The Census to End the Debate: How (Un)Conservative is the Conservative Party? | Benjamin Woods
A few months ago, we all got a letter signposting us to a government website asking, no, not asking, telling us to provide data for the 2021 census. We have been doing them every ten years for 220 years, collecting data to aid statistics, planning, and government policy on every subject imaginable. Although the questions change, for example, we no longer ask if anyone is an “imbecile, idiot or lunatic” as we did in 1871, the core principles set out by its proponents in 1801 remain.
I must confess libertarian tendencies did start to twitch as I entered my beliefs, ethnicity, sex, age, housing situation and a dozen other things into a government website. However, my law-abiding realism kicked in, and I obediently filled out the form and clicked send. As I write this article, the boffins are hard at work; crunching numbers and aggregating statistics. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) plans to release initial findings within 12 months and all data within 24. However, what are the key metrics Conservatives should look out for, and importantly what can they tell us about how Conservative the record of the Conservative Party has been over the past decade?
It will not be a revelation to the good readers of The Mallard that Conservative Government does not translate into Conservative policy, often to my increasing frustration quite the reverse. With several contributions to The Mallard by other contributors highlighting the historically Conservative backbone of the Labour Party, it begs the question: in a world where the Conservative Party appears to have turned its back on Conservatism, who should Conservatives vote for? By contrasting the trends from the 2021 census with previous data, we will have a clearer picture of the successes and failings of the Conservative Party, and in particular, the ‘One Nation’ wing, which has dominated for the past decade. This may prove to be the census that ends the debate: How (Un)Conservative is the Conservative Party?
THE GOOD (ish)
Marriage has been in constant and possibly terminal decline for over half a century. Between 1961 and 2011, divorce rose tenfold from 0.8% to 9%, marriage statistics had also crashed from 68% down to 49%. The only glimmer of hope was a drop in divorce rates between the 2001 and 2011 censuses. However, this was only illusionary as it was fuelled by the previous collapse in marriage.
This trend is not only a damning indictment on Conservatives to promote their ideas during the New Labour years but an indictment going back decades, under governments of both colours. The rot first set in under Harold Wilson’s Divorce Reform Act of 1969 and has slowly spread ever since, without any serious challenge being brought to it by leading politicians in decades. No Conservative government, mainstream Conservative parliamentarian or even Conservative pundit has robustly challenged or campaigned to reverse these attacks on the family (and it’s not as though we are short of the latter these days). The data from the ONS displayed in Figure 1 shows the fall and rise in marriages and divorces, respectively. Such is the damage to marriage; the trends are abundantly clear even when taken as absolute rather than per capita values. This is supported by the General Marriage Rate (GMR) statistics in England and Wales, shown in Figure 2. GMR signifies the number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried males or females aged 16 and over. A falling GMR highlights a further fall in marriages to come (just as a fall in Covid cases highlights a likely subsequent fall in covid hospitalisations to come).
With data this dreadful, why on earth have I titled this section “Good” or even “Good(ish)”? Well, as dismal as the data is, I am optimistic that the statistics will start to shift back. While a reversal of the negative trend is likely too much to ask for, at the very least, a diminishing and levelling off is something I would expect, or at least hope, to see. That is for two reasons: the legalisation of same-sex marriage and the introduction of modest financial incentives.
While same-sex civil partnerships were included in the 2011 statistics, same-sex marriage was still illegal. With its legalisation, large numbers of homosexual couples have taken up the wedding vowels picking up some of the shortfall left by heterosexual couples, far more than ever took up civil partnerships previously. Now I know many Conservatives will say, “Hang on a moment, same-sex marriage is cheating because that’s not Conservative either!”. However, I disagree. I believe that marriage is a good thing not only for the couple but for society. It is a fundamental tool in promoting the stability of the family unit, which is the building block of society, and like it or not, homosexual couples are as much a part of society as heterosexual ones. This isn’t the article to launch a comprehensive defence of homosexual marriage from Conservative principles (perhaps another time!), but ironically for the church and many Conservatives, homosexual marriage may just save the institution altogether.
The second reason for my optimism is while we have not seen a strengthening of divorce laws, criminal from a government that calls itself Conservative, we have at least seen some incentives for marriage, albeit only a little. Chief among them is the marriage tax allowance reducing taxation on married couples by up to £238 a year. Now I know boiling marriage down to £238 a year is not only wrong but downright offensive. However, there are not many reasons for Conservatives like myself to feel optimistic, so bear with me. The second financial incentive is the loosening of restrictions on venues to offer wedding licencing. Again I am well aware of more traditional Conservatives bristling at that last one, but if the choice is between fifty people being able to afford a wedding or sixty, I will always side with those who wish to expand and promote marriage to as many people as possible even when that means parting with traditions. To do that, you must reduce the cost of marriage, which means opening up licencing permits to a broader range of venues.
Now, I know none of these things represents the groundbreaking incentives of a Conservative utopia and that many Conservatives will be bristling at several of the policies mentioned above. I know none of this comes close to reversing the weakening of divorce laws; I also know none of these policies is befitting of the institution of marriage or the protection of the family. The fact that after a decade of Conservative government, this is all we have to show is a damning indictment in itself. However, the silver lining remains that I believe it may be enough to reduce the negative trend. Note I do not expect a reversal of the trend, even with my most optimistic glasses on, but right now, we have to take any win we can. Expect the divorce rates to fall slightly due to declining marriage rates in the past, whatever happens. The trend in marriage and GMR, or at least the gradient of the trend, will be the crucial indicator to look out for.
THE (catastrophically) BAD
We all know we have a housing crisis in our country, and therefore homeownership is a factor that many assume has been in terminal decline for generations, just as with marriage. However, this assumption is not born out with long-term data, with homeownership increasing from 42% in 1961 to 69% in 2001. Fuelled by ‘New Towns’ and Thatcher’s Help to Buy scheme, the decades up to the 2001 census were optimistic ones for the right of Englishmen to call their castles their own.
However, between 2001 and 2011, that was not the case. The long-term trend faltered, and we witnessed the first fall in a century for homeownership. Although only a marginal decrease from 69% to 64% and still way ahead of the 1991 census, a new trend was set.
In a previous article I wrote for The Mallard, I set out why homeownership wasn’t only a central pillar of Conservatism but also a key indicator of someone becoming a Conservative. In other words, it’s not only a statistic that is important for ideological or policy reasons but also for the survival of mainstream Conservatism full stop. So whether the past ten years of Conservative government has arrested this recent decline in my view is the number one factor to watch out for.
Unfortunately, I’m not hopeful. With plans for adventurous planning reform only coming in recent months and NIMBY backbenchers looking to water it down anyway, these reforms have not arrived in time to affect the results. In fact, as I submit this piece, there are rumours Number 10 plans to drop these proposals altogether. With ONS surveys showing a catastrophic collapse in homeownership for those in their mid 30’s to ’40s over the past 20 years, this is nothing less than a dereliction of duty.
I hope the census will prove both my prediction and the findings of those ONS surveys wrong, although unfortunately, I doubt it. While the recent stamp duty cut in conjunction with the first time buyers guarantee introduced just before the census was conducted may go some way to softening the blow, both policies are mere sticking plasters that fail to address the route cause, which is planning reform.
In summary, I predict the census will not only show a reduction in homeownership but an acceleration of the negative trend we saw between 2001 and 2011. In other words, I predict the party’s report card on this issue will be chalked down as a catastrophic failure.
AND THE (downright) UGLY
Marriage and homeownership are not the only things this census will shine a light on. However, they are two of the most crucial indicators both to society and as metrics of Conservatism in action. Perhaps claiming this census will once and for all settle the debate on the Conservative Parties Conservative credentials is a stretch. In fact, I dare say it might do the opposite, deepening divides between the ruling ‘One Nation’ and ostracised ‘Orthodox’ wings of the party, energising the debate on the future direction of the Conservative Party.
But back to the question at hand: How (Un)Conservative is the Conservative Party?
Well, we are about to find out. However, if I was a betting man, I wouldn’t put money on the Conservative Party, particularly the ‘One Nation’ wing coming out of this well, not by a long shot. My prediction in a nutshell? Both the results and the forthcoming political fallout from the census will be an ugly sight for Conservative eyes, downright ugly.