I would like to make a brief apology in advance to those reading this article, as it will be somewhat different in tone to previous articles I have written. I enjoy a good polemic from time to time, for it is easier to tear down someone else than it is to build your own theory (which is, after all, a fundamental tragicomic truth of conservative philosophy). This article will, instead, be more essayist in tone, and more systematic – but hopefully no less enjoyable to read.
Recent discussions around conservatism have wondered how it can appeal to young people. These discussions necessarily emphasise the liberating role of capitalism – referencing young peoples’ inherent social entrepreneurship, and desire for material enrichment – but I think this has missed the point in two ways. One, we live in a political world defined by post-materialism, focused on spiritual and communal ties, and so material enrichment cannot be the only motivation for voting, or even being, conservative. Two, conservatism is already appealing more and more to young people. And it is the purpose of this essay to explain why.
Michael Walzer’s article, The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism offered a diagnosis of where political liberalism failed to truly inspire any form of loyalty. After all, if the system to which you belong is not loyal to you, why would you be loyal to it? If you joined a club, you would expect certain privileges and benefits to be made – and if you were a longstanding member of a club, you would expect a certain degree of recognition above and beyond that given to new members – who may themselves, over time, come to deserve such recognition.
Walzer laid out four very convincing and very systematic reasons as to why people found political liberalism deeply unsatisfactory. It is by looking at the four of these reasons, however, that I think we can start to see why conservatism is beginning to find its appeal in young people – a demographic traditionally associated with liberal-leftism. After all, “if you aren’t a liberal before thirty, you don’t have a heart”. Walzer was, of course, writing in a different time and place – America at the end of the 1980s, when the (necessary) economic liberalisation of the free market had displaced traditional loyalties in favour of hyper-mobility, rootless wandering and hollow individualism. Whereas in the UK, the Thatcherite project was balanced by stress on the role of families and voluntarism, and the virtue of civic association, American capitalism’s over-reliance on individualism severed the ties between people and their homes.
In the UK, we managed to avoid it – mostly. But since the Blair years and the tearing down of every institution but the market – a trend the Conservatives seem unwilling to reverse – young people have found themselves increasingly without a real sense of belonging, as if their only loyalty is to themselves and their own ambitions. Aside from the fact that this is objectively untrue, it is also deeply unsatisfactory. It leaves us with a deep sense of longing in ourselves, a desire to find somewhere that we can call ours – and it is conservatism that has come to offer, not the answer, but a route to the answer. Like a young person ending his or her gap year and returning to the safety of their previous life, the young people of this country are finally coming home. And this is visible, if we look at Walzer’s “Four Mobilities”.
Walzer’s first mobility, the reason for the loss of identity, was that of “geographic mobility”. “Americans apparently change their residence more often than any people in history… we are all self-moved, not refugees but voluntary migrants. The sense of place must be greatly weakened by this sense of geographic mobility”. What was true of America is true of England now – young people move school several times in their life, most typically when they progress from Primary to Secondary and to College or Sixth Form, meaning that between the ages of seven and seventeen most young people will have moved to a different educational institute three times. Then there is university, a major factor of geographic mobility considering 40% of young people now attend a university in a different city to the one they grew up in (if they grew up in a city at all). This in turn means graduate life, and thus a significant change in career several times in a young person’s 20’s, has become a further contributor. All of this, without considering that many young peoples’ parents divorce, change jobs or whole careers, or want to move elsewhere anyway, complicating the sense of geographic loss considerably. No wonder, then, that young people do not feel attached to a particular place.
But conservatism can offer an answer to this. For one, conservatism is in many ways a philosophy of belonging; at the macro-level, conservatism appeals to the nation as a communal home, a vessel for culture, language, custom, tradition and all the vestiges of identity garnered from generations of shared history, all dictated – especially in Britain, and England more so – by geographic necessity. So, while we may feel like colliding atoms in our day-to-day lives, it is a recognition of this country, our home, as a place to belong that offers the remedy to geographic mobility. It is the fact that a Cornishman could travel to York, to Coventry, to Anglesey, all whilst feeling at home.
And on the micro-level too, conservatism offers an answer. The emphasis placed on the “little platoons” of Edmund Burke’s world, the “civic associations” of Michael Oakeshott and the “first-person plural” of Roger Scruton, all offer us ways of finding our place in the world by finding our place with each other. By joining local clubs, founding our own societies, campaigning with charities, praying in churches, synagogues and mosques – all of this provides us with a sense of belonging, by stressing that it is the community that provides us with an identity.
And, on a less spiritual and more material plane, it is for this reason that conservatives place so much emphasis on home ownership. It is the motive behind Thatcher’s “property-owning democracy”, and the current Conservative government’s increasing push for house ownership as opposed to merely renting social housing from the state. It is in the home that we, as individuals and – later – families, can physically imprint ourselves on the world, by marking out a territory that is free from state interference. As Roger Scruton once poetically put it, if I own a home I can not only shut out the world I do not want, but I can let in the world that I do. If a society is built on all of us having a place that is mine, it will necessarily lead to a society that we can share.
The second mobility Walzer termed “social mobility”, although the emphasis is not on what that term might typically mean. Walzer instead stresses the role of education in the loss of communal identity, arguing that “fewer Americans stand where their parents stood” and that “the passing on of beliefs or customary ways, is uncertain at best”. And though Walzer is vague about it, the educational system in England has continually moved away from knowledge of our country, whilst imbuing young people with knowledge inimical to their parents’ situations. Of course, rising literacy and numeracy standards are a good thing, but whereas my parents knew how to sheer sheep and grow vegetables, I know how to write essays and long, crotchety articles on conservatism. Children used to follow their parents into the same profession, but the eradication of the need for old labour (farming, factory work, tailoring, etc.) and the opening up of new industry – combined with education – means this social bond is disappearing.
How does conservativism answer this problem? Two main points of recognition: the first, is that family life is the most important part of society. Your family gives you everything up to a certain point, and guides you through the rest of your life after that. I may have sounded bitter above about my different skills to those of my parents, but – natural talents aside – it was my parents’ dream, and product of their hard work, that I attend a grammar school, and progress to university. We can only ever be the products of our parents, because it is their love and guidance that exposes us to the multitude of influences we inevitably share in.
The second point, is tradition. When you realise that tradition is not a series of chains constructed to keep you in place, but rather the beaten path through a treacherous world do you reconcile yourself with it. The recognition that tradition is a form of social knowledge – of enduring answers to long-forgotten questions – opens your eyes to its value, and the importance of listening to the voice of the generations long gone.
Following this, Walzer suggests a third contributor to a loss of social identity, that of “marital mobility”. To Walzer, though the other two previous mobilities contributed to family breakdown, it is the literal collapse of families that contribute fatally to the loss of social identity. “Insofar as home is the first community and the first school of ethnic identity and religious conviction, this kind of breakage must have countercommunitarian consequences”. This translates all too readily to the Enlgish circumstance; divorce rates remain high, and marriage rights are too low. The family, as mentioned above, forms the bedrock of society, but no longer provides a solid form of social identity. This is not to say that children of broken homes are not productive members of society, but they will be deprived of a traditionally settled source of identity.
As above, the family is stressed once again, but this time the onus is placed on the children themselves. We must be realistic – if parents do not want to stay together, and they no longer feel they can fulfil their duties and obligation to one another, it is impossible to force them to stay together. But the children can take it upon themselves to strengthen the bonds of family, by helping their parents where they can. Once the value of family can be seen – and I think it is already so deeply ingrained in British life – young people will inevitably want to build their own, strong family units, where they can pass on their own traditions. And this is already happening – the idea that Generation Z (the generation to which I personally belong) is the “most conservative” since World War Two on social issues such as same-sex marriage, would suggest a desire to return to traditional conceptions of the family.
Walzer’s final mobility emphasises the “institutional instability” generated by a decline in identity created by the above three mobilities, as loyalty to the old bonds that traditionally determine voting behaviour – family, community, tradition, economic class etc. – declines sharply. The consequence of this is that old institutions of authority – of Church, local association, unions, Monarchy, Parliament, and so on – have been sharply undermined, and offer no bastions of identity around which socio-political duty can be based. Instead, selfish interest acts to inform the decision of which associations and authorities to subscribe to.
This is where conservatism appeals most strongly to young people. The loss of identity in association with the decline of clear and strong institutions is remedied through adherence to historical, tried and tested authorities that offer a way of understanding social duty and, in return, provides us with an identity in relation to the rest of society. A welcome article from the Telegraph earlier this year indicated the influence of institutions on social identity, as it reported that visits to Church buildings inspired young people to convert to Christianity, and reaffirm their faith with regular communion. One wonders if it is a mere coincidence that such a rise in interest in social institutions inspired by architecture is coming at the same time as a revival in architectural classicism.
Finally, it is worth considering Scruton’s theory of modern leftism as a “culture of repudiation” centred around the phenomenon of oikophobia, a rejection of the old symbols of home. In response, conservatism must become a philosophy of oikophilia, a way of helping people find a place – physically, spiritually, politically, socially – in an otherwise hostile world. As we increasingly find ourselves, as young people, in a strange and foreign world, conservatism must become the philosophy of coming home.