‘If you look for truth,’ counselled C.S. Lewis, ‘you may find comfort in the end.’ If, however, you look for comfort ‘you will not get either comfort or truth’. A patriotic politician should reflect on Lewis’s wisdom. In good times almost anyone can succeed in politics but in tough times voters expect more. Voters don’t look to elect politicians, but statesmen, and they can usually smell the difference between the two.
Statesmen don’t begin every day wondering how they can win power; they begin by thinking about how they can serve their country. They ask themselves about the challenges facing the nation and they wonder what the country needs its government to do. Only then, as secondary questions, do the political and tactical questions kick in.
Looking at today’s Britain, the challenges are obvious. We must live within our means so that we can continue to enjoy good public services without having to bear impossible levels of tax. To underpin tomorrow’s jobs and prosperity we need extra airport capacity, world-class universities and a new generation of energy plants. We need to loosen our relationship with a European continent that is atrophying democratically and economically. We need fewer working-age people on benefits and more homes for first-time buyers. We must restart social mobility and end the sense that life chances are set the moment you are born.
Voters, of course, don’t want to be frightened. A political party that tried to address every problem all at once is unlikely to get elected. The British people have never had an appetite for revolutionary change. What a prospective prime minister needs to communicate, however, is that he or she has a credible plan to address enough of the nation’s challenges to make it all worthwhile.
In order to end a 20-year electoral drought, the Conservative party needs to start with all of these big questions. For a generation it has been caught in the headlights of the Blair-Clinton revolution. It has been obsessed with opinion polls and has feared the disapproval of a largely anti-Tory and metropolitan class. It has gone nowhere as a result. It has become a weak and soulless shadow of its former self. At four successive elections it has struggled to win a third of the vote. The party that was the most successful of its kind in the last century hasn’t won a majority in this.
As well as lacking a plan to serve the nation, it has fallen into two significant traps. It has sometimes appeared anti-state and it has lost a sense of social justice. People will embrace a rescue party that the modern Conservative party aspires to be if they believe that in the process of saving the economy they or their loved ones won’t be damaged. However, Conservative rhetoric often borders on social Darwinism. Too many voters don’t think Tories are cutting the deficit to save the NHS, the state pension or the safety-net. They think they are cutting without care for the social consequences.
The Tories need to take this fear seriously. We certainly need a definition of the good society that is different from Labour’s. We must reject the idea that compassion is primarily measured by how much the state spends. Instead we must argue that a compassionate society is also about supporting the family, investing in a person’s skills and helping them into work. In sum it is about building independent citizens who possess large reserves of social capital. If we only talk about a smaller state and setting people free we will not satisfy the other, equally powerful desires for security, peace and justice.
So it is on these grounds that I must disagree with Matthew Parris and correct Charles Moore. In these pages last week Mr Moore said I do not believe that David Cameron can win the next election. I do. Although it will be unprecedented for a first-term prime minister to enlarge his percentage of the vote, it is not impossible. It is only possible, however, if he stops worrying about artificial ideas — like the centre ground.
The Tory leader needs to stop worrying about appealing to Matthew’s mythical voter, sat in the middle of a left-right scale that exists only in the mind of a social scientist. He needs to see that voters haven’t rejected the Conservatives because of Europe, crime, immigration or tax. On the contrary, they agree with Tory views on all of those issues. Too many of our fellow countrymen continue to reject us because they look in our eyes and see politicians, not patriots. They look in our eyes and don’t think we will catch them if they fall. David Cameron has two years to change that.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012