Jesse Norman is Paymaster General and Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Transport, and MP for Hereford. His latest book is Adam Smith: what he Thought and why it matters.
In recent days, I’ve been asked a lot if I will stand for Leader of the Conservative Party. It’s already a crowded field, and my reply has been that the views of my constituents, party members and colleagues should shape that decision, and I will carefully consult among them.
As a campaigner, over the past 15 years and more, through books and articles, in interviews and speeches, as candidate, MP, Select Committee Chairman and Minister, I have tried to make the case from first principles for a proper, classic conservatism of public service. That conservatism ties thought and action together, and I have argued for it in politics since 2006: in Compassionate Conservatism, Compassionate Economics, The Big Society and my books on the ideas and impact of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith.
Why Burke and Smith? Because they wrote the operating system for representative government and open markets, for politics and political economy. Their ideas underlie my conservatism. And they have taught me a vast amount about Ireland, Scotland and the Union.
The same core belief in public service has always inspired me: in 1989, when I gave up a job on Wall Street to run a charitable project giving away medical textbooks to doctors behind the Iron Curtain, helping build free institutions in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia; it inspired me in 1997, when I left Barclays to do an MPhil and PhD in philosophy and teach at University College London; and over 20 years in working with astonishing organisations such as the Roundhouse in London which my father created, the Hay Festival, and many others in Herefordshire.
This conservatism has inspired my actions as an MP and Minister: in running a cross-party campaign after 2010 against the Private Finance Initiative, which saved the taxpayer over £2 billiom, and my own hospital £5 million; and in framing my original critique of Crony Capitalism in 2011.
It did the same when I led a successful campaign in 2012 against the then Government’s Bill to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected upper house; in 2013, when I did not support the Government’s motion to bomb Syria, and was fired from the Number 10 Policy Board; and in 2014 ,when I led colleagues across the House in stopping the Speaker from selecting his personal candidate, Carol Mills, as the Clerk of the Commons.
And my conservatism has shaped my decision not to reveal my EU Referendum vote. It was obvious Brexit would affect people in hugely different ways, and that it would be incredibly divisive, as I said at the time. I felt I could best serve people by acting for them as a whole. The same is true today. As an MP, I have voted consistently for Brexit, and without delay. My constituency voted to leave, like the country at large, over three years ago. It is simply not good enough that we have still not moved on since then.
But for myself, I have never campaigned negatively, and I refuse to be drawn into the anger and hostility of the wider Brexit debate. Politics today is dying for lack of friendliness, warmth and decency. Everyone deserves to be heard, calmly, respectfully and with moderation.
Some might say that these campaigns and views were ill advised, though I believe each has been vindicated. But the point is that they reflected a willingness to lead, and a desire to do what was right not what was expedient, regardless of the consequences to me personally.
The same has been true in my constituency; I campaigned for nearly four years to take a Liberal Democrat seat; I won 50 per cent of the vote in 2015/17; and I have led local efforts for ten years to establish NMITE, a pioneering and nationally transformative tech and engineering university. Throughout all this, my credo has always been: a belief in trusting others; a sense of universal goodwill, reaching across factions and parties; an unwillingness to rush to judgement; a desire to make the argument; a sense of energy; and great optimism about the future.
As a country, we face very serious challenges today: of climate change, productivity, mass migration, terrorism, cybersecurity, great power conflict, AI, education, housing, identity, social division and injustice, inequality and much else. Our open market capitalist system is not working very well, and it needs a vigorous reboot. Our democracy and public institutions are under serious threat, and require vigorous and positive defence. These issues will be with us long after the Brexit debate has ended.
The UK has a profound opportunity, and a duty, to address these challenges: through our history, culture, music, arts and science; through our Union, our language, location and law; and through our inclusive, forward-looking and entrepreneurial spirit. But in addressing these issues, good policy is not enough. We must choose a leader not for three months, but for three years or more. The world is complex, and cannot be reduced to slogans. To be effective, policy must be linked to principle, and to personal energy.
And it must come from somewhere authentic and good. Real conservatism is based on a simple but profound idea: to preserve what is of value. Centrally, that means freedom of thought, speech and action. Conservatism thus has human freedom, and so responsibility, at its heart. But real conservatism goes deeper than this, to the nature of our humanity itself. For conservatives, a human being is not simply a compendium of wants, and human happiness and human flourishing are not simply a matter of satisfying individual desires. The human self is an active, linking social force, not the passive vehicle for happiness of the utilitarians, or the isolated individual atom of much modern economics. Conservatism thus sets itself against materialism and liberal individualism.
For conservatives, the purpose of politics is to preserve a social order which addresses the needs of everyone, of generations past, present and future: what Burke called a “partnership between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born”. The “we” of conservatism is thus maximally inclusive: it is everyone in our society, past, present and future; it embraces every race, creed, religion, ethnicity, gender, wealth or status, and perhaps all that depend on us. It respects old wisdom, and future generations.
Society is a trust, it gives us freedom, and it is our duty to preserve, enhance and pass it on to our children and grandchildren. This is the true meaning of ‘One Nation’ conservatism, long before Disraeli and Baldwin gave it voice; it runs far wider than they ever imagined. The paradox of conservatism is thus that—against the caricatures—it is intrinsically modest. It is an antidote to generational or individual arrogance, materialism and selfishness. It is hostile to injustice, since injustice can never be of social value. Nor is true conservatism naïve about markets. It understands that open markets are the greatest route to prosperity and social advance ever created; but that effective competition rests on trust and law and pro-competitive policies for which the state is essential.
We should be ambitious not for ourselves, but for our country: for the future of this extraordinary, warm, funny, tolerant, open, traditional, kind, inclusive, mad, conflicted, joyous United Kingdom of ours, from Lands End to John O’Groats, Enniskillen to the Wash.
If you believe in this idea of conservatism; if you want new faces at the table; if you share these ambitions; if you agree about the central importance, now more than ever, of history and philosophy and substantive debate in politics; then please say so. Now is the time for moderate, decent people to speak up. Let us start the long process of reconstruction.
It is incumbent upon all politicians—Ministers or backbenchers, across political divides—to step up and deliver a sane and workable Brexit for our country. But it is no less important, now more than ever in recent times, that all the candidates for the leadership should be able to set out not just their own policy ideas, beliefs and experience, but the deeper Conservative principles and purpose that underlie them.
Whatever one’s politics, we need the candidates to use the public platform, the hustings, the debates, the soapbox and interviews not to bring each other down but to build mutual understanding and trust and love, to find and renew a sense of common purpose, for the longer term.