When Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron recently proposed a tax break for married couples – including gay couples – he was confronted by angry protests. “How dare he discriminate against unmarried people?” screeched his opponents. “Justify this reactionary measure at once!”, demanded commentators and tweeters. It couldn’t have been worse if he’d proposed drowning puppies at dawn.
Why such outrage about something so common and uncontroversial in many other countries?
Like a bunch of unruly students, the British have always resented being lectured. If a politician dared tell them “Yes we can!”, he would face a collective cry of “No we can’t!”. But this rebellious streak has lately become much more intense, and can now be called full-on individualism – of the sort that even the French would be proud. If it were possible to squeeze into one imaginary person all the aspirations, ideals, values and goals of British people everywhere, averaged out, you might end up with an economic conservative (I stand or fall on my own efforts, and expect others to do the same), and a social liberal (I feel free to live as I see fit, and don’t cast judgment on the lifestyles of others). A complete mishmash of traditional left and right.
Many of these individualistic traits meet with Conservative approval. For example, union membership, that ultimate expression of socialist fellowship and collective strength, has plummeted, especially since 2012, while the number of days lost to strikes is a fraction of what it used to be. Even those strikes that take place do so against a backdrop of disapproval from the many millions who resent anyone seeking reward while withdrawing their labour.
Most dramatically, since the global recession started and living standards fell, there has been an unprecedented backlash against “benefits scroungers” – those who rely on the government for welfare hand-outs. Linked to this is the now mainstream desire to tackle immigration – protecting our borders against newcomers who try to take advantage of our largesse. (Ten years ago, during Tony Blair’s pomp, politicians didn’t dare mention immigration for fear of being labelled racist.).
However, by the same token, Britain’s individualist streak gives the right a bloody nose. There is barely-hidden contempt for anyone from a wealthy, privileged background. No wonder David Cameron tries to hide from his Eton and Oxford past. And there’s a related distrust of big international businesses that use, so it is thought, complicated schemes to avoid tax while ripping off the consumer.
And while British Conservatives delight in the increasing scepticism about super-national, collectivist ideals, such as the European Union, they are less thrilled by the demand from each country in Britain (especially Scotland) for more devolution, threatening the future of the United Kingdom as a whole.
But it’s on social policy that it gets really interesting – and threatening for the right. Individualism includes the widespread belief that you should live and let live, inside marriage, outside marriage or married several times over. Straight, gay, bi or transgender, the choice is yours, so long as you hurt no-one else. Linked to this is a huge rise in solo-living. The proliferation of single-person households over the past 30 years is amazing, caused by higher divorce rates, people coupling up later or not at all and many simply preferring to live alone.
No wonder there was such an outcry at the Prime Minister’s tax break for married couples. Why make a special case for them? And no wonder Conservative politicians are struggling to find a winning message. They must retain their appeal among a sizable but rapidly shrinking constituency of mainly elderly voters with traditional attitudes and beliefs, while reaching out to this growing, outspoken constituency of individualists.
But be warned. Isn’t this the conundrum that conservative parties everywhere will increasingly face? Consider the forces that have driven this individualism in Britain – the very same forces experienced throughout the western world.
First, notwithstanding the economic downturn, we live in an ever-more affluent society. The richer people get, the looser the social ties and the stronger their capacity to mould their own identities. Simply, they no longer rely so much on their community for security.
Secondly, increased global competitiveness. Greater competition between businesses leads to greater competition within businesses, in the form of performance-related pay, competitive promotion systems and all manner of incentive schemes. This means people are competing with the guy at the next desk, or the woman next-door, leading to what Ulrich Beck, the world-leading sociologist, calls communities “being dissolved in the acid bath of competition”.
Thirdly, of course, technology. The ubiquity of tablets, smartphones, digital technology and social networking gives us opportunities to fulfil our social needs, and expose ourselves to a vast range of lifestyle choices, without having to leave our own homes – leading to a huge decline, for instance, in membership of youth clubs, political parties and churches.
So how should Conservatives, in Britain and elsewhere, respond to this tidal wave of self-centredness? The secret, surely, is not to fight it – that would be electoral suicide. Instead, they should proclaim with pride those traditionally conservative economic and social messages that individualists applaud and welcome: small-government, responsible business, law and order, and hard work rewarded.
But they must refrain from saying anything socially old-fashioned, elitist, judgmental or priggish, about the lifestyles people adopt, the choices they make and the language they use. For some in Britain’s Conservative Party, instinctively hostile to unconventional lifestyles and used to speaking their minds, that can be quite a challenge.
Yet it’s one they must meet if they wish to remain in government.
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