‘Bugger,’ says my delightful eight-year-old daughter, dancing round my desk. ‘Bugger, Daddy. Bugger, bugger, bugger!’
‘Don’t say that word darling, it’s really unattractive,’ I say.
‘You use it, Daddy. I learned it from Coward on the Beach,’ says daughter, gleefully looking up the offending word, which isn’t difficult, because it’s the second one in the book.
All right, so I swear. Probably more than is good for me. But that still didn’t stop it coming as a nasty shock when, out of the blue the other day, I had an important interview with American Family Radio cancelled on me at the last minute because another of my books — Welcome to Obamaland — apparently contained ‘lots’ of bad words.
‘But what bad words?’ I wondered, seriously flummoxed, because when you’re writing a book for an American audience you always take extra care with your potty language. The F-word, it goes without saying, is a complete no-no. So too are most other letter-of-the-alphabet words. When I was in the US a few months back and had to go cold turkey on the profanities, I tried using ‘twat’ a lot instead. But then I discovered that in America, ‘twat’ is considered as offensive as the C-word.
‘Jesus!’ I thought. ‘Talk about two nations divided by a common tongue.’ Except I didn’t dare say it aloud in case that got me in trouble too. After all, with so many Christians around, you can get yourself in deep doo-doo for taking the Lord’s name in vain.
I’m also a practising Christian, of course. Except my God, I get the impression, is a touch more laissez-faire than theirs. My God, being an old-school Anglican God, has absolutely no problem with pre-marital sex, swearing or drug-taking. He doesn’t applaud abortion, but he concedes grimly it might be necessary under certain circumstances.
For a good many of my conservative American friends, though, the abortion issue is an absolute deal-breaker. There are only two US groups that hate each other more than liberals and conservatives, and that’s the pro-choice lobby and the pro-life lobby. Since I have feet in both camps, this is an issue I prefer to avoid like the plague. I was born and raised in the English protestant tradition which sees it more as a personal, freedom-of-conscience issue than one which ought to have a major role in the national political debate. And I rather wish it were so in America, too.
The reason I wish it were so is that right now conservatism is going through a crisis of confidence, as it always does when beaten by left-liberalism at the ballot box. ‘What have we done to make ourselves so hated?’ is the first question conservatives ask when this happens. The next, much more dangerous one, is: ‘Which of our principles can we safely jettison in order to make ourselves better liked?’
We’ve seen this happen to David Cameron’s tree-hugging, 50p-tax-rate-endorsing, ideology-lite Tories; and we’re seeing something similar happen in the US to the Republican party and its sympathisers. On the GOP’s wing, you have people like the New York Times columnist David Brooks arguing that the party needs to modernise (why?) by embracing a new, more socially responsible, collectivist conservatism (aka Republicanism In Name Only). On its morally authoritarian wing, you have those who believe a more hardline stance on abortion is not only what Jesus wants but is the key to capturing those important Hispanic voters.
Both sides, I believe, are missing the point, and if either of these extremes are allowed to prevail it will not only keep the Republicans out of office longer than they deserve but, far worse — as in Britain — it will lead to the dilution and corruption of the best, noblest, most honest and effective political philosophy that history has yet devised.
There’s a perceived wisdom about conservatism that it embodies a weary realism bordering on cynicism. ‘Neither conservatives nor humorists believe that man is good. But left-wingers do,’ as P.J. O’Rourke puts it. But for once, the great P.J. is only half right. Sure, it’s true that conservatives do not share left-liberals’ romantic delusions about the ‘blank slate’ and the perfectibility of man; sure it’s also true that conservatives accept, far more than liberals do, the need to constrain man’s dangerous tendencies through law and order and a powerful military. Where I think that conservatives are selling themselves short is in failing to acknowledge their philosophy’s underlying optimism.
The reason I am a conservative is not, as my left-liberal friends’ caricature version so often has it, because I’m a closet fascist who loves making rules and bossing people around. Quite the opposite. I’m a conservative because I believe that we are, every one of us, so magnificently special and delightful that only under the most extreme of circumstances should our most precious possession of all — liberty — be stolen from us by the overweening state. This, when you think about it, is a much more generous response to the messy human condition than that of left-liberals. In their ugly, begrudging, bossy weltanschauung, man is so utterly incapable of doing the right thing that the only way to create a fair and just society is for a higher agency (big government) to steal half his money and spend it as it sees fit, while micromanaging his behaviour with all manner of pettifogging social regulation.
Which is why we should be so suspicious of any conservative, of whatever supposed hue, who tries to argue the case for greater regulation, bigger government or higher taxation. Whether it’s the Tory MP Ann Widdecombe supporting the fox-hunting ban, David Cameron endorsing tax rises and defending the bloated NHS, US RINOs like Arnie Schwarzenegger crippling the economy with ‘green’ tax initiatives, or the Christian Right demanding tougher, government-enforced public morality, they’re all part of the same problem. They have completely misunderstood the unique selling point of the conservative brand.
That USP is liberty. Sure, there’s a ‘conserving’ element to conservatism too — one that derives from tradition and custom, and respects the established social order embodied in institutions like church and schools and family. But to emphasise that part to the exclusion of the personal freedom part is as wrongheaded and self-defeating as to suggest that sex is always about procreation and never about pleasure.
The reason I’m a conservative is that I believe in life at least as much as I believe in the afterlife. I have, on occasion, drunk to excess; I have driven too fast; I have imbibed rare herbs and proscribed chemicals; I have in my youth — though not nearly often enough — enjoyed meaningless sex with beautiful strangers; and, yes, I still swear. You can do all these things and still be an honest-to-God, properly authentic, ideologically pure, first-principles conservative. This is the glory of conservatism: it’s the catch-all, be-all-you-can-be philosophy that embraces saints and sinners alike.
I’m sorry that American Family Radio missed this subtlety, because theirs is the kind of blinkered attitude that does no service to the conservative cause. And guys, it goes without saying if you’d had me on the show, I wouldn’t have dropped the ‘F-bomb’. I save that sort of language for my kids.