BBritain is a conservative country. This is repeated so often that even many who want a different society have come to believe it. Especially during long periods of Conservative rule, when disappointing election results and the right-wing exercise of power can seem like almost all politics.
But politics is not just about elections and holding public office, as much as Westminster politicians, party activists and journalists want that to be the case. It is also about slower, less noticeable, and more continuous changes in public attitudes and behavior. What we consume; how families work; what we consider to be a legitimate sexual relationship; what words do we use to talk about race. Changes in such things may start with a few individuals, but they can alter the distribution of power in society.
Through their legislation and rhetoric, governments play an important role in social change. But change can also happen without them, or in spite of them. Since the annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey was first published in 1983, Conservatives have ruled Britain almost two-thirds of the time. They have often aggressively promoted traditional social norms and attacked perceived threats against them, from John Major’s campaign for what he called “the old values” to the Johnson administration’s current “war of awakening.”
However, according to the latest BSA report, public attitudes toward many types of personal behavior “have steadily relaxed since the 1980s,” with “a growing sense of ‘live and let live’ when it comes to our views on relationships and lifestyles of others”. Urbanization, immigration, a more diverse popular culture, the growth of liberal universities, the decline of some religions, and the decline of what the BSA describes as the “socially conservative” generations born in the first half of the 20th century, all this has progressively gone. it undermined the hopes of conservative traditionalists. We could be a politically conservative country, but increasingly this is not how we live.
Britain’s liberalization has yet to seriously hurt the Conservatives. Sometimes it has done the opposite. Not because recent Conservative leaders have been adept at stamping out or appropriating liberal ideas (David Cameron’s “hug a sweatshirt” phase was better at creating conservative divisions than at attracting new voters), but because his party a political weakness has exploded in many movements for social change.
In their early stages, social movements are not very compatible with parliamentary democracy. Movements often start small and a small number of voters often have little influence in national elections. Instead, conservatives can present them as outside minorities, a supposed threat against which right-wing voters can mobilize. In Britain, with our often alarmist and critical press and the elderly a disproportionately powerful section of the electorate, this reactionary tactic can be very effective.
In many ways, the “waking war” is a replay of an earlier conservative culture war, nearly four decades ago. By the mid-1980s, the British lesbian and gay rights movement had been running for three decades and had won the support of local left-wing authorities such as the Greater London Council. However, only about one in 10 British approved of same-sex relationships – same proportion as recently told the YouGov survey company they thought “waking up” was a “good thing”. In the run-up to the 1987 general election, conservatives and right-wing newspapers made up endless scare stories about gay and lesbian activism and its “crazy left” Labor allies.
The stains worked. In a leaked internal memo on the state of the campaign in London, Labor strategist Patricia Hewitt wrote: “It is obvious from our own poll, as well as from the door, that … [being called] the “crazy Labor left” is taking its toll; the issue of gays and lesbians is costing us dearly among retirees ”. In the elections, the Conservatives won another large majority. They did especially well in London, beating Labor by 15 percentage points.
However, this victory of social conservatism was short-lived. Since the late 1980s, the increasingly common experience of living among people with openly different sexualities began to outweigh the scary stories about homosexuality. Public approval of same-sex relationships began to rise. Now it is at almost 70%.
The realization that social liberation can occur despite electoral defeat began to preoccupy parts of the left during their retreat years in the 1970s and 1980s. French political theorists such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari argued that new forms of life and forms of identity could transform society, individual by individual, at least as radically as a reforming government.
At the time, these defenders of what Guattari called “micropolitics” could be seen as leftists seeking a prize of political consolation. But since then they have been shown to be right in many ways. Across the West, millions of lives have taken new paths and, at times, governments have been forced to follow them. “The power of the state is derived from other forms of power,” Foucault said in 1979. “If we want to change the power of the state, we must change the various power relations that operate in society.” I doubt that Cameron is a reader of Foucault, but in 2013 his government legalized same-sex marriage.
Will conservatives finally have to accept the “awakening”? It is more difficult to imagine. Abandoning homophobia implies giving up only one type of power. But accepting awakening, to the extent that a controversial term can be defined, means accepting that the entire society can no longer be organized primarily for the benefit of straight white men. And straight white men are the largest group of conservative supporters. Since the arrival of the Johnson government and its absorption of many Brexit party ideas and voters, Conservatives have become even less awake than before. Much of Britain may be becoming more liberal, but conservatives and many of their voters seem to be walking furiously in the opposite direction, as do right-wing populists around the world.
And yet, as in the 1980s, there are signs that social conservatism in Britain may be less robust than it appears. YouGov’s recent survey of awakening found that 59% of respondents still don’t know what the word means. Their views are still at stake.
More intriguingly, of those who described themselves to YouGov as “not woken up,” a substantial minority claimed that causes such as racial and transgender equality were not woken up either. “The fact that supporting [such causes] … it is not seen as a marker of awakening, “suggested YouGov, it may mean that these are reasons why” not awakening [actually] support for”.
Many Britons may be waking up little by little, without necessarily realizing it. This is how social attitudes often change here. Britain is a country that likes to say it doesn’t like change. But it rarely stays the same.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism