Social Conservatism and the Arc of History

“The arc of the moral universise is long, but it bends towards justice,” said Martin Luther King in a speech given over half a century – a phrase given new life by Barack Obama, when he became President of the United States. So where does that leave social conservatism?

While progressives have certainly got some things right, I’ll be looking at how social conservativism has been, and remains, a force for good, through the lens of three primary loci: forgotten victories, beneficial compromises, and in one’s own personal life.

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As a preamble, I should be clear that I am speaking about social and cultural conservatism with a small ‘c’, not the Conservative party. While in many areas the Conservative Party has been more socially and culturally conservative than the Labour or Liberal Democrat Parties, this has not always been the case – and there are certainly many Conservatives who are socially liberal, and many Labour voters who are socially conservative.

Secondly, the borders of what counts as ‘social’ is necessarily fuzzy. Attitudes to marriage are, of course, clearly in, and taxation levels clearly out. But what about education? Criminal justice? While I am not interested, in this post, in delineating the boundary precisely, I am broadly going to consider it to include all matters that are not primarily concerned with economics (including taxation, free markets, labour law, trade, energy, transport and more) or foreign policy(1).

Finally, before beginning the main course of this post, I should make one up-front acknowledgement: on many issues, the progressives have been right. There are very few social conservatives today who would not acknowledge the tremendous progress we have made on racial equality, or who would think that women should be obliged to give up work when they get married. These areas of progress were fought for and won, overwhelmingly, by progressives.

BUT! To sustain my contention that social conservatism has value, it is not necessary to show that progressives were wrong about everything – only that they were wrong about some things! And, of course, that the conservatives were right. And, I would argue, not just right about some things they blocked, but about some things they failed to. It is simply not the case that, as this – admittedly very funny – satire piece makes out, that social conservatism simply involves complaining about policies the complainer will support in a few years time. Social conservatism has blocked many evils, beneficially moderated many reforms and remains a reliable guide to life – and will continue to do so into the future.

Forgotten victories

The single greatest triumph of social conservatism is the defeat of eugenics. It is often conveniently forgotten by all sides but, in the period up until the Second World War, support for eugenics was not just commonplace and seen as forward-thinking by most ‘smart-thinking’, high status individuals, across the political spectrum.

The Fabian Society, the intellectual well-spring of the Labour Party, was riddled with support for eugenics. It was seen as scientific, progressive, the way to build the society of the future:

The names of the first champions read like a roll call of British socialism’s best and brightest: Sidney and Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Harold Laski, John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes, the New Statesman even, lamentably, the Manchester Guardian. Nearly every one of the left’s most cherished, iconic figures espoused views which today’s progressives would find repulsive. Thus George Bernard Shaw could write: “The only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man”. Later he mused that “the overthrow of the aristocrat has created the necessity for the Superman”. The revered pacifist, disarmer and philosophical titan, Bertrand Russell, dreamed up a wheeze that would have made even Nazi Germany’s eugenicists blush. He suggested the state issue colour-coded “procreation tickets”.

Eugenics and the Master Race of the Left, The Guardian, 2019

On the other side of the aisle, Sir Winston Churchill was also a keen supporter:

In 1899, Winston Churchill declared that his aim in life was the “improvement of the British breed.” He saw “the “feeble-minded” as a threat and in a 1910 letter to the Prime Minister, Henry Asquith advocated compulsory sterilisation as an alternative to confinement — a “simple surgical operation so the inferior could be permitted freely in the world without causing much inconvenience to others.”

How the Establishment fell for Eugenics, Unherd, 2020

It is important to emphasise that these were not peculiar, or concealed, or iconoclastic views – they were mainstream, seen as worthy and progressive – and cut across other divides in public life. Many people who held these views were serious, successful sober individuals, such as John Maynard Keynes, who are rightly acclaimed for their many other achievements in other fields. Yet they supported eugenics. If you, reader, are a person who feels at home in the ‘sensible centre-ground’ of high-status opinion, the things that David Cameron, Keir Starmer, The Economist and The New Statesman all agree are ‘good, grown-up policies’ – then it is worth reflecting that you, too, may well have supported eugenics.

The [Eugenics] Society organised the First International Eugenics Congress in 1912, at the University of London (now Imperial College), in South Kensington, to encourage the international dissemination of eugenicist thinking. Attendance at the congress illustrates how such thinking crossed the arts and sciences and was embraced by both conservative and progressive thinkers.

By this time Galton had been succeeded as president of the Society by Major Leonard Darwin, former Liberal Unionist MP, fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and son of Charles Darwin. The vice presidents included literary hostess and patron of the arts Lady Ottoline Morrell and the writer and sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis.

The British vice presidents of the congress included Liberal politicians Lord Avebury, Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary Reginald McKenna, the chemist Sir William Ramsay, and the presidents of the Royal Society, the Royal College of Surgeons and other leading medical and legal institutions. The welcome addresses were given by the Lord Mayor of London and the former Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. The American Ambassador, the Duchess of Marlborough and founding Eugenics Education Society member Lady Emily Lutyens hosted congress parties at their London residences.

Eugenics in Britain, English Heritage

So where did opposition come from? Eugenics was ultimately discredited by the horrors of World War II and the atrocities of the Nazis, when the world had its eyes brutally opened to where eugenics led(2). But what kept it from being implemented before then?

It wasn’t the progressives, or the scientists. It was the social conservatives, the Catholic Church, the quiet mass of public opinion and the few unfashionable, fuddy-duddy and yet often eloquent social conservatives who opposed it, citing ‘old-fashioned’ concepts such as human dignity or the sanctity of life. It is Chesterton, not Wells or Stopes, who writes in Eugenics and Other Evils:

The Eugenicist, for all I know, would regard the mere existence of Tiny Tim as a sufficient reason for massacring the whole family of Cratchit; but, as a matter of fact, we have here a very good instance of how much more practically true to life is sentiment than cynicism. The poor are not a race or even a type. It is senseless to talk about breeding them; for they are not a breed. They are, in cold fact, what Dickens describes: “a dustbin of individual accidents,” of damaged dignity, and often of damaged gentility. The class very largely consists of perfectly promising children, lost like Oliver Twist, or crippled like Tiny Tim. It contains very valuable things, like most dustbins. But the Eugenist delusion of the barbaric breed in the abyss affects even those more gracious philanthropists who almost certainly do want to assist the destitute and not merely to exploit them. It seems to affect not only their minds, but their very eyesight. Thus, for instance, Mrs. Alec Tweedie almost scornfully asks, “When we go through the slums, do we see beautiful children?” The answer is, “Yes, very often indeed.” I have seen children in the slums quite pretty enough to be Little Nell or the outcast whom Hood called “young and so fair.” Nor has the beauty anything necessarily to do with health; there are beautiful healthy children, beautiful dying children, ugly dying children, ugly uproarious children in Petticoat Lane or Park Lane. There are people of every physical and mental type, of every sort of health and breeding, in a single back street. They have nothing in common but the wrong we do them.

Eugenics and Other Evils, G. K. Chesterton, 1922

If Eugenics did not get a grip on Britain, between the time of the founding of the Eugenics Society in 1907 and the end of war in 1945, it is due to conservatives – not progressives.

So far, so good. But can a movement really rest on one victory? There are many others.

Take paedophilia. Today, rightly, society sees gay rights and paedophilia as utterly different from each other, with public support for gay relationships and gay marriage undergoing one of the most dramatic transformations of any social change. But in the 1970s and 1980s, when homosexuality was stigmatised and condemned, various campaigners sought to align paedophilia with the gay rights movement and campaign for its acceptance.

The Paedophile Information Exchange operated openly from 1974 to 1984, campaigning for the abolition of the age of consent. It was widely condemned – but so, we must remember, was gay rights, at the time. It managed to become affiliated to the National Council of Civil Liberties (now Liberty), whose General Secretary was future Labour Cabinet Minister Patricia Hewitt(3). In the United States, a similar society, the North American Man/Boy Love Association operated over a similar period, became affiliated to the International Lesbian and Gay Association, marched in (some) Pride parades and was supported by leading intellectuals such as Gore Vidal.

Now, it is important to emphasise that many, or most, in the gay community did not support these ideas – it appears that when the paedophile groups gained entry to broader ‘umbrella’ associations they did so on the grounds of different marginalised groups sticking together for strength in numbers. As gay rights gained ground and became more widely accepted, gay rights groups rapidly distanced themselves from the paedophiles. I am not suggesting in any way that being gay is synonymous with paedophilia.

The point is, that while social conservatives got it wrong on gay rights, they got it absolutely right on paedophilia. The maxim ‘support all progressive ideas or marginalised groups’ can lead you into trouble just as much as opposing all of them. And while it would have been better if gay people had gained acceptance earlier, it would have been a lot worse if paedophiles had. Of course, with omniscience, one would just determine the ‘good’ causes in advance – but in reality, things are messier, and society advances by debate.

On to less momentous subjects, but still to one that is near to many people’s hearts, is the monarchy. In the 1990s, it appeared that the monarchy was creaking – and indeed, many European countries have abolished theirs. Republicanism was a waxing force. But after the dip following the death of Princess Diana, the monarchy resurged in popularity, reaching a new peak in 2012. Since then it has declined once more – though still enjoys a level of popular support that most politicians will die for. I have no doubt that this battle will need to be fought and won again, perhaps every generation – but for now, at least, it remains a victory.

There are many areas of partial victories, or where a small remnant has been salvaged from a broader defeat. Pints and miles (and, unofficially, feet) as the vestigial remains of Britain’s measurement system; grammar schools hold on in a few enclaves of meritocracy. Vegetarianism has never achieved a break-through, and veganism appears, after its recent surge, to be on the decline. Despite the best efforts of the iconoclasts, Britain’s public heritage of statues and monuments remains largely unscathed.

I expect that on some – eugenics and paedophilia – the majority, if not all, readers will agree that it is good the battles against these were won. On others, such as the monarchy, people may differ.

No doubt many of these will come under challenge again in the future, and some may succumb. Heritage is always changing; even paedophilia has been accepted in many cultures at many different times – it would be hubris to assume it will never be so again. But they are all areas where social conservative opposition change has won lasting reprieve – on the scale of decades, at least – and where social tides that were advancing were caused to retreat.

Beneficial compromises

It is often the case that those advocating reform go too far, and that those resisting it, while they may be wrong to resist all change, are right to oppose the worst excesses. In the economic sphere, it is almost inarguable that it was better for Britain to have the NHS and the welfare state than to have gone full throttle for communism(4) or to stay with Victorian-era capitalism. There have been similar beneficial compromises in social reform.

One of the best, and most recent, concerns the compromise between same-sex marriage and freedom of religion. Same-sex marriage is established and well-accepted, but the Act that enabled contained explicit provisions to prevent any individual religion being forced to carry out such marriages. This religious opt-out has not hindered broader social acceptance – and people, regardless of faith, are prohibited from discriminating against people in same-sex marriages – but it has almost certainly lessened opposition from faith groups. After all, the state will ensure you can get married, but it has always been up to an individual religion, or faith leader, as to whether they, specifically, will marry you – with reasons for barring including divorce, or simply being of a different religion. In a country where anyone is free to join or leave a religion – or, indeed, to begin their own denomination thereof – this feels like a matter between an individual and the religion they’ve chosen to belong to, not a matter for the state.

In the UK, unlike the US, significant strides have been made in gender and racial equality without the need for quotas or affirmative action. Whilst one could argue that it is simply a degree of how far one’s finger is put on the scales – and that is true – such things matter. Guaranteeing that a woman will have a place in the final three of a competition undoubtedly gives a leg-up to women (particularly if far fewer women apply), but she can still be beaten by the best man, if he is indeed better – it is a world of difference from a forced all-women’s final.

On abortion, I – and I suspect others – am pleased that a compromise has been struck in Britain which (again) avoids the politicisation and extremes of the US. Even before Roe vs Wade was struck down, the strictest states had regimes far stricter than Britain’s, while the most liberal were far looser. I am not entirely sure when a foetus in the womb becomes a person but, like many other people, I share the instincts that abortion at 1 week is unproblematic, and abortion at 39 weeks is akin to infanticide(5). Where precisely to draw the line is a difficult question, but the British compromise has proven durable and well-accepted for over half a century now, and seems significantly superior to either of the more extreme alternatives.

In schools, matters on behaviour and curriculum are in a constant ebb and flow over the years and decades – and clearly vary significantly from school to school. But here, also, the current situation could be interpreted as a compromise between the pre-war situation and the rampant progressivism of the ’70s and ’80s.

In this viewpoint, both progressivism and conservatism are seen as necessary and complementary forces, ensuring that society moves forward, but in a way which is measured and avoids excess. I do not think this perspective tells the whole story – some changes are for the better, and some for the worse – but it has some merit too it, and does constitute a part of social conservatism’s social value.

One’s own personal life

We’ve focused so far primarily on laws, the state and society as a whole. These are clearly important in so far as they determine what everyone in society can, or cannot, do, or what societal norms are. Values though, are ultimately more about what one chooses to do in one’s own life as about who you vote or campaign for.

If there is one area where social conservatism has been utterly, systematically, comprehensively defeated since the 60s it is on matters concerning sexual morality. Divorce, sex outside of marriage, promiscuity, gay rights, cohabitation, children born outside of wedlock – on all these matters, society has become almost entirely permissive – to such an extent that most social conservatives have long since given up seeking any serious recognition of marriage in the tax system, school teaching or elsewhere.

On a purely personal level though, this doesn’t matter.(6) The evidence is overwhelming that marriage has significant benefits, in terms of health, welfare of children and other areas – even after accounting for demographic differences such as class and wealth. So persistent is the research that even the BBC ends up having to report positively on it, though usually with lots of caveats that they are not trying to stigmatise anyone. I haven’t seen any evidence on same-sex marriages, but I would strongly suspect they will come out as beneficial too.

So who cares what the rest of the society says? Get married to someone who also values marriage and stay married(7). It is already the case that people don’t practice what they preach, and the middle and upper classes, who insist marriage is irrelevant, have remained far more likely to marry than those of lower socio-economic classes.

Similarly on bringing up children. Prioritising outdoor play, independence, courage and maintaining good behaviour has been a provenly effective approach for a long time now, outlasting all the fads and fashions for trendy progressive methods. Screen-time, also: the work of Haidt, Twenge and others is rapidly confirming what anyone cautious would have known all along.

More broadly, strong evidence is emerging from the United States that conservatives are significantly happier, and have less mental health difficulties, than progressives. This isn’t a small effect, it’s enormous – such that conservative women have better mental health than progressive women (the difference between sexes is typically large, and larger than many other effects). No-one knows definitively why this is – though here is a good piece, written by a progressive, grappling with it – but it sure seems that in the absence of definitive causality, socially conservative values seem like a good bet over plunging into the latest progressive trends.

In so far as this lens has any broader society implications, it is in keeping open spaces for people to live their lives as much as possible. That would mean preserving freedom of religion, association and speech; keeping a strong role for parental involvement in schools; minimising the impact of the state in child-rearing, except in cases of clear abuse (home-schooling being allowed, allowing parents to decide when it is safe to allow a child to play in the park/woods/go to the shop, etc.), protection for employees against being dismissed because of views they have expressed outside the workplace – and so forth.

Ultimately, these are measures that would benefit all minorities with views different from the mainstream – religious, political or other values – not only socially conservative ones, and so should be seen as beneficial by all who care about individual liberty.

Though it may at first glance appear that social conservatism ‘throughout the ages of the world [has] fought the long defeat’, the reality is more complex. It is human nature to remember what has changed, not what has stayed the same – the successful reform is remembered, the wrong-headed, evil or misguided that was blocked is forgotten. Yet each of these is a forgotten victory of social conservatism against a warped dystopian ‘progress’. In many other cases, even when the essence of a reform was right, it has played a valuable role in moderating and smoothing the reforms. Even where society has changed, its values may still play an important role in personal life decisions.

Where next? As to what current progressive trends may suffer a setback, predictions in the midst of social change are always a minefield – yet I would hazard a guess that two areas may be in the debate on trans and gender, and – in Canada – on assisted dying. In the first, the only social question to see a marked decline in the British Social Attitudes was on the question, “A person who is transgender should be able to have the sex recorded on their birth certificate changed if they want?”, with responses going from 53:24 in favour in 2019 to 32:39 against in 2023(7) – indicating that people have become more uncertain about this as they have learned about specific cases, including biological males in prisons, in sport and the unknown impact of medical interventions in children. Similarly, in Canada, there is a significant backlash occurring against the Medical Assistance in Dying regime (which from next year will allow assisted suicide for mental health conditions, as well as non-terminal physical ailments) – and I have seen a significant number of UK progressives express disquiet about it. In both cases, it is notable that significant opposition has come from groups who would normally be considered part of the broader (informal) ‘progressive coalition’ – feminists in the first instance, and disability rights groups in the second.

However, time will tell. Regardless of whether or not these tentative forecasts on the two issues above prove right, I have no doubt that social conservativism will continue to win many forgotten victories, moderate change and provide a lodestar in many individual’s personal lives for the foreseeable future.

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(1) Attitudes towards foreign military intervention have swung back and forth far too many times between ‘left’ and right’ for there to be any consistency – nor does there seem any obvious connection between it and social/cultural conservatism, unlike support for, say, grammar schools or capital punishment. Patriotism is, of course, a mark of social conservatism, even if one that remains widely held, including amongst the political left.

(2) It is interesting to note that, as late as 1945, C. S. Lewis portrays eugenics as a real and credible threat in That Hideous Strength, as something that could surge up again in post-war Britain. Eugenics is notably not part of Oceania’s arsenal of oppression in Orwell’s 1984 (published 1948).

(3) She has since apologised for this.

(4) And there were those advocating for communism in Britain, particularly after the First World War, though, like fascism, it never got a strong foothold.

(5) It should be noted that some progressive ethicists, such as Peter Singer, have endorsed infanticide.

(6) It matters to the extent that one considers society as a whole would be better off if more people prioritised marriage – or if one is considering influences upon one’s children, or others who one cares about – but on a purely personal level, one is entirely free to choose. It is rather like obesity: one can rationally campaign for a sugar tax, if one thinks being obese causes broader harm to society, but on a personal one can just choose not to buy those products.

(7) Usual caveats on abuse, abandonment and infidelity apply.

(8) It should be emphasised that this has occurred concurrently with liberalising views on gay marriage, racial equality and many other areas – it is a distinct and unique finding.

2 thoughts on “Social Conservatism and the Arc of History

  1. I think your second reference to footnote 7 is intending to reference footnote 8 instead.

    The bias in our cultural memory towards the things that happened is an interesting point. I suspect there are more forgotten conservative victories than you list, it’s just that you’ve forgotten them!

  2. It is certainly one role of conservatism to apply scepticism to new ideas. Trans rights and Scottish Nationalism anyone?
    But scepticism is not just a Devil’s Advocate “check the thinking” role. As Roger Scruton pointed out, networks of agents – markets, associations, societies and many other “small platoons” contain knowledge and experience that resides in the thin air. And more importantly they can also bring things like love, understanding, commitment, forgiveness and kindness; things that cannot be measured or delivered. As a result they rarely feature in “Progressive Plans” but are vital to getting on together and fixing tough problems. Adam Smith’s first espousal of these ideas also makes them unpopular with determinism and the whiggish top down planning so loved by progressives.
    Look at HR and EDI and the public shaming that goes on. This is maybe the dirty underbelly of progressivism.

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