The Tories and values
Aug 14th 2008
From The Economist print edition
BRITISH conservatives have largely eschewed the culture wars fought by the American right. Tories have had old-fashioned views on marriage and other moral issues, to be sure, but they have rarely given them much prominence. The lack of a vocal religious right partly explains why they have had a cooler relationship with the Republicans than the Labour Party enjoys with the Democrats. And David Cameron, their leader, began his stewardship of the party in liberal style, declaring himself eminently relaxed about the exotic lifestyles to be found in modern Britain.
All the more interesting, then, that recent weeks have seen tentative but unmistakable stirrings of social conservatism from the Tories. In July Mr Cameron gave a speech (in a church, no less) denouncing moral relativism. The fight against crime and other ills was, he said, being hamstrung by society’s “refusal to make judgments about what is good and bad”. On August 4th Michael Gove, the party’s schools spokesman, deplored the portrayal of women in men’s magazines. Conservatives such as Iain Duncan Smith, the party’s former leader, and Ed Vaizey, its arts spokesman, have also criticised the British Board of Film Classification for giving the new Batman film a lenient 12A rating. Even the party’s embrace of the “libertarian paternalism” espoused in “Nudge”, the year’s most talked-about book among policymakers, is telling.
Keen Tory-watchers are not surprised, arguing that Mr Cameron’s instincts were never as permissive as many assumed during the early months of his leadership. As recently as 2003 he voted against the repeal of Section 28, a piece of legislation that prescribed what schools could teach about homosexuality. His support for providing fiscal incentives for marriage is long-standing—and, reputedly, a rare source of disagreement with George Osborne, his more liberal shadow chancellor. He has also thrown down the moral gauntlet to big business: he once scolded a high-street shopping chain for tempting customers into buying chocolates as impulse purchases, and a clothing retailer for selling suggestive underwear to young girls.
Beyond Mr Cameron himself, much of the Conservative party remains traditionalist. Over 80% of its MPs voted for a lower time limit on abortions in May. Research by Conservative Home, a website popular with Tory MPs and activists, suggests that a similar percentage of new parliamentary candidates standing for the party at the next election would do the same. Even many of the young modernisers around Mr Cameron have views more complicated than the free-wheeling libertarianism of caricature. Mr Gove is one; Jeremy Hunt, the shadow culture secretary, who has expressed concern at the liberalisation of gambling laws, is another. So too is Steve Hilton, Mr Cameron’s hyper-liberal strategist, who helped to make social breakdown one of the party’s key themes.
There is a risk in all this, of course. Crime is a growing concern among voters, and there may be demand for tougher punishments. But that is not the same as demand for family values. The most recent British Social Attitudes survey, using 2006 data, revealed a liberal nation: only 28% said that married couples make better parents than unmarried ones. Some insiders fear that the recent departure of Mr Hilton may remove a powerful check against further nods to the right, though he remains in constant and influential contact with senior Tories. And unless the party is sleaze-free, it can be undone by hypocrisy: John Major pledged a return to old-fashioned morality during the last Tory government, only to be embarrassed by scandal after scandal involving his own MPs.
Yet there is reason to believe that the Tories’ flirtation with righteousness will not end badly this time. For one thing, theirs is not a heavy-handed approach. It generally rejects compulsion in favour of exhortation—an underrated policy instrument, they say, pointing to the success of government campaigns against smoking and driving after drinking. For another, the Tories have gone out of their way to stress that their social conservatism does not extend to race or sexuality—something that couldn’t be said of all their predecessors. Any recent Tory leader who urged individuals to take responsibility for their own obesity, addiction or poverty would have provoked charges of nastiness. When Mr Cameron did it in July, he got a fair hearing. It may be that, in the process of rebranding his political party, he has also decontaminated social conservatism as an ideology. American conservatives, take note.