Jesse Norman: Impeccably conservative

Despite having led a backbench rebellion against Lords reform, Jesse Norman is one of the last defenders of Cameron’s “big society”. What’s more, he tells Rafael Behr, its influence is growing.

There’s a great scene in The African Queen, the 1951 film about a colonial military escapade in the First World War: Rose Sayer, a Methodist missionary, disposes of the stash of gin belonging to Charlie Allnutt, a drunken Canadian boat captain. “A man takes a drop too much once in a while,” he complains. “It’s only human nature.” Sayer responds: “Nature, Mr Allnutt, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

It works better when performed by Kath - arine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, but Jesse Norman does a passable re-enactment over tea in the lobby of a swanky Westminster hotel, his precise Old Etonian diction crashing into Bogart’s attempt at a Canadian drawl. The Tory MP for Hereford is making a philosophical point about the balance between liberal freedom and paternalistic intervention. The Sayer/Hepburn line is, he says, “impeccably conservative”.

We are talking about markets and the point at which governments have a duty to override commercial imperatives in order to serve a greater social good. Norman cites Labour’s introduction of the ban on smoking in public places as an example of an illiberal measure that worked. He is wary of the impact supermarket chains have on local communities, especially when they sell alcohol at loss-leading prices.

“You might want to take a much tougher attitude towards the supermarkets. There is lots of evidence that they destroy social capital. If you were able to change the playing field so that certain retail outlets couldn’t discount as heavily, what happens is more people drink in pubs, which have high levels of social capital, which are often rather good for their local areas.” The same argument applies to sugary foods, where there is a tension between retailers, peddling popular junk, and a public interest in containing an obesity epidemic. “I’m not generally in favour of banning different foods, but I wouldn’t rule it out.” Yet Norman remains wary of government meddling: “There’s an ever-present risk that that degenerates into vast state intervention, enormous bureaucracies, heavy-handed regulation and all that.”

Accidental rebel

The conversation has drifted on to fags, booze and fatty takeaways from a discussion about banks, greed and what it means to be Conser - vative. Norman sits on parliament’s powerful Treasury select committee. Long before he became an MP – elected in 2010 – he was a director at Barclays. He has run an educational charity and taught philosophy at University College London. He achieved political prominence only this year as the central organising figure behind the Tory rebellion that killed Liberal Democrat plans for House of Lords reform.

The episode prompted a crisis in relations between the two coalition parties. In a corner of parliament after the crucial vote on 10 July, it also provoked a fierce personal rebuke from the Prime Minister, who felt that his authority had been undermined.

Norman, who was previously seen as a loyalist and candidate for ministerial promotion, is reluctant to revisit that episode. He does not consider himself a “natural rebel”, he says. “Not at all. I regarded us as constitutional loyalists.” He is also confident that by killing Nick Clegg’s plan he has done the coalition a favour, freeing it to get on with matters of proper public concern, chiefly “putting out the fire in the economic engine room”. For signing up to that goal, at least, he applauds Clegg.

“I massively respect the Lib Dems for coming into the coalition,” he says. “What I don’t have respect for is a philosophy of government that couches the coalition in terms of what each side can extract from the other, the language of bargaining and negotiation.”

Philosophy of government is what Norman is happiest talking – and writing – about. He has written books on, among other things, Compassionate Conservatism and The Big Society, a 2010 volume developing the vision that Cameron once claimed as his defining creed. Last year he published The Case for Real Capitalism, a pamphlet that sought to remake the moral case for a free-market economy, deploying conservative arguments against the “cronyism” that, he argues, has corrupted competition.

It is the only substantial Tory counterpart to the argument Ed Miliband makes, demanding more “responsible capitalism” as the antidote to wild profiteering and widening inequality. There is some overlap between the two analyses. Norman accepts that “corporate power is at risk of becoming too strong”. He shares Mili - band’s distaste for the doctrine of neoliberalism – the ultra-individualistic market ideology, judged to be economically reckless and socially corrosive when turbocharged by deregulation. “We’ve seen what neoliberalism means in financial services and it isn’t pretty.”

Yet Norman rejects the Labour view that the problem is rooted in Thatcher-era reforms. “There’s no way Mrs Thatcher would have had any time at all for the banks enriching themselves. She very much believed in a day’s work for a day’s pay. The reason she liberalised the City was [that] it was a closed shop, which she thought needed the wind of competition blowing through it. That’s a different matter from saying, ‘We’re going to sit by and watch a pathology of liberalism take over where everyone just helps themselves and bilks the customer.’”

The rot set in, Norman argues, after 2000, roughly when the banks abandoned sensible ratios of debt-to-equity and bankers’ pay went berserk, fuelled by the assumption that boom and bust had been eliminated and that the capital markets represented a “one-way bet”.

He offers a second line of defence for That - cher: “Far from being the freebooter that has been described, [she] was very cautious about where she introduced privatisation and where she introduced market mechanisms. There was not a lot of marketisation of the NHS; the same was true of the railways; the Post Office wasn’t privatised. Those changes that then occurred happened after that.”

I am reminded of “civic conservatism”, expounded in 1994 by David Willetts, now a minister of state at the Department for Business, and of the “Red Tory” thesis published in 2010 by Phillip Blond, the Anglican theologian who was once advertised (inaccurately) as Cameron’s intellectual guru. Both men have argued that economic liberalisation in the 1980s, following on the heels of social liberalization in the 1960s and 1970s, created a cult of individual entitlement, instant gratification and extreme moral permissiveness that Thatcher, as a believer in people’s innate capacity for selfrestraint, never anticipated.

In Norman’s view, authentic Conservatism should contain the idea of politics as the duty to foster collective social restraint. It is about conserving a social order that has been handed down through generations and mediated by historic institutions, and is vulnerable to being vandalised by utopian radicals.

“The social order is vastly more complex than we can ever understand. Not only do we hold it in trust but it also outstrips our capacity to understand it. For both of those reasons, the correct attitude of politicians is modesty towards what they’ve received.”

The conservative instinct, he says, is for “ordered freedom, whose benefits spring from its constraints”. This he sees as the opposite of the liberal instinct, defined thus: “Man is the measure of all things, therefore the individual will is what matters. Because it must be unfettered, you must remove everything that could act as a constraint on it. It is the liberal tradition which ultimately leads to a conception of the self as having no boundaries.”

The Tories, I note, are in coalition with a party that is determined to distinguish its political identity with ever more muscular assertions of liberalism, especially in social policy. Clegg is pushing hard (and Cameron is supporting) moves to give gay couples equal marriage rights. Does Norman’s conservatism recognise that case? He answers with a digression on social psychology, enumerating different “moral communities” based on individual, institutional and divine notions of what constitutes an ethical law. “Conservatives, if they’re doing their job properly, have a degree of respect for all of those three communities.”

The abstraction is now obscuring rather than elucidating the matter. He must have an instinctive sense of where he sits in this debate? “I haven’t expressed a public view on it. I’ll look at the bill and decide.”

Culture clash

I sense a reluctance to allow the philosophy to wander into territory that would signal another rebellious impulse. Despite the clash over Lords reform, Norman remains diligently loyal to the Cameron project, even mounting a defence of the “big society”, which most commentators – and many Tories – have written off as a rhetorical dead end for the Prime Minister.

“Whatever people think about the words ‘big society’, 95 per cent of the people I talk to really believe in the ideas. They really want to live in a society that is more localised, where they feel more empowered. It’s this feeling of disempowerment, being locked out of a community, anomie; those are the things that are really damaging.”

Here, too, there is an overlap with current Labour thinking. He has praise for Jon Cruddas, who is leading Ed Miliband’s policy review. Cruddas has been instrumental in developing a “Blue Labour” set of ideas (an echo of the Red Tory label) that is heavily critical of the postwar dependence on central state mechanisms for effecting social change. In an essay in last week’s New Statesman, Cruddas suggested that Labour had been wrong to dismiss the “big society” out of hand. That is music to Norman’s philosophically conservative ears.

“If we start to see the Cruddas wing of the Labour Party –to the extent to which there is one – growing, you will see a rejection of state-firsttype solutions. It’s quite interesting that some Labour politicians have started to talk about restraining spending and limiting the extension of state control,” he says. “What would be really interesting would then be to see a distinct philosophy of social empowerment which genuinely borrows from Labour’s own traditions of the 1920s, 1930s, before Fabianism really gets going. In the so-called market for ideas, that would be an enormously good development and beneficial for the country.”