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Rebecca Lowe Coulson was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.

In its ‘our principles’ section, the Conservative Party manifesto states that ‘we know that our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals’. The assuredness of this claim is pointed up by the use of ‘we know that’, yet, in last week’s ConservativeHome survey, when readers were asked how much they agreed with it, the average score among party members was only 5.56 out of 10. This seems unsurprising — the statement is jarring on several levels.

My first criticism relates to the statement’s comparative nature. Surely, these two things — our responsibility to one another, and the rights we hold as individuals — are deeply intertwined. We feel a responsibility to one another not least because we recognise our shared humanity. We feel we should treat others as we want to be treated ourselves; we feel we deserve — and should, therefore, afford others — equally fair treatment regardless of social characteristics, such as race or gender. In other words, our belief in one another’s rights informs our belief in those rights’ correlative duties. Feelings of this kind drove the emergence of the human rights movement in the twentieth century.

For some, human rights are underpinned by a natural morality — external to the laws we establish in our societies — which should be respected because it is objectively right. For some, such a focus on human rights is necessary in the pragmatic sense of there being right ways for us to behave towards one another, if our society is to flourish, or simply to function. And for yet others, it is an inevitable consequence of accepted traditions — inherent in those laws we have established over time. On any of these views, the manifesto statement is flawed because it underplays the essential role the recognition of rights plays in informing our responsibilities to one another.

My second criticism comes from the awareness that we have responsibilities to one another aside from those correlated with our rights. Sure, the acknowledgement of certain fundamental rights is generally taken to be central to the upkeep of the common good in a society — property rights, for instance, or the right to a fair trial. But whilst those rights inform the most important of our responsibilities, we also have other responsibilities that do not seem to be claimable by others as a matter of right. These are responsibilities we accept not because others are entitled to their fulfilment, but perhaps because we are charitable, or decent.

Our full set of responsibilities to one another is not ‘greater’ than the subset directly correlated with our fundamental rights, however — in any sense except perhaps for one of mere numerousness. And if numerousness were the correct interpretation of the manifesto line, then it would seem, at best, banal. But, more seriously, the human rights movement has been significantly impeded by its diluting attempt to shoehorn everything of import into a human rights context. To ignore the way in which rights inform the most important subset of our responsibilities would be an excessive (and similarly ‘all or nothing’) response to that unhelpful approach — to the extent that the manifesto could be seen as making the opposite mistake.

A more standard interpretation of the manifesto line, however, would be to take it to imply that the collective is of greater importance than the individual. That would fit with the paragraphs preceding it, which repudiate ‘the cult of selfish individualism’, and restate a belief in ‘the good that government can do’. This could be Theresa May, again, rejecting the caricature of the ‘nasty party’. It could be a sign that Jeremy Corbyn has helped to shift our political narrative to the left.

But what might all of this tell us about why May wrote the sentence? (And by ‘May’, you can read ‘Nick Timothy’, if you like. Or ‘the Conservative Party’, if you really, really like.) As with the manifesto’s other controversial turning points, we have two main options: the sentence was included for the sake of the good, or for expediency.

On the first reading, the manifesto writer believes in what she is writing, and is, therefore, taking the opportunity to say it, regardless of any resultant cost — either because she thinks it’s right, or because it’s what she thinks the country needs. On the second, the line has been included because the writer thinks there’s political gain to be won from it — either for her party or herself.

It’s unlikely May will have another comparable chance to win a legacy election: no matter how successfully she commandeers Brexit, dissatisfaction will grow, because we have so many differing demands from it. It’s also unlikely that — as with Corbyn — she will ever have such an opportunity to steer her party’s focus: it is totally dependent on her leadership at this moment. Winning a smaller majority on a substantial personal mandate might be attractive to someone wanting to change a party from within.

So, what would that kind of change mean for the Conservative Party? Well, it’s worth remembering the party’s relationship with paternalism. The example we’re usually given, in relation to May, is the policies of Joseph Chamberlain, but the party has a long tradition of ‘One Nation’ politics, as I’ve written about here before. That tradition may seem at odds with the 1980s-onwards emphasis on the market and the ‘cult of the individual’, but if — like me — you see conservatism as non-ideological and situational, then you recognise that that was simply the party’s responsive approach at the time (as with other previous periods seen to exemplify classic liberalism). An increasingly paternalistic style of politics was clear throughout the Cameron years, anyway.

None of this, of course, can prove what motivated the ‘rights and responsibilities’ line. But it might explain how the Conservative Party can be accepting of divergent practices and seemingly contradictory standpoints. Indeed, a closer look at the ConservativeHome survey reveals a pretty balanced spread of opinion regarding the line:

Analyses of conservatism aside, however, these are difficult times for those of us on the libertarian — or classic liberal — side of British politics, who have, recently, taken the Conservative Party to be our natural electoral home. Many such voters have seen a focus on the individual over the collective as central to the form of conservatism that has been essential to the securing of greater rights, across the world — rights that are important not only for the individuals who hold them, but also for the common good.

Does the Conservative Party still offer that electoral home for us? Yes. But, increasingly, that’s largely because of the lack of alternative liberal options.

36 comments for: Rebecca Lowe Coulson: Is the Prime Minister right that responsibilities conflict with – and outweigh – rights?

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