Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Where are all the young Conservatives coming from?

There is a very interesting post over on ConservativeHome's CF Diary (for some reason the thing isn't credited so I have no idea who writes it; identify yourself if you read this) about an increasing conservatism among the young. It cites a recent survey for the Scouts Association and an older one for Bliss Magazine and the Social Attitudes survey of 2004 both of which highlighted what appears to be conservative attitudes. I would add this 2003 LSE study, for that year's Social Attitude's study, which found young people less willing to pay for increased taxes to secure higher spending.

Despite having now left university I am still, at 23, comfortably in the Conservative Future age range and, as such, feel entitled to comment on what might be driving an increased conservatism among younger people.

1) A Decline in the Social Stigma attached to Conservatism

I think that the social stigma attached to being an evil, heartless, Tory is more important to young people. Without careers and the like to hang their social status on young people are generally more careful about anything which might endanger their hard won social standing. There would seem to be a few factors working to undermine the social stigma around conservatism.

Firstly, any ideology which is very electorally successful, as the social democrats are at the moment, will necessarily be the party of a lot of voters and these voters will often be those that young people think little of; to look at the Scouts Association survey that would be the likes of Pete Doherty and other assorted trendies of the sort that backed Blair in 97. Related to this is that the socialists can no longer sustain the idealism of opposition and have had to do unpopular things, such as the Iraq war, and now are forced to argue at the realist level of conservatives.

Secondly, David Cameron is clearly doing good work in making the party sound less miserly and grouchy. Although the process of young people becoming more positive about conservatism was clearly ongoing before he took over it seems almost certain he has enabled it to progress more easily with the changes he has made and is making to the Conservative Party. It seems reasonable to expect that young people are generally less certain of their ideological bearings (apart from a small minority who are politically active) and, as such, addressing a broader range of issues than the traditional conservative battlegrounds has to be helpful in making the party seem more relevant.

Thirdly, as conservatism is admitting defeat on "think of the children" social issues it becomes more palatable to young people. Young people don't necessarily disagree with socially conservative attitudes on these things, witness their relatively pro-life position on abortion on demand, but they tend to regard those who push social conservatism as either patronising or vaguely crazed; they expect these views to be personal and largely private. They then worry that if they are openly conservative they will be regarded as equally patronising or crazed. A similar trend is at work in the wider electorate but it is more pronounced among young people.

2) Social Democracy is No Longer a New and Ideological Movement

Those born in the post war generation grew up in an era with a popular memory of when the debate had been Conservative-Liberal and the socialist challenge from Labour was still something new and exciting. There was a genuine ex ante hope that it might be possible to, through the beneficent actions of an enlightened state, create a society shorn of inequality, misery and with a much higher standard of living for all. This didn't work out.

First, the revolutionary movement associated with socialism descended into atrocity and madness. Second, the Social Democratic states failed to guarantee the material wellbeing and security they had promised. The conservative backlash, Reagan in the States and Thatcher here, proved more successful in reversing national declines than even its supporters can have hoped. While the Thatcher/Reagan successes could be disputed by the socialists, and still are, socialists were reduced to arguing about records and empirics rather than emotively contrasting hope with fearful decline.

While those who were young when the socialist movement was still full of promise still see the socialist cause as essentially youthful and hopeful it now has to fight a rather more even fight with conservatism among the contemporary young who will not give it the benefit of the doubt.

3) The expanding Conservative Movement gives Conservatives more to Do while Young

Left wing young people have always had plenty to do politically. They will start protesting from a young age; if their parents are left wing then almost from birth. Right wingers have relatively few ways to express their conservatism. Conservative Future and its predecessors have primarily been social circles, except at election time, and probably not a circle that will often appeal outside the ambitious. Right wing protests are rare and usually comparatively poorly attended.

This made the sacrifice of facing the social stigma of being a conservative appear rather pointless for many who might have been tempted by conservatism. It has started to be eroded by the new media, such as blogs, which allow young conservatives to participate on their own terms in adult political dialogue and an increased ease in combining conservatism with publicly caring about other issues such as humanitarian crises and the environment.

4) Exposure to Britain's New Underclass

Ann Widdecombe, in a quote near the end of the Telegraph article, questions the results of the survey for the Scout's Association on the grounds that she has seen "increasing disaffection among young people who are growing up without aspirations". Of course, the Scouts survey, which looked at majority attitudes, and Ann Widdecombe's experience are not contradictory and hint at a reality of a majority of fairly well rounded young people and a minority with very serious problems.

Now, while an adult will be segregated away from the underclass of the materially and socially deprived, both at work and at play, comprehensive schooling means that young Middle England meets them everyday. This contact makes it more obvious that something is going wrong beyond a lack of economic wealth and opportunity. Troubled children at my school were growing up with the same access to education as I was and with all of the opportunity afforded by living in rich Hertfordshire. This makes it more obvious that the kinds of causes conservative analyses like Iain Duncan Smith's report discuss, family breakdown and the other such issues, are the more numerically important causes of social deprivation.

What it is important to note is that all of these changes are incomplete, most young people are still broadly left wing, and some can be reversed. The rise of the Young Tory is neither complete nor certain. However, there is good reason to hope that the party and movement can continue to gain in support across the age range. Particularly if conservatives can continue to address the social causes of deprivation, give young people plenty of opportunities to get involved and avoid hectoring social conservatism. Also, particularly if the social democrats continue to sound so nostalgic for a fifties golden age which really existed only in their imagination and certainly has no hold on the memory of the young.


Serf said...

I think you will find that Sam Coates is the writer on CF Diary.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Ah, that makes sense.

Well, if you read this Mr. Coates, more editorial like pieces please. This one was interesting. :)