Britain is a conservative country. This is repeated so often that even many of those who want a different society have come to believe it. Especially during long periods of Tory government, when disheartening electoral results and the exercise of rightwing power can feel almost like the whole of politics.
But politics isn’t just about elections and holding office, however much politicians, party activists and Westminster journalists might want that to be the case. It’s also about slower, less noticed, more continuous shifts in public attitudes and behaviour. What we consume; how families function; what we consider a legitimate sexual relationship; which words we use to talk about race. Changes in such things may begin with a few individuals, yet they can alter the distribution of power across society.
Through their legislation and rhetoric, governments play a big role in social change. But change can also happen without them, or despite them. Since the annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey was first published in 1983, the Conservatives have ruled Britain almost two thirds of the time. They have often aggressively promoted traditional social norms and attacked perceived threats to them, from John Major’s campaign for what he called “the old values” to the Johnson government’s current “war on woke”.
Yet, according to the latest BSA report, public attitudes to many kinds of personal behaviour “have steadily loosened since the 1980s”, with “an increasing sense of ‘live and let live’ when it comes to our views on other people’s relationships and lifestyles”. Urbanisation, immigration, a more diverse popular culture, the growth of liberal universities, the decline of some religions and the dwindling of what the BSA describes as the “socially conservative” generations born in the first half of the 20th century – all these have gradually undermined the hopes of Tory traditionalists. We might be a conservative country politically, but increasingly that is not how we live.
The liberalisation of Britain hasn’t seriously hurt the Tories yet. Sometimes it has done the opposite. Not because recent Conservative leaders have been adept at killing off or co-opting liberal ideas – David Cameron’s “hug a hoodie” phase was better at creating Tory divisions than attracting new voters – but because their party has exploited a political weakness in many movements for social change.
In their early stages, social movements are not very compatible with parliamentary democracy. Movements often start small, and small numbers of voters usually have little influence in national elections. Instead, they can be presented by conservatives as alien minorities – a supposed threat against which rightwing voters can be mobilised. In Britain, with our often alarmist and judgmental press and elderly people a disproportionately powerful section of the electorate, this reactionary tactic can be very effective.
In many ways the “war on woke” is a rerun of an earlier Conservative culture war, almost four decades ago. In the mid-80s, the British lesbian and gay rights movement had been at work for three decades, and had won support from leftwing local authorities such as the Greater London Council. Yet only about one in 10 Britons approved of same-sex relationships – the same proportion as recently told the polling firm YouGov that they thought “being woke” was “a good thing”. In the runup to the 1987 general election, the Conservatives and rightwing newspapers concocted endless scare stories about gay and lesbian activism and its “loony left” Labour allies.
The smears worked. In a leaked internal memo about the state of the campaign in London, the Labour strategist Patricia Hewitt wrote: “It is obvious from our own polling, as well as from the doorstep, that … [being called] the “loony Labour left” is now taking its toll; the gays and lesbians issue is costing us dear amongst the pensioners.” At the election the Conservatives won another large majority. They did especially well in London, beating Labour by 15 percentage points.
Yet this victory for social conservatism was short-lived. From the late 80s, the increasingly common experience of living among people with openly different sexualities began to outweigh the scare stories about homosexuality. Public approval of same-sex relationships began to rise. It is now at almost 70%.
The realisation that social liberation can occur despite electoral defeat first began to preoccupy parts of the left during its years of retreat in the 70s and 80s. French political theorists such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argued that new ways of living and forms of identity could transform society, individual by individual, at least as radically as a reforming government.
At the time, it was possible to see these advocates of what Guattari called “micropolitics” as leftists seeking a political consolation prize. But since then they have in many ways been proved right. Across the west, millions of lives have taken new paths, and sometimes governments have been forced to follow. “State power derives from other forms of power,” Foucault said in 1979. “If we want to change state power, we must change the various relationships of power that operate in society.” I doubt Cameron is much of a Foucault reader, but in 2013 his government legalised same-sex marriage.
Will the Tories ultimately have to accept “wokeness”? It’s harder to imagine. Abandoning homophobia involves giving up only one kind of power. But accepting wokeness – as much as such a contested term can be defined – means accepting that all of society can no longer be arranged primarily for the benefit of straight white men. And straight white men are the Conservatives’ largest group of supporters. Since the arrival of Johnson’s blokey government and its absorption of many Brexit party ideas and voters, the Tories have become even less woke than before. Much of Britain may be becoming more liberal, but the Conservatives and many of their voters seem to stomping off furiously in the opposite direction, much like rightwing populists across the world.
And yet, as in the 80s, there are signs that social conservatism in Britain may be less solid than it seems. YouGov’s recent polling about wokeness found that 59% of respondents still don’t know what the word means. Their views are still up for grabs.
More intriguingly still, of those who described themselves to YouGov as “not woke”, a substantial minority claimed that causes such as racial and transgender equality were not woke, either. “The fact that support for [such causes] … is not seen as a marker for wokeness,” suggested YouGov, may mean that these are causes that “the not-woke [actually] support”.
Many Britons may be becoming woke bit by bit, without necessarily realising it. That’s how social attitudes often shift here. Britain is a country that likes to say it doesn’t like change. But it rarely stays the same.