Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
Someone once told me that the older you become, the more you realise that life is flawed. I’m an optimistic person, but the more I think about this – and this could be to do with having turned 30 the other week – the more it seems true.
Things really are flawed, aren’t they? There are the obvious grand-scale flaws: not only those impasses here in the UK (tax credits were never a long-term answer), but also famine in x, children being used as y in z, and p continuing to happen in q (fill in the letters from the list of international crises). Then, on an individual level, there are all those quotidian disappointments and failures: feeling let down, letting yourself down, plans going wrong, people falling ill. Perhaps life is flawed because much of the time it can seem either difficult or boring. In cyclical order – things are difficult, things are good, things are boring, repeat.
How do we deal with this? If we can’t actually make things better, it’s tempting to settle for ersatz solutions that offer warmth and the semblance of hope or purpose. Of course, mostly, these simply paper over the cracks: ‘Sure it’s because I want to learn more about your thoughts on Stiglitz that I’ll drink another glass of your not particularly nice wine’; ‘Yeah, I totally choose to do drugs because they’re cool and turn me into one of those cool people that cool people think are really cool’; ‘Procrastinating on this questionable website is actually important research for my unwritten novel’; ‘Buying this ridiculous car/motorbike/yacht is an excellent personal investment, and Botox helps me come across seriously to my business clients’.
Other solutions are less temporary, and can be more likely to risk degrees of societal hazard: ‘I love Jesus, and being involved with him gives me the opportunity to take part in exciting social gatherings’; ‘Putting my camomile tea in a thermos and my hair in dreads and getting together with caring friends to shout at government scumbags will definitely bring an end to global poverty – oh, and save the Teesside steelworks, too’; ‘I look nifty in my jester’s hat, and we need to spread the word that it’s ok to protect Britain’s indigenous tribes’; Those well-dressed guys inviting me into their fancy building for coffee was the best day ever: now I’m liaising with higher life forms’; ‘Watching jihad videos is like playing computer games with integrity’.
Surely, it’s not religion that’s the opium of the masses – it’s ideology. Yes, religion often offers this, but it’s certainly not the only way to get your hit. If we take ideology to mean an overriding system of beliefs and normative ideals, then this ‘ism’ and that ‘ism’ present you with slogans for your placard, mental makeovers to define yourself, and – sometimes – a strangling, thought-abdicating set of solutions to the struggles of life. In that sense, Jeremy Corbyn is Nigel Farage is Houellebecq’s Ben Abbes* is Big Brother is some beardy fundamentalist is Stalin is Hitler.
In my mind, conservatism is great because it’s not ideological. (Try saying that at an election hustings in Durham, where Thatcher wanders the revisionist dreams of the workless.) But I’m not suggesting that every Conservative who has ever lived has been non-ideological (or, indeed, to reduce it to homophonics: conservative). Or that some of its sometime principles can’t be described in that way. Rather, to me, it should be explained as – and embraced for – seeking to conserve and build on the freely-developed good in society.
Sometimes this will fit with ideological arguments; that doesn’t mean your reason for supporting it has to be so. I like capitalism – not because I think attractive-but-impossible radical free-market ideology should be imposed on the state, but because it works. And, whilst – aside from believing in God – I don’t class myself as religious any more, I still like what are probably best described as Christian values, because they seem justifiably better than others. Conservatism is consideration and reaction, not wordy tracts and unnecessary change.
Superficially, this less ideological approach appears increasingly represented by the current Conservative leadership. How many supposedly Centre-Left policies does today’s party need to appropriate, before its detractors accept that it wants to lead well, more than it wants to have always been right in the past? ‘We are the true party of Labour.’ You can’t imagine the present opposition seeing the worth in being able to claim the opposite. Previously wrong on gay rights? Bring in equal marriage. Becoming worried about the pay gap? Introduce a ‘living wage’ that’s pretty much the same as the existing minimum wage (taking inflation into account), but could, over time, teach business owners to treat employees fairly. Who cares that someone else suggested these ideas first, but didn’t manage to apply them?
Over the last five and half years, the majority of Conservative and Conservative-led coalition policies have seemed in line with sensible, modern thinking (if with not with that of a shouty minority). Particularly with regards to social outlook, the party has moved past old stalemates; this can be seen as responsive rather than radical. And it should be better recognised by those who need to hold the government to account, constructively. Now, it would be easy for me to conclude at this point – delighted that my idiosyncratic view of Conservative conservatism (sic) is winning out, and happy about the future.
But that’s not enough. Whilst the Conservative Party may be displaying ‘real’ conservatism, that doesn’t mean it’s the reasoning behind its actions. Good effects can have less good causes, after all. And clarification is necessary. Not only to assist us if we hope to predict or shape upcoming policy, but also because the party faces an opposition that is unable to separate politics from ideology. Even forgetting Corbyn, Labour is proud to be an ideological entity; the alternative pretenders to power are yet prouder of this.
And because – unlike those other organisations – there is no obvious, single ideology propping up the Conservative Party, its opposers enjoy imposing an ideology of greed or hatred upon it. This can be hard to defy without a counter-narrative. And it risks internal fracture within such a broad and powerful party, too; this could be more divisive for the Conservatives than the EU referendum. We need to ask: what does, or should, it mean to be a Conservative, today – if anything?
There are clear strains of differing ideological thought in the party, but how much influence do – or should – these have on policy decisions? Is the Northern Powerhouse based on considered pragmatism, or ideological localism? Is welfare being cut for economically reactive reasons, or out of a love for the kind of individualism that teaches people the merits of personal responsibility over reliance on a big state. Are calls to intervene in the Middle East and Africa a humanitarian response, or a resurgence of hawkish Neoconservatism? Have outside providers – including charities – been allowed to dispense NHS care in order to drive up standards, or as the result of a deep-felt desire for private ownership, at all costs? And, if the preservation of freely-developed values such as liberty and equality might be defined as ‘liberalism’, does this make it ideological?
To many, these (somewhat facetious) questions don’t matter. After all, if you agree with a policy, then the reasoning behind it can be shoehorned however you like. But that works the other way round, too, leaving the policymakers’ integrity open to attack. And, the Conservative Party – regardless of its successes, and the weakness of its opponents – remains inherently unpopular to far too many.
Avoiding the taint of ideology, and arguing for strong policies on a purely rational basis seems, in today’s climate, agreeably different – as well as sensible. It might not appeal to those who feel that their form of conservatism is indeed ideological, but it can combat the ‘nasty party’ slurs. And it offers justification for tough but necessary decisions in what is still a difficult time.
Even if life is flawed – and it probably is, albeit sometimes in wonderful ways – we shouldn’t give up on improving it. Having faith in the potential goodness of the human race, using education to immunise against the lure of dangerous ideologies, and refusing to let positive effects prop up unclarified agendas, must be a decent place to start.
*My original plan for this column (in honour of having just got round to reading ‘Submission’ – if you haven’t, do) was to write a pastiche chapter in Houellebecq style, set in Corbynland. I’d like to do this. But it’s a bit niche, and the internet isn’t exactly the best medium for metaphor…