I am a right-winger. There, I’ve said it. I’m out of the closet and proud about it. And what have I communicated to you in this act of confession? Do you picture me in a wide, pin-striped suit? Do you fear that I wouldn’t stop talking about the evils of the European Union if you ever made the mistake of inviting me to dinner? Do you imagine me as someone who doesn’t much like paying taxes unless they go to the purchase of tanks, nuclear weapons and battleships?
The right’s traditional way of selling themselves to doubters is to rely on the, well, rightness of their arguments and the Tory right has, to be fair, got a very good record on the big issues of the last ten years.
Eurosceptics insisted that Britain shouldn’t join the euro until the new single currency had been tested in good times and bad. Aren’t we all now glad that Bill Cash, John Redwood and the ‘head-banging’ crowd banged on about it when they did? The Greeks, Spanish and Irish would love to have the flexibility of a floating currency now.
The Tory right also said there was too much public spending. If Gordon Brown had heeded that advice and spent more carefully, we wouldn’t now have one of the largest deficits in Europe. And what about the right’s complaints about uncontrolled immigration? Even the Mother of the Left — Polly Toynbee — is now recognising that Britain’s swollen population kept wages down at the expense of working class and often unemployed Britons.
But insisting that we have been vindicated on the big issues is typical of the right. Michael Howard, for example, was always good at winning arguments on an intellectual level but he didn’t convert many hearts to conservatism. Now that the whole world is enduring more hard-headed economic times the always-practical right is getting more of a hearing. Ultimately, however, it needs to learn to use the left’s language of justice and compassion if it is to reach the growing number of voters who are motivated as much by ethics as self-interest.
No right-winger has understood this more than Iain Duncan Smith. IDS was a ‘swivel-eyed’ Maastricht Treaty rebel in the 1990s when he caused so much trouble for John Major. You’ll notice that Eurosceptics are invariably ‘swivel-eyed’ and ‘foaming at the mouth’. Years later, after losing the Tory leadership, he started a think tank with the very left-wing name of the Centre for Social Justice. He would now be at or near the top of any list of politicians committed to fighting poverty.
In 13 years of government Labour had every opportunity and plenty of economic growth to pay for welfare reform but it failed to do so. Extreme poverty got worse under Labour. The gap between rich and poor widened. The low-paid got entangled in a maze of benefits and tax credits. The system became so perverse that many young couples were better off if they lived separate lives than under the same roof with their kids.
Other than in language and style, Iain Duncan Smith hasn’t rushed leftwards in his pursuit of social justice. His recipe for fighting poverty is actually very traditional. Backed by thick documents of empirical research he argues that a good school, then a full-time job, and faithfulness to your life partner are the three most reliable defences against poverty. Whereas a Social Darwinian would leave it at that, IDS argues that the state has an active role in rewarding the low-paid when they take work, in encouraging young couples to stay together and in providing extra funding for the schools that teach the most disadvantaged kids. This is the compassionate conservatives’ middle way between the fingers-in-every-pie Labour state and the sink-or-swim, minimalist state of libertarians’ dreams.
Now in government as Work and Pensions Secretary and chairing the Cabinet committee on social justice, IDS has the opportunity to deliver compassionate conservatism. He may not have worked out all the details of his benefits revolution but he is now the greatest advocate of the mum who wakes at 4 a.m. to clean the offices of the City of London’s bankers. He is the nation’s most assertive champion of the guy working the night shift at the 24-hour petrol station. Why, shouts the quiet man, are these people paying so much tax on so little income?
When asked who this government was for, George Osborne gave a powerful reply and one very similar to IDS. The Chancellor of the Exchequer replied that it was for the man who left home in the morning to go to work while, opposite his house, someone on long-term welfare was still fast asleep behind drawn curtains.
With the nation’s cupboard not so much bare but mortgaged, it is going to be very hard for IDS and George Osborne to succeed in their mission. It is nonetheless remarkable that it is a right-winger who is the irresistible force for welfare reform against the immovable object of a £170 billion budget deficit. Finally we might get an answer to that ancient paradox.
I’ve focused on IDS in my suggestion that the right-wing are as big-hearted as they are big-brained, but he is only one of a growing number of right-wingers who are the most determined advocates of the poor in our politics.
Michael Gove, for example, is most persuasive in arguing for school reform when he notes how the poorest children have suffered most from the local education authorities’ monopoly. He, not Labour, is importing the schools freedom policy that Sweden and Barack Obama have embraced.
Lord Lawson starts winning the argument on climate change when he points out that bringing electricity to the world’s poorest people will do much, much more for their wellbeing than almost any other act. Electricity permits the refrigeration of important medicines and a lamp that lights a child’s reading at night.
It is right-wingers who have proven that a richer rather than a regulated developing world will be most able to deal with extreme weather events. Rather than adopting immature and expensive technologies to arrest climate change the Western world should be using its limited resources to achieve things that will make a guaranteed difference in the Third World. Fight malaria and HIV/Aids, for example, as that Great Satan George W. Bush did so successfully.
Perhaps a large part of the problem is the very term ‘right-wing’. I struggle to think of an obviously superior label but perhaps ‘radical’ might be more appropriate. We could then talk about the radical Liam Fox’s programme for addressing the huge mental health problems facing ex-servicemen. We could praise the radical John Hayes for his apprenticeship scheme for young people. We could get behind the dedication to animal welfare of the radical Mark Pritchard and Andrew Rosindell. In the meantime I’m off to dinner. There are some very important amendments to the latest EU directive that I must bring to some friends’ attention.
Tim Montgomerie is co-founder of the Centre for Social Justice and editor of the ConservativeHome website.