Saturday, April 14, 2007

David Cameron's Labrador Conservatism, Or: Alex Deane was Right

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.


James Higham said...

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.

Interesting that Tiberius Gracchus changed this round for his take on the issue.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Compare and contrast 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 with the British left will not give up lightly on the idea that yet more state support is what the family needs.

If you want to argue that the state should allow people to keep more of their earnings, then I'm all for it. If you want to argue that marriage and stable families are a good thing, then I'm right there with you. But I don't quite see why you say the state should be encouraging people to do something they'll do anyway, if their doing it is to be of any value. If someone needs a financial incentive to get married, they've rather misunderstood what marriage is all about, haven't they?

Or have I missed the point? I often do.

Anonymous said...

last time i checked 2gay marriage" was still not the law in Britian and section 28 repal was opposed by the large majoirty of the public or have i missed something?

i'll give a fuller response tommorow

Matthew Sinclair said...

Not Saussure, an incentive is different to support. To answer your main point I'll cite my reply to Gracchi's post as I think I've summed it up reasonably:

"I would argue that marginal financial incentives are unlikely to either 'create' marriages or sustain them through serious abuse. It will affect those marginal cases of marriages which have gone a little stale or are going through a rocky patch. In these cases the huge social costs of divorce suggest we should want people to err on the side of staying married. At the moment, with a tax system which will often leave people better off if they divorce, we do the opposite and incentivise divorce."

Edmund, Like I said: "The public has sympathy for many religious conservative causes but regards anyone who advances them in public as distinctly weird." That's what happened to IDS.

Civil partnership and gay marriage are used pretty interchangeably. As the only difference is the name there is, in practice, no difference.

Anonymous said...

This is a superb piece pulling together some divergent ideas into a strong argument.

It must be noted that our starting point is that there are significant disincentives to marry as a result of the tax, benefit and legal systems in the UK. We need to hammer this home. The other furious opposition you/we are going to get is from people who are scared that this is the thin end of the wedge and will seek to portray you as being dishonest - in that what you are really trying to do is to advance a fundamentalist agenda.

Anonymous said...

Matt on your repsonde to my post, is there any evince that this aleinted the public from IDS- any opinon data/ after all it was under IDS that the labour lead colasped from large to only just above the tories. I'm not saying that it's a mirace issue but what's the evidence that it hurt elecotaly (as opposed to wiht small sections of the tory elite)?

your civil partnership point is a good one-though i don't think it reflects public views-there's a big polling difference , and i thik the point remians-gay mariage is not legal in the uk so the idea it's a fringer postion to oppose it is odd.

I fail to see why such issues should be more finger than italy (where the public is more pro gay rights- a majoryt suport gay marriage) or Australia (where Howard has indeed used such issues for his advnage) this is difn of course from saying that the whole of an eleciton can be fought on gay marriage still less aborion-that is not the case in america contrary to myth and it certialy would not be the case here.

Anonymous said...

To a more impont point on your main excellent post.

I think the distinction between these two types of issues is somehwat arbitery -after all why do we care is so many peole are badly bough up? why not just put them in jail? Also it cerainly does not strictly divide into religious vs non religious issues.

moreover more to the point i think the answer for popularity depends on issues - so i would storngly suggest that oppostion to gay marriage is a more popular cause than preventing the parents of minor childn divorcing-even though the latter is much more defensible from a "labrador conservative" perspeive-. it's not whether something is in some vague ways "religous" or "non religous" that makes it popular ot not-it's what hte public belives and their intensity of their beliefs.

I also think the link between religion and just about any poltical issue is a complex one there are not simple "religous" and non religous" ones.

I think your pragamtic point and the point of long term on social conservatism is an excellent one-but it is not exaclty confied to those issues, it's true of just about all distinive changes in the status quo.

I do think it might also be good to link this to the idea family break up is inhenly bad and not just its effects on an underclass. I would be keen for both ethical and even more elecola reason for this to not become some kind of peri attack on the poorest and thier problems with no ethicla content but the hatred of crime and welfare expenditure. This is not least because if not carefully handed it would run the risk of playing into the chief negative stretory for the public (as opposed to the Guardian) of the Conservatives-that they are the party of the selfish affluent and rich. However this is a caution-it ceritaly does not invalidate your thesis.

I think your point that "gay mariage" is only part of what undermiens marriage is a very veyr good one- the scandalousl loose divorce laws in ameirc probaly do more. However it's worht noting that as it's been inodi in various countires eg Sweden and HOlland marriage has gone into sharp decline , would it strneth marriage if brohtes and sisters could get marired- if any two people withou a sexual relationship could enter it? if peole coudl have more than one wife , if not one is this different?

Lastley i could not agree more with Prague Tory-the effects of govern welfare expenditure and regulation are to massively undermine marriage and are chiefly repso for its weainess - this is merely about mitaging the hugely damaging effects you don't have to belive the government should promote marriage-merely the effect of its activity should not be to undermine it.

This also strikes as an important point to make politcaly.