extend to any form of rejection of political union with other European states.
    I don’t really believe in English cultural conservatism. Nor can I accept that Brexit and the Tory majority were derived from any movement within the electorate called cultural conservativism. What it actually is in my view among the Red Wall voters is old-fashioned prejudice. Dislike of foreigners and the influence of European values within traditional English working-class regions. Populist rhetoric and the lies of being swamped by migrants from eastern Europe and beyond also played a part. The same resentment happened when the Windrush generation arrived in the forties.
    It was interesting to read that Emmanuel Macron told Johnson at the G7 yesterday that Northern Ireland is not a unitary part of the UK. I could not agree more. I am sure that remark incensed the Unionist political right but in actual fact, he was speaking the truth.
    NI is a long hangover from postcolonial divergence. The province is part of the island of Ireland and should have long ago been unified within that nation-state.
    You could argue that the Unionist people of NI take cultural conservatism to a higher level. The destruction it caused and will cause in the future as far as they are concerned is justified by their religious faith.
    Unless a pragmatic solution is found Brexit along with most other things will send Ireland back to the seventies.


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