I funked it. Invited on Newsnight recently to discuss whether the Cameron government had abandoned its social liberalism, I blatantly wimped out. It was during the row over abortion, and I found myself arguing that Nadine Dorries MP was in fact, a liberal, because she wanted to widen the range of advisors that a pregnant woman could choose from.
Technically true, but a moral cop-out. The essence of Dorries’ proposal was not liberal except in the most abstract sense: the fact is she wants to discourage women from having abortions. Why I couldn’t say so, and applaud, proved to me just how strong the liberal culture is, and just how weak at least one social conservative is in the face of it.
Liberalism evolved as a strand of politeness. Political correctness – the extreme of liberal non-judgementalism – has appeal because it is grounded in the attitude of decency. The rage that liberals often display towards those who question their views on abortion, for instance, or gay rights, is understandable in this context: they simply cannot believe that someone would presume to meddle in the deeply private affairs of another person. Abortion and sexuality are, by this view, self-regarding not other-regarding issues; and so others should keep out.
It’s a compelling argument but a wrong one. No man, no woman is an island; we exist by and for our relationships; even the most private act changes us, and thus impacts others; so although we should defend individual freedom and the person’s right to choose, those choices should not be beyond challenge, beyond disapprobation. There are no self-regarding acts.
We defend individual freedom not because individuals always make the right decisions for themselves; on the contrary, we defend freedom because individuals are fallible, and anyone put in a position of power over the rest of us is likely to make a greater mess of things than we will if we are left to ourselves. And yet there are issues and principles – often concerning the most intimate, private questions of human life, like abortion or gay parenting – where our collective conscience is a surer guide than individual choice.
Why, then, is it so hard to be a social conservative? Why, most of all, is it so hard to deploy the language of morality? The word itself lands with a dull thud on the ears, and so we are left with the limp lexicon of progressivism – words like efficiency, prosperity, fairness, none of which speaks to the things that matter. Our modern language has nothing of the heart, except 'happiness', of course – surely the thinnest of all emotional ambitions, because unrooted in anything real or relational.
Virtue, nobility, honour… we have lost those hoary words by which old times declared their dedication to each other and to the ideal of sacrificial service. The obligation is now on us to resurrect these principles, in new guises if need be, and push back with love and vigour against the liberal tide.