The culture war on tradition

Sunday 18 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Cinema 3, Barbican Contemporary Controversies

Tradition used to be seen as a good thing, across the political spectrum. Before it became dominated by metropolitan professionals, Labour was rooted in the trade unions, and proud of its history. Conservatives, meanwhile, stood unashamedly for the traditional family, frowning on single motherhood and divorce, and most infamously banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools through Section 28. Today’s Tories have legalised same-sex gay marriage, with David Cameron arguing that true conservatives should want to welcome gay couples into the matrimonial fold. But the move is only conceivable because the institution of marriage was already undergoing change. Indeed, the really traditional family - with working husband, housewife, 2.4 children (seen and not heard) and perhaps a Labrador - is often regarded as archaic, and talked about more often as a site of oppression or abuse than as the bedrock of society. 

Some welcome this as an indication that the progressive side has won the Culture War, and done away with the oppressive and stultifying social mores that undoubtedly characterised traditional morality. But the other side of that morality was an assumption of privacy and autonomy; an Englishman’s home was his castle (even if women weren’t expected to have castles). Traditionalists in their pomp would never have allowed the level of state interference in family life that is now routine. Parents are no longer trusted to raise children without state oversight, epitomised by legislation in Scotland giving every child a state-appointed guardian.

Moreover, the disdain now shown for those who express conservative moral views suggests we are becoming less rather than more tolerant as a society. The prosecution of a Christian couple for refusing to bake a cake with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage and the sacking of Christian registrars who refuse to conduct gay weddings suggest it is perhaps not just tradition but also the principle of religious freedom that has been weakened. Meanwhile, some worry that the views of a vocal cultural elite have overshadowed values that are still held dear in working-class families – not to mention popular doubts about the merits of immigration and multiculturalism. While the Conservatives seem keen to ditch tradition, there are even calls for the Labour party to stand up for unfashionable blue-collar Britain, or lose out to the unashamedly retro-styled UKIP.

While most people would agree that many traditions are best left in the past, is the current marginalisation of tradition per se a healthy development, signalling a freer and more equal society? Have old-fashioned conformism and judgementalism simply been replaced by a new set of shibboleths? Or is the new conformism even worse, lacking even a rhetorical commitment to individual autonomy? Can we combine enlightened attitudes on equality and openness to change with respect for genuine diversity of thought and even for tradition itself?

Listen to the debate

Neil Davenport
sociology and politics teacher; writer on culture; former music journalist

David Goodhart
director, Demos Integration Hub; author, The British Dream: successes and failures of post-war immigration

Paul Lay
editor, History Today

Kate Maltby
theatre critic, The Times; associate fellow, Bright Blue; researcher on intellectual life of Elizabeth I

Dr James Panton
head of politics, Magdalen College School, Oxford; associate lecturer in politics and philosophy, Open University; co-founder, Manifesto Club

Produced by
Neil Davenport sociology and politics teacher; writer on culture; former music journalist
Recommended readings
Why conservative values are needed in our schools now more than ever Katharine Birbalsingh, Conservative Teachers, 29 September 2015

I'm taking on the Establishment and they hate me for it

Nigel Farage on consensus, conformism and the virtue of dissent.

Brendan O'Neill, spiked, 9 March 2015

Clacton byelection: the main parties need to hear this roar of defiance

From Clacton to Strood, only Ukip seems to speak to voters who feel abandoned, patronised and ignored

John Harris, Guardian, 8 October 2014

Prominent Tory disowns 'religious right' and supports gay marriage

Conservative Home editor tells party that changing the law would strengthen a valuable institution

Andrew Grice, Independent, 16 February 2012

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