For quite some time I've been of the opinion that Labradors play a special role in the formation and training of the British middle class. Other dogs can clearly fulfil the same function although to my mind the patience of a Labrador makes it the best suited to the job. A dog offers a child an early taste of authority. It also accustoms them to connecting authority with responsibility. The dog is dependent upon their care. Parents can monitor their child's interaction with the dog and attempt to teach them to treat it with a combination of patience, firmness and affection. This means that, while a child is still within the reach and control of their parents, they can learn the basics of the art of wielding authority and power. They can learn from the mistakes which can blight lives if made later with children, spouses, friends or colleagues. Mistakes can quickly be corrected by parents, who will not be present later on when the child first tastes real power, and the tolerant personality that characterises most dogs will leave little harm done.
Parents probably do not understand that they are doing this. They probably get the dog for companionship or to encourage themselves to take more walks. Equally, they probably only mean to encourage their child to treat the pet well and do not see the long-term benefits. I’ve met some quite pleasant people who grew up without pets or even with cats. They are socialised into healthy behaviours in other ways. I’m not advocating that one can improve families simply by distributing Labradors. A dog in an abusive family will be abused and this will teach the child nothing that should be learned.
Labradors are a part of a broad range of means by which healthy values are transmitted from one generation to the next. Others include regular meals as a family and parents directly talking to their children about what makes up good behaviour. Most important is simply that the parents maintain their own standards and set a good example. If children grow up seeing responsible adults then, all else being equal, they are likely to follow that example.
This isn’t purely a middle class phenomenon of course. The old working class were much poorer than those at the lower end of the income scale today. However, most were quite capable of training their children in the habits that ensured stable and healthy family lives. Many, probably still a majority, families on low incomes today continue to raise solid children.
However, a problem with this transmission of values is being identified by the new social conservatism which I discussed in my review of Dalrymple and Copperfield’s books. It is breaking down in large sections of the population and the costs are dire. Young women with multiple children by different partners searching in vain for a man who will prove responsible and often finding only the abusive. Huge numbers who believe that they are owed a living and the responsibility for looking after their children belongs to the state (which is not able to take their place properly).
Of course, this is somewhat different to traditional social conservatism. It is still socially conservative in that it supports traditional values and personal morality but there is no direct link to traditional social conservative themes like gay marriage and abortion. Social conservatives may argue that gay marriage, for example, undermines the tradition of marriage. It seems equally plausible that a new group’s desire for marriage validates marriage in general as a desirable thing. Any effect of gay marriage on heterosexual marriage is likely to be pretty minor compared to the effects of the vast number of failed and unhappy heterosexual marriages. These can clearly be considered as separate issues.
Almost a year ago Alex Deane wrote an article for the conservative journal the Salisbury Review*. In it he argued, to a deeply socially conservative audience, that accepting Cameron might require a hard compromise but would make conservatism more politically practical. Using his fuzzy, centrist image he could undermine the public’s belief that conservative ideas were necessarily to be distrusted. After that he could, as Nixon in China, be trusted that his motives were pure in selling socially conservative policies. I think that this prediction has proven more accurate than Deane could have hoped.
Traditional social conservative priorities such as Section 28 and opposing abortion and gay marriage are unlikely to be successful any time soon. They are too dependent upon religious values which are not widely held in today’s Britain. The problem is not just the, still small, number of atheists but the huge number of, largely non-practicing, Christians who see their religions as a vague command to ‘do good’ rather than an imperative to follow a particular, Christian, code of ethics. I am not going to argue that religious conservatives should drop these issues, telling someone who thinks children are being murdered to drop the issue is usually unhelpful, but that they should accept that the project of converting people like me to their cause will be a long-term one. The public has sympathy for many religious conservative causes but regards anyone who advances them in public as distinctly weird. No party leader can change this.
However, with accounts like that from PC David Copperfield and their everyday experience voters can see the need for the new social conservatism I have described. So many other political priorities are dependent upon a revival of a culture of responsibility. Shrinking the state when there is such huge demand from those who expect it to look after them and their children will be a political nightmare. Social mobility will continue to decline so long as it is only the middle classes who are bringing up their children responsibly. Effective public services are contingent upon a public which will not abuse them (I haven’t read Frank Chalk’s book yet but from conversations with a teacher I know what to expect). Cameron’s great service to social conservatism is to separate this from the less popular elements of the social conservative programme. This will mean that progress can be made on turning Labrador conservatism into a practical reality while social conservatives continue to attempt to advance their other, more long-term, goals.
Fiscal support for marriage, as Cameron has advanced, is important not just for its direct effect. It is more important to send the signal that marriage and stable families are valued and not just a relic of another age. Other ideas being floated, some of which Deane was already mentioning last Summer, such as a new, probably non-military, national service or freedoms at a younger age for those who demonstrate their trustworthiness are also clearly aimed at being part of a ‘Labrador Conservatism’. However, the policies themselves are not the test of Cameron’s commitment to the new social conservatism. Misconceived ideas can be improved or discarded, no policy mix will be a panacea to such a severe problem.
Cameron’s role is to be a persuasive and decontaminated spokesperson for the importance of restoring the British family. Harriet Harman’s attack on this new conservatism as ‘blaming parents’ and likely to go the way of Major’s ill-fated Back to Basics is an early indication that the British left will not give up lightly on the idea that yet more state support is what the family needs. The public goodwill towards Cameron causes Harman’s attack to ring hollow. Separating the desire for stronger communities and families from the fight against gay marriage and abortion allows for a new, broader, alliance that can start really fighting the left’s creation and embedding of a welfare class. For social conservatives to reject this as an unwanted compromise is to reject a possible alliance with other elements of the right and many in the centre. If social conservatives reject Cameron they could be rejecting their first chance at progress in decades.
*’In Defence of Cameron’, Salisbury Review, Vol. 24, No. 4. This is only available online to subscribers. I found it in the LSE Library.