How to Retake the Moral High Ground

Cameron will only break Labour’s monopoly of morality by finding the words and tools to redefine Bush’s compassionate conservatism

Features UK Politics

Compassionate conservative, Mark 1: President George W. Bush comforts a fallen fireman’s widow (AP/Press Association)

The Right’s greatest weakness over many decades has been its failure to explain and develop its moral purpose. This has left it electorally vulnerable to left-wing parties that never miss an opportunity to present compassionate credentials to the increasing number of “values voters” in developed electorates. Conservatives can even seem embarrassed about the one nation ambition of their politics — more comfortable using the language of economics and efficiency.

Worst of all, retreating from debates about poverty has led to unfortunate outcomes for many millions of vulnerable people. The Left has led academic and policy debates about how societies should fight poverty. Solutions have become dominated by state rather than voluntary action. Material rather than relational approaches to poverty, involving greater government spending rather than stronger families, have accelerated social fragmentation, poor parenting and loneliness. The success of what has been called compassionate conservatism shouldn’t be a peripheral concern for the Right. It is essential for its electoral relevance.

The current revival of the Left in Britain illustrates the danger. One year ago Gordon Brown wasn’t just beaten, his party was thrashed. Labour received just 29 per cent of the national vote — less, even, than John Major managed when he was buried in the Blair landslide of 1997. Since that humiliating rejection there has been no apology from Labour’s new leader, Ed Miliband. No apology for bequeathing the biggest deficit in the developed world. No apology for allowing immigration to run out of control. No apology for leading Britain’s brave armed forces to defeat in southern Iraq.

But look at the opinion polls and Labour is already bouncing back. Ed Miliband, lacking in prime ministerial qualities, may be a drag on his party’s fortunes but if an election were held tomorrow voters would be open to restoring Labour to office.

The secret of this astonishing recovery is Labour’s defining moral purpose. Labour is one of those institutions that appeal to people’s hearts more than their heads. Others include the National Health Service and the United Nations. Britain’s NHS may deliver poor care compared to other European health systems, but its faults are forgiven because of its powerful underlying commitment to provide the same medical care to every patient, regardless of income. The United Nations may have failed the people of Rwanda, Darfur and countless other wretched parts of the world, but its founding principles remain irresistible to idealists across the globe.

Labour isn’t so much a political party as a moral project. Ask the average Tory what they believe and you’ll get a variety of answers. Ask an average Labour member and they’ll invariably say something like “social justice”. For the Labour rank and file, theirs is the party of the poor, the unemployed, the weak and discriminated-against minorities. This self-righteous clarity is central to why, so soon after a terrible record of failure in government, the British people already tell pollsters that they “like” the Labour Party more than they like the Conservatives.

Neither Labour nor America’s Democrats — who define themselves in similar ways to the British Left — will be defeated by conventional political weaponry alone. The contemporary Left is the political equivalent of the werewolf. Only a battery of silver bullets killed the mythical Beast of Gévaudan. Only a refutation of the Left’s claims to moral superiority will cage its ambitions.

This great electoral challenge has increasingly motivated conservative politicians on both sides of the Atlantic — particularly since the end of the Cold War when political brands have been in a state of flux. Enlightened conservatives are unwilling to accept that the centre Right should forever face the handicap of being seen as morally inferior to the centre Left.

This is what makes compassionate conservatism so important. Conservatism is enjoying a revival in these tough economic times because when household and national budgets are tight, voters cannot afford expensive left-wing policies. But economic troubles will pass, and for conservatism to flourish it needs to be competitive on the values issues that motivate wealthier electorates. 

The first leading conservative politician to understand this was George W. Bush. He did many things right but he also brought compassionate conservatism into disrepute in the eyes of many American Republicans. David Cameron is attempting the most interesting second definition of compassionate conservatism. His attempt has many advantages. He has observed what went wrong under Bush. He leans on the enormous work of Iain Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice. But Cameron’s chances of success are complicated by the cuts he is having to make to Britain’s state and by the likelihood that his junior coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, will claim that they were the decisive reason for the most compassionate things that happen in the next few years.

Taking a step back for a moment, let’s examine the two ambitious aims of compassionate conservatism. The first is to redefine conservatism and the second, even bolder aim is to redefine compassion itself.

Some conservatives object to the very notion of compassionate conservatism, regarding it as tautological. And it’s true that conservatism in both Britain and America already has a good record of helping the disadvantaged. In America, the zero tolerance policing of Rudy Giuliani did more to improve the lot of New York’s poor than any Democrat mayor that had gone before him — and it was all done without a compassionate label. Margaret Thatcher’s sale of council houses gave millions of working-class people ownership and control over their lives. Her school, local government and union reforms also transferred power from the elites to the people.

Compassionate conservatives welcome these historical reforms but they want their party to go further. They want the same energy invested in welfare, schools, philanthropy and international development as conservative think tanks have traditionally given to the study of defence, regulation, Euroscepticism and penal policy.

They also urge conservatives to stop hiding their light under a bushel. It may be uncomfortable for people who’ve been taught that good deeds should be done privately, but this is politics. It’s hearts-on-sleeves time. George W. Bush attempted to shift the rhetoric of his party, adopting terms like “social justice”. He talked about the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that faced children from poorer backgrounds in education. He identified literacy as a new civil right. He warned Republicans not to balance the budget “on the backs of the poor”. 

Bush spent too much taxpayers’ money as president but he was right to attack “the idea that if government would only get out of the way, all our problems would be solved” as a “destructive mindset”. Conservatives cannot prosper if they travel carelessly down the laissez-faire road. Most voters aren’t anti-government libertarians. They don’t want to be left alone. They want government to care for the weak. They want government to be there when adversity strikes. They want government to work better, not to disappear.

The great insight of compassionate conservatives to understand is that hacking the supply of government is unsustainable. For lasting reductions in the size of the state it is best to approach the problem from the demand side of the equation. Reduce the demand for government services and the supply problem takes care of itself. The road to social justice and a smaller state are the same if conservatives, move more people into work, reduce family breakdown, tackle drug addiction and reduce rates of reoffending.

In seeking to reduce demands on the taxpayer, compassionate conservatives know that the methods of the Left are inadequate. In the last ten years Britain enjoyed good economic times and Labour politicians spent like drunken sailors. In these almost perfect laboratory conditions, many social problems actually got worse. Family breakdown accelerated. Extreme poverty and youth unemployment increased. Drug addiction, anti-social behaviour and loneliness grew. These problems were analysed in the Centre for Social Justice’s report, Breakdown Britain, published in the summer of 2007. David Cameron announced that large parts of British society were “broken” and, with Iain Duncan Smith, called for new weapons in the war on poverty.

The fundamental aim of compassionate conservatives is to restore a high view of the person. Inspired by the teachings of the 12th century Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides, compassionate conservatives believe that helping someone to stand on their own two feet represents the highest form of charity. Maimonides proposes eight levels of charity — the highest of which is “to strengthen the hand of the poor by giving a loan, or joining in partnership, or training out of the individual’s poverty, to help become independent.” The same belief is summed up more popularly by the idea that if you give someone a fish they can eat for a day — but if you teach them how to fish they can eat for life.

Compassionate conservatism is about a view of humanity. The Left has an essentially defeatist view; conservatives, a demanding one. The defeatist view gives students soft grades — “all must have prizes”. The Left doesn’t expect people to move off benefits; the second and third generation of the unemployed are effectively decommissioned. Drug addicts can’t be cured; they are parked in sink estates and supplied, indefinitely, with superficially safer substances. 

In The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky — whom George W. Bush described as compassionate conservatism’s “leading thinker” — reviews the USA’s poverty-fighting traditions. He concludes that the most effective poverty-fighting will mend a person’s community and family relationships. The state isn’t good at this. It can provide needy people with material assistance but it lacks the ability of relational institutions to respond in a personalised and ongoing basis to an individual’s complex needs. 

Olasky concludes: “Cultures build systems of charity in the image of the god they worship, whether distant deist, bumbling bon vivant, or ‘whatever goes’ gopher. In colonial America, emphasis on a theistic God of both justice and mercy led to an understanding of compassion that was hard-headed but warm-hearted[…]Late nineteenth-century Americans who read the Bible regularly did not see God as a sugardaddy who merely felt sorry for people in distress. They saw God showing compassion while demanding change, and they tried to do the same. Groups such as the Industrial Christian Alliance noted that they used ‘religious methods’ — reminding the poor that God made them and had high expectations for them — to “restore the fallen and helpless to self-respect and self-support.”

This belief in restoring people to “self-respect and self-support” has led compassionate conservatives to reject the dehumanising “feed-and-forget” philosophy that has come to characterise the welfare state’s attitude to its dependents. Compassionate conservatives want to see ‘help-to-change’ charities and policies become the dominant response to poverty.

On the face of it, David Cameron’s Big Society fits neatly with this philosophy. And the Big Society certainly has its strengths; notably the welfare-to-work programmes and greater school choice. In its approach to building up the charitable sector government policy is, however, remarkable for its continuity.

Over the years, too many charities have stopped looking to individuals and communities for their funding and have become dependent upon direct government grants. This has produced corrupting creep in charities’ purposes. In steady steps, made each time another politician-pleasing grant application is submitted, the mission of many charities has come to resemble that of the state. We have state-succoured children’s charities that are silent about the importance of the two-parent family. Drugs charities that embrace harm-reduction programmes — such as those based on methodone — rather than programmes that help addicts become drug-free. Once Christian-based charities are required to leave their religious basis behind, meaning they have lost their salty distinctiveness as the state squeezes them into conformity.

Cameron should be revolutionising the funding of charities so that they look to the moral diversity of society for their money rather than the political suffocation of the state. We will then see hundreds of poverty-fighting laboratories emerge — many will fail but many will succeed and these successes can become the model for progress in tackling some of society’s most intractable ills.

At times Cameron has been careless with the need for compassionate conservatism to be morally serious. Perhaps in search of a quick headline he embraced Phil Redmond for the Liverpool launch of the Big Society. Redmond is a popular TV writer but his drama output has been socially permissive. At the same time, Cameron has failed to protect the independence of religious organisations, even though Christian charities in particular are central to many of the most transformational forms of poverty-fighting.

Cameron is at his best when he makes social conservatism fashionable. His policy before the election on marriage typified this. He promised to recognise marriage in the tax system, but he didn’t stop there. He promised that same-sex couples should also receive the same tax allowance — turning a potentially old-fashioned-sounding policy into something very modern.

Since he formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the pro-family corner of his compassionate triangle of policies has been blunted. Cameron has publicly signed up to the William Galston view that a strong family, a good education and a job are the three best ways any person can stay out of poverty. Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith are powering ahead on making it easier for a young person to acquire the education and work skills that underpin independence from the state. Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats object to almost any action to support the traditional family, even though Britain’s tax system is more indifferent to the family unit than any major European or developed country, with the exception of Mexico and Turkey.

For compassionate conservatism to be successful, two things need to happen. First, it can’t be a peripheral or passing commitment. Second, it needs to be popularised and simplified. There are important exceptions and some can be found within Cameron’s inner circle but most leading Tories don’t see compassionate conservatism as a governing philosophy. For most, it’s something between an annoying distraction or a mildly useful bolt-on. 

Although the new generation of MPs is more enthusiastic, not enough understand the electoral potency of a more socially-just brand of conservatism that doesn’t just reshape a few policies here and there but actually changes the whole way the party presents itself. Some are willing to experiment with a few inner-city photo opportunities but expect an immediate fillip in the opinion polls. They miss the fact that the electorate is reserving judgment until it sees a genuine commitment to social reform, tested over time. Some protest that the poorest communities will never vote Conservative — overlooking the fact that many prosperous voters will only stay with the Conservative Party if they see a party that isn’t just good for them but good for their neighbours too. These were the people who deserted the Tories in the Blair landslide of 1997 — people who, personally, had done well out of the Thatcher-Major years but who didn’t like the idea that so many people were being left behind.

Ultimately, compassionate conservatism is closer to mainstream conservatism than the liberal conservatism of David Cameron. Liberal conservatism often appears embarrassed about traditional Tory beliefs in law and order, national self-determination, strong defence and carefully-policed immigration. Compassionate or mainstream conservatives don’t want to abandon core beliefs. Their ambition is to give a greater breadth to conservatism. They see no incompatibility between a tough approach to immigration and a commitment to provide aid to the hungriest people of the world. They see no contradiction between investing in our military and ending the sale of arms to oppressive regimes. They believe that persistent and serious offenders should always be jailed but, that, in what Iain Duncan Smith has called the nation of the second chance, prisoner rehabilitation is a worthy cause.

In popularising compassionate conservatism, a new language is essential. Conservatives must learn to stop speaking like accountants and instead start to communicate a mission. This isn’t a call to deploy messianic language. That would be a disastrous folly and a departure from the party of practical wisdom that the Conservative Party is at its best. The party’s moral language needs to be rooted in everyday common sense. Ask most people today about the Tory brand and despite the “decontamination” phase of Cameronism, the party is still seen as wanting to cut government, fight Europe and unleash enterprise. None of those things is bad but they don’t add up to a balanced brand.

Over time, if the language and policies are consistently pursued — and we are probably needing to think in terms of at least 20 years — Conservatives should aim to be thought of in three new ways, all of them rooted in the party’s best traditions.

The party should aim to be seen as allergic to government debt; to believe in living within a nation’s means; and to be opposed in its gut to the immorality of leaving one generation’s impossible debts for the next. Only such a hard-wired aversion to borrowing will starve the national instinct endlessly to expand the frontiers of the state.

Next, the party needs a language on poverty-fighting that can combat the Left’s “What is the government doing about this?” mantra and all the consequences that flow from it. Conservatives need to be the party that asks, “What are people and families doing to build their own future?” The aim is to build a culture that sees the elimination of poverty as possible with a good schooling, a good family and a good job — not another government handout. Compassionate conservatism is not, however, libertarian. Such conservatives believe that government has a role to help people get a good education. They believe that taxpayers should support the family. They believe that any system that doesn’t incentivise work is unacceptable. Wanting to work, like wanting to save, learn, give and marry, are for compassionate conservatives the greatest and most socially useful of aspirations and should never be penalised by a good government.

The final component of conservative morality should be the restoration of the idea of most deserving and least deserving. The British people are very happy to see their taxes go to the support of the old, sick and disabled. They object to their taxes going to those young and able-bodied people who should be able to stand on their own two feet. The Conservative Party must be the party that isn’t just fair to the disadvantaged but is fair to the people who provide the nation’s wherewithal to help. That means the taxpayer, the inventor and the employer. Unless their burdens are kept reasonable, the flow of resources to the genuinely needy will dry up.

Let us end where we began. Labour may have been the party that presided over large increases in youth unemployment, but voters still see it as the party that most cares about the jobless. Britain may have tumbled down international league tables that compare our children’s maths and science learning with those in China, Germany and France, but Labour still styles itself as the party of education. While working-class Britons were left to rot on welfare, without skills and without hope, Labour imported people from abroad, doubling the size of Britain’s immigrant workforce. Despite all this, and the fat allowances they pay themselves in local government, Labour politicians — without any hint of shame — insist they are the party of the hard-working poor. However frustrating it may be for head-scratching Tory strategists, many voters still believe them.

If the Conservatives are to defeat Labour again and again, it is not enough to expose the gap between its moral claims and its record. Conservatives need to demonstrate that they possess a superior moral programme. They must show that their programme will produce a society where millions of people are helped to escape poverty and where the slimmer state that results will better afford to care for the genuinely deserving. David Cameron has made a start down this road, but he hasn’t yet found the words or tools to make it his central purpose.