One of the most  common mistakes people make about cultural and politics is suggesting that history is inevitably heading in one direction. We hear it most commonly in the argument made that “we can’t turn the clock back” to the 1950s, as if anyone is planning to ban garlic bread or continental lager. (I don’t see why achieving 1950s levels of crime would be either undesirable or impossible).

History does not work like that, and in a strange way London today is even more conservative than it was in the 1950s – thanks to liberals.

This week London Metropolitan University’s vice-chancellor suggested that parts of the campus be made alcohol-free because some Muslim students believe it is “evil” and “immoral”.

This paper reports:

Prof Malcolm Gillies of London Metropolitan University said he wants to create alcohol free areas on campus out of “cultural sensitivity”. About a fifth of students at the university come from Muslim families – many of them young women from traditional homes. For many of them, the drinking culture among students marred rather than heightened their student experience, he said.

In principle there’s nothing wrong with this. If one university wants to make itself more attractive to teetotal students, then heavy-drinking students (ie 99 per cent of them) can go to the many colleges where cheap beer flows abundantly. That’s the free market. Muslims aside, many people would prefer a less boozy environment. But I can’t help but feel that this new puritanism is not what the young people who once shouted “disembowel Enoch Powell” in opposition to immigration restrictions had in mind.

The new conservatism of London has already had profound effects, as demographic changes gather pace.

Stonewall’s bus adverts, for example, would be better concentrated in Tower Hamlets, where there were 47 anti-gay attacks in 2008, rather than being wasted on the rest of us. Young gay men in the provinces no longer need to run away to London, one of the most religiously conservative places in England now (and not just among Muslims – African Christians too).

More generally public displays of sexuality have had to be restricted where they offend conservative sensibilities. In Old Street, central London, a huge billboard advertising condoms asks “LOVE SEX?” Half a mile away in Spitalfields even mildly racy adverts for swimwear are routinely vandalised. As for public criticism and mockery of religion – surely no one can deny that the clock has well and truly been turned back? Seven years ago the Tate Gallery refused to exhibit John Latham’s conceptual piece God is Great, originally made in 1991, which featured a six-foot high plate of glass with a Talmud, Bible and Koran. It said it would not be “appropriate” following the London bombings. Latham was in the avant garde of 1960s art, where freedom to criticise and mock religion went without saying; 50 years later London is a very different place in many, many ways.

Old Street was the epicentre of Methodism in London, and is still home to two great Wesleyan churches and the Nonconformist Bunhill Fields graveyard. Methodism was part of a wider reaction to the licence, corruption and sin of 18th century which resulted in more conservative social mores. Today Methodism is a spent force – but it seems that societies without native social conservatives tend to end up importing them.

London, as Ken Livingstone appreciates and future London mayors will very much have to, is a much more socially conservative city than it was when the 60s swang.