Recent discussions around conservatism have considered how it can appeal to young people. In fact it is already appealing more and more to young people. Yes, I am well aware that young people’s voting record challenges this assertion. However the growth of online groups such as Young Tory Society, UK Young Conservatives and Unionists Online, Young Liberal Society and The Britannia Alliance tells a different story. Whatever the recent appeal of Mr Corbyn, polling shows Generation Z to be the most conservative since World War Two.
In his article The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism, Michael Walzer explains why political liberalism is so deeply unsatisfactory in terms of four ‘mobilities’ that define contemporary Western culture. It is in the reaction to these we see the seeds of why conservatism appeals to young people, a demographic traditionally associated with liberal-Leftism.
‘If you aren’t a liberal before thirty, you don’t have a heart’, Walzer wrote in America at the end of the 1980s. American capitalism’s over-reliance on individualism had severed the ties between people and their homes, he observed, when the (necessary) economic liberalisation of the free market had displaced traditional loyalties in favour of hyper-mobility, rootless wandering and hollow individualism.
No wonder since the Blair years and the tearing down of every institution but the market – a trend the Conservative Party has seemed unwilling to reverse – young people have likewise found themselves without a real sense of belonging, as if their only loyalty is to themselves and their own ambitions, but leaving them with a deep sense of longing, a desire perhaps to find that somewhere that we can call ours. Conservatism offers, if not the answer, the route to the answer.
Walzer’s first reason for the loss of identity is ‘geographic mobility’. Young people move school several times in their life. Then comes university, a major factor of geographic mobility. Multiple job changes are further contributors to instability. This is without considering that so many young people’s lives have been disrupted physically by parents’ divorce, or family moves. No wonder, then, that many young people have no attachment to a particular place.
In answer, conservatism is a philosophy of belonging; at the macro-level appealing 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. 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 can travel to York, to Coventry, to Anglesey, always feeling at home.
On the micro-level too, conservatism offers an answer. Joining 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 Mrs Thatcher’s ‘property-owning democracy’ and the current Conservative government’s push for house ownership as opposed to merely renting social housing from the state. It is in the home that we can mark out a territory that is free from state interference. As Roger Scruton 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 reason for identity loss that Walzer discusses is ‘social mobility’, although his emphasis is not on how that term is typically understood. Walzer 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’. The educational system in England has continuously moved away from knowledge of, or belief in, our country, whilst imbuing young people with a sense of rejection of their parents’ past.
How can conservativism answer this problem? There are two main points of recognition: the first is that family life is still 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. It is our parents’ love and guidance that exposes us to the multitude of influences we inevitably share. The second is tradition, which is not a series of chains constructed to keep you in place, but rather the beaten path through a treacherous world. 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 generations long gone.
Following this, Walzer suggests a third contributor to a loss of social identity: ‘marital mobility’. To Walzer, the collapse of families contributes 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.’ Once the value of family is seen young people, having experienced the downside of instability, will want to build their own strong family units, where they can pass on their own traditions.
Walzer points in conclusion to 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 –have declined and the old institutions of authority – church, local association, unions, monarchy, Parliament – have been undermined, and no longer offer the loci of identity around which socio-political duty can be based. Instead, selfish interest governs individuals’ decisions.
It is in face of this disintegration that conservatism once again appeals to young people, revealing itself in small ways, for example that visits to church buildings are reported to have inspired young people to convert to Christianity.
Roger Scruton’s theory of modern Leftism identifies the modern ‘culture of repudiation’ which centres around the phenomenon of oikophobia and which he describes as the rejection of the old symbols of home. In response, conservatism can become a philosophy of oikophilia, a way of helping young people find a place – physically, spiritually, politically, socially – in an otherwise hostile global world. Conservatism must become the philosophy of coming home.