‘Orthodox’ conservatism is the last thing the Tories need

Ben Ramanauskas

January 22, 2020

A socially conservative group calling itself “Orthodox Conservatives” was launched over the weekend. Given that so far we’ve only seen a list of 10 vague principles and a Twitter thread, it is difficult to know exactly what the group is about or what it hopes to ultimately achieve. As such, it would be wrong to make too many assumptions.

However, we are in a position where we can say that we should be sceptical of this group and of social conservatism itself.

First, let’s deal with the group. From what we know so far, it looks as though it is going to be deeply divisive, whether meaning to or not. For example, calling yourself “orthodox” might simply be an attempt to signal that you are socially conservative. However, the word suggests that what they believe is true and authentic Conservativism and so, by implication, anybody with differing views is a heretic and not a real Conservative. 

Moreover, they are not likely to be inclusive. Most groups have a set of distinctive characteristics, and the Orthodox Conservatives are no different. But this group seems to be going one step further. For example, the thread was signed off “God Bless” and they have frequently emphasised the importance of “Christian values and morality”. Where does this leave non-Christians (who make up more than half of the country)? And does this mean that only those who belong to a religion are welcome to join? What of atheists and agnostics or people of faith who believe that religion and politics should be kept separate?

Given the fact that the founders of the group have not handled criticism well, it seems unlikely that it will be a group that welcomes and values a variety of different opinions.

Furthermore, their principles – or “10 pillars” – again seem to suggest that they are not in favour of inclusivity or equality. There is an emphasis on the importance of Western civilisation and the importance of family. However, these terms are not defined nor fleshed out. As such, given their social conservative stance and the tweets of some of the people involved, we are left wondering what this means for people who are not Western or who are not part of a traditional family.

There is also the question of relevance. Based on the logic of the Orthodox Conservatives, one would think that the UK has long been run by neoliberals who hate Britain. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This country recently endured the conservatism of Theresa May and Nick Timothy and their emphasis on “community” and paternalism. We now have a government that is certainly not going to do anything socially liberal when it comes to drugs or immigration. So, we must ask ourselves: what is the point? There’s currently a great deal of socially conservative laws and policies already, so what do the Orthodox Conservatives hope to achieve?

Let’s now focus on social conservatism itself. Of course, there is a rich tradition of it within the Conservative party, and those who would define themselves as such have every right to form these groups. However, socially conservative policies are immoral, discriminatory, economically damaging and politically unwise.

Social conservatives like to base their policies on what they believe to be moral, and they expect the law to enforce their traditional view of morality. For example, homosexuality used to be illegal in this country and most drugs are still criminalised. This is because at one point or another homosexuality and drug use were seen as immoral. 

However, rather than it being the moral thing to ban such things, it is actually deeply immoral. As the philosopher Robert Nozick explained in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, people have rights, and it is not legitimate for other people to interfere with those rights.

As such, it is difficult to think of anything more immoral than using the state’s monopoly on violence to prevent people from loving who they love or doing as they wish with their own bodies. This is the position of social conservatives who seek to use the law to impose their own morality on other people. They may think they are acting morally, but they are in fact being deeply immoral.

This immorality is not just because it interferes with the rights of bodily autonomy of individuals, but it extends to some of the consequences of these laws too. Take the prohibition of drugs, for example.

Each year, many people end up overdosing on drugs or becoming addicted to them due to the fact that they are criminalised. Criminalisation also means that drugs are dangerous as they are not regulated. Simply put, social conservatives – and anyone else – who support the war on drugs have blood on their hands.

Many socially conservative policies are also highly discriminatory. The current focus seems to be on denying the rights of trans people to self identify. Years ago, they would have argued that gay people shouldn’t be able to adopt children. As such, social conservatives have a past pattern and practice of discriminating against some of the most oppressed people in the country.

Then there are their calls to support traditional families through the tax system. Why should married couples be supported by the state at the expense of the rest of society? Why do social conservatives so frequently vilify single parents, such as my mum?

The policies espoused by social conservatives can also be economically damaging. Take their stance on immigration. There is a clear consensus among economists that immigration has numerous benefits for the host country, including increased productivity and economic growth. 

Or take their position on developing on the green belt (and often any form of development near where they live). There is a housing crisis in this country, and this is because supply has failed to keep up with demand. This leads to decreased productivity and stagnant economic growth. 

Finally, social conservatism is politically unwise. The Conservative party is already very unpopular with young people, who tend to be more liberal on issues such as trans rights, immigration and drug use. They also definitely want to see house prices go down so that they don’t end up spending half their wage on rent every month and at some point will be able to afford to own their own home. Why would anyone who is a member of the Conservative party want to alienate young people even further? It may be your idea of “pure” politics, but it is not a winning strategy for a forward-thinking political party.

It should be pointed out that I am not a member of the Conservative party – I’m a floating voter. I believe in free markets and free people, and I voted for the Conservatives in 2015 and 2019, having abstained in 2017 due to Theresa May’s own brand of social conservatism.

As such, you might think that my opinion on this matter is not important (this has certainly been the attitude of some of the founders of the Orthodox Conservatives towards people who have raised concerns). However, such a move is unlikely to endear you to the very people you should want to win over if you are seeking to remain in power. And this is the problem with social conservatives: they don’t like modern Britain, and they have no interest in appealing to it. They are, in many ways, the right-wing equivalent of Momentum.

In closing, this article is not about silencing people or taking away anyone’s right to freedom of speech. Be a social conservative if you want. Form a socially conservative pressure group if you want. That is your right and nobody should stop you. However, such a group should be called out on its inherent flaws. Social conservatism is often immoral, discriminatory, economically damaging and politically unwise. It is the last thing the Tory party needs.

Author

Written by Ben Ramanauskas

Ben Ramanauskas is a research economist at Oxford University.

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