Conservatism will wither without modernisation

The Conservative Party must delve deeper into Conservative philosophy to provide compelling and meaningful policies for contemporary society.

Give them real Conservatism. Raw right-wing meat. Lower taxes on our wealth creators, cut the NHS, bemoan Europe. Throw in the tweed, while you’re at it. At the moment, you see, they just don’t think we’re right-wing enough.

This argument is repeatedly rehearsed by Tory malcontents, who think we’re letting UKIP fill a vacuum on the right of British politics as modernisation gets us lost in mushy centrist liberalism. Post-Eastleigh, the complaining loudens. Hugo Rifkind exposes the absurdity of this "lurch to the right" fetishism rather neatly: “What planet are you on, when you think Cameron’s big problem is that he isn’t enough of a traditional Conservative? Are you drunk? For most of the country, it’s a constant surprise not to see him with a shotgun under his arm”.

Quite. The rise of UKIP hides something of more significance: yes, those gay-loving, immigrant-embracing, wishy-washy Lib Dems won the by-election. Conservatives are seen as more right-wing than the politics of a typical voter; to be a party that wins an overall majority, surely it must transcend these simplistic political labels? Appeal to a broader range of people on the basis of values which are more universal: competency and compassion, first and foremost.

Philosophers have joined politicos in condemning the Tory modernising strategy. In this month’s edition of Prospect Magazine, the eminent Professor Roger Scruton reviews Bright Blue’s latest book, Tory modernisation 2.0: the future of the Conservative Party. He lambasts modernisers for abandoning conviction to solve the Tories image problem. This strikes me as odd. The primary purpose of a political party, after all, is to win an election: becoming more popular among voters is inescapable.

But this is not the book's only objective despite Scruton’s belittling in absence of detailed scrutiny. More fundamentally, modernisers in this book are inviting deeper discussion about Conservative values that should guide our thinking and policymaking today. Scruton, though, professes we lack understanding of true Conservatism. The reality, of course, is that British Conservatism derives from several philosophies. In his essay, Scruton narrowly emphasises preservation. Here, he allies with those who seek refuge from the contemporary in UKIP, grumbling about same-sex marriage, immigration and house-building in villages. The past reveals the good life: the nuclear family surrounded by green and pleasant land. Tolkein’s Shire, really.

But the world around them has changed. Still, they try and impose the past on a quite different present: ironically then, they pursue social engineering, rightly resisted by Conservatives who are nervous of demands, from the state in particular, that people change the way they live here and now. Such romantics, nostalgic or progressive, ought to be judged sceptically by wise Conservatives.

We need not be mere reactionaries. No, Conservatism is much richer than this. Professor Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, offers a more compelling way. Drawing on an impressive range of studies into the development of human morality, he finds six moral sentiments that Conservatives share: care for others; a belief in proportionality, where reward is linked to effort; desire for liberty against oppression; loyalty for members of a group you associate with; respect for authority; and a belief in sanctity and purity. These sentiments can unite British Conservatives from differing philosophical backgrounds, albeit when some stressed more than others.

The authors of Tory modernisation 2.0 attempt to apply these values to a world where social composition and norms have changed, to ensure Conservatism remains relevant and inspiring. For example, credible solutions are offered to help parents with the cost of childcare. This is because two-earners families are increasingly and necessarily the norm. Instead of yearning for the male breadwinner family model, the book offers fresh thinking on how to tackle the poor affordability of childcare for parents who choose to work: because, for the sake of proportionality, it is right those who are doing the right thing to improve their financial circumstances are supported.

Proposals to catalyse house-building may offend reactionaries fearful of modest housing developments in their villages, but this is again about proportionality: ensuring home ownership is affordable to those who have worked and saved, palpably not the case for many at the moment, rather than simply those who have inherited wealth from their parents.

The book talks of the need to tackle rising loneliness in our society, caused predominantly by an ageing population, the cultural glorification of autonomy, and a degree of pornification of sexual relations. Legalising same-sex marriage is a fightback against this, albeit small, for the sake of loyalty and sanctity that emerge from loving relationships.

Elsewhere, the book describes a new approach to international development, asserting that the UK should look beyond its borders, to support the world’s poor, stemming from a belief in care for others and freedom from oppression. There is an action plan to support renewable energy for the sake of sustainable growth and preservation of our environment against climate change; again, this is about care for others, our future generations, and an instinct for sanctity. There is even a desire for preservation, so Scruton need not fear: ideas are proposed to maintain our world-class universities, for example.

The Conservative Party cannot be simplistically nostalgic and unbending, persistently stomping on the brake pedal. It needs to delve deeper into Conservative philosophy to provide compelling and meaningful policies for contemporary society: this is the paramount purpose of modernisation. If not, and Scruton’s UKIPness prevails, Conservatism will wither.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue

Jonathan Haidt speaking on the "moral roots of liberals and conservatives".

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle