In the second of the Platform series Benedict Rogers proposes that the idea of dignity should shape and describe Conservatism. Ben was the Conservative Party Candidate in the City of
Durham in the 2005 General Election. He is a
writer and international human rights activist. He is the co-author of
a foreign policy paper, New Ground: Engaging People with the
Conservative Party through a bold, principled and imaginative foreign
policy, available online at www.newground.org.uk. If you would like to contribute a post for Platform please email your suggestion to email@example.com.
In the wake of our third election defeat, the Conservative Party is once again going through a period of review, debate, reflection – and yet another leadership election. At the heart of the review is, of course, the party’s image – the tone, attitude, language that it conveys. For while substance should never be sacrificed for style, language does matter. Indeed, it is not core Conservative beliefs that are the problem – it is our inability to communicate them that has failed us.
Thinking about this whilst roaming the streets of the northern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, Christendom’s third most important place of pilgrimage, a new word came to me which, for me, encapsulates what Conservatism is all about. The word is “dignity”.
For too long, we have limited ourselves to using words like “freedom” and “choice”. I believe passionately in those values, but I have realized that they are not in themselves the pinnacle of Conservatism, but rather a sub-set of a greater value – “dignity”.
“Freedom” and “choice” by themselves convey to some people an almost selfish, individualistic mentality. They are associated with a particular libertarian mindset that would give everyone the “freedom” to do whatever they like – to use hard drugs, to have abortions on demand, to allow assisted suicides – regardless of their effects on the “freedom” of others to live in a society free of crime and social breakdown.
Instead, “freedom” at its best is grounded in a profound respect for the “dignity” of others. I am free, when I recognise my neighbour’s right to enjoy his life, as well as my own. Respect for the “dignity of the individual” is the opposite of individualism, because it recognises that we are an inter-connected society, a community, and that one man’s freedom rests on the respect that another man gives it. No man is an island.
“Dignity” can then be applied to all areas of policy more effectively than unfettered “freedom” and “choice”. It provides those values with a context. It is because we have not placed enough emphasis on respect for the dignity of the individual in our hospitals that we have bedpans un-emptied, wards mixed and patients on trolleys in hospital corridors. It is because we do not respect the dignity of the individual enough that we have truancy, ill-discipline and violence in our schools. It is as a result of a breakdown in respect for the dignity of the individual that we have binge drinking and anti-social behaviour. It is because we fail to appreciate the dignity of the individual that we burden policemen, doctors and teachers with bureaucracy and turn them from their individual talents into faceless bureaucrats. It is because we fail to trust the dignity of the person that we keep raising taxes. It is because we fail to respect the dignity of the individual that famine, disease, torture, terrorism, persecution, oppression and tyranny continue to plague the world. It is because we do not emphasise the dignity of the individual that slavery continues, despite William Wilberforce’s best efforts.
Conservatism is the only political philosophy that truly respects the dignity of the individual. Libertarianism pretends to, but ultimately – because it is individualistic – it destroys the dignity of the individual. New Labour tries to legislate for dignity, which ultimately demonstrates a failure to respect it. I love my neighbour not because the State tells me to, but because I respect his dignity. Socialism, Communism and Fascism manifestly disregard the dignity of the individual.
So while freedom – of belief, of opportunity, of enterprise – and freedom from fear – are core Conservative values and ones which I am wedded to, they are not in themselves enough. Indeed, without given a framework and a context, they may scare people. Perhaps that has been our problem. They need to be coupled with “responsibility”. We need to give our values a context – and that context is “dignity” for everyone.