Freedom is not enough
Conservatives must resist liberalism, says John Hayes. What the country needs is order, not social licence Conservatives are the party of freedom. We believe in giving people more control over their lives, by cutting taxes and reforming public services. But there is more to Conservatism than freedom.
In recent times the dangerous myth has developed that the economic liberalism championed by Margaret Thatcher must now be matched by social liberalism. The myth has grown to the point where it is now widely believed that to be truly compassionate, Conservatives must be liberal. In fact, the opposite is the case. Britain today is marked not by an absence but by an excess of social licence. We must match economic liberalism not with social liberalism but with social conservatism.
Conservatives should instinctively understand this, for our creed has a moral object as much as an economic one. There is. too, an aesthetic conservatism, resistant to the ubiquitous banality and crude selfishness of modem life. In her memoirs The Path to Power, Lady Thatcher wrote of the 'unfinished project' of her government, what might be called 'social Thatcherism' — the revivification of the family, civil society and all those values that underpin social cohesion: duty, restraint and loyalty. Note incidentally, as Mrs Thatcher recognised, that these values also sustain the market economy itself.
This balanced Thatcherism is not only right, it is popular. Labour is fond of caricaturing us as being divorced from the public mood; the media collude in this portrayal by reporting every step towards social conservatism as a step away from sanity. But the truth is that most people are social conservatives, not social liberals.
In the 1940s George Orwell wrote of the condition peculiar to English intellectuals, their 'severance from the common culture of the country'. Politicians too are susceptible to this condition. Keith Joseph, in a famous speech in 1975, distinguished between the 'middle ground' and the 'common ground'. 'The middle ground,' he said, 'is a compromise between politicians, unrelated to the aspirations of the people.' The common ground, on the other hand, is shared by the people and those politicians who truly understand them. It is often very far from the middle ground: it is the opposite of the politically correct new establishment; it is entirely antipathetic to the views and priorities of the bourgeois liberal media.
In the 1970s the 'middle ground' was economic socialism. Now it is social liberalism. We need to leave the cosy, meretricious, West London consensus, the Fukayama future of economic and social liberalism, and recognise that what people long for above all else is not more liberty but more certainty, more order. Social liberalism is neither compassionate nor Conservative.
Freedom is only meaningful in the context of a stable society where virtue is nurtured and rewarded. Social stability, in turn, depends on two things above all else: security in the home and security in the public spaces. Security in the home requires lasting family relationships — and that means the active promotion of marriage. Security in the public spaces requires the defeat of crime — and that requires the defeat of drugs. Attitudes to sex and drugs, as most people instinctively understand, are central to the condition of our civilisation.
Many of the differences over these and similar issues come down to the subject which in polite political circles dare not speak its name: class. When Conservatives cease to defend the institutions and values which have traditionally been our cause, it is the least well off who pay most dearly. The haute bourgeoisie, and those who have joined them through talent and energy, do not depend on stable families and safe streets to the same extent as those left behind, because they can buy their way out of most trouble. There is even a sense among this class that it is really too vulgar to bang the drum on marriage and drugs. And perhaps it is vulgar because it is genuinely popular.
I come from a working-class family. They were law-abiding, hard-working, generous and, most of all, secure in their certain views and values: free from guilty shame about their patriotism, confident in a biblical adherence to just retribution for criminals. Partly because of my background, I believe that society has a higher claim than the individual. I believe that individuals are themselves composed of the organic matter of society, of the manners and memories passed through families and neighbourhoods. In fact the very thing that offends me about socialism — its treatment of diverse humanity as a set of identical, value-free, wealth-creating units — offends me about the atomised liberalism offered up by the economists of the Chicago school as a proxy for politics.
In search of heroes, Conservatives need look no further than our closest friends. George Bush in the United States and John Howard in Australia both demonstrate what can be accomplished with an authentic Conservative message. Running for office, Bush and Howard did not embrace a liberal orthodoxy which people know is unnatural to them. They simply marketed their true beliefs beyond their natural territory, campaigning in the inner cities on a platform that included a strong line on drugs, vouchers in education to give poor children an escape route from sink schools, and support for couples wanting to marry. Privileged critics of President Bush object to his folksy, demotic style, as if winning votes were vulgar too. Yet all these policies are as morally right as they are naturally popular, and all can be proudly espoused by British Conservatives.
The same applies to a commitment to helping the global equivalent of the inner-city poor. As Michael Howard pointed out in a brave speech in Burnley last month, we do not serve the cause of global justice through a weak and porous asylum system, but through reforming the international economy. Two weeks ago Howard launched a working group at Conservative Central Office to develop policies to promote fair trade (the meeting was attended by Bob Geldof, a veteran global justice campaigner who recently stated that George Bush has done more than any other world leader to combat Aids in Africa). Such a project is both counterintuitive and authentically Conservative. It contrasts favourably with 'moderniser' proposals to attract attention, such as craven attempts to woo militant fringe ginger groups with initiatives which are not so much counterintuitive as dishonest.
Conservatives must be brave and authentic. Too many of us — and this magazine's leading articles are sometimes sadly guilty — behave like those desperate liberal Anglicans who hold to the form and abandon the content, who in a sad cry for 'relevance' retain the vestments but dilute the doctrine. Like Whig aristocrats, such Tories hope that concessions to liberalism will preserve their privileges. That is not the way to heaven, to popularity or to power.
John Hayes is Conservative MP for South Holland and The Deepings.