Politics is “a noble calling”, and so is conservatism. Few politicians are much good at explaining why they believe what they believe, but Jesse Norman delights in making boldly unfashionable declarations of this kind, and producing the arguments to back them up.
This eloquent member of the 2010 intake is also a gifted and persistent inquisitor. His recent cross-examination of Lord Grabiner QC, at the Treasury Committee’s inquiry into the Bank of England’s response to alleged manipulation of the foreign exchange market, makes tremendously enjoyable viewing, at least if one is amused by the sight of an eminent lawyer getting cross.
Grabiner feels moved to correct the pronunciation of his own name, to thump the desk, and to tell Norman: “That is a very offensive observation and I reject it. I am having no difficulty at all and I have not been evasive in my answers.”
Unlike Grabiner, Norman remains calm. He also remains calm, and irreproachably loyal, during this interview. He sprang to prominence when he led a rebellion against House of Lords reform, and was dismissed from the party’s Policy Board after abstaining in the vote on the bombing of Syria.
But Norman has absolutely no desire to reopen old wounds by talking about those episodes. He prefers to explain why, in politics, there is “no such thing as clean hands”, and to declare which musician from New Orleans is one of his heroes.
ConHome: “In your book about Burke, you say the danger of liberal individualism is that it makes people profoundly selfish. Isn’t there a problem that people tend to assume the Tory Party is wedded to liberal individualism, and therefore selfish, and only really interested in the rich?”
Norman: “Well it certainly is the image which many on the Left are seeking to implant in people. And my view is that this gets this profoundly the wrong way round. I think conservatism, small ‘c’, is a noble calling, and I think politics is a noble calling.
“Politics is noble for several reasons. One is because ever since the ancient Greeks, we’ve had the idea that what is distinctive about human kind among animal species is that it can uniquely deliberate over the conditions of its own governance.
“So when we deliberate about the conditions of our own governance, we’re doing something that is uniquely and distinctively human. And that gives it a certain nobility.
“All the more so in a democracy, and this is an argument for democracy, because it’s democracy that allows the widest number of voices, and the most diverse set of viewpoints to be aired and discussed as part of a political process of deliberation, and politics is public deliberation, public argument.
“And there’s something else which is noble about politics as a calling, which is that it is intrinsically compromised, because every difficult political decision has losers as well as winners. So there is no such thing as clean hands, and therefore there’s a certain nobility in those who try to shape politics or to lead, knowing in advance that what they do is intrinsically a somewhat compromised activity.”
ConHome: “Also the electorate want you to promise to be able to solve things, and then blame you when you don’t.”
Norman: “Yes. I don’t really believe in making political promises. James Madison had this idea, and it was widely believed in the 18th century, that manifestos were attempts to bribe the voters. On this view you shouldn’t be promising things, you should simply be showing people what you had done and explaining the reasoning by which you did it, so that they could make a judgment on the facts about what you were about. So when I wrote this report to my electors…”
ConHome: “Yes I looked through that. Very nice typography, by the way.”
Norman: “Thank you. Designed and printed in Herefordshire. But the reason for going into detail in that, including the things I’ve failed to do, or not done, as well as the things I had done, was precisely because I think that politicians have to be accountable. And there is a reason why they should want to be accountable, which is that it gives them authority.”
ConHome: “So you don’t make promises, but you do say ‘I am hoping to save the hospital’.”
Norman: “Yes, ‘My priorities are these’. But at no point do you do anything that looks like a pledge.”
ConHome: “Douglas Hurd wrote a book called An End to Promises, about working for Heath in 1970-74. He thought the problem was that they had been so categorical in 1970 about what they would do.”
Norman: “Well I think a political promise is often an attempt to purchase an authority which you ought to be earning by your actions.”
ConHome: “Why are the Tories nearer 30 per cent than 40 per cent?”
Norman: “Has any party led a country through the process of rebalancing and austerity that we’ve gone through in the last five years and emerged in an incredible [i.e. excellent] place to bid next time round?
“Let alone done so with the fragmentation of politics, the utter disrepute into which much of the political class has fallen. If you look from that perspective, the position is actually potentially quite good.
“In a way this isn’t like 1992, because it isn’t an either/or decision between the two parties. But it still is the case that the British public very rarely gets it wrong.
“So if you believe the Conservative Party is – as I do – the only credible source of strong government, and if you think the country needs strong government, then people tend to believe, and I certainly believe, we’ll find our way to the right solution.”
ConHome: “What should the Tories be telling everyone they’re going to be doing in the next five years? What’s the Norman plan?”
Norman: “I have ideas but I don’t have a plan… I think George Osborne was absolutely right to make that speech the other day about how much better we could be doing, how successful this country could be, not just because it’s absolutely right to be showing people a path of hope and possibility, but also because it’s true.
“If we can continue to take control of the public finances, then you can start to do really interesting things. You can start to change work incentives, to keep people properly in work and to improve the quality of their work. And you can continue to invest in this extraordinary industrial policy which is being developed, of value-added manufacturing and services. And then of course I’d like to see an enormous expansion of the National Citizen Service, I think that’s a fantastic thing.”
ConHome: “The Big Society! One of your books is called The Big Society. But do you perhaps have another word for it? Because somehow it never quite…”
Norman: “I like the old words. Conservatism is uniquely the philosophy that reveres society and the social order as an inheritance, that seeks to preserve it and enhance it and pass it on to the next generation. But you’d better not make me out to be too much of a Burke bore.”
ConHome: “I don’t think Burke is boring.”
Norman: “Burke has a fantastic line when he says ‘Circumstances…give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing character, and discriminating effect.’ This is really boring…”
ConHome: “It is not.”
Norman: “…but I gave a speech last year at the LSE, the Michael Oakeshott lecture, which actually fleshed out the logic of practical reason in a Burkeian way. The point is that change in circumstance can cause you to choose to apply a different principle.
“Conservatism is a slightly inconsistent body of principles, and that gives it flexibility, and it also gives it a certain magpie-like capacity to mutate to fit circumstances. So one way to think about conservative principles is that there’s a constant tension between them; between, say, liberty and authority for example.
“Which side you go of those principles is in part going to be determined by circumstances. This is why it sometimes looks as though politicians are being inconsistent, when in fact what they’re doing is being pragmatic in the application of specific principles to a given context.
“I’m afraid it’s a rather philosophical point, but that is what I think’s going on. And that is why trust involves a judgment about character. It can’t just be about consistency. As Emerson says, ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’.
“Consistency is the opposite of judgment, is the enemy of judgment. The wise leader has to exercise an effective judgment, and therefore on occasions has to risk allegations of inconsistency.”
ConHome: “Who’s your favourite King or Queen of England?”
Norman [after a longish pause for thought]: “Probably Elizabeth [the First]. She was magnificent in unbelievably difficult circumstances.”
ConHome: “And who are your political heroes?”
Norman [instantly]: “Abraham Lincoln. Burke. Louis Armstrong.”
ConHome: “As a trumpeter?” For Norman is himself a (he insists, incompetent) trumpeter.
Norman: “You remember that wonderful line of Duke Ellington when Armstrong dies? – ‘He was born poor, died rich and never hurt anyone along the way.’ I just think that’s a brilliant thing to say about someone. And Armstrong has a JOY [much emphasis on ‘joy’]. It’s about joy. Life is about joy. And I think that’s why I love the trumpet and that’s why I love Armstrong. He’s a total hero.”