University Students and the Challenges Facing Conservatism | Reuben John Swallow

Conservativism remains a challenging ideology to define, taking on a different meaning dependant of time and place, without even accounting for the varying practices of ‘conservatism’. This problem was well addressed by Quintin Hogg, who in 1959 claimed, ‘Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude […] corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself’. Practically, one who maintains this attitude will respect tradition, whilst favouring economic freedom and accepting the existence of a hierarchy (i.e., meritocracy). However, this essay will show that in a changing world, considering conservatism as an integral attitude rather than any fixed object is essential. Given the enormity of ‘conservatism’, the focus will be on conservatism in the UK, with relevance to the USA, and how conservatives in these nations might face up to the challenges of the coming decade.

At face value, the case for conservatism appears strong. In the UK’s 2019 snap election, Boris Johnson’s Conservative party obtained an overwhelming 80 seat majority. Effectively, this was a second referendum on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, which until this point had been delayed in a hung parliament. Nonetheless, observing a YouGov breakdown of this election hints at a huge challenge facing conservatism. Whilst the age after which a voter is more likely to have voted conservative decreased from 47 to only 39 compared with the previous election, for voters as young as 18-24, a mere 21.5% voted conservative.

Ordinarily, this might not suppose a threat, especially if voters appear to switch to conservatism at a younger age. However, this disdain among younger voters portends a growing movement stemming largely from mainstream media and the university. Again turning to YouGov, of voters who had attended university (higher education) only 29% voted conservative, despite 43.6% of the popular vote being obtained by the conservatives. Voter dispersion within medium and lower education better correlated with the popular vote statistic, at 48% and 58% respectively, as did ‘vote by social grade’; voters from any class of wealth had a mean 45.3% chance of voting conservative, closely in line with the overall popular vote. With more than half of 17 to 30-year-olds now attending university, therein clearly exists a bias against conservatism to which younger voters are being exposed.

British universities are a peculiar institute; they enjoy the autonomy of their private-sector classification whilst being distinctly non-profit education centres. Since 2012, a greater reliance on student over taxpayer funding has created an ironic conundrum. In line with fiscally conservative values, the taxpayer burden may have been reduced, yet universities have been offered greater independence whilst being forced to charge higher fees. This independence included universities having no limit on the number of students they could enrol, until the COVID-19 pandemic. Divorced from taxpayer funding, regulation, and enrolment limits, universities are becoming an ideological environment poised against conservatism.

In some sense, this may not be intended maliciously. For instance, a greater number of students may be enrolled for the universities’ own economic wellbeing. This could, however, be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Universities have long since been politically progressive, as might be expected of altruistic research institutes. However, in recent years concern has arisen that the left-leaning progressivism of universities has expanded so much as to stifle intellectual diversity. This is the environment to which vast amounts of young voters are being exposed, and of which the particularities are hugely relevant to the future state of conservatism.

It is worth outlining at least the context from which this left-wing bias has emerged. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has noted how university staff and especially students from the 1990s onwards have experienced a world very different from that of their predecessors. For one thing, these generations have not experienced WWII or the Cold War. Haidt attributes this to a decreased reverence for personal liberty; if there is no obvious, overwhelming threat, why be conservative? Interestingly, Haidt also believes the greater opposition against free speech and conservatism stems from the students. Whilst this is undoubtedly fuelled by the universities, it is unsurprising when considering the power young people now hold in the form of social media.

With an all-time high number of students entering non-conservative institutions, an echo-chamber is created. Social media has put the power in the audience. Young people who have the time and know-how can disseminate their opinions effortlessly. Similarly, if an unpopular opinion emerges it can be attacked along with the perpetrator, immediately and publicly. Encouraged by the universities, anti-conservative rhetoric is becoming the mainstream opinion.

A study by the Heterodox Academy, who campaign for ‘viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement’ in education, found that conservatives in American colleges were most reluctant to discuss political issues, even those deemed ‘non-controversial’. Such disdain for values of intellectual diversity and free speech is a threat approaching British conservativism. Planted by universities, and compounded by the influential power of social media, this was not only evident in the 2019 election, but with merely right-leaning university staff claiming they self-censor their views for ‘fear of consequences’ to their careers. Now and in the near-future, conservatism is beginning to ‘look’ like an illicit ideology, shunned for being so ostensibly dangerous it is not even permissible to consider.

Despite, or perhaps thanks to the above, there is evidence suggesting conservatism will be prosperous in 2030. For the reasons outlined above, the ‘popular’ opinion is seemingly set to be anti-conservative. However, reconsidering Hogg’s notion of conservatism as an attitude, by 2030 it will likely exist as an unusual counter-culture. This is only natural, with anti-conservatism stifling the media landscape, conservatism becomes an attitude of resistance. Indeed, the youngest generation has experienced little more than anti-conservatism, with possible reactions already appearing; those who have turned 18 since the UK’s last election are supposedly as right-wing as 40-year-olds, where previously, younger voters were becoming ever more left-leaning.

In summary, this is little more than a demonstration of the initial problem; conservatism cannot precisely be defined. Instead, it is a variable, guaranteed to retain so long as there are values a voter wishes to conserve, even if this is merely the right to political diversity. In the coming decade, conservatism may become silenced within popular culture, but will thrive as being a dominant ideology among older voters, and a counter-culture among the very youngest.

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