Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.
Everything we do and say, as individuals and throughout our lives, says something about us and our personal values. That is magnified tenfold for MPs. And everything the Conservative Party in Government announces and does says something about the Party and its values. In February, ConservativeHome headlined an article I wrote about child refugees with: “Just what does the way in which we’re dealing with refugee children say about our values as a Party?”
What is a value? This is something I explore in my new book Taught not Caught: Educating for 21st century character. Neil Hawkes, the founder of the Values-Based Education Trust describes a value as “a principle that guides our thinking and behaviour.” In the field of character education, values underpin the formation of character.
I want to broaden this thinking out to encourage a debate about our values as a Party and as a country, because I think that such a discussion could be key to addressing much of the unhappiness which triggered the referendum result, and the feeling that our social contract really is broken.
I have come to the conclusion, based on many doorstep conversations, that the reason people, often older people, voted to leave the EU last year was because they look at the UK and don’t like the country we’ve become. They want us to go back to an era of more cohesive values and communities, and believe the way to achieve this is for our governments to be back in charge of its agenda without interference from the EU or elsewhere.
The language of values isn’t easy for politicians because, in order to assert certain values, we have to be judgmental about others, and that risks opening us up to the very real risk that we inevitably fall short of the values we talk about. But, if we can overcome that risk, then I think we will start to have a proper conversation about what post-referendum Britain looks like, and what our values should be. A useful starting-point for ideas is Phil Anderson’s very good book, Nation in Transit: A manifesto for post-Brexit Britain.
One of the most important measures in opinion polls is the answer to the question: “Does X Party understand people like me?” or in a similar way, “Is X Party on the side of people like me?”
If we want people to say yes to those questions when the Conservative Party is cited, then it matters that people look at it in government, and can say that our values are their values. So that everything we, as Conservatives, say about the work people do, the way they live their lives, the way in which the UK acts around the world, the way businesses behave and so on all contributes to those value perceptions. That’s why it is so important that a renewed domestic agenda is not a disparate set of announcements, but a coherent values-driven Conservative programme.
One of the most recent debates has been around British values. What are they? Why any of those named in particular? How are they demonstrated and how do we challenge those who don’t appear to support them? All tricky questions – but I believe that if we don’t talk about the values we want everyone living in Britain to demonstrate, then we leave a vacuum which is occupied by those whose values we really have a problem with.
But the argument about values isn’t relevant just to government. The values demonstrated by businesses, schools, Parliament and other institutions have all been brought into question in recent years. In future ConservativeHome articles I hope to explore some of these areas. If we don’t get our underlying values right, and set them out clearly, then we can forget coming up with a set of policies with broad appeal – because people will know that we don’t “understand people like them.”