David Cameron Must Govern With Humility

Will Britain’s triumphant Prime Minister now show the maturity and character that the nation has a right to expect from him?

Features UK Politics
Standpoint

In the March issue of our election diarist Andrew Gimson wrote that he had told a lunch of pollsters back in January, at which a sweepstake was held, that the Conservatives would win 330 seats. He was thus the only pundit to correctly predict the result. (The final tally of 331 includes Speaker Bercow, who does not ordinarily vote.) For this bold feat of psephological clairvoyance, Mr Gimson deserves to win not merely his sweepstake but one of those press awards that seldom seem to go to the most deserving members of the journalistic trade.

Yet in retrospect, even Britain’s most astonishing election result in living memory already seems inevitable. Vox populi, vox Dei: the voice of the people is the voice of God. To have elected an unrepentant Labour leadership, whose arrogance added insult to the still painful injuries inflicted during their last term of office, would have been contrary to natural justice. Messrs Miliband and Balls had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing; but there was to be no Bourbon restoration for them. Five years ago, the country had refused to endorse their master’s profligacy, and it was not about to do so now for his bag carriers either. Their politics of envy was punished too: Labour has been forcibly reminded that the British still admire their entrepreneurs. We need more young people to emulate them, not to run them out of town by penal taxation or throttle them with red tape.

Yet David Cameron was right, in his moment of triumph, to avoid triumphalism. The Conservatives have been returned to office with a mandate to finish the job, certainly; but they need to reflect on the meaning of that mandate. The campaign exposed a long-standing weakness in the Tories’ philosophy: they don’t have one. As the result showed, in order to know how to win an election, it is not necessary to have a political philosophy; but its absence sooner or later leads to an inability to answer the “why” question. Mr Cameron stands firmly in the tradition of pragmatic, slightly Whiggish Tory prime ministers such as Baldwin or Macmillan — doers who did not think much of thinkers. So he will need some persuading that his new government needs not just big new ideas, but a new moral framework within which policies may cohere. To be precise, this moral framework is not so much new as very old — as old as our nation, maybe even as old as our civilisation. It is a moral framework requiring self-control, even the stiff upper lip. But it is also an ethos of unselfishness, decency and humility.

For the Prime Minister’s summer reading, I would recommend The Road to Character (Allen Lane, £17.99) by the New York Times columnist David Brooks. It isn’t exactly a book to read on the beach, but its cooler message might appeal to a man who prefers “chillaxing”, glass in hand, to roasting in the sun.

Brooks is a champion of what he calls “eulogy virtues” — the qualities you hope to be remembered by — rather than the achievements you might boast of on your CV. He thinks we have sacrificed the humble “Little Me” for the sake of the high-flying “Big Me”, replacing a regimen of self-examination that struggles to overcome sin with a culture of self-esteem that worships success. Brooks makes no great claim to originality: his binary contrasts draw on a long tradition that goes right back to the two differing accounts of the creation of humanity in the Book of Genesis. He mentions a celebrated Jewish sage, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who in his essay “The Lonely Man of Faith” drew a similar comparison between Adam I, the “majestic” man who subdues nature, and Adam II, the “covenantal” man who surrenders to God’s will.

It is hard to reconcile these two Adams, but Brooks argues that Adam II has been displaced by Adam I, morality by utility, character by celebrity. We live in “the age of the selfie”: a society that has been transformed beyond recognition since 1945, materially successful but spiritually impoverished. His book consists of a series of portraits of individuals who exemplify what has been lost: leaders and writers, saints and sinners, all of whom attained some kind of tranquillity by struggling to overcome their inner demons. That kind of “U-shaped” life, usually marked by suffering, crisis and redemption, is rarer today. So are the humility and nobility that come from acceptance of our limitations and renunciation of pride. Brooks concludes with a “Humility Code”, setting out 15 propositions by which to live. This is not a self-help book, but a guide for the perplexed; even so, its purpose is to show how men and women of character arrive at the maturity we instinctively recognise in them.

What has The Road to Character to do with the new Conservative government? In my view, everything: what the country is crying out for is a government of grown-ups. Only after his decade-long apprenticeship in Opposition and in the Coalition has the electorate finally decided to give David Cameron its full confidence. He has indeed grown in office, partly no doubt as a result of personal tragedy — the loss of his disabled son clearly hit him hard — and adversity is a good teacher. The mature judgment that was sometimes lacking in the past was manifest in his victory speech on the steps of Downing Street:

    We can make Britain a place where a good life is in reach for everyone who is willing to work and do the right thing . . . we will govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom . . . I have always believed in governing with respect . . . this is a country with unrivalled skills and creativeness, a country with such good humour and compassion. And I am convinced that if we can draw on all of this, then we can take these islands, with our proud history, and build an even prouder future. Together, we can make Great Britain greater still.

The Prime Minister is right, of course, to connect a “good life” with working hard and doing the right thing. The importance of the Protestant work ethic has been understood at least since Max Weber, and the work ethic long predates not only the Reformation but Christianity itself: after the Fall, God tells Adam “in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”. But “doing the right thing” is a much grander concept than work: in Brooks’s words, it implies morality rather than utility. Mr Cameron enlarges on this vision by his emphasis, first, on one nation — with its echo of Disraeli’s Sybil: “Two nations . . . the rich and the poor” — and, secondly, on respect: a virtue debased by over-familiarity, but which ultimately derives from the Judaeo-Christian idea that we are all made in the image of God. Finally, the Prime Minister evokes a vivid image of the British people, reminiscent of Milton’s Areopagitica: “A nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that human capacity can soar to.”

All this is well said. David Cameron’s words do not compare badly with Margaret Thatcher’s on the same steps in 1979. She too appealed to unity: “May we get together and strive to serve and strengthen the country of which we’re so proud to be a part.” She too appealed to the work ethic, citing her mentor Airey Neave, who had been killed at Westminster by Irish terrorists only months before: “There is now work to be done.” She risked ridicule by daring to quote St Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.” The big difference is that in 1979 Mrs Thatcher was rescuing a country on the brink of political, economic and social bankruptcy, while Mr Cameron has a more manageable list of headaches, headed by Europe and Scotland, discussed elsewhere in this issue by Stephen Glover. The present government needs a moral framework because it may otherwise lose direction. That was never Mrs Thatcher’s problem.

In order to flesh out this framework, the Prime Minister should consider how he and his colleagues talk about the following six fields: democracy, liberty, security, opportunity, family and history. Each one implies a host of moral imperatives which, taken together, should impart strength and resolve to the government. Michael Gove and Theresa May, the odd couple responsible for liberty and security, belong to the school of moral realism — for instance, the radical evil embodied in Islamist terror. Neither is given to empty moralising.

But it is crucial not to adopt a rhetorical tone that excludes the unobtrusive majority of the British people. Henry Thoreau claimed that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation”, but George Eliot, whose life exemplifies for Brooks the redemptive power of love, was more optimistic. She ended her greatest novel, Middlemarch, with a plea on behalf of “those who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”. Elsewhere in that novel she warned against being carried away by ideology: “There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by a deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.” The new Cameron government should make a point of asking itself, before each new policy or initiative, how George Eliot’s “painstaking, honest men” (and women) “whose lives have no discernible echo beyond the neighbourhood where they dwelt” will react to its underlying moral purpose.

If this nation is indeed as good at accepting its predicament with good humour and compassion as he thinks it is, Mr Cameron ought to have no difficulty in connecting with it, as long as he bears in mind the idea that for most people the political world that he inhabits is not the real one. Ed Miliband collided with this fact when the voters of Yorkshire eviscerated him live on Question Time. They saw that he had not grasped the consequences for their lives that would have followed from his insistence that he knew better than they did what was good for them.

Politics can only be made real to non-politicians when it is cast in moral terms, and even then they may well reject what is being offered. The Prime Minister is less inclined to make the same mistake, but he still seems aloof to many people because he tends to treat them as though they were all like him: driven by ambition, fame and success. Most lives, by these standards, are failures; but these standards are not the only ones that matter. Most of us are content to lead lives of modest accomplishments, doing our best by our own lights. The government’s job is mainly to get out of the way except when it is really needed, and even then to step gingerly: enabling rather than manipulating, in the background rather than the foreground, liberating talents rather than supplanting them.

The new government promises to champion “working people” by promoting free enterprise, to support the family by protecting marriage, childcare and inheritance, to shift money from welfare benefits to apprenticeships. A new, more muscular conservatism represented by the likes of Sajid Javid and Robert Halfon is meant to persuade a still sceptical public that Mr Cameron means business this time. The prospect of White Van Dave, leader of the Workers’ Party, is still faintly preposterous.

However, the Prime Minister has yet to convince many of his own party that he has real character. Lord Finkelstein, one of his most loyal lieutenants, would agree with much of what I have said here, but draws the mistaken conclusion that the silent majority — the so-called “shy Tories” — has now endorsed the whole Cameron project of “modernisation”. That is not necessarily the case — many people voted Conservative in spite, not because, of the Coalition’s social liberalism or its environmentalism. But even if it were true that Mr Cameron’s Whiggish views had struck a chord, he would be wise not to advertise the fact. If David Brooks is right, the road to character requires humility. At all costs, the Prime Minister must try not to look smug.