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Culture and technology
4 February 2013

Real conservatism begins with culture

To which Whitehall department would you look to first for proof of an authentically conservative government? 

How about the Treasury, for a recognition of marriage in the tax system? Or the Foreign Office, for the repatriation of powers from the European Union? Alternatively, one might look to the Home Office, for a real return to beat policing; or to the Department for Education, to allow new grammar schools to open beyond the selective Bantustans of Kent and Buckinghamshire.

But what might we expect from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport? Some might say absolutely nothing except its immediate abolition. However, that would be more of a libertarian response than a conservative one.

Culture matters. Not just for its own sake, but because it is the foundation of so much else in our society. It is a point well made by Wilfred McClay in the University Bookman. Reviewing The Fortunes of Permanence by the American cultural critic Roger Kimball, McClay describes the underpinning principles of cultural conservatism:

  • “Perhaps the deepest and most important of these is the imperative need to rescue and restore the prescriptive meaning of ‘culture,’ the very meaning that Susan Sontag famously disparaged as ‘the Matthew Arnold idea of culture.’ We have gotten entirely too used to the idea that ‘culture’ is fundamentally an anthropological term, descriptive of our habituations rather than our aspirations—of what groups of people already do and believe, unreflectively, and not of human excellences and ideals to which they might legitimately strive, and indeed, toward which they should strive, if they wish to be all that their human endowment calls them to be.”

Recovering this idea of culture would require the rejection of the false ideals of relativism and novelty-for-its-own-sake: 

  • “For the word ‘culture’ to regain its Arnoldian force, something else must be restored along with it: the very idea of permanence itself, the belief that some human achievements have enduring meaning and value that transcend the particulars of their creation and their immediate context, and that these monuments of insight and expressive power provide a steady and enduring standard (or criterion) by which all else may be reckoned. Indeed, one might say that, instead of judging the adequacy of such works from the standpoint of the present, the concept of culture at its fullest should lead us to judge the adequacy of the present by reference to our gallery of monumental cultural achievements.”

Now, can you imagine a DCMS minister, Conservative or otherwise, standing up for cultural conservatism?

As Michael Gove has demonstrated, the idea of a Conservative minister expressing conservative ideas about education is far from unimaginable. Likewise, Iain Duncan Smith has applied conservatism to important aspects of social policy. Moreover, while we might wish them to go further in their reforms, there is no doubt that the reforming ministers of this Government have been willing to take on the vested interests that stand in their way.

It's a different story at DCMS, however, where the prospect of an authentically conservative challenge to the arts establishment from a Conservative Secretary of State for Culture still seems a long way off.

Perhaps the problem is that politicians, of whatever stripe, have too great an interest of their own in cultural relativism:  

  • “A belief in permanent monuments of cultural greatness is... a threat to the primacy of political power… Their very existence, and their ability to call forth the unforced admiration and loyalty of men and women of all stations, tempers and relativizes the claims of the present, grounds the sense of right and wrong in sources beyond the reach of the present, and thereby makes it less likely that the leaders of the present day—any present day—can claim the souls of those they lead.”


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