Michael Duncan is a Parliamentary intern in the office of Nick Hurd.
On the economy, at the very least, the Conservatives have dominated the argument for the last five years. Even now, Labour is struggling to find an alternative more appealing to the electorate than slightly fewer, slightly slower spending cuts. Moreover, there is no immediate prospect of them being able to do so. Largely as a result of the political manoeuvres of the Chancellor, Labour have found themselves consistently shut out of the argument.
What is surprising, however, is that ministers and others have always been wary of describing Conservative aims in government in moral terms. Take deficit reduction. Many would agree that, by its very nature, debt is immoral. By living beyond our means and spending money we do not have, we are leaving a legacy that the children of this country will have to work to pay off. While the Government is committed to eliminating the deficit, however, it rarely makes the argument that this is a moral mission, but instead often restricts itself to rather dull analogies about the nation’s credit card.
Now, as many would point out, this may be due to the fact that the national debt continues to rise under this Government. But it will not be doing so forever, and the deficit reduction that has already occurred means it is increasing more slowly than it would under Labour. And yet the government is clearly reluctant to defend its policies in such moral terms even when, such as with welfare, the argument is clearer. Under the watchful eye of Iain Duncan Smith, perhaps the minister with the most moral conviction behind his policies, the Government still refuses to engage in the moral debate. Helping people out of welfare dependency and making work pay more than benefits are moral missions that can improve lives. Yet the government allows itself to be painted as a monstrous hater of the poor and needy by some on the Left – and fails to fight back.
This seems to be part of a wider Conservative fear of engaging in debates about the morality of Government policy. Far safer, some seem to think, to stick to statistics and keeping your head down. And it would be very easy to argue that this approach is not really a problem. Surely not many people really care about the moral intricacies of Government policy, do they? Perhaps. It would certainly be a mistake to debate every political argument in moral terms, even risking the kind of lecturing into which many on the Left have a habit of slipping, and losing the sensible pragmatism that has a value of its own.
But it is an even greater mistake to ignore the unavoidable moral dimensions of Government policy completely. Voters may not always care about individual policies, but they will see and understand the overarching mission of a government if it is portrayed in clear, engaging terms. The clearer Ministers’ sense of this mission, the easier it will be to persuade them to vote for it. The great benefit of the moral argument is that many voters would surely agree with Conservative policies when presented in moral terms. For instance, few would argue that central government spending more on debt interest than it does on education is a good thing. Likewise, few would say that it is better for people to receive benefits than to be in work. And so presenting this argument must be a priority if we are to maintain or even increase our majority in 2020.
The greatest problem of all, however, is that as long as Conservatives refuse to engage, the Left is able to claim a monopoly on morality that distorts political debate and perpetuates the ‘nasty party’ image that has dogged us for so long. This was clear in the immediate post-election debate about human rights reform. Rather than making the reasonable, persuasive and moral argument that restoring British judicial sovereignty would help to protect human rights whilst limiting the dubious judicial activism of the European court, the Government prevaricated, the Left rolled into action – and suddenly accusations about abolishing human rights and giving Parliament the power to overrule the courts took on a life of their own, with all of the likely implications for the viability of this policy.
Free from Liberal Democrat influence and with the first Conservative majority in 18 years, now is the time to develop a new, Conservative, moral mission, which allows us to finally take the fight to those on the Left and convince voters that conservatism is far more than simply the least worst option or a pragmatic list of ‘what works’. David Cameron has recently made tentative steps towards creating such an overarching moral mission. It is now time to go much further and engage in the moral argument about Conservatism as a political philosophy – or the Left will continue to do it for us.