In a piece for the Good Right, Tim Montgomerie tells the following story:
“When I was running Renewing One Nation (the organisation that became the Centre for Social Justice) and Iain Duncan Smith was Tory leader we settled on “a fair deal for everyone” as the party’s campaign slogan.
“The slogan tested brilliantly with voters – especially as we defined it: fairness to those in need of help (no one left behind) and fairness to those who provide it (no one being held back… More than four-fifths of voters liked the idea of ‘a fair deal for everyone’ but within the shadow cabinet there was resistance. One senior Tory told his colleagues: ‘We don’t believe in fairness! Fairness is not a Conservative concept’. I didn’t bang my head on the table but I remember wanting to.”
As someone who was around at the time (in a very junior capacity), this is pretty much my own memory of what happened. If I recall correctly, there was a meeting at which one of the speakers argued that the core message communicated by any political party should be as consistent and integral as the word that runs through a stick of rock. The challenge for the Conservative Party, he said, was to decide what its word should be. ‘Fairness’ is what emerged from these discussions – albeit with dissent from some quarters. The slogan – ‘a fair deal for everyone’ – was a way of pointing to the concept of fairness without quite using the word itself.
But why would any Conservative have a problem with fairness? Writing for CapX, Dan Hannan gives his answer:
“The beauty of the word, from the point of view of pundits and campaigners, is its elasticity. It can be used to denote a number of concepts that are not only different, but fundamentally opposed. Fairness can mean equality (the cake is sliced into identical portions); entitlement (you paid for half the cake, and Jane and I for a quarter each, so we’ll divide it accordingly); or need (Jane hasn’t eaten for two days, so she should get a bigger slice than either of us). Politicians use it to mean all three of these things, sometimes deliberately eliding them.”
Hannan believes that the definition has become so elastic as to lose any distinct meaning:
“…‘fairness’ isn’t really being used, these days, to signify proportionality, merit, equity, desert or even redistribution. It is used, rather, as a way to signal the speaker’s virtue. ‘I believe in fairness’ has come, in politics, to mean ‘I am a kind and compassionate human being’. Similarly, ‘It’s not fair!’ simply means ‘I disapprove of this’…”
This may be true of professional public discourse, which has a way of sucking the life out of potent words, but I don’t think it’s true of the way that ordinary voters understand the concept.
Fundamentally, fairness is about the desire for a moral order.
In respect to the helpless, this means that people should not be abandoned to the amoral order of Darwinian natural selection. In respect to those who can help themselves, it means that hard work and good deeds should not go unrewarded – and that the opposite should not go unpunished.
The kind of rightwingery that tells people ‘life isn’t fair, get used to it’ misses the point. People already know that life isn’t fair – that beyond the walls of civilisation nature lurks, red in tooth-and-claw. What they ask of government is that, in the midst of a fallen creation, a moral order be built – or, rather, rebuilt.
Whether this endeavour is conservative or not depends upon the content of its moral inspiration. But, either way, it is our sense of fairness that allows us to detect the faithfulness with which the order in question is being maintained.
If voters have become increasingly motivated by issues of fairness and unfairness, it isn’t because of lefty sloganising. Rather, it’s a reaction to the highly disordered events of recent years. Far from orchestrating the fairness agenda, the established parties of the centre-left have alienated their traditional supporters by refusing to engage with relevant concerns over uncontrolled immigration, the dependency culture, banker bail-outs, runaway debt and the Eurozone crisis.
If there was ever a time for Conservatives to offer a fair deal for everyone, it is now.