The recent report of the commission on race and ethnic disparities has given the clearest indication yet of the guiding philosophy animating the Conservatives under Boris Johnson. It is rooted in the traditional commitment of conservatives to national unity. The calculative political positioning of the Cameron and May regimes seems to be long gone.
Since the nineteenth century the platforms of political parties can be understood by measuring the relative weight they attach to the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Labour puts equality above the other two ideals and, when we had a Liberal party, it put liberty above everything else.
Today’s Liberal Democrats are closer to Labour than the old Liberal party. The Conservative party traditionally embraced fraternity or national unity, with liberty a close second. Its support for the welfare state owed more to Tory paternalism than to enthusiasm for egalitarian rights but its commitment was not in doubt. Thatcher’s Tories put liberty, conceived as rolling back the frontiers of the state, top of their list, while Boris Johnson’s Conservatives look as if they put fraternity first. The successful people have obligations to the less well off, but without the paternalism.
The report of the commission on race and ethnic disparities (CRED) gives some strong clues about the new direction. It demolishes the sectarianism that lies behind the politics of racial identity. We are citizens of the nation first, not members of mutually antagonistic identity groups. It is the kind of report you would expect from a government that has put levelling up and spreading prosperity to every corner of the land at the heart of its economic policies. And its determination to keep the United Kingdom together is an integral part of its strategy, not to mention its commitment to making a success of our independence from the EU.
If the CRED report turns out to be a guide to future policies then it signifies another important milestone. The report was influenced not only by a sense of national fraternity, it also hinted at a liberal conception of the place of the individual within the nation. The term ‘agency’ is often mentioned and the report puts human agency – another term for personal responsibility – at the core of its policy proposals. It wants us to understand ourselves not as we are defined by the poisonous identitarian leaders of our day, but as individuals who make moral and prudential choices. Lumping people into statistical categories based on their superficial outward appearance is misleading. We are all in it together and must each take personal responsibility.
This is not isolated individualism. Institutions such as the family matter and local culture matter too. Nor is it the cult of the individual that one finds in writers such as Ayn Rand, a doctrine that demands an open road for the top people only. The CRED report was written by people who think everyone matters. We are seen as free citizens of a nation, each with a moral personality. The task of the state is not to get out of the way, but rather actively to promote and protect the possibility of taking personal responsibility.
Nor does the report show any signs of ‘callous individualism’. The fraternalism at the heart of Conservatism means that help is always at hand for people who do not flourish. Yes, we need to teach our children to rely first on their own efforts but if things don’t work out, they are not alone. J.S. Mill stated the problem as well as anyone in Principles of Political Economy:
‘in all cases of helping, there are two sets of consequences to be considered; the consequences of the assistance itself, and the consequences of relying on the assistance. The former are generally beneficial, but the latter, for the most part, injurious; so much so, in many cases, as greatly to outweigh the value of the benefit.’
Mill argued that help for those ‘paralysed by discouragement’ could serve as a ‘tonic and not a sedative’. Such help can reinforce the inner strength of the individual, but should never discourage self-help.
This kind of individualism is expressed well in article one of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights when it says that everyone is ‘endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’. The frequent references to agency in the CRED report derive from this tradition. It is striking that this idea has infuriated its critics the most. The idea of agency derived from our common humanity is hated by the grievance industry. For these campaigners there are no individual personalities, only identities derived from group membership. For them, attributing personal responsibility is ‘blaming the victim’.
It looks as if the Conservatives are in the process of restoring the free and responsible individual to the heart of its philosophy, without abandoning fraternity. Expect nothing other than from your own endeavours is a good maxim to teach our children, but national solidarity requires a helping hand to be on call when things go wrong.
Since Tony Blair was dazzled by president Clinton’s success based on calculated manipulation of the electorate – ‘triangulation’ as it was called – politics has become the plaything of people adept at oozing sincerity while telling barefaced lies. This ploy no longer works. Nor it seems does pitching appeals for votes at divisive identity groups by heightening their sense of grievance. Unless it all unravels under the onslaught of events, it looks as if Johnsonian political philosophy is a variety of liberal conservatism that offers the best attainable combination of national solidarity and personal freedom.