Conservatism will wither without modernisation

The Conservative Party must delve deeper into Conservative philosophy to provide compelling and meaningful policies for contemporary society.

Give them real Conservatism. Raw right-wing meat. Lower taxes on our wealth creators, cut the NHS, bemoan Europe. Throw in the tweed, while you’re at it. At the moment, you see, they just don’t think we’re right-wing enough.

This argument is repeatedly rehearsed by Tory malcontents, who think we’re letting UKIP fill a vacuum on the right of British politics as modernisation gets us lost in mushy centrist liberalism. Post-Eastleigh, the complaining loudens. Hugo Rifkind exposes the absurdity of this "lurch to the right" fetishism rather neatly: “What planet are you on, when you think Cameron’s big problem is that he isn’t enough of a traditional Conservative? Are you drunk? For most of the country, it’s a constant surprise not to see him with a shotgun under his arm”.

Quite. The rise of UKIP hides something of more significance: yes, those gay-loving, immigrant-embracing, wishy-washy Lib Dems won the by-election. Conservatives are seen as more right-wing than the politics of a typical voter; to be a party that wins an overall majority, surely it must transcend these simplistic political labels? Appeal to a broader range of people on the basis of values which are more universal: competency and compassion, first and foremost.

Philosophers have joined politicos in condemning the Tory modernising strategy. In this month’s edition of Prospect Magazine, the eminent Professor Roger Scruton reviews Bright Blue’s latest book, Tory modernisation 2.0: the future of the Conservative Party. He lambasts modernisers for abandoning conviction to solve the Tories image problem. This strikes me as odd. The primary purpose of a political party, after all, is to win an election: becoming more popular among voters is inescapable.

But this is not the book's only objective despite Scruton’s belittling in absence of detailed scrutiny. More fundamentally, modernisers in this book are inviting deeper discussion about Conservative values that should guide our thinking and policymaking today. Scruton, though, professes we lack understanding of true Conservatism. The reality, of course, is that British Conservatism derives from several philosophies. In his essay, Scruton narrowly emphasises preservation. Here, he allies with those who seek refuge from the contemporary in UKIP, grumbling about same-sex marriage, immigration and house-building in villages. The past reveals the good life: the nuclear family surrounded by green and pleasant land. Tolkein’s Shire, really.

But the world around them has changed. Still, they try and impose the past on a quite different present: ironically then, they pursue social engineering, rightly resisted by Conservatives who are nervous of demands, from the state in particular, that people change the way they live here and now. Such romantics, nostalgic or progressive, ought to be judged sceptically by wise Conservatives.

We need not be mere reactionaries. No, Conservatism is much richer than this. Professor Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, offers a more compelling way. Drawing on an impressive range of studies into the development of human morality, he finds six moral sentiments that Conservatives share: care for others; a belief in proportionality, where reward is linked to effort; desire for liberty against oppression; loyalty for members of a group you associate with; respect for authority; and a belief in sanctity and purity. These sentiments can unite British Conservatives from differing philosophical backgrounds, albeit when some stressed more than others.

The authors of Tory modernisation 2.0 attempt to apply these values to a world where social composition and norms have changed, to ensure Conservatism remains relevant and inspiring. For example, credible solutions are offered to help parents with the cost of childcare. This is because two-earners families are increasingly and necessarily the norm. Instead of yearning for the male breadwinner family model, the book offers fresh thinking on how to tackle the poor affordability of childcare for parents who choose to work: because, for the sake of proportionality, it is right those who are doing the right thing to improve their financial circumstances are supported.

Proposals to catalyse house-building may offend reactionaries fearful of modest housing developments in their villages, but this is again about proportionality: ensuring home ownership is affordable to those who have worked and saved, palpably not the case for many at the moment, rather than simply those who have inherited wealth from their parents.

The book talks of the need to tackle rising loneliness in our society, caused predominantly by an ageing population, the cultural glorification of autonomy, and a degree of pornification of sexual relations. Legalising same-sex marriage is a fightback against this, albeit small, for the sake of loyalty and sanctity that emerge from loving relationships.

Elsewhere, the book describes a new approach to international development, asserting that the UK should look beyond its borders, to support the world’s poor, stemming from a belief in care for others and freedom from oppression. There is an action plan to support renewable energy for the sake of sustainable growth and preservation of our environment against climate change; again, this is about care for others, our future generations, and an instinct for sanctity. There is even a desire for preservation, so Scruton need not fear: ideas are proposed to maintain our world-class universities, for example.

The Conservative Party cannot be simplistically nostalgic and unbending, persistently stomping on the brake pedal. It needs to delve deeper into Conservative philosophy to provide compelling and meaningful policies for contemporary society: this is the paramount purpose of modernisation. If not, and Scruton’s UKIPness prevails, Conservatism will wither.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue

Jonathan Haidt speaking on the "moral roots of liberals and conservatives".

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
Show Hide image

Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.